Jul 142016


Michael V. Smith’s short film triptych “Wolf Lake” brings three poets together with three colliding narratives: two men driving on a country road, the unconscious or dead woman who they come upon, and the man who abducted her who is lifting her from the trunk of a car. The first two films focus on Elizabeth Bachinsky and Matt Radar‘s two poems, both also titled “Wolf Lake.” The films use impressionistic footage to simulate memory and visual desire to disturbing, haunting, and beautiful ends. Michael V. Smith is a writer, award-winning filmmaker, comic, and drag queen. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a harrowing, adrenalin-driven flight into vulnerability and revelation. Continuing our conversation about film from last month when Smith interviewed me about my film “zack & luc,” here we explore his work-in-progress and how he sees this narrative, filmic, collaborative collision playing out.

RWG: How did the collaboration for the first film of “Wolf Lake” come about?

MVS: I signed up for a free course on making Super 8 films. My friend Juli Saragosa was running a workshop. And Liz Bachinsky and I got to talking about wanting to make a film, and I said, “Let’s do it for this.” And then we picked her poem “Wolf Lake,” because I loved it, and just started brainstorming what that might look like. What kind of images worked best, or what approach. And together we had one of those aha moments, where we realized the film footage would be from the perspective of the stalker. Everything clicked after that, like tumblers opening up the project.

RWG: The super 8 format for the first film, the “Bachinsky Version,” and the way you shoot lots of long shots is very voyeuristic, pervy. This seems in conflict with the very personal voice of the poem. Are you intending to create conflict between the persona of the poem and the man?

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MVS: I always call it “stalker footage.” The idea is that what we see in the film is the footage captured by the assailant, so we’re indirectly voyeurs, as well. If I remember this correctly, one of the reasons Liz wrote her poem in response to Matt Rader’s original version of Wolf Lake—itself a great poem—was because she took issue with how the girl in the poem is an object, a nameless body to serve the male narrator. She loved his poem and wanted to give a voice to that girl. So part of the strategy in making the film was to play into that conflict between the girl as object and subject. We get her story, but she is the object of someone else’s gaze—the filmmaker, you might say, recording in the subject position of the imagined assailant. There’s a quiet critique in this approach, I hope, that draws our attention to the fact that most women on film are objects. Their clothes are tighter, we show close ups of their eyes more. Their hair is flawless, even after a windstorm, right? Those goddamn high heel shoes in Jurassic World. So unreal. That’s the protagonist not being allowed to be a fully-realized subject. Nearly every actress is made a Barbie. And we’re the creeps who don’t care, or notice, or expect better. So I hope a bit of that critique plays out here, putting the audience in the perspective of the creeper. What exactly are we looking at? Why are we looking? What does it say about me that I’m watching? How am I complicit?

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RWG: I am fascinated with how you double the voices, the narrative reading and the whispering voice which begins before the narrative but then echoes on a delay. It’s haunting and it feels like it troubles or bridges the words and the images. What inspired you to double the voices?

MVS: I’m glad you found it compelling. I love this affectation too. The choice to double was just practical, at first, but then when something works, it’s because it does other things as well. It complicates or compounds. The story is, I’d asked Liz to read her poem a few different ways, to try things out, you know? It’s hard to imagine in advance what all the pieces put together will do—so I know I want the voiceover and I know I have these images captured, but you really do remake the film again in editing. There are so many variables when shooting, that by the time you get to editing you have to work with the materials at hand. So I said, “Okay, now read it more slowly. Now can you whisper? Can you read it without much emotion, just as fact?”

When it came time to marry the rough cut and the voiceover, neither the whisper nor the flat delivery worked. They just felt hollow, somehow. Like, they were missing something. They were too literal, maybe? And so I did that thing you do, and played with it. I laid both tracks down, and the clouds parted. It worked for me. With little need to alter their pacing. Suddenly, there was some mystery with the multiple voices—like, which tone do we believe?

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My sense of how it works—or why it works for me, I can’t really speak for anyone else—is tied to a few ideas. One is that we don’t believe women enough—like we don’t believe blacks, we don’t believe queers—so multiple voices are necessary. We have to tell our story over and again and still people doubt the truth of our experiences. They doubt how we describe our assaults. So here are two versions of an assault that are identical. There are no discrepancies in the different tellings, no room for doubt. They do not contradict each other.

Another way the doubling is effective has to do with how I don’t think we know whether that girl survives her attack or not. So the two voices work like the voice of the dead girl and the voice of the one who survived. For me, poetry is always multiple. It functions as an ‘and’. It is this and this. She dies and survives both. Here are her two voices, each as true as the other. In many ways, it’s an embodiment of an emotional moment, right? We don’t have a singular emotion in any one crisis, we have multiple feelings. We are multiple. And so she gets to have at least two of her emotional truths present in the one telling—the candid one, and the subtext, maybe, compelling her to whisper. Ands.

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RWG: The voices run at different speeds so that by the end when the narrative finishes, the whispering continues, haunts. Something about this felt like it echoes how memory or trauma work.

MVS: Yes. That too. The delay speaks to the lingering of a moment, to the memories that haunt. Trauma as a resounding echo through the telling. The echo begins before the plain spoken delivery starts—the trauma and fear are present before the regular voice begins—and they persist even after the telling. Exactly.

RWG: How did the idea for the second version, the “Rader Version,” come about, or have you always seen this as a triptych of films?

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MVS: It just seemed obvious to me that I’d make the other films to complete the trio of poems. I loved Matt’s poem first—he wrote his first—and we just ended up making Liz’s poem into a film from circumstance. So it seemed necessary, even, to make his. My poem is the third, told in the voice of the assailant. I know what I’m shooting for the third poem—which I don’t really want to reveal—I just need to find the time to make it.

RWG: You used two different shooting formats for the two films, super 8 and an old digital camera. Why the shift?

MVS: For two simple reasons. I like shooting on different cameras to see what they’ll look like. I like to try new things. And I thought the formats suited the characters, to some degree. Like, they’re two different characters, two different perspectives behind the cameras, so of course they’d have different cameras.

RWG: In “Wolf Lake,” the “Rader Version,” the footage seems closer than the “Bachinsky Version,” feels more home movie like, on the brink of being erotic. There’s this sort of homosocial space, intimate masculinity, that is then brought up against a violent face of masculinity. What are you exploring with that tension?

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MVS: Matt’s poem really is a coming of age poem, in a way. They are innocent boys on the day they see a man toss a girl’s body over his shoulder. And then one of them reaches for his gun. What follows next, we can assume, is a horror. The narrator, I think, is nostalgic for that innocence. So at its most basic, I wanted to capture something very, very simple, something naïve, that spoke to that sense of nostalgia.

The long singular shot couldn’t be much more flat, or romantic, in the naïve sense of romantic, a world without irony, a world of rosy glasses. Much of Matt’s film is landscape, a world with few humans, so it’s maybe easier to be romantic. The contrast, then, comes from the imagery run alongside the content of the poem. That road they’re traveling down, it’s literal, and metaphorical, both. Around a bend in the road, a hell awaits. That simplicity, I would hope, creates a kind of tension of sophistication, a tension of maturity. If they seem homosocially intimate, great. Because those boys are about to be thrown into a tragedy, as featured players.

RWG: You’ve said there will be a third piece in this project, forming a triptych. What will it be about and how will it extend this project and how will it differ technically and aesthetically?

MVS: I don’t want to say what the third will be, not yet, but the time of that third film will take place after the incident. The aftermath. The third poem is a confession, of sorts.

I’m hoping when all three are complete I can do a gallery showing and have them all run at the same time, in loops. Because they’ll be slightly different lengths, the images will collide with each other in new triptychs. The sound would play through three sets of headphones in the centre of the room, each playing only one of the three voiceover poems, so you’d get a different story depending on which you picked up.

RWG: Running through these two films and in places in your other work seems to be a theme of the destructive, violent side of masculinity, present as a sort of vertigo. In relation to your memoir My Body is Yours I think you even refer to your own failures at masculinity. What is that vertigo and, for you, is there a counterpoint, an expression of gender or specifically masculinity that doesn’t end up at “Wolf Lake?”

MVS: Oh man. That question is the hardest, Rob. Okay, vertigo. Yes. I think that’s a succinct word for how I felt growing up—there was this masculine place I was meant to occupy, and I just couldn’t seem to find it. Every time I tried to be a ‘boy’, I just felt dizzy with failure. I couldn’t read the signals, I couldn’t manifest the signs. I was like an alien who couldn’t make his three arms fit in a straightjacket. It was disorienting.

I didn’t see much tenderness in masculinity. And if I did, it was often complicated with shame, because tenderness and affection were also part of sexuality and desire. If you’re raised a fag in a straight world, and you’re afraid of being a fag, then male affection of any kind is always complicated. I think I’m more nuanced and secure as an adult, for sure, but we see symptoms of this still in films everywhere. All those goddamn super hero movies with protagonists that only win by might—by brute force—rather than any cleverness or ethic. We don’t build heroes that win because they make moral choices. We build heroes that win because the hero wins. And the tools of their victory are the same tools as the evil they are battling. And everything is a competition, rather than a dance. So if my masculinity in films seems violent, and destructive, I think it’s because that’s the only way we can recognize masculinity. If it’s destructive, it’s masculine. And if it’s affectionate, well, chances are we read that as feminine, regardless of the gender.

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RWG: In your novels, (Cumberland (2002), Progress (2011)) your memoir or non-fiction pieces, and in your various films, you seem to alternate between very direct autobiography and more indirect pieces like “Wolf Lake.” Why do you think you have both impulses in your work? What do the two forms of expression offer you?

MVS: In my novels, and films like “Wolf Lake,” which are more imagined, I’m interested in the fairy tale, I guess. The parable. I love the puzzle of making and inventing and discovering characters, as an exercise in negotiating structure and character. Characters and personalities drop out of our imaginations who are not us. That’s a thrill. That’s something magic, that is greater than myself. I love it, the experience of that discovery. And much of the thrill comes from trying to build the mechanics to embody the emotional or spiritual or psychological insights that come with the intimacies of that character and their life they present to me.

I love autobiographical work, like memoir, and confessional poems, for how that personal story—someone’s version of truth—is a fiercely singular perspective. I love the voice in autobiography. I love building a character that is close to myself—‘cuz no character is the self, right?—drawing a reader in close so I can share my private vulnerabilities. That shit is magic. We learn by experience, but some of that is also the experience of reading someone else’s life. They’re gifts we lived ourselves.


Michael V. Smith is a writer, filmmaker, comic, drag queen, and an associate professor at UBC Okanagan. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a memoir detailing his emancipation from masculinity.


Jul 132016

Version 2


Sleep & Disorder

And what about this coffee? It’s as bitter as you could want, as strong, but sleep
xxxxxxis still a second-cousin, settling in for a long stint on the living room sofa,

Sleep, the unapologetic, the sulky codependent, the toll collector dozing while the
xxxxxxhonest traveller’s gate of horn backs up from here to Hudson,

And through the ivory portal, the false gate, the illusive and mendacious, all the EZ
xxxxxxPass holders pour through like lies on a talk show,

Forget it all, they urge, forget the elegant phrasing, the just word, just nod in
xxxxxxagreement, and whatever you say

Let it be as acid as newsprint or the ions rising from your screen as some bastard
xxxxxxlays it out again,

The line that’s just that, the rhyme slant as a graph, the carbon-steeled irony forged
xxxxxxand capped and traded, by which I mean

Given away: all that our enlightenment, all our progress and our verse had thought
xxxxxxto save from bad or worse, so much smoke from the tailpipe

Of that diesel blocking the lane or revving up the grade or downshifting for a pit stop
xxxxxor whatever else keeps the show on the road,

The radio playing Sweet Dreams again between the static where the signals fade.


Fiddler’s Dram

The smell of Islay whiskey, sharp sea air, iodine and cold
Spray smoking over rocks. With that in my head, I don’t care much
About the crazed varnish, about the old bow’s thinning hair.
Just this sudden brightness in the fine part of the tune,

That would be worth singing about, if it weren’t already song.


Robert Graves

The sun a disc of beaten bronze, as dull
As the late dusk moon was bright,
And summer is overripe, the downward pull
Of green limbs under their apples’ weight.

An old man scratches at a song (the harp
His voice was once upturned, unstrung),
The scribbled, etched-out lines have wrapped,
Poor vines, a ladder, broken-runged,

The pickers leant against a tree to rot,
All that’s left of his knowledge now,
That once he climbed in praise, forgotten,
Who burned his fingers on her brow.


Who Would Have Thought the Saxophone
xxxxffor Charles Lloyd

In the high school band room, the sax section runs over their parts, no breath,
xxxxxxjust fingers on the fine-tooled keys,

Clump and clack of pads and brass, a pure early modern mechanics, Adam Smith’s
xxxxxxpin makers laboring

In service of a great music of commerce, each silent and intent, as a century passes
xxxxxxlike nothing, like a fife tune,

And somewhere a march is stirring, somewhere someone imagines a reedy, gut-
xxxxxxborn tone,

Undercutting the splendid assurance of the cornet, honking at the euphonium’s
xxxxxxplatitudes, and as always,

Although the argument is efficiency and the underwriters (Fokker, Enfield) smart
xxxxxxin parade dress,

There is always more at stake: the airman’s barrel roll for the pleasure of the
xxxxxxcivilians on the ground before the strafing, the infantryman’s poems jammed
xxxxxxin his haversack,

Then Bechet’s soprano, then the massed sax sections of swing, the cutting
xxxxxxsessions, the aspirants and acolytes,

Trying out their fingerings at a side table at the club, Chicago, a couple of
xxxxxxwhite guys in plaid and khaki cheering from the sidelines;

In a cottage on Milvia Street in Berkeley, the click and clatter of typewriter

And at Big Sur, an old man with a horn under his arm has walked a little further into
xxxxxxthe scrub where the trail dodges back from the cliff

Considering that long paradox of infinite division. Who would have thought the
xxxxxxbroken might contrive such beauty.

Who would have thought the saxophone might be one voice of god.


You Can’t Have Too Many Poems About Coffee

It’s the bitterness you want each morning, waking, thirsty, to drive away the
xxxxxxsentiment, the dreams of charity, of comity,

You know what they’re like: the reciprocal bartering in the souk below the outer
xxxxxxwalls, the market town with the cobbled, stall-lined street leading
xxxxxxdownhill to the river, all those interdependencies,

And the worn prayer wheels of the monasteries, the raising of the rope bridge
xxxxxxacross the chasm, the whole National Geographic panoply of other-
xxxxxxworldliness and good intentions.

Let the acid in the brew stave them off as you sit at the breakfast table, let the ice in
xxxxxxthe trees along the boulevard snap the branches clean before anyone heeds
xxxxxxtheir supplications,

Your day belongs to the formalities of calculation and conveyance; your place is the
xxxxxxQuarter of None, the clock poised always at the point of the contract’s

You would not walk out in this cold with anything but the warmest overcoat, with
xxxxxxanything like regret in your mind; you would turn nostalgia from your office
xxxxxxdoor and send him packing, the eager scrivener

With his letters of reference from your threadbare friends back in the provinces.
xxxxxxYou would tighten your scarf and your double-breasted greatcoat and grab
xxxxxxtwo sticks of good oak,

One to stir the fires along greed’s margin, that strict and narrow path, and another
xxxxxxto tap your ashy way down the ledger’s decline,

Back to those outer regions, where traders and monks sit over their steaming
xxxxxxcups, and if you don’t know their language, at least you can accept their offer

Of tea, sweet with honey, cardamom. At least you can acknowledge the bitter
xxxxxxdrought that waking is

—Jordan Smith

Jordan Smith is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Clare’s Empire, a fantasia on the life and work of John Clare from The Hydroelectric Press, and The Light in the Film, The Names of Things Are Leaving, and For Appearances, all from the University of Tampa Press. The recipient of grants from the Guggenheim and Ingram Merrill Foundations, he lives in upstate New York, plays fiddle and flute, and teaches at Union College.


Jul 122016



The following excerpt opens as the narrator and his sister arrive on the Gaspé Peninsula. Eric’s father and step-mother, otherwise known as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, are expecting a child together and have decided to uproot the family from Rivière-du-Loup, mobile home and all, to relocate 300 kilometres to the east. The move to the town of Matane will effectively put an abrupt end to the children’s weekly visits with their beloved mother whom they refer to as either Catherine of Aragon or “Micheline Raymond, professional cook.” The year is 1977 and separatist sentiments are rising in Québéc. The king and queen are staunch Sovereigntists and want to solidify their influence by introducing a series of rules to define the protocols of “court life” in their new setting.

Life in the Court of Matane was originally published in 2008 in French as Bestiaire. The English translation is by Peter McCambridge.

—Joseph Schreiber


EVEN TODAY, every time I drive along Route 132 east of Rivière-du-Loup, I fall into a kind of trance. Something about it upsets me. Despite the picture-postcard scenery, despite the lovely people and the smell of the sea, something presses down on my lungs, reminding me that I’m moving away from where I belong. I watch in the rear-view mirror as Rivière-du-Loup slowly recedes into the distance. It’s usually at times like this that I feel my little earthquakes.

At Sainte-Flavie, they told us we had arrived in Gaspésie. The invisible line separating the Lower Saint Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula is much more than an arbitrary border drawn up by geographers with nothing better to do. People live quite differently to the east and west of the dividing line: The people of the Lower Saint Lawrence expect things will pick up, while those on the Gaspé Peninsula know they’ll only get worse. Both sides are sometimes disappointed. When Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn told us with a smile that we had just entered the Gaspé Peninsula and the north shore of the St. Lawrence was nothing more than a thin strip of blue land, I became a Gaspé man once and for all.

At the end of that day, I stood before Matane like Attila before Rome. Looking toward the town, I wished it would just disappear. When I awoke after my first night there, I waited in vain for the TV people to come pack up the miserable set. Truth be told, the main problem with Matane was that it wasn’t Rivière-du-Loup. Ironically enough, my father seemed to like Matane for the very same reason. And yet of all Quebecers, the good people of Matane are probably among the friendliest of the lot. Their cheeks have turned rosy from the wind that blows over the town three hundred and sixty-two days of the year. There, the supports below our trailer drew back, and on a cliff overlooking the sea the house fell down in a puff of smoke. We didn’t stay there very long. A year or two, I think. I was seven when we moved to Matane. I had already had six addresses. In the decade I was to spend in my new town, I would have six others. Henry VIII wasn’t the type to sit still. In Matane the rules of censorship were repeated even more firmly than the first time. We were given a helpful list of ins and outs:

In:………..Quebec (and all its symbols)
…………….Anne Boleyn
…………….Jacques Brel
…………….Cod in all its forms

Out:………Canada (and all its symbols)
…………….Catherine of Aragon
…………….Elvis Presley
…………….Drives in the Renault 5

They couldn’t have been clearer with us. In the same tone used to shout “Die, you pig, I’m gonna come spit on your grave!” the new rules of memory were presented to us. Over the years, a series of inexorable royal edicts were added. Edict 101: It is strictly forbidden to pronounce the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Edict 102: The eating of Cadbury products is forbidden. Edict 103: The telephone is not a toy. It is strictly prohibited to call anyone without permission. All conversations shall be supervised by the queen. Get used to it. Edict 104: The word of the Lord is outlawed in the royal court. The king and queen shall hear no talk of catechisms, nuns, the new or old testaments, or resurrection. The dead shall not rise again. Edict 105: It is forbidden to make any allusions to the past in front of the soon-to-be-born little brother. He will have to work out how we got here by himself. Edict 106: You shall lend your unfailing support to the sovereignty movement, on pain of being disowned. The fleur-de-lys is your emblem, and Quebec is your country. Edict 107: This home is no place for halfwits. It is therefore forbidden to watch television for more than one hour per day. All programs must be approved by the queen. All TVA programs are outlawed. Since we will have no truck with cable, you shall have to make do with Radio-Québec and Radio-Canada. You will thank us later. Edict 108: You shall do the dishes thrice daily, after each meal. Even when visiting. The queen shall inspect the plates. Edict 109: Saturdays are devoted to cleaning. The girl shall scour the palace bathrooms, and the boy shall ensure the floors are spotless. Everyone shall do his or her bit in the kingdom of Anne Boleyn. And even then, the queen shall not let you out of her sight as you go about your work. Edict 110: You shall respect and obey your queen, whom you shall address by her first name. The queen’s jurisdiction extends to justice, stewardship of the palace, financial management, culture, and telecommunications. You no longer have a mother. The king shall from time to time take it upon himself to remind you where you come from. For all questions about the matter, see Edict 101.

Oppression breeds revolution. The crushers will be crushed. Or at least that’s what we like to believe. Anne Boleyn was a boycotter. Her strategy was a means of survival. She forbade. Castrated. First came the boycott of our mother. There then followed a series of lesser bans that made everyday life tough. One of them involved Cadbury, the chocolate makers. In 1976, after the Parti québécois had been elected in Quebec, a number of English companies had seized the occasion to move their head offices to Toronto, preferring the comfort of boredom to the tribulations of Quebec politics. Outraged separatists launched a boycott of Cadbury (and Sun Life Insurance, among others). Chanting “Let’s bar Cadbury” as their slogan, they waged war against the English manufacturer of the sweet candy. Their movement would have left me completely indifferent at the age of seven had Anne Boleyn and the king not decided to buy into it. It was thereafter forbidden to purchase or consume any Cadbury products in the presence of the king or Anne Boleyn. The same glacial tones reserved for my mother were used to proclaim the banning of Cadbury.

There was just one problem: Cadbury was—and still is—the maker of the Caramilk bar, a chocolate bar with a soft caramel centre that at the time was high on my list of favourite things to eat. My mother would pass them to me in her Renault 5 as I sang Gérard Lenorman to her. “Caramilk” had become a hammer word. Whenever I managed to scrape together thirty cents, I would slip off to a store where no one knew me to buy a Caramilk. I had to bike for kilometres to make sure word didn’t get out. Anything not to get caught. Once we were in the depths of the countryside, beyond the village of Saint-Ulric near Matane, I settled on an old general store run by two senile biddies. It belonged to a different era, an old-fashioned general store that smelled of before the war. In the deserted store, you had to wait for one of the old witches to limp her way out of the storeroom. Children in the village used to say that they had both been dead for years and we were being served by ghosts. Their memory was so shaky that I could walk into the store four times in the same day without them remembering a thing about my earlier visits. Alzheimer’s guaranteed my anonymity. Even under the harshest interrogation, at best they would have been able to confirm I had been to the store. They would never have been able to betray the nature of my purchases.

The first time I did it, I remember I was wracked by guilt and high on the sweet smell of dissidence. I stood before one of the two old crones and asked for a Caramilk bar. A few seconds went by in silence. A clock struck three. Slowly, she asked me to repeat my order, tapping away at a small device lodged in her ear. “A Caramilk! I want a Caramilk!” I repeated, pointing at the coveted candy. She turned around. I heard her bones protest. Three short steps toward a counter in disarray. From there, she looked at me to make sure she had understood, pointing to a bottle of bleach. Patience was paramount. My finger tried to guide her shaking hand toward the Caramilk. Sometimes, she would break off to ask me if I was Armand’s son, a man who had probably been dead and buried for over seventy years. Then, a glimmer of reason flashed across her eyes, and her hand at last grasped the Caramilk. Her memory had also forgotten inflation. Thinking she was still in 1970, she asked me for twenty cents. Not that I was going to contradict her. I fled so that she wouldn’t have to denounce me if ever the king raided the store. Then I went to the beach, the place of all outlawed activities, where Anne Boleyn never set foot because it was too windy. Hiding behind a rock, I devoured my Caramilk while looking out to sea. I had to be careful not to leave the orange and brown wrapper at the bottom of my pocket. It would have been giving myself away too cheaply. I dug a hole half a metre wide and buried it there. Today I sometimes still buy a Caramilk, eat it in secret, and burn the wrapper to destroy the evidence. I am the only Montrealer for whom eating a Caramilk is a subversive, revolutionary act.

Back home, some first-rate lying covered my tracks. Always have an alibi. In the court of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, the sovereignty-association debate had plumbed the depths of the most commonplace candies. Some of their most memorable mini-boycotts included religious education, the TVA television network, my sister wearing makeup, anything made by non-unionized workers, and visits to relatives Anne Boleyn didn’t like. Boycotts invariably lead to other boycotts, until everybody ends up boycotting everything. After boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, the tables were turned on the Americans when the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Games in 1984. What goes up must come down, apart from Cadbury, that is. Since 1976, the company has more than doubled in size, in spite of the separatist boycott. It just goes to show that sugar always wins in the end.

— Eric Dupont, Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge

Reproduced with permission from QC Fiction, a new imprint featuring the very best of a new generation of Quebec storytellers. qcfiction.com



Born in 1970, Eric Dupont lives and works in Montreal. He has published 4 novels with Marchand de feuilles and in France with Éditions du Toucan and Éditions J’ai lu (Flammarion). He is a past winner of Radio-Canada’s “Combat des livres” (the equivalent of the CBC’s Canada Reads contest), a finalist for the Prix littéraire France-Québec and the Prix des cinq continents, and a winner of the Prix des libraires and the Prix littéraire des collégiens. His fourth novel, La fiancée américaine, has sold over 60,000 copies in Quebec alone.



Originally from Ireland, Peter McCambridge holds a BA in modern languages from Cambridge University, England, and has lived in Quebec City since 2003. He runs Québec Reads and now QC Fiction. Life in the Court of Matane was the first novel he chose for this collection and the book that made him want to become a literary translator in the first place. His translation of the first chapter won the 2012 John Dryden Translation Prize.


Jul 122016


Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. —Joseph Schreiber


Life in the Court of Matane
Eric Dupont
Translated by Peter McCambridge
QC Fiction, July 2016
$20.00, 265 pages


Growing up in a broken home is rarely easy. Too often children become pawns on the emotional battlefield as their parents face off against one another. This is the atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity in which the eponymous narrator of Life in the Court of Matane and his sister find themselves at an early age. So it’s little wonder that they would recognize their predicament in the feats of a certain young Romanian gymnast swinging between the uneven parallel bars at 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. But Nadia Comaneci is only one of a number of personalities evoked in this inventive coming-of-age story. She joins the re-imagined court of Henry VIII, key figures in the debate between Québec Separatists and Federalists, and a menagerie of assorted birds and beasts in Eric Dupont’s engaging account of a childhood defined by divorce.

Originally published as Bestiaire in 2008, Peter McCambridge’s translation of this acclaimed novel heralds the debut of QC Fiction, an ambitious publishing initiative dedicated to introducing readers to an new generation of Québec literature. Their goal is to be able to offer “surprising, interesting novels in flawless English translation” to a wide audience through a subscription funded model inspired by publishers such as And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, and Open Letter Books. With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine a more enchanting and original novel to launch this new imprint than Life in the Court of Matane.

Eric Dupont was born in 1970 in Amqui, Québec and, like his protagonist, grew up in Matane, a town on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River some 400 kilometres east of Quebec City. He completed his post-secondary education in Ottawa, Salzburg, Berlin, Montreal and Toronto and presently he lives and works in Montreal. A bright light on the Québec literary landscape, he has been called “one of the province’s most daring and original writers” by La Presse. An eager reader, haunting the town library from an early age, Dupont lists Apollinaire, Anouilh, and the surrealist André Pieyre de Mandiargues among the writers that first delighted him when he began to study literature in university. He would go on to encounter Calvino, Cortázar and, with particular enthusiasm, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. As he confesses: “We each take our secret weapons where we can find them.”

In keeping with its original French title, Life in the Court of Matane takes its structure from the medieval Bestiary, a series of allegorical or moralizing fables based on the appearance and habits of real or mythical creatures. Each chapter is named for and features a different bird or animal. Some take on magical qualities, engaging young Eric in conversations that may or may not be imagined, whereas others have more grounded, albeit symbolic, roles. However, the English title speaks to one of the most provocative features of Dupont’s childhood reality as he presents it—his fragmented family is governed by a skewed reincarnation of a Tudor king and his despotic queen. In this portrait, he invites the reader to imagine his police officer father as a woman-obsessed Henry VIII collecting wives “like others collect cars.” His mother, the fun-loving and playful Micheline Raymond, professional cook, as her children refer to her, is cast as Catherine of Aragon, the first queen who has been deposed by decree of the Family Court system. In her former throne sits wife number two, Anne Boleyn, a woman enamored with science, numbers, and order. In the newly reformed household, she sets the tone:

It was a new age in which women were worth more than men, mothers were interchangeable, and anything was possible as long as you applied the right mathematical formula. We had quickly learned that poetry, hugs, and kisses would get us nowhere in a court where knowledge, science, and cleanliness would be rewarded. Thanks to Anne Boleyn and her books, I foresaw the chance to walk toward the future a new man. Memories would be no use to me. They compromised my relations with the crown. Before the monarchs, it was simply a matter of feigning approval of all their dreams and projects, all the while imagining their disappearance behind their backs and the day when Henry VIII would come to his senses. I waited and learned.

Our precocious protagonist is but seven years of age when the summer of 1977 brings the Great Upheaval and a life once delicately balanced between the uneven parallel bars of the post-divorce parental gymnastics routine is suddenly disrupted by placing an impossible distance between the two bars. With the impending arrival of an heir apparent, a younger half-brother, the court decides to relocate 300 kilometers to the east from Rivière-du-Loup to Matane. Eric will find himself marooned on the Gaspé Peninsula for nearly a decade, facing a new existence marked by years of relentless school bullying and daring dreams of escape until, at the age of sixteen, he will finally manage to fly the coop.

