Mar 142016
 

Lina Wolff

The real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. — Mark  Sampson

Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs
Lina Wolff
Translation by Frank Perry
And Other Stories, 2016
$15.95

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Men are dogs. This is the prevailing theme of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, a debut novel that has already turned Sweden’s Lina Wolff into a literary sensation. Wolff’s project – a text at once fragmented enough to pass for a short story collection and yet untraceably centred on the character of Alba Cambó, a writer of violent, horrifying tales who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – draws a connection between the canine-like nature of human males and the limitations of revenge against their more animalistic natures by women. Setting Alba’s story mostly in colourful Barcelona, Wolff renders it into a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, told through the eyes of her friends, lovers, and acquaintances.

Wolff’s own life seems as kaleidoscopic as the story she has created. She has done stints in both Spain and Italy, and now lives in southern Sweden. She has published one previous book, a short story collection called Många människor dör som du (Many People Die Like You; Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2009), which was met by strong reviews. She writes with an unmistakable focus on feminism – but it is a peripatetic feminism, one that looks to travel widely across the expanse of gender dynamics, and to hit them from a multitude of angles. Ironically, one of her biggest literary influences appears to be French shit disturber Michel Houellebecq, whose own work makes a deliciously comic appearance in Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs.

Wolff’s novel’s title is explained by the back-cover copy, but readers will be misled if they think the following is a summation of the whole book: “At a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, the prostitutes are collecting stray dogs. Each is named after a famous male writer: Dante, Chaucer, Bret Easton Ellis. When a john is cruel, the dogs are fed rotten meat.” In actuality, this sequence comes relatively late in the novel, and yet captures the very essence of book’s theme. Here it is, narrated by character named Rodrigo Auscias, a man who once had a threesome with Alba and one of her casual boyfriends:

We’ve got a kennel and the dogs in it are all named after famous writers, she had said. Whenever some guy pays us a visit and is nasty to us, we give the dogs rotten meat. I couldn’t help laughing at the whole idea at the time. Passive rebellion is what they call that, I informed her. When you’re powerless, passive rebellion is what you come up with. It’s also called projection. You make the dogs suffer for what the men have done to you because the dogs are weaker than you. It’s like a father who abuses his children because the factory owner has forced him to work too hard.

Rodrigo goes on to ask where the women got the idea from, and the say they were once visited by an “intellectual feminist” who planted the seed in their minds. This term, passive rebellion (one might also dub it a kind of low-level terrorism), has, the reader will now realize, played a huge role in the various chapters that have preceded this scene. This idea of punishing an animal for the sins of a person has appeared a couple of times already in the novel, with the murder of a canary in one chapter and the boiling of a cat in the other. With a sharp, unflinching eye, Wolff shows us that revenge can take many strange, off-kilter forms.

Yet the real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. This lack of a traditional narrative arc allows Wolff’s imagination and talent to sore: there were several points throughout the novel’s episodic approach where I was wowed by her out-of-left-field audacity and the unexpected twists in the turn of events.

A summary of these sequences would prove to be as disjointed as the novel itself. The story begins with an unnamed narrator recounting the time that Alba was spending time with one of her lovers, a man named Valentino, and informed him after a romantic episode together that she was in fact dying from cancer and would not be around for very much longer. The novel then shifts and we soon learn who this narrator is: a young girl named Araceli Villalobos, who lives in the same apartment building in Barcelona as Alba. We learn that Alba is gaining notoriety in the neighbourhood for publishing a series of brutal, feminist-infused short stories in a magazine called Semejanzas (Spanish for “Similarities.”) The most memorable of these pieces involves a man who kills himself after humiliating himself at his own surprise party by farting loudly just before turning on the lights.

The story soon shifts as Araceli learns of a woman from South America named Blosom who is living with Alba. Alba attempts to pawn off Blosom to Araceli and her mother as a kind of live-in housekeeper. After that happens, Wolff takes us on a detailed, first-person tour of Blosom’s life. We learn that she was once married and had a young son who was killed in a traffic accident. We also learn that Blosom began an affair with a married man while working as his housekeeper, right under his wife’s nose. The tension in the household comes to a head during a scene in which Blosom is helping the wife, whose name is Jessica, take a bath. This was one of the most audacious scenes in a novel full of them:

“You’re a pretentious little ignorant cow,” Jessica cried. “Is that what got drilled into you while you were growing up, that there’s nothing more important than giving a man a child? Hah. Along with all those Venezuelan soaps you watch. that’s soft porn for old ladies, all of them thinking the best thing you can do for a man is to give him a child and then the women are left with chains around the ankles and a ring through the nose, stuck with life in a cage. Fortunately, Vicente doesn’t belong to the old school. He doesn’t actually want to have children.”

Our eyes met in the mirror on the other side of the bathtub. I hate you, I thought. I hate you so much it’s killing me.

“You’ve got something in your hair,” she said.

“What?”

“It looks like sperm.”

“Well it’s not that.”

“Would you mind washing it off, please.”

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is full of these kinds of jarring, shocking sequences, and they infuse the novel with an inventiveness rarely seen in contemporary fiction. As we go along, the perspective of the book changes once more. By the time we meet a girl named Muriel, a classmate of Araceli’s at the translation school where she is studying, we get a sense of just how decentralized this book’s structure is.

Eventually we loop around to the story of Rodrigo. He has his threesome with Albo and her casual boyfriend Ilich. Ilich uses his cell phone to film part of the encounter and threatens to reveal the video to Rodrigo’s wife, Encarnación, unless Rodrigo agrees to help him. What does Ilich want? He wants Rodrigo’s help breaking in the Spain’s competitive timber market. It’s actually more compelling than it sounds. Rodrigo does what Ilich wants of him and he comes to think he is now free of the man. But Ilich shows up one day at Rodrigo and Encarnación’s apartment in a scene that is rife with domestic tension. The section concludes with Rodrigo watching as his wife descends into a harrowing alcoholism that he cannot stop.

Themes of cruelty and of vengeance churn through this book at every turn, to the point where such acts feel completely normalized. Yet Rodrigo, in detailing his encounters with Alba and Ilich, offers a powerful counterbalance to the notion “passive rebellion” discussed above:

I have no political convictions. I don’t give a damn about politics. People with political convictions frighten me. People who are willing to sacrifice themselves for an idea are also willing to sacrifice other people for the same idea. That applies to people who have been the victims of injustice as well. They are the most dangerous people of all because they believe themselves entitled to revenge.

This one passage helps to snap so much of this novel into focus. The idea that revenge is an entitlement, even if (or, in the case of passive rebellion, especially if) the victims of that revenge are not the same individuals who victimized you in the first place, feels very much like a contemporary preoccupation. The entire world, this book is seeming to say, is full of randomized violence and cruelty, and ideas of “motive” or “blame” may very well be passé in this new reality. Wolff’s dark vision of how our world now operates is a disturbing, but deeply compelling, one.

— Mark Sampson

NC

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Mar 132016
 

Georgi-Tenev

In Party Headquarters Georgi Tenev reduces the traditional novel with its linear time, clear relationships, memory and complex characters to an indissoluble essence. Characters, for example, are nameless—they are merely bodies or even types. Memory, hallucination and current narrative merge creating a fluid world where time is relative. —Natalia Sarkissian

party headquarters

Party Headquarters
Georgi Tenev
Translation by Angela Rodel
Open Letter, 2016
Paper, 123 pp., $12.95

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Almost thirty years ago, in the early hours of April 26, 1986, at Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4, staff and emergency workers rushed headlong into the exploding core, oblivious to the chunks of smoldering graphite leaching radioactivity. Nearby, the water in the Pripyat River boiled. Fires burned. Ash rained down. Bodies melted, or they sickened, shriveled, died. Evacuation was slow for those living in towns closest to the catastrophe, while for others—for example in Communist Bulgaria—the news was kept from the populace. In fact, in Bulgaria, in the days and months afterward, only the families of elite Communist party officials were tested and cared for. Because Chernobyl had shown that the Soviet atom was unsafe—perhaps the Soviet system itself—the average Borises and Natashas were kept in the dark, their bodies left to soak up iodine-131, caesium-137, strontium-90 and radionuclides. Then, a mere three years later, the Bulgarian Communist Party Boss was deposed; the year after that Communist Party Headquarters in Sofia were torched by demonstrators. A new, transitional era was ushered in.

These historical events—the fallout, both radioactive and political—loom large in Georgi Tenev’s short novel, Party Headquarters. Set during the transition from communism to democracy (1989-1990s), Party Headquarters was first published in 2006, and now, with Angela Rodel’s translation into English, is available for the first time in English from Open Letter books.

An experimental work, organized into three short chapters which are, in turn, divided into non-chronological, discrete sections of memory, fantasy, and thinly disguised historical fact, Party Headquarters tells of tortured relationships and revenge. Gradually the reader pieces together the story. The protagonist, a nameless, ex Pioneer/Comsomol member who is obsessed by the past, must retrieve a suitcase full of money ($1.5 million)—an ill-gotten slush fund—from a Hamburg bank for an old communist party boss, “K-shev”.

 K-shev bears a close resemblance to real-life strongman Todor Zhivkov. Not only does K-shev (like Zhivkov) keep quiet about Chernobyl, but he inflicted “the whole horror of experiencing communism, or socialism—call it what you will” on the country. But unlike Zhivkov, in an ironic twist of fate, K-shev is infected with leukemia and languishes in a Hamburg clinic. This may or may not be the “final proof needed to deify him once and all. [Because he is] A strange sort of god ready to die […] from an illness […] we ourselves all feared becoming infected with.”

 Symbolically, the protagonist is K-shev’s son:

“He, the old man, makes love with the body of the motherland. This love gives birth to thousands of children and he organizes them into Pioneer battalions….”

The protagonist may even be K-shev’s son-in-law; the reader is never quite certain. What is clear is that he dreams of thwarting the old man’s wishes for glory after death by having his body cremated and his ashes scattered in outer space where “everything brought along from earth will lose its significance.” His revenge also includes “collision[s] of love” with a body/the bodies of women who may be either K-shev’s biological daughter or they may be symbolic daughters of the motherland. As the protagonist explains, “she is still a part of his body and he is present in hers…[It would be] the mirror of my masculinity, if it didn’t represent above all the risk of being accused of a crime.”

The novel opens in the middle of one vengeful physical encounter:

Even without the tears I still want to hit her, painfully hard. But when she cries it just gets out of control. The victim’s magnetic attraction inflames the perpetrator. I’m driven to tears myself—out of frustration that I can’t force myself to finish it off, to do absolutely everything I want to her. In exactly the order I would like.

If anyone were to see us at this moment, bawling, locked in this torture chamber at opposite ends of the bed—in the middle the bloody sheets are stained with wet spots, but not from blood, lymph, vaginal secretions, sperm, or who knows what else—could it be that some other beings are copulating here with us?—at that moment the shocked outside observer would think we are crying for each other, for ourselves.

Wrong. An incorrect judgement, a faulty interpretation of ambiguous facts. I’m not sorry. What can I say?

The protagonist’s desire for revenge resides in the exposure—to radiation, to socialism—that he suffered as a child, participating in Communist children’s Pioneer camp activities:

We had no way of knowing […] a few days earlier, a thousand kilometers to the north and east, Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl had exploded, under the watch of the Fifth Shift [….] A strange taste invade[d] my lungs, the scent of ozone—what does ozone smell like anyway?—at least that’s what I tell myself now as I try to grasp something more, a greater meaning and importance held in those last few moments.

And the question I add to all this today: why didn’t anybody call out to us, tell us to come back? So many secrets in such a short time….

Just as under socialism—we do and did everything correctly, yet life, the world, continues to collapse beneath our feet like a reactor that has entered a runaway state of nuclear meltdown. Is there any need to explain what those two great liberating words mean: chain reaction?

A reaction that breaks chains.

With Party Headquarters Georgi Tenev won the 2007 Vick Prize for the Bulgarian novel of the year. A 1994 graduate of Bulgaria’s National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, Tenev (b. Sofia, 1969) studied under experimental Bulgarian artists such as Margarita Mladenova and Ivan Dobchev. A founder of the Triumviratus Art Group, he has written a number of novels, short stories, plays and screenplays that have been performed in Russia, Germany and France. In a recent interview, Tenev says his background in theater has strongly influenced him. “[It] taught me self-discipline: no mercy for the text, no respect for verbal beauty merely for the bon mots.”

It is evident that Tenev also experiments with structure. In Party Headquarters he reduces the traditional novel with its linear time, clear relationships, memory and complex characters to an indissoluble essence. Characters, for example, are nameless—they are merely bodies or even types. Memory, hallucination and current narrative merge creating a fluid world where time is relative. Roland Barthes’ zero point of literature may have been one influence. As the author states through his protagonist: “I had discovered the zero point within the system of coordinates. The place where everything begins and ends.”

The text has been skillfully translated by American Angela Rodel, one of the most prolific translators of Bulgarian literature today. The recipient of a PEN grant for the translation of Tenev’s collection of short stories, Rodel’s collaboration with Tenev here has yielded a book of haunting beauty built upon unexpected imagery. Pared down to the essential, there is no room for sentimentality.

Consider:

She, of course, is a virgin. And I press down on that barrier with the whole weight of my body, as if poured into a funnel. A whirlpool that changes my own anatomy: at the very bottom, in the center, the point that I flow through—this is where my heart is. And my belly button as well, and maybe even some steaming spot on my back has been sucked down into this vortex. While up above, all at once my head, legs, and bangs are the leftover silt in the funnel.

And:

I’m radiating rays, I’m lit up. Glittering nucleotides bursting from my body in all directions. The water tastes unbelievably bitter in my mouth, the stinging air envelops my hands, all the hairs standing on end in my skin shoot out arrows. Butterflies fall all around me, along with stunned spring sparrows, the frogs in the marshes don’t finish their jet-propelled jumps. The water fleas, legs splayed on the surface of the pond scum, lose their electrical footing. The miracle of walking on translucency has broken down.

Populated by bodies—corpses, near corpses, prostitutes, Pioneers, astronauts, lovers grappling with each other—Party Headquarters is a “bodily adventure,” as the protagonist says; fittingly so for survivors of nuclear catastrophe:

“The body, the flesh transforms itself according to its own laws [.…] no connection is more bodily than inheritance, which makes up the whole of you, yet which you also desperately want to get rid of more than anything.”

A disoriented and disorienting world, with bodies shattered or glowing with unnatural light, is Tenev’s dazing yet dazzling result.

—Natalia Sarkissian

NC

Natalia Sarkissian

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

Mar 122016
 

Agualusa_by_Lara_Longle-1

Ludo’s central role—a forgotten and then unnoticed eye in the sky spying on others, later thought of as an invisible goddess—and her predicament as an outlier figure who is part myth, part creature, and part human (something stemming, perhaps, from Agualusa’s love of South American fiction and its magical realism tradition), affords Agualusa distance from what he want to depict.  —Jeff Bursey

AGeneralTheoryofOblivion_CatCvr_2

 

A General Theory of Oblivion
José Eduardo Agualusa
Trans. Daniel Hahn
Archipelago Books
Paper, 249 pp., $18.00

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I. José Eduardo Agualusa (b. 1960) often treats the troubled past of his native Angola, a former Portuguese colony, in an ostensibly light manner, the hints of violence, treachery, conflicted identity, and desperation communicating the meanness of life during the War of Independence (1961-1974) and, especially, the civil war that followed (1975-2002).

In his International Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The Book of Chameleons (2004, English translation published in 2007) Agualusa mixes the tale of a gecko infused with the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges with the daily life of his owner, Félix Ventura, a man who reinvents the histories of clients eager to cover over their civil war activities. Several characters Ventura has dealings with serve to fill in the picture of a country undergoing an uneasy and fragile transition from hostilities to peace. There is menace in this tightly wrapped story to both main parties, from different sources, and without giving anything away, it can be said that the atmosphere around the amusing or profound thoughts of the Borges gecko act like a lantern held up against a darkness that could swallow everything.

My Father’s Wives (2007, English translation published in 2008) examines racial issues and mediums that people choose to share stories: music, oral history, and literature. Agualusa undercuts their truthfulness (emotional and factitious) by mingling the tales of characters who seem real with those we are told, almost assured, are not. Well before the end of this clever, poignant novel we are becalmed in a sea of lies, half-truths, and possible realities, forced, like those we’re reading about, to adapt to ever-changing conditions. Where we land depends on what we choose to believe. Here, as in The Book of Chameleons, there is a fine degree of control over a debilitating existence lived under almost constant strife and mayhem.

II.

Many of the same themes are present in A General Theory of Oblivion (2013; English translation published in 2015), which is set between the mid-1970s and the early 2000s. (It would be wrong to regard or dismiss the persistence of Agualusa’s themes as obsessive or tiresome sifting and resifting of material. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John Dos Passos, and William Vollmann, along with many more, have rescued important and hidden facts from historical oblivion and worked to keep alive the memory of incidents that plunged entire peoples into despair or periods of ferocious activity, and they have contributed new angles from which to analyze obscure and well-known events. Similarly, Agualusa is mining a rich and deep national memory and has much to tell readers.) The cast recalls those from the previous books: strong women, women praised for their beauty, ignorant men, thick-headed and greedy men, victims of tragedy, and the kind-hearted. Above them all is Ludovica (Ludo) who has accompanied her sister, Odete, and her new brother-in-law, Orlando, from Portugal to Angola just before independence is brought about. She is the figure Agualusa focuses on. Through her, despite her isolation in an apartment building, we are given an overview of Angolan history and society.

Well before leaving for a new life in Africa, Ludo could not stand being outdoors (she “never liked having to face the sky”), which means she is drugged for the flight to Luanda, the Angolan capital. When unrest first breaks out in the city streets, with demonstrations preceding armed warfare, followed by the overthrow of a government, a brief cessation of complete hostilities, and then the decades of factional fighting involving Angolan, Cuban, South African, and other soldiers or insurrectionists, she stays, as she always has, in her missing relatives’ apartment—they attend a party one night and never return—fending off robbers with a pistol before erecting a wall that seals off the apartment entrance from the rest of the building. As conditions throughout the capital and the nation deteriorate and people flee the country, the other tenants vanish until Ludo is, perhaps, the only one remaining. Her company is an albino German shepherd (perhaps a sly allusion to German South-West Africa, an older, colonial name for Namibia, Angola’s southern neighbour) she christens Phantom. She has many books to read and, for a short period, a working telephone, radio, and phonograph. For food she at first relies on a stuffed pantry and crops from seeds Orlando had planted in his terrace. Covered in a cardboard box with eye and armholes to protect her from the sky, she attends to this tiny, life-sustaining garden, catching water from rainfalls when the municipal systems start to fail. But it is often dry, electricity dies, and supplies eventually run out:

The hunger came. For weeks, weeks as long as months, Ludo barely ate. She fed Phantom on a flour porridge. The nights merged into the days. She would wake to find the dog watching over her with a fierce eagerness. She would fall asleep and feel his burning breath. She went to the kitchen to fetch a knife, the one with the longest blade there was, the sharpest one, and took to carrying it around attached to her waist like a sword. She, too, would lean over the animal as he slept. Several times she brought the knife to his throat.

Over the course of the many years spent without other human company that she wishes to contact—for after a while the apartment building attracts new residents—the window is her sole connection with the outside world. It is also a protection against it, and an apparatus to help her eat, for with the appliances long dead Ludo can only cook on sunny days, thanks to Orlando’s magnifying glasses that focus the sun’s heat. When a monkey enters her garden she is ruthless. Eventually the crops she planted assist with her and Phantom’s food needs.

Ludo writes her thoughts down in a series of notebooks, and Agualusa gives us some of those entries, as well as later ones using other surfaces (always presented in italics):

The days slide by as if they were liquid. I have no more notebooks to write in. I have no more pens either. I write on the walls, with pieces of charcoal, brief lines.

I save on food, on water, on fire, and on adjectives.

Further:

I carve out verses
short
as prayers

words are legions
of demons
expelled

I cut adverbs
pronouns

I spare my wrists[1]

Burning furniture, books, and paintings keeps her warm. Her eyesight is going. Life is getting truly desperate, and then a young boy, Sabalu, begins bringing her food, though he starts as a thief entering her apartment through the window while she sleeps and stealing what looks valuable. His own life story changes once they talk. By the time he shows up, well past the halfway mark, we have met others who, while unaware of Ludo, are linked to her and to each other.

Ludo’s central role—a forgotten and then unnoticed eye in the sky spying on others, later thought of as an invisible goddess—and her predicament as an outlier figure who is part myth, part creature, and part human (something stemming, perhaps, from Agualusa’s love of South American fiction and its magical realism tradition), affords Agualusa distance from what he want to depict. Angola’s almost unremittingly traumatic modern history is an immense and complex set of subjects that here is addressed using Ludo’s panoramic view (but a view, as stated, that is decreasing in ability until she has only “peripheral vision”). While her solitary position doesn’t allow her to become involved with anyone but Sabalu, indirectly, through her family and location, she plays a part in the lives of many others as they, in time, come to do in hers. One of the people who, early in the novel, had been after Orlando’s “‘jewels’,” about which Ludo knew nothing at the time, and a Marxist officer he once was in conflict with, meet just outside the apartment on the same day that others, whose lives we have seen in partial ways, also congregate there. Sabalu had broken through the defending wall, with Ludo’s consent. As in a murder mystery—and there are aspects of the detective novel present—the loose threads are tied up, old wounds are given a chance to heal, mysterious sounds explained, a “sea goddess called the Kianda” finally accounted for, and a long-standing absence is revealed at the midway point.

Many of the other characters—Arnaldo Cruz (a sometime political activist turned businessman, more commonly referred to as Little Chief), Magno Moreira Monte (an intelligence officer), Jeremias (a Portuguese soldier), and Daniel Benchimol (a journalist), to name a few—receive time in the narrative for their stories to be fleshed out. Their lives contribute to the seediness and criminality (societal criminality as distinct from crooks) of Angola, as does advocacy journalism, to dovetail with Ludo’s singular story. It’s by design that she is in an equivalent of a Panopticon overlooking a lawless, somewhat formless state where, as Agualusa has shown in earlier novels, no one feels safe, identities and fortunes are fluid, ideologies (Marxism and capitalism) are opportunistic equally, and outside interests (Cold War powers, smaller countries near and far) and factions work to dismember the nation. Splintering the narrative among these assorted characters helps convey their society’s pandemonium and recklessness.

