Nov 142016
 

laura-thompson Picture: Roger Wyman

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. —Laura Michele Diener

the-six

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Laura Thompson
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
$29.99, 400 pages

.
I.
Thanks to Tolstoy, we know all about happy and unhappy families, and why unhappy families are by far the most interesting. Few families experienced quite such unique interesting incarnations of unhappiness as the Mad Mad Mitfords, the six sisters and one brother whose fates spanned the ideological spectrum of the twentieth century, and whose lives read like great English novels, except they actually wrote the novels, or they were friends with the novelists. Unity Valkyrie, the sister who adored Hitler, was conceived in the town of Swastika, South Africa. What writer could have invented a more perfect irony? As Laura Thompson, author of The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, declares, “Never again will there be six such girls, raised in such a way, at such a time.” And what times they were, those bright young years between the wars, before the world caught wholly afire. Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the sisters, although by no means the only authoress, wrote about the fictional Radlett family in her bestselling novel The Pursuit of Love, that, “they lived in a world of superlatives.” And rarely was it more clear that she found inspiration in her blood kin.

Their charm was collective as well as singular. Men from John Betjeman to Winston Churchill fell in love with one or the other of them or more likely, the whole lot of them, brother Tom included. After reading Brideshead Revisited, Nancy wrote to Evelyn Waugh: “So true to life being in love with a whole family, it has happened in mine.” Waugh himself was a lifelong devotee of the Mitfordian charm. He fell in love with Diana for a time but admired Nancy far more. Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love were both published in 1945, the year the war ended, and when great families like the fictional Flytes and the real Mitfords wondered where they fit into the new order. Both novels contain a melancholic nostalgia, but Nancy approaches her’s with out-and-out humor and what Thompson terms “a will to joy” that delighted a war-weary English audience.

Thompson identifies herself as a longtime admirer of Nancy Mitford. She has written a biography of her alone, Life in a Cold Climate (2003). “When I first read her, aged about thirteen, I could scarcely believe (so weighted down was I with Eliot and Hardy) that one was actually allowed this kind of pleasure, that literature could be souffle-light as well as monolithic, and still hold monolithic truths.” It is this tone of truth, delivered with a light and gracious hand that Thompson strives to imitate in The Six. She sparkles, delights, and barbs in the voice of Nancy. In Nancy’s classic style, Thompson peppers her book with epigrammatic gems:

“Feminism notwithstanding—female cleverness is still most acceptable when it spouts orthodoxies, or in some way conforms to a type.”

And then there’s that sharp Mitford prickle: “Few are the women who do not relish Nancy (her sisters were among the exceptions, but that’s another story).”

And a choice amount of dry observations:

“She [Nancy] was not especially good at men. In truth all her sisters (but especially Diana and Deborah) were better at handling men than Nancy. When the men in question include Adolf Hitler, one might justifiably say that this was not a gift worth having.”

And just as Nancy could unexpectedly lapse towards the lyrical, Thompson trills out a lovely turn of phrase. She describes the fortune of Diana’s first husband, Brian Guinness (of the brewery), as “the kind of wealth that shrugs off slumps and depressions, like coats falling from one’s shoulders.” Later she refers to “the strange echoing poetry of the Times social pages.”

Nancy Mitford in 1931Nancy Mitford, 1931

In addition to Life in a Cold Climate, Thompson has previously written a biography of Agatha Christie—Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (2007)—and a biography of the infamous Lord Lucan, who in 1974 may or may not have attempted to murder his wife before he may or may not have committed suicide—A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan (2014). Her first book, the history of greyhound racing in England, won the Somerset Maugham Award. She is clearly fascinated with the eccentric, the wealthy, and the lovely (and, why wouldn’t one be? one of her genteel subjects might easily declaim). And while being healthily critical of class, she waxes nostalgic for the confident cleverness that sustained the Mitfords as they sailed through the grimmest years of the last century, writing, fighting, and speaking exactly as they pleased without apology.