Lest there be any doubt, the king’s children from his first marriage quickly realize that the past is past. Over the years, new rules of memory are introduced through a series of royal edicts. Edict 101 strictly forbids the utterance of the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Beyond that, along with the expected edicts extolling cleanliness and academic achievement; Cadbury chocolate products are outlawed, all talk of religion is banned, and unconditional support for the sovereignty movement is commanded. Under the reign of Anne Boleyn, the vassals must learn to adapt or, at best, disguise their transgressions.

Blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a near photographic memory, Eric Dupont—the author that is, not his narrator alter ego—has a deep and abiding interest in remembering and forgetting in literature. Memory is a theme appears repeatedly throughout this novel. Edicts notwithstanding, the queen can no more force the children to forget their mother than young Eric can fill his theoretically finite mental real estate with facts and figures in an effort to drive his memories of her into the distance. The longing he and his sister feel for their mother is, quite naturally, profound and heartbreaking. But, in the spirit of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and Melville’s Bartleby, they embark on their own form of passive resistance. If the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook, cannot be spoken, it can be celebrated through a collaborative effort to reproduce their mother’s infectious idiosyncratic laugh. Memory contained in the joyous eruption of sound becomes remembering as inability to forget.

The corollary of being unable to forget someone you love, is the fear that they will forget you. This concern is echoed in the longest and most magically inclined chapter, “The Dog (1980).” As Eric bonds, however uneasily, with Anne Boleyn by mastering the Rubik’s Cube and sharing her interest in stamp collecting, he invites the reader to imagine a series of late night encounters on the wharf with a stray dog who will talk if one cares to listen and comes well stocked with meatballs to encourage her to engage in conversation. This dog, it turns out is the ghost of Laika, the ill-fated proto-Cosmonaut, somehow rescued miraculously from her doomed Sputnik mission in the late 1950’s to be forever condemned to wander the misty streets of Matane steadfast in her faith that Oleg, her beloved trainer, is searching for her and will soon arrive to take her home to Moscow. She cannot relinquish her memories of the one human she believes ever truly cared for her. Eric’s dreams of Laika, whom he first discovered on a Romanian stamp, will fuel his own fantasies of stealing away aboard a ship bound for the USSR, to heroically sacrifice himself to the Soviet space program. Six years later, when at last he truly makes good his escape, this time to study in Austria, the narrative once again turns to the magical, involving memory and a Baudelaire quoting owl. By that point though, he is fully prepared to move on and, if he is anxious to forget anything, it is his long years of subjugation under Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the succession of erstwhile queens that follow in her wake.

Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. It is rich and intentionally enthusiastic in the bold effort to stuff in everything including the kitchen sink. The ins and outs of a Catholic education, fallout from Québec Referendum, Cold War politics, the reproductive strategies of the brown-headed cowbird, Grimm’s fairytales, Heidi, the economics of egg production, Micmac folklore and much more are all washed down with copious amounts of Château Rancour. However, there are distinct challenges and risks involved in sustaining a consciously comic tone over what can be painful personal terrain, and successfully navigating excursions that extend from exaggerated metaphor to tip into the realm of magical realism then pull back again. Dupont manages all of this with an admirable measure of control. There is the sense that the royal imagery he is playing with, within a structure derived from the Bestiary template, allows him to blur the line between memoir and fiction, and tell a story that may in truth be very close to home. The real sorrow of growing up in a divorce fractured family rings through, and serves to solidly ground the wildly imaginative tales that he delights in spinning.

Voice is also critical. Narrated from the perspective of early mid-life, this novel strikes the just right balance between the adult’s telling and the child’s logic, or the adult’s sarcastic humour and the child’s naiveté. This is wonderfully illustrated in twelve year-old Eric’s long standing confusion around the epitaph “faggot,” as in this scene from a time during which the family lived in a village outside of Matane:

The school yard was a sad place where tensions between the village and rural parents were atoned for on a smaller—albeit no less cruel—scale. I learned all kinds of fascinating things there. Some children’s parents, for instance, were convinced that police officers pocketed the fines they handed out for themselves and that this was how they were paid. And so the day the king came home with a second-hand Volvo, they shouted at me that the car had been basically stolen from the people of Saint-Ulric. Or rather they didn’t shout. They grunted, and the grunting was followed with a shove to the ground. As a narrative epilogue to the violent episode, they shouted “faggot,” a word whose true meaning I was unsure of and that never failed to spark a deep epistemological crisis. For the longest time, I thought that a faggot was someone who knew how to read. I tried to explain that, in point of fact, police officer’s salaries were paid by… But really, what was the point?

Literature is littered with dysfunctional families. Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families aside, unhappy families often have much in common, and their stories can run the risk of falling into a certain routine, with a sameness that blunts the edge of the drama and emotion. Not so with Eric Dupont. His penchant for story telling allows him to create a world that brims with larger-than-life vitality while capturing the tensions of growing up in a family divided by divorce, ideology and distance. The result is a remarkably sensitive and intelligent coming-of-age story told with an irresistible blend of heartache, humour and magic.

—Joseph Schreiber


Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts


Jul 112016

Mary Byrne


Mary Byrne is Irish but lives in Paris. These small texts are a hilariously whimsical mix of legend, fact, and fiction. The first three come from a collection of Irish firsts. The last — “That’s Another Story” — detailing Ireland’s long pre-history before the Irish were actually living there, is from the opening of a novel-in-progress.


Primordial Irishwomen

If we believe our own stories, the first woman to explore Ireland was called Cessair. She came from an island on the Nile – or maybe it was Greece – anyway, from further east, because she’d had warning about the imminent Flood.

A lot of things happened on the trip over: two of the ships went down, but Cessair and her companions – some 50 women and a mere three men – managed to land. They arrived in Ireland 40 days before the Flood, making land at a place later called Corcu Dhuibne, after the seed or tribe of Duibhne – whoever he was – and now known as Dingle.

It was already raining and the wet rocks looked black, as they would later look in the film Ryan’s Daughter.

Since the story is told by the winners (in this case seventeenth-century Donegal monks), we are told that the men divided up the women between them. A fellow named Fintan had Cessair and sixteen others. Bith – who also just happened to be a son of Noah himself and father of Cessair – took her friend Bairrfhind and another sixteen. The pilot of the boat, Ladra (the original Third Man), was a greedy chap who complained about his unequal portion of the women. Needless to say he was punished for his greed and died of a surfeit of women. Or else “it was the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock,” which we might put down to the first case of Freudianism in Irish writing. That left Fintan and Bith to share out the women between them, and sure enough Bith died next, leaving Fintan with the whole lot. Eventually it was all too much for him too and Fintan fled the women altogether, leaving Cessair and the others to die of broken hearts.

Fintan took refuge in a cave on a hill called Tul Tuinde where he rode out the ensuing Flood and hung around for a very long time – some of it under water – to tell his tale to each new group of immigrants.

Unless you prefer a version of the story from the manuscript Cín Dromma Snechtai (since lost), in which the primordial Irishwoman is Banba who survived the Flood on top of Tul Tuinde, and lived to tell the arriving Milesians that she was older than Noah himself.

We imagine a world in which aboriginal Irishwomen – although already in trouble in terms of the power they wielded – still had the last word, a world in which Madame Bovary hadn’t discovered credit, where the influx of money from the film Ryan’s Daughter (whose black rocks were actually near Cape Town) hadn’t yet saved Duncaoin from economic extinction, a world where even explorer-women were already telling lies to compensate.


A sacred marriage*

* With a nod to Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis, sent to Ireland to justify arguments for English conquest), and to the Vedic ritual horse-sacrifice asvamedha.

Somewhere in remote Ulster, in the territory of the Cenel Conall perhaps a thousand years ago, it is the coldest season of the year. All summer the grey mare – prestigious colour for a horse – has been cosseted and protected. Now, her time has come. She is used to people, so the noise of the crowd doesn’t worry her. She waits, and grazes.

A huge fire burns nearby, from which assistants wearing identical garments draw hot stones, turning their faces from the heat, backing away from the sparks, They roll the stones into a nearby cauldron of water placed in a hole in the ground. The stones hiss at first, then warm quickly, hiss no more. Steam rises into the cool morning air. The crowd rubs its hands against the cold, and huddles.

Presently there is a hush as the future king appears, wearing a cloak. The mare is led to where he stands. Then his cloak is removed. He is completely naked. He approaches the mare, occasionally dropping onto all fours, and climbs onto a big stone then finally onto some kind of contraption – there are assistants in cloaks, there’s a lot of urgency, it is all far from clear – finally he stands and embraces her neck at length. He strokes her back and approaches her rear, moving quickly. He pretends to (or actually does) mount her like a stallion. The crowd chatters wildly as he fumbles in mimicry of urgent copulation. Someone narrates loudly for those at the back who can’t see.

When it is over the crowd sighs loudly as he is quickly covered again and led to one side. The mare senses danger for an instant as they quickly surround her – but it is too late. They cut her to the bone. Before the crowd can even see the blood, a swift mist rises and floats away on the cold morning. The mare sinks first to her knees then finally falls on her side. They hack at the now lifeless form jigging with fat and gurgling liquids, until it is reduced to manageable pieces that steam in the cool air until dropped into the cauldron of bubbling water.

There is a pause and more recitation while they cook the meat to sufficient paleness. When the broth is cool enough the future king uncloaks again and is helped into the bath where he sits, eating the cooked flesh and offering it to the surrounding dignitaries (who pass small bits into the crowd). He washes it down with his own milky bath water which he scoops up in his cupped hands.

Now he is king, married to the land.


A first for Ireland 

Partholon was the first man into Ireland 278 years after the Flood. He was belloragged as a renegade from justice after killing his father, which would make him the original Playboy of the Western World.

Anyway, Partholon and his crowd came and would settle.

He’d always been a man with a mission: he’d been around the Mediterranean in all directions from Sicily to Greece to Cappadocia to Gothia (don’t ask), back to Spain and finally on to Inis Fail in Ireland, arriving on a Monday, or in another version on a Tuesday, the 14th of the moon.

He found it lying waste. Proud of his progressive ideas (already we have a boaster): not only did Partholon introduce the first cattle and cauldrons into Ireland: he and his people set to tidying things up. They settled south of the Liffey, cleared plains, dammed rivers, studied new farming methods.

Partholon was proud of his team: Accesbal (another manuscript calls him Beoir) who had built the first Bed & Breakfast and was planning to expand; Brea who built the first dwelling; and either Samailith or Makaliach who might be described as the first underwriter. They loved counting their exploits: seven lake-bursts, three lakes, nine rivers including the Lee (giver of life) and four new plains, one of which they cleared so well that not a twig has grown on it since.

Partholon’s wife Delgnat was sick of the counting. She knew that the silent Topa, her husband’s servant, was doing a different kind of counting. Topa pretended to be pure, but she reckoned he was just a kenat (a word they used up-country for a smart-aleck).

One day Partholon decided to go off on his travels again. Delgnat didn’t particularly want him to stay, but she knew what would happen as soon as he left: she was beginning to fancy Topa no end, and reckoned that he’d been giving her the eye for weeks.

“Are you not taking himself with you?” she asked her husband, indicating Topa.

Partholon continued to pack. “He’ll only slow me down,” he said, picking up his bundle and heading for the door.

As soon as she saw him and his bundle disappear over the crest of the nearest hill, she manoeuvred Topa into her room and fell upon him. When the deed was done there was such a drought on them that she got him to share a drink from Partholon’s own private vat of sweet ale – the first ale brewed in Ireland and made from bracken, an all-too-available raw material.

She and Topa made the mistake, however, of drinking it through Partholon’s special gold straw. (It had to be taken through a straw because what passed for beer in those days was a porridgey brew with things floating in it – anything that could be found to sweeten it, from honey to meadowsweet – and the straw helped avoid some of the floaters. It would be quite a while before the use of hops – for flavour and head – would make its way to these shores. We may even surmise that the continental Celts used their moustaches for straining their beer, and not their soup, as later claimed by a disgusted Diodorus Siculus.)

When Partholon, a fussy fellow, returned from all his work with a drought on him, he headed straight for his stock of ale, and noticed immediately that someone had been at the gold straw in his absence. He was that smart he recognized exactly who: “I can taste the two of yous clearly,” he said. “I wasn’t long gone but yous couldn’t be aisy.”

Delgnat didn’t even appear apologetic – she gloated. Partholon knew well what she was capable of. Topa maintained that she threw her clothes off and stood in the nip before him and, as he added, sure what was he to do? He insisted that what he had done, he had done without pleasure.

Offended, Partholon didn’t believe this was entirely possible, and considered it insulting. A man normally given to firsts, here was the first case of adultery in Ireland: how well it had to be his own wife – and with a common servant to boot!

And so it was by the same token Partholon was the first to introduce jealousy into Ireland. He was angry and he’d show them.

First he kicked Delgnat’s dog. Finding that this did him no good, he killed it. Then he got so angry he killed Topa as well.

When the law came after him, he demanded his right.

“I want to be paid the price of my honour,” he said. (Obviously this came before Delgnat’s honour, and clearly no one was interested in Topa’s – maybe servants had none, which hasn’t much changed, anywhere).

Delgnat was ready for this.

“And what about me – what about my honour?” says she, bold as brass. “I’m the injured party here. Am I not entitled to compensation? Didn’t you take a great risk, leaving me here with no protection?”

Partholon was dumbstruck as she moved in for the coup de grâce: “You’d leave milk with a cat, would you?”

It was another first for Ireland, a legal first.

Partholon had to swallow his pride. After the adultery, the couple lived together for 17 more years, had ten daughters and four sons who divided the island between them (another first to be repeated ad nauseam).

Finally Partholon and his followers all died – 4,000 women and 5,000 men in a week – of a plague in the month of May, another first: the 1st of Bealtaine. To honour them, the place was named Teamhlacht (now Tallaght), meaning “death monument”, the first of many of these.


Sin scéal eile*

* Gaelic for ‘That’s another story’)

Around 20,000 years ago BAA (Before Anybody was Anybody), the last glacial maximum was in full spate. In northwestern Europe, ice overwhelmed all but the highest spots. Anyone with the inclination could have walked from where Dublin is now to where Stockholm would one day be. The mountains of future Donegal, Mayo-Galway, Cork-Kerry rose in their tundra-ness above the white-greyness. Wisps of cloud hung around those few visible peaks while darker denser cloud enveloped the troughs.

To the east rose the peaks of what Chaucer would some day call Englelond, where there had already been humans for some 20,000 years. So far, no evidence has been found that they made their way to Ireland in those early days, but this may be only a question of time. Already distant, the tip of the neighbouring island hung above its own white-greyness. Over the next 10,000 years, a temporary moving landbridge of rubble pushed ahead of the ice made its way from south to north between Englelond and us. Nothing permanent, you understand.

And to the north, between the closest points on the coasts of Donegal and Scotland, a thin umbilical stretched, under the ice.

To compress Ireland’s arrival at some 20,000 years ago is to do an injustice to nature’s patience. A rock in Inistraughull in Donegal is 1,700 million years old. From there to here is inconceivable time travel, painstaking detective work with precious little clues. 600 million years back, Ireland lay in two parts (could the trouble have started here?) around the present level of South Africa, with North American style fauna in one half, and European fauna in the other. 50 million years later, a fern-like branch fossilised in a Bray Head slate. 400 million years ago the two plates welded together and Ireland became one. At Clogherhead and some way inland, the two fauna can be found to mingle. Some 375 million years ago a four-footed creature left tracks in mud on future Valencia Island Co. Kerry. The mud has now become hard slate, but the footprints remain. Then the sea swept in with its coral reefs, preparing limestone for our horses. After that there were rainforests, then swamps. Fossils of spiders and dragonflies are found in coal from these times. By 300 million years Ireland had moved up to the level of the equator and in another 50 million we were level with today’s Egypt, with an appropriately desert climate. Carrantouhill was 3 times higher than today. The Galtees and Knockmealdowns were formed, and Kingscourt gypsum, and the karstic landscapes of the Burren resembled for all the world the Dalmatian coast. Later they became as eroded as the moon’s surface and finally were swept away by ice. From this period a solitary pinnacle remains, near Fenit in Kerry, standing sentinel over a lake. Foundering formed a giant basin from future Lough Neagh to the Firth of Clyde. Somewhere around 225 million years a small reptile crossed the muddy edge of a pond south of Newtownards, and left his mark forever.

From 200-65 million years, organic debris was turning into oil and gas reserves. Ireland got only gas, somewhere off Kinsale. By 180M our profile was very low indeed, drowned in a sea that stretched from Ireland to the Caucasus. By 150M we were covered in chalk, yet the only chalk now left is either hidden under basalt up north or exposed at Ballydeanlea off the road from Tralee to Killarney, where it has been quarried and roasted in limekilns by local farmers, for fertiliser. Skipping ahead now, from 65 to 50 million years ago, volcanic activity in and around the North Channel causes our northeast, Scotland’s southeast, and Greenland to break apart. Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway are created. Molten rock intrusions bring to being the Mourne and Carlingford mountains, Doon Hill in Connemara, and probably also Hawaii and Vesuvius.

We’re up there with the big boys.

Now Ireland is a warm place with dense tropical forests of pine, cypress, monkeypuzzle, alder, fern. By now we’re at the latitude of the American Great Smoky Mountains. By 35 million years, the Lough Neagh basin is some 45 miles long, from future Ballymoney to Portadown, and completely unfamiliar: a large lake surrounded by forests of redwoods, swamp cypress, black gum, and the more prosaic alder, holly, lime, oak and palm.

Again a drive is made for natural resources: this time vegetable debris accumulates and changes into brown coal or lignite. There may also have been similar changes in the Shannon and Erne basins. Now lead and zinc form at Tynagh, where the remains of a bog of cypress have been found in the upper altered ores.

By 25M Ireland is near its present position, and slowly moving away from North America. Irregular falls in temperature all over the world signal what is to come and, sure enough, by 13M icecaps start to form in the polar regions. In Ireland there may have been badlands rather like those in Dakota today: a thick covering of red, yellow and brown clay bereft of plants. Our trees resembled those in North America or the mountains of China: warm temperate woodlands with magnolias, sweet gums, swamp cypress, palm, hemlock. Rhododendron, heather and moss from this period were found in a well near Carlow.

By 1.7 million years, the Ice Age had begun, during which Ireland would give drumlin and esker to the language of geologists and geomorphologists. It wasn’t all bad: a warm phase around half a million years ago gave us open country with fir, spruce, hornbeam and wing-nut. From 425,000-300,000 we had a warm phase named after Gort, with trees we would recognise: spruce, birch, juniper, pine, willow and, towards the end of the period, oak, hazel, ash, yew and finally holly, box and rhododendron, which would later disappear until they were re-introduced in the 18th century to plague the mountains of Kerry and Donegal.

Although man has by now discovered fire, he still hasn’t discovered Ireland, which now resembles the southern slopes of the Caucasus, with heath called Mackay, Dorset and St Dabeoc’s, and Killarney fern which loves being near the spray of a waterfall. 300,000-130,000 is all bad, a cold phase with ice all over the country except Cork and Kerry and thus called the Munsterian phase. There is tundra from the English Channel to Kiev. Ice forms the gap in the Knockmealdowns, carries gneiss cobbles from Mayo as far as Roughpoint near Castlegregory, dumps boulders of granite on the beaches of future Ballybunion and Ballinskelligs, cuts striae into a cliff on Valencia island, forms huge domes cover Mayo. The Tyrone dome holds hard against ice pushing in from Scotland as far as Cork where it deposits a blue-green granite like that of the lonesome Ailsa Craig just across the North Channel.

But what is man up to? By 130,000 years ago Homo sapiens sapiens was evolving seriously, in East Africa, perhaps. Some scientists now claim to trace us all back to a single ancestor they have dubbed the mitochondrial Eve. Others say there was more than one Eve. The whole thing, in the hands of the irresponsible, is liable to blow up into a racist scat, which will no doubt only be sorted out by DNA when our generations have passed on (although I am determined to hang on long enough to see some mysteries solved).

In fact, the work has already started: people in Ireland are already rubbing a brush around the inside of their cheeks and sending it off to scientists who will analyse it for some 15 genetic markers. Ireland, with its clan system, had a surname headstart of some 3-400 years over the British and the French, so the study is focusing on a handful of Gaelic Ulster names, for starters.

All things start and finish in Ulster or thereabouts, as we shall see.

Whatever the results will tell us about who the Irish really are, we are clear of the charge of being like monkeys, for scientists have recently determined that monkeys are merely man’s cousins. They have stopped looking for the missing link, because there isn’t one. We can talk, monkeys can’t, and that’s it. But I sometimes wonder: there are slender gibbons that live in treetops somewhere and never descend to the ground. They sing, all varieties of them. Like birds.

And wouldn’t you know, there are some bad boys amongst the crowd: researchers in France found the butchered remains of half a dozen people from this time. Not only was the meat removed from the bones in a certain way, but the marrow too. Ritual perhaps – or starvation-induced, there’s no one around to say. In spite of such savagery, most experts agree – and the weather was no doubt sufficiently mild for such luxuries: around 100,000 years ago man was getting into what is called “mythological thinking,” burying his dead with hippie-sounding “grave gear.”

Yes, this is the beginning of more trouble: ritual, religion perhaps, rules certainly.

Man got his heels cooled from 80,000 by a further bout of cold, when the ice returned to almost the level of the Munsterian phase. Drumlins come as far south as Clogher Head (the other, Kerry one), but this is followed 65,000-35,000 by a mild phase, during which elephant molars, pieces of tusk and a solitary tooth – perhaps of a woolly mammoth – get left in gravel near Lough Neagh. Temperature range was small, not unlike the range in today’s Armagh.

Soon they begin to come into focus, our hairy ancestors.

Around 50,000 years ago man began using language proper. I gaze in awe at reproductions of those first works of art called cave paintings which our ancestors may very well have called something else entirely, something more awesome, an impression perhaps augmented by mind-altering plants or mushrooms.

Yes, man may already have been at those dirty drugs.

But still no one has yet ventured to Ireland, or if they have, we haven’t found the evidence. From this time, in a cave at Castlepook near Doneraile in Co. Cork, an uneasy alliance of the bones of mammoth, spotted hyena, giant Irish deer, Norway lemming, brown deer, brown bear and Arctic fox offer silent testimony to either flooding, or strange bedfellows who roamed the open grasslands of the previous warm-up and took refuge from the ice that covered the rest of the country. There were even remains of the obstinate red deer who would still be around, in the wild state, till the 19th century. I imagine them mooching among birch and willow copses, in a landscape not unlike that of Siberia or northern Scandinavia today, a sort of tundra grassland, with docks, sorrel and least willow in patches amidst the snow, juniper in the northeast, birches in the southwest, crowberry in Roundstone. In 1715 someone reported finding mammoth bones near Newbliss, but sadly the bones were carried off and no proof remains.

Our other claim to fame, the giant Irish deer that decorates the walls of museums around the world, now has his heyday. Some 10 foot to the top of his (male only) antlers, he couldn’t have survived in woodland because the antlers also spanned some 10 feet. His was a dangerous life, for he was an awkward fellow, busy shedding and regrowing his annual antlers that weighed 60-odd lbs. He was stupid enough, when coming to drink, to blunder into the mud where he sometimes sank and died, if and when he wasn’t trampling all over his companions as they congregated in a valley, exhausted after the rutting season.

In those days art – if we decide to call it that – was perhaps considered a rather more meaningful activity. Indeed it was probably of prime importance. Artists and shamans had similar roles, if they weren’t exactly the same thing. By 20,000 years ago – now looking very recent indeed – America was being peopled, rampant animals and men were being painted on cave walls, while some remarkably fine Palaeolithic Venuses were being carved in bone and stone. Other, more brutish cave walls just got down to essentials: for a woman, an inverted triangle with a slash towards the bottom.

From now on, temperatures and sea levels rise and fall, but the Ice Age is on its way out, and from 13,000 years ago more practical things can get under way. In what we now call the Middle East and see on our TV screens daily, the first farmers started growing wheat and barley and raising cattle, sheep and pigs. Somewhere around 12,000 BP (before the present, for everything relates to us in the here and now) there is a final lengthy cold snap creating small glaciers in Wicklow. Arctic plants flourish where the Gulf Stream now warms our shores.

It is what I may call a pregnant moment: the ice forms the drumlins that will march from Down to Mayo. Above the ice, the peaks of Croagh Patrick and Errigal are distinguishable in the distance. When the ice finally recedes, all that will be needed is poor drainage, some dense woods, and the damp basket of eggs between Dundalk and Sligo will constitute a major physical obstacle to movement between the two parts of Ireland. It will only take a black pig’s dyke here, a dorsey there, the odd Cuchulainn, and the border is under way. To the west of this belt, corrie lakes nestle under high-seeming summits and further south form the deep glens and waterfalls that will one day attract tourists, like those white beaches where, in summer, foreigners are easily distinguished from the Irish by the fact that they wear rain gear, while the Irish wear swimsuits.

And still the first Irish have not yet arrived.

However, humans are near at hand: a solitary and roughly-fashioned flint, discovered in a Drogheda quarry, dates from this time and shows manufacturing techniques similar to those found in future England. People are there. Perhaps the lonesome flint was washed in at Drogheda from an outpost somewhere on the other side of the Irish Sea.

By 10,000 BCE (a common era that is politically correct) the ice cap has finally withdrawn, leaving tundra and steppe to take over most of Europe and the islands. As the ice withdraws it leaves sand and gravel across the valley of a river south of the present border with Northern Ireland, at a place that will figure in our story, between Conallgearr and Bellahanagadda, causing flooding in the river valley and forming a huge lake some 5 miles long. In the luckiest places pine and birch – one of the oldest tree species growing in Ireland today – start up.

Further north, however, since Scotland is still covered with ice, the remains of the landbridge still straddles between us and Scotland. Our umbilical, as it were, is still in place.

When the definitive warm phase – which we now consider normal – began, plants and animals wanting to immigrate here had a relatively short time to make it before the waters rose definitively to cut them off. It was rather like a Donnelly visa, many applied but few were lucky. You had to be in the right place at the right time to catch the forebulge that moved north as the ice receded, between us and the neighbours, acting as a bridge for our hopeful immigrants.

At Newlands Cross, some meticulous person has found the tooth of a field mouse from this time. But it is above all the botanical invaders that colour the landscape, arriving from all directions: from the north, lady’s tresses, blue-eyed grass and rushes move in, and stay. From the south creep arbutus (which the Irish will call cuinche), violet butterworth and Mediterranean heath splash their delicate pale purples over the mountains in early spring. The pink bells of St Dabeoc’s heath speckle the west, together with orchids and saxifrage. Mackay’s and Dorset heath make it back again, plus London pride and the Irish orchid. No pike, perch or bream are fast enough, but salmon, trout, eel, Lough Neagh pollan and Killarney shad make it in time. I imagine a place of grasses, docks, meadowsweet being slowly invaded by juniper scrub and then finally being overshadowed by willows, birches, aspen.

Our woods are under way.

Why some plants made it to Ireland but not to England is a mystery, especially since we have only 70% of their plants and 65% of their insects and invertebrates. But light thrown on this mystery may serve to answer questions related to later population movements. Here, our witness is a modest little bug that lives in rock crevices around the low-tide mark. Called Aepophilus bonnairei, it can neither swim nor fly, and is found on the Atlantic coast from here to Morocco. The conclusion is that the little fellow made it on foot, all the way up the Atlantic coastal strip. The same theory has the spotted slug making its way up from Iberia through France to settle definitively in Kerry.

Whatever the case, the whole immigration period only lasted some few hundred years. As post-glacial warming really got under way, the seas submerged coastal woods, until finally the crucial event occurred: the last of the ice melted.

It was around 7,500 BC when the drawbridge finally went up and the land bridge was severed. The only remaining link, between Donegal and Islay in Scotland, was removed. By now, the umbilical had been not so much cut, as drowned. Whatever flora and fauna we were going to get, had arrived. From now on, new life forms would get here by man-made means only. Nature’s shape had come to stay.

We were adrift from the neighbouring island, at last!

The remarkable flooding was widespread, causing Stone Age farmers to move on out of the Black Sea region and head off westwards, bringing farming to Europe. Perhaps this was the Flood that that marked man’s stories and memories forever, and in the case of Europe and the Middle East gave the leading role to Noah.

Here in Ireland, there was apparently no one around to celebrate the event, or sing ‘Thank God we’re surrounded by water’. Only the hazel bushes swayed gently in a low wind.

—Mary Byrne


Mary Byrne was born in Ireland an currently lives in southern France. Her fiction has appeared in: six anthologies, including Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, Phoenix Irish Short Stories and Queens Noir; in dozens of literary journals in Europe, North America and Australia, including Numéro Cinq, Prairie Schooner, Dalhousie Review, Irish Times, Shenandoah, Transnational Literature, Stand, and Fiction International. and has been broadcast on British and Irish radio. Her chapbook, A Parallel Life, was published in 2015 by Kore Press https://korepress.org/books/AParallelLife.htm.