That centre point is also a symbol for something else. Only a boy can break into the apartment, through the window that is Ludo’s eye; that same orphaned boy, who calls Ludo Grandma, breaks down the wall she constructed as a barrier against the world so he and she can emerge. Windows, walls, and doors can be many things, including hymens, and in a metaphorical sense Sebalu and Ludo are reborn when the wall comes down, this time into a changed world, surrounded by those who are not quite family, but close. At the close of the novel what we hear of Ludo’s childhood might make us reconsider what’s gone before, ponder the multiple meanings residing in the imagery, and appreciate the connection of Ludo’s early life to her acceptance of Sabalu.

III.

In addition to what’s been discussed above, there are other significant features about this book: the first concerns the language of the writing itself, the second Angolan history.

As with other books by Agualusa, each translated by Daniel Hahn, there is attention paid to how to phrase characters’ thoughts and on how to squeeze just the right amount from certain conceits. Trapped and cut off from news, Ludo speculates about what is going on, often in language inspired, perhaps, by the many books she has read: “I’m afraid of what’s outside the window, of the air that arrives in bursts, and the noise it brings with it…. I am foreign to everything, like a bird that has fallen into the current of a river.” In order to explain one man’s disappearance another man invents the tale of his being swallowed by the ground, which matches the vanishing of planes and villages. There is a dancing hippo. People are not recognized for who they are: everyone has an opportunity (and a motive) to be new, or at least camouflaged, in this country that’s a work-in-progress. When Ludo has to convert her library into fuel she feels “…as though she was incinerating the whole planet. When she burned Jorge Amado she stopped being able to visit Ilhéus and São Salvador. Burning Ulysses, by Joyce, she had lost Dublin. Getting rid of Three Trapped Tigers, she had incinerated old Havana.” (This reflects Angola’s own hellish environment.) Descriptions of scenery and nature are used sparingly but effectively: “That afternoon they knocked down the fence and crossed to the other side. They found a bit of water. Good pastures. The wind began to blow. The wind carried heavy shadows along with it, as though it were carrying night, in shreds, yanked away from some other, even more distant desert.” Plain speech used by such people as soldiers and Little Chief is as carefully written:

There were guys locked up for diamond trafficking, and others for not having stood to attention during the raising of the flag. Some of the prisoners had been important leaders in the party. They took pride in their friendship with the President.

“Only yesterday the Old Man and I went fishing together,” one of them boasted to Little Chief. “When he finds out what’s happened, he’ll get me out of here and have the morons who did this to me arrested.”

He was shot the following week.

As in The Book of Chameleons and My Father’s Wives, one feels safely guided by Hahn through the multiple voices and tones of this diverse cast.

The second topic arises from Agualusa’s interest in making sure there aren’t any loose ends: Is history over for Angola? What I mean to suggest is not that the history of a nation can be wrapped up once and for all in narratives (there will always be more stories, and then there are the counter-narratives), but that, to my mind, the conclusion of A General Theory of Oblivion unwittingly indicates that events can come to a neat close. Agualusa’s propensity to connect the actions of his characters, and the characters themselves, as attenuated as they might appear, though it functioned well in the earlier novels, comes off here as overtly predetermined. Ludo, for example, has a background that is useful to link her to Sebalu, but since they become family quickly enough as it is, when the narrative provides us with that story it is, by then, unrequired and in any case too familiar. Certain characters glance off each other and are forever paired, and this happens many times, too many when you dwell on the length of time of the action—decades—and the gigantic sprawl of the canvas, thereby provoking a disbelief, and shutting down critical sympathy. Less reliance on clearing up every mystery could have resulted in a more satisfying novel, especially since there is so much that is bloody and messy. The communal and personal histories combine, as they often can, but more disorder and loss—what Ludo described as being swept along by her adopted country in its long state of turmoil—would have removed the feeling that we are reading something that is artistically schematic and contrived to finish in a burst of sentimentality.

Despite that reservation, one that may be chalked up to personal preference, José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion has much to recommend it. This short novel, written with confidence and poise, contains sharply sketched characters, an evolving and engaging main narrative around Ludo, and years of conflict succinctly summarized and easily understandable.

—Jeff Bursey

NC

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

 

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. In the acknowledgements Agualusa thanks “the Brazilian poet Christiana Nóvoa, who at my request wrote Ludo’s poems…”
Mar 122016
 

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Present in this excerpt from A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn, are some of the recurring themes of the novel: rescue, rebirth, metaphysics, and an example of unexpected kindness alongside violence involving individuals, factions, and nations, as well as the hint of remorse, perhaps on the way to redemption. The language is relaxed and the details vivid. In the last lines those who engage in brutality are said to acknowledge the power of words. Put another way, Agualusa shows that civilization is held in regard even as vengeance, chaos, and an eternal thirst for more, threaten to swallow his country. —Jeff Bursey

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Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. Or occasionally, desistances. Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin. Jeremias Carrasco had something very like this happen to him. He awoke, after facing a careless firing squad, in a bed that was too short for his six feet, and so narrow that were he to uncross his arms they would both hang down with their fingers touching the cement floor, one on each side. He had a lot of pain in his mouth, neck, and chest, and terrible trouble breathing. He saw, on opening his eyes, a low ceiling that was discolored and cracked. A small gecko, hanging directly above him, was studying him curiously. The morning was coming in, wavy and scented, through a tiny window high up on the facing wall, just below the ceiling.

“I’ve died,” thought Jeremias. “I’ve died, and that gecko is God.”

Even supposing that the gecko was indeed God, he would appear to be hesitating about what fate to assign to him. To Jeremias this indecision was even stranger than finding himself face-to-face with the Creator and the fact that He had taken on the form of a reptile. Jeremias knew, and had known for quite some time, that he was destined to burn for all eternity in the flames of Hell. He had killed, he had tortured. And if he’d started off doing those things out of duty, obeying orders, he had later acquired a taste for it. He only felt awake, whole, when he was racing through the night, in pursuit of other men.

“Make your mind up,” said Jeremias to the gecko. Or rather, he tried to say, but all that came out of his mouth was a dull, tangled thread of sounds. He made a second attempt, and, as in a nightmare, the dark rush of noise came again.

“Don’t try to talk. Actually, you’re not going to talk ever again.” Jeremias believed, for some moments, that it was God who was condemning him to eternal silence. Then he turned his eyes toward the right and saw a hugely fat woman leaning against the door. Her hands, with tiny, fragile fingers, danced before her as she spoke:

“Yesterday they announced your death in the newspapers. They published a photograph, it was quite an old one, I almost didn’t recognize you. They said you were a devil. You died, you were reborn, and you have another chance. Make the most of it.”

Madalena had been working at the Maria Pia Hospital for five years. Before that she had been a nun. A neighbor had witnessed the shooting of the mercenaries at a distance and had notified her. The nurse drove to the site on her own. One of the men was still alive. A bullet had passed through his chest, on a miraculous, perfect course that hadn’t hit a single vital organ. A second projectile had gone into his mouth, shattering his two upper incisors, then perforating his throat.

“I don’t understand what happened. Were you trying to catch the bullet in your teeth?” She laughed, her body shaking. The light seemed to laugh with her. “Yes, sir, those are some good reflexes. And it wasn’t even such a bad idea, either. If the bullet hadn’t found your teeth, it would have taken a different direction. It would have killed you or left you paralyzed. I thought it best not to take you to the hospital. They would take care of you and then when you were recovered they’d only shoot you again. So be patient, and I’ll look after you myself with what little resources there are. I just have to get you out of Luanda. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hide you. If the comrades find you, they’ll shoot me, too. As soon as possible we’ll travel south.”

She hid him for nearly five months. By listening to the radio, Jeremias was able to follow the difficult progress of the government troops, supported by the Cubans, against the improvised, unstable alliance between the UNITA party, the National Front, the South African army, and mercenaries from Portugal, England, and North America.
Jeremias was dancing on the beach, in Cascais, with a platinum blonde, and he had never been in a war, never killed, never tortured anyone, when Madalena shook him:

“Come on, Captain! We go today or never.”

The mercenary sat up in bed, with some effort. The rain was crackling in the darkness, muffling the noise of what sparse traffic there was at that time. They were to travel in a little old van, a Citroën 2CV, its yellow bodywork badly worn, eaten away by rust, but with its engine in perfect working order. Jeremias was stretched out on the backseat, hidden by various crates of books.

“Books instill respect,” explained the nurse. “If you carry crates full of beer bottles, the soldiers will search every inch of the vehicle. Besides which, you’ll get to Moçâmedes without a single bottle left.”

—José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn

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Mar 112016
 

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The Portuguese island of Madeira, a ‘pearl of the Atlantic’ situated 850 kilometres west of Marrakech, is known as a place for people who like to walk. Retired hiker types from northern Europe flock here year-round to trek the levadas – an ancient and seemingly endless network of irrigation channels that criss-cross the island. The levadas flow between high mountain peaks, through banana and eucalyptus groves, and up on the wild north of the island through the primeval, UNESCO-protected laurel forest that at one time covered much of southern Europe. The trails are mostly flat, making them surprisingly easy to walk: they transport water, and water doesn’t like to travel uphill. It’s all so beautiful, beautiful, the visitors say. ‘Come to walk!’ the tourist brochures say. Walk walk walk, levada levada levada. And flowers.

That’s all fine, but it’s not my Madeira. I’m a dedicated pedestrian and academic (possibly in that order), and I’ve lived on this island for the past three years. I don’t do a lot of levada walks unless friends are visiting, but I get my share of exercise. I move around almost exclusively on foot, except when I buy groceries and take a taxi home. What I mostly see of Madeira are the streets of the capital, Funchal. To walk in Funchal is to walk almost constantly at a slant, on a near-vertical slope. Since settlement in the fifteenth century, the city has gradually climbed up the side of the steep volcano whence Madeira was born. Nearly every house, including mine, enjoys stunning views across the Bay of Funchal. This distinct and dramatic urban landscape, seen from street level at walking pace, is the Madeira I inhabit.

Madeira streets

Taxis have trouble reaching my house. When I tell them the name of my street, they mutter under their breath and slap the dashboard of their ancient canary-yellow Mercedes-Benzes. Most drivers already know me: I’m the tall estrangeiro, the One Who Walks, the non-tourist who cabs it. Funchal is a small city; I think a lot of people know me this way. My boss told me that his father once pulled him aside and asked, ‘Nuno, are you paying the new estrangeiros enough? I often see the tall one in glasses walking by the side of the road – like a stray dog!’ My boss explained that the foreigner liked to walk, though I’m not sure he understands it either. When I walk home from work, the last stretch up to my street has me bent so far forward that I can reach out and touch the ground in front of me. People driving past eye me with a blend of suspicion and pity; a couple of the friendlier ones have stopped to offer me a lift.

It’s a typical weekday morning and I’m standing in a ditch by the roadside. I’m thinking of Samuel Beckett, whose characters I remember were always hanging out in ditches – just hanging out, their lot being simply to represent our debased state as human beings. I can relate to this. I lean back and press myself against the dirty wall, my feet deep in cast-off drink containers, as a bus passes inches from my face. There is a blast of exhaust-filled wind and a deafening noise as the bus shifts up to the next gear, then silence. The sky is a high, hazy blue and I’m on my way to work. I step out of the ditch and continue along the single-lane bidirectional road with houses like walls, no sidewalks or trees or grassy boulevards. If I reach out with my broad wingspan I can almost reach both sides.

Julian1

Parked cars are a huge pain in the arse. I’m tempted to key the car blocking my path, a BMW that’s far too big for such a small island. I even fantasize about walking right over the top of it – I could do it! But instead I wait for a break in the morning rush hour traffic, the cars taking turns to go around it. Even on roads with sidewalks it is difficult and dangerous to be a pedestrian. Cars use the sidewalks as parking spots; somehow they’re immune to ticketing, it’s a populist government and everyone drives. So pedestrians – me, the One Who Walks – are forced to walk on the road. Sometimes I squeeze my passive-aggressive body between the parked car and the wall, snapping in the wing mirror as I pass. Often there are people sitting in these parked cars, why I’ll never know. They’re always playing Candy Crush. My defiant mirror-folding gesture is lost on them. They either ignore completely my body squeezing past their window, refusing to look up, or they act like I’m crazy, like I’m in their space. Hey pal, careful with that wing mirror!

I’ve had some minor altercations. Once I broke the wing mirror off a parked car – it was already taped up, I hardly touched it – and the woman yelled at me as she opened her door a crack to snatch the mirror back from the ground where it lay. Another time it was more serious. I was waiting to cross a busy road, and people kept driving through the zebra crossing. One, two, three cars. When the fourth car approached I started to step out, to signal that it was, in all fairness, my turn to cross. The guy kept driving through at high speed, nearly hitting me. As he drove past me I lifted my leather satchel in a way that was half defensive, half threatening. He was so close that it made contact and clipped the wing mirror – oh those wing mirrors! The mirror came right off. (The satchel was full of books.) There was a loud crack and it went sailing through the air and landed with a tumble, skidding briefly along the road. The Fiat Panda screeched to a halt. The guy was nineteen or twenty, wearing cut-offs and a Cristiano Ronaldo haircut, and he jumped out and started cursing me in Portuguese, calling me the son of a whore. If we had been in North America I might have been worried, like afraid he’d pull out a gun or a bat. But I was twice as big as the guy, if rather willowy and professorial looking, and when I swore back at him in English and shook my satchel full of books he jumped in the Panda and drove off, waving his fist in retreat. I crossed the road.

Julian9

Every morning I start my commute walking straight downhill. I often break into a run because the incline is so steep. Suddenly I’ll hear a car and flatten my body against the wall as the driver passes with a blank stare or an absentminded wave. After fifteen minutes downhill it levels out for a bit and then I usually put in my earbuds and start back up another hill to get to the university. It’s great exercise – so much that I crave it restlessly when I work from home. But I also go through a lot of shoes, stripping the soles right down to my socks every few months.

Being a pedestrian in Madeira is all about humiliation. It’s impossible to ignore, a nagging voice you can’t drown out with the loudest music or the most engrossing podcast. I remember spotting a fellow academic once when I was walking home from the university, a visiting lecturer from MIT. He wore a thick red beard and spectacles and earbuds like me, and he was walking in the opposite direction. I gave him a hail-fellow-well-met but he didn’t notice. He was evidently deep in thought, taking long strides, and he paused to step into the ditch when a bus drove past. Here was my doppelganger; my own humiliation externalized.

So why do I walk? I’m a grown man, with a decent job, and yet just the other day some moron in a Peugeot sprayed me with wiper fluid. Why do I spend my mornings and evenings walking along the gutter – breathing diesel exhaust, dodging dog shit, stepping over abandoned pairs of underpants – instead of cruising the winding roads in a climate-controlled Audi A3 like my colleagues? I’m not cheap; I’m not particularly sporty either. I don’t climb mountains and I’ve never kayaked. What’s wrong with me? Am I afraid to drive? Am I a masochist with psychogeographic tendencies?

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For a while, until I thought better of it, I had considered calling this essay ‘Foreigners, Deficients, Dogs’ – in the end I worried it might be taken the wrong way. I was riffing on the infamous ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ sign that used to hang in lodging house windows in Britain. (I happen to be Irish as well as Canadian.) The use of the offensive-sounding term ‘deficient’ was meant to be an ironic commentary on the Portuguese word deficient that is still used to label people with various mental or physical challenges. Although I see almost no other pedestrians on my morning commute, every morning I walk past two guys with Down’s Syndrome at different points in the journey. They both look about my age, and they possess the same determined, slightly harried look of the pedestrian in a hostile landscape that I must also wear as I walk along the ditch. This being southern Europe, one guy is always smoking; the other guy shouts a loud ‘Bom dia!’ just at the moment he passes me, and I shout back to him over my shoulder. The ‘dogs’ in the hypothetical title were a reference to the packs of stray dogs that I pass every day: usually six or eight in a gang, oddly laid-back and unintimidating despite their size and number, some of them limping after run-ins with cars. The foreigner, of course, is me – and the visiting lecturers who don’t know that nobody walks in Madeira. On this island, we are on the margins – quite literally – while drivers occupy the central space.

There are really two questions I ask myself most days: ‘Why do I walk?’ and ‘Why do I live in Madeira?’. Sure it’s sunny here, but so is San Francisco. After years of living in Madeira my Portuguese is still pretty terrible. Am I afraid to compete in the great northern cities of industry? Perhaps, although I’m fairly certain I could get a job elsewhere. There must be more to it.

If I dig deep, I think it’s that I love the contrast – between the breathtaking beauty, the tropical flowers and sun and sea on one hand; and the plague of traffic and stupidity and all kinds of human failings, which are universal failings, on the other. Anyone who has travelled in southern European cities like Athens or Barcelona or Naples, not to mention the cities of the global south, knows this contrast and its peculiar frisson. Something about the ugliness and beauty of human life, the union of pain and pleasure, is ultimately why I live here and why I walk. I like things to be difficult. I don’t want to be insulated from the pain any more than I already am; I don’t want a life of easy pleasures. Before I moved here I lived in Vancouver and found it depressingly dull, so polished and sensible and fit. I don’t want to give up the hard pleasures that you earn by seeing the world at street level: I want to see what people in cars never see, and breathe the air they don’t have to breathe – even if it kills me.

— by Julian Hanna

(Photos by Simone Ashby. To see more, visit Instagram @tar_island.)

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Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.

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Mar 102016
 

Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days explores allegiance to family, to friends, to ideology. It is a story of Jewish identity, and of persecution. It is a story about boundaries and the borders between nations, between people, between ideas, between faiths. It is about the divisions we create within ourselves and the horizon where life meets death. Here is a novel that seeks no less than “the weave of life in its entirety.” — Frank Richardson

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End of Days
Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions, 2016
Paperback $15.95, 240 pages

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When I discovered Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, I remember how disappointed I was that I would never get to review this remarkable novel. Susan Bernofsky’s translation of Aller Tage Abend had been published in 2014 by New Directions, had won major literary awards, and had received a plethora of accolades from critics across the globe. Damn it, I thought—how often does one get the opportunity to write about such a gem? But, it’d been done and done well, and I had a thesis to write anyway. Six months later, while trolling publishers’ websites, I was delighted to see the novel was being released as a New Directions paperback. Fate and a generous editor would grant me a second chance. Erpenbeck has penned a novel of rare excellence and beauty, a novel of questions that lets you swim in possibility, and it’s all about second chances.

Born in 1967 in East Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck studied theater directing with Heiner Müller, has worked with Werner Herzog, and has had a distinguished career directing in opera houses in Germany and Austria. In 1999, she published her first prose fiction—the eerie, fable-like novella The Old Child—which quickly garnered international attention. For her first novel, Visitation, she won the Hertha König Prize 2008, and for The End of Days she won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2015) and the Hans Fallada Prize (2014). Her most recent novel—Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Knaus, 2015)—was short-listed for the 2015 German Book Prize. An English translation from Erpenbeck’s long-time collaborator Susan Bernofsky is, hopefully, forthcoming. The End of Days is the fourth of Erpenbeck’s books translated by multi-award-winning Bernofsky, noted for her translations of Robert Walser, Hermann Hess, and Franz Kafka. Her translations of Erpenbeck’s fiction have won numerous prizes including the 2005 PEN Translation Fund Award (The Old Child), and for The End of Days she won the 2015 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and the 2015 Ungar German Translation Award.

The End of Days explores allegiance to family, to friends, to ideology. It is a story of Jewish identity, and of persecution. It is a story about boundaries and the borders between nations, between people, between ideas, between faiths. It is about the divisions we create within ourselves and the horizon where life meets death. Here is a novel that seeks no less than “the weave of life in its entirety.”

Possibilities

It is the year 1902 in a small provincial town in Galicia, present day Ukraine, near the border with Poland. A mother drops handfuls of dirt into the open grave of her baby girl who died mysteriously, her breathing simply stopped. She will not be consoled and imagines her daughter’s life—her playing the piano, her coppery hair, her aiding her mother in old age. She thinks about the mound of earth that tops all fresh graves, that for her child’s it should be as “huge as the Alps,” symbolic of the potential her daughter has lost. The eighteen-month old girl is, however, the protagonist of this story, and she will be resurrected and die four more times.

The 240-page novel is organized as a series of five numbered books of roughly equal length. Each book explores a possible life for the central character, unnamed until book three. The books are separated by short (three-to-eight page) “intermezzos” that serve as segues; here especially the narrator explores what might have been. The concept of a multiverse—that all possible lives are lived in all possible universes—isn’t new, and many authors have used the conceit of parallel universes, but The End of Days isn’t that kind of novel. Not really. The main plot, loosely based on Erpenbeck’s family, follows a single character (let’s call her H.) from her birth in Brody to her life in post WWI Vienna, her joining the Communist Party and emigration to the Soviet Union, and her career as a writer in the German Democratic Republic. Periodically, throughout the course of this plot arc, Erpenbeck’s narrator presents a scenario where H. dies. She then presents a contrary scenario in an intermezzo and subtly opens a new, yet linked narrative. The resulting effect suggests multiple lives, and while her solution looks straightforward and easy, it is a testament to Erpenbeck’s artistry that she can shift the direction of her narrative so effortlessly.

Great characters ground great books, and H.’s diverse histories reflect her complex character. She is courageous, stubborn, willful, loving and loyal, but capable of spite. She is an artist, a writer of novels, stories, and radio plays, who writes “in defense of the beautiful and true.” With each book, her desires shift with her fortunes: in Vienna she falls in love with her best friend’s fiancé while struggling to avoid starvation; in Moscow she must literally write for her life, either to succeed and become a Soviet citizen, or fail and die in a gulag; and in East Berlin, at the height of a brilliant literary career, when faced with losing all she has ever known, she longs most for contact with her son. In an interview Erpenbeck said she wanted “to look at the question of how present death is in our lives, and how our paths change when people close to us remain or leave.” And so, while H. is the focal point, the subplots of richly imagined secondary characters swirl around her. Here, Erpenbeck doesn’t waste a word showing us the regret of H.’s grandmother:

That morning, for the sake of her daughter’s happiness, she had sold her daughter’s happiness. Sometimes the price one pays for something continues to grow after the fact, becoming too expensive long after it has been paid.