Thompson attempts to describe the particularly Mitfordian way of stringing words together as “part-childish, part-posh, part-1920’s exaggeration . . . yet what makes it durable is the edge of perceptiveness, the nail on the head quality.” Not to mention an insistent British cheerfulness coupled with a blithe self-confidence. As Nancy wrote reassuringly to Jessica, worried about her daughter on holiday in Mexico, “People like us are never killed in earthquakes.”

Although Nancy’s writing became the most celebrated, all the siblings practiced wordsmithery. As children, they remoulded the English language into something quite thoroughly Mitfordian. Like the Brontës, the sibling pairs invented their own languages—“Boudledidge” and ”“Honnish”—and created an increasingly ludicrous string of nicknames: “Muv and Farve” (Mother and Father), “Boud” (Unity and Jessica), “Honk (Diana), and Stubby (Deborah).

II.

Without doubt the Mitford girls were born into immense privilege. Their family was of fine Saxon stock, dating back to pre-Conquest days. Although Nancy famously described their childhood home as unheated and uncomfortable, the girls occupied a cozy space right in the center of England’s interconnected maze of peerage. They possessed all the connections they would ever need to marry men like their father, David, Lord Redesdale, the first cousin of Clementine Churchill’s cousin (and if rumor was to be believed, potentially her half-brother.) Like other men of his class, he exercised his noblesse oblige in the classic manner, chairing charity committees and decrying the Labour Party in Parliament. In his spare time, he mismanaged his dwindling fortune and prospected for gold whenever he needed spare cash. His daughters later insisted they never had any money, and Nancy “came out” as a debutante wearing a homemade dress at a ball in her living room, with her aging uncles as dancing partners. But of course, Thompson remarks, “as poverty went, it was relative.”

Over the next ten years, three more sisters debuted into society, and the world darkened significantly. When the rumbling currents of Fascism and Communism exploded, the sisters gravitated to all ends of the political spectrum. Thompson pinpoints 1932, the year of Unity’s debut, as the moment when the charmed lives of the Mitfords all went to pieces, the year when Diana, sedately married to the charming if somewhat mousey Lord Brian Guinness, met the odious Lord Oswald, and for better or for worse (the reader can decide, but it’s pretty obvious where Thompson’s sympathies lie) hitched her glorious fortunes to his Fascist wagon. In 1932, Mosley was apparently walking sex, Flynn and Fairbanks combined, and had mesmerized a group of disenfranchised working-class men into believing that Fascism was the cure for a Depression-era Britain. An admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, he had begun the New Party, which then became the British Union of Fascists. His appeal to the unemployed working class was somewhat inexplicable: he dripped money, having married one of the daughters of the immensely wealthy Lord Curzon, all the while blithely sleeping with the other two, their step-mother, along with a dizzy array of chorus girls and peeresses. Despite, or perhaps because of his supreme self-confidence, Diana left her incredibly nice husband and his immense fortune, and set herself up in a little Eaton Square house near Oswald, faster than you could whistle “Lili Marlene.” “From that moment the Mitford family began to fall apart,” Thompson writes, “Unity and Jessica’s actions would be influenced by Diana’s nonpareil act of rebellion.” By the following year, the Black Shirts were promising change and threatening violence, and Diana’s adoration of Mosley led her to Berlin. After the unexpected death of his first wife, Diana and Oswald married in Berlin in 1936, with a begrudging Adolf Hitler by their side (apparently he too nursed a crush on the ethereal Diana.)

Diana Mitford, 1932

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. She struggles to reconcile that utterly gracious soul of her acquaintance with the same Lady Mosley who elegantly heiled Hitler in old photographs. There must have been something to this woman who counted Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington among her closest friends, and it must have been more than beauty (although golly gosh, she was beautiful, with a glamor that only existed between the wars, the kind only captured by black-and-white celluloid. On aesthetic grounds alone, it’s not hard to see why Nancy’s great friend Evelyn Waugh defected to Diana’s side for a few pre-Mosley years, dedicating Vile Bodies to her and adding in her husband Brian Guinness for form’s sake. “She seems to me the one encouraging figure in this generation,” Waugh wrote besottedly in 1929. Like the rest of his Bright Young generation, he was in line for a great deal of disillusionment.