Tweets @BrigitteLOignon


Jul 102016

John Gould 2016


First Kiss

To get to the cemetery you had to come along our street, under the dark archway of chestnuts and maples. It must have been enchanting for the mourners, or depressing, or something. And then the thonk of plums as we pelted the procession.

Our theory was that people would be too grief-stricken to come after us, or too worried about their good clothes. This is when we were twelve or so, too old for such idiocy, but anyway. We’d load an apple basket with plums fallen from the Barfoots’ tree, and we’d duck down behind the foundation wall in the abandoned lot next to Shithead’s house a few blocks down from mine. There’d be Shithead, and Dunk, and Kev maybe, and me. Somebody would yell “Fire!” and we’d fire. The plums were soft and slippery, half rotten half of them, so you couldn’t really pitch them, more like catapult them, cupping them in your palm. Most of them would miss, but not all of them.

Just one time the procession stopped. I don’t know how many funerals we bombed that year, it seemed like a lot but it was probably only a half dozen or so. Mostly the vehicles would just keep going, crawling along like a battalion of tanks in a movie. The hearse (you got double points if you hit that, though we never actually kept score), then a limo or two, and then a bunch of just normal cars, a line of variable length depending on how much the person had been loved, I suppose, or by how many people.

But this time the limo stopped, the one behind the hearse. The hearse kept going—maybe he didn’t check his mirror, or maybe he didn’t feel right stopping with a dead body in back. But the limo stopped, and the whole procession behind it. Out of the limo crawled this guy. Like my father, that sort of age, but smaller and more angular, and of course dressed head to foot in black. He looked over our way—we’d neglected to duck back down, too surprised I guess. And he came charging.

We had a plan, which was to split up. That was our whole plan. I don’t know where the others went, but I took off for home, down the back lane. When it occurred to me how stupid that was, I cut through a couple of yards over towards the school. The mourner had singled me out, the biggest and fattest of this gang of fat little pricks, and he was coming hard, I could hear him. At one point the nerve just went out of me. The mourner found me sitting in a patch of leafy greens in somebody’s garden, crying like a five-year-old.

And what he did was he comforted me. He told me he’d been young once too, young and senseless. He was still huffing from the run, and he patted my arm and told me to go ahead and cry, that there was no shortage of things to cry about in this world. He asked me if I minded if he had a little cry too, and he had one, a few dry-eyed sobs which turned into a  laugh. “Is that really the way I weep?” he said, and he wept some more and laughed some more. He had a beard, which he gripped as though to keep his face from slipping off.

By this time my fear had deepened to the kind you don’t cry about. I sat still while he told me about somebody named Neil, a friend from his childhood. It may have been Neil’s body in the hearse, but I’ve never been sure of that. What I do know is that Neil had a major overbite as a boy, and that he was crazy about birds. He could identify a bird from a silhouette in flight, or from a snippet of song. Warbler, thrush, you name it.

After a while the mourner sort of came to himself, remembering about his funeral, I suppose. “Yep, that Neil,” he said, shaking his head. Then he gave me another pat, stood up and trotted away.

It was dinner time, but I took the long route home, past the park. There was a girl named Yasmin, an almost-cute girl from my grade, just saying goodbye to some friends at the baseball diamond. “Wanna walk?” she said, and she came up beside me. We only half knew each other and hadn’t much to talk about. Mostly she kept staring at me, and finally she said, “Have you been crying?”

I wiped my face and said that somebody had died.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry about that. Who died?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

Yasmin laughed. I remember her laugh sounded like some people’s bawling. I stepped in front of her and turned and kissed her on the mouth, which I’d never done to anybody before. Yasmin kissed me back, or at least she didn’t pull away. She and her friends must have had cigarettes, because she tasted like my mother’s breath after she’d been out on the porch by herself. I put my hand on her cheek, Yasmin’s cheek, a hand still sticky and sweet with rotten plum.

My wife, Gina, doesn’t buy it. She simply won’t believe that what happened that day is at the root of what she calls my “problem.” Why call it a “problem” in the first place, if it isn’t actually a problem? That’s what I keep asking her. And she keeps laughing, which I love (Gina laughs like a cat after a bird it can’t quite reach). All that matters is that I want her, and that I’ll never stop. I’ll never stop.


Word of Mouth

Stan’s first career was inspired by the swoop of a heron past the window of the family cottage when he was a kid. Fish were floating to the surface of Sahahikan Lake that year, and talk was that soon birds and other predators too would be succumbing to the chemicals that had been allowed to seep into a feeder stream. Stan was already disturbed by this thought, and by the fact that he and his brother had been barred from the lake, but it was the thrill of the heron’s heavy flight that truly got to him, the notion that something so alive could soon be dead, and dead because of people. Ten years later he emerged from school with a degree in marine biology. Thirty years after that he cleared out his desk at Rant Cow Hive.

Fired, laid off, whatever—the agency (actually Envirowatch, but Stan and his colleagues diverted themselves creating various anagrams) was being eviscerated, middle-aged, mid-rank characters such as himself being set unceremoniously free. A trauma, not because Stan loved the job (he resented it, the long slow failure it made of his life), but because he’d just ended his marriage, and vacated his house, and was running short on things of which to be dispossessed.

Stan’s second career was inspired by Mr. Neziri, the man across the hall from his mother at the hospital, where Stan spent more and more time in the aftermath of his sacking. Mr. Neziri and Stan’s mother were both doomed, but they were going about their deaths in radically different ways. Stan’s mother, for instance, was deaf and almost mute. Save the odd noisy non sequitur (“Won’t you stay for dinner?!?” when she was being fed through a nose tube), she held her peace about her predicament. Mr. Neziri, on the other hand… What was that sound he made? A sob, a moan? A sob-moan, a yowl-howl, a wail-whimper. It was nothing, there was no word. Actually, there was what sounded like a word once, out in the middle of one interminable jag, but in a language unknown to Stan. And then back to the meaningless caterwaul once more.

Meaningless, that was the key. To mark death you had to make a sound that carried no meaning at all, that was in fact a constant obliteration of meaning. Mr. Neziri was mourning himself, articulating his oblivion before it arrived. But what of those, such as Stan’s own mum, who couldn’t muster the strength or the vision for this task? Who would cry out for them? Didn’t there used to be professional mourners? Why shouldn’t there be once more?

Stan’s old boss Bernie (who’d also been axed) had been sending Stan links to articles called things like “Second Time Around” and “Age as an Asset” and “Repurposing the Middle-Aged Man.” What you didn’t have anymore was youthful energy and enthusiasm. What made up for that was wisdom, worldliness. Your first career had been about duty. Your new one would be about love. You were done with obligation, time to follow your bliss.

Love? Bliss? Demand, there was plenty of that. Stan was one of about a billion people soon to be robbed of somebody. His fellow boomers alone, with all their ailing parents…

He began his rehearsals at “home,” the not-quite-wretched bachelor suite out of which he kept on not moving. He’d knock back a half-mickey of vodka (a poor man’s peyote, is how he thought of it, opening him to shamanic energies), bring the lights down to a funereal gloom and get started.

The idea was to have no idea. Stan’s sound needed to be free of all influence and intent, each act of mourning incomprehensible in its own unique way. He’d made the mistake of starting with online research and now needed to erase the memory of other wailers (the Yaminawa of Peru, the Nar-wij-jerook of Australia), along, of course, with the memory of every other human utterance he’d ever heard. To be meaningless, a cry needed to be innocent of all allusion and all shape. Free jazz but freer, no key, no time signature, no consistency of tone, tempo, timbre. Stan had a decent voice (he’d rated a solo on “Softly and Tenderly” with the boys’ choir back at St. Joe’s), which was both a blessing and a curse. What he was singing now was scat but more so, a series of sounds denuded of history and prospects, a pure racket. At every moment he needed to be saying nothing.

There was a dry spell, sure. Stan ran a few ads (“When it’s forever, you want the best!”), but he knew it was personal contact that usually got you your start. And so it was. A first nibble came from his brother, who wrote to say that he’d be staying on with his firm in Fukuoka for another year because of a death one rung up the ladder. Stan replied with an update on his new career, hinting that he’d be open to a contract abroad, to which his brother came back with, “You need help, man. Seriously, I love you, but you need help.” Promising. Any significant insight was bound to be met at first with dismay. How had people responded when they first learned the fate of the natural world?

And then the breakthrough. When the police showed up a third time in response to complaints from neighbors (whose wall-pounding served as accompaniment many nights), Stan got chatting with one constable while the other wrote up his warning. An almost frighteningly empathetic individual, this guy turned out to have a sick sister (Cushy disease, could that be right?) who was busy planning her own gala funeral. “A professional mourner,” he mused. “Hey, she might just go for that!”

The audition took place in the sister’s hospital room. On another ward, in another part of the city, Stan’s mother and Mr. Neziri were still at it. Stan had two months of daily practice under his belt by this time and was beginning to feel some confidence. Indeed, the audition went well. One little phrase from “Smoke on the Water” snuck in, but his bellowing was otherwise bereft of sense, of any discernible pattern or meaning. The siblings were perfectly devastated, as were the mourners at the sister’s funeral a month or so later.

From there, things just sort of took off.


Your Wellness This Week

Dear Doctor Barry,

My wife went through a bad time last year. She had a cancer scare, and instead of being relieved when that was over, she got anxious and depressed. At my urging she saw a psychiatrist, who tried her on a few different medications. She’s now on something new called Liberté, and for the most part it seems to be working. I’ve got my wife back!

I do have concerns, though. My wife has never been phobic, but she’s suddenly developed a fear of branches (that’s right, tree branches) and of the colour turquoise. I’m pretty sure she’s got other phobias too (is it possible she’s afraid of my chin?), but we haven’t been able to nail them down for sure. Part of the problem is that she doesn’t seem to care about them, or about much else either. She’s cheerful, but I guess the word is blasé.

Could the new drug be responsible for what’s going on? Help!?!



Dear R.S.,

Though Liberté is proving effective as a treatment for general anxiety, it was originally developed to combat thanatophobia, defined as a morbid or persistent fear of death. The health scare that preceded your wife’s depression likely caused her doctor to zero in on that issue.

The main component of Liberté is a derivative of toxoplasma, which you may recognize as the parasite associated with cats that can be harmful to immune-compromised individuals and unborn children. (Pregnant ladies, stay away from that litter box!) Researchers discovered that mice infected with toxoplasma lost their fear of cats. Extracted and modified, the same agent turns out to be well-tolerated by humans.

Clinical studies showed that this agent suppressed the human fear not just of predators but of death in general, and thus reduced anxiety. Some unfortunate side effects emerged, however, in particular lassitude and even ennui. Having lost their fear of death, people seemed to lose their zest for life. As one subject expressed it, “Without a fear of death, our stories have lost their sense of an ending. We’re left with a beginning and then a great big pointless middle.”

To combat this troublesome impact, BoothTiborMcGuane decided to add a psychostimulant to their version of the drug. The product known as Liberté includes a small dose of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine salts, the sort of combination found in ADHD medications. This stimulant has probably helped maintain your wife’s energy and initiative to some degree, but has perhaps contributed to secondary anxieties. Why her anxiety has manifested in these particular forms may remain a mystery. Incidentally, the fear of chins is termed geniophobia and is more common than you might think.

It’s a matter of trade-offs. Are these new fears preferable to the overarching fear from which she suffered before? That’s something she should discuss with her psychiatrist. In the meantime, you can of course support her by acknowledging the reality of her fears, even when they seem ludicrous to you, and by reassuring her that a certain level of apathy is natural for someone on this medication. You can also remind her that even though she doesn’t fear death anymore, she’s still going to die. Exercise is important too, and an active social life, areas in which you can certainly encourage her.

Dr. B.

—John Gould

John Gould 2016

John Gould is the author of a novel, Seven Good Reasons Not to Be Good, and of two collections of very short stories, including Kilter, a finalist for the Giller prize. The stories appearing here on NC are from the manuscript of a third such collection. Gould has worked as an environmental researcher, tree planter, carpenter, and arts administrator. He served for years on the editorial board of the Malahat Review and teaches writing at the University of Victoria.



Jul 092016

Yannis Livadas


Dissection of four reminiscences on Rue Casimir Delavigne

Spirit is revealing itself through the exultant image of a prodigal.
And through another one.
Even though there is nothing more normal than the end;
Find other subjects to relinquish.
Over an undetectable point
Comes the time when words surrender to their masters.

I was never in despair.
And beauty is no more what people thought about her.
I stumble on the ship
That Ranajit Jana shakes;
The printer of my new book
In Calcutta.

I go to the National Library.
That’s a nice line as it is.
Inside they discuss the latest Nobel quietly.
The employee, a former drug addict now
Even worse with this ponytail
And a jackal glower.
I say, where can I find this one and
I would certainly like to take a look at that.
She says, both are out of the question,
Since the institution is under renovation.
But if you want
You can sign your latest book for me
(She recognized me).
My pen stops writing and
Only half of my name is scribed.
I push the pen point but she says, it’s good enough
As it is.

The trafficking of readers
It is a proof
Of poetry.



Of all the dubious elements of the abyss
The boomerang ideas
I most appreciate,
Which return dazzling
To their one and only locus.



Turns of cordial words
With particular interest
Limit the dimensions.
Most I admire Praxiteles
than Hermes.
Until night becomes a virgin.
So that being means to write.


I guess I will survive consubstantial

Very recently I stated the problems
Of experience as strongly as the bagatelles
Assume expatiating that they find us
Fatalists when once they considered us adaptive
To whatever concerned us.
I imagine that will survive all alone
Consubstantial with the imperfect
I am reviewing out
Of the blue.


This swollen face is a wreath

This swollen face is a wreath.
Many of those who exhibit the unseen arrangement
Of death are not visible.
In contrast to the unscathed delirium of life.
So, don’t bother.
Interiority equals cowardice.
Conceptually some delve into fears.
Not here though.
Those over there are resuming
Based on the peacefulness of the testicular balls.
Such hours you have to rejoice
That the spirit is man
And with just a weather forecast
Is getting ready for
The futile.

—Yannis Livadas


Yannis Livadas is a Greek poet, born in 1969. His work constitutes the idea of experimentalism based on «organic antimetathesis» — the scaling indeterminacy of meaning, of syntactic comparisons and structural contradistinction. He is also an editor; essayist, translator, of more than fifty books of American poetry and prose; an independent scholar with specialization on American modern and postmodernism literature plus haiku. He contributes to various literary magazines, both in Greece and other countries. His poems and essays have been translated in eight languages. He lives in Paris, France.


Austerity Measures/The New Greek Poetry [is included with six poems] (Penguin Books 2016)
Modart (Alloglotta Editions, Athens 2015)
Strictly Two (Sea Urchin Editions, Rotterdam, Holland, 2015)
The fat of the fly (Kedros, Athens 2015)
Au comptoir de La Manne au 90 rue Claude-Bernard (Édition privée, Paris 2014)
Sound Bones (Iolkos, Athens 2014)
At the stand of La Manne, 90 rue Claude Bernard (Private edition, Paris 2013)
La Chope Daguerre + Ηusk Poems (Kedros, Athens 2013)
Bezumljie (Peti Talas, Serbia 2012)
Ravaged By The Hand Of Beauty (Cold Turkey Press, France 2012)
Kelifus (Cold Turkey Press, France 2011)
Ati – Scattered Poems 2001-2009 (Kedros, Athens 2011)
The Margins Of A Central Man (Graffiti Kolkata, India 2010)
The Star Electric Space/An International Anthology Of Indie Writers [is included with 4 poems](Graffiti Kolkata, India 2010)
40a (Private edition, Athens 2009)
John Coltrane & 15 Poems for Jazz (C.C. Marimbo, San Francisco 2008)
Apteral Nike/Business/Sphinx (Heridanos, Athens 2008)
John Coltrane and 12 Poems for Jazz (Apopeira, Athens 2007)
The Hanging Verses Of Babylon (Melani, Athens 2007)
Annex of Temperate Emotion (Indiktos, Athens 2003)
Receipt of Retail Poetry (Akron, Athens 2002)
Expressionistic Feedback (Akron, Athens 2000)

Anaptygma/Essays and notes on poetry (Koukoutsi, Athens 2015)

The Laocoon Complex (Logeion Books, Athens 2012)


Jul 092016

StratfordTrainCirca1971The Author circa 1971 on the Stratford Train.


By the time I was seventeen, I was a singer-songwriter—a tumbleweed riding the wind, barely making ends meet. I sang a lunch set at the Penny Farthing coffee house for my lunch and dinner. And I lived in a downtown Toronto rooming house across the hall from Murray the Speed Freak who, according to the Addiction and Research Foundation, should have been dead six months ago. I needed a steady job to afford a better place to live.

So I applied to work at the University of Toronto where, I was told, jobs were plentiful. I presented myself to their administration offices with no skills, no experience and no references because I was not yet eighteen, still legally too young to work full-time. I lied about my age and likely other details I don’t recall. They hired me for the Wallace Room, the undergraduate reading room in the Sigmund Samuel Library. My first full-time job required me to be in the same place, all day, five days a week. What a shock.

9-5 Blues by Mary Rykov  [1:48]

My first full-time job was also a serendipitous good fit because I love to read. I’m told I recited the entire Tale of Peter Rabbit as a two-year-old. And I have fond memories as a five-year-old walking with my mother to the public library each week to exchange books. I felt grown up when she went off to choose her books and left me alone with the children’s librarian to choose mine. I love books, libraries and even the musty-dusty smell of some old books.

I can’t say I enjoyed my grade school library, where choices were limited. Mrs. Copeland ruled that library with a sign-out system that encouraged us to read the classics. The deal was to alternate between reading a book from her list and a book of our choosing. Fair enough.

When given the choice, I read about animals. Sometimes my choice overlapped with Mrs. Copeland’s book list, but not often enough. When I eventually read all the fiction and nonfiction animal books on the Grade 1, 2, and 3 shelves—interspersed, of course, with Mrs. Copeland’s literary canon—I chose an animal story from the Grade 4 shelf. But I was not allowed to read the Grade 4 books because I was still in Grade 3.

I balked at the injustice. I was following the rules and living up to my side of the bargain, but Mrs. Copeland was not playing fair. In protest, I stopped reading all books in Mrs. Copeland’s library. The school thought I stopped reading. They didn’t know I was reading — without restriction—the children’s books that lined my piano teacher’s waiting room.


The Wallace Room

The Sigmund Samuel Library was constructed in 1910 on the east perimeter of King’s College Circle to replace the original University College library that was gutted by fire in 1890. The Wallace Room, named for Chief Librarian and scholar-historian-editor W. Stewart Wallace (1884-1970), was located in a new wing added to the north side of the 1910 building in 1954-55.


The library building was then named for—and significantly financed by—Sigmund Samuel (1868–1962), son of a wealthy British industrialist who successfully grew his inherited family business. His generous philanthropy was responsible for the library enlargement, as well as the Canadiana collection at the Royal Ontario Museum (Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada), contributions to Toronto Western Hospital, and numerous other community projects. Samuel became a Governor of the university and laid the cornerstone for the new library addition. With no disrespect intended for Samuel’s significant contributions, the oversight of indigenous perspectives that characterizes Eurocentric-colonialist “Canadiana” constitutes an unsettling and incomplete historiography by today’s standards.

The Wallace Room housed open stack books for all undergraduate disciplines, as well as short-term course reserve loans. After the Robarts Library was built on St. George Street in 1973, the humanities and social science holdings moved there. Today the old Wallace Room is a reading room in the Gerstein Science Information Centre, which takes up the entire Sigmund Samuel building. But during my 1971 tenure, I bolstered my high school dropout education with the full range of undergraduate disciplines.


Wallace Room 2016



My Wallace Room desk duties rotated between the sign-out desk and the front desk. At the sign-out desk, I ensured that sign-out slips were completed correctly. Then I date-stamped both duplicate parts of the slip, placed one copy in the pocket pasted to the back inside cover of the book, and the duplicate copies accumulated in a box to be filed later.


Duties at the front desk entailed answering questions, retrieving course reserve books, receiving book returns, and collecting fines. We were allowed to excuse overdue fines under $50.00 at our discretion, depending on the circumstances. I always pardoned fines for students who told me about a family death or other emergency, but not for students who told me the maid swept the books under their bed. We admired some of the stories that accompanied overdue books. Who doesn’t enjoy a good yarn?

During down time at the front desk, those duplicate paper sign-out slips were meticulously filed by date and call number. Book returns were processed by removing the paper sign-out slips from the back pockets, finding the corresponding filed duplicate slip, and discarding the matched pair.

The returned books, once processed, were placed on wheeled trolley carts according to the call number printed on their spines and by the green, orange, red, blue, purple and yellow dots that signified the call number section.


My favourite task was shelving books from the trolley carts in the back of the library stacks where my reading was not so easily disrupted. I read everything from Herodotus’s Histories (all nine volumes) to Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. I didn’t steal the books; I read them. And I particularly enjoyed the marginalia comments and arguments.


Herodotus interested me because I like archaeology and ancient history, myths, legends, and old things in general. I enjoyed talking to the students and read what I saw them reading. I was allowed to sign books out, and did. But most of my reading was done on the job. I read slowly and deeply (still do), cover to cover, including forewords, introductions, and acknowledgements. The marginalia was like a conversation speaking to me, although I can’t remember exactly what was said. I just enjoyed the discourse and that someone was moved—and cared enough—to respond to the writer. I still read marginalia.

My Wallace Room supervisor was librarian Jeanette Anton, a childless Estonian WWII refugee in her 50s who spoke with a musical accent. I likely projected onto her the character of Mrs. Copeland, my grade school librarian, who more closely resembled the wicked-witch-of-all-libraries past, present and future. In fact, there was no comparison. When Mrs. Anton smiled, her blue eyes twinkled. Mrs. Copeland also had blue eyes, but she never smiled. At least, not at me.

Mrs. Anton was kind, but she was also precise, demanding and did not suffer fools kindly, as the saying goes. She seemed to have had eyes in the back of her head, which gave her the uncanny ability to catch you doing something wrong—even if you never did it wrong before and never did it wrong again. She knew. Also knowledgeable and competent, Mrs. Anton was grandfathered into the library profession without having had formal training. She furthermore frightened me because she was very tall and towered over me.


Dress Code

I was (am) tiny, not five feet on a tall day. I could never find shoes small enough for my feet, and clothes didn’t look the same on me as they did on store mannequins. My long chestnut-auburn hair was never styled. Besides, I often rode my bike to work and didn’t preen. Mrs. Anton tolerated my jeans and sandals with a patient, maternal kindness. She also offered unsolicited wardrobe advice.

“So-o-o-o, my little one,” she would say, “they came out with a new fabric not long ago called Crimplene. It comes in all sorts of pretty colours — pink, blue, yellow, green. Solids and prints. You can throw it in the washing machine and dryer and it won’t need ironing. Crimplene!” I used to imagine Mrs. Anton with her very own TV commercial.


For readers who missed this 1960s fashion phenomenon, Crimplene was a thick, wrinkle-resistant polyester that was ideal for A-line mini dresses. The Crimplene name alone used to make me cringe almost as much as my coworkers’ snickering as Mrs. Anton extolled its virtues to me. While she raptured on, they stood behind her with fingers to their lips as if to vomit, trying to make me laugh. I learned to keep a straight face—a useful skill when fabricating excuses for being derelict in my duties. Read on.


Paper Records

Libraries in those days functioned on paper. Everything did. Books were requested, acquired, signed out and signed in on paper. Overdue fines were recorded on paper. My hours worked, all recorded on paper. But I was too young and feckless to care about company loyalty, much less duty, or pride in work well done. On busy days when I was too hot, bored or hungry—or hot, bored and hungry—I would tire of filing or retrieving all those paper sign-out slips. My eyes glazed over.

So I became the library fine faery.

Sometimes I excused library fines just because I didn’t want to record them. Other times I “disappeared” the paper sign-out slip duplicates by filing them temporarily in my pockets instead of in their respective file boxes. Later I would file them permanently down the toilet. Unfortunately—or fortunately—my tight blue jean pockets could not hold much.


Front Desk as War Zone

One spring morning, with cherry trees in full blossom, Mrs. Anton gathered us around her for a strategy meeting. Convocation ceremonies were scheduled, and students who had not paid their library fines would not receive their diplomas. They attended convocation, but their diplomas were held hostage until their fines were settled. Mrs. Anton knew this ritual well. She scheduled extra front-desk staff to address the onslaught.

You’d think these students would know who they were. You’d think they’d come in ahead of time to pay up. Some did, but many did not. Maybe they considered their overdue fines were hollow threats now that they had completed their studies and had no use for library privileges. They underestimated the ransom power of unpaid library fines until they found themselves at graduation, all dressed up in gowns and mortarboards, with just empty handshakes. No diplomas.


After the ceremony, the convocation carillon rang out like a starter pistol. We watched the would-be grads sprint straight across the King’s College Circle lawn from Convocation Hall heading in our direction—caps in hand and gowns flowing behind them in the wind. We took our positions behind the front desk as they arrived in droves, while Mrs. Anton maintained order in the lines-ups. Ha! Gotcha!


The Book Stacks

As mentioned, I enjoyed shelving and reading the books on the trolleys. On hot days, the book stacks in the back were darker and cooler than the sunny western exposure of the reading area in front. The old library building was not air conditioned back then. And when I was shelving books alone in the back book stacks with nobody looking, I would lie down on the floor to feel the cold marble on my hot arms and legs.


One steamy summer day I fell asleep there. I woke, startled, with everyone standing over me wringing their hands. Before I could leap to my feet—afraid I was really in big trouble this time—I realized they thought I had fainted. I was not allowed to stand up until I drank some water and ate a snack. Then I was sent home in a cab.


I Sleep Late (Most) Thursdays

Yes, my sleeping was a problem. More specifically, I had trouble waking on Thursday mornings because every Wednesday night I worked a late shift. I didn’t mind taking my turn and working late, but not when I had to start work at 8:45 am the next morning. My Wednesday late shift alternated between 10:00 pm one week and midnight the next week. Regardless, I still needed to be at work by 8:45 am on Thursday mornings.

I usually (but not always) managed to arrive on time after working until 10:00 pm. But on Thursday mornings after working until midnight the night before, I often failed to wake on time, even with three alarm clocks. And when I (or anyone) did not appear by 9:00 am, Mrs. Anton phoned. By then I had moved to a large shared house, living student-style with six others. And when I slept in and Mrs. Anton called, I had to dash from my third floor bedroom to the second floor telephone before my sleeping housemates were roused.

One Thursday morning after a midnight shift, I woke right at 8:45 am. Late again! But this time I dressed quickly, took the telephone receiver off the black, rotary-dialed base, and stifled the beeping with my pillow and blankets. I ran two blocks to the payphone at a busy intersection. Out of breath, I called in late from there.

“Where are you?” I’m asked.

“I just witnessed an accident, Mrs. Anton,” I say.

“Oooh, you must be upset,” she answers. “Go have a cup of coffee.”

“Okay,” I say.

So I walked home and put the telephone receiver back on the hook. After a leisurely bath—we had no shower—I made coffee and breakfast for my housemates. I finally sauntered into work around 11:30 am, in time for lunch.

“What happened?” they all asked.

Hmmm, I should have anticipated I would need further details to account for myself. But I was too young to be responsibly irresponsible. At first I tried saying I was too upset to talk about it. I hemmed and hawed, stalling, until they finally wheedled this story out of me.

“It was such a glorious morning, and I was a bit early,” I lied. “So I decide that instead of getting off the southbound Yonge subway at College and taking the streetcar west, I would exit a stop earlier at Wellesley so I could walk across Queen’s Park and enjoy the beautiful spring flowers,” my fib unfolds. “And while I stand on the northeast corner of Bay and Wellesley Streets waiting out the red light before crossing to the west side, I see a popcorn man wheeling his bicycle cart south on Bay Street.”


By now there was no turning back or stopping. My story continued, as if on its own. So I included hand gestures to illustrate. “As the popcorn man pedals into the intersection, the Cadillac car behind him starts to make a right-hand turn west onto Wellesley Street from Bay—and knocks the poor, old popcorn man over with its left rear tail fin!”

I was awed by my own audacity. Had I read so much Wallace Room fiction I was beginning to make up my own? I covered my face with my hands because I laughed so hard I actually gasped. And as I gasped, I cried. So I carried on, embellishing an awful scene with the popcorn man and his cap and his popcorn and peanuts and chestnuts and cashews and taffy apples spilled all over Bay Street, balloons billowing in the middle of the morning rush hour traffic. Of course I stayed with the popcorn man until the ambulance arrived. His name was Giorgio. Then I went to the police station with the officers to give my report. And months later when I slept in again—I was in court, serving as witness for Giogio’s case.


My First Job Legacy

Dumbfounded and relieved, I somehow passed my three-month probationary work period. How? No doubt due to Mrs. Anton’s compassion and affection. Mrs. Anton, may you rest in peace, and thank you. But three months after passing probation, I slept in so often that I exhausted all my toothache and dead relative excuses. No sequels to the popcorn man fable followed.

Unable to manufacture as much fiction as I consumed, I resigned from my first job because I assumed I would, eventually, be fired. I resumed playing music and did manage to land some television and radio spots, thanks to the Canadian content (Cancon) government regulations set out by the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in the early 1970s. Once I opened for Lenny Breau in an after-hours jazz club. I even sang at the Myna Bird as an opening act for the strippers, which might have been easier had I stripped. Oh, well.