Each book comprises numerous short chapters (many only a paragraph long). A third-person omniscient narrator limits herself to a single character in each chapter and shifts focalization with chapter breaks. After some focalization shifts Erpenbeck uses pronouns without antecedents, deliberately blurring the point of view, asking us to acknowledge that all her characters could share the life she describes. This can be slightly confusing, but the character’s identity becomes clear from the context before confusion turns to frustration and rereading. Few characters have proper names, one of the author’s trademarks. Although the linear chronology begins in 1902 and ends ninety years later, in some books Erpenbeck employs nonlinear time as she shifts character focalization, e.g. in the fourth book, while days pass for one character, for another character time is suspended in an instant. Despite multiple books and chapters, changes in character focalization, and use of nonlinear time, the narrative is a harmonious, resonant whole, a vision of the ramification of our lives and the consequences of our choices.

Forking Paths

Borderlands

Erpenbeck leaves no detail unexamined in her intricately interwoven patterns of images, metaphors, and symbolic associations. Given that she grew up in East Berlin, perhaps it is not a coincidence that the primary images of The End of Days are borders, although she writes (Paris Review) and speaks fondly of her childhood and adolescence.

First, there are the geographic borders: H. is born in a border town, and after both World Wars, the borders of Europe are redrawn; Germany is divided. There are subtler borders of place, and propriety—for example, a friend must drop a letter across the threshold of a window since to hand it to the receiver would constitute working on the Sabbath. Then there is the border between faiths: after marrying a Christian, H.’s Jewish mother is left “hanging between two worlds.” While trying to reconcile her imminent death in the Soviet Union with her decision to join the Communist Party, H. questions the “irreversibility of good and evil” and “whether hope had boundaries or not.” And, at the end of her life, ninety years old and slipping into dementia, H. confronts the border between memory and oblivion. As in reality, the link to the ultimate border, death, comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the vagaries of nature—a cold front results in a frozen puddle that turns one’s course toward a deadly encounter. Sometimes the cause is a conscious decision, suicide the only answer. Sometimes the whim of a petty bureaucrat sends you to Siberia, and sometimes it is just the inexplicable, absurd folly of falling down the stairs.

While this strong pattern of boundaries serves as the backbone of her novel, Erpenbeck uses a myriad of other recurring, interconnected images. To cite just one example, H.’s heirloom collection of Goethe’s complete works appears throughout the course of the novel. The books figure prominently during the episode when H.’s grandparents are attacked; the scene is replete with border imagery, including: the boundary between inside and outside their home; the threshold of an opening onto the roof and the violent tug of war between the mob and those who are trying to flee; and the boundary of life itself. Each time the books appear, including volume nine with its scraped spine from where a rock hit it during the attack, we are brought back to this scene. Sometimes specific poem titles or lines of Goethe’s poetry are used to tie the associated images together. Of course, books are made of words, and language becomes a fixation of H.’s father, who concludes we each have our own vocabulary for the “constant translation between far outside and deep within.” The books accumulate various associations as the story progresses and become, in the end, a focal point of sublime reminiscence.

 

Berlinermauer

On Style

Jenny Erpenbeck’s style of prose and her choices for the novel’s organization demonstrate a deep sensitivity to language. The intermezzos serve as borders between possible lives, stylistically mimicking the imagery of boundaries. The last chapter of the first book is an amalgamation of points of view from all the characters up to that moment. From one sentence to the next, then within a sentence, then from word to word, Erpenbeck tells us what the characters are doing (she shifts to the present tense) and what their lives have become in a montage that culminates with the single question that plagues the father, the mother, and the grandmother: why did the baby die? After the reader turns the page, the next logical thought is “But if . . .” and the baby is saved from its mysterious loss of breath by a handful of snow rubbed against her chest. She is revived, and in the first intermezzo we are asked to imagine an alternate life for the young family, the parents never having been burdened with a devastating loss, and the daughter who becomes a young woman. The intermezzo provides an opportunity for reflection, for imagining multiple scenarios beyond the one continued in the narrative.

While it may be imprudent to address prose style in a translated work—after all, isn’t so much of style untranslatable?—nevertheless, Bernofsky’s translation is so expert, so pitch-perfect, it is worth the risk. Regarding the translation, Erpenbeck said in an interview:

I did feel that it was really my book. It was perfectly done. Sometimes her translation is so perfect that I don’t even know the vocabulary she has used.

Erpenbeck’s prose swings between the concise precision of a proverb: “The forest provides the wood for the axe that will chop it down” to the lyrical sinuosity of memory:

For one brief, sharp, clear moment, he understands what it would be like if he could arrive there along with her: The wheat field would be there right from the start, just like the rustling of the leaves at his back, the silence would be filled to the brim—that deafening crack living only in his memory, absent now—and the memory that filled out this silence would be just as real as the footsteps of all the human beings walking upon the earth at this moment, along with their falling down, their jumping, crawling, and sleeping at this very moment, just as real as all that mutely lay or flowered within the earth . . .

Erpenbeck’s longer sentences are not inchoate stream of consciousness demonstrations. They serve, beautifully, the needs of her scenes, her characters, and her themes. When immigrants wait at Ellis Island (a border, intermezzo place), pensive about their admittance into America, the anaphora and rhythm of the sentence becomes the tolling of Donne’s bell:

The people squat, lie on the ground, or sit on benches: people with bundles, bedding, and crates, with samovars, people without any baggage at all, children running about . . . people who are filled with hope, with despair, people who are homesick, frightened, people who don’t know what’s in store for them, people who are wondering where they’ll find the twenty-five dollars for their immigration fee, people who suddenly want to go back . . .

And it’s not an accident that this scene, which occurs in the first book, is echoed in a memory only a few pages from the end of the novel.

***

The End of Days, a book of elegant style and penetrating insight, filled with arresting characters and provocative questions, is a book to come back to a second time, and a third, and . . . who knows how many times? Erpenbeck writes with a gentle intensity—a feeling light as a dream yet so grounded in the moment that if a grenade exploded outside your window, you wouldn’t jump. Although death frames the novel, The End of Days celebrates the beginning of days, for it affirms life’s multiplicity and the potential of every human life. Erpenbeck quotes W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz in an epigraph; in part, he asks—“where will we be going now?” This question vibrates throughout her novel and remains with us as we move on from this book, and this life, to the next.

— Frank Richardson

NC

Frank Richardson bio pict 2

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.

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Mar 102016
 

gayraud3-001Joël Gayraud

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Selections from La peau de l’ombre (The Shadow’s Skin)
by Joël Gayraud,
With permission of Editions José Corti, 2004. 239 pp.

Composed of 410 fragments [17 of which appear below], Joël Gayraud’s seductive work belongs to a grand tradition that stretches from seventeenth-century moralists like Baltasar Gracián to Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Arranged in agreeable disorder, following an approach that gives pride of place as much to reverie as to conceptual thought, to poetry as to revolutionary theory, the texts weave together themes as diverse as dreaming, revolt, utopia, death, childhood, telepathy, and atheism.

Inspired by Castiglione and Nietzsche, Leopardi and Bakunin, Fourier and Benjamin, Gayraud is at once a dreamer—“I am one of those who wake up only to continue dreaming”—and a rebel. An immoderate love of revolt courses through his maxims and inspires such sparkling formulations as: “No one ever revolts too much . . . . It is with revolt as with love: excess gives them life.” It is a logical revolt that comes from afar and “draws its legitimacy not only from the injustice that causes it, but from the immemorial past of rebellion that grounds the human in man”; a permanent revolt that, as soon as it “annexes all historical experience,” develops “into a revolutionary strategy”; a revolt, finally, that could not be reduced to narrow-minded quantitative causes: “The insurgents of 1848, the Communards, or the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square fought less for having (bread, work) than for being (communism, freedom).”

Claiming an ethics of “the internal subversion of the reality principle,” Gayraud does not hide his attraction for surrealism, “the only major attempt to reenchant the world on a secularized magical-mythical basis,” an effort consciously turned towards the future, and aimed at accessing the marvellous of things themselves “as a poiesis immanent to the world.”

Michaël Löwy
review of La peau de l’ombre published in S.U.RR.. 5 (2005)

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Gayraud (born 1953) has written on and translated both classical and modern authors, including Ovid, Giacomo Leopardi, Primo Levi, and Giorgio Agamben. His own, often loosely biographical writings, steeped in the double legacy of surrealism and situationism, comprise not only critical essays, fragments and aphorisms, but also poems and short stories as well as children’s books. These have appeared in collections (Clairière du rêve, 2010, Passage public, 2012, Ocelles, 2014) and in numerous radical and surrealist journals in France, French Canada, and the UK. He lives in Paris, where he taught classics until his retirement.

168. The development of sadomasochistic practices contributes more effectively than many revolutionary discourses to undermining the psychological foundations of power. When, in the intimacy of their bedroom, couples experimented with the game of submission and dominance—even where the sexual roles themselves remain uncriticized, the mere fact that this game took place enables the objectification of old fantasies of domination and slavery—fantasies that, as a consequence of the brutal and barbaric establishment of relations of domination, have been buried deep in the breast of humanity. Aggression, whose sublimation can only rarely be satisfying and whose repression perverts and turns it outward, against society, finds here its direct expression. Above all, however, the pleasure shared as much by the dominant partner as by the submissive one, who incidentally often swap roles, initiates them into a veritable communism of pleasure, experienced as a perfectly antagonistic representation of the social economy. It is then the exercise of exclusive power that appears as a sinister perversion, founded as it is on the capitalization of pleasure and its exclusive appropriation. Everyone who, thanks to sadomasochistic practice, each night purges their self of the libido dominandi by giving it playful satisfaction, albeit one leading to real mutual pleasure, cannot but find the pretension to social domination laughable, ridiculous, and a sign of frustration and mediocrity.

*

1Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015).

244. When I first discovered the beautiful photographs by Paul Nash dating back to the Second World War and showing the carcasses of aircraft that had been shot down, it became clear to me that the inorganic often takes on the appearance of the organic in its obsolescence or destruction. A plane in working order only lets itself be perceived as a simple machine upon which we look with indifferent eyes, except when we are dealing with a new model, in which case it is the machine’s novelty, even its aesthetic, that attracts us. That attraction, however—except owing to highly particular affective connotations—remains wholly intellectual; in truth, we do not doubt for a second that we are in the presence of the purely inorganic. By contrast, in these images of machinery that had crashed to the ground, I saw not a simple heap of metal but an organic system fixed at an arbitrary moment of its decomposition, the twisted scrap iron, the battered cabins, the gaping and rusted motors, forever out of operation, resembling mangled flesh, eviscerated and mutilated bodies—which did not fail to silently stir through the keyboard of my sensibility the strings of a perfectly licit sadism.

In retrospect, I should clarify that, when looking at these images, I never for a moment thought of the crew that had perished in this mass of metal. And, as added proof that I was not guided by this idea even unconsciously, I remember having experienced similar jubilation before an old dismantled rotary press, a gutted piano, or, to go back even farther in my memory, a tube radio meticulously taken apart by a child’s hands. More recently, and this time on the scale of a landscape, I had an analogous impression of Coney Island, having wandered around the old amusement park entirely abandoned to the elements and wild vegetation: the scenic railway and roller coaster, come to a halt, their carcasses covered in a shroud of rust, had acquired a kind of organicity that one could never have attributed to them at the time of their functioning, when their full operation rendered them emotionally invisible. It is doubtless the attainment of irreparability that makes all these metal creatures approach the intimate sense of our own precariousness.

2Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015)

*

181. Just as those seventeenth-century still lifes showing a bowl of fruit, fish fresh out of the water, or a table sagging beneath a heap of venison have only ever provoked my boredom and even repugnance, so, on the other hand, I have always taken pleasure in representations of inanimate objects of everyday life, such as can frequently be seen in the vanitas of the same period. It seems that, if the still life’s immediate effect is to reify the organic entities it depicts, it has the opposite effect on objects and things. The latter, appearing not simply juxtaposed as in a catalogue but, rather, assembled as parts of a whole delimited by the painting’s frame, are elevated to the dignity of organs in a new body, which is that of the painting itself. Such compositions break with the naturalism of their predecessors and, in their mannerism, foreshadow the symbolic function of objects in surrealism or in the boxes of a Joseph Cornell.

*

204. Sometimes when fixing one’s gaze on a rock from a particular vantage point one sees emerge from it the head or the body of a human or an animal. Never, in my experience and in those I have heard recounted on this score, does one see objects that are manufactured or animal forms too removed from us, such as fragments of insects. There is, nevertheless, nothing in the form of the rock that would prevent one from finding them. Doubtless it is that we do not want to find them and hold on to a narcissistic mimetism that makes us search for our of own face or for animals most familiar to us, such as those we have domesticated or those that people our fantasies, our dreams, and especially our nightmares—lions, stags, bears, horses, dragons, and other monsters hailing from mythology enriched by the discoveries of paleontology. Man must no doubt have very quickly understood that nature liked to imitate itself, but that this mimesis was not worried about exactitude and realism in representation; rather, it deformed in stone what had been formed in the flesh, it stylized its features, practicing a kind of abstraction and fetishization of certain elements in detaching them from the whole, in treating them in isolation, in enlarging or shrinking them, in thus playing with the proportions of the different elements being represented. This representation, by nature radically alien to the idea of symmetry, is that of contours and profiles. It is, it seems, the first to have been tried by prehistoric artists. And if we began representing the human face only much later, it is probably because the mask was in use for a very long time.

*

243. Unlike the dialectic of Plato, based on distinction (in the Phaedrus, the dialectician is modelled on the butcher skilled in carving up beasts following the joints of the meat), the dialectic of Heraclitus is based on analogy—on real analogy, which is to say one that grasps the relation of coming together that exists in being. Indeed, if the opposition of two forces lets the bow be drawn and to send an arrow, it must be that these two forces act simultaneously and without mediation. The author of this double action is the archer, but the analogy exists in the very structure of the bow independently of him. Every bow in good condition, thus true to its concept, is capable of shooting an arrow. Put differently, in every bow there already exists the analogy allowing it to actualize the arrow’s flight.

*

259. Our inclination will be to accrue the implicit and the vague, to multiply paradoxes, but also to enhance the lenses of vision so as to make of the smooth surface of things a landscape deeply cut with valleys, bristling with wild mountain ranges, riddled with potholes and crevasses, in order to rediscover the labyrinth of the living beneath the cellophane of scientific certainty. This is precisely what Leopardi did when, in his Zibaldone, in a striking change of focus, he describes a charming garden in flower as a “vast hospital” or battlefield where all of life’s suffering and consubstantial violence are deployed.

*

262. The bones of six million Parisians are piled pell-mell in the hollows of the catacombs, and in all of Paris’s twenty arrondissements there are at present just over two million souls. If all the dead rose to lead us in a danse macabre, each of us would have three skeletons as partners for a quadrille.

*

248. When our parents tell us they had wanted us, they unwittingly deceive us, since first of all they deceive themselves. It is not us, the being whom they address today, that they desired; what they wanted was a child, not this child they then watched grow up. This one here, despite all the ultrasounds, amniocenteses, and karyotype tests that reassured them of its normality, they were utterly incapable of expecting. And so we are brought down to the level of the supposed unwanted unfortunate, which should cut our narcissism and self-confidence down to size. The desire for a child is always a desire for any child, a desire to create whatever entity, ens quodlibet. The scholastic category of quodlibetality, “whatever being,” is here eminently applicable: as wanted or unwanted beings, we are ontologically whatever.

*

263. Historians are the eunuchs charged with guarding the seraglio of truth. Although they have the privilege of seeing it naked, they can never conjoin with it, and never let it go out without first wrapping it in its veil.

*

267. The first Greek philosopher of atheism was called Theodorus, which means “gift of the gods.” For the best that the divine has to offer us is the capacity for negation, all the way to negating the divine itself.

*

287. A dog plays with a man like a child, but its gaze is not that of the child, laughing and reaching for the next moment. The eyes of a dog engaged in child-like play seem, to the contrary, the bearers of an immemorial wisdom. Its gaze is the profound and melancholy one of a sage who has passed through the infinite series of necessary experiences, each time drawing lessons and, in the end, understanding that not one of them merits being retained. He has no other choice than to arrange them in his memory as in a museum display case. It is something like a reflection of such useless and suspended knowledge that can be read in the eyes of an animal drawn by man into one of his games.

*

322. If memory is the condition of knowledge, oblivion is the condition of experience.

*

184. There is no passion so naked that it is not dressed in language.

*

311. One of the watchwords of May ‘68 in France, as of the sixties the world over, was freedom of speech. But, even more than freedom, it was about the uncontrollable necessity of speech for all. Yet, little by little, the paradoxical injunction to “express yourself” spread, becoming an authoritarian commonplace as the movement ebbed away. This paradox of an injunction to freedom did not escape notice and emphasis among the fiercest enemies of freedom in its anti-utilitarian form, who lie in wait for anything that could put back into the service of capital what was meant to contest it. What is most remarkable, however, is that the wretches ordered to express themselves could say nothing, not because they had nothing to say, not because they were totally lacking the faculty of thought, but because it was obvious that the command line between ideas and speech remained, for them, incurably blocked. The world revealed itself as aphasic, which moreover has often been the case among the poorest and most isolated classes, such as peasants. One discovered, in effect, the full extent of the general proletarization of society: access to expression, free at last, opened onto a void. This is why the greatest triumph of humor at the time came from a comedian in overalls narrating the story of someone who had nothing to say, a storyteller with no story to tell, while managing to hold his audience spellbound for a good quarter of an hour.

*

342. As Elias Canetti saw clearly, in contrast to Georg Lukács, it is the masses and not the proletariat who were the subject of history in the twentieth century; in other words, a subject paradoxically deprived of attributes necessary for the definition of a subject; a subject without consciousness; a headless, acephalous subject or, just as good, one whose head is interchangeable. It is on this enormous body of the masses that the evil genius of history grafted the head of Mussolini, Lenin, Perón, Hitler, Nasser. There were, of course, a certain number of positive heroes like Makhno, Zapata, and Durutti, who precisely did not want to play this little role of head. We know what fate was reserved for them.

*

213. Finding its roots is not a preoccupation of the wild plant—to which it never occurred it could lose them—but of the unhappy potted bonsai.

—Joël Gayraud, translated by S.D. Chrostowska

(NC wishes to thank Tate for permission to use the photographs included in the text — creativecommons@tate.org.uk.)

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chrostowka

Selected and translated from the French by S.D. Chrostowska

S.D. Chrostowska teaches at York University in Canada and is the author of Literature on Trial (UTP, 2012), Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), and MATCHES, a collection of critical fragments (punctum, 2015).

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Mar 092016
 

Alan-Cunningham-03 19.33.08

 

Idea for a script, no, play.

No, idea for a novel.

A man – no, woman – too many men in literature, opens a suitcase in a living room of a building apartment, starts to place all these, like, well, all these different objects into it. Not sure what they could be – yet. She puts all these – well, things – she puts all these things into the suitcase, leaves her apartment in a city – let’s say, London – and starts walking.

 •

EXT. LONDON

If script – I see a scene now where a camera has been placed at one end of a very long road, and it is filming. I see this road as a road – as the road, sorry, this is a memory – the road I once walked along in Stratford, a – the – road I once got lost on during a walk to see a friend, the road beside the Olympic stadium, you know, no, not the Stadium but the place where the bicycles race around, what’s it called – the Velodrome?

Anyway – we see the woman in the distance now, a speck, tiny and she’s walking toward the camera, lugging the suitcase behind her. There’re no cars on the road, it’s all very quiet, maybe it’s early in the morning and we see her getting closer to the camera, closer, closer and as she gets closer – and this takes a very, very, very long time – we start to see the details of her face and in particular all the effort she’s putting into walking and pulling the suitcase along behind her and she gets even closer, and closer still – she’s almost right by the camera now, almost parallel to it – then she just walks right past it – yeah, fuck it she says, and then she just fucking disappears.

Maybe she just keeps on walking? Maybe she walks eastwards out of London, keeps on walking, turns north, into the countryside? Still don’t know what’s in that suitcase though. (Does it have to be a suitcase? Now I’m writing this I see it more as like a military duffel bag, you know, you know the type I mean?). Or maybe at that moment when she leaves the shot, no, just after it, we see a close up shot of her face, with her eyes closed – yeah, she’s lying in a field.

I mean, there’s some grass in the background, that much we can see – I guess that’s why I – I guess that’s why we – why we would think she’s in a field.

She opens her eyes, gets up and looks around. We see what she sees – trees, other fields, mountains, the occasional bungalow house. She looks confused, but then something in her movement – the ways she gets up, for example, the way she opens her eyes – seems to indicate an acceptance of her predicament, if that is what it is, if it is indeed a predicament, you know, and then she lifts up the handle of the suitcase – lifts the suitcase up, indeed – and starts with walking once again.

Not sure where she’s going. Still not sure what’s in the suitcase (duffel bag?)

How did she get there? I don’t know. Maybe she doesn’t know either. Maybe she just woke up like that – if this were a film we might see a shot of her eyes just gently opening, again, right now – lying in a field, her suitcase right beside her, I don’t know, where could this be shot if it had to be a place, I mean where could we shoot this, easily, Ireland? So she wakes up in Ireland?

Not sure why not England. Could be England. Plenty of fields there too. That might make more sense. Ok, maybe there’s a reason why it’s Ireland.

Anyway she wakes up in a field (ok) in Ireland (all right), the suitcase (duffel bag? Still not sure) full of all these – all these things – beside her.

But she doesn’t know how she got there.

 Ok let’s go back a bit.

 •

A scene, in a bathroom in Copenhagen. The sound of music and dancing can be heard through a slightly open window – one of those frosted windows one almost always finds in bathrooms. She opens the bathroom cabinet, selects a few things – perfume, lipstick, some golden tweezers – and drops them into a tote bag. She stops, though, after that – she hears the music too. She leans back, peers out through the slightly open window.

CUT TO an image of the cityscape of Copenhagen, buildings, blue sky, trees. The camera searches as her eyes search, and then she (camera) finds it – the source of the music. A dance class in a loft nearby. A loft with huge, transparent windows, the loft of all our dreams. She looks at them all, all the women dancing.