Diana is a little too clearly Thompson’s favorite Mitford sister, and the number of comparisons she makes between Diana and fine sculpture verges on the excessive, (well-defined cheekbones don’t exactly outweigh a vacuum of human compassion), but Thompson does sincerely investigate her moral complexity. In fact, it is a credit to her biographical endeavor that she doesn’t dismiss Diana out of hand, but rather tries to sift through her paradoxes and view them in the context of her age. For generations, the English upper classes had admired all things Teutonic. Their paternal grandfather had been on intimate terms with Wagner, just as their father had been fast friends with his son Siegfried, hence Unity’s middle name of Valkyrie. Others wanted to simply avoid war at all costs. Even Nancy, the staunch patriot of the family, wrote after the war that everyone had gone to the German embassy in London. “They deny it now, of course.” Yet Thompson returns to the same question: “How, one wonders, did the Mitford love of laughter not cause her to fall about at the sight of Mosley in his black and his boots? Similarly—how could she have watched Hitler, screaming his nonsense at full volume, without the family sense of the ridiculous kicking in?”

In discussions of the sisters, Diana and her younger sister Unity get lumped together as the two who were pals with Hitler, but whereas Diana flirted with evil, Unity muddled merrily into its center. Thompson tackles the unexplainable Unity Valkryie, the artless, clumsy, Mitford giantess, who trounced guilelessly into Hitler’s affections, such as they were. At the very least her milkmaid good looks and childish prattling entertained him, so that before 1939, they met about 140 times, at tea parties, opera boxes, embassy balls, and other extraordinarily civilized settings. For all their Germanophilia, her family was baffled by increasingly unstable behavior and responded in their characteristically unhelpful ways. Her vile brother-in-law Lord Mosley referred to her as “stage-struck.” Nancy sent her mocking poems: “Call me early Goering dear/For I’m to be the Queen of the May.” Her alarmed mother tried to distract her with a cruise. Nothing changed, and Unity attended the Olympic games in Berlin alongside the Goebbelses, with whom she had become fast friends.

Thompson refers to her as an innocent, unstable, and generally mad young woman who fell in with the wrong (really the most absolutely wrong possible) crowd. “Perhaps they found the evil in her, as well as the madness.” Had she been born today would no doubt have been diagnosed on one or the other end of a spectrum and heavily medicated. When England declared war with Germany, she shot herself with a Walthur pistol. To her family’s guilty regret, the bullet left her alive but also incontinent and even more childlike (she was said to have the mental age of ten). With “something resembling human emotion,” Hitler returned her to the care of her mother in England, where she chattered away to kindly bewildered strangers about how Adolf would be the perfect name for the eldest of the ten children she knew she would have one day, and bestowed all the lively affection she used to reserve for Hitler on farm animals. “Oh, Boud, I have a Goat!” she wrote ecstatically to her Communist sister Jessica living in America. “In a strange way she had been the happiest of the sisters,” Thompson surmised. “Yet she had not a clue as to how to live.” She died in 1948 at the age of thirty-four from meningitis caused from the bullet wound.

unity-hitlerUnity Mitford and Adolf Hitler, 1936

Unity and Diana defy easy explanation. It’s too easy to dismiss them as monstrous, without plumbing why they chose to spend their days among monsters. “The times in which this pair lived were terrifying: most people crossed their fingers, shut their eyes and prayed for it all to be over. For reasons that can never quite be explained, these aristocratic young women embraced it instead.” Perhaps with the cushions of youth, family, beauty, and money, they thought they had nothing to lose. Unity may never have understood what was at stake, and Diana (no one could call her cowardly) was always willing to risk it. “I can’t regret it,” she freely admitted in 1989. She was referring to her friendship with Hitler but could have meant the rest of it too—the love affair with Mosley, the break with propriety, and even the vitriol that awaited her in her home country.