As I fumbled on towards adulthood, I came to appreciate my path was paved with more kindness than I was aware of at the time.

—Mary H. Auerbach Rykov


Mary H Auerbach Rykov is a Toronto music therapist-researcher, editor and educator. Her work appears in literary and professional venues. http://maryrykov.com



Jul 082016

Kinga Fabo 2016


Blow Wind, Blow

You sit me down. Make my bed. For me. For you.
For her. The way she swings around. Sways. Bows.
Let’s say: I’ll tell you. Let’s say: You’ll listen.

My dearest!
You congregant!
How should I use you?
I’m sitting right here and murmur.
I am sweet, you are sweet.

It was beautiful. Congregated. Used.
I should have done something to him.
There were many other
things. Things? Many?
It was winter. Hard. Un-
There was a woman. A man. Insignifican’


Dracula Orchid

We didn’t choose each other.
We were locked together.
Watching his ugly face.

He looks back: I see myself.
Who is in which end of the cable
who is that places me at his will?

This isn’t a game between the two of us,
this tug of war.
Someone’s pulling my strings from above:

once he pulls me, next he leaves me.
Smells the blood. Nosing around me.
The heat of the body. Steaming.

Can’t take it anymore. This distillate is too raw to me.
The beast wins out of beauty.
The scale goes off balance.

Two derelict puppets. Deteriorated.
Event in the greenhouse: behold.
The heart’s been stubbed.


False Thread

Seasons jam up.
Drill through the spring.
Winter, summer start attacking.

The flood makes a run.
Surging again and again
stalls and then throngs ahead.

Under the sea, the land is shaking.
(The unhoped front comes with such commotion.
While the other is dragging a heatwave.)

The shipwrecks of the lips: pilling of syllables.
Slurs and stutters.
Breaks and floods the words with anger.

It hits. Or gets hit by a syllable
culminating above it.
Gives no time to get resentful.

There is its double if it bales out.
None holds a grudge against none.
It hits. Or let others beat it.

The client is the same man.
Hiding in my shadow.
Matters not what I say or do.

There is no love: Spring’s been postponed.
It might be hiding in my shadow.
Snip. I’ll cut you up, you false thread.

(An iceberg broke off in Greenland.
The woods are on fire around Moscow.
The air is poisonous above Moscow.)


I’m not a city

I’m not a city: I have neither light, nor
window display. I look good.
I feel good. You didn’t
invite me though. How
did I get here?

You’d do anything for me; right?
Let’s do it! An attack.
A simple toy—
wife? I dress, dress, dress

The dressing remains.
I operate, because I’m operated.
All I can do is operate.
(I don’t mean anything to anyone.)
What is missing then?

Yet both are men separately.
Ongoing magic. Broad topsyturviness.
Slow, merciless.
A new one is coming: almost perfect.
I swallow it.

I swallow him too.
He is too precious to
waste himself such ways.
I’d choose him: if he knew,
that I’d choose him.

But he doesn’t. My dearest is lunatic.
In vain he is full: He is useless
without the Moon, he can’t change,
he won’t change,
the way the steel bullets spin: drifting,

the blue is drifting.
He tolerates violence on himself, I was afraid
he’d pull himself together and
asks for violence.
I watched myself

born anew with indifference:
(if I melt him!)
stubborn, dense, yowls. They worked on him well.
Right now he is in transition.
He is a lake: looking for its shore.



You are free, said the stranger.
Before I arrived there.
Costume. I had a costume on though.
I was curious: what his reaction might be?

He closed his other eyes.
I’ll send an ego instead of you.
Getting softer, I feel it, he feels it too. Hardly moves. He chokes himself inside me.
Now I must live with another dead man.

It’s not even hopeless.
Not vicious.
Serves the absence.
Delivers the unnecessary.

—Kinga Fabó

Kinga Fabó is a Hungarian poet, linguist, and essayist. She is the author of eight books. Her latest, a bilingual Indonesian-English poetry collection titled Racun (Poison), was published in 2015 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Fabó’s poetry has been included in various international journals and zines, as well as in anthologies. Some of her individual poems have been translated into Persian, Esperanto or Tamil. One of her poems, “The Ears,” has six different Indonesian translations by six different authors. She has also written an essay on Sylvia Plath. In everything she’s done, Fabó has always been between the verges, on the verge, and in the extreme.

Gabor G. Gyukics is a Hungarian poet and literary translator.



Jul 072016

Version 6


When I was seven, the age my son is now, my parents took my sisters and me to SeaWorld. I fell in love with Shamu, and came home with a stuffed killer whale. He shared my bed from then on. Ever since, my blissed-out dreams have featured whales.

I now live on an island surrounded by whales. Resident pods swim the strait that is my front yard. A friend once told me that I was looking for a whale in the shape of a man. My husband once thought he’d lose me as I ran along the beach, trailing a pod. He feared I’d dive in and never come back.

Dawn Brancheau underwater with whale

When I was pregnant, I had a dream. A dream of sex and a killer whale. Of sex with a killer whale.

My pregnancy was hard won. It had required surgery, daily shots of hormones, medical invasions. There were triplets at first, but two of them died. There was bleeding, there were dire prognoses for the one fetus I had remaining inside me. I was put on bed rest, and spent days in a haze of reading, movies, sleep, and dreams. I was careful about what I watched and heard; everything made me cry. (Hormones). I couldn’t watch the news, and I especially couldn’t follow the US presidential election. This was the fall of 2008, and I had a huge political crush on the junior senator from Illinois. I desperately wanted him to win.

A few weeks before the election, I had a dream in which I had sex with a killer whale, and gave birth to Barack Obama.  My sleeping mind was trying to make sense of it, trying trying to link the two events in a visual pun. It clicked: a killer whale is black and white so naturally our son, Barack Obama, would be bi-racial.


I told my husband, thinking the story would be good for light over-coffee conversation.  I had sex with a killer whale and now I’m the mother of Barack Obama. 

No reaction.

So, I explain. Again. Slowly. Wishing I’d kept the dream to myself.

A beat. Then he asks, very seriously, very quietly. Was there penetration?

Are you jealous? I asked.

Was there penetration? he repeated.

Now usually, when I have dreams about sex there’s no actual sex involved, there’s just a wash of good feeling, but this dream had been different. It was logistical, mechanical, graphic. It was almost entirely about penetration.

whale breaching

The  whale of my dreams is variously misnamed: killer whale (a smart carnivore, but not a psychopath); orcinus orca (meaning “from the kingdom of the dead”); blackfish (yes, black; but no, not a fish). Grampus has fallen out of favor. At Seaworld, all the killer whales are called Shamu in public, but their trainers recognize them individually: Tilikum, Kasatka, Makani, Shouka. No doubt they have names for themselves in their own killer whale tongue.


Before I had sex with the whale, I took a good look at him. His erection was made of metal, as long as I am tall. It brought to mind a corkscrew, or drill bit. I said to him, You’re going to kill me if you’re not careful with that. He listened, he thought about the situation, he was great, very accommodating, very understanding. We worked it out. We made love. We made Barack Obama.

I have told this story before. People tend to be impressed by the sexual aspect; one friend informed me that in real life, whale peckers are, in fact, very long. My dream fear was not unfounded.


A unicorn lays his head down in a virgin’s lap. She strokes the beast, calms him.

The cetacean equivalent of a unicorn is the narwhal, who has a single, spiraled, very long tooth protruding from its forehead.

Killer whales eat narwhals for breakfast.


We are apex predators –nobody eats us. The peoples and the resident orcas where I live subsist on salmon. Transients will eat mammals. The beluga and the narwhal are  traditional sources of blubber, for man and blackfish alike.  Both salmon and blubber are great sources of Vitamin D, as well as other nutrients. One study found that the average 70-year-old Inuit with a traditional uqhuq –blubber– diet was likely to have arteries as elastic as a 20-year-old Dane.

Resident orcas are highly organized: matrilines are a family consisting of a mother and all her offspring; these whales separate only for hours at a time, to mate or hunt. Pods consist of closely related matrilines; pods travel together. Clans consist of related pods; communities comprise related clans.

To avoid inbreeding, males mate with females from other pods. In the wild, the dorsal of a male is always erect. Like that of many captive males, Tilikum’s dorsal drooped.

Tilikum's Flaccid Dorsal

When SeaWorld orca Tilikum killed his trainer Dawn, her blonde ponytail was blamed. It had been swinging and bouncing, catching the sunlight, and something about it aroused the whale.  He lunged from the pool, grabbing her ponytail in his mouth, and swam with her to the bottom of the pool. He kept her down there, molesting her, until she was quite dead. There was an inquest, there were written statements. An autopsy was performed. There was talk of attempted rape, that perhaps Tilikum had attacked Dawn due to raging hormones, and was enacting mating behavior. The killing was ruled a homicide.

After the incident, Tilikum was shut away. Isolated. With nobody to talk to.


Except when they’re resting, blackfish talk all the time. Their language consists of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls. Pods all speak the same dialect, whereas clans in a community will exhibit dialectical variations. We can’t even guess what they’re saying.

The females go through menopause, and lead their matrilines  for decades beyond their child-bearing. Granny, of J pod and J clan of the Salish Sea, is 104 years old.

Killer whales teach their young; knowledge is passed down through generations.


In the absence of an elder, witch, priest, or other designated teacher, I see a psychologist regularly. She is heavily influenced by Jungian thought. What we do together is dredge the depths of my shadow side. Where unhealed wounds reside. Where rage lives. Where the part of us unknown to ourselves is.

The work is a bringing to light of what was in the dark. The work is chiaroscuro. The work is wholeness. We work with memories, with dreams.

There can be resistance to therapy, I’m told, because we fear what we might find. We’re afraid of who we are when we’re naked, and seen.

I went to her when my hands and feet were going numb, when my tongue was swollen, when I couldn’t breathe, when I had stigmata on my palms.  My body was a semaphore, a metaphor. My subconscious, speaking in symbols, was desperately trying to get my attention.

I was dreaming of sea monsters. White, repulsive things. Moby Dick on a bad day.

Moby Dick

There are perils to to misreading symbols, to taking dreams literally.  Conversely: tragedy when metaphor makes itself real.

There is a condition called sirenomelia, also known as Mermaid Syndrome.  A romantic name for a deformity in which the legs are fused together. The feet turn out like little flukes, so that the child looks half-human, half-fish. Or half-whale.

A baby like this was born in Peru. Her parents lived at the side of a lake filled with legends.  They named the child Milagros. They prayed that her legs might someday be cut apart. That someday she’d be able to walk on land.


I had sex with a killer whale and gave birth to Barack Obama. But that was a dream.


When I was in college studying art, I loved to paint. I wanted to lick those shining, oily colors, the mineral swirl of them around on my palette, the magic of mixing them. Stroking them onto the slick gessoed canvas felt like love. Drawing, on the other hand, was hard for me. It required disciplined seeing. The marks determined form and space, the black on white created architecture, skeletons. If color was flesh, black-on-white was bone.

When all the colors of the light spectrum are mixed, you get white. When all the colors of the physical pigment spectrum are mixed, you get black.  Light contains all colors, black absorbs all colors. Like many opposites, in some ways they’re the same: containing, absorbing, holding. And, at once, denying.

When my son was tiny, I hung a mobile of black and white above his crib. Newborns can only see light and shadow, they are trying to discern edges. We start by knowing the world through colorless extremes.

It’s also how we end. White is a mourning color in much of the world, as is black.

Black made from charcoal is one of the oldest know pigments, and shows up in Paleolithic art. Other traditional blacks include bone char, made from burnt bone, and lampblack, made from soot. In the United States, performers used to rub burnt cork, and later greasepaint, on their skin to blacken their faces.

For a long time, white was either temporary (chalk) or a ground (lime white) on which other pigments would be applied. It wasn’t until the Greeks came along and invented lead white pigment that white became a permanent part of the picture. Women in ancient Rome would paint their faces white. With lead. These cosmetics reeked, and so the women masked the smell of their faces with perfume. This make-up and perfume, along with jewelry, were a woman’s cultus, her culture.

Version 2

Irregular patches of contrasted colours and tones … tend to catch the eye of the observer and to draw his attention away from the shape which bears them.

— Hugh Cott, Adaptive Coloration in Animals

A killer whale’s black and white patterning  is a kind of disruptive camouflage. If you focus on only the black or only the white, you can’t see the thing for what it is, in its entirety. You don’t know what’s coming at you.

Individual whales are recognizable to humans by their dorsal fins and saddle patches. By the particularities of coloration. Who knows how the killer whales recognize one another, but to those of us on the outside, with only the crudest of metrics at our disposal, skins have become identities.  Soul clothes, passed down through generations.

Disruptive Camouflage

A killer whale’s black as well as white is largely determined by melanin, the same pigment found in squid ink, which people have long used for writing.

Melanin writes on human skin as well as on the whales’. It writes a letter from the inside of a person to the outside world, it seems to say, This is who I am.

Be careful what you read. Ink is not the same as truth, the word is not the same as god. Everyone knows, all writers are liars.


Some of us were leached of melanin long ago when we migrated to what is now Europe. When we lost our melanin, we lost our protection. Pale skin is more prone to deadly skin cancer, and ages more quickly. It was a necessary concession: the lack of sun and adequate dietary sources of vitamin D would’ve killed us.  Our skin paled so that it could soak up the sun more efficiently. Fewer melanocytes results in lighter skin, the color of which is then affected by the bluish-white connective tissue under, and the red blood coursing through, the dermis.

Rarely, a genetic twist will color the skin indigo. As in a family—the Fugates—who lived at Troublesome Creek, and suffered from methemoglobinemia.

The bluest Fugates I ever saw was Luna and her kin. Luna was bluish all over. Her lips were as dark as a bruise. She was as blue a woman as I ever saw.

–Carrie Lee Kilburn, a nurse

Albino Killer Whale Iceberg

Iceberg is a pure white killer whale who has been spotted off the coasts of Alaska and Russia.  Scientists want to look into his eyes, to see if he’s albino.  There have been other white killers, though not albinos. Chediak-Higashi is a rare disease of the immune and nervous systems that drains the whale of color, and also of life. Most die when they’re very young.

Killer whales, in order to be whole, are black and white, not one or the other.


Queequeg and Ishmael in bed together, Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over pale Ishmael’s. They are in a cold room, keeping each other warm:

…there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.

—from Chapter 11, “Nightgown,” of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.


I have wondered if paper was made to be white because ink was black, and wanted a contrasting field. Did the mark determine the ground?


Killer whales are  important clan and totem animals amongst Indigenous Northwest Coast peoples. I’m a permanent, uninvited guest on Coast Salish land. I can’t imagine life without the salmonberries and seagulls, the kelpy beaches, the Nootka roses. Please know I love the killer whales.


The sea is often taken as a symbol for the subconscious mind, the unknown self, the deep soul. A whale navigates these depths with ease.

As a girl in Arizona, I spent hours in the swimming pool. Holding my breath underwater. Swimming swimming swimming. All the way down to the bottom.  Don’t touch the drain, I was told. Your fingers could get caught in the grate and you’ll die.

You can’t live your life in dreams. We walk on land. We breathe air.

Jan Topelski transcriptJan Topelski transcript

She was lying down … face to face performing a relationship session” with our whale. I then noticed immediately he bit down on a piece of her hair.

—Jan Topelski, SeaWorld official

Suddenly I saw (the whale) grabbing the trainer … and pulling her down in the water. It was scary. He was very wild, with the trainer still in the whale’s mouth, the whale’s tail was very wild in the water.

—Susanne De Wit, a 33-year-old tourist from the Netherlands

One of the guests at DWS (Dine with Shamu) asked if she was going to be OK cause she witnessed Dawn being pulled under by the hair.

—Phyllis Manning, waitress

The whale would not let us have her.

—Jodie Ann Tintle, whale trainer

Tilly was not giving up Dawn.

—Robin Ann Morland, another SeaWorld worker.

We don’t know what was going through the killer whale’s head.

—Chuck Tompkins, Brancheau’s former supervisor.


As SeaWorld’s chief stud, Tilikum has been masturbated by trainers like Dawn many times.  When given the signal, he knows how to swim to a shelf at the side of the pool, lie on his back, and flop his (sizable) penis onto the deck. Then the trainer gives him a handjob.


Moby Dick was a killer whale, but not a killer whale. He was an albino sperm.


Tilikum’s semen, caught in plastic bags poolside, has been used to make seventeen more Shamus, ten of whom are still alive and performing.

Like Tilikum’s children, my son is the product of artificial insemination. He was conceived in a petri dish, and then grew in me. I have a picture of him when he was eight cells old. He is my greatest joy.

Tilikum was some mother whale’s son, but he was taken from her, from the wild, off the coast of Iceland.

The bull whales had tried to lead the whale catchers astray by swimming down a fjord, while the mothers and aunties stayed with the children. But the hunters found the children anyway, and took Tilikum away. As Tilikum was hoisted up out of the water, the whole pod keened.


Dawn’s murder was caught on videotape. When studied, footage revealed that Tilikum had not actually dragged Dawn down to the depths by her pony tail. He’d grabbed her arm. He was angry, not aroused.

The film Blackfish persuasively argues that his aggression and psychosis were a result of abuse in his childhood. Not only was he stolen from his family, but once ensconced in his first human home, in Canada, he was bullied and beaten by his peers. He was kept in a tiny tank where he was lonely and had nothing to do. It was a miserable existence, with nothing natural about it. Along with two other, older whales, young Tilikum was involved in the death of their trainer, Keltie Byrne. After that, they were sold off to America.


My father’s family comes from the West Indies. We’ve been there for hundreds of years, in Barbados and Bermuda, though no longer. The men in my family spent their time on the sea.

Records indicate that my forebears were not whalers, but shippers who plied the route from the Caribbean to Canada, hauling rum north, salt cod south.  They did not, as far as I can tell, traffic in people.  I don’t know if they held captives, if they forced labor without wages, if they tore families apart, but at very least they were certainly part of the slave economy.

History is never safely in the past until it has been seen, understood, brought to light. Shadow side work.

The history of a self extends beyond her own borders. The outside and the inside of a self are connected. They resonate. To see one clearly, you must also see the other. You must be in two places at once.

We are both particle and wave.

We are whale and water.


We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.

―Herman Melvill, not the American writer, but the English preacher


The only resident killer whale known to have lived all on his own was named Luna. He’d been separated from his mother early on, under mysterious circumstances, and wound up in Nootka Sound, off the coast of Vancouver Island.  Orcas are social creatures. Did he know who he was without his kin? He was killed by a tugboat when he was just six.


Tilikum, after the incident with Dawn, was placed in solitary confinement. He became listless, and now, as I write, is dying.


My Jungian therapist says that, symbolically, a god and I were fucking when I had sex with the killer whale.


When fireworks went off all around me in 2008, I knew Obama had won and I burst out crying. I was happy for our country, but in some deep way, I also believed that there was a resonance between the son I dreamt and the son I carried. Because Obama had won, so would, despite predictions to the contrary, my child. To this day I credit that killer whale for my son’s robustness.


Killer whales drown if they fall completely asleep. They rest, one eye open, half a brain closed. We do not know if they dream.


In my dream, I had sex with killer whale and now I’m the mother of Barack Obama. That’s my story, one of them.


The resident whales where I live sing.  The salmon they eat can’t hear their songs, and so the whales sing freely.


Dawn Brancheau with whale



As a child, Dawn Brancheau fell in love with Shamu, and dreamt of working with killer whales when she grew up. She stayed with that dream, and became a lead trainer at SeaWorld.  She loved the whales. Her family has objected to the film Blackfish. “Since Dawn’s death nearly four years ago, the media has focused mainly on the whales. A human life was lost that day and it feels as though some believe her death was just a footnote.” The family statement about Blackfish is here: http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2014-01-21/business/os-dawn-brancheau-blackfish-statement-20140121_1_killer-whales-blackfish-orca-tilikum

The Dawn Brancheau Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need, inspiring others to follow their dreams, and promoting the importance of community service. http://www.dawnsfoundation.org

Blackfish: http://www.blackfishmovie.com

The Joy of (Killer Whale) Sex: my story as told at the Moth, http://julietrimingham.com/the-joy-of-killer-whale-sex/

Some research links:

—Julie Trimingham

Julie Trimingham is a writer and filmmaker. Her fictional travelogue chapbook, Way Elsewhere, was released in May 2016 by The Lettered Streets Press (https://squareup.com/store/lettered-streets-press/). She regularly tells stories at The Moth and writes essays for  Numéro Cinq magazine. Gina B. Nahai blurbed Julie’s first book, saying, “A novel of quiet passion and rare beauty, Mockingbird is a testament to the power of pure, uncluttered language—a confluence of feelings and physicality that will draw you back, line after graceful, memorable, line.” Julie is currently drafting her second novel, and is a producer with Longhouse Media (http://longhousemedia.org) on a documentary film about the Salish Sea.


Jul 062016

Lance Olsen


Excerpt from his novel-in-progress, My Red Heaven, a kind of love song for the Berlin of 1927, when everything seemed possible except the future that happened.

The Doberman’s name is Delia. Delia won’t see the end of this day. She doesn’t know that. What she knows is she’s on the longest, most glorious walk of her life. There is no time but this time, no place but this place. She can scarcely endure all the smells and sounds and touches and tastes inside her. She is with her masters and they have given her these radiant gifts and it is impossible to conceive of a way to thank them enough.

She doesn’t understand the woman’s name behind her is Elise Lemme. She doesn’t understand the man’s name is Otto Hampel. Otto and Elise woke Delia improbably early this morning, asking her if she wanted to go out. Delia always wants to go out. That is her only knowledge. The flat she lives in is too small, the air in it too used up, hope nowhere to be found except on the other side of the front door.

The whole of Delia’s day, the whole of Delia’s life, is an almost unendurable waiting for two questions: Do you want to go out, girl? Is that what you want?

She bounds out of her dream (in which she is bounding for birds on the grassy shores of the Schlachtensee) and, barking rapturously, bounds from her masters’ bed into her food bowl waiting for her beside the stove. She wolfs it down, feels the choker collar going on, the leash clicking into place. Somewhere behind her she senses the nub of her tail, over which she is continuously bewildered she possesses no will, furiously aspiring to wag.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

Delia has no room for any other idea in her head.

Elise is making several short loudnesses in the direction of Otto. Delia can’t understand what they mean. Delia doesn’t care. All she cares about is this flawless motion she is inhabiting. All she cares about is the prosperity of aromas and music through which she advances. How can one being celebrate them all? Morning soil. Clang gods. Urine echoes. Flower breaths. Honk frights. The indescribably compelling shits of other dogs — some shoe polishers no taller than Delia’s hocks, some small-bear huge and hairy, some agile, some nervous, some crippled, some cocky, some bereft, some almost as elated as Delia herself.

Delia savors an instant’s elementary pleasure knowing she could kill them all.

Elise says to Otto, smoke bulging from her mouth up into the acute morning nip: I feel like an idiot.

It’s not going to rain today, Otto replies.

He considers the enlivening sky through the branches, adds: It should rain on a day like today.

Maybe we should give it more thought, Elise says.

She is twenty-three, barely finished grammar school before dropping away from ruler smacks and painful benches to become a domestic servant, and now her hands look forty-five, puffy, reddish, big-knuckled. Otto is twenty-seven, large-eared, thin-lipped, meager-chinned. He fell into factory work after the war and cherishes Elise’s hands intensely because they tell him the same story every time he looks at them: I know what life feels like. I know how to pilot this place.

Maybe we haven’t done the math right, Elise says.

But she already knows there’s no math left to do. All the numbers are all the numbers. If there were more numbers to do, they would do them.

Otto opens his mouth to respond but Elise’s frown stills him in mid-optimism. Wordless, they finish the cigarette they’re sharing. Otto kneels, calls Delia over, clicks off her leash. The Doberman wavers, wavers, looking up at him for guidance. Otto pulls a fist-sized dirty white ball out of the pocket of his double-breasted coat and chucks it far down the path between the lindens.

Delia explodes after it, passing a funny-eyed old woman with long gray hair dragging her large leather purse behind her on the sand like a comatose poodle.

Otto lights another cigarette, sucks the smoke deep into the abundant branches of his lungs, passes it to Elise, trying to let the burn in his chest overrun him. Near the end of the path Delia scoops the ball up, brakes two meters farther on, spins, and, imagining the skull of a small animal between her jaws — a squirrel, a baby — bursts back toward them, an ecstatic black visual slur.

Sentence fragments orbit around Otto’s head. He decides not to speak any of them. Instead he kneels, calls Delia over, clicks her leash back on. Elise bends and fluffles the dog’s neck and face and ears.

And now Delia is here.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

And now, slobbery dirty white ball in her mouth, she is trotting somewhere else. She can’t wait to find out where. She pushes forward into sunlight, proud, whirring with joy, oblivious that at the end of this walk she will meet a long line of puzzled fellow dogs. Delia will wait alertly with them, fragrances and loudnesses boisterous around her, utterly confident her masters have the situation in hand, and at the end of that line a sour-smelling man in a white lab coat will unceremoniously yank her choker tight as if she had just misbehaved (although she will be sure she hasn’t) and usher her into an airtight metal box with three young baffled yipping dogs whom Delia has never met (at which point her tail stub will decide to stop wagging), slam down the door, and flip on the gas valve.

For just under a minute Delia will remember bounding at those birds in her dream, feeling as if she is just at the gray edge of waking up again, and then she will be over.


By the time the sour-smelling man in the white lab coat opens the door, Otto and Elise will be gone, already several blocks away on their way home to their cramped flat in gritty Wedding, wordless, just two other dog owners among thousands who couldn’t pay Berlin’s raised canine tax.

They will miss Delia desperately for months, alternating between unconditional numbness and so much anxiety they will feel everything in the world will implode in ten seconds. They will relive that last betrayal, that line of rattled dogs, that metal box, that look in Delia’s eyes as the vet bent toward her over and over again in the middle of the night, sometimes together, sometimes alone, and then — wondrously — less and less, because, they will learn, that’s how damage intuitively diminishes itself in the human body.

Eight years, and they will wake up married.

Five more, and Elise will open her front door to be handed a curt telegram informing her that her brother has been killed in action somewhere in France fighting for something she can no longer fathom.

In the thirty seconds it will take her to read and reread that telegram, everything will convert into something else.

Perhaps as a way to honor her brother, her dog, honor all the feelings Elise and Otto almost forgot they were once capable of experiencing, the couple will begin writing hundreds of postcards in clumsy script and bad grammar that urge their recipients to refrain from donating money to their government, refuse military service, resist the thing their country has become.

Elise and Otto will leave those postcards in apartment stairwells and on park benches, in mailboxes and beneath neighbors’ doors.

Almost every one of them will be picked up by strangers and immediately handed over to the Gestapo. The sheer number will lead the Gestapo to conclude they are dealing with a large, well-orchestrated, wide-ranging conspiracy.

It will take nearly eighteen months for them to realize they were wrong.

Seventeen years after he throws Delia’s dirty white ball down that path for the last time, a weighted and angled guillotine blade in a backyard work shed at Plötzensee Prison will drop through Otto’s neck.

The blade will be reset and three minutes later drop through Elise’s.

Both Hampels will be strapped onto their backs so they can see their futures flying toward them.

What will be unusual about their executions is that nothing will be unusual about their executions. Otto’s and Elise’s punishments will constitute two among the nearly three thousand carried out in that work shed. Like all relatives of the beheaded and hanged in Plötzensee, theirs will be obliged to pay a fee of 1.50 reichsmarks for every day their family members spent in their cells, three hundred for the execution itself, and twelve pfennigs to cover postage for the invoice of expenses.

Like all bodies of the executed at Plötzensee, the Otto’s and Elise’s will be released to Herr Professor Doctor Hermann Stieve, physician at the University of Berlin, who with his students will dissect them for research purposes. The results over the years will generate two hundred and thirty important academic papers, including one providing irrefutable evidence that the rhythm method is not effective in preventing pregnancy.


Now, though, none of that is happening.

It is just Otto and Elise strolling along a sandy path between two rows of trees on a bluing day. Just Delia trotting proudly in front of them, leading the way toward that envelope containing the invoice of expenses.

A black shadow scrambles across their feet and flickers out.

Elise thinks cloud.

She reflexively raises her head to spot in the apartment house across the street two white faces hovering in two otherwise black windows, one directly above the other, peering down at her without expression.

—Lance Olsen


Lance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing. His next is the novel Dreamlives of Debris, forthcoming from Dzanc in the spring of 2017. A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.



Jul 052016

IMG_7893_2Rikki Ducornet scroll detail.

IMG_7601Rikki Ducornet scroll detail.

McDonald inspired by Ducornet 2 (1)Margie McDonald sculpture inspired by Ducornet’s scrolls.


DucornetRikki Ducornet & Margie McDonald

The magical Margie McDonald and I have only just begun working on an installation that as yet has no name — but that I think of as CRAZY HAPPY because that’s the way I feel around Margie. She works with copper wire and other sumptuous and often eccentric refuse from the Port Townsend boatyard, creating whimsical, erotic and even hilarious sculptures that this time around are intended to inform an entire forest of my paper scrolls (the ones you see here are 25′ long) with their shadows as well as their forms. In other words, CRAZY HAPPY owes something to choreography and something to an ongoing and animated conversation between her work and mine.