Then she remembers the bag in her hand and why she’s in the bathroom.

Next thing we see she walks into the living room, just like we described at the beginning. There’s a duffel bag (forget the suitcase) in the middle of the room and she drops the tote bag into it. Then she pulls the rope tight around the duffel bag, swings it over her shoulder and she walks out.

Still don’t know why though. Does it really matter?

Anyway, back to LONDON.

What does she do there, before her walk to camera? ‘Cause after that it seems like she just appears in Ireland, somehow, right? Need to give her something to do in LONDON. I’m thinking, something to do with space? Before we talk about how she got there, how she got to LONDON?

Those things, remember those things that were all in her suitcase, duffel bag, all the things she packed inside? I think one of them is a deck of cards. I think we might be able to do something with all those things. In a bit though. Wait a bit.

Ok, something to do in London. How about this? The camera looks at a photograph – of the mountain, just like the mountain in the magazine. (What magazine, you’re thinking, just wait will you.) One difference though – loads of military bases. You know, like military buildings installed on mountaintops. It’s a photograph located in, let’s say, the flat of her father. He lives in LONDON. Maybe he stayed there, when she and her mother went to live in Denmark. I’m guessing her mother is Danish, right?

Anyway, this photograph. It’s on a wall. And she looks at it and it reminds her of something else, the mountain in the magazine, something we haven’t seen yet though – but guess what, it’s something really, really, really important.

Before she arrived in London, right, she boarded a train in Copenhagen. Before she boarded the train she bought some typically Danish food products at the train station.

On the train, though – on the train she fell asleep watching the train pass quickly by buildings, then houses, then fields. The man who sat beside was a large but friendly man. She woke up some time later, the train deep within the Danish countryside.

In the pouch situated on the seat in front of her there was a magazine. She pulled it out and, flicking through it, she came across an image of a mountain.

That’s where I’m going, she thought – yeah that’s where I need to go.

 —Alan Cunningham

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Alan Cunningham is a writer from the north of Ireland. His books include Count from Zero to One Hundred (2013), New Green Fool: 7 Essays After The Green Fool and Sovereign Invalid (both forthcoming). Currently based in London he has previously lived in Belfast, Berlin and Melbourne. In 2013 he was a Resident Fellow at Z/KU in Berlin, Germany, funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI). He was also the recipient of a general ACNI arts award in 2014. 

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Mar 082016
 

Capture

There is no one like Stanford in modern poetry. The triumph and beauty is in the work, more than many us could have imagined forty years ago when we searched out his poems in a few small editions and poetry magazines. And as Stanford said near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this/ is magic against death.” —Allan Cooper

Capture

 

If we’re lucky, once or twice in a generation an artist comes along who changes the complexion of our entire landscape and gives us a way of seeing the world as we have never experienced it before. Often these artists receive little or no recognition in their lifetimes, and it takes years–sometimes generations–for their genius to be acknowledged. I think of the work of William Blake and John Clare, Emily Dickinson, Vincent van Gogh, Paula Modersohn-Becker and the haunting, other-worldly poems of Frank Stanford.

Frank Stanford’s creative life spanned a little more than ten years. During that period he wrote the nearly 700 pages of poetry collected in What About This, and the epic poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (over 500 pages when it was first published in 1977, 15,283 lines of poetry. A little over 600 lines are printed in What About This). Other uncollected poems will surely come to light with time.

Stanford corresponded with a number of poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Thomas Lux, and Alan Dugan, who served as a sounding board, confidante, advocate and friend. It was Dugan who urged him to publish Battlefield without further revision: “Received your blockbuster of a ms. and am reading it. It’s wonderful so far, and I think that it should be published as it is in a small edition of books: it could sleep for a number of years and then explode.”

Among the many fine poems in What About This one poem in particular has stood out for me for nearly forty years, a modern masterpiece as poignant as Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The poem lives somewhere between the domestic and the wild, between what we know and what we don’t know. It transforms the earthly and familiar into something else:

Place on a Grave

It’s not hard to forget what they ate
Every winter, when the father
And the oldest brother went back to do time,
Cowpeas and smoked goat, all winter
The same muddy supper, their voices
Thick as pan bread, the hollering
At dawn when the mother went out
To the pens in cowboy boots
With a bucket of feed and a roll
Of toilet paper, finding a swatch
Of her daughter’s nightgown
Fluttering on the barbed wire,
The hollering and calling
The rest of them did when they
Raised up from their cold beds
And went out searching at first light
For their crippled sister, who dreamed
Walking over the mountains
In the dead of winter, the smell
Of cooking in her hair, believing
She was gone from there, dignified
Like a wooden figure on the prow
Of a ship with no horizon.

There’s no other poem in the immense body of Stanford’s work that better contains the haunting beauty that is the trademark of his writing and of his life.

*

Frank Stanford was born Francis Gildart Smith on August 1, 1948 to a single mother. He was given up by his birth mother, and soon after was adopted by Dorothy Gilbert Alter, who became the first female manager of Firestone. She married Albert Franklin Stanford, a levee engineer, in 1952. By all accounts Frank Stanford had a comfortable middle class childhood. In the summer his father took the family with him when he worked:

“Unlike most levee contractors, his adoptive father lived in the levee camps with his family during the summer months, and this is the speech Stanford imbibed as a child. It saturated his long, hot, and humid days and his radiant, lunar dreams.” (C. D. Wright, The Poet Frank Stanford, Between Love and Death, from American Poets Magazine. Posted April 1, 2015, poets.org)

The men, women and children he met there populated his poems from the beginning. Many of their names are real. Here’s a small list from “The Blood Brothers”, the first poem in his first book The Singing Knives, published in 1971 by Irv Broughton, editor and publisher of Mill Mountain Press, and Stanford’s lone publisher throughout his life:

Born In The Camp With Six Toes
Baby Gauge
Ray Baby
Charlie B. Lemon
Mose Jackson
BoBo Washington
Jimmy

Some of these are nicknames, but many recur throughout his body of work, especially in The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. It’s as if his themes, his images, and his concerns were formed at a very early age. Stanford himself claimed that there were poems in his early collections that were written when he was ten years old. This may seem preposterous to us–and Stanford could be a teller of tall tales–but at least one of the poems in What About This was written when he was seventeen years old. It’s feasible that his dreamlike poetic landscape came to him during those childhood summers on the levees, and provided the directive for his entire body of work.

*

It’s imperative that a poet find his or her external landscape, the touchstone or cornerstone from which the poems flow and grow. For Stanford it was Arkansas.

That was his home, his place of living, where he worked as an unlicensed land surveyor to support himself. Many of his best poems are narratives, and Stanford was an acute listener of stories and voices and a watcher of people. Here’s an excerpt from the interview with Irv Broughton in What About This:

I B: You’re a great observer–delaying trips at bus stations.

F S: Not so much just to observe. I did it so I could meet a person; I wanted to talk. Not just to meet but I wanted there to be words, too…. I’m sad when I see really indigent people, people that are down in their heart and their soul. I wanted to help them, but I don’t know how I can.

I B: Have you ever felt that by talking to people you were actually helping them?

F S: If they thought they could truthfully confide in me, if I took a load off by maybe saying a few kind words, maybe so…. But I just helped because I talked to them. Maybe anybody could have talked to them.

Stanford found his influences wherever he could. There’s a whole chapbook of previously unpublished improvisations and versions of the poems of Jean Follain called Plainsongs in this collected, echoing and expanding Follain, set in Stanford’s Arkansas landscape. Here’s one poem from that manuscript, “The Dream Near The Witness Tree”:

Death uses a beautiful rock as its perch
you don’t know what it feels like
how cold and bright it is
until it snows and a blackbird leaves there
the wind blows through its crag
and holds up a branch in the night
like the last peach on the tree
or a woman who has lost a breast
and thinks she will lose you too
Death makes a point of saying I will lose you

We can feel Stanford’s empathy near the end of this poem, and sense that there’s a much larger story behind figure of the woman–the single peach leading to the single breast. Stanford listens and watches, and then selects and amplifies details like a painter. He’s a master of what should be kept and what should be left out.

A poem from One-Finger Zen, another previously unpublished manuscript shows just how much he learned from Follain:

Despair

a man by himself in a bar
feels a shadow behind him
thinks of his wife eating
bleeding meat
hears the rain by the sea
tries to forget his day laid out like dresses for the dead
he knows his heart is closed up for the night
and the people
who are poor and cannot sleep look through the blinds

Stanford’s empathy was immense. He postponed bus trips to listen to others. He cared about the lost and forgotten, the poor and afraid. And he brought them into his poems where their despair and hopelessness could shine clearly, “cold and bright.” His poems should be a wake up call for all of us.

*

Franz Wright has called Stanford “one of the great voices of death.” I think that’s fair. But the myths and misinformation that grow up around poets who die young—Frank Stanford, John Thompson, Sylvia Plath—rarely do the poets justice. In fact their death, in many ways, tends to be a mirror reflecting the reader away from the work. There’s the urge to look for all the sordid details in the poems, and if they’re not there, we seem to have many curious ways of trying to convince ourselves that they are.

While a poet’s work is always more important than the details of his life, sometimes a few details are helpful. Stanford once said “Let’s put on a pot of coffee and write all night.” While he was at the University of Arkansas (he never completed a degree) he was probably writing The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You late at night in his room. He could write anywhere, but he had his favourite places. Again, from the interview with Irv Broughton:

I B: Talk about the ideal writing environment.

F S: During my college days, it seems the best circumstances were for me to spend long periods of time in a given place that I felt some affinity for, that I’d gotten used to, like this cabin. This cabin had a lot of magic feeling to it. I could get up any time of the day, any time of the night, and I could write in it. I felt so at home in this place. It was so strange, when I think of it now, getting up in the winter, building a fire at three o’clock in the morning, making coffee, going down there and writing or reading. It’s a strange feeling. I really became one with that place. It wasn’t a possession. It was just a place you could exist in. It was my place, where I spent all of my time.

*

I want to return briefly to the Follain influence. At his best, Stanford could write a small poem that had the power and depth of a good short story. Again, as in Follain’s work, only a few crucial details are there–a hint of dialogue, three or four condensed images, but they are enough. This poem is from his collection You, published posthumously in 1979:

Braids

At the end of the war there weren’t many
Men left.

So the widows traveled
To the gallows on hanging days
To look for a blindfolded man.

Any woman could save a bandit then,
And maybe two
If she had a thousand acres or a daughter.

All she had to do was bring another horse
And tell the sheriff, him.

*

I keep thinking about the rhythms of Stanford’s lines, their sway and lilt. They’ve always reminded me of blues and jazz rhythms, the leaps of jazz, the smoke of the blues, especially in the long Whitman-like lines of The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You:

I said I love you in the field of honour
and she was like a colt
and she was water I held in my hands
and she was the canoe I worked through the river
and she was the flash at two-thirty in the morning of the suicidal knife
and she was a fire of pine cones who ran like a deer
and she was a butterfly that lit on the float of my pole
and she was the night herself

In Hidden Water (Third Man Books, Nashville, Tennessee, 2015), a companion book to What About This, there are further unpublished poems, facsimiles of letters and photographs, hand written notes, and a partial list of Stanford’s record collection: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Roland Kirk, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed–over 120 records, and the list goes on and on. Stanford wrote several poems which touch on the blues. Part of it might have been due to his feeling of having lost that Edenic world of his childhood, those summers spent near the levees with his family. Here’s a poem from his first book, The Singing Knives:

Living

I had my quiet time early in the morning
Eating Almond Joys with Mother.
We’d sit on the back porch and talk to God.
We really had a good time.

Later on,
I’d sort baseball cards
Or look for bottles.
In the afternoon I’d shoot blackbirds.

Jimmy would go by the house for ice water
And make the truck backfire.
Oh, I really liked that.
That was the reason he did it.

In the evenings the cottontails ran across the groves.
I shot one and put him in the backseat.
He went to the bathroom.
Jimmy said I knocked the shit out of him.

At night we would listen to the ballgame.
Then to the Hoss Man.
Jimmy liked “Take Some Insurance On Me Baby” by Jimmy Reed.

By the time Stanford wrote the following lines from a longer uncollected poem, perhaps a fragment itself, there was no more talking to God, no more good time. The poem begins with night and shadows:

Untitled

Night is nothing
but the small shadow a woman-child’s foot casts
when she puts on her boots
when the taichi lesson is over.

……..~~~~

As you can see
I have the blues.

……..~~~~

I believe the farmer who stays awake all night,
sacking his mind like oats
for a name for his farm,
is more of a poet than most.

It’s about time the white men
got wise to blue guitars
of the delta.

I’m a two-timer and a drifter
so I won’t ask you to stay very long with me.

I don’t want anyone else to get
two steps from the blues.

Closer is a word the wise and foolish lovers use.
The incestuous roosters of dawn
are all of the time tracking it down.

The ones who follow wicked routine
are always saying, “Make ends meet.”

If we have to meet, then I want to
meet you like smoke. Yes, I’d like
to chop the kindling of my childhood once more,
we’re the same there. But those days are gone,
for better or worse. So, if we meet at all,
whoever you are, let us meet like horses
smelling one another out
before they mate.

All great poets go deep into their own inner landscapes, and that journey can be dangerous, sometimes fatal. Theodore Roethke wrote in one of his notebooks, ” To write poetry: you have to be prepared to die.” The old saying “he wrote with his blood” isn’t just some romantic aphorism. How far did Stanford go? Was he dogged, as the delta blues musician Robert Johnson was when he wrote “Hellhound on My Trail”?

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail…

*

Stanford didn’t write a lot about his poetics. He made a short autobiographical documentary film with the help of Irv Broughton titled It Wasn’t a Dream, It Was a Flood. Some of his ideas about poetry are found in two short pieces in What About This: the interview with Broughton, and six pages of prose that first appeared in Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process. An excerpt from that piece, “With the Approach of the Oak the Axeman Quakes,” is printed below:

I don’t believe in a tame poetry. When poetry hears its own name, it runs, flies, swims off for fear of its own life. You can bet your boots on that. Jean Cocteau said a poet rarely bothers about poetry. Does a gardener perfume his roses?

Truthfully, it is the lure of the other fields, of other forces which draw me into a poem, not the techniques of a self-conscious poetics. A book like The Secret Life of Plants would have more influence on my poetry, add more in explaining and understanding the other systems of poetry, than would certain texts.

Every poet has a field of force not presently understood.

*

Stanford wrote a few poems from his experience as a land surveyor. To me it seems his physical work laid a grid or template over his poems, and showed him the boundaries in which his poems could percolate and grow, like the frame around a painting. In this previously uncollected poem, we sense how deeply he had gone into his psychic landscape near the end of his life:

How I Showed the Men No-Man’s-Land

The party of lost surveyors
Gathered at my fire
Dead and weary
While I cleaned my fish

“See this creek” the field chief
Told his chainmen
“It doesn’t appear on the map”

It was dusk
And my fire was going down
Like the sun on the ridge

They looked in the sky
For a star to follow
The wind blew
But the branches were still

“It’s odd here men
There must be something underground
The compass won’t work
The needle’s still
As a ship in dead calm”

I came out of the dark with my deaf dog
I asked them wouldn’t they
Take their rest

They whispered among themselves

I offered them biscuits and liquor

“Stranger all we want to know
Is where we are”
So I drew them a map in the dirt
Quietly with my knife

And when they understood
How deep they’d traversed
They looked one another in the eye
And parted company

That night every man looked for his own stone
To lie down beside and die alone

And in the background of the poem, that “ship in dead calm” rocks slowly like Charon’s boat on the bayou.

*

Poets of Stanford’s generation were nurtured by older poets who believed that another aspect of a poet’s work was to start a magazine, or a small poetry publishing house, or translate from other languages—all a part of giving back to the gene pool of poetry. Part of this process is to search out new and overlooked voices and give their work a place to be.

Stanford understood this, and established his poetry publishing house, Lost Roads in 1977. The first title from the press was well-known American poet C.D. Wright’s first collection of poems, Room Rented by A Single Woman. Stanford and Wright had a relationship for most of the last three years of his life.

Shortly before his death, Stanford prepared his will. He had reportedly visited his mother more frequently than usual in the weeks leading up to his death. On the evening of June 3, 1978 he returned to his home and took his own life.

His wife, Ginny Crouch Stanford, and C. D. Wright were in the house at the time of his death. What is perhaps most remarkable is that Wright and Crouch Stanford became co-executors of Frank Stanford’s estate and carefully preserved his many manuscripts over the last four decades. This story is not unlike that of Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who preserved many of his famous paintings that we cherish today.

I find a commingling of many of the themes in Frank Stanford’s poems in this previously unpublished fragment:

The night, the child, the moon, the drunken sailor,
the woman who wears through her ring like
a pair of Levis that last and last,
the blind Negro who taught me how to strut
when I was six, the look you gave me
the other day, whoever you are, the brave
and the lonely, the animals that see us,
a long time before we shoot them, the bank robber,
the drifter, all of us drink
from the same pool. So, when we meet,
let’s float down together, sane,
stoned, drunk, whatever, like those indigo
dragonflies of spring that will be here
soon.

*

There is no one like Stanford in modern poetry. The triumph and beauty is in the work, more than many us could have imagined forty years ago when we searched out his poems in a few small editions and poetry magazines. And as Stanford said near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this/ is magic against death.”

—Allan Cooper

 

allan cooper.

Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.

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Mar 072016
 
Sam Savage author photo

Sam Savage photo by Nancy Marshall

The news reached us early in February that Sam Savage is dying. It is an immense and awful honour to be thus involved in an author’s final days. It comes to us because of Jeff Bursey’s relationship with Savage, a relationship based on multiple readings and reviews over the years and the magnificent and compendious interview Jeff did with Savage for our May 2015 issue (“It Is Not a Novelist’s Job to be Merciful: An Interview with Sam Savage”). In the days that followed, Jeff was in touch with Savage about a retrospective essay we intended to publish. Savage sent us a new unpublished short story to go with that essay. And then, amazingly, Savage sent us his entire Collected Poems, most of which have never been published, many of which are brilliant (I absolutely adore the comic sequence called “The Kiffler Poems,” which forms the last third of the book). Thus we have for you today Jeff Bursey’s retrospective essay on the works of Sam Savage, a short story by Savage, and his complete Collected Poems. 

I don’t know Sam Savage except through his work and through Jeff Bursey, which is a lot when you come to think of it. But I think of him reading these words in his bed, and the moment seems holy. Thank you, Sam.

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Introduction

Sam Savage has a genius for getting inside his characters’ heads and bringing out their worst and best traits in such a way that we are never in doubt that the individual—it can be man or woman or, yes, animal—is a presence who has felt pain and sorrow and has a story to tell. His lead characters are intensely believable because the language is intense and believable. This exquisite combination of words and psychology, along with Savage’s knowing penchant for idiosyncratic behaviour, is rare indeed, not found in fiction as frequently as we might desire.

A brief overview

Part of the appeal of Sam’s novels is enjoying the control displayed as his characters do things you would not expect, but that make perfect sense within their own way of being in the world. Each book features a voice (“a way of speaking, a way of seeing the world from an angle so specific that it defines the character of the person who is viewing the world in that way,” as he defined it in the interview he did for Numéro Cinq in May 2015), a set of restraints, and a major task (it may appear trivial or obsessive or disturbed to outsiders) that consumes the positive energy of the narrator. While it might seem easy to convey the type of claustrophobia that comes from situating events and impressions in one mind, it is another level of difficulty to keep that from becoming dull for the reader as the character flails about and retreats further from sociability, competency, and normal manners. Offsetting the potential for the reading experience to turn oppressive is the presence of humour (aggressive or dark more often than gentle or whimsical) and compassion. These elements are handled with firmness and skillfully, always allowing a sufficient amount of space between authorial command and the apparent free agency of a character to move quickly from one activity or mood to another.

It’s partly the purpose of this essay to underscore those and other achievements of a truly fine novelist. Think of this as a reminder, or an alert, to the existence of someone who deserves respect for his art.

Correspondence and interview

Sam was born 9 November 1940; our first exchange occurred in October 2010. So there’s no great depth of knowledge that I’ll draw from here. I also won’t claim to not sound awkward when writing him. We’ve exchanged a few opinions on books, on readers, on the economy, on the Internet, and so on. When I saw a short piece by him in the Winter 2014 issue of Paris Review I asked, in January 2015, if this was part of a new novel. No, just a short story. Had he given up novel writing? His answer had the same bracing absence of self-pity as his fiction: “Well, Jeff, I am 74 years old and in bad health. I don’t have the courage or stamina for another novel. Not a voluntary retirement from writing but simply a recognition of the facts.” Not a case of overstatement and no hint that amplification would come. Either he isn’t like that or, more likely, he’s not like that with some guy he’s never met sitting at a computer northeast of his home, I thought. He is as reticent when it comes to leaving materials behind for biographers: “… I receive few letters, and don’t keep most, and write even fewer. Mostly emails, which I intend to delete before the axe falls. I’d like to leave no trace except my novels.”

Provoked by his health statement to act, in February 2015 I sent Sam the first set of interview questions with the aim of getting more down than the “trace” of his novels for those who, like me, wanted to know about the mind that created them. At the end he summed things up this way: “It has been a long haul, but I am grateful for the chance to address some of the issues you raise. I do think that not many people get where I am coming from, and perhaps this will help a little. And, I am sure, what was long for me was three times as long for you. So thank you.” Of course, the month-long process didn’t seem arduous to me as I found his answers fascinating.

When I first read Firmin I thought that here was a new and supple voice that was capable of wringing pity from vermin. Sloth cemented my appreciation of his talent. Sam’s books are filled with obsessions, a loneliness that is at times terrifying, a devotion to form and voice, and, above all, an underlying humanity that deserves comparison to the works of Joseph McElroy and Gabriel Josipovici. We read of a mind destabilizing and threatening not to be there much longer, and the tension of what’s going on, or what may be revealed in a few lines or at the top of the next page combines with the haphazard (almost leisurely, if that doesn’t sound peculiar) self-exploration of the narrators who cannot help but go on about themselves as they drive (or are driven) towards some shattering, final obstacle.