After Britain declared war on German, the family fortunes shifted to a new set of extremes. Back in England, Diana and Oswald Moseley spent the war in prison as collaborators. Serves her right. She recalled it as an incredibly happy interlude, as for the first and only time in their marriage her husband was entirely faithful. And for a moment, you feel sympathy for this extraordinary woman and the cost of her choices. Family feeling was running high against her, as the other Mitfords did their bit for the war effort and then some. Tom, the inglorious but beloved Mitford brother, fought first on the North African front and then in Burma, where he died from a bullet wound in 1945. Pamela’s first husband, Esmond Romilly, serving as a pilot in the Canadian Air Force, was shot down somewhere over the North Sea in 1941. Nancy, experiencing the terror of the Blitz firsthand in London, went so far as to suggest to her friends in the Foreign Office that Diana was “an extremely dangerous person.” She had been throwing herself into war work since 1939, when she traveled to France to help Spanish refugees, and then back in England, where she operated a first aid post, drove an ambulance, and opened her home to Polish Jewish refugees, to the outrage of her mother (Hitler was her favorite son-in-law, Nancy always quipped). She also informed on her sister Pamela, whom she suspected of Fascist tendencies. Intriguingly, neither Jessica nor Nancy ever blamed Unity for her bizarre adulation of the Führer and the three shared gossipy loving letters throughout the war years.

III.

With their vastly different politics and their lifelong rivalry, Nancy and Diana act as the twin poles of The Six. Yet, as Mitford sisters go, it’s hard to resist the obviously spunky Jessica, who ran off during her debutante season to fight with the Spanish Guerrillas, and then married a Jewish lawyer in San Francisco, while her sisters were enjoying tea in Munich with Hitler. She later became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Congress, campaigned to legalize abortion, and basically fell on the right side of every modern feminist cauJese. She makes Lady Sybil Grantham look like a Tory living comfortably in Sloane Square. Yet Thompson cuts Jessica no breaks, portraying her as an extremist, just “more acceptable to history than that of her sisters. Such is the luck of the left.” She spends almost no time on Jessica’s acclaimed investigative journalism, including The American Way of Death, an expose of the money-grubbing funeral industry.

Jessica MitfordJessica Mitford

Poor old Pamela gets the least amount of space, but she appears less mysterious and controversial than her colorful sisters, spending the bulk of her adult life raising chickens and dairy cows, although apparently she innovated legendary technologies in the field of animal husbandry. Of Pamela, Thompson writes, “She had the unignorable presence of one of her grandfather’s shire horses.” Her rebellion may have been quieter. After her divorce from scientist Derek Jackson (himself a Fascist, but with the good grace to keep his beliefs to himself), she lived discreetly with a Giuditta Tommasi, and according to Jessica, “became a you-know-what-bian.” Like all her siblings except for Nancy and Jessica, she lunched with Hitler before the war, but was chiefly impressed by the chicken served.

The youngest sister, Deborah, came of age while her sisters were already making headlines on either side of the Atlantic. She rebelled against her mad mad family by embracing utter normalcy, at least for her rarified context. Two weeks into her successful debut season, she met her husband, a good Cambridge man, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire. When fate kindly swept him aside and made her Duchess, she resolutely managed her estates, holding up under the impositions of death duties and Labour politics. Despite her sex appeal, “the divine Debo,” as the press nicknamed her, stuck by her first sweetheart till death did them part. Very unMitfdorian, according to the sisters’ general self-assessment. “Debo’s absolutely pure,” Nancy reminded Diana, who had proclaimed, “We’re all adulterers and adulteresses.” While she spent literally three days at school, which she later recalled with self-deprecating horror (“no dog, no pony, no Nanny!”), she clearly inherited her fair share of family wit, publishing her own well-received chatty memoir, Wait for Me! (2010). Her death in 2014 was received with the kind of national outpouring of nostalgia reserved for the Queen Mum.

IV.