The show opens at Port Townsend’s spacious Northwind Arts Center in July of 2017 and, in March of 2018, travels to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to occupy Carmen Gutierrez’s surrealist gallery Casa Diana, its marvelous spaces designed by the artist Pedro Friedeberg. The scrolls glimpsed here were painted during a month’s residency at The Vermont Studio Center this past March. Other images include Margie’s early responses to my scrolls, her piles of great stuff, my own photos of junk and such things that spark the process.

—Rikki Ducornet

The Scrolls


The Inspirations (from Margie McDonald’s studio material)

Margie McDonald Work Inspired by the Scrolls

Margie McDonald Sculptures


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

Deeply informed by the traditional crafts from her native Newfoundland, Margie McDonald received a BFA in Textile Arts from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Margie was an art teacher in Newfoundland for 6 years before setting off on adventures including living on rickety old sailboat in the Caribbean, sailing across the Atlantic and commercial fishing and running a grizzly viewing camp in Alaska. While apprenticing to a yacht rigger in Port Townsend beginning in 1998, she learned to splice steel wire and added newly mastered techniques to her textile education to begin creating her inimitable sculpture. She prefers to work with recycled materials often found at scrap yards where interesting metal objects and various wire will inspire her organic sculptures that evolve through construction rather than a preconceived plan. She has been the Artist in Residence for the Port Townsend High School since 2008 and is the Artistic Director for the Port Townsend Wearable Art Show. Margie’s many solo and juried shows include the Britannia Copper Museum in British Columbia, (2012) and the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (2013). Twice a finalist in the coveted New Zealand Museum of Wearable Art’s yearly international show (2013, 2014), her piece ‘Wired” was retained for museum display and on view throughout the following year. Her work can be found at Simon Mace Gallery in Port Townsend and at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.


Jul 042016

photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2016Eric More, photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2016

The thing that’s always interested me in music as an art form, and what it delivers reliably that I don’t get from other art forms is: when you hear something and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or a shiver runs down your spine or you forget to breathe for a while, and you feel chills…that’s what I’m talking about. That experience, that’s what I mean by Sublime. — Eric Moe


Eric Moe (1954) is a contemporary American composer and pianist whose work rests quite comfortably upon the traditional classical concert stage. It’s also work which is filled with a lively post-modern intelligence that dazzles and surprises. His musical compositions teem with lyric moments, never far from laughter, or bright-eyed despair. Consider, for example, On the Tip of My Tongue, his sonata for bass clarinet and synthesizer, which invites the listener both to feel the pulsing rhythm of the performer’s tongue against the reed of the instrument, as well as the stammer implied by the title idiom; or listen to some of his percussion works, such as Danger: Giant Frogs, or Gong Tormented with their evocative titles (the first from a sign Moe spotted, and remembered; the second a fragment from Yeats’ Byzantium) and their thrillingly intimate clamor. He’s alert to the textures and timbres he skillfully skeins through the framework he’s created, as well as the implied context of the listeners’ own association with the instrument; see, for instance, I Have Only One Itching Desire, which draws from drummer Mitch Mitchell’s work with Jimi Hendrix. Like a practiced storyteller, Moe can launch a series of subtle echoing patterns before surprising the listener with abruptly garish amusements, or follow a line of jazz-inspired riffs to a sudden, wrenchingly vulnerable, conclusion.

Eric Moe’s OBEY YOUR THIRST, excerpt — Mari Kimura, violin

From Harmonic Constellations: Works for Violin and Electronics

Moe is a skilled pianist and performer as well as a composer. His music conveys a physical awareness that the piano is both a string and a percussion instrument. He’s also an avid hiker, at home in the outdoors; like many of his Romantic predecessors, much of his inspiration comes from the natural world. Edmund Burke famously distinguished between the Sublime and the Beautiful. Of these two, Beauty has garnered the most praise, but it’s the Sublime that sustains Moe’s interest. Of course, as has been famously observed, it’s but a short step from the Sublime to the Ridiculous, a hazard which, Moe might suggest, could enhance the experience. There’s often a playful sense of danger about his work, nothing of the sartorial remove that’s so often the case with postmodern work.

It’s not surprising that Moe should be linked with another postmodernist, the masterful David Foster Wallace, whose short story, “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” Moe used as a libretto in his sit-trag one-woman opera TRI-STAN. Like Wallace, Moe seeks for new ways in, to write music that will both express and convey the depth of emotional experience in a way that’s genuinely meaningful to audiences today. Like Wallace, Moe’s music is always reminding us, “Alas, we no longer get to say ‘Alas’ with a straight face…”

I met Eric and his wife, the artist Barbara Weissberger, in residence at the Ragdale Foundation, where this interview was conducted as we strode across a muddy prairie at dusk.

Carolyn Ogburn: When we talked about doing this interview together, you suggested the Sublime. That might seem like an oddly dated word to use for your music, which I find anything but dated: it’s intense, fresh, consistently surprising, smart and frequently funny as hell. Can you tell me more about what you mean by Sublime?

Eric Moe: The thing that’s always interested me in music as an art form, and what it delivers reliably that I don’t get from other art forms is: when you hear something and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or a shiver runs down your spine or you forget to breathe for a while, and you feel chills…that’s what I’m talking about. That experience, that’s what I mean by Sublime.

As a performer you want to induce that, to bring an audience to that, and as a composer trying to make that happen – well, it’s quite a nifty trick, when you can pull it off. And so, I was interested in that.

CO: Well, how do you do that? That nifty trick…?

EM: I think the reason why music is so much better at inducing the Sublime is that it’s so much better (than other art forms) at organizing time, in a very controlled flow. I mean, sure, when you’re reading a novel, things happen in a sequence, but the exact timing of the words: that’s determined by the reader, whether it’s being read aloud or silently…. In the visual arts you’re scanning a 2-D work or a sculpture, it’s very dispersed, you can’t really control how events unfold. And you really can do that with music.

And as a result I think you can tap into that experience of the Sublime more readily because it has a lot to do with surprise –

CO: Ah! See, I did not expect you to say that! (laughter) And that can provoke laughter out of – well, is it humor? is it surprise? I really found myself laughing out loud when I was listening to your music earlier today. But why was I laughing? Why do we laugh at musical devices: Is it because I know that there IS a joke? To signal that “I’m in on this” – or is a laughter that’s a burst of surprise? But it is funny!

EM: Well, I think humor is also dependent on surprise. When you said, “The ridiculous and the sublime” – I mean, those are pretty closely related actually. Because, you know, for a joke, you expect one thing to be the outcome and the punchline reveals that there’s a twist –

CO: –something outsized, something out of proportion. How do you do that?

EM: Oh, we have our ways…(laughs) I like to set up rhythmic landscapes, where you expect things to roll along a certain way. And then I like to pull the rug out from underneath. That moment of “Ooooh…!”

CO: But, when you talk about surprise – as a composer, that has got to be planned, but as an experiential…you can’t set out to encounter the sublime. You can prepare yourself, but – it’s not a contrivance. That’s part of it, right – it’s out of your control?

Well, yes, there are a couple of definitions – well, historically, there are various definitions, but two of them imply the surprise element.

Longinus, or Pseudo-Longinus, was the first to write about it. His treatise, in the first century CE, something like that, his writing was lost and rediscovered by Boileau in the 17th century. He talks about the sublime as being like a thunderbolt. And his examples tend to be jarring metaphors that verge on the ridiculous. And in fact, if you just push them a little more, they DO become ridiculous.

CO: The Sublime as extreme? That was a big Romantic obsession, for sure. Ideas, being pushed kind of…over the edge…So, when you are talking about humor and surprise, is that a covert way of disclosing the mouse marimba behind the scenes?

EM: (laughing) No, no…I didn’t think expectation, or suspense…I mean I always knew that you toy with feelings of expectation, and you either satisfy or you frustrate, and you can produce a lot of tension or power that way. I didn’t know why that was so, why that could produce Sublime effects, until I started reading the works of this musicologist/cognitive psychologist named David Huron who dissected the whole apparatus of expectation and anticipation. He makes a very compelling argument that any organism, evolutionarily, has a huge advantage of survival if it can predict the future, and how well it predicts the future. So we’re evolved to anticipate outcomes. And then, when something’s coming up, we feel a rise in the tension. As we reach that moment, the moment when something happens, we have an instinctive response as we know whether our prediction was accurate or not. And after all that is done, much more slowly, we have a conscious appraisal of what just happened.

For example, a snake crossing the path, like it did when I was hiking in Yellowstone with Barbara one year, and I – well, I just jumped. I didn’t think about it; no thinking involved there. But then I looked at the snake: it didn’t have rattles, it wasn’t poisonous, and then I wanted to look at it. So – it’s unexpected. I had an immediate response: I’d failed to anticipate (the snake) so I had a negative feeling about that. I had a bolt of adrenaline, and so I jumped. Then, after I jumped and I could see that the snake wasn’t a poisonous variety, this initial response was followed by “Oooh, that’s pretty cool. What kind of snake was that?”

CO: And was that interest sort of proportional to your level of surprise, do you think?

EM: Yes, yes, I probably enjoyed the snake more having gone through that business ahead of time. it’s kind of a complex stew of …whatever kind of neurotransmitters are flooding your system. That’s how surprise parties are supposed to work, right? They’ve actually videotaped people – the victims! – at surprise parties, and at the moment of the surprise there’s this look of terror (unless, of course, they knew it all along and they have anticipated it) and then after that, it’s supposed to be very pleasurable. For people with a strong startle reflex like me, it would – I would never get over being pissed off – but most people, I think, get over that surprise and then enjoy the party much more. So I think you can exploit something like this in art music because it has complexity built into it…

For most people, utter predictability is also very pleasurable. Tension is built up but we really know exactly what’s going to happen, and we get it, and it’s fine, no surprises, that’s good, and we can feel good about that.

CO: You do a good job of establishing a language that’s accessible from the start; it sets up expectations for the listener from the start, which is good, right, because if you don’t then…there’s less context for surprise.

EM: There’s a couple of kinds of expectations. There’s what they call schematic expectations, which is based on all the pieces of music you know about or have heard and you have a set of expectations based on that. And then you have expectations built on the specific piece you’re listening to, which are called veridical expectations. I think both of those work in a piece of art music.

But it’s more powerful when you can engage the schematic expectation. So if you’re evoking a Latin beat or a rock and roll riff, then you’ve got a certain set of expectations tied in with that.

For instance, in TRI-STAN, my big one-woman opera, a setting of a story by David Foster Wallace, there’s a cool moment where a skewed but very recognizable quotation of Isolde’s Liebestod is nearing its grand climax. I pile on a quotation of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme (this is all implicit in DFW’s text, by the way). And then, just as you’ve absorbed that’s going on, I throw on top a progression from the intro to the last movement of Mahler’s 6th. Big, big tension. And what happens next? The drum set rips into a boogaloo beat, and the piece goes careening toward the gruesome/funny climax of the sit-trag. So I’m messing with schematic expectations, but at the same time, this spot of time is foreshadowed by smaller things earlier in the piece. So veridical expectation is involved as well, and is in happy conflict with the schematic.

Eric Moe Photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2015

Eric Moe
Photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2015

CO: You use such intensity of rhythm in your music. But at the same time, there’s an emotional content that’s kind of overwhelming at times. That one piece, Gong Tormented. The loneliness. I mean, I could have easily been projecting – but you don’t know, without words –

EM: I think we access (emotions) most directly without words. In that case I wasn’t setting out to write about loneliness, but it’s a serious piece…there are the sounds of the instruments themselves; the rhythm doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is always lots of pitch information in the various instruments. I notated that (pitch information) with some degree of precision.

CO: When you feel that shiver down your spine – who are some of the people who make you feel that way?

EM: Oh, well, Beethoven. He didn’t invent it, but he was certainly pursuing it. All of the great composers have their moments. Mahler, or Wagner, for instance, do it with pure volume of sound; with huge volume one minute and a solo instrument the next. Bud Powell does it through sheer velocity and rhythmic exuberance. Judith Weir, with grim pitiless humor and flawless timing. David Del Tredici, by casting longing glances back at 19th century evocations of the Sublime. Igor Stravinsky, not afraid to have the goofy, surreal, and exalted in the same piece (see Oedipus Rex). And so on.

CO: Like a shift in the landscape?

EM: Yes. And I would say, you know, nature plays a large role in my thoughts of the Sublime. I’ve got a lot of titles that are inspired by the natural world. I spend a lot of time outside…it’s a source of Sublime moments. I like to think about the difference – what’s the correspondence between looking down a 3000-foot vertical drop and one of those great moments in music that I like. The physical response is actually quite similar. “Holy shit!” (laughs)

There’s an anticipation as you’re getting to the top of a mountain. You have a sense of what it’s going to be. But it’s always really surprising. It’s never exactly as you imagined. And it’s always more than your brain can cope with. A panoramic vista, or when you can’t process the depth of field that you’re looking down through.

CO: Because of scale?

EM: Yeah. In mountains, yes. In music, sometimes it’s scale – like in Mahler, or Wagner. You’ve got a 5-hour piece, and suddenly you find the moment that the whole piece has been leading up to, and it’s literally a huge moment. It’s all been orchestrated. Literally and figuratively…

CO: Mahler was a big hiker wasn’t he?

EM: Yes, he spent the summer in the mountains. But what we’re really talking about, getting into the Burkean Sublime, where he (Edmund Burke) was talking about associating it with this feeling of terror at the immensity…

Wait, let me get this. I always travel with this.

“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror.”

I just love that quote. And people these days are very critical of that, that idea of the sublime, they prefer Kant’s which is just the inability of the imagination to wrap itself around anything, and that’s certainly part of it. But the experience in music and a mountain landscape that I get is certainly more akin to that (quote).

CO: All the predictabilities are suspended – inertia. having been in motion suddenly not. Astonishment, and with some degree of horror…I think both the word horror, and the word astonishment – they meant something at that time, don’t you think? Different than they do now…

EM: Looking it up, I find that the Latin meaning of horror is “a bristling, a shaking, trembling as with cold or fear, terror,” which corresponds nicely with the kind of frisson that the Sublime evokes in many people. The psychologist/musicologist Huron that I was talking about goes further and actually connects surprise and astonishment with the flight or fight response, saying that with the interesting claim that laughter as a reaction to the unexpected is based on the flight response, that laughter is based on panting. Supercharging your oxygen capacity so that you can outrun your competitor, and that laughter is the aestheticized version of that. And that the sense of the sublime and chills is like a cat fluffing itself up, making itself larger, as a means of defending itself against an unexpected source of danger.

CO: What do you think?

And to me, neither of those definitions goes anywhere near explaining why we have the degree of auditory acuity that we have, the fine pitch differentiation. We have ridiculously more than we would need for language, much more than we would ever need for survival skills.

CO: Really? I’m surprised at that.

EM: Like for survival skills, it would be useful to hear much higher pitches, and lower pitches, than we actually can. but within the narrow range that we can hear. we can make out very fine difference in pitch. You can split a half-step into at least 12 parts and still make out the difference in pitch.

Rousseau thought we were singing before language was developed. And you hear children talking that way. They’ll sing the language.

CO: Your undergraduate degree was in music composition, as well as your graduate work. You must have known for a long time that you wanted to be a composer. What drew you to composition?

EM: I didn’t start writing music until I was in college. Before then, I sort of sight-read my way through Western music literature – not just piano music; I was also reading scores, hacking through best I could; songs, opera to some extent – and I started with Bach. Bach was my first love. Then I moved up, pretty much in chronological order: Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schoenberg…and then at some point I was running out, and I was hungry for more. And I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what there was, so, at that point, I figured it was time to write it myself.

CO: It sounds like you’re talking about playing your way through – like a voracious reader – but as a pianist, that’s not what one did. One would get the next piece one wanted to play and you would perfect it….

EM: That’s why I didn’t go to a conservatory… (laughs)

CO: But reading your way through, that must be how you got a sense of the composer’s language, of the composer himself as a person, rather than just the magnificence of any given piece…

EM: I like context. I do that when I’m reading writers too. If I find something that I’m reading that I like, I’ll read everything that person has published everything I can get my hands on…

It’s important to have context. I hate anthologies for that reason. The best whatever of 1997…it’s like, who cares? It’s hard for me to get excited about reading (things like that…) Unless you know the writers that are being excerpted, it’s far less interesting for me than getting the whole picture of the creator’s work, so as to have more to relate it to.

CO: Like establishing expectations in order to cultivate room for surprise?

EM: Yeah, that’s true. There’s sort of the grand schematic thing of the culture at large, then the ones specific to that story, and this sort of fills the gap between those.

CO: You’re clearly an avid reader. But it was music that you were called to tinker around with.

EM: That’s because writing is really hard. I don’t know how anybody does that. It’s just …tortuous…Words. Words! You write them and then everyone knows what they mean. They’re so hard. And also, then they mean something. Then you’re just…(laughs) You can’t just create a grand emotional effect and leave it to the listener to puzzle over the “why”. It’s interesting to read late Romantic writers on music and see how much range of semantic meaning they’ll ascribe to the same piece. I’ve had wildly divergent responses to pieces of mine – I remember one piece that was “so violent and tragic” to one listener and equally “energetic and joyful” to another.

CO: I want to get back to land. I just talked to two composers, both of them immersed in thoughts about climate collapse. Do you find yourself responding to that in your work?

EM: Well, yeah. I’m actually working on a piece with the tentative title of Buffalo Jump. Based on what the Blackfoot and other Plains tribes would do before the Spanish introduced horses to the New World: they would drive a herd of buffalo off a cliff, counting on the terrified herd to blindly follow the spooked lead animals; and it seems that as a species we’re – out of fear and being herded out of our interests and short-sightedness…

CO: When we talk about surprise in your pieces, so far there’s been a sense of thrill about it. But when we’re talking about buffalo riding off a cliff…

EM: Well, there’s one thing I should mention about the Sublime. The terror? It involves surviving. (laughs) It’s that appraisal stage, which is: I’m okay, this is a piece of music. 

CO: Then what do you do when you’re facing this – giant thing coming? For example, we were talking earlier about your hikes in Glacier National Park, and the glaciers there, and everywhere, well, they’re disappearing. They’re melting, because of climate collapse.

EM: I go there every summer. Every summer, the glaciers are a little smaller. And it’s very sad. I mean, it’s really sad. And a lot of my music is very sad. or has a deep sadness. Even the funny pieces, a melancholy, an elegiac moment…

CO: The history of sublime – well, there’s the horror. And there are plenty of things we can look at today that involve that sense of horror…

EM: Yeah, yeah…(laughing) well, so far, it’s been…well, the opera I just finished, The Artwork of the Future, is a comic opera about extinction. The human race has become extinct and our two heroes find that they’ve traveled 300 years into the future, and they want to see if their art has survived and yes, it has, but there are no people left. There are just robots. So then, is this a good thing or a bad thing? They eventually decide that it’s a bad thing. They want to know how this has happened, so they ask the robots, how it happened. and the robots were like…(shrugs) “They were busy looking at their phones…”

CO: “Adult coloring books came out, so…” (laughing) Here’s another question that’s been on my mind recently. Do you find yourself in conversation with other composers who are also thinking about the condition of culture…

EM: You know, I Have Only One Itching Desire – that’s based on Hendrix’s drummer, from the Experience. There are a bunch of licks from his – I mean, not all of it, but there are some moments where I’m evoking him, in particular. Mitch Mitchell. He’s a great drummer.

So all of that’s fair game. And then for those people who know what you’re referencing, it’s great to have that to bounce off of in terms of creating expectations, then you have a lot more material to play around with in terms of comic effect.

CO: I was struck by the piece you wrote for violinist Mari Kimura who developed a method of playing subharmonics. How did you incorporate that particular trick into the writing? Was it different than other commissioned works?

EM: She commissioned a piece that would make use of that. I was happy to do it. I finally figured out what was going on acoustically with the subharmonics, but before I did I had the idea of carefully setting up the listener’s first encounter with the sound – the first time you’ve heard anything that low-pitched or growly in the piece – or from a violin, ever. It’s an octave below the lowest note of the instrument and it comes a good ways into the piece. It’s like the jaws of Hell opening up when it’s combined with a pitch-shifted springdrum roar.

CO: It’s a really intense piece, one which pairs the violist with a recorded sound, and the two constantly interact…

EM: The idea of the piece was the Sprite (soft drink) slogan, Obey your thirst, which this ecopoeticist (Timothy Morton) whose work I was looking at pointed out that this was making a bottle of pop into a bottle of thirst. So the idea was that the violinist would be running after the tape part –

CO: Oh, like the ad! So if you’re literally ‘obeying your thirst’ and your thirst is a bottle of pop, and a pop is a bottle of thirst…it’s very koan-esque.

EM: Yes, well and then there is another Sublime moment been a very furious piece, it keeps getting more and more intense, and then everything turns into this very very sad closing section…Which took me by surprise, when I was writing it. I like that too. Because it’s a lot more fun, to not know what’s going to happen in a piece even as its creator.

CO: That’s why we do it, right? At some point in the process, you start to think about the way another person might experience it, their possible response. You put little messages, right? Little jokes to the reader, the listener, the performer – and that level of communication adds another level of tension, or intellectual engagement. Or would you call it an emotional engagement?

EM: Well, yeah – I mean, Stravinsky famously said, “I write for myself not for the hypothetical other.” When I read that, that seemed to resonate.

I have to imagine that others will have a response similar to my own – if it thrills me, there’s at least a fighting chance that another person will be thrilled as well. Commercial hackwork, on the other hand…

CO: Right. Relies on predictability, easy to hear, easy to understand. Keeping within a pretty defined set of parameters, based on whatever’s popular at the moment. But to be really unpredictable, as well as popular…

EM: Your unpredictable moments would have to be totally predictable. I mean, if you look at a horror movies, for example, which have a lot of what you might think of as Sublime effects, they mitigate the actual feeling of terror because you know exactly what’s going to happen. I mean, like in Psycho, Janet Leigh takes a shower, someone’s going to stab her.

CO: I don’t watch a lot of horror films but when I do, I’m always struck by the amount of jokes in them. Like there is a need, somehow, to affirm the viewer that they are “in” on the joke, somehow.

EM: I don’t watch them. The terror gets to me. But you’re right.

CO: There’s something uniquely human about that sense of the Sublime, is what it feels like you’re saying. Something that places you very squarely within the place of human. In your place in the world, and that place is small. And it gives you an interpretation of the rest of the world from your size, which is astonishing and mixed with fear.

EM: You’re small but you have eyes and you have ears and they are open. So you know that there’s more out there, and you’re trying to cram it all in to your small brain…

CO: Being both more and less confined to the space you think of yourself as taking up…that’s the laughter, isn’t it?

EM: Yes. The Sublime is more life-affirming. Ultimately, Citizen’s United gets overturned, that balance of power can be restored, then things will improve. But that’s going to take a lot of collective effort.

But creating instances of the Sublime: that is something we can do as individuals.

Eric Moe and Carolyn Ogburn


Carolyn Ogburn

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

Jul 022016

anita-desai-1Anita Desai


In his introduction to Moral Agents: Eight American Writers of the 20th century, Edward Mendelson mentions a singularity of the American novel, one that is reflective of its culture: the emphasis on the individual self’s determination and ability to overcome odds. This could mean destiny in certain instances or even convention. There is nothing that can hold the individual back – and the example Mendelson’s offers is that of Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn. This theme, however, appears in some of Henry James’ novels: the early ones such as The American, Roderick Hudson and even in Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel Archer tries hard not to settle into the conventional role as society demands of her.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is about a man who gives himself a new identity and tries hard to chalk out his own destiny.

‘American culture,’ writes Mendelson, ‘has always been troubled by the question of what it means to be an individual person.’ He goes on, ‘In the American novel, on the whole, the goal of the plot is the liberation of the hero… from other people’s values and demands, an escape from all relations of the kind in which individual persons find some accommodation with each other.’  Consider in this light also some works of Ernest Hemingway, where the hero tries hard to find love, but a bigger, larger motive – of fighting battles, of doing a heroic act – always calls him away.

Choice is what drives the individual and it is the individual’s agency that pushes her destiny and even fiction forward. This is unlike, Mendelson suggests, ‘the fictions of Europe where an individual’s life is shaped from outside by large interpersonal forces of culture, history, gender, ethnicity, class, archetype or myth’. In such fiction too, other pulls – of society for example, are far stronger, and the individual is subsumed to it. Interestingly, this difference between American and European cultures appears in Henry James’ works, such as The American, where the brash, assertive American’s ways are contrasted with the more circumspect, more socially conscious French aristocracy.

Such wider forces appear in Asian fiction as well, of which Asian writing in English is a subset. Characters are in thrall to other pressures – long existing, overarching and demanding, and also divinely/religiously sanctioned. In Asia, religion has from time immemorial, formed an integral part of the polity; the strictures of religion and its rules decide an individual’s life. Rulers or the government have the dharma (or ordained duty), then, to uphold what has been thus ‘divinely’ ordained. One’s birth then decided one’s destiny and this or the fates, defined her duties, the role she had to play in different life stages, and choice or agency could do little to circumvent or surpass this. The two famous Hindu ancient Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are about individuals who are advised to do their duty; indeed, one’s dharma (way of living rightly) lies just in fulfilling one’s duties sanctioned by tradition and caste.

In ancient societies, where religions like Hinduism and Buddhism have long had a presence, it is received wisdom that individuals are born to certain roles, to certain stations and that it is their destiny or dharma to live according to that. A king serves his subjects, officials function as per the roles they occupy and as defined by caste. On a more unit level, a man has responsibility for his family, a woman serves her family, children are to respect their parents and to grow up within the family and serve it. The individual, in tradition and even in fiction, is defined by the family, whose very reason for existence, and function is decided by culture and religion. There is then little free will; things are pre-destined.

A look at the trajectory of literature in South Asia reveals that the popular works, that travelled primarily by word of mouth before being written down much later, such as the epics or tales from the Panchatantra (tales that sought to impart training to princes), involved individuals performing best as they could their given roles and duties. The novel, it has been suggested, is a western import. Some Indian first novels in the mid-19th century, such as the novels of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay who wrote India’s first novel in English, and those written soon after in regional languages, reflect the country’s need to question colonial rule, the need to rebel against an unjust foreign power. The individual’s role, in a time of change as seen from the 19th century, appeared in greater measure as the novel emerged. But these still recognized the role of tradition, especially in the domestic realm.

Anita desai


The Novels of Anita Desai

The novels of Anita Desai (born 1937) look at present-day and persistent manifestations of the conflict as manifested with the individual arraigned against bigger forces and also the individual’s attempts to subvert destiny. Such subversion, especially in her early novels that feature women, never quite come easy.

In the few interviews she has given, Desai has offered glimpses of her own life: one that did not fall into conventional accepted patterns. It made her in many ways the outsider, and yet gave her an inside view on how the domestic world functioned in India, the relationships and subtle modes of exploitation that existed in traditional families, where the woman was expected to sacrifice her own interests for the greater good – and how bigger events have an impact on small lives.

Her father, Dhiren Mazumdar, a Bengali from Dhaka (then in undivided British India and now the capital of Bangladesh), travelled to Germany as a student of engineering; his father and brother were involved in the Indian freedom struggle against the British that raged then. In pre-war Berlin of the 1930s, Mazumdar met Antoinette Nime, whom he married—something quite different from the usual ‘arranged marriages’ of the time. Desai’s mother, who claimed to have mixed French and German ancestry, never returned to Germany. (Desai’s recollections of Germany, that appear in her Baumgartner’s Bombay (1989), are based largely on her mother’s reminiscences about a home she could never return to, once the Nazis rose to power.)

It was in Mussoorie, a hill town near the Himalayan foothills that Desai was born on June 24th, 1937, one of four siblings. The family later moved to Delhi; again a city where the extended family was absent and thus unable to interfere (an aspect that appears in several of Desai’s novels). Desai lived most of her early life in Old Delhi, the more ancient part of the city; its houses and streets appear in many of her works.

Desai spoke German at home and also knew Hindi, English—her literary language, and the one she read books in first—and then also Bengali and Urdu. She read English at Delhi University and married fairly young at 21, to a businessman with roots in Bombay, Ashvin Desai. Bringing up four children and moving first to Bombay and then Calcutta, Desai wrote her first novel when she was 27. Cry, the Peacock (1963) reveals the confusion and unnamed fears of a young married woman, living in assured privilege, but which precisely becomes the cause for her anguish.

In these early works, the resistance, to familial pressures, on the part of her protagonists is passive and sullen and leads to a helpless, hysterical despair – as indeed in Cry, The Peacock. The object of one’s resistance is somewhat mysterious – for individuals do not (know how to) question tradition or societal sanctions. Her protagonists in subsequent novels have been largely women, though two novels in particular, deal with men whose lives have been disrupted by historical forces. Desai describes the constraints and limitations such tradition imposes, especially on women’s lives. Women have to marry, and have to serve their families. Sons have to study hard to keep the family’s honor and secure a good job to improve the family economically.

Desai, a writer who is part of the first generation of post-independent Indian writers (the 50s and 60s onward) in English, set her stories in this period as well, a time when the country made its first attempts to shake off its colonial past. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, talked of a modern nation that would find its place among the world’s bigger powers in a ‘non-aligned’ way – this in a time as the Cold War settled in between the world’s two superpowers, the US and the then Soviet Union.