In the NC interview Sam talks about living with his wife in Madison, Wisconsin, versus the South where he was born: “I work. I used to take walks in the neighborhood. Now I look out the window. In the warmer seasons Nora and I go out to lunch once or twice a week. My sons come for long visits every year. Friends come from South Carolina and from France. I don’t know anybody in Madison apart from neighbors, a couple of Nora’s friends, and doctors. I can hardly be said to live here. I feel I am just passing through, practically unobserved, like a ghost.” It’s the ghostliness of his books—that they may become pale and unseen except by a few souls—which this essay is trying to address.

News I didn’t want to hear

In the interview Sam addressed his health. He had learned in the 1970s that he has alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, and this means he’s “…missing a blood component that protects the lungs from attack by some of the body’s own enzymes. The consequences vary widely. Chief among the more serious are liver failure and lung destruction…. It’s an ineluctable, irreversible process.” The expectancy of life ending soon is a feature of his novels. “There was a long period, in my twenties and early thirties, before I became really noticeably sick, when awareness of death in the form of a boundless encompassing dread was so persistent and unbearable that I contemplated suicide in order to escape it… Maybe being sick—and during the last twenty years quite obviously so—has made me more sensitive to the blitheness with which we normally—and I suppose I can say mercifully—go about the business of living.” Looking on things now, I should not have been surprised by what he had to say.

A note on 4 February 2016 spelt out matters with Sam’s usual lack of sentimentality and matter-of-factness: “I was hospitalized for a time in November and on discharge was put into a special Medicare category called Hospice designed for those deemed to have fewer than six months to live, where all restrictions are lifted on morphine and such. In other words, I am dying, and rather rapidly. I am unlikely to live out the six months. In my view I won’t even get close.” He’s not the type to draw attention to his own—well, he’d probably never say plight unless it suited a character, and so I’ll say this turn. “I have no inclination to keep it secret and am prepared to do anything I still can to give my books a chance to live on without me.” At the same time as he expresses what’s taken 40-some years to draw so very near, he writes about it not quite casually, but without self-indulgence, not wanting anything for himself, precisely, but advocating for his art. He knows what creating those novels demanded and required. Most writers, most artists, can identify with that.

Novels

In an effort to pay respect to this artist’s life’s work, then, here are selections taken from reviews I’ve written of his books for various journals to give readers an idea of their flavour. (One novel not considered is The Criminal Life of Effie O. [2005], which he’s dismissive about in the interview.) The hope is to encourage people to entertain this thought: that not reading Sam’s novels (all published by Coffee House Press) is a missed opportunity, something you won’t know you would have missed unless you read him.

Cover_of_firmin_novel_by_Sam_Savage

Firmin (2006; with thanks to Books in Canada.)

“Firmin gathers impressions of the world from novels, history books, and maps. He has a lot of knowledge which, because of his position, will never be put to use. He fails at sign language, learned from a slender pamphlet, the only time he gets to try it, and typing is impossible for him. He can play the piano, but this never helps him pick up girls. He prefers devouring books to anything else. An insatiable reader, he categorizes authors. In fiction, there are the Big Ones, like Joyce, Dostoyevsky, and Strindberg, from whom Firmin learns that ‘no matter how small you are, your madness can be as big as anyone’s.’

Firmin’s situation is complex, bizarre, and at times unutterably sad, due to his exceptional condition. He is a rat who was raised with literature for sustenance, in every sense of the word.

“. . . Airy grief in some way sums up Firmin’s predicament. It’s impossible to read Firmin and not contemplate what it’s like to be out of step with everyone, forever, and not through choice. This trim novel is a modest delight, with its clever conceit, an abiding respect for literature, and geniality co-existing with melancholy.”

Savage_Sloth

The Cry of the Sloth (2009; with thanks to Open Letters Monthly.)

“In the delightfully mordant The Cry of the Sloth, Sam Savage gives us Andrew Whittaker, a lonely man, isolated by a failed marriage, his own misdeeds, and his often ugly personality. A bookish individual, editor and owner of a small-time journal named Soap, Whittaker bears rat-like teeth at his competition. He writes letters to his ex-wife, women he knew years before, contributors to the failing journal, and impatient bill collectors, and these letters make up the majority of the novel, with the occasional excerpt from a diary and passages from a novel Whittaker has underway. While the correspondence tells us that Whittaker is desperately trying to keep his magazine afloat, and is a failure at romance, the novel he’s writing illustrates his loneliness, bitterness, and sexual frustration. Though Savage limits us to Whittaker’s point of view and we therefore have only a one-sided version of events, it’s clear that by the end of The Cry of the Sloth we have witnessed the fairly rapid decline of Whittaker as he loses his friends, his family, his income, and control over his emotional and mental state.

“. . . In the midst of the systemic corruption of the Nixon years, Whittaker embodies, on a modest level, smallness and pettiness, and is a reminder of how easily we can turn, or naturally be, rotten to others while deluding ourselves about our own importance. The Cry of the Sloth is a fine example of the epistolary novel (another is Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea), and reminiscent of works that attempt to make someone who is unlikeable at least approachable (Joseph Heller’s Something Happened comes to mind). By focusing on a minor, carping, mean-spirited man, it shows that even an unedifying life can serve as a moral lesson.”

Savage_Glass

Glass (2011; with thanks to Requited)

“Like the figures in Firmin and Sloth, Edna looks to be completely on her own. One of the many accomplishments in this fine novel, saved for the last pages of Glass, and carefully led up to, is to make a reader come close to understanding the deadening sadness of her life, and potential fate, and, finally, feel sympathy for a character whose ways can be off-putting and obscure. One wonders if Sam Savage is indicating that we live in a Godless universe, with Edna just one more creature in a glass cage, unloved and not made to last. If so, then this is a chilling picture of old age and contemporary society.”

Savage_Way

The Way of the Dog (2013; with thanks to The Winnipeg Review.)

“[This novel] begins quietly, like Savage’s other works, with readers closely following the mind of Harold Nivenson, a man of undisclosed age living alone in his crumbling home.

“. . . Hatred entered Nivenson’s life early on. His siblings would steal one piece from every puzzle he started, and even if he wasn’t sure they did, the anxiety that there would be a hole in the picture at the end ‘destroy[ed] the pleasure [he] might otherwise have derived from the puzzle.’ Without much more explanation, Nivenson says he ‘became, in my family and for my family, and ultimately for myself as well, the representation of failure.’ His sister and brother, due to the inaction of their parents, ‘bear the entire blame for my situation, a situation that amounts to a disability…’”

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It Will End with Us (2014; with thanks to Numéro Cinq)

“Told through haphazard recollections, It Will End with Us portrays the Taggarts as troubled by the father’s offhand brutality… and the mother’s unraveling mind…, located within dire economic and environmental conditions. The myth of the fertile South is replaced with the reality of a parched region losing its resources—dusty land can’t bear crops, neither Eve nor Thornton produce children…, and the crumbling family home a rebuke to the prosperous Big House frequently featured in Southern history. Savage’s foray into Southern fiction bears some resemblance to Faulkner in its capturing of the deterioration of a self-important family and its host culture, but in Eve there is a larger theme at work, to my mind, than that of the decline of the South. She does not look back with self-pity. Whether we can trust her is open to question.

“. . . The integrity of the main character and of the story told, fascinating topics deftly handled, lead into another aspect of her that is equally rich. A character named Eve who focuses on a childhood when her family was intact invites us to entertain the possibility that this novel, certainly at one level about the mythical/real South, at a deeper level plays with religious myths through the creation of a Biblically-named figure from Spring Hope—a debased name for Eden—who is trying to retrieve a pre-lapsarian world that never existed.” (Full NC review is here.)

Final thoughts

To return to Sam’s news, which he has given permission to be shared, I asked him if he wanted to add something, in a public venue, about his impending death. Why did his answer surprise me? “I think I have nothing more to say.” There’s no appeal for sympathy over his state, no last explanation. In keeping with his integrity, Sam’s novels say what he would like to remain in our heads. They are the artistic achievements he has left standing, that he has left us, and which we have the wonderful prospect of reading and re-reading now and into the future.

 — Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Mar 062016
 

danielledutton1

It is a work of extraordinary emotional and psychological complexity, about a woman who locates salvation in her own creativity and is audacious enough to seek recognition in a world governed by men, from which it is not readily forthcoming. It is also a novel which plays with the line between confidence and egoism in a setting in which the slightest display of confidence on a woman’s part is too easily glossed as egoism — Natalie Helberg

dutton book covr

Margaret the First: A Novel
Danielle Dutton
Catapult, 2016
Paper, 167 pages, $15.95

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Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is a fictive recreation of the life of Lady Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth-century word-smith, scripter, raging oddball, and wheeling brain. This was a woman who ventured to publish her outlandish thoughts and writings when there was very little precedent for acts of this kind (she was, after all, a woman, and constrained by the conventions which dogged her era). In some ways reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Dutton’s book unfurls in prose which is arrestingly poetic; it concentrates on the small moments, emotions, and sensuous details which make up Margaret’s life, though without forgetting about the larger, less fleeting events which might be termed her life’s frame. It is a work in which colourful linguistic molecules reign, a work whose language is perhaps as excessive and stunning as Lady Cavendish’s own wardrobe was said to be.

It is also a work of extraordinary emotional and psychological complexity, about a woman who locates salvation in her own creativity and is audacious enough to seek recognition in a world governed by men, from which it is not readily forthcoming. It is a novel which plays with the line between confidence and egoism in a setting in which the slightest display of confidence on a woman’s part is too easily glossed as egoism (“Hadn’t I thoughts, after all?…It cannot be infamy, I reasoned, to run or seek after glory, to love perfection, desire praise…”; “I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First”). On another level, it is a novel about a woman being pushed along the line that is her life, a woman being buffeted about and subjected to forces she has no control over—wars, illness, her own body—while others, including loved ones, drop away: “In March, in London, my niece died from consumption. In April, my sister Mary. In Ireland that summer my brother Tom was crushed by his horse. The following autumn, our mother was taken…Alone in my room in Paris, I felt oblivion creep near.”

Margaret Cavendish, the character Dutton has fashioned, is at once bold and insecure, audacious and isolated (she is often more daring on the page than it is possible for her to be in person); even when she is all the rage (because her writing or eccentric attire is garnering attention) she is without community; she is by turns an object of praise, admiration, ridicule and resentment. The novel sweeps breathtakingly along from her birth to a noble family and early childhood in Colchester, England, to her death on a garden bench one winter’s morning. In between these events, the young Margaret Lucas serves the queen as a lady-in-waiting, marries William Cavendish, an aristocrat with no money but good connections (they dine and otherwise socialize with the best minds of the time: Hobbes, Descartes, Dryden, and others—all of whom more or less ignore Margaret), writes copiously (though she has her crises), and moves with him, in exile, from place to place: They are Royalists and the English Civil War is raging.

It is interesting to consider Margaret the First in light of Dutton’s other works. Dutton, who identifies as a writer of fiction, is nonetheless preoccupied with forms of narrative which resist the very distinction between poetry and prose. Neither her collection of short stories, Attempts at a Life, nor her first novel, SPRAWL, make use of conventional plot. Both are works which appear to let the sentence guide ‘what happens’ in the writing: the only rule seems to be that whatever comes next must be linguistically surprising, or refreshing. (Carla Harryman is another American prose-writer who works in something like this way, and Dutton is of course familiar with her.)

Today there’s no use for descriptions of the past. But life changes on a dial, in a garden, a clinking of beetle wings, a shrimp bush and dry pink petals of Chinese lanterns dangling. Once I thought: I’ll just plant things until there’s no time to be afraid. But storms are furious in their own way, green lightning and bullets as big as hail in the desert, as frogs.

My tongue reveals something faintly audible here. But birds come in off the low-slung roof and confess themselves atop cupboards. Even the occasional warm bird sandwich is prohibited. I spend a term untouched, living in an abandoned chophouse, pulling weeds. I post banns up and down the avenue, on palm trees and street signs. I drive a simple bargain. (“20C Pastoral” in Attempts at a Life)

Whereas Attempts at a Life consists of very short pieces which coalesce like poems (it is almost tempting to think of them as prose-poems), SPRAWL, whose structure is supposed to reinforce its theme, consists of a single, stream-of-consciousness-like paragraph whose sentences inventory the phenomena making up an equally sprawling suburbia:

We have a distinctive ecology involving cows, furniture, farms, real estate, azaleas, fires, corn, curtains, dust, passion, malefactors, milk, meat, cherries, wasps, mayors, pipefitters, fences… So we sit on the couch and drink cocktails with umbrellas and are strongly on this one side of taxation, with an emphasis on judges, unpleasant violent crime, serenity, the good life, biographies of famous leaders, science fiction, and marijuana. I say, “Thanks for coming.” Then I say, “Sakes alive!” then “Mendicant!”

Both books are textured, so to speak, like fiction, but the linguistic parts which make that texture up are allowed to sit next to each other in ways which are perhaps more mysterious than conventional fiction would allow (and how do the elements making up a poem fit together?—often they fit together illogically, which is to say: magically). In this vein, Dutton is an adept maker of lists. Many of her sentences, and paragraphs, too, assume the form of a list whose elements are motley enough to startle expectation, but coordinated enough to sustain a kind of sense overall. This kind of slightly discontinuous listing, if we can call it that, makes Dutton seem aesthetically close to Gertrude Stein, who is one of her acknowledged influences (Virginia Woolf and Georges Perec are others).

Margaret the First makes use of this technique as well, though the items which make up its various lists are slightly more coordinated than they are motley. This is perhaps because the novel, unlike Attempts at a Life, say, although it too is made up of short, poetically-cohering sections, strives to transcend its parts to sustain a longer, unified story. In this respect it is like Dutton’s first novel, though Margaret the First labours under an even greater constraint than the rather open-ended SPRAWL, since, however fictionalized it is, it is about a specific historical figure, whose life it promises to animate. ‘The list’ serves precisely this end; its recurring presence is one of the reasons the book’s prose is so sumptuous, and the world it conveys so vivid. It is also one of the reasons the mundane details of Margaret’s life become entirely engrossing:

One morning that June, I took only a conserve of marigold for breakfast, trying to loosen a cough, and, after wandering the halls, went to the garden with two hard plums in my pocket. I ate; the church bell tolled. Eventually, in petal-flecked shoes, I found my way to the sitting room, where my mother dozed and John’s pregnant wife stood absently by the settle. The room was remarkably hot, for Mother believed in keeping windows shut, and a fat summer fly bumped against the glass. I stood at a table fiddling with a vase. I counted thirty-seven stems and dreamt up a ruby coat for a Chinese empress, a watery dress for Ophelia, a series of towering crystalline hats that rattled, sparkled, and shook—until from the hall came a series of noises.

The kind of writing fictionalized Lady Cavendish does appears in the novel, too. It is also described. At times, it almost seems as if lodged in Dutton’s book is a poetic—a theoretical articulation of a writing practice (Cavendish’s)—which exceeds the poetic the book itself (that is, Dutton’s) partakes in. This poetic is presented in a positive light, as if it is radical and desirable, fully endorsed, even loved. Perhaps it is loved all the more because it does not speak to the novel’s actual style; instead, it is held at a distance, a condition for eros:

Margaret writes everything: poetry, plays, essays, fancies, alternative philosophy. The structure of many of her texts is chaotic, directionless (“just a jumble of speeches and scenes” without structure—though, of course, even a mess has structure: life’s chaos is structured, and Margaret wishes her texts would unfold “like the natural course of things”). Her writing also embraces hybridity (she produces a book which is both fictional and theoretical, both fanciful and philosophical, for example), and switches styles on a whim (“Might not language be as a closet full of gowns?”). It disregards grammatical requirements as well, mainly because Margaret is unfamiliar with them, but refuses to be held back. In a word, her text is wild. It is as wild as she is inexorable. It cuts what seems like it must be an impossible figure of freedom, but which is precisely not impossible: We could say that in Dutton’s novel lies an unformulated manifesto for writing, which in principle, but so rarely in practice, is open to every possibility.

Margaret’s theoretical thinking, too, is feral and fantastical. She disapproves of many of the scientific trends of her day (including experimentation on animals) and produces, we can gather from certain snippets, a kind of alternative metaphysics (which reads like a ‘pataphysical critique): “I rejected any clock-like vision of the world. I chastised men who hunt for sport. The moon might be a ball of water…” When she is finally able to attend one of the Royal Society’s meetings (she has to nudge, but she does get in), she is silent however. Internally, she is enraged; externally, she is docile. “Gentleman,” she says disingenuously, “I am all admiration.” Later, she tells her husband that the meeting was only “more chatter,” and we are given a fuller idea of her own sense of impotence; her docility, her agreeableness at the meeting, was just a throwing up of arms; her speech was the silence of one whose speech is dictated, of one who is trapped or cornered, of one whose genuine thoughts, if they do not provoke violence, will fall on deaf ears, of one who is alone in the world, while the rest of the world bears down.

Psychologically acute moments like this, subtle emotional swivels, rather than action per se, give this narrative shape and depth. The single constant Margaret has in the world, besides her writing, is her husband, William, but even her relationship with him sours and sweetens. He is initially supportive of her writing, even proud, going so far as to distribute copies of it to his eminent friends, but he becomes peevish later on (at one point he even tells her—more or less—that women should be seen and not heard). She does not help matters, either: for all her shyness, she is a shameless self-promoter, and is perhaps too preoccupied with her own doings to realize when she is stepping on his toes: She attends the opening night for a play he has written with her breasts bared and nipples painted—something of a fashion experiment, which is much noted during the performance. “Congratulations,” she tells him afterwards. “No, no,” he says, “Congratulations to you.”

Lady Cavendish is undoubtedly a complex, perhaps even contradictory, character: she is a character one for the most part sympathizes with, though she has it in her to be mortifying. She is an awkward character, to put this another way: both very public and extraordinarily private. The text holds a part of her in reserve, or seems to refrain from disclosing her fully. She wonders if William has forgiven her after the play-incident, but we are given little other insight into her anxiety: we know enough to know it is there; we know enough to know she suffers; still, these things are cloaked with silence. Dutton’s striking novel has its own way of wrapping things in silence: it leaves us with a winter’s tomb after giving us page after page ashake with leaves and petals, orations and courtships, wars and corpses, air pumps and eldritch grammars, seas and sciences, itinerancy and gossip, plums and manuscripts, ups and downs, birds and debt, kings and crates, fancies and Fox-men, wit and infertility, stupor and chewed goose, poems and autumn roses, Spanish stews and steady love. Its energy is inimitable; its curious aura—its curious beauty—burns a long while.

— Natalie Helberg

NC

Natalie Helberg

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently won The Capilano Review’s Fifth Annual Robin Blaser Award for poetry. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.

.
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Mar 052016
 

adrian and matthew
It was a cold Friday afternoon, last December, the 18th. By the fire in my front room in Fredericton, New Brunswick (Canada), I called, via Skype, father and son tag team poets, Adrian and Matthew Rice. Adrian answered from his home in Hickory, North Carolina and Matthew from Carrickfergus in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. I was particularly interested in the father-son poetry connection and how much influence they had upon each other’s work, whether their writing processes were similar or not and how the poems unfolded for them. We spoke about their influences, why poetry was important to them and what advice, if any, Adrian would give to Matthew about the writing life. I also asked Adrian about Abbey Press, a poetry press he co-founded in 1997 which published critically acclaimed work from Irish poets such as Michael Longley, Gerald Dawe, Brendan Kennelly, and the late Hungarian poets, Istvan Baka, & Attila Jozsef among others. But first I wondered how a young boy from the Rathcoole housing estate, north of Belfast got interested in poetry and how he eventually found his way to North Carolina.

While the joys of technology made this international video-interview possible, the pains (or my lack of understanding) of this same technology resulted in my external microphone only working intermittently. My solution was to edit my voice out of the recording and allow Adrian and Matthew to speak for themselves which you will soon realise they are more than competent in doing.

Following the interview are four poems from Matthew and four from Adrian (the first two are from his collection, The Clock Flower, and the last two from his recently published book, Hickory Station. Adrian is also one half of  ‘The Belfast Boys’, an Irish Traditional Music duo – in between their two sets of poems, you can listen to The Belfast Boys’ rendition of The Blue Hills of Antrim)

—Gerard Beirne

 ..

Sparrow

Darkness was dwindling
As we arrived back at your house
At dawn, late summer ghosting
The curtained rooms,

To find two sparrows flying a frenzy
Around the place, having tumbled
Down the throat of the chimney,
Spewed into domesticity.

While you set about freeing the one
Downstairs, I followed the other
Up above and cornered it
Against the window in the study,

Butting frantically against the glass –
Hope as a symbol with all hope lost.
And it was then that I thought
That losing all hope was a renewal,

Like the petering-out of a season.
So, I offered it the last of my hope;
I opened the study window
And watched it disappear into sunlight.

.

The Hedge

in memory of Billy Montgomery

I’m a youngster
Led by the hand, as
The steam coming off the hob
Casts a cloudless shadow

Across the kitchen floor –
The smell of it like some old shanty
Billowing out its breath
Into the night,

Filling my field of vision
With a plume-tailed epiphany,
Holding the soul open
For the briefest moment,

Ebbing gently like the aftermath
Of passing through a rain-soaked hedge
Under falling cherry blossom –
As the window is opened

And the room restored.

.

Atreus and Thyestes

in memoriam Zbigniew Herbert

Wet-eyed and begging,
Thyestes’ sons are put under their uncle’s
blade. Clean-edged vengeance-giver,
Atreus separates them into pieces,
aiming carefully at the wrists
to make a clean sever,
and, at pains to preserve the dignity of the young faces,
makes a good stroke at removing their heads.
The heads and hands he’ll cauterise
and keep, holding in a single thought reason and grief.

And look, what a lavish feast he’s laid on
for his brother, who sits across
eating under the illusion of truce,
who, later, will take the long walk
to the Oracle, red-eyed and sickened,
through the honeysuckle hedges
and high-sided hollows,
stopping briefly along the way
to tickle his throat with a feather;
vomiting up his beloved children
amid the indifferent, dipping swallows,
the sweet scent of summer –
how cruel the life that continues on.
The cooling breeze and carefree sway
of high branches make playful shapes
in the setting sun.

.

The Gardener

It’s cool before the sun comes up
over Gethsemane, a single bird
singing like a wayward fan
during a minute’s silence.

The man out for an early morning stroll,
taking a piss under the drooping trees,
wonders briefly why the gardener in the distance
is not moving and is down on his knees.