What with Unity’s antics, Diana and Lord Mosley’s unrepentant Fascism, and Lady Redesdale’s cheerful Teutonism, the Mitford’s were no one’s favorite family by the end of the war, and a prime example of why the average Brit wanted to chuck the class system down the chute along with the rationed coal. Hence the importance Thompson ascribes to the The Pursuit of Love in the creation of the Mitford myth: “Just as Diana led the troops into the darkness of battle by her defection to the Fascist cause in 1932, so Nancy did the same with her shift into the sunlight of public adoration.” The Pursuit of Love was not Nancy’s first book—she had been a successful novelist since 1931—but it was and would remain her most beloved. The delightfully eccentric Radletts are obviously the Mitfords refracted with affectionate nostalgia through Nancy’s effervescent voice. Their story is narrated by kind sensible cousin Fanny, who experienced life at her cousins’ estates at Aconleigh (based on Asthall Manor) during holidays, and later witnessed their multiple marriages and madcap escapades.

mitford-sistersMitford Sisters

Nancy crisply layers the poignant and the hilarious together with a social observation worthy of Austen. On meeting her aunt’s new betrothed Fanny states: “My immediate impression was that he did not seem at all like a husband. He looked kind and gentle.” Her characters deliver social cuttings, devastating in the innocence of their delivery: “Oh the horror of important people—you are lucky not to know any.” All the elopements and scandals of the Mitfords are played for laughs, as when Linda Radlett leaves her banker husband for a Communist (a playful nod to both Jessica’s elopement and Diana’s affair, although neither appreciated the gesture). Linda innocently laments her new social life:

But I’m always saying to Christian how much I wish his buddies would either brighten up their parties a bit or else stop giving them, because I don’t see the point of sad parties, do you? And Left-wing people are always sad because they mind so dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.

Despite the ingenuousness of its characters, The Pursuit of Love contains a fair amount of darkness as the war threatens and then explodes around the Radlett children. But like Nancy herself, they cheerfully plunge forward into the new world that awaits them.

After the war, flush with the commercial success of her novels, Nancy moved to Paris, from whence she wrote fantastically funny letters to her family in that same tone of wide-eyed knowingness. She was always on, always entertaining. And even though Nancy was the intellectual of the bunch, the sisters were all clever and witty. As Diana wrote, referring to Jessica’s second marriage: “When all was said and done, Jessica was the only Mitford to ever harm a Jew.”

To be honest, it’s difficult to read Thompson’s book and not fall just a little in love with the intelligent, mysterious, and utterly original Mitford girls. Despite having only about two terms of school between them, they produced over twenty-five books, many of them award-winners and bestsellers, suggesting that childhoods full of animals, reading, and prodigious free time are highly underrated. Somewhere between riding to hounds and debuting, they must have learned something besides not putting the milk in first. They were funny enough and joyful enough that people still read their letters, and not just for the references to famous people who clustered around them. And their upper-class mannerisms, while out of fashion, are laced with just enough self-deprecation to read as charmingly ironic rather than insufferable. “After agricultural shows, Marks & Spencer is the place to go shopping, and then Paris,” Deborah declared definitively. “Nothing in between seems to be much good.”

“These girls are prize exhibits in a museum of Englishness,” Thompson insists. “And whatever one’s opinion of what they represent, it is impossible, in truth, to find them boring.” Rather.

—Laura Michele Diener

N5

Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage, and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

Nov 142016
 

babysitter

George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. — Benjamin Woodard

The Babysitter at Rest
Jen George
Dorothy, a publishing project, 2016
168 pages, $16.00

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Late every semester, as attention spans wane and final project deadlines loom, I treat my Composition students to a day of stress relief by cobbling together Exquisite Corpse stories as a class. I usually write the openings ahead of time and then pass them to one student, who adds his or her own lines, and then carefully folds the paper, accordion style, so that the next writer can only see the most recent sentence of the growing story. This continues until the pieces have circulated around the room and the pages look like tiny venetian blinds. Then I unfold the stories and read the results aloud. The students get a kick out of hearing me say some pretty bizarre things—once they realize I’m going to perform each story, they take it upon themselves to add in a naughty word or two—but what always impresses me is the coherence of these tales. Without seeing anything but a few words written by their tablemates, my students somehow create these Frankensteinish narratives that abide by perfect dream logic, where characters bounce from scene to scene, yet never lose sight of a singular goal. Ideas lost between students sometimes reappear five lines later, as if the air itself whispered a clue to a writer further down the table. The cheesiest way of describing these stories is to say they’re like catching lightning in a bottle, but there’s something true to employing that phrase. The room feels electric as my students and I realize the consistency that threads our crazy tales together, and that electricity vanishes the moment the class is over.