Indian writers then who wrote in English had, it was understood by the Indian people, a different audience. They were seeking in some sense to explain India to the world, and also present the west’s encounter with tradition, something seen in Desai’s novels. Writing in English – and some writers who were first bilingual moved to English as a deliberate measure – is in contrast with writers in India’s regional languages, who wrote books on important themes such as Partition, of the condition of women, the position of castes considered ‘lower’ in the hierarchy for instance. But their exposure, via translation, has been a more recent occurrence.

It was around the late 1980s that she moved to the west, dividing her time between Delhi and the west. She was first a fellow at Girton College in the UK and then moved on as a faculty to Smith College, Mount Holyoke and then the MIT where she has been teaching since 1993. Her novels of this period, the middle phase of her career, have characters that try and question tradition, or resist convention and societal constraint, not in overtly rebellious ways, but by seeking an undefined spirituality as happens in Journey to Ithaca (1995), through contrarian behavior, that leads to self-destruction as in Fasting, Feasting (1999), and also in the three novellas that constitute The Artist of Disappearance (2012) where resistance appears in forms of ‘renunciation’ or abdication in the manner of the sadhus of old.

Her work, shows this constant questioning on her part, the attempt to understand, with empathy, how ordinary lives might resist, though, as in some of her other novels during this time, the forces now arraigned against them were wider in scope– such as the pulls of history in In Custody (1984) and Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988). Concomitant with her many movements, her stories too move, from India—where most of her novels till the late 1980s are set, to places like Europe, Mexico and the US.


Two Conflicting Roles

The figures of householder and ascetic, symbolizing the contrast between individuality and tradition, have been the staples of the ancient Hindu textual tradition. Its epics, mentioned earlier, and law texts such as the Dharmashastras, define duties and laws according to the caste one has been born in. The obligations placed on the individual at every life stage appear to suggest that life is always directed by tradition, responsibilities thrust by society and community.

An individual passes through four stages of life from being a student to setting up house, which is succeeded by retirement and then renunciation: when the individual leaves behind all worldly and household obligations and leaves for the forest. This departure is not just symbolic, for the casting off of ties implies that the character is not bound by her family and household any more. It then becomes a societal obligation to care for the person, for it is understood that they are seeking a higher spirituality, looking for an immersion into God, away from the cycle of birth and death.

The ascetic, then, is one who has renounced it all, someone who has shunned all ties and obligations, for only through such renunciation, as the ancient scriptures have it, can the individual attain salvation (moksha).  The ascetic is seeking meaning in a higher spirituality, usually immaterial and unworldly – this isn’t easily defined and is hard to achieve, involving arduous penance, long periods of fasting and usually subjecting the body to all kinds of hardships, in the hope that some divinity would be appeased by such measures and confer blessings.

The householder, on the other hand, is immersed in family obligations and duties, and responsibilities. This contrast in Indian society has engaged sociologists and historians alike, such as the French sociologist, Louis Dumont who suggested, that an ascetic is one “beyond” the caste system; only they could, by professing to break the associations of caste, seek spirituality of a higher order.  (It was, on the other hand, easier for those from a higher caste giving it all up; both Mahavira and Buddha, founders of Jainism and Buddhism respectively, were born in Kshatriya (warrior) families). A social historian of colonial India, William R Pinch, writes of the symbiotic relationship between peasants and monks in villages throughout Indian history; each one dependent on the other for well-being and survival. The peasants in their villages, have to provide succor and shelter, as per their dharma, to wandering monks; the latter’s presence graces the village and offers them benediction. He presents to them an idea of their own future.

As the American writer-painter Edwin Lord Weeks noted in the 1890s, the itinerant fakir was a ubiquitous part of Indian life like the crow and the vulture. For all his seriousness, Weeks wrote, the fakir could look grotesque and even an anachronism. Writing of how he came upon fakirs in cities and in villages, Weeks described how the fakir appeared incongruous in the midst of a country that was changing, with new ways of transportation and thought (in the late 19th century, railways covered most of India, except the very remote and there were more modern thoughts of government and rationality among its thinkers). Yet the fakir was left undisturbed where he was, and those who came upon him, even offered him their respects.

This contrast (and also conflict) between these two aspects of life – one in the throes of destiny and another, hoping to subvert or even question destiny – manifests itself in different ways all through Anita Desai’s work from the early 1960s (Cry, The Peacock) to her most recent (The Artist of Disappearance).  While the conflict possesses the individual in Desai’s early novels, in sometimes irresolvable ways – either the protagonist is violent to herself, or rebels in little understood ways – in the novels that make up the later phase of her career, there is the quest for renunciation, a search for ‘meaning’ and spirituality, and then, as happens in Desai’s last, very recent work—a collection of three novellas—in 2012 (The Artist of Disappearance), a move towards self-effacement, a vanishing of the self. It appears as if Desai is seeking to provide her own answer or a resolution between these two different ways of living.  As the novellas in The Artist of Disappearance show, there are possibilities of fulfillment, and this search can acquire unique meaning for the seeker.  It may be hard to understand or to make oneself understood – but this need, very often for her protagonist, for her is immaterial or irrelevant.

Moreover, using quiet, stoic characters, Desai also seeks to reveal what is the inexplicable: the urge to follow one’s desires that drives life, even though these desires may seem mysterious and absurd to others. The nature of happiness and even contentment is indeed strange; her characters seem to suggest. But reaching this stage – that is, the realization that one can live simply without approval, without very many needs – can belie the need to explain oneself to others, in the manner of a true ascetic.


A Woman’s Inner Torment

Desai’s first novel, Cry, The Peacock, appeared in 1963 when she was 27. It is rather overwrought, as Desai herself said later, for it lingers greatly on Maya’s inner thoughts and her torment. A young woman finds it hard to overcome her destiny, largely as a dutiful daughter ready to do her father’s bidding. While she is clearly an unhappy wife (in this regard, she is not dutiful to her role), it is the prediction that made about her future, her later destiny, that comes to soon obsess her.

The novel is told from the point of view of Maya and while no dates are given, it is clearly set in the middle of the last century (the 1950s, when India had just become independent). The book begins with the death of Maya’s adored dog, a small Pomeranian. It is a death that appears sudden and unexpected and as the reader soon understands, it is the first death Maya has been witness to. It is this that drives her to hysterics. She sees the death as a premonition of other more unfortunate events: especially other deaths, even her own.  Soon after, she sees apparitions and shapes that appear out of the darkness. She remembers then the astrologer’s prediction made about her future when she was still a child.

Cry the Peacock

Maya remembers every detail of this encounter. A man, she remembers vividly, evidently an albino for he is unnaturally pale and who is vividly dressed in fine colored robes and his strange half-dark chamber who she had visited in the company of an ayah when very young.  The recent death she has witnessed brings about a resurgence in her memory of this old prophecy: The astrologer had predicted a death for someone very close to her, or even her own. He did not specify a time or even if Maya would be the cause for such a death, but it leaves her horrified. She runs out of the astrologer’s chamber, throwing a tantrum. Later, her father, a progressive lawyer and a widower detached from his children, will dismiss the prediction and life will appear to go on as usual. Maya is married early, as per her father’s wishes, to Gautama, a lawyer colleague, while Arjuna, her beloved older brother, leaves home after quarreling with his father. It strikes the reader that the horror of the prophecy was heightened by Maya’s evident shock at the astrologer’s own appearance.

But losing her dog does unhinge her in several ways. Maya spends hours studying her reflection, preferring the comfort of her own room in contrast to the world outside. She refuses to even sit for long in the garden with her husband. She is unable to understand her own fearful restlessness – for she paces to and fro in her room – and feels only a quick dissatisfaction with all that she sees around her, even the occasions she goes outside.  She sees her friends, and how they have ‘adjusted’ to their lives – someone as an unhappily married woman, another married to a perpetually sick man – and she feels a horror at such lives that have no ‘meaning’ left.  Such thoughts on life’s meaninglessness and the recent death of an adored pet, bring back the prediction, as a long buried memory, starkly to life.

Maya then cannot seem to stop thinking of it.  Bereft of other choices – for as a traditional woman, she is a rich, stay-at-home wife – she comes to be in thrall to this prophecy. Desai describes vividly Maya’s cloistered life, spent in a huge mansion, where she spends time lost in repetitive thoughts or looking at herself in the mirror. Old houses are a motif in Desai’s fiction, appearing as they do in many of her novels, symbolizing decadence and even a claustrophobia of the self. Maya’s repetitive actions, and Maya catches herself at this, make her appear more helpless. The novel spends too much time on Maya’s inner world and her obsession with the house’s silences, its intricate interiors that are also reminiscent of Charlotte Gilman Perkins, The Yellow Wallpaper.

Being a woman, Desai suggests through Maya’s spoilt, pampered, sheltered life, means one is unable to give up the constraints of tradition. It is reflected in the lives of the other women Maya sees around her. Maya does not quite understand how her friends “make do” with life as it comes to them.  They are simply caught up in the flow of life; Maya too (despite her name, which in Sanskrit and most Indian languages, means ‘illusion’) finds herself sinking in life’s hard, undiminishing realities. Things, it seems, will be as they have been ordained. She remains dissatisfied with the people she meets, horrified when one of her more ambitious friends gets pregnant; she is stunned into silence by another friend who sacrifices her career in serving her sick husband, and still another, who suffers long at the hands of her husband and yet lies about her social status.

As the novel progresses, it is clear that the astrologer’s prophecy has taken over Maya’s life. She alternates between a withdrawal into herself or basking in false cheer.  Always, she remains obsessed with thoughts of death, despite all her striving to find some meaning as to what life could be about. But life’s very mundaneness—especially in how her friends and acquaintances lead their lives —is what turns her off. The traditional family in provincial India in much of Desai’s fiction is oppressive, grasping and stifling, and no member is spared from her piercing description.  Every member has a role to fulfill as ordained by destiny, and there is little they can do.

Maya’s husband, Gautama, older than her in years, tries to do his duty by her by being ever solicitous and attentive. He fails, despite or because of his efforts for Maya’s obsession with the death prophecy, makes her fearful of him and also afraid for him. The death she fears could be his, or that he could be the cause of her own death. And Maya, obsessed with death, still hopes to find meaning in life. Gautama (a name that is also the Buddha’s) talks of acceptance as embodied in the Bhagavad Gita.  He refers to karma, the results of one’s actions from past lives, and how it reads to reincarnation till one is fortunate to attain ‘moksha’ or salvation. But such answers do not satisfy Maya; they suggest an acceptance of destiny, the very fatalism that drives her to despair.

The novel moves back into the past from the present: In Desai’s novels, ‘analepsis’ is an oft-used technique. There is then a frequent movement to the past – where much of the present is shaped – and then back again.  In this novel, almost as a contrast, there is Maya’s brother Arjuna, who ran away from home to escape the rigid authoritarianism of their father. Arjuna, named after the warrior to whom Krishna addressed his message of doing one duty without attachment in the Bhagavad Gita, drops out of Maya’s life for a bit. But in a letter to Maya written several years later, that Maya receives not long after the death of her pet, Arjuna reveals his whereabouts. It appears he now lives in the US, eking out a living in a canning plant.  A life lived solely for pleasure, Arjuna writes (almost as if in answer to Maya’s questions to herself), has no meaning. One has to find one’s role in life, and despite subverting tradition, one must be of use to one’s fellow beings. This leaves Maya more confused for she does not know how to question things, unlike her more rebellious brother, though there is a desperation in her trying, in her ability to understand herself and to make herself understood.

The contrasts between the two siblings, one tied to obligations, unable even to break free of an astrologer’s prediction and the other, always questioning, stepping outside boundaries set by his father – appear in how Maya remembers a childhood scene of kite flying. Arjuna’s kite soars high like a hawk while hers resembles a mere ordinary bird, flies almost as if tied to the ground.  But for Arjuna too – in a theme not really explored fully by Desai in this novel – there is a constraint for Arjuna realizes he cannot be entirely “free”; he cannot get away from his roots (tradition). As he writes to Maya, in words and thoughts that would appear antiquated to most people today, even the Afro-Americans he works with have to return to Africa, to find their roots.


Feminism, Quiet Rebellion and Inanimate Presences

As women have been central to several of her novels, Desai has also been called a feminist writer, a term not really associated with Indian writers in English during this time of the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism—or even protest at traditions in place that historically subjected women—was a concern that emerged among such writers (Indian writers in English) arguably around the 1980s, though criticism of patriarchy and accepted tradition was already established in regional writing – in Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi and in the Dravidian languages as well. English was, at the time, considered the language of the elite, more an urban language. In the immediate post-independence years (1940s and 1950s) India’s literacy rates were low (barely 20 percent of the population could read and write; the number now at nearly 80 per cent is much higher). No doubt Desai found herself isolated in some ways. For a long time, she was bracketed by critics and scholars of Indian writing in English into a writerly triumvirate with authors who had partial roots in India such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Meira Chand.

 Jhabvala, a German married to an Indian – in a similarity with Anita Desai’s own parentage – was a writer of several short stories and novels such as the Booker winning Heat and Dust, where tradition clearly exerts hold over people’s lives, even when they flout convention in other ways.  In a short story, ‘The Judge’s Wife,’ for instance, the family comes to know of their father’s (the judge) second wife only as he is dying, and she turns out to be a meek, quiet and unassuming woman. In Heat and Dust, a British woman comes to India in the footsteps of her step grandmother who had lived during the Raj days.

Jhabvala uses the technique of analepsis – something seen in Desai’s writings too. Heat and Dust is a slow revelation of how the step-grandmother Olivia, chafing under the restrictions of a conservative British society in India, once had a secret affair with the Nawab of a princely state.  It led to her taking up a reclusive life, spending the rest of her life in India with her son, born of the Nawab.

Meira Chand, a Singapore based writer of Indo-Swiss parentage, wrote her first novels set in Japan where she lived then. In these works, the woman’s status is always subservient to the demands of her husband and his family. But all three novelists—Desai, Jhabvala and Chand—, with a certain ‘outsider’ status, especially in how they approach their writing, have characters that deal with this matter with a quiet rebellion, evinced in different ways. Chand’s women heroines are usually ‘outsiders’, married into a traditional family and hence they appear more silently questioning. Desai’s characters, in their conflict with tradition and self-assertion, find themselves similarly isolated. They could be loners or eccentrics – largely ignored and forgotten.  Desai evokes with empathy their inner lives as they struggle, most often with incomprehension with this conflict.


Pressures of Family and History

In Desai’s subsequent novels, following Cry, The Peacock, Desai’s characters, major or minor, strive in various ways, most often not succeeding, to seek release from binding ties and tradition. In Clear Light of Day (1980), Bim, the unmarried older sister of Tara and Raja, protector and preserver of the family’s old house, finds herself resentful of what has been thrust on her. Bim (or Bimala) has, to all apparent purposes, sacrificed her life to look first after her brother Raja, then their autistic younger brother, Baba and their aunt, Mira-masi, who after a lifetime spent looking after them has sunk, in her old age, into a drunken stupor and mad ramblings. The doctor who once had a romantic interest in her surmises that it is Bim’s family whose needs she considers more important and deserving of her sacrifice, but to this Bim has a strange, inexplicable reaction. She laughs, Desai writes. “He had not understood.”

clear light of day

But Bim’s attachment to her family – what remains of it after Mira Masi’s death and even after Raja leaves them – is not really explained. But from Desai’s long and detailed descriptions of their old house, in Delhi located by the river Jamuna, it is the house with its memories, its tradition and especially its past, that has a hold on Bim. As it falls apart, and Bim greys too, it is as if they are synonymous with each other. The house with its garden, and the river slowly silting up is Bim’s domain, though she knows that she too is ephemeral.

The house too appears as a character: Its looming creepers, huge, vacant rooms, columns with their flaky and constantly dropping stone pieces, the abandoned pond where the family cow had once drowned in, and its old forgotten sounds as Baba, the younger brother plays the old records over and over again in his room. Yet, it is the contrast in how the house appears to Bim and Tara, her younger sister, especially in their memories, that shapes the people they have become. Bim becomes attached to the house and its many pulls. She is unable to abandon it, just as she couldn’t their old aunt, Mira-masi, who is becomes helplessly dependent on Bim as senility catches up. All Tara appeared to want, on the other hand, with her early marriage to a diplomat with a promising career, was to leave the house as soon as she could.

In contrast to Tara, Bim remains bitter towards their brother, Raja. While the responsibility of maintaining the house is hers, she resents being officially a tenant – of her brother, Raja, who left to marry into the family of their erstwhile landlord, Hyder Ali. The latter, like all Muslims who had chosen to live on in India (instead of leaving for the new country of Pakistan created with Independence in 1947) felt himself threatened as riots broke out in the run-up independence. He moved south to Hyderabad, a state in India (renamed Andhra Pradesh later) where Muslims found security in numbers.

Raja’s marriage into this family – and Hyder Ali was a mentor of sorts who encouraged Raja’s love of Urdu poetry – and his subsequent abandonment of his old family for he left for Hyderabad leads Bim to cut off ties with him. This doesn’t happen in dramatic fashion, but in the long years of separation, Bim has not written to him even once. The younger sister, Tara, on the other hand, devoted to the family she has married into, wants her natal family – no matter how “dysfunctional” it is (her husband Bakul’s term) – to remain knitted together.

Desai’s novel, in the pattern of analepsis, found in her other works, moves back and forth in time.  From the present, where we are confronted with Bim’s animosity towards Raja, we move into the children’s childhood, and understand the special bond Bim had shared with him in the past.  This bond is broken when as they grow into maturity, for each of the siblings is pulled by demands of the householder. Bim to the people dependent on her and the house; Raja to the family he now has in Hyderabad, and Tara, who married early to escape the family she knew, is devoted – in a submissive way – to her diplomat husband and their two daughters.

The family, as Desai shows in this novel, exercises a strong hold on the individual, demanding in turn a great cost of individuality. But the two characters in contrast who seem aloof and remote from family obligations, lead shrunken lives. There is Mira-masi, who comes to look after the children when their mother is unwell. But she, widowed early, has been abandoned as well. As a widow, her role in life is to move within the extended family, hoping to be of service to them, in return for a roof and shelter over her head.  With no family of her own, she has to serve a family, to survive.  There are some figures like Mira-masi, a widow or an unmarried aunt who appear in more than just one Desai novel.  An aunt Mira, with a similar religious bent and piety, appears in Desai’s later novel, Fasting, Feasting. It is, as if, with similar names, these women dependent on their families for shelter and help share much the same fate.

In this novel, Baba, the youngest sibling, was born retarded, and is thus rendered forever dependent on his family. It is Bim who ultimately takes care of him. Yet his strange detachment, the way he remains lost in his own world, the constant smile playing about his face, is something that arouses in Bim envy and pity in equal measure.  Even random acts of cruelty and negligence that Bim is capable of – such as sending him to office when the traffic on the streets scares him, forcing Tara to pull him back – pass Baba by.  He does not appear to understand, and it is the speaker, Bim, who feels the guilt instead. Yet rendered innocent, and guileless in every way, he is helpless too without his family’s support.

The other force, besides destiny and tradition, that exercises an influence in Clear Light of Day, is the historical one. Much of the novel, especially its decisive, critical parts are set in the 1940s: A time of change when much of India is in ferment. In 1947, with independence, Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, is announced. From the terrace of their house, the three children see firsthand the riots and houses set afire. Hearing of the attacks on Muslims who have still remained in Delhi, Raja fears for their neighbor, Hyder Ali, who speaks Urdu, a language that with the emergence of Hindi in the early 20th century, has come to be associated with Islam.[1]

It is this attachment to the Hyder Ali family that Bim resents. When he leaves to join them, it is almost as if the house they have lived in has been ‘Partitioned’ by Raja’s desertion, as Bim sees it.

In a clear contrast to Cry, The Peacock, which dwells on Maya’s inner life, Desai in her later works, as in Clear Light of Day, is more measured and also oblique. In Clear Light of Day, with its many more cast of characters, there is the same detailing but less dwelling on the inner life and characters are less introspective. Desai shapes them instead, by drawing attention to their quirks, mannerisms, and oddities. Little of their inner lives is revealed for Desai doesn’t get into their mind, but is made evident in how the character is perceived or by her actions.  Tara for instance, sees how erratic Bim is in her movements – her frayed dress, her way of talking to herself.  Bim says little about her brother Baba, but her devotion to him is clear, as is her cruelty.  She sends him to an office – the insurance company in which the family has a stake – and then threatens him with the offer of sending him to Hyderabad to their brother, but later, seeing Baba as usual, unreactive and sleeping peacefully all curled up, she lays down by him, longing to be comforted and to forget – though she has never had the words to say this. Bakul, the snobbish husband, is fastidious in his dressing, and Mira Masi’s descent into madness is detailed by Desai in how she secretly indulges in drinking.


Historical Forces

The novel, Baumgartner’s Bombay (1989) also has as its backdrop significant historical events: the rise of the Nazis in Germany and their persecution of Jews like Hugo Baumgartner’s family in Berlin in the 1930s and also the Partition riots that accompanied India’s independence in 1947. Separated by a decade, Hugo Baumgartner witnesses both tragedies firsthand. In some of her novels (such as In Custody), the significant events of her time are told through the lives of ordinary people.  As with Bim in Clear Light of Day, in this novel too, there are people, sidelined and forgotten by history, who lead lonely lives but they have seen it all.

Baumgartner's bombay

 Baumgartner’s Bombay begins in Bombay of the 1970s where Hugo Baumgartner, an elderly German Jewish man has tried for the last two decades to make a new life for himself. This life is one of loneliness and increasingly, about nostalgia as well, as Hugo realizing that the past can never return, begins thinking of his own with some wistfulness.  This will, as the novel ends, lead him to making some tragic mistakes. Hugo’s own past has been painful. As a child in Germany, Hugo had seen the sad and humiliating descent of his family into poverty. He remembers, in the beginning, a happy childhood, pampered by his mother, and then taken by his father every Sunday on secret outings, as they watched the races and he was allowed a sip of beer from his father’s glass. Looking back, even the imagined ghosts that peopled his father’s furniture store offer hours of dark amusement to Hugo.  But this happiness is all too soon threatened and proves evanescent, as the Nazis gain prominence. Hugo well remembers Kristallnacht, the night the Jewish establishments were attacked in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany; the hours he spent cowering in fear inside his quilt.

This vanishing of childhood happiness is vividly described in a few pages: his father’s disappearance one day and equally sudden return as someone who, to Hugo appeared totally transformed, followed by his father’s suicide only a few weeks later, the takeover of the furniture store by his father’s old German partner, and Hugo’s own departure to Bombay – deemed a safe place soon after.  His mother, though, refuses to leave. For all the dangers, she cannot bring herself to leave their house, though she is forced to occupy one of the smaller rooms now. This hold that houses have on its occupants evokes Bim and her loyalty to her childhood home in the earlier novel.

Baumgartner then is a man forsaken by the world in every way, who knows happiness can be precarious precisely because it is fleeting and who does not trust identity any more. In different places, in different ways, being who he is has confused him in every way. For instance, his Jewishness had made him a hated and reviled figure during his Berlin childhood; in Venice, as he waited for the steamship to Bombay, his darker skin tone had marked him out as someone different, Asian, and in Bombay, where, he reached as the Second World War raged, he was sent to an internment camp for being from the enemy side: a German in British ruled India.

When the story resumes, after this look back at Hugo’s journey to India, he has in every way renounced his past. His is a life of careful and yet shabby routine, his untidy house is run as efficiently as he can manage. His mornings begin with his running down to a Parsi restaurant to fetch the leftovers for his cats; a habit which has given Baumgartner the nickname, ‘Madman of the Cats.’ For all his hermetic ways, his efforts to live a nondescript way, Hugo retains identity in the wrong ways: a man picked on for his color in Germany (where his darkness gave him away as Jewish), while in India, he is clearly the foreigner, the ‘firangi’- and his foreignness is of multiple dimensions.

But the past – his memories of Germany – remain, especially with his friendship with a dissolute German woman, Lotte, who lives by herself. Once a dancer at a popular Bombay nightclub, Lotte has been abandoned by her patron, a Marwari businessman from Calcutta, and lives on in the flat left to her. It is with her that Hugo enjoys the occasional drink and even flirts, though Lotte sees him as a friend and nothing more. His compassion, his experience of the suffering he has witnessed, make him feel for the victims of India’s Partition riots as well. But Baumgartner is always alone in his compassion. He is indulged in, as Lotte and the Parsi café-owner do, when they engage in small idle conversation with him, but little understood. He is indeed just dismissed as who he is, an elderly German man who sought solace in the company of his cats.

But his past catches up with Hugo when he encounters a German drifter, Kurt, who lies almost comatose in an evidently drug-induced state, in the Parsi’s café. Though the latter in his agitated state, is convinced Kurt is nothing but a ‘hippie’ who lives a dissolute life, Kurt also strikes a chord in Hugo. He offers him shelter and takes him home. In reaching out to Kurt, who he sees only as a fellow German, someone from the country he left behind forever, Baumgartner reveals that he has never really renounced the past. His friendship and offering help to the drifter are what will cost Baumgartner very dearly.


Undefined Search

Anita Desai moved to the United States in the mid-1980s. Her novels made the shift too, though her concerns – on issues of divided selves and the conflict between tradition and renunciation or abandonment – stayed the same. Journey to Ithaca written in 1995 takes its title from the well-known poem by Cavafy, that was titled ‘Ithaka.’

Constantine Cavafy (CP Cavafy, 1863-1933), widely hailed as “the most distinguished Greek poet of the 20th century). Of Greek origin, Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt where his parents had moved in the mid-19th century. In his youth, he lived between Liverpool, England, and Constantinople (now Istanbul), in Turkey, before returning to Alexandria, where he worked as a civil servant and where he died of cancer in 1833. His poems, haunting, direct and flat in tone, are also “highly personal” for Cavafy kept his homosexuality a secret and was tormented by it. They also encompass a range of themes and subjects- history, myth, and literature. The theme of Desai’s novel takes on the message that Cavafy conveys in describing the Greek hero Odysseus’ return to Ithaca after the long war with Troy: it is the journey that matters, for it transforms one far more than reaching the actual destination does.

journey to ithaca

As Cavafy writes in Ithaka:[2]

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

The urge to leave family bonds, the past behind and to become a seeker and ascetic, is what drives Matteo, and in a different way, his wife Sophie in Desai’s Journey to Ithaca. The story begins from Italy of the 1920s and moves to Europe between the wars to 1970 when the hippies or the flower children are drawn to India. Journey to Ithaca is a story about seeking, the need to find spiritual realization, the need to go on a pilgrimage. This is an all-consuming urge, driving the seeker toward a spiritual union with a greater spirit or truth.  But Desai also points out that renunciation, though it may appear in contrast to all sorts of binds and ties, is in turn a total devotion to an ideal, and hence forms a kind of bondage.

Matteo is drawn to the spirituality of the East, when as a young boy, frail in health and subject to frequent bullying in school, is tutored at home. It is his tutor who introduces him to Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, a book that comes to entrance Matteo totally. It is about a group of travelers, some real historical characters and others mythical, who travel to the East in search of Truth. On the way, however, as they pass the night near a particularly treacherous gorge in Europe, they are abandoned by their attendant, Leo. It throws the journey into confusion but as is revealed later, by the narrator, the journey, Leo’s abandonment of them, was a test in itself, of their own deep faith in the journey.

Matteo’s early confusion is never directly revealed in the novel except in how he behaves – his hatred of boarding school, the usual games boys his age play, his misery in working in his uncle’s silk factory in Milan, and then his decision to leave his family. The latter isn’t stated but is apparent from the broad sweeps the novel makes across time.  Matteo leaves soon after his marriage to Sophie, a German, whose father moved in the same financial circles as did Matteo’s father. Evidently Matteo expected Sophie to fall in with his plans and they leave together for India.  Sophie, devoted to Matteo, is also the beginning, first dazzled by the flower children, and their freedom. However, the bitter truth about them soon dawns on Sophie as Desai dispassionately describes their cunning ways, and ways of sponging off each other. Sophie also sees through the many godmen Matteo visits, and their assistants, who it seems, will eagerly leech off any gullible white foreigner looking for the ultimate spiritual experience. As Matteo tries out one spiritual experiment after another – going on long, arduous pilgrimages, meditating and giving himself up to a chosen godman’s prescriptions for living – Sophie for her part, longs to be home. Yet she cannot bring herself to abandon Matteo, even as she is left increasingly puzzled and then angry by this elusive search.

When they are part of a long pilgrimage procession, Sophie encounters a fellow pilgrim, a mother with her ailing, barely surviving, child. The mother’s need to seek spiritual, rather than the medical help, her child so urgently requires puzzles Sophie. She also doesn’t understand Matteo when he finally appears to find some solace with a mysterious “god woman” (a spiritual figure), with a carefully concealed past (as Sophie soon realizes), and who lives in a hill town. The god woman is called ‘Mother’, a name she evidently assumed and she is addressed this way by all her acolytes and disciples who see her as a parental figure of some authority. All of them live in the ashram and among themselves, share the responsibility of running it, though it is Mother who calls the shots.

It is Matteo’s utter devotion to her, something different from occasions in the past that Sophie has been witness to, which alarms her. She is suspicious of Mother and also sneering of Matteo’s apparent high regard of her. This prompts her to go on a search to lay bare the true identity of the ‘Mother’, leaving her two young children in the care of her parents in Germany. The Mother appears a spiritual ‘godmother’, but Sophie is convinced that she is a charlatan who has bedazzled Matteo. Her search to dig into the Mother’s past, which takes on almost the contours of a detective novel, instead reveals to Sophie some truths, if not the kind of truth – the Mother’s true nature – she has been seeking.