—Matthew Rice

 

 .

The Clock Flower

As far as the rest of the universe is concerned,
Maybe we’re like the feather-fluff of the clock flower,

The ghostly snow-sphere of the dying dandelion
That the child holds up in wide-eyed wonder,

Which the mother says to blow on to tell the time
By how many breath-blows it takes before the airy seed

All flies away, leaving her child clutching a bare stem.

And where our humanness might go, who knows?
And when it lands – takes root – what grows?

.

from ‘Eleventh Night’
XIX. Budgie

Drive the Demon of Bigotry home to his den,
And where Britain made brutes, now let Erin make men!
from ‘Erin’ by William Drennan (1754-1820)

It seemed like every single house had one
Except us, though we had an aquarium,
The other housed comfort of the working class,
One behind the bars, the other behind glass.
I thought it odd that the underprivileged
Would happily keep something tanked or caged,
Considering our hard human condition.
I guessed it was our identification
With creatures as poorly predestined as we
Often believed our hand-to-mouth selves to be.
Keeping birds in seed is a real kind of love,
And sprinkling fish-flakes like manna from above.
………….Now by a strange quirk of imagination –
Some new light from within, something gene-given –
Every time I saw a map of Ireland
I rebelled against the usual notion,
The birds-eye, map-driven visualization
Of Ireland backed to the masculine mainland,
Her leafy petticoats eyed-up for stripping,
Her feminine fields ripe for penile ploughing.
Even as a child, I refused to see it
As a victim, back-turned towards Brit-
Ain, inviting colonial rear-ending.
I saw it as a battling budgie, facing
The mainland, proudly, prepared for what might come
Winging over the waves from the gauntlet realm.
Though couched by Drennan to properly provoke
His fellow Irishmen to throw off the yoke,
It was no ‘base posterior of the world’,
Arsehole waiting to be slavishly buggered
By a foreign foe even our side flinched at.
No more servile hung’ring for the ‘lazy root’,
But male and broad-shouldered as The Hill of Caves –
Where the United Irishmen first swore slaves
Would be set free by jointly overturning
The home-based kingdom of the sectarian –
Our bold-hearted budgie had come of age,
Had climbed the ladders and looked in the mirrors,
Then ignored the dudgeon doors and bent the bars,
Self-paroled, assuming independent airs.
………..So turned towards the royal raven of England,
To my mind, our Irish budgie was crowned
With the head of Ulster: the tufty hair of
Wind-blown Donegal, the brawn and brains of
Radical Belfast, the ‘Athens of the North’,
With the clear blue eye of Neagh, and beak of Ards,
Heart, lungs and Dublin barrel-bulge of Leinster,
The fiery feet and claws of mighty Munster,
And thrown-back western wings of mystic Connaught.
Four provinces, four-square, forever landlocked,
Friend of brother Celts, but full of righteous rage
Against the keeper of the keys to the cage,
The Bard’s ‘blessed plot’, his ‘precious stone set in
The silver sea’, his ‘dear, dear land’, his England.
Yes, no Catholic cage, nor Protestant pound,
Could hold my dissenting ideal of Ireland.
For in spite of spite, it was Drennan’s Eden,
‘In the ring of this world the most precious stone!’
His ‘Emerald of Europe’, his ‘Emerald Isle’
Which no vengefulness would finally defile.

.

Breath

What is death,
but a letting go
of breath?

One of the last
things he did
was to blow up

the children’s balloons
for the birthday party,
joking and mock-cursing

as he struggled
to tie all
those futtery teats.

Then he flicked them
into the air
for the children

to fight over.
Some of them
survived the party,

and were still there
after the funeral,
in every room of the house,

bobbing around
mockingly
in the least draft.

She thought about
murdering them
with her sharpest knife,

each loud pop
a perfect bullet
from her heart.

Instead, in the quietness
that followed her
children’s sleep,

she patiently gathered
them all up,
slowly undoing

each raggedy nipple,
and, one by one, she took his
last breaths into her mouth.

What is life,
but a drawing in
of breath?

.

Wasps

On an unseasonably
warm afternoon
I am back on the porch,
and the little wasps
are trying to build
in the hollow arms and legs
of my aluminum chair.

They’re determined,
as they are every spring,
to inhabit my chosen seat,
but I have soaked
their sought for portals
with gasoline, being equally
determined to stay put.

But on they come,
at regular intervals,
in one’s and two’s only,
as if one sometimes needs
the second as witness to carry
the story of occupation back
to the others, to be believed.

I wonder what they think of me,
and feel sorry for them,
almost guilty, even imagining
the dark openings they seek
as being cave mouths
in which they wish to store
some valuable scrolls.

So I am kind to myself,
reminding myself
that it’s my chair, my porch,
though I can hear them protesting
But we were here first!
Fair enough. But no matter.
For I have a porch thirst.

Gasoline will win the day,
for another year, anyway,
and I will sit safely and securely
behind my slatted battlements,
scratching the pale page
hoping, as always, to be
stung by poetry.

—Adrian Rice

.

Matthew Rice was born in Belfast in 1980. He has published poems widely in reputable journals on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as having his work included in the CAP Anthology, ‘Connections’. He is currently putting the finishing touches to his first collection of poetry entitled ‘Door Left Open’. He was long-listed for The Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2016. He is studying for his BA Honours degree in English Language and Literature. He lives, works and writes in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.”

Adrian Rice was born just north of Belfast in 1958, in Whitehouse, Newtownabbey, County Antrim. He graduated from the University of Ulster with a BA in English & Politics, and MPhil in Anglo-Irish Literature.. His first sequence of poems appeared in Muck Island (Moongate Publications, 1990), a collaboration with leading Irish artist, Ross Wilson. Copies of this limited edition box-set are housed in the collections of The Tate Gallery, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and The Lamont Library at Harvard University. A following chapbook, Impediments (Abbey Press, 1997), also earned widespread critical acclaim. In 1997, Rice received the Sir James Kilfedder Memorial Bursary for Emerging Artists. In autumn 1999, as recipient of the US/Ireland Exchange Bursary, he was Poet-in-Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne College, Hickory, NC, where he received ‘The Key to the City’. His first full poetry collection – The Mason’s Tongue (Abbey Press, 1999) – was shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Literary Prize, nominated for the Irish Times Prize for Poetry, and translated into Hungarian by Thomas Kabdebo (A Komuves Nyelve, epl/ediotio plurilingua, 2005). Selections of his poetry and prose have appeared in both The Belfast Anthology and The Ulster Anthology (Ed., Patricia Craig, Blackstaff Press, 1999 & 2006) and in Magnetic North: The Emerging Poets (Ed., John Brown, Lagan Press, 2006). A chapbook, Hickory Haiku, was published in 2010 by Finishing Line Press, Kentucky. Rice returned to Lenoir-Rhyne College as Visiting Writer-in-Residence for 2005. Since then, Adrian and his wife Molly, and young son, Micah, have settled in Hickory, from where he now commutes to Boone for Doctoral studies at Appalachian State University. Turning poetry into lyrics, he has also teamed up with Hickory-based and fellow Belfastman, musician/songwriter Alyn Mearns, to form ‘The Belfast Boys’, a dynamic Irish Traditional Music duo. Their debut album, Songs For Crying Out Loud, was released in 2010. Adrian’s last book, The Clock Flower (2013), and his latest, Hickory Station (2015) are both published by Press 53 (Winston-Salem).

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Mar 052016
 

Karen Mulhallen

xValete Seu Morimi
Be Strong or Be Extinguished

I

Mad about you, deep in me
everywhere—
Can’t Help It.

§

II

Everything you said
you truly meant
at the moment
I fell into the spaces in between
Il dolce fa niente
Can’t Help It!

§

III

The last words I spoke
imagining we would take one of those trips
only lovers take
two great cities, Paris, Istanbul—
nights by water, walking  in the moonlight
as the nightingale begins to sing
and the dervish whirls and the hookahs are
lit aromatic of apple and tobacco and flame
and then I said  no, I will not
torment myself, drive us both crazy
with imaginary scenarios
Can’t Help It!

§

IV

Well this time I thought I got lucky
(and thought he had too)
I met this person
(a real person)
someone from years ago,
and I thought I’m clear of debris
over the catastrophe,
just a plain old mudslide,
ready for love—
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxCan’t Help It!

§

V

I need to write it out,
hope my words scrawled on paper,
tiny band-aides,
little sutures on the scratches,
the small lines of blood
everywhere on my body­—
Can’t Help It.

§

VI

We’ve had thirty-five years to get this right
and now you’ve bailed
left me with the leaky boat—
Can’t Help It.

§

VII

If you came through the door
like that hawk’s landing
I would just say can’t help it,
Can’t Help It!

§

VIII

Can’t Help It,
I believed everything he said—
he’s an actor—really—
the embodiment of truth
at that moment.

*

You know you can only
lead the horse to water.

*

Nothing ventured, nothing gained:
Hey, just a minute, it was everything ventured,
only wreckage gained

§

IX

It can’t be helped
I wasn’t ready, or maybe I was really ready
ready for love
had no defenses
wasn’t prepared
just jumped in
and now
the undertow is
taking me down.

§

X

Hook up with an actor—
a real true professional—
take the high road to truth,
which of us will take the witness stand now,
speak the truth and nothing but the truth
so help me God.

§

XI

Four months ago I fell in love
and didn’t know whom to tell
and now, now
it’s just old news.

§

XII

It isn’t complicated
I must have lied to myself
saying I don’t want to own you
when I really just wanted
to gobble you up,
and I never thought
after that first night
when you said ‘Who would ever leave you’,
that you really meant to say  no one
but me would ever go away.
Can’t Help It!

§

XIII

That’s the thing about acting,
about actors,— it’s one sincerity after another
—which one is real—
Trust me, Right Now!

§

XIV

I called you rascal, alitros, to my friends
signaling that like Odysseus you were changeable,
mercurial, abandoned Kalypso
after eight years in her arching caverns
and could defeat
even the goddess Kirke herself.

§

XV

I was sitting in the Kensington Market
with my friend Cal
drinking mango margaritas
on the terrace at El Trompo
and I realized that’s precisely
what you have done to me.

§

XVI

I was sitting in the Kensington Market
with my friend Cal, drinking mango margaritas
on the terrace of El Trompo
and I realized that hecho un trompo
is just what I’ve done,
eaten to excess
every bit of you—
Can’t Help  It.

§

XVII

I was sitting in the Kensington Market
with my friend Cal
drinking mango margaritas
on the terrace of El Trompo and
I realized El Trompo is what I’ve become
spinning around like a kid’s top—
you push the spindle
and around I go
over and over and over

§

XVIII

I thought you didn’t like animals—
I don’t, you said, but when they go nuts
around me I have to respond
—just like people—
Can’t Help It.

§

XIX

Only yesterday, Canada Day,
you delivered the death notice,
‘A train wreck’ you called it,
and you were driving the engine,
always in charge,
Raptor Electric coming through, derailed.
.
The news was sudden, abrupt—
nothing convenient in a death—
and now I sit shiva, torn black ribbon
tourniquet for my bleeding heart.
xxxEvery four minutes I weep,
every ten  minutes I wail.
Every hour I slip, sleep, slide
down a bumpy passage.
xxxBrief summer made humid,
xby the tsunami of tears—
Can’t Help It!

§

XX

I called you alitros, rascal,
because like Odysseus you were wily,
shape-shifting, powerful, never contained.
You spent untold hours telling the contours
and crevices of my arching caverns.
xxxWhere are you now, my rascal,
my alitros,
xxxIn whose caves do you now dwell.
Can’t Help It!

§

XXI

And if in a future time perchance
with some girlfriend or other
you should happen on one of my dresses
on display at some museum or other,
you might recall my glance at you
there over my right shoulder,
the black panties draped over the scotch bottle
on the island counter,
and you holding yourself leaning
against the north counter staring at the woman
who glances over at you over her right shoulder,
xxxAnd you can have that secret moment,
xjust for yourself, there in that public place,
with some other woman or other.
Can’t Help It.

—Karen Mulhallen

x
Karen Mulhallen’s latest poetry book is Code Orange Emblazoned Suite, featured here first on Numéro Cinq, published by Black Moss Press (Fall 2015), and translated into French by Nancy Huston. The book launched in Toronto at the Café Pamenar in the Kensington Market and in Paris at Shakespeare and Company in September 2015.

x

x

Mar 042016
 

Richard Farrell

x

On a Thursday afternoon in September, some three decades ago, I sat in Mr. Belanger’s fifth-grade science class at Tatnuck School when the Blue Angels roared into town. Six insignia-blue jets buzzed the hillsides of gold-orange trees and circled over the city before they threw down their landing gear.  It was opening day of the Worcester Air Show, and our sleepy hamlet had suddenly become center stage for a spectacle of aeronautic derring-do and unimaginable pageantry. We stood—two dozen mesmerized kids temporarily released from the rigors of life science—in the windows of that classroom, staring out as the blue planes, one by one, lined up and touched down. Then Mr. Belanger barked at us, and we returned to whatever irrelevant topics awaited in our textbooks.

The ensuing three days of air-show mania were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The roar of an approaching Skyhawk would send me sprinting outside as if the house were on fire. Blue jets thundered overhead, practicing right above the yellowing sugar maple in my backyard. The ground rumbled as planes climbed, looped, crossed, barrel-rolled and boomed on high, turning the sky above Walter Street into a veritable six-ring circus. My friends and I dashed and chased, waving at the pilots who flew so low we could see their golden helmets and almost read their names painted on canopy sides. Our prosaic lawn furniture became front row seats for an otherworldly show. Delta-winged jets, tucked inches apart, twirled heavenward before screaming back toward Earth. Even now, decades later, the memories of those days seem fantastic and utterly surreal.

When the air show ended, I knew, and declared quite publicly, that one day, I would become a Navy pilot.

Blue Angels A4 SkyhawkBlue Angels in the A-4 Skyhawk, as the author first saw them

§

Emerson writes that self-trust is the essence of heroism. The human spirit, in conflict with itself, must struggle against the trappings of society, ego, and expectation. The enemy is a prevalent falsehood—the mask that we wear out in the world. To hear the Transcendentalist tell it, the hero removes the mask, revealing some inner light, illuminating a truer wisdom.

I knew all about masks. As a snaggle-toothed boy growing up just forty miles from Emerson’s front door, self-trust came reluctantly, if at all. Instead, I admired men like Chuck Yeager, or at least Tom Wolfe’s re-imagined version of Yeager, fabricated from the author’s imagination and an ancient gallery of heroic archetypes. The enduring myth of American meritocracy offered up a path for a good ole boy from West Virginia to convert passion and courage into an express ride to the very top of the pyramid—a test pilot, a general, a bona fide hero with world records to prove it. If Yeager could do it, I reasoned, then why not me? I only had to find the appropriate mask, wear it with a rigid certainty, and suppress any and all emotion that might reveal hesitancy, doubt, or weakness.

§

Ten years after the Worcester Air Show, still pursuing my dream of becoming a Navy pilot, I returned from physics lab to my room at the United States Naval Academy, only to find that a plebe from 10th Company had climbed out of his fifth-floor window and plunged to the brick walkway below.

His shattered, uniformed body was visible from my window as paramedics rushed in vain to save his life. Ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars had cordoned off the road, but the air was eerily still. I expected sirens, but heard only the chirping of birds, the rustle of a breeze off the Chesapeake. Again, it was September. A warm, clear day sparkled. Spinnakers billowed on the Severn River as sailboats tacked their way out to the hazy bay.

The mask had suddenly fallen away.

A moment later, my roommates came back from class. D.J. unpacked his books while Darren tore a long piece of masking tape off a roll and wrapped it around his fingers—sticky side out— and began to daub the tape against his chest, removing dust and lint, preparing for inspection. Darren would quit the Naval Academy later that year and send letters from Wisconsin regaling us with tales of coeds and frat parties.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Doesn’t look good,” I said. “Kid must’ve jumped.”

Paramedics wrapped a vacuum splint around the man’s leg and positioned a backboard nearby. Several firemen closed around the scene. Their arched backs formed a reverent, almost prayerful circle of yellow coats around the dying midshipman. Extending from the center of that circle were navy-blue uniform trousers, the same scratchy wool-polyester pants I wore that day, except the pants on that brick walkway below me were covered in dark blood.

Blood pooled on the bricks. Blood soaked the paramedics’ gloves. At one point, the rescue workers all lurched back in unison. Blood, from a blown artery, geysered out from the center. I felt my knees buckle.

Then D.J. came up and sat beside me on my desk. Just a few weeks into our sophomore year, we had been roommates only a short while. D.J. was an engineer, serious and taciturn by nature. His silence could be unnerving, because I never knew what he was thinking, but in that strange moment, D.J.’s quiet demeanor felt steadying, like a sea captain in a gale. What good were words?

Then an echolalia of chow calls began from open windows all around Bancroft Hall. Sir, you now have ten minutes until noon-meal formation. The uniform for noon-meal formation is working-uniform-blue-delta.

Chow calls were one of the many tedious rituals plebes were forced to repeat, six times a day, at ten and five minutes before each meal. One thousand plebes, minus one, repeated the rote words in a haunted chorus, a maddening mayday from a symphony of oblivious cuckoo clocks chiming the hour. Only this was no mayday. The unfolding misery below our window would not interrupt the routines.

§

I don’t believe that whatever wisdom a middle-aged man has acquired is any truer than the dreams of a ten-year-old boy or a twenty-year-old midshipman. Passions abound, both in the spring of life and in its autumn. We are filled with hope, doubt, fear, longing, joy, and grief. The boy dreams of taking flight, while the grown man reassembles the broken fragments of the past.

These days, I’m a stay-at-home father, a trailing spouse married to a woman who works long, irregular hours as a Navy obstetrician. While my wife manages laboring patients, I spend my time worrying about car pools, sleepovers, birthday party gifts and baseball practice. My children’s schedules dictate the rhythm of my day, leaving precious little time to worry about their dreams: What paths have they already begun to walk? What shapes their destinies? What masks have they already begun to wear into the world? My son wants to play professional basketball; my daughter wants to ride horses and live on a ranch in Montana.

The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic, Emerson writes. At times, though, I want only simple happiness and security for my children. I don’t want my son’s body battered by contact sports. I don’t want my daughter’s heart broken. But life and wisdom always come with scars.

§

Rituals at Annapolis were enshrined within a tradition and rigidity that even the most ardent cynic might admire. Each moment of our day creaked with customs, from reveille to taps. We marched, saluted, studied, and trained. We followed honor codes and conduct codes. For four years we scoured our rooms, polished brass belt buckles, folded tee shirts and socks with mathematical precision. We tucked sheets into taut hospital corners as though it were a holy sacrament. We believed in big ideas—in America and freedom and power—and we worshipped those ideas through a steadfast devotion to the most minuscule details. Our faith, like our duty, was absolute and unflinching.

For the entire four years we lived together in Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the world. Bancroft Hall was a home and a prison, a hearth and a hell. The massive building, erected at the turn of the last century in the Beaux Arts style, mixed classical symmetries with rococo flourishes. Cold stone surfaces rose to slate gray mansard roofs, trimmed with oxidized copper flashing. Nautical-themed statuary and maritime bas-relief decorated the corners. The scale of the building imposed on us, a structural symbol of an institutional ethos: the individual submitted to the will of the whole, an idea and ideal manifested in rusticated concrete and polished floor tiles. Neoclassical lines spoke of order. We marched beneath its imposing domes and stood midnight watch in Bancroft’s vast, cavernous hallways, always reminded of history, of fallen alumni and of future sacrifice, our individual existences reduced to fodder. For emphasis, brass cannons guarded the grand front staircase.

bancroft hall colour adjustedBancroft Hall, U.S. Naval Academy

In Memorial Hall, at the center of Bancroft, were inscribed the names of more than a thousand alumni who died in battle. A flag from Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1812 was enshrined behind glass. That flag reminded each of us daily with its tattered motto: Don’t Give Up the Ship.

Annapolis pushed a hero-heavy curriculum. The ghosts on the yard were all once great warriors, and we were taught to borrow their masks. Tecumseh stood watch over manicured lawns. Every academic building gestured toward mythical grandeur—Nimitz Library, Halsey Field House, Preble Hall. We revered warrior virtues and worshiped at the altar of self-sacrifice and bravery, all the while puffing out our chests with bravado and notions of coming glory. Self-trust received little attention. To interpret the iconography: there was no higher virtue than to lay down your life for your country.

Death, however, came with obligations of community and valor. While it was heroic to die in battle, it was something entirely different to take one’s own life. As the paramedics attempted to hold on to the young man’s fleeting existence on the bricks below my window, our routines continued apace. There would be no time-out for this suicide, no memorial to his sacrifice.

My roommates stepped back from the window and continued getting ready. Darren turned and D.J. taped-off his back. “Cooperate and graduate,” we learned, recited and believed as an article of faith. All for one and one for all. I rolled the tape around my own fingers, uncertain what it all meant, and kept watching out the window.

Memorial Hall Don't Give Up the ShipMemorial Hall, U.S. Naval Academy

§

In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W.H. Auden reminds us that there is something rather mundane about the shape of human tragedy. The subjective nature of suffering always leaves room for the rest of the world to carry out the logic of the day. Icarus goes kerflooey while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. Auden’s poem addresses the very notions of torment and flight. The poem examines Brueghel’s sixteenth-century oil painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which itself returns to the ancient legend of Daedalus and his eager son. Early versions of this legend can be found carved on Etruscan jugs from the seventh century before Christ. Man has long dreamed of taking flight, even before the discovery of the physics and engineering that made such dreams possible. And for even longer, humanity has managed to ignore tragedy with a blithe nonchalance. Perhaps our indifference is some vestigial hangover of evolution. In the primordial ooze, there would’ve been hardly time to stop and mourn for a fallen comrade while the tiger closed on our heels. Progress lacks easy definitions.

In Brueghel’s painting, an indifferent sea swallows up the ghostly legs of the falling Icarus, while shepherds and sailors go about their day. As Auden says, everything turns away.