The Mother’s past has been a carefully kept secret, but Sophie retraces her steps painstakingly and carefully, first to Alexandria in Egypt where the Mother, as a young girl called Laila had spent her youth. Later, Sophie follows Laila’s footsteps to Paris, where the latter’s restlessness, her impatience at her aunt’s snobbishness finally leads her to the ‘guru’, a dance teacher visiting with his troupe from India. The Master’s depiction of Krishna, the Hindu god, enthralls her: in this dance form that combines passion with mysticism, Laila feels she has finally found her reason for living. Soon she leaves to be part of his troupe.  But barely a few months later in Venice, she is disillusioned, as she sees that the master too is driven by practical things. He bargains with his patrons over the littlest of things, is demanding of favors and privileges, and is not averse to making the other female dancers jealous simply to get his own way.

Laila, however, is determined to go to India. If not with the Master, she is certain of finding some spiritual meaning there. Her yearning, one that is undefined and yet that takes over her every sense, has made her physically sick – a sickness in some senses that afflicts Matteo too. On a visit to the north of India, she finds some solace in a guru – though Desai says nothing about him, or even describes him. It is almost as if, in Desai’s vision, the individual’s quest for salvation, and even its seeming culmination, remain inexplicable and also mysterious. It is in this ashram of which Mother is now in charge that Matteo too finds her and comes to live. Sophie thus in a way comes to understand Matteo’s need to look for a truth, however elusive. It is something akin to what Sophie had also understood about Laila. In Paris, as a young student, Laila realizes that what draws her is some kind of passion – one not just of celebration but also the passion of renunciation.


Old Concerns and New Themes

The conflict in Desai’s novels between the ascetic and householder returns in Fasting, Feasting (1999), with the figure of the householder embodied in Uma who is resentful of her sheltered life and yearns for a different existence. In this novel, set in a traditional family living in Delhi (in a house and time that evokes Desai’s Clear Light of Day) there is rebellion of a kind.  Uma, for years spent serving her parents’ needs, longs to give it up, and when thwarted, and unable to express herself, shows some sullen resistance.

Fasting feasting

Uma has been a failure in school. Forced to drop out after being unable to clear her final examination for a class, she becomes almost a young second mother to her youngest sibling, the brother and only son of the family, Arun.  Sometime later, Uma’s parents arrange a dowry for her but her marriage ends in shame, as the family, it appears, has been cheated. The groom, it soon turns out, is already married but had availed himself of the dowry offered by Uma’s family to improve his own business. Desai sees this as a pattern and it recurs in the novel: the groom’s family, all too aware of the desperation among some families to see daughters married off quickly as per tradition, milks them for all the dowry they can demand.

Uma also disappoints her family in her inability to make a good marriage. Desai depicts how marriage can transform a woman’s life and how it is an entrapment of a kind: Uma’s sister Aruna, becomes a flighty, superficial creature, concerned with family matters that to Uma appear shallow. There is also the tragedy that befell their brilliant cousin Anamika, who had once secured a scholarship to Oxford but who, only some years into her marriage, is killed by her in-laws, for not pleasing them in various ways.  Anamika’s death, from burns is passed off as suicide, but as had always been acknowledged by her family, the dowry Anamika had brought with her on marriage had never been enough. There had always been constant demands, which Anamika’s parents found hard to meet and her in-laws became harder to please than ever.

With her failed marriage and other failures, Uma’s life becomes one of constant service to her family, its needs and that of the old rambling house they live in. But she is drawn to her prodigal cousin, Ramu, whom the family disapproves of, for all his degenerate ways. She is also attached to her wandering aunt, Mira-masi, who lives the pilgrim’s life, moving from one temple town to another, or between ashrams, looking for salvation. Her long arduous penance, her frequent periods of going on fast, all in search for an elusive salvation – the only goal permitted to an abandoned young widow left to the mercy of relatives – is what gives this part of the novel its name: Fasting.

There are also the nuns in Uma’s school, who find happiness in service. Uma has ways of rebelling quietly, of showing resentment subtly: sometimes she has fits, she goes out for dinner with her cousin Ramu—someone her parents disapprove of—and returns late on such occasions. In a last show of defiance, she calls up on the sly, the nuns in her school who have offered her a job (running a ward in a missionary run hospital), for her parents do not approve of women seeking a career for themselves. Though this is a later work, written in 1999, Desai is clearly evincing more modern concerns relating to India – as women seek more education and want a career for themselves. However, in traditional societies, as with Uma’s family, conservative thought patterns and modes of life remain hard to break. Her parents are adamant about Uma not pursuing her own career. Uma, resentful and sullen, is unable to break free.

Almost in contrast to Uma, the section on Feasting dwells on her brother, Arun, the family’s only son, on whom their hopes rest. Though nothing has ever been denied him, Arun is glad in many ways to be away in the United States, as he finds hard to bear the constant attention and oppressive demands made on him as the only son in the family.  His every waking hour had been carefully monitored by his father, who sent him to the best schools, employed tutors, and looked to his every need. It was a parental love tinged with ambition: Arun’s later success, it was believed, would bring prestige and honor to the family. Their status within the community would rise.

In the US, where he is at university, and away from family ties, Arun shies away from emotional attachment of any kind. In fact, despite his isolation, he is relieved to be free from family pressures and expectations. As Arun looks for accommodation during the summer, he rejects any that will demand any kind of human contact for him. But then finally, when an accommodation is picked for him, thanks to people known to his sister Uma, he finds himself immersed in the daily conflicts of an American family.

Oppression of another kind appears in how his landlady, Mrs. Patton’s daughter, Melanie, rejects in her teenage rebellion, all the food her mother—in the hope that such food, home-cooked will be nutritious and sustaining—has cooked for her. This is Mrs. Patton’s way of making Arun feel welcome for the food, in accordance with Arun’s traditional habits, is vegetarian.  Melanie, however, chooses to gorge herself on junk food, throwing it all up later. She is evidently a secret bulimic and her parents, realizing the reasons for Melanie’s strange rebellion later, send her for rehab. Arun is amazed at the sheer wastage of food: not just on Melanie’s part but the amount his host buys at the mall, much of which goes unused and rots.

This latter section on Feasting reflects Anita Desai’s own observations about life in the US: the loneliness and demands of college life, the communication gap (of a kind different than in India where tradition and conservatism breeds silence between generations) within families, and the over-consumption; the earlier section that dwells on Uma and her life in Delhi, appears an extension of her earlier concerns in Clear Light of Day.  However, in this novel Uma’s anger is more evident. The widowed aunt, Mira-masi, is clearly not dependent on any family but is on her own, visiting temples and places of pilgrimage and even ashrams, where Uma accompanies her on one occasion.  Desai builds up Mira-masi almost as a humorous figure; through her, Desai exposes some essential societal flaws. Her pilgrimage isn’t really a search, but one that is thrust on Mira-masi, because she is a widow and has nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. A wandering ascetic life, with all its accompanying austerities is thus thrust on unfortunate women like Mira-masi.



This search for what makes the complete or ‘true’ renouncer is most apparent in Desai’s most recent published work, a collection of novellas, The Artist of Disappearance (2012). In the three long stories that make up this collection, there is an inner passion and search for ‘self-realization’ but this is subdued. Self-effacement appears in entirely different ways. The passion is deeply internal, spent on pursuits that appear ‘strange’, yet these characters in her novellas appear happy.

Artist of disa[pearance

The aristocrat in ‘The Museum of Final Journeys’ collects a variety of things from all over the world, to be housed in some rooms of his mansion, of which he is the sole occupant. Once he even procures an elephant who lives in its own shed outside. It appears just a useless hobby, for the collection is ersatz, random and has no order to it. Moreover, he has no heir to pass all this on. It will all go to the state, and the administrator, who is the narrator, is nonplussed at the sight that befalls him. While the latter wonders as to what to make of it all, and how to acquire and disperse in some order, this collection (including the elephant), he also understands in some vague, inchoate way, the aristocrat collector’s reasons: He did it simply to make himself happy. The act of collecting is all that evidently mattered to the aristocrat.

‘Translator Translated’ is about a lonely teacher, Prema, who at the behest of an old college friend, tries her hand at translating. Prema decides to introduce an unknown writer in Odia (one of India’s fourteen recognized languages), Suvarna Devi, by translating her works into English. This will, Prema believes, bring Suvarna Devi, the fame she so rightly deserves. Prema gets passionately involved in her work and in the author too.  The translator begins taking a possessive interest in the author’s life, almost as if she is responsible for giving her a new one, and a new identity too.  When one of Suvarna Devi’s later works comes to Prema, the latter finds it full of errors and insipid in some ways. It is then that she begins, inadvertently at first and then very deliberately, changing the meaning of the original text, even a word here and there, and then she gets bolder. Later, one of the author’s relatives accuses her of rendering the work wrongly. But the author herself remains a nondescript, shy person who is content to let things be. Prema’s attempts at making a new life for herself, fashioning herself in a new light, come to nothing, as all she does is try to live through another.

‘The Artist of Disappearance’, the title story, is a man who lives an isolated life and thrives in it. Born unloved and largely uncared for, Ravi has become a recluse.  His life becomes to all intents and purposes, pathetically circumscribed though he does not think so. He lives in part of a house that has long burned down and his needs are looked after by a cow herd family that lives near. Ravi instead is happy spending hours looking at the minutiae of life unfolding around him: a snail uncurling itself, a spider at work and once in Bombay, he experienced bliss staring down at the shallow depths of the sea and seeing the tiny life beneath.  With the death of his mother’s old nurse, Ravi removes himself from every contact with society.  He comes to nurse a secret glade, located amidst certain boulders in the hill town he now lives in, making it beautiful by planting trees, and arranging nature in careful patterned ways. This remains undiscovered and unknown till a television crew member stumbles on it.  She convinces her team to film the glade and even interview its creator. But as the search for him grows, Ravi chooses to evade them.

Dressed in the clothes given him by the cow herd family, he appears just a nondescript idle local, whiling the afternoon away. However, when the crew examines its reel footage of the glade, it appears to them perfectly ordinary, even whimsical; the footage is discarded. What Desai seeks to say is that an act of creation could exist simply to make its creator happy. Creation can bring about fulfillment, even to those merely observing, as does the film crew member. By extension, Desai is perhaps suggesting the self-effacing nature of the true creator.


Threads that Tie Desai’s Work

Inner Conflict – something that is inevitable in every individual life – can only be assuaged by an inner peace, Desai seems to suggest in her work.  For instance, all the three characters in her last work have chosen to shun the limelight, from the need to constantly engage with the outside world and have thus found peace of a kind – though this is never clearly defined. But it does take artistry, as denoted by the last story, to efface oneself totally.

The conflict is, moreover, focused on her character’s inner life. In her novels, she also visually describes this conflict as one symbolized by crowded chaotic outer worlds that is totally opposed to solitude, an individual’s desire for peace. Old houses, packed with bric-a-brac appear in Clear Light of Day, Baumgartner’s Bombay and Fasting, Feasting, symbolizing the past and memories, evoking the weight of tradition, responsibility and pressures. In Journey to Ithaca, Matteo longs to escape the imposing mansion of his rich parents.  In contrast, the ashram rooms he lives in, are shabby and without any amenities, yet he is not bothered.  The crowded mansion room, with its vast collection of objects that make no coherent sense, is best expressed in the first story of her last novella, The Artist of Disappearance.

Her way of offering a resolution is the suggestion that this search for inner contentment, must be all self-driven. Even renunciation as embodied in the figure of the ascetic is of little use, rather Desai, whether in her short stories or in her novels, renders the figure of the ascetic or godman (god woman) in humorous ways or even as someone suspicious.  In one of her stories in the collection Diamond Dust (2000), a philosopher friend comes visiting Sarla just when she is preparing to leave for the hills. And their lives are thrown upside down as they have to arrange parties and meetings on his behalf. Laila, or the Mother, is scheming, the ashram is a cloistered space, and Matteo is hapless. Laila is someone who can never win Sophie’s trust while she has Matteo’s dogged devotion. Ashrams, that appear places of solitude and peace, assume a sinister character, with their rigid discipline. Uma in Fasting, Feasting is taken by her aunt to one has the first of her fainting spells there.  Journey to Ithaca describes the different kinds of ashrams in which Matteo and Sophie find themselves. Their shabbiness, suspicion, for all the communal atmosphere, make the ashram a place of immense danger.

In The Artist of Disappearance, the ‘search’ for fulfillment or peace has been given up though it is not that Desai has been actively looking for such a resolution The three characters in the narratives do not travel anywhere, and even their motivations are not explained. It is a mysterious and all fulfilling kind of self-effacement, when even the self – or ego – does not strive to belong and is not bothered to ask questions or even answer them.

Human nature, Desai then suggests in her works, is born to conflict, for an individual is subjected to pulls and pressures of every kind. Her focus in her early novels was on traditional families, with women, unable to question the force of tradition and long accepted rules of living. Those who ‘renounced’ were those who had been “given up” by the family – the widowed or unmarried aunt – and never the other way around, as in the true tradition of holy sages and ascetics. It is through her characters, like Matteo, in Journey to Ithaca, that Desai tries to explore in turn the contrary pull of renunciation (as opposed to living the householder’s life). She suggests that renunciation too is a bond of a kind.

Is self-effacement, finding happiness – or rather fulfillment, which is how Desai sees it – in undefined ways, the key to resolving such conflict? Prema’s search for fulfillment by finding a new identity in another, leaves her unfulfilled; while Ravi’s creation appears too fragile and evanescent. But for Suvarna Devi, the author Prema translated, simply the act of writing was enough, just as making a small secret garden have Ravi some secret pleasure. The Artist of Disappearance leaves us with more questions and rightly so, for a writer’s work is to ask the necessary questions. Human existence, it appears by a reading of some of Desai’s works, is a search for answers to this conflict and the search remains an enduring one.

—Anu Kumar



Desai Anita.  Cry, the Peacock, Orient Paperbacks, 1967

__________.  Clear Light of Day, Penguin Random House, New Delhi, 1980

__________. Baumgartner’s Bombay, Penguin Random House, 1989

__________. Journey to Ithaca, Penguin Random House, 1995

__________. Fasting Feasting, Penguin Random House, 1999

__________. The Artist of Disappearance, Penguin Random House, 2012

Dumont, Louis.  Homo Heirarchichus: The Caste System and Its Implications. University of Chicago Press. 1979.

Keeley, Edmund and Philip Sherrad (translated). C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems.  Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992; http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?cat=1&id=74

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer.   Heat and Dust. Counterpoint. 1999

Mendelsohn, Edward.  ‘Introduction.’ In Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth Century American Writers. New York Review of Books. 2015.

Pinch, William R. Peasant and Monks in British India. University of California Press. 1996.


anu northeast review

Anu Kumar is in the MFA Program of Writing at VCFA (2014-16). She resides in Baltimore, Maryland, and has lived in India and Singapore before.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A novel involved in similar historical themes and the loneliness of the individual is the Urdu poet Nur, in Desai’s 1984 novel, In Custody, who is visited by a young and idealistic Hindi journalist, Deven Sharma. In this novel, the language difference is also a telling indicator of how things have changed, for in independent India, Urdu is now giving way to Hindi. Deven, who has long admired him, visits him, hoping to do a story on Nur’s life, but Deven is increasingly disillusioned as he sees the Urdu poet struggle.
  2. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrad
Jul 012016



World of Two

I was too young to know better when I put him
in a dress. Poor thing. What was his name?
My brother would remember. I regret it now.
But at the time I pretended he enjoyed it. I had
no sisters, only four older brothers. What was I
to do? I created our own private world, spoke
for both of us and pretended he enjoyed it in his
dress, sometimes even a bonnet. There was tea.
There were conversations. I meant no harm.
He was so handsome, fair, big-boned. It was
a world of two. Took him from the barn. I put
him in a stroller, held him there with one hand,
pushed it with the other. What was his name?
All I remember was the day he got away.
I scared myself. We were on the screened porch
and he hid beneath the flowered sofa, which
I learned had wire springs. A button got caught
in the coils. The more he pulled to escape
the worse was his pain. Poor thing. I put him in
a dress, not the last boy. I pretended he enjoyed
it. I meant no harm. What was his name?


Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains)

In a sea around us the rain echoes
that I’ve wronged you. Striking, I have found
no dry match left. Nightly, vespers
from the advancing sea whisper
of your leaving. Your leaving now surrounds
each day. Inescapably, all gestures
have an undertow. Rain wraps around
my legs to draw me down. I conjure
your mouth as mine fills with water. Sound
and sight ebb as slowly we drown
in the rain around us as seas whisper.


Mare Spumans (Sea of Foam)

A dark science swept me into this
birdless place. Each morning, the forgetting:
stars erased at daybreak, a thousand
deaths. Whelks strewn upon the shore, beautiful
in their wreckage: fleshy pinks, pale
violets, the violence they endured
making them more beautiful. They call
from a former cloistered life and will be
smaller tomorrow, half-buried in the sand,
becoming sand. Nothing now to hear, broken
open, split to silence, still a sea within.


Mare Cognitum (Sea of Understanding)

Happy is he who forgets that which can’t be changed.
— Strauss, Die Fledermaus

Lethe in droplets day by day. Ask for the erasure of snow, of water,
the arcing fell swoop of the Bird’s Way to let go this life, or an empty,
oarless boat in which to hunker down. My Polish grandmother
searched my childhood eyes, chanting, Dlaczego tak smutny jestes?
I was already halfway to another place. Make no mistake, I’ll miss it
sorely, yes. First, the feathered ones, then iridescent trout, streams the
green of a bruise, each deer and goat and dog. But luna moth, so what
if I call you a sulphur, a swallow, a salmon? If vermilion becomes
chartreuse? I’ll rename the world and then transform its every purpose.
No more bee geometry, not another sum. It will start with walking into
rooms, forgetting why I’ve gone there, finding foreign objects in my
hands, finding my hands foreign, as I let fall my dignity, my raiment,
like peonies their petals. Open me as ants unglue tight buds. Take
away my secrets one by one. I’ll pray to gods of light whispering,
no stars tonight no stars, envisioning dark flying things: the pipistrelle
and mourning cloak, a lover winged. Nymphs soaring in cast after cast,
and I will fly, piercing the heavens, galaxies away, in search of one
whose name I’ll have long escaped.



She wanted it and didn’t want it
with equal strength. She wanted it
fiercely then didn’t want it just as fiercely
in alternating rhythms. Little Curly,
Little Bug, a stray, twice dispossessed,
chosen for her hardiness. No longer
to be trusted, the body inside the body,
stone inside a shell, grew shapeless. Designed
for no return, the night became infinite as
wedlock. Was it a failure to separate
in the end? She sought no other
world than this: to know kindness.

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski


A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Jul 012016

Desktop5Clockwise from top left: Tracy Proctor, Megan Okkerse, Whitney Lee, & Sheela Clary

This is very cool. Last winter in a workshop I was teaching I assigned an exercise on lists. I gave a little lesson, lists in sentences and lists as structure. You can find it written out here (look at the second item in the series): Building Sentences: The Complete Short Course — Douglas Glover | National Post. As an example of list structure, I gave out copies of Leonard Michaels’ story “In the Fifties,” which you can find to read on the Internet here or listen to here. The results were astonishingly varied, intense and emotional. Family stories mostly, as memoirs often are. I managed to sheepdog four of them together for the magazine. A change of pace, a delight to read, not to mention an introduction to four fine new writers: Tracy Proctor, Megan Okkerse, Sheela Clary, and Whitney Lee.



List of Do’s and Don’ts — Tracy Proctor

Do adhere to mantras. “Travel light.” “Don’t fence me in.” “Surf’s up.” That sort of thing.

Don’t put corny bumper stickers on the back of your pick-up truck, though. Keep your mantras in your head. Stay cool.

Do adorn your truck with your man toys: dirt bike, road bike, paddle board, surfboard, kite board. Sub-zero cooler. Heavy duty trailer hitch.  Camper top.

Do visit lots of kick-ass places across the continent. Allow your mind to be blown. Do feel kinship with the soaring hawk, the lone wolf, the gypsy.

Do maintain high standards in females. If your nubile, fertile girlfriend starts to look or act like a spreading, hormonal woman, tell yourself you’re doing both of you a favor, and move on.

Commit full-heartedly to a dog. Take her with you everywhere: the high ranges of Wyoming, the ducky swamps of Arkansas, the teeming fishing grounds of Key West. The sun-bright shore and ice-cold beers and winding desert trails of Baja Mexico. Confide in your dog. Train her to stay and fetch and ride many miles without peeing. Feed her buffalo jerky and fish tacos. Recognize that you love her and can’t live without her, except when the waves and wind are forecast to be epic. At which time you drop her off with your mom for a month.

Do have many high-quality girls. Brunettes, blonds, redheads, surfer girls, hippy chicks (not too dirty), med students, massage therapists.  Fuck and run.

When your mountain-biking buddies are sitting around the campfire on weekend nights, sipping warm tequila and reveling in the precious, waning moments until they have to drag their asses back to wives and kids, pass the flask around again and fake sympathy. When pressed, agree with them that your newest girl is super hot. Agree that she has silky chestnut hair and legs up to here and intelligent green eyes. Agree that you are damn lucky that Miss Super Hot understands – no, endorses – your free’n’easy life style. Don’t tell your buddies that those green eyes of hers see right through to your soul, because that is corny, and because it might be true.

Do not tell your buddies that Miss Super Hot actually wants to marry you. Instead, break up with her.

Definitely do not tell your buddies – or anyone at all – that, one week after you break up with her, she tells you she is pregnant with your child.

Deny it. Fight it. Ask her if she’s sure the baby is yours. Ask her when she morphed into a Bible-thumping pro-lifer. Join Planned Parenthood, and send her a brochure.

Hit the road with your dog. Ignore Miss Super Hot’s demand that you review her birth plan. When she asks you to give her your parenting plan, tell her to go fuck herself.

Drive west, and more west. End up back in Baja.

Kite-board your brains out.  Tell your mom you won’t be back east for Christmas this year.  Stay away from females. Keep that terrifying secret to yourself.

Get nostalgic on Christmas morning. Send a holiday email greeting to friends and family, including Miss Super Hot: a photo of you in a striped orange hammock, holding a beer, the words Feliz Navidad dancing above your head. Enjoy the warm feeling from all the good email wishes you get in return, until you read the one from Miss Super Hot which says Merry Christmas to you, too and Wow it sure looks nice out there and She’s so glad you’re enjoying yourself in Baja while she and your unborn child are trying to keep warm in Jackson Hole, where you last left them. Get even more upset when you realize she has sent this email “Reply all.”

Do finally answer the phone the fourth time your mom calls you. Do gruffly answer most of her questions. Do not laugh bitterly when she says Miss Super Hot must not understand what “reply all” means.

Do not answer your mom’s question “What are you going to do now, honey?” Because you do not know.

Do get embarrassed when your buddies say that maybe it’s time to get out of the hammock. After a couple more days kite-boarding your brains out, come to the conclusion that maybe they are right.

Do show up at Jackson Hole Regional Medical Center just as Miss Super Hot’s water breaks. Do try not to crumble under her family’s glare.

Do spend the next ten hours walking your dog on the hospital grounds and pacing in the waiting room and getting updates from Miss Super Hot’s family members and learning what three inches of dilation signify and listening to the screeches of infants and the howls of birthing women and the buzz of the phone system and the names of doctors on the intercom. Do close your eyes and smell coffee and antiseptic.  Do pop several Advil. Don’t stare at the poster of the island scene.

Do follow the nurse when she beckons you to come to Miss Super Hot’s room and meet your new son.

Do feel your legs tremble when you spy your son swaddled next to Miss Super Hot’s side. Do think that he is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. Tell Miss Super Hot that. Look into her green eyes when you say it.

Do take the pen the nurse is giving you. Do sign your name on the Birth Certificate next to the word “father.”  Don’t protest when Miss Super Hot’s family offers to take your dog for the night so you can sleep there in the hospital room. Do hold your son; marvel at his fuzzy hair and scrunched-up nose; at the stump of umbilical cord. When Miss Super Hot falls asleep, whisper to your baby boy that you can’t live without him. Promise him that when he gets old enough, you’re going to teach him how to kite-board.

—Tracy Proctor


Here You Are — Megan Okkerse

Here is what you remember:

You remember my curly blonde hair and the little blue dress I wore at the McCrae’s wedding when I stomped around in the bride’s shoes at the reception. You remember me with my head on Daddy’s shoulder like in the picture he would keep in his office, when he worked day and night, year after year. You remember me playing with the skin under your chin, the soft flesh of your neck as we snuggled together under the pink plaid flannel sheets on those cold winter mornings when you had the heat turned down and the windows cracked because, “fresh air is good for you,” you would say. You remember the day Daddy left and all the names of my elementary school teachers and my soccer games and my long legs striding across the field, me, before I got skinny and sick. You remember my friend Lauren, who had cancer in 7th grade, and Daddy spanking me with the paddle for playing doctor with the neighbor boy when I was five. You remember the day I moved to Daddy’s house and the late night calls you would get from me begging for you to come pick me up and bring me home. Why didn’t you? Did you quietly like the freedom of my absence?

You remember 4th of July at Riverside Park and our long walks around the point. “I can’t walk anymore. I have cramps,” I would whine. You would tell me this, years later when I replaced you with compulsive exercise. You remember the time Daddy came to pick us up after he had shaved off his long beard, and Peter stood at the top of the stairs and refused to come down because he hated seeing Daddy differently.

Here is What I Remember:

Your post-divorce boyfriend Mark Phister and his building that smelled like paint thinner. He wouldn’t come to church with you  so instead your Sunday mornings were spent making eggs Benedict and watching Charles Kuralt. I remember that the two of you were going to open a bed and breakfast and travel to France. I remember seeing him that night we walked downtown. He was sitting on the curb with the paramedics, bleeding. His speech was slurred and his breath: what  exactly did his breath smell like? I remember the unfinished apartment above his antique refinishing studio. Sometimes finding you in there was like a treasure hunt, but I could always find you. Usually in his bed. You would lift up the covers and scoot over as I curled into your side, and we would tell each other our dreams.

I remember his farmhouse table and the bagels he would toast and top with Mrs. Dash and butter, cutting them up as croutons on the salad. I remember his van. Sometimes, when you had been gone for hours, I would walk to the park to look for you, and there you would be, by the lighthouse in his van talking. I remember his son and his dog Yessa and the monologues he would have with Martha Stewart while he was cooking. I remember how funny he was. He could make my brothers laugh so hard they cried, and I wondered why if he was so funny he made you cry so much.

I remember Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Van Morrison, NPR, and Lake Wobegon. I remember how you kept caramel nips and red licorice in the drawer next to the fridge and Häagen-Dazs ice cream in the freezer, one big spoonful for your coffee every morning. I remember Peter and I used to jump from the balcony onto the couch when you weren’t home and we should have died, but we never got hurt. I remember that Peter always ate all the Frosted Flakes, and Elliott hoarded the graham crackers. I ate malt-o-meal while we stood at the counter over the floor heater as the hot air blew up at us.

I remember the day my first grade crush Drew Adams was supposed to come over for lunch, but his mom called and said he was sick. I wondered if he was really sick, or if it was me, because maybe I wasn’t pretty, or maybe it was because we were poor, but I didn’t think we were poor. I remember the time I was learning to drive and Elliott took me to Fresh Air Park. It was dark out, and I drove up onto a boulder and the tailpipe fell off. Elliott drove me home but he had to pull over so I could puke. When we got home and told you what happened, you said, “Well hell, there’s nothing we can do about it tonight. Let’s have some wine.”

I remember you used to take baths every night. I would sit on the tile floor next to the tub, and you would cover your vagina and breasts with washcloths so all that was visible was your flat stomach, the one you pinched and sighed in disgust over. I remember your hair, a shimmering silky grey and your skin, milky, smooth, and unblemished. I remember when you wouldn’t eat, but insisted that I eat more than I was hungry for. You would say, “You don’t really need to eat that much when you’re a grown up.”

You used to tell me I was big boned. I never knew if that was a compliment, but I do know that I’ve always tried to be small—except when I want to be a woman, and then I don’t know what I’ve tried to be except submerged in water, covered in rags.

—Megan Okkerse


In my house — Sheela Clary

In my house I have always had the last word, except when Dad was visiting.

When the mudroom was painted, I put up an Irish blessing/curse. I like its surprise ending.

May those that love us, love us.
And those that don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn’t turn their hearts,
May He turn their ankles
So we will know them by their limping.

I lie in bed and imagine the routines of single mothers on the infrequent nights when Jim goes out with his uncle, or Tim or Grigori.

To the visitors who perk up when I mention that the house dates to 1783, I point out the wide, uneven floorboards upstairs. I tell them about the newspapers Jim found inside the walls, so old the Ss look like F’s, reporting news about the Papal states. If the visitors like that story, my older daughter usually jumps in about the gravestone for an 11-year-old girl who died in 1810 that lies somewhere in the trees behind the house.

Jim built an addition with a mudroom, our bedroom, a laundry room, our son’s room, and two bathrooms downstairs. I worry that the new upstairs part isn’t necessary, especially the additional bathroom. I grew up in a house for four people with four bathrooms.