Landscape with the Fall of IcarusLandscape with the Fall of Icarus by Brueghel, Pieter the Elder

§

Plebe year at Annapolis was the hell of it, ten grueling months stuffed with relentless military indoctrination, hazing, and physical exertion. I saw varsity linebackers reduced to tears, future fighter pilots so frazzled they’d forget their own names. But in that caldron of discipline and cruelty, an incredible thing happened. The self receded. Second-guessing disappeared. The yoking of regulation, discipline, and custom to our daily habits somehow managed to supplant the individual will. Life became a form of ascetic retreat, with a scripted rigidity, uniforms, slogans, and beliefs. As cruel and brutal as it could be, the routines were also incredibly liberating. The mask simply fit.

Ego vanished plebe year, perhaps not into some higher plane of spiritual awakening, but it was gone nonetheless. You submitted to the will of the larger institution. You became invisible, indistinguishable, if only to avoid getting reamed out by any one of the three thousand upperclassmen who outranked you. The regulations, routines, and discipline squeezed every last drop of individuality out of the blood, a dialysis designed to filter out lazy and timid habits from civilian life and replace them with the bellicose faith of military mythology and American altruism. To be certain, it was a herd mentality, but when in the crush and rhythm of the herd, oh what freedom!

The flipside to joining the herd was an obliteration of self-trust. Emerson wouldn’t have lasted a week at Annapolis. To question, to exert, to challenge—these things were unimaginable. Membership exacted the steepest price. Self-trust wasn’t heroic, it was dangerous and defiant, a tumor in the organs of an otherwise baleful gallantry. The very last thing a military force can withstand is the warrior who thinks too much.

The plebe who jumped that bright September day was named Kevin. Though I didn’t know him personally, the odds were good that we’d passed each other in the halls. I might have braced him up, chided him for an untucked shirt, or demanded he address me as “sir.” Until he jumped, he was just one of a nameless legion of young men and women like me, who turned over our identities and fates to the hallowed traditions of Annapolis.

Only later did I learn that Kevin came from Ohio. He’d managed to gut it out through the misery of Plebe Summer, but the end was still a long way off.  Kevin wanted to quit the Academy, perhaps to return to a more normal life along the shores of Lake Erie, but his well-meaning family, friends, and company officer all told him to stick it out. So did the institutional codes. The reminders were everywhere: Don’t give up the ship.

I can only imagine how words and ideas raged like cannon fire in Kevin’s mind as he struggled. I’d certainly suffered my share of setbacks and doubts during my own plebe year. Sometimes the pressure just got to be too much.

Did leaving for Kevin feel so much like failure that dying seemed a more reasonable option? Did words like sacrifice, duty, and hero slash at him as he pitted them against other words, like freedom, family, and home? Abstract ideas can inspire men to great sacrifices, or they can bring about catastrophic consequences.

As Kevin’s life spilled out on the brick sidewalk below my window, the only thing I processed was the waste of it all.

§

There’s very little that’s heroic about being a stay-at-home dad. No archetype exists, no books about domesticated heroes have been written. My day-to-day challenges involve time management and festering peccadilloes of unsorted laundry and unfinished homework.  “A man is his work,” my father intones, and these days my labor involves making beds, ignoring dust piles beneath the furniture, driving the kids to school. My failures and fuckups register in the emotional damage I can do with a raised voice or forgotten promise. My successes are far more muted. There are no air shows, no bright blue jets and golden helmets. There are no uniforms to hide behind, no masks to wear. A bizarre emphasis falls on the most mundane—the al dente texture of mac ’n’ cheese, the book reports I forget to check until the last minute. I can’t say how high or low the stakes are. Some days this work seems important. Other days, I feel like I’m wasting every second of the precious few I have left.

I never became a Navy pilot, though I came close. I graduated from the Naval Academy, became an officer, and eventually reported to flight school at the very same base where the Blue Angels were stationed. For six months, I donned a helmet, a flight suit, and a parachute and learned how to fly. On yet another September day, I climbed into a T-34 and soloed. After landing and shutting off the engine, I strutted across the flight line like I’d finally arrived at the threshold of where heroes dwelled. But the feeling didn’t linger. In fact, the closer I came to the finish line, the emptier I felt.

I thought that becoming a Navy pilot would change something fundamental about who I was. I thought gold wings would somehow smooth out the rough edges, erase doubts, fill in the empty places. In short, I assumed that I’d grow into the mask. But the opposite was happening. A month or so after that first solo, I suffered a seizure in an airplane. I was lucky to have survived, but I would never again pilot an airplane.

I suppose words like surrender and failure often seem loaded, freighted with the tincture of forever: heroic narratives that offer few examples of second-place finishers.  As a young man, words and ideas seemed ironclad, irrevocable, and failure felt freighted with only disgrace. But the moral value of a win-at-all-cost mentality is a very shallow one, not to mention entirely false. When I was forced to stop flying, I assumed my life would never recover. But I grew up. I learned, listened, and saw beyond rigid notions of right and wrong. We all win. We all lose. In somewhat equal proportions.

At ten and at twenty, it was easier to believe in mythical, right-stuff heroism. My ego willingly surrendered to the bon mot and the battle flag. Only later, with failure, with surrender, was I able to begin to understand self-trust. Emerson doesn’t address this, but sometimes self-trust looks a lot like self-doubt.

Richard Farrell as plebe at AnnapolisThe author in his plebe year

As I boy I read and reread Yeager’s autobiography. I watched The Right Stuff so much that my VCR tape began to stretch. I felt called to the shores of the Severn, but I certainly didn’t understand the implications or repercussions of that calling. My dreams were twisted and warped by the very myths in which I so vehemently believed. Watching the grisly aftermath of a shipmate leaping into the abyss was like watching some inverted, mangled, nightmarish version of my dream.

I wish I could go back and tell Kevin that things would have improved. Plebe year eventually would end. Whatever burdens he carried with him to the ledge that day were temporary ones. Didn’t he know that?  I wish I could have convinced him that there was no lasting shame in quitting the Academy. He would have recovered. Like my roommate, Darren, he could have written letters from a civilian college—boasting of frat parties and girlfriends—while his roommates back at Annapolis envied his freedom. Instead, he opened a window on a glorious September day and jumped.

And though my kinship with him was institutional—born of the anonymous Brigade of Midshipmen and the identical uniforms we wore—his short life became an enduring lesson. From my window, I watched him take his final breaths. Something died in my own heart too. Was it innocence? Was it faith?

I would continue to believe in heroes. I would wear my class ring and feel an incredible pride as the Blue Angels roared over graduation. But I would also eventually leave behind the simplistic codes and the consuming urgency of an organization that esteems martyrdom. I would eventually see through the cracks in the ivory tower, smell the rot in the walls.

As Kevin’s life ran out, right there on the brick sidewalk below me, could he have fathomed how the routines around us continued undisturbed? Was he trying to make a statement?  Was I the only one who heard? The institution had long before turned deaf. His suicide hardly altered the plan of the day. But I felt the mask slip.

And yet we turned away from Kevin, we who claimed to be his shipmates, trusted guardians of each other’s fate. We didn’t even skip a formation for his death. And for twenty-five years I’ve carried a measure of shame about that. Below my window, his navy-blue uniform pants and black shoes were drenched in blood, while I and four thousand other midshipmen simply prepared for lunch, as if nothing had really happened.

Like the ploughman in Brueghel’s painting and Auden’s poem, I bent to my task. I turned away. There simply wasn’t time to listen. Or maybe there wasn’t enough silence. The voices of shouting plebes droned off into a din as the paramedics lifted Kevin’s lifeless body onto the gurney. Sirens began, drowning out the wind, the birds, my own thoughts and feelings. I did what I had to do. I turned back from the window, straightened my belt buckle, and went out to formation.

Self-trust was a tall order, especially for an idealistic young man who wanted the world to make sense. Heroes carried on, even if carrying on was the least heroic thing any of us did that day.

After the fall, Daedalus surely saw the sky as a burden for the rest of his life. Every cloud, every soaring bird, and every star became another reminder of his lost son. Or maybe that’s just foolishness. Maybe I’m still looking towards myths and heroes to explain the world, rather than trusting my own heart. If self-trust perpetuates heroism, what does that say about self-doubt?

I see not any road of perfect peace which a man can walk, Emerson writes, but to take counsel of his own bosom.

It is morning here, and birds are singing and the light is golden. Soon my kids will come bursting from their dreams, hungry, eager for whatever private desires spur them through the day and fill their beings. I want them to soar, of course, though I’m fearful of what they may encounter in flight. But for now, I will make breakfast and oversee showers. I’ll try not to worry about what kind of people they will become, where life will take them, or how it will twist and turn, with its infinite number of ways to break hearts but also to stir passions. We forge ahead on these fragile, corruptible paths, always capable of discovering great joys but never far from sadness either. But I don’t have time to ponder these things much, because my kids are almost awake, and there is so much to be done.

—Richard Farrell

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Richard Farrell collage 480px

Richard Farrell  is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq and the Nonfiction Editor at upstreet. His work, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared or is forthcoming in Descant, Hunger Mountain, Newfound, Blue Monday, Dig Boston, Contrary, and others. He is currently writing a collection of short stories and a novel. In 2016, he will be a resident writer at the Ragdale Artist Community in Lake Forest, Illinois. He lives with his family in San Diego.

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Mar 032016
 

BW6

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WINDOW

What we call the soul
the space between out there

& in here—a life
cut itself in two gradually

joins in the middle, a beetle clung
to the grid of the wire screen

clicking merely flesh—

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PROVIDENCE

No experience song enough
like the warm skin of peaches
what we’re marked by
light or the ground beneath
an arcade of trees
holds together precisely
a world neither of us can move

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PASTORAL

As bright as each of us stands below the sparrows’ gifted

noon, our being here nothing but time’s abrupt

dissolve however swallowed—I ask you

remember for me how we are able to heal from

everything that pains us

wore down to desire

paid heed—what makes us more aware or grateful for

rain-soaked streets no more vanished than

youth’s certain toll—distance drawn out

over the hand come to rest on our shoulders

replays the handsome music we carry to the dogs—

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FOR THEODORE ROETHKE

If the dead cry out our memory’s voice

thrown down on muddy banks the river itself

skirts, if washed over stones the son recovers

the father shook to rage the son’s smallest song

lay under, say something, said was it light run

over us the way to the greenhouse, was it light

inside goodbye, old stones and the flowers

push their breath through me, went cold

the way it would feel asking for more than

my gorgeous scuttle beneath him, hid

behind rows of elms he planted further from

the roses along the old bed, if the earth was soft

enough, if married his hands, if it was winter

ended through the clear air I could hear him—

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PSALM

The earth turns along the scented irises
along the birches the body moves
nearer the fire in a deep grove
a kind of music each ear bore with it
our hiding our spit our having known
more than evenings sailed against our ribs
other bodies not us against the full light
a mangled bird raises her one speaking wing

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WITNESS

A morning difficult to walk across
the slain crocuses a song
or a silent movie
a memory of a wound
floated out to sea
at the beginning of the war
the fields covered by searchlights
at the edge of a garden before we were born
the shades drawn against
what shook the walls of the house
while the soldiers played cards
moved farther away from the coast
the lid rolled closed over the keyboard of a piano
the facts of history which we do not believe
for a moment we are among friends

—Kenneth E. Harrison, Jr.

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Kenneth E. Harrison, Jr.‘s poems have appeared in Cutbank, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Pleiades, Sukoon, and other journals, and his essays in PopMatters. He teaches writing and Literature courses at Webster University and Florissant Valley Community College in St. Louis, MO.

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Mar 022016
 

Munro

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In 1998, I was lucky enough to land a job as a book reviewer for the Financial Times under the auspices of the great editor Annalena McAfee. In the 12 months I reviewed books for her, I posted 26 reviews and was introduced to some incredible writers and books. One of those was Alice Munro who, believe it or not, was not that well known then (outside of her native Canada and especially on my side of the Atlantic). This was long before the Nobel Prize win and the universal acclaim she now enjoys (or rather doesn’t). The collection I reviewed for the FT was The Love of a Good Woman (Vintage, 1998). What struck me in particular about Munro’s style was how successfully she mined the interior life of her (largely female) characters. The POV in her stories constantly shifted, too, and time seemed amorphous, easily sculpted by the author to suit her needs. Key dramatic moments in the stories were only mentioned in passing and the endings were highly uncertain and not really endings at all. She broke all the rules and, because of that, her stories seemed remarkably true to life. I knew I had stumbled across a master storyteller.

The one story that especially drew me in was called “Jakarta”. As is the case with so many of Munro’s stories, it is set in the Vancouver area in the 1950s, during the height of the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs. Sonje, who is described as ‘calm’ and ‘Nordic’ and who has ‘thick fair hair’, is married to Cottar who, at 38, is significantly older than her. Cottar teases Sonje mercilessly about her bourgeoise aspirations. Cottar is a journalist who has scandalously travelled to communist China. He believes in free love and encourages Sonje to sleep with other men, the thought of which makes Sonje unhappy and so she doesn’t follow through.

Sonje and Cottar are on vacation in a rented cottage for the summer when Sonje meets and befriends a woman called Kath, who lives in the area permanently with her husband Kent. They quickly realise that they both used to work at the Vancouver Public Library at the same time although they didn’t know each other. Kath, who is darker and taller than Sonje, strikes Sonje as a free spirit and she compares herself unfavourably to Kath. During their days on the beach with Kath’s one-year-old daughter Noelle, Sonje and Kath discuss the relationships in the books they are reading—including DH Lawrence’s “The Fox”—but the subtext of their discussion is their own attitudes towards their husbands and marriages. Kath is shocked when Sonje says, ‘My happiness depends on Cottar’ and is struck by how Sonje is overly eager to please Cottar. Kath hints that she finds her own husband, Kent, conservative and stuffy. Kent disapproves of ‘pinko’ Cottar and the wild parties Cottar holds at his and Sonje’s summer cottage and Sonje can tell that Kath is attracted to that lifestyle and has a longing to be much more bohemian than she is.

At a beach party one night, Sonje cooks and looks after her guests. She is the perfect hostess. Kath gets drunk and dances flirtatiously with a stranger, with whom she exchanges a fumbling kiss, while Kent stays at home looking after Noelle. At the end of that summer, Cottar and Sonje move to Portland, Oregon, so that Sonje can take care of Cottar’s blind mother while Cottar is off on another journalistic junket to the Far East.

Suddenly, we shift 30 years later, to when Kent visits Sonje in Portland, where she is still living in Cottar’s mother’s house, although Cottar’s mother is long dead. Kent and Kath have long since been divorced. Kath lives on her own beside a small lake near Toronto, her second husband recently dead, while Kent is married for a third time, to a much younger woman, Deborah, who is younger even than his own daughter, Noelle. Sonje explains to Kent that, while Cottar was away in the Far East, she received word that Cottar had died suddenly of an insect bite while he was in Jakarta. ‘Jakarta used to be called Batavia, did you know that?’ she asks, to which Kent replies, ‘Vaguely.’ She goes on to say that she has a theory that Cottar didn’t die at all, that he is still alive. Sonje can’t explain why she would think that, and neither can Kent, but she does, and she tells Kent that Cottar’s mother also believed that he was still alive. In an uncharacteristic moment of candour, Kent says to Sonje, ‘They got away. Both of them. Cottar and Kath.’ That’s where the story ends.

The tenses and time schemes in the story are all mixed and fractured. Part 1—about Kathy and Sonje’s friendship—is told largely from Kathy’s POV. Set 30 years later, Part 2 is told from Kent’s POV when he visits Sonje in Oregon. Part 3—the night of the beach party—is told mainly from Kathy’s POV but also from Sonje’s. Finally, Part 4 is again from Kent’s POV while he visits Sonje. The story explores the fault lines of marriage—the personal struggle either to adhere to conventional notions of marriage or to find alternatives to it. The argument Kath and Sonje have about DH Lawrence’s “The Fox” illustrates this perfectly. Kath and Sonje can’t admit it to themselves, or each other, but they have married the wrong people. What is left so beautifully understated in the story is that, deep down, they both know it.

A few years later, I came across a diagram called the Semiotic Square, originally devised by A. J. Greimas. It was defined as ‘A structuralist-inspired model for the visual representation of a semantic logic which describes a narrative’s elementary structure of signification’. It’s one of those ideas in narrative theory that is much better understood as a diagram than a verbal definition:

Greimas Semiotic Square

When I saw this diagram, something immediately clicked. An inkling, a recognition, that had always been there in the back of my mind became articulated by this diagram and I understood straightaway what Greimas meant.

In the diagram, Greimas was trying to map the possible permutations of relationships between four people in a story. He labelled these relationships ‘contrary’, ‘contradictory’ and ‘implied’. The difference between something that is ‘contrary’ and ‘contradictory’ is one of degree—something contradictory is a direct opposite whereas something contrary is along the same lines but not as strong. For example, the opposite of love is ‘hate’ whereas ‘indifference’ implies the same thing in kind but not degree. Another example would be ‘truth’—the contradiction of which is ‘lies’, whereas ‘white lies’ would be merely a contrary idea —‘white lies’ is along the same lines as ‘lies’ but is not as extreme.

One of the things I had been particularly drawn to in “Jakarta” was the shifting POV between the main characters and the fact that there were four of them. Many great novels are studies of single characters—loners, outsiders or outcasts—e.g., Madame Bovary, The Outsider, The Bell Jar. Then you have novels that are dissections of the symbiotic/obsessive/co-dependent relationships between two people (usually in a marriage)—e.g., Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. And then there are those stories about love triangles, usually two men in love with the same woman—e.g. Anna Karenina, Thérèse Raquin, The End of the Affair. But Greimas’ square was picking out the relationships between four people. It dawned on me that Greimas’ square described very well what was going on inside Munro’s story.

Square for Munro

Each character in “Jakarta” has a relationship of differing strength with each of the other three characters. The story is a working through of each of these relationships, beginning with the strongest—the most contradictory—and working down through the layers, ending with the implication that there might have been a connection between Cottar and Kath all along. The other ‘implied’ relationship that we are left with is that between Sonje and Kent. The edges and cross hairs of Greimas’ square are a visual representation of the themes of the story—they are the story —and “Jakarta” as a whole is a working through of this set of relationships.

When I thought about Greimas’ square in light of Munro’s story, everything fell into place. Greimas’ square helped me to understand the nature of “Jakarta” and, as with the great studies of individuals, marriages and love triangles, this four-way split (usually two sets of couples) was another universal deep structure, which continues to pop up everywhere in books, movies—any form of narrative storytelling.

Another, very similar, North American exploration of modern love revolving around the four-way split between two couples is the three novellas by Andre Dubus (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore”, “Adultery” and “Finding a Girl in America”) gathered together into one volume entitled We Don’t Live Here Anymore (Vintage, 2004). The three novellas explore two marriages—Hank’s to Edith and Jack’s to Terry. Each of the novellas is told from a different POV—“We Don’t Live Here Anymore” from Jack’s, “Adultery” from Edith’s and “Finding a Girl in America” from Hank’s. Again, taken together, the novellas are an exploration of the kind and degree of the bond that each of these people has with the other three.

Square for Dubus

In common with Dubus’ novellas, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015) is a collection of three stand-alone parts, each told from a different POV and set around two couples. Set in Seoul, Part One, entitled “The Vegetarian”, starts in the first person from the POV of a man whose wife, Yeong-Hye, one day announces that she is now a vegetarian. Her husband finds this intolerable, as does her father and mother, and they seek to force her to eat meat. Yeong-Hye resists so strongly that she cuts her wrist in protest. Her family have her committed to a psychiatric hospital, where she stays for several months.

Part Two, entitled “Mongolian Mark”, is set two years later and is told in the third person from the POV of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law, a visual artist who has formed a secret desire for Yeong-Hye ever since her attempted suicide. Yeong-Hye is now living on her own in an apartment and her brother-in-law begins to visit her. He asks for her help with an art project. He paints large flowers on Yeong-Hye naked body, then his own, and films them having sex together. This part ends with Yeong-Hye’s sister finding out about their affair.

Part Three, entitled “Flaming Trees”, is in the third person and told from the sister’s POV. Yeong-Hye has been committed to a psychiatric hospital again and, as her sister travels to visit her, the sister thinks back to when she first met her husband and to when her and her sister were young girls. It transpires that their father used to physically abuse Yeong-Hye, about which her sister has feelings of shame and guilt. While in hospital, Yeong-Hye tells her sister that she has completed her metamorphosis from animal to vegetal and is now a tree. The book ends with a vision of some trees on fire.

Square for Han Kang

As the novel progresses, so we shift around the edges of the square, or across the square, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the human relationships in the book. The sister, who was barely mentioned at the start, evolves into a main character. Her husband, also hardly noticed at the start of the book, comes forward to have his own voice before then disappearing from the narrative altogether. By the end of the novel, Yeong-Hye’s ex-husband (the entry point into the novel) has long since been forgotten. The men disappear, the women remain. Both marriages are shattered, one by a refusal to eat, the other by an act of sex, and there is an implication that Yeong-Hye and her sister’s huband would have been a far better match, as would Yeong-Hye’s sister and Yeong-Hye’s ex-husband. The only constant is Yeong-Hye herself, although she doesn’t have a voice or her own vantage point in the narrative. She remains an enigma from start to finish.

Another recent novel that is fascinating to consider in light of Greimas’ square is Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (Cape, 2011). Barnes’ novel is divided into two parts, both of which are narrated by Tony Webster when he is retired and living alone. The first part begins in the 1960s with four intellectually arrogant school friends. Towards the end of their school days another boy at the school hangs himself, apparently after getting a girl pregnant. The four friends discuss the philosophical difficulty of knowing exactly what happened. One of the friends, Adrian, goes to Cambridge while Tony goes to Bristol. Tony acquires a girlfriend, Veronica, at whose family home he spends an awkward weekend. Their relationship fails in some acrimony. In his final year at university Tony receives a letter from Adrian informing him that he is going out with Veronica. Tony replies to the letter. Some months later he is told that Adrian has committed suicide, leaving a note saying that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine their life, and may then choose to renounce it.   At this point Tony’s narration of the second part of the novel begins many years later with the arrival of a lawyer’s letter informing him that Veronica’s mother has died and bequeathed him £500 and two documents. These lead him to re-establish contact with Veronica and after a number of meetings with her, to re-evaluate the story he has narrated in the first part. The revelation is that Adrian had an affair with Veronica’s mother, and so the young Adrian is Veronica’s brother, not her son, as Tony had assumed. The reason Veronica keeps saying throughout the book that Tony ‘doesn’t get it’ is because he never understood this link. The reason her mother had Adrian’s diary and said he had been happy in his last few months is because he had been with her. Tony feels guilty because his spiteful letter drove Adrian to Veronica’s mother, which led them to produce a son, which led to his suicide. As Tony says, ‘I looked at the chain of responsibility. I saw my initial in there.’

Square for Barnes

Those relationships that seem logical and likely to succeed—between Tony and Veronica, for instance—are the quickest to fail, whereas those most unlikely ever to come about often prove the strongest—between Adrian and Veronica’s mother, Sarah, for instance. As soon as Adrian starts his relationship with Veronica’s mother, the dynamic in the novel shifts and the two longest surviving relationships—between school friends Tony and Adrian, and the mother-daughter relationship—are severed forever. And, lastly, the hint of sexual tension between Tony and Veronica’s mother when Tony spends the awkward weekend at Veronica’s home hints at a relationship that might have worked.

After thinking about this square structure in relation to Munro, Dubus, Han Kang and Barnes, I started to see this pattern everywhere: Andre Gidé’s Strait is the Gate, DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, Renée Knight’s Disclaimer, to name but a few. All these novels, so wildly different in style and tone, all shared a foundation built on the four corner stones of two sets of relationships and all were explorations of the four sides and crossways of these squares.

But then something struck me. Looking again over the Munro, Dubus, Han Kang and Barnes, I realised that they all shared something else in common—all these narratives had a ‘black hole’ in it—i.e., that one of the four characters in the story were, in some way, not present—either they had gone missing, or died, or didn’t have a voice in the narrative. In “Jakarta”, Cottar is the only character whose POV we are never aligned with at all. He then disappears from the narrative altogether and it is precisely this disappearance that forces the other characters to review their connection to him and each other and, in the end, brings about the possibility of the ‘implied’ relationship. He is the ‘black hole’ in the story, the fall guy who must suffer and be sacrificed in order for the others to survive or change.

In Dubus’ We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Jack, his best friend Hank, and Hank’s wife Edith, all have their own voices when retelling their versions of the same set of infidelities. Hank and Edith’s POV might not be first person, like Jack’s, but their narrative POV is very close third person and the narrator continually uses free indirect style to allow us to hear what Hank and Edith are thinking and feeling, so their voices feel very like first person. Terry, however, is not allowed her own voice. She is the last to transgress her vows of marriage and it is this final transgression that finally brings about the collapse of one marriage and the re-evaluation of the other. After sleeping with Hank on two consecutive nights because she was unhappy, ‘Terry told Jack about Hank. Then, desperate and drunk, Jack told Terry about Edith.’

Dubus’ trilogy of novellas is a detailed, intimate account of his belief that marriage is the beginning and discovery of emotional conflict, not its resolution. Hank and Edith’s marriage breaks down and they both move on to other lovers, while Jack and Terry’s choice to stay married initially emphasizes the misery in their decision. By the time we get to Hank’s POV, however (which is set many years later when Hank is now with a much younger woman), the survival of Jack and Terry’s marriage takes on an unexpectedly sanguine tone.

In Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Yeong-Hye is again the only character whose POV we never move to. We hear from her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, all of whom talk about Yeong-Hye, but she has no voice of her own in the narrative. This is the point of her story. In order to fulfill her desire to move from an animal to a vegetal state of being, she makes the Bartleby-like decision not to engage with those around her on their terms, terms which she finds intolerable. She sacrifices herself in order to move to another realm of understanding and this move is what horrifies her husband and parents but is what her brother-in-law and, finally, her sister come to love and accept, admire even.

In Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (Cape, 2011), it is Adrian’s suicide that is the bomb dropped on the set of relationships in the novel, but this suicide was brought about by Tony’s hateful letter, which is the source of Tony’s guilt. This knowledge is what forces Tony to reassess and recount to us his role in the lives of Adrian, Veronica and Veronica’s mother (whom he only met once). Adrian’s suicide is a black hole down which he falls, down which Veronica and her mother also fall, albeit for different reasons and in different ways.

All these magnificent stories are highly organised, intense studies of humans interacting and behaving oddly with each other. They throw light on sublimated desires and warped motives. Ultimately, however, in all of these stories, it is some kind of lack, absence or failure of one corner of the square that triggers catastrophic change and collapse in the other three. There must be a black hole, a sacrificial lamb, for the story to work and it is these black holes that are the secret keys to the stories. Through them, we slip down a wormhole and emerge at the story’s end with fresh understanding of just how weird and wonderful human beings can be.

— by Richard Skinner

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Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner is the author of three novels, all published by Faber & Faber. He has also published three books of non-fiction, including a book of essays, reviews & interviews entitled ‘Vade Mecum’ (Zero Books). His work has been nominated for prizes and is published in seven languages. Richard is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. Website address: http://richardskinner.weebly.com/

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Mar 012016
 

self-portrait through a keyholeSelf-portrait through a Keyhole: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 7.5″ x 10″

 

 

LateafternoonhawkLateafternoonhawk: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 18″ x 12″

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nude with 3-urinal chastity beltNude with 3-urinal Chastity Belt: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 5″ x 17″

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§Medium walking the Sea of SerenityMedium Walking the Sea of Serenity: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper,11″ x 11″
(Kind of an homage to Chagall)

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Succubus Dragging a Shitstorm into the Rear View Mirror FinaleSuccubus Dragging a Shitstorm into the Rear View Mirror:
Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 7.5″ x 10″ (1 of 2 versions)

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Museum of Victorian and Ancient ArcheologyWelcome to the Weingarten Museum of Victorian and Ancient Archeology:
Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 12″ x 18″

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PasodoblePasodoble: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 4″ x 7.5″

—Roger Weingarten

Roger Weingarten and another NC poet/artist Kate Fetherston are having a two-person show opening this Friday, March 4. The event kicks off at 6pm with reading at Bridgeside Books, 29 Stowe Street, Waterbury, VT, then moves downstreet to Axel’s Gallery, 5 Stowe Street, for art opening—Friday March 4.

See Weingarten’s poems on NC here.

See Kate Fetherston’s poem  & paintings here.

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Roger Weingarten, author of ten collections of poetry, and co-editor of eight poetry and prose anthologies, has lectured, taught and read at writers’ conferences, poetry festivals, and universities nationally and internationally. He founded and taught in the MFA in Writing and the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College. His awards include a Pushcart Prize, a Louisville Review Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in Literature. Stranger at Home: American Poetry with an Accent: co-edited with Andrey Gritsman, Interpoezia Press, was published in 2008, Premature Elegy by Firelight by Longleaf Press in 2007, and Open Book: Essays from the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, co-edited with Kate Fetherston by Cambridge Scholars’ Press in 2007.

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Mar 012016
 

Ivan Seng

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Ivan Seng is an astonishingly gifted classical pianist and composer based in Asheville, North Carolina. His concert recitals reflect his wide-ranging interests: Bach, Shostakovich, Chopin, Haydn, Mendelsohn, Prokofiev; as well as contemporaries such as composer Kenneth Frazelle, with whom Seng has partnered in concert many times.

He’s a North Carolina native, traveling from his home in Boone to study with Clifton Matthews at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem as a boy, then attending the school’s prestigious residential high school program. He left NC to attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he worked with Joseph Schwartz and Sanford Margolis, and returned to Winston-Salem for graduate study, where he studied composition with Michael Rothkopf in addition to his continued study with Matthews. Seng has won numerous regional awards in both solo and chamber performance, including the College Chamber Music Competition, and was selected to perform in the Asheville Rising Stars concert series. He frequently collaborates with the ensemble Pan Harmonia and other chamber ensembles. When he talks, he bears an air of slight preoccupation, paired with a laser-sharp attention. He’s got a youthful appearance, but speaks as a old-fashioned professor: not in powerpoint bullets but in penciled phrases that are frequently, beautifully, revised mid-clause.

Seng’s compositional interests are deeply immersed in mathematics, in which he finds description of the natural patterns of the universe. Like one of his major influences, the post-World War II composer Iannis Xenakis, who was among the first to use computer programs to compose music, Seng draws his compositional forms not from classical constraints, but through mathematical formulas. As Seng says, “I think it is important to have an emotional relation to these concepts, because it is the universe that we live in. We do live in a universe that’s not ordered. It’s not planetary spheres that orbit each other, in these very harmonious patterns. The heavens are not ordered.”

Xenakis was composing during a time ruptured by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism in his own country, as well as the hugely influential compositional development that was serialism. Today’s rupture is both social and environmental, and Seng is one of the composers addressing climate collapse in his compositions.

Seng doesn’t talk about himself easily or often, but he graciously agreed to spend several afternoons discussing his compositional process with me following a concert performance of his work, part of a series of house concerts together with other electronic music composers in Asheville. The room had been dimly lit when Ivan took the stage. He explained that he would be premiering five works done using the SuperCollider programming language, gestured to the laptop whose screen was turned to the wall.  He inclined his head, as if taking the pulse of the room, and pressed a button on the computer.

Play.

Sounds fell from the screen, single tones, stretched, extended. Clusters, then, a barrage, then – silence. Despite no apparent sense of structure – there was no sign of a theme, no underlying motif to hold these sounds together – there was, nevertheless, a sense of unity to his music. Someone commented, after it was finished, “It was if it were raining, on a tin roof, and the roof receives the rain in a different way, every drop.”

Changes in the musical texture occur in sudden bursts and at a fairly rapid pace. Each burst affects only one musical feature at a time, such as speed, density, tone color, shape, or movement of sound. These happen in fairly rapid succession, and at unpredictable intervals of time.


Carolyn Ogburn:
 It seems to me that being a composer must be in some way like being an architect – well, I was thinking Xenakis, and of course that was his background. He didn’t even study traditional counterpoint and harmony, right? Because he was about 30 when he came to Paris, started working with Le Courbousier as an engineer and draftsman.  Then he tried to find a composition teacher – He tried to study with Nadia Boulanger, and she was like, Nah, I got no time for you – here you are, a 30-year-old beginner, and I’m Nadia Boulanger… so then he finally found Messiaen.

Ivan Seng: I think it was incredibly insightful of Messiaen [not to make Xenakis learn counterpoint.] Xenakis had a lot of mathematical training and a lot of drafting skills. His graphic abilities were incredible. So I think that Messiaen realized that he [Xenakis] could use all the skills he already knew – they were unique, not many musicians had these skills, why force everyone into the traditional mode?

CO: Would you call that modernism?

IS: Yeah! Well, maybe. A late stage of it. We had Schoenberg and Webern and Stravinsky; that was the high point of modernism. Then you’ve got the post-World War II serialism, and (those composers) all studied counterpoint. Boulez was brilliant at counterpoint, traditional tonal counterpoint. You can definitely see influences of contrapuntal thinking in his music. How these out-of-control multiple voices can be moving at the same time. It’s very similar to how they would do it in the Renaissance. I mean the intervals – were maybe not the same [laughing]… He doesn’t choose the consonant intervals as often as he does the dissonant intervals.

Xenakis doesn’t approach it that way. He  actually was very critical of the serialist composers and the kind of complete – the total serialist, and serialism in general. He bases his music on very different principles. Sometimes it sounds similar, but what he realized, basically, is that when you take music to that level of complexity we just can’t hear those tone rows anyway. Basically, his criticism was if you have, if it’s that dissonant, that complex, our ability to follow voices – we hear scattered voices, chaotic and kind of random – we don’t connect it.

CO: Because it’s too complex for us to process?

IS: I think they took complexity to such an extreme… I mean, in Bach, everything is controlled in such a way that you can hear the top voice responding to a bass voice; there’s many things you can pick up with your ear, and with your mind. With Boulez, maybe the low voice will be doing this [waving hand above his head] and the top voice will be doing this [waving the other hand about his waist], and so how can you actually process the differences?

So what ends up happening is that you don’t hear two voices; you hear the combined texture, or mass, of notes. I think Xenakis liked the sound of that but he realized that there’s really no point in having all [those] complex structures behind the scenes that you can’t – they’re not audible at all – so why bother creating those structures? Why not just deal immediately with surfaces. So he uses mathematics to do that. So now rather than using 12-tone rows in patterns, becoming so complex you can’t hear them anymore, he just uses mathematical formulas,  and creates the same kinds of structures. But there’s nothing to listen FOR in them.

See, you always feel like, in Schoenberg, you’re supposed to be hearing something, but you just can’t quite… get it. Unless you study the score, you can’t really hear it. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and listened to Schoenberg, and been like, “Oh I heard The Row!” Except if it’s completely isolated…

CO: Otherwise you’ve got to find it through visual interpretation of the score?

IS: Yes. I mean, sometimes Schoenberg will make a row into an obvious theme and maybe, after one or two listenings, you can recognize the theme. It’s not easy, and maybe you can hear one or two variations… but most of the time you don’t really. You hear shapes and patterns emerging, but you don’t hear that background structure of the row.

But with Xenakis, it’s not even there.  You don’t even bother trying to hear those patterns. You listen to the overall texture, and globally where it’s going.  Like, is this texture gradually becoming more dense? Like maybe it starts sparsely, and then you can hear this building of density, it gradually starts to collect notes and becomes more dense. You can hear [everything you need to].

Random Walk X Winter Solstice: The changes have become smoother. Instead of sudden bursts, each musical parameter undergoes nearly continuous transition from one state to another.

CO: What you’re describing feels very visual, very textural, like a sweater pattern or something. Like, not all that auditory? Or, am I missing something?

IS: It’s actually completely auditory. It’s based on all kinds of mathematical principles and formulas. But I think what [Xenakis] really wanted to do was emulate the laws of nature. Like say you go out on a hike and you see a geological formation that’s been sculpted by many forces over time, and it creates this overall impression of complexity –

CO: And unity?

IS: Perhaps… but I don’t know if these kinds of formulas create unity. That has to come from a sort of intuitive sense of the entire shape of the piece. It’s not formulaic. He uses formulas to create local texture – he wants to keep human patterns out of the immediate surface.  Humans tend to create a certain kind of order. You can look at this room, and see there’s certain kinds of shapes that humans prefer. He wants to keep that out. He wants it to be like – in the natural world there’s a certain complexity – we don’t naturally produce that.

CO: I want to ask you more about the pieces at the concert the other night. The Random Walk pieces. Like, I really want to know about that name, for instance. But also, you said they were composed using a SuperCollider software program?

IS: Yes, but it’s not a software program. It’s actually a programming language, designed for sound synthesis. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the other [the large particle accelerator] or not.

CO: So, basically, the composer sets parameters for what sounds the computer will produce, and then presses ‘play’. And, if he ever wants to hear that same piece a second time, he simultaneously presses ‘record’; for if he does not, neither he nor anyone else will ever hear that piece again. It’s completely ephemeral, not unlike a live performance of any other improvised piece of music.

IS:  Pressing the ‘record’ button also will slightly alter the parameters as well in ways that are unpredictable.

CO: And then there’s the title of these pieces – Random Walk. I was really surprised by that. It’s unpredictable, but can you really say it’s random? Because, it seems to me that these compositions are anything but random. You – as the composer – put in the parameters, you decide each element, and if you don’t like the result, you can immediately delete it. It’s almost like you have total control at the very beginning and at the end, while in the middle, the computer runs through the patterns in ways that only math can interpret.

IS:  Well, random walk is a mathematical term. It comes from Brownian motion. Do you remember the story of the guy [botanist Robert Brown] who was looking though his microscope at tiny particles in water. He saw these particles and he saw them bouncing around – he saw that these particles were following this completely random motion, Brownian motion – and I think it’s how they realized that there were atoms, because it ended up being that these atoms were bouncing off of these small little particles and it was pushing the particles around… So if we took a very basic motion… say you have a 3-sided die, marked 0-1-2, and each number correlates to a particular movement.  And [your particle, or sound, in its own placement is affected by the dictates of the die] and you start at a certain number, 0, and you can go up a step or down a step. But it’s unpredictable.

CO: But you cannot predict which direction the die will dictate. And that’s only one example, right? One aspect of the piece, like pitch or duration?

IS:  Right.

CO: So, the title is supposed to evoke…?

IS:  It’s a random walk through a parameter space. By parameter space, I mean it’s multidimensional – each parameter you add, adds a dimension. So pitch, duration are 2 dimensions. And you could move through that space in this random walk – but it’s really like 28–29 dimensional space at this point. So imagine this random walk not just going through 2-dimensional space, but 28–29 dimensions. That’s where the title comes from. I mean, really what these pieces are, they’re sketches. Then my intention is to go on to develop pieces where I have chosen [more definitively]…

CO: But these sketches, they’re wonderful. What do you like better?

IS:  That’s  a complicated question. I sometimes think that the complete – the computer doesn’t have any kind of preconceptions, about what should happen next. So sometimes things will happen that I would never have thought of, or I would not have thought would be interesting. and I really like it. It sounds fresh, and new.

I think that’s why I do it. It lets me know what can happen in this sound world that I’ve created without any of my own preconceptions – although they always seep in. For instance, before I press that play button, if I choose a scale – well, that’s already decided something. The scale has already altered the sound of the piece. And so that’s one thing. I can give it certain… I can choose specific [how would you put it?] states. Let’s take volume, for instance. I can say choose between this volume and this volume, and so now it has two choices.  Then I can say, well, there’s a 75 percent probability that it will choose this volume and a 25 percent it will choose this one and so now I’ve made another decision.

But another example is, for instance, let’s take density – I could say, let’s start the whole piece very low density and gradually, toward the end, climax at maximum density, but it creates a shape that you can see already.

In some sense I’m letting the computer pick them but of course I’m telling the computer what to do – basically, I give it boundaries to work in and then I kind of let it go. I also tell it the rate of change – so it might change, on average, once every 40 seconds. So one parameter is volume. So I give it a center volume, for a certain amount of time, and then it changes. It could change in exactly one second [but that’s not likely] or it could change in – well, there’s a very small probability that it would sustain for one year, but the probability is so small that it never happens.

CO: I was struck by the way you just pressed “play” on your computer the other night, and sat down. If you listen to the pieces online, you know that there are five pieces, because they’re visually separated on the website. But you didn’t want to separate them?

IS:  Well, I did put in pauses. It might not have been obvious enough. I think it was kind of obvious when a piece ended, but maybe not. I guess it’s a little like chapters in a book.

I could have talked in between but I would have had to get up in time to stop it and I didn’t want to do that… I didn’t want anyone looking at the computer. I turned that away.

CO: Because when you see the “playlist” you can definitely tell when it’s changing from one piece to the next, and absent that, you – or, I, at any rate, found myself inserting my own structure. Like, oh, there’s this sustained note, or this consonance. That must be a punctuation of some sort. But, you know, maybe not?

IS:  Yes, but really, I was thinking more about the – the visual. For instance, in terms of visual, you know [the pianist] Sviatoslav Richter? Later in life, he became more eccentric – and he performed in the dark, with a lamp, and there was no other light in the auditorium. There was more focus on the listening. We’re so visually oriented that we tend to watch performers rather than listen to music.  So, I think one of the things I didn’t want was for the computer screen to be a distraction. Maybe to become more aware of sounds and less dependent on visual cues. I’ve been less and less interested in the visual aspects of musical performance, in general.

Ivan Seng in concert

I think we can if we hone in on auditory information, I want people to start having the kinds of sensitivity that a blind person might have to sound. I want that kind of attention to the sound rather than gesticulations. When a person is up there – you’re always trying to find some kind of correspondence between the visual and the auditory information. It’s interesting to see what happens when you let go of that a little bit.

CO: Density is a word that comes up a lot in our conversations here, and it’s not – well, that’s not a word often used in talking about music, in general. But it’s, you know, it’s exactly the right word for this, I think.

From dense masses of notes emerge structures that soon unravel again into chaos.

IS:  And with electronic music, it can get pretty dense! Hundreds of sounds per second.

CO: There’s no way to actually hear each sound, not in any way that you can actually interpret. So, there’s density, and there’s sound. I couldn’t help but feel like I was hearing articulation of instruments at times. There were some sounds that were less articulated, almost flute-like, and then others that sounded almost plucked. Did you do that on purpose?

IS:  When it sounds like an instrument, that’s a byproduct of the process I’m using. It’s not intentional. What was intentional was I wanted to take whatever sounds I had and through manipulating the envelope create lots of variety, and also distinct groups of sound – I mean, with huge masses of sound – I wanted some to – like if you see a flock of birds in the air, and they’re all the same kind of bird, there’s a kind of similarity. I wanted to create similarities that would create flocks of notes.

And also transitions, mutations, where you hear these dense masses of notes that gradually they change sound into something else.

CO: The envelope? Did you just say, manipulating the envelope? That’s a great phrase.

IS:  [laughs] Yes, well, it refers to setting certain parameters of sound, attack, sustain, decay… I wanted to manipulate the envelope – or, rather, the program was manipulating the envelope – to create as much variety as I could.

CO: So like when you program your algorithm, it’s possible that a note could sustain for over a year, but it’s just not likely.

IS:  Right.

CO: Because of the laws of probability?

IS:  Let me give you an example. The other night, there was a geologist talking about history of the earth, about huge climatic extinctions and meteors hitting the earth – that’s a perfect example, meteors. There’s hundreds or thousands of tiny objects that hit the earth every year. It’s something very frequent. Something not so significant happens a lot at a high frequency. And then larger, maybe 100-foot, objects hit much less frequently, only every decade or so. And then there’s objects the size of Mount Everest. And those hit like every 65 million years or so. But you never know – it’s possible that two could happen very close together. It’s just not likely.

Giant meteorites could hit us and we have these formulas that could tell us when these giant meteors could hit us but they can’t tell us with any certainty. They can tell us one every 60 million years but we don’t really know…. We live in a very dangerous universe. We can make all these predictions, but we can’t have certainty.  So that I think that informs the music. Especially with the issues we have in climate change.

We’re living in a giant exponential curve at the moment. Carbon parts per million in the atmosphere are growing exponentially. We feel it. Population is exploding exponentially. We do have an emotional connection with these things.  We are living in these forms as we speak. We can pretend that we’re living in a static form all we want, but we’re not.

—Ivan Seng & Carolyn Ogburn

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Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Ivan Seng photographs by stephen houseworth photography

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