There are thousands of small, hard, Leggo pieces. They are not confined to the plastic bins Jim’s mother brought in from Target one day and left on the kitchen table, along with a note offering to help us organize.

I often prepare Bolognese sauce on homebound afternoons. It takes three hours to simmer down the water, milk and wine out of the sauce to a thick consistency. Then I use an immersion blender to blend the meat, tomatoes, onions, carrots and celery into a red brown mush my son will eat.

The kids don’t need to be told what to do or were to go to build up a fire in the fireplace. Jim gently supervises the workings of fire, tools, and wood.

My family creates surprises for me in the basement. I receive these gifts on random evenings throughout the year instead of flowers and chocolates and lingerie. A miniature stable made of twigs and moss, three painted birdhouses, a low bench for the mudroom.

There are several blank walls. One has a print of a shaker apple tree leaning against it on the floor, unattached.

In various chests and drawers there are stacks of undisplayed photos we took when we had just Cecelia, including some from the afternoon she ran around a piazza in Orvieto in her socks because she couldn’t stay still and she was just walking and I wasn’t used to carrying shoes for her.

I worry most about Fiona, my middle child. I worry that a better mother would have prevented her from getting fat, that a better mother would say no cookies and enforce no cookies.

My son Donal complains mostly about the Leggos he doesn’t have, but one morning he complains that there are pictures of only his sisters on top of the bookcase next to my writing desk. I point with satisfaction to my dresser, where I’d only recently cut up a picture of him with face paint on and stuck it in a heart-shaped frame. I’d also noticed the discrepancy.

There was a difficult puppy, and there is still a crocheted baby blanket soaked with her blood in a tightly tied up plastic bag, sitting at the bottom of a laundry basket in the laundry room under my husband’s Carhartts and a jumble of purple underwear.

My father kept his shoes on and gravitated toward the velvety, auburn armchair in a corner of the living room. I worried that Dad would hit his head on the little wooden shelf on the wall above, or that the kids would not be wearing socks, or that he’d ask for the Diet Coke he left in the fridge two months ago for the purpose of having something to drink the next time he visited us.

One afternoon, I stood in the kitchen to hear an update from the hospice nurse via Mom, inserting, “All right,” “See you then.” “Bye.” Then I fell to my knees and keened, and Jim shooed the children outside and came back to hold me.

I keep Dad’s datebook from 2014 on my writing desk. I wonder which day holds his last written words.

I see my father in Fiona.

—Sheela Clary



I used to dance and sway with Violet in my arms and wondered if she remembered a different time, in different place, with a different family.

I first touched Violet’s almond-colored skin when she was two. She wore a daffodil dress and sunshine-colored shoes. But she was terrified, so she cried.  But I loved her, so I cried.

My husband and I bought, packed, and flew a stuffed green frog from San Diego, over a vast blue ocean, to the city of Seoul. We gave it to Violet when we first met her.  I suppose we thought there were no stuffed frogs in Korea.

Violet’s foster mother carried her on her back.  She slept on ours.

I once stood on the shores of the Korean Straight, on the beaches of Busan, the city where Violet’s mother lived. When my feet pressed into the wet sand, and the tiny rocks pushed up between my toes, I wondered if her mother’s footprints lingered or if the ocean swept them away.

When I went to the Korean adoption court, the judge asked me if I would love Violet forever.

When we brought Violet home, many said, “She is lucky she has you.” But no, I was lucky to have her.

Our first weeks together, Violet protested if her feet touched the ground or if I quit moving when she was in my arms. So we walked for hours through the woods and pointed at black-eyed Susans, shasta daisies, and butterflies. When I could finally peel her little body away from mine, my arms ached, and a Violet-shaped sweat stain remained.

Violet was a cupcake her first Halloween.

After she had been home for a few months, Violet crawled into bed with her five-year old sister, Esmae. Their little bodies tangled and twenty little toes peeked beyond polka-dotted sheets.

Violet peed in her pants when her routine was interrupted or if she was nervous. Sometimes, after I removed her soaked clothes, and I cleaned her body, I believed I failed her.

Violet’s first words were, “Eli did it.”  Eli is her five-year old brother.

This summer, Violet stood at the edge of Lake Michigan, just behind our house, and threw rocks into the water. She liked to watch them splash.

Last Friday, when I washed her small three-year old body in the shower, I watched the water weigh down her black curls, cascade over the slope of her nose, and stream onto her round taught belly.

Violet wears lots of dresses but only if she can choose them.

With crayons and pencils, Violet’s eight-year old brother, Zachary, still writes stories about the day she came home.

Violet’s laugh fills my heart. That is why I tickle her.

Now I dance and sway with Violet in my arms and I wonder if she forgets a different time, in a different place, with a different family.

—Whitney Lee


Tracy Williamson

Born and raised in Tallahassee, Tracy Proctor now lives in New York with her three children and a hound dog. Her short stories have earned a Pushcart Prize nomination, won contest awards and been adapted to stage. She’s currently working on an historical novel set in Florida during the Spanish Empire and perfecting her sangria recipe.

Megan Okkerse

Megan Okkerse is pursuing her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing workshops in Charlotte, NC, and is a reader for Hunger Mountain.

Sheela Clary

Sheela Clary has taught English and Latin in the Bronx, Italy and with the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea. She is an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

 Whitney Lee

Whitney Lee is a physician in the Chicago area. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post and Women’s eNews. She is currently an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her husband and four children.


Jul 012016


The following excerpt appears early in Vaseline Buddha (translated by Jung Yewon) yet contains all of the important themes and patterns, including the narrator’s interest in writing non-traditional narratives, his illness, and his reflections on death. It also contains crucial metafictional commentary on how the novel is constructed sentence-for-sentence, with its repeating use of “thought,” the book’s most important word. —Jason DeYoung

Read our review here.


I’m somewhat curious as to what kind of a distorted story will result overall when you devote yourself to the details with no thought to the overall structure. One of the reasons why I don’t write stories with a clear structure or theme is because there’s something about such stories, in and of themselves, that make me shudder with their boredom, and another, because just one look at our reality will show you how far removed such stories are from our reality—or my own life, at least—and how different the truth of our reality is from what’s depicted in them

What I can write is a story that’s not quite a narrative, and is much too obscure and unstable. Not being obsessed with a completed story will create an opening into different territories in novels. A story with gaps and cracks and leaps and loopholes, a story that’s incomplete somehow, may more faithfully reflect real life. What exerts the greatest influence on my life is things without substance, and I’m turning my life into something without substance, and as I regard the struggle against things without substance, or tangible substance, as the only genuine struggle—this problem of mine seems to be a fundamental problem of the world as well—I have no choice but to clumsily write something without substance.

Make it a story, if possible, that’s not full of the power of narrative, a story seeking to break away from narratives whose naivety makes you smile, narratives that are dull because of their inherent tendency to seek power, and because their dull ideas are generally audacious, and their audacious aim to enlighten is inevitably dull. The persistent tendency in me to prevent the unfolding of a story, and the belief that there’s no narrative to life, could perhaps make that possible. There are, of course, people who believe that there’s a narrative to life, some of whom seek to turn their own lives into something with a narrative, through whatever means possible, and some of them do so with ambition, and some write narrative texts, and some reveal their ambition without hiding it, for it’s difficult to hide such an ambition when you have it, but among such people, there are probably some who come to realize that in the end, their lives can’t be a narrative, and that a narrative is not a principle that penetrates life, and turn their attention to something that’s not narrative. What I want to write is something  that depicts the fragmentary aspects of life, which are like a tangled skein, in a fragmentary manner, something that reflects my own life, which in itself is a great chaos, by creating and maintaining chaos, the greatest constituent of life.

Perhaps I seek to write something that’s fit to be read on a rock in a forest you come to while on a daily walk, or in a café on a street where you’re traveling. I would bring into my story fragmentary stories whose pages, turned by the wind, can be read at random, stories that allow you to close your eyes while reading and dwell for a moment on a scene that can be taken out from the book and savored, stories that are far from being narrative. Even when I talk about the anecdotes, they will be stories that are not quite narratives, stories that cannot be narratives. Perhaps even as I talk about the anecdotes, I could talk about my impressions on the anecdotes and the thoughts created by those impressions, preventing the anecdotes from developing into narratives.

What I seek to emphasize as I write this story, which perhaps says nothing, and in which something becomes nothing when the standards are changed, or whose meaning or importance changes (Some of the stories I tell could end up being told somehow even though I had no intention of telling them, or tried not to tell them. And there will be almost no difference between some of them, even if there’s a difference between those that are told and those that are not told), is not the story itself, but ways in which stories are told (The ways would include saying something that doesn’t seem to make sense at one glance in a clever way so that it does make sense), and ideas that prevent something from degenerating into a story—ideas that prevent a story, even as it is told, from developing into a story in the end, or at least into a complete story—or, since many ideas come from things, something that is developing into ideas on things, or thoughts on thoughts I’m thinking, or on the pleasure or the difficulty of thinking, or thoughts on pleasure or difficulty itself.

And I’d have to subdue the various voices within myself that raise themselves or speak simultaneously—some of the voices seem to plead some kind of a difficulty, and some of them are on their way to understanding a cruel, merciless heart—or give weight to one of the voices. I’d have to close my ears to the end to the nastiest of them all, and press and suppress it, the voice that comes from the part deepest within me, the voice that denies everything, the voice that is used to silence or has learned to be silent.

Perhaps that is the result of a certain conflict between a figure I have designated as the first person narrator of the story I’m writing and myself, for it could be difficult for a narrator, who feels uncomfortable that the author’s voice slips in, and that his autonomy is violated, and the author, who sticks his head out while hiding behind the narrator, to speak in one voice. I already sense that the figure I have designated as the narrator would spoil the fun of the figure identified as the author, and dash cold water on the thoughts that the author has, possibly leading the author to stand up to him even more for fun, and the person actually writing this story could find himself in an awkward position between the narrator and the author, and have a difficult time arbitrating between the two and side with one of them at times, but find himself in an ambiguous position at times (Perhaps this story will be written by at least three people), and I’d have to write so that a calm tone and a cheerful tone cross and collide like dissonance, so that the unity of tone is broken, and tell the darkest story in the most cheerful way, or vice versa.


Anyway, there are other thoughts I’m obsessed with now, thoughts about death. Thoughts about death, of course, have always followed me around, and I’m as familiar with death as I am with the spots on my body I’ve had since I was born.

In light of the fact that although many things in life seem predetermined, nothing, in fact, is predetermined, and that you yourself can decide everything at every moment, and if you think carefully, very carefully on that fact, there come moments in which suicide, the best choice you can make, becomes very alluring, and such moments come to me far too often.

What I think about mostly, however, is death in general, not suicide through which I would murder myself, and not actual death, but something abstract, like the memory of a day when you shivered terribly in the cold, or a feeling you had upon seeing an abstract painting, or a sudden thought you have when looking at a dead fish, still intact, on your plate in a restaurant.

It’s summer now, and in full bloom by my bedroom window are trumpet creepers, which are known to be toxic, or which I somehow came to believe are toxic, though I don’t know whether or not it’s true, and which I could touch by reaching out a hand, over the wall of my neighboring house, and looking at them, I think of death once again. For some time, I had indulged in the idea that the toxin in the showy flower could make me die slowly, or at least go insane, and felt a strong desire to eat a trumpet creeper, and at one time had to realize that desire in another way, by coming up with the sentence, When a trumpet creeper dressed in the wrong clothes is going round and round many horses, you need to make an effort to row and go to the bottom of the lake.

Summer was always the most difficult season for me to endure; in any case, it was difficult for me to feel that way about any other season besides summer. It was difficult, at least, for me to do so as I did about summer. And that was because I thought summer was a difficult season for me, that it was inevitably a difficult season for me, but there really were aspects about summer that gave me a difficult time. For several years when summer came around, I felt that the summer would be difficult to endure, and each time, summer came to me as a season that would take me to a point of no return. Thus, summer seemed to be a season I had to stand up to, and I thought I could write something about an exhausting struggle and tragic loss of a summer, with the title, “The Record of a Summer’s Struggle,” or “The Record of a Summer’s Loss.” And I considered using one of them as the title of what I’m writing, but concluded that they were more fitting as the titles of certain periods you went through.

Nevertheless, I managed, barely, to endure through several summers that came to me, and was faced with another summer. And yet, although I didn’t know the exact cause—for I didn’t try to find out the exact cause—my condition was steadily growing worse, and so for a long time, I had a sort of a belief, the belief that I, or my condition, wouldn’t improve, that it would never improve, that it could go terribly wrong at one point, and the belief seemed excessive in a way.

But when this summer came around, I passed out in my house, as if through a miracle that comes to someone who has unshaken faith and clings to it, as if through the realization of a long-held belief, and the incident was something that had been foreseen through dizziness that had been growing worse for a long time, and I’d prepared for it in my own way, that is, by not doing anything. My terrible negligence of everything made that possible for me.

The physical ailment that I’d imagined would come to me, however, was seizure or leg trouble or something of the sort. I’d also thought at one time that if one of my legs became impaired, I could procure a nice cane, and with three legs, now that one had been added, take more complicated, rhythmic steps, which wouldn’t be possible with two legs (I actually took a very careful look at an old woman with bad legs at the park one day, taking modest steps, relying on a cane, submitting to a certain rhythm, and afterwards when I saw normal people walking, they seemed somewhat stupid and awkward. And if I carried around a cane, I could raise it and politely scare off a dog on a walk with its master, delighted to see me and about to come running even though we didn’t know each other, and prevent it from coming toward me, or use the cane to make the dog come closer as it changed its mind while coming toward me and refused to come any closer, feeling threatened by the cane I was holding or by me, holding the cane, or, before all this happened, I wouldn’t have to chase away the tiresome dogs one by one, for the dogs could lose their nerve early on, seeing the cane, and not come close. And as occasion demanded, I could scare someone off, acting as if I would beat him if necessary, even if I didn’t actually beat him with the cane, or I could, using the cane, pluck a ripe apple or a rose, hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, at a height I couldn’t reach with my hand. I’m of the opinion that anyone passing by should be allowed to pluck an apple or a rose hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, but once, I was caught by the owner while plucking a rose, and was somewhat humiliated. The owner of the house was a philosopher, well known to the public, and he was furious at me, as if quite upset that one of his roses had been stolen. The aged philosopher seemed to be of the philosophy that nothing that belonged to him should be taken away from him by anyone. But it was my philosophy, if I had any philosophy at all, that something so small as taking an apple or a rose without the owner’s permission should be allowed on this earth, still the only planet among the countless planets in the universe known to have life forms. A world in which you couldn’t pilfer a luscious fruit or a rose while taking a walk on a bright afternoon or in the middle of the night would indeed be a world without hope. After that, I saw the philosopher in front of his house, severely scolding a dog, though I’m not sure if it was his dog or someone else’s, or what it had done, and he was scolding it as menacingly as he did when I plucked one of his roses. In other words, I was scolded by him just as the hapless dog was scolded. Mercy was possibly the ultimate sentiment that a human could have toward other humans and living things, but it seemed that he had no mercy. He always seemed fraught with anger, and it was possible that he became angry even with his desk or dishes from time to time).

Nevertheless, the culmination of the persisting poor condition of my body in the form of dizziness seemed to be something that suited me as the final outcome, although I hadn’t secretly anticipated it, and it felt a little like a miracle when it actually happened because I’d been hoping in my heart that something would throw my life, which was much too tranquil in a way, and almost unrealistic—I had an earnest desire to disturb a stable condition, even as I sought stability—into confusion, albeit slightly.

When I was severely dizzy, I felt as if I were suffering from seasickness on land, and I accepted dizziness as my natural state of being by thinking that I knew that I was on a rotating earth because of my dizziness, and that dizziness was something quite natural you could feel on the earth, in this dizzy world, and sometimes, even when I kept still, I felt as if I were standing on a slab of ice floating down the river, or as if I were falling slowly, while at the same time soaring with an infinite lightness, into a seemingly bottomless space devoid of gravity, but also as if I were sinking, like some kind of a sediment, deep into the ocean where enormous pressure weighed down upon me, and at the same time, I felt as if my entire body were a building that was collapsing, unable to endure its own weight after many years.

But the dizziness I felt was something that could not be described properly through any color, shape, texture, figure of speech, or anything at all (One day, it seemed as if the floor of my room were slowly tilting this way and that—one of the symptoms of dizziness I felt could be described in this way—and it seemed that if there were balls on the floor, they would roll around here and there, but the problem seemed to lie in that I couldn’t free myself of the thought that my dizziness wouldn’t cease so long as it felt as if the nonexistent balls were rolling around on the floor and I failed to make the balls come to a stop), and I was frustrated, while at the same time fascinated, by the impossibility of describing the dizziness—I felt a bit of joy that I couldn’t describe the dizziness, which was purely because I was thinking about how easily the modifier “indescribable” was accompanied by the word “joy”—and thought that the only adjective that could describe it, inadequate as it was, was “uncontrollable (But is this an adjective?),” and that the dizziness some people felt was something that separated them from others, and would be as distinct and diverse as their personalities or appearances.


The moment I lost consciousness, I felt as if I were clutching the hem of a woman’s long skirt, that I was grasping it with more strength in my hand than was necessary, but I thought that in reality, the strength in my hand that was grasping it was leaving, and when I woke up after being unconscious for I don’t know how long, I was, in fact, loosely clutching the hem of the curtain on my kitchen window, made of thick velvet.

But what I couldn’t understand, above all, was how I’d woken up by the window, which was several steps away from the living room, when it seemed that I was in the living room when I collapsed. Perhaps I walked slowly toward the window the moment I collapsed, losing consciousness, or crawled quickly, when it wasn’t necessary, like some animal that
crawls quickly.

The sudden swooning brought me a peculiar sort of pleasure, but I couldn’t tell if it was because I could think that I was clutching a woman’s skirt hem, even as I lost consciousness and collapsed—I wasn’t sure, however, if this very Kafkaesque experience was an experience of Kafka’s, penned in one of his works, or my own—or if there was an inherent pleasure that could be found in the loss of consciousness, a pleasure that could be found if you sought to find it. The moment I lost consciousness, I actually thought that I was pulling and taking off a woman’s skirt, a daring yet rude thing to do, but one that was delightful in a way, and also thought that I couldn’t help laughing, though it wasn’t something to laugh about, but I don’t think I actually laughed.

The swooning also brought a peculiar sort of satisfaction, for there seemed to be an infinite space within the dizziness of swooning through which I could spread out infinitely, after being sucked up into the whirlpool of dizziness because of dizziness. And the incident gave me a sense of anticipation, a great sense of anticipation, for more to come in the future (Anticipation is a very strange thing, making you anticipate such things, and making you, at times, anticipate your own fall and decline above all).

Having woken up by the window, I felt as if I could lose consciousness again at any moment, and everything seemed like a lie, and I thought somewhat clearly that everything seemed like a lie, in a way that was different from the way in which life itself seemed like a lie, but that there was nothing strange about it. In the end, I felt an acute pain in my knee joint, which had been bad for some time, and while trying to focus on it, wondered, This pain, where’s its origin, and when was its origin? but it occurred to me that these expressions weren’t correct, so I wondered again, What is the origin of this pain? and wondered if this expression was correct, as I lost consciousness again, and this time, I woke up in the bathroom. I couldn’t remember how I’d made my way from the window to the bathroom, and why there, of all places, either.

Sitting crumpled on the bathroom floor, and feeling great sorrow this time, I thought that I’d never be able to regain my consciousness if I lost it again, and agonized over whether I should stay where I was, hoping to get better, or go to the emergency room, and if I were to go to the emergency room, how I’d get there, and thought that I’d never gone to the emergency room in an ambulance and felt an urge to do so, but in the end, I called a taxi, and while being taken away in a taxi, I clenched my hand tightly, as if I holding onto a string of consciousness which I’d lose forever if I let go, and thought that it wouldn’t matter that much even if I did lose consciousness, as if falling asleep, on my way to the hospital, and again thought, somewhat playfully, that if I swooned again, I should make sure to grab the hem of a woman’s skirt.

I got to the emergency room, and lay on a bed without being able to properly explain my symptoms to the doctor, and as he took certain measures, I wondered whether or not I should let go of the string of consciousness, and felt a strong desire to do so, even while fighting against it, and saw the curtains flapping in the open window, and remembered that it was while I was staying cooped up in a hotel in New York that I thought, looking at the curtains that were flapping in the same way, that I wouldn’t go outside unless a gigantic sailboat, with a full load and the sails taut with wind, entered through the window, and the memory brought me a strange, almost unbearable pleasure.

—Jung Young Moon translated by Jung Yewon


Asia Talks: Author Jung Young Moon
Jung Young Moon is the author of numerous works of fiction including Vaseline Buddha, A Contrived World, A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and A Man Who Barely Exists. Jung has also translated more than forty books from English into Korean. In 2005 Jung participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Jung Yewon

Jung Yewon is the translator of One Hundred Shadows, by Hwang Jung-eun. She is also the translator of No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin and one of the co-translators of A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Jung Young Moon, both published by Dalkey Archive as part of their Library of Korean Literature series.


Jun 302016

Asia Talks: Author Jung Young Moon
Meditative, challenging, narratively haywire and comic…the thoughts and memories of a man whose life for some time now “has been a long and difficult and tedious yet pleasant struggle against realism.” —Jason DeYoung


Vaseline Buddha
Jung Young Moon
Translated by Jung Yewon
Deep Vellum, 2016
$ 14.95


What lies at the source of thought, the nameless narrator of Vaseline Buddha asks, what do you finally reach when you cast thought back to its source, “like a fish that swims upstream”? Nothing, he promptly tells us, nothing is to be found at the source of thought. The source of thought is just more empty thoughts, “just as nothing lies at the source of everything.”

Meditative, challenging, narratively haywire and comic, Vaseline Buddha is an enigmatic, time-bending odyssey through one man’s thoughts and memories. But these are the thoughts and memories of a man whose life for some time now “has been a long and difficult and tedious yet pleasant struggle against realism.” Can we trust what he tells us? No, as he often explains at the end of his stories, some things really happened, others didn’t, or perhaps did happen but at a different time, which he manipulates through narrative into happening simultaneously with other events. “How easy is it for such words to be without truth?” This Vaseline Buddha, it’s slippery.

Described as South Korea’s tallest, most handsome author—just look at the introspective guy above, and that hair!—Jung Young Moon was born in 1965. His literary debut was in 1996 with A Man Who Barely Exists, a title that hints at another character staring down the liminal. He has since published several novels and collections of short fiction, and he has translated nearly forty books by such authors as John Fowles, Raymond Carver, and Germaine Greer. Vaseline Buddha is the first novel of Moon’s to come out in English this year: Dalkey Archive Press will release A Contrived World soon. Dalkey Archive also released a mesmerizing short story collection by Moon called A Most Ambiguous Sunday in 2014. This collection was my first experience with Moon’s work and I remember being beguiled by how uncommonly strict and topographically flat his prose read, and how confidently he wrote about boredom and doing nothing and made it work. Here’s passage from “The Afternoon of the Faun”:

I felt bored, and thought dimly that boredom was saturated in nature and was one of nature’s primary characteristics, and thus what a person would feel when they became a part of nature; I had the vague thought that the boredom of nature was different from the boredom of the city, the streets, or the house, because out of all the various types of boredom, the boredom of nature gives you the most dense and intense feeling.

Vaseline Buddha­, fresh out from Deep Vellum, is also about ennui, as much of Moon’s work is. It opens with the narrator (who is also a professional translator) sitting on his windowsill, thinking about writing a story, when he sees a thief attempting to climb into a window. The thief is startled, falls, and runs off. This incident is the inspiration that starts the meditative text that then runs for 226 pages and begins with: “For some time, I’d been in a constant state of lethargy… But an urge to write was awakened within me as if the thief, who went away without actually doing anything, had done something to me…The vague stories that I’d tried to write down but had escaped me began to blossom little by little, and I wanted to give them a vague form that suited them.”

His vague form, in the end, is circular. Vaseline Buddha is written presumably over the course of a year, starting in summer and wrapping up in late spring. Images that appear in the beginning reappear at the end, and in between there is always this push toward not making meaning or of writing something without substance. It is these things, those without substance, which “exerts the greatest influence” on narrator’s life, hence he sees no option but “to clumsily write something without substance.”

Parts of Vaseline Buddha read like automatic writing, wandering associatively topic-to-topic, while other parts are clearly designed to feed into the narrator’s intention, such as his mediation on the following line of poetry from John Hollander’s “Coiled Alizarin”—“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” The line, we are told, is an example of a grammatically correct sentence “that has a logical form but makes no semantic sense and thus has no intelligible meaning, and can be discussed at different levels.” This idea of something that’s logical in form yet without intelligible meaning is what the narrator of Vaseline Buddha is after.

So what comprises a non-novel novel? The narrator would like for you to think that there’s no structure to this work, a work he would like for you enter and “get lost, like setting foot in a world from which you can’t extricate yourself.” But there are clear repetitions and patterns at play here that, yes, deny the design of the conventional novel, but function as stand-ins for traditional form.

Take for instance the overall plot, which is to write something without substance. He’ll return to make this point in various ways, reiterating it, reflecting on how he’s doing. The subplots of Vaseline Buddha, in turn, are stories meant to demonstrate or exercise this wish for senselessness. They include philosophical discussions about the nature of writing and reality, travelogues that are intentionally pointless and meandering, description of the narrator’s dizziness and the rooms he lies in while trying to recover, asides and fantasies about animals for which the narrator is particularly drawn, various and unsatisfying encounters with women, and the narrator’s fondness for Paul Morrissey’s Trash, a movie that he watches “without an expectation,” and shows him “how powerful saying nothing could be,” and becomes one of the best movie he’s seen.

Trash, Paul Morrissey (NSFW)

Among the eclectic comic tales in the novel which range from Yasser Arafat’s affection for Tom & Jerry, a farting German woman on a trampoline, and a turtle-licking cow is an existential seriousness. “[T]here were no grounds for my existence anywhere,” says the narrator, “the idea that everything in existence existed by accident, that inevitability was only a part of a tremendous accident, was something I could never shake off, and made my life so difficult, and yet so easy.” In addressing this difficulty and ease, he ends up overloading the novel with the “everyday,” with the stuff of his existence, with the banalities of his life, in an effort to show how most of life is fairly pointless. The title itself is part of this spew of life-stuff. Toward the end of the novel, a friend gives the narrator a cheap wooden[1] Buddha statue which the narrator suddenly has the cockamamie thought of covering in bandages and Vaseline, which he then thinks would be a good title for what he has been writing. All these vague little stories and thought about writing, he thinks, could be titled Vaseline Buddha—”the name was something that could be given to something indefinable, something unnamable, and also meant untitled.” It sounds good, but its meaningless, empty, just the sort of things that would go above some vague text.

Vaseline Buddha never gets too deep into Buddhist teachings, or at least not in a direct way like when when the narrator starts going on about Wittgenstein, whom he admires for his gardening. But there is definitely Buddhist thought at play, especially when the narrator writes about accepting all human emotions and the nature of reality, which might be beyond the grasp of our linear vocabulary:

I imagined creating a self-contained world of my own in which communication was impossible and unnecessary. Perhaps the very thing that constitutes a person’s inherent nature is something that can’t be understood by others. Only the thoughts that I couldn’t share in their entirety with another person seemed to be my genuine thoughts. I thought that the emphasis on communication, rampant among people and even forced upon them, was so excessive that, in a way, it kept a man from squarely facing the fact that he was, in the end, alone.

Eastern and Western philosophies merge in this text, and echoes can be heard of Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and Dōgen’s admonition “If you want to travel the Way of the Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.” What the narrator seems to be saying is that the life is is important, and it isn’t. It’s meaningful, and it isn’t. The novel is important, and it isn’t.  It’s perhaps best to accept these duel natures.[2]

A lot of the publicity materials around Moon’s work call him Korea’s Beckett, and tag his work Kafkaesque, which is true, but the influence of Thomas Bernhard (without all the disgust and aversion) can be felt too. The novel is marked by a hyper-precise language that often wrest the surreal from the weary reality of its narrator, and translator Yewon Jung deserves credit for a masterful translation of what is presumably difficult Korean into English sentences that boldly loop and twist:

I kept on thinking that I should, not submitting to it, in a way, commit an atrocious act of some kind. But it helped to have had my fill of such undesirable thoughts about swans. By having various thoughts about swans, I could keep myself from actually doing something to them. Thinking a lot about something was a great way to keep yourself from carrying your thoughts out into action, although, of course, it depended on the way you thought. By thinking a certain thought, you could think that you’ve carried the thought out in action, or done something more.

Jung Young Moon’s work is remarkable for its eccentric modes of thought and how it tests the limits of the novel and our notions of what fiction can do. It looks beyond the basic form and asks important secondary questions of where fiction is left to go. It also reveals crisply the cryptic nature of everyday life, which if examined with deep seriousness, will inevitably lead to deep absurdity—and that makes its futility somewhat pleasing.

—Jason DeYoung

N5Jason DeYoung

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


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Not to be confused with a “Vaseline glass Buddha”—although I’m sure Moon delights in the possible confusion.
  2. “Our body and mind are both two and one…our life is not only plural, but also singular.” Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shambhala Publication, Inc., 1987. Page 7.