Jen George’s wild, funny debut collection, The Babysitter at Rest, gives me that same electric jolt only the feeling doesn’t fade. Perhaps this is partially due to the form the volume’s five stories take, as they—like an Exquisite Corpse exercise—often contain dreamlike swerves. Yet there’s also a vivid realness at the core of each piece. George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. For example, the following sequence, from “Take Care of Me Forever,” sees George’s protagonist, a sick woman waiting to die in a hospital bed, deciding to walk to the bathroom:

“In the bathroom, I notice a large hole in the wall. An opening. I enter the opening with my mobile IV. I make my way through pipes, drywall, and rotten wood into what seems to be a strip mall dentist’s office hallway. All of the office doors are locked and the snack vending machine at the hallway’s end is empty.”

From here, the character finds both a bucket of teeth and another passageway inside a janitor’s closet. The passageway leads her outside the hospital and into a football stadium, where a naked painter with a small penis sits on a stool at the fifty-yard line, surrounded by bookcases and a television. The characters know each other and talk about their past love affair—“The great love of my life with whom I wanted to have children left me because of the penis,” the painter admits—and the woman takes a look at the man’s artwork, conveniently displayed nearby, before returning to her hospital room. The progression, one of many found in “Take Care of Me Forever,” is surreal, certainly, and its non sequitur unraveling resembles a language game like Exquisite Corpse, but the unpredictability of the events here keeps the narrative consistently lively. A thousand questions flood the reader: Is this really happening? When were these two characters lovers? And, most importantly, what the hell is going to happen next? This liveliness creates curiosity, and it helps drive George’s stories, shuttling the reader into unique worlds where just about anything is possible. But within these worlds, characters confess their dark thoughts alongside jokes, and the author anchors her stories with just enough reality to never lose her audience.

In addition, George peppers her collection with a brilliant series of inventories and lists that maintain audience interest while also setting rhythm. “Guidance / The Party” relies heavily on this technique while telling the two-part tale of a woman learning how to throw a party from a drunken “Guide” and then following through with its—The Guide is genderless—instruction. When learning how to present herself, The Guide rambles off a series of lists to the woman, including:

“Wear makeup, jewelry, and something you cannot afford, in order to ensure you will not feel like a chubby street urchin halfway through the party. Refer to the manual for information on weight loss via dieting/cleansing prior to the party, taking saunas, eating cotton balls soaked in castor oil, ephedrine use, Epsom salt baths, and salt flushes.”

Then, as she hosts her party, the woman is faced with the revelation that her female guests are pregnant, which results in the following passage regarding the pregnancy-adverse foods the host planned to serve:

“All of the French cheeses are unpasteurized, then there’s the matter of the raw oyster bar, which was the second main spectacular food item, and also the raw egg, the mercury, the shaved mad-cow boar hoof, the tuna, the tonsil stone, and the lorazapam in the 10,101-ingredient mole.”

The baby-related lists continue in “Futures in Child Rearing,” where a woman, hoping to get pregnant, states all of the traits she expects from her child:

“She will look good in clothing and without. She will be adored but respected. She will follow a clear life path, free of too many obstructions, full of loving and successful friends who wear beautiful dresses, have lovely parties in the desert or at the beach, and who have about them an airy lightness. She’ll know how to go about getting what she wants. She will be capable. She will not have crying jags.”

These lists and inventories are equal parts funny and peculiar. They establish a rhythm within the text, yet they also jolt the stories with a sudden burst of prose, adding a new layer of captivation to each story. Like the rambling, zigzag narrative paths already mentioned, George’s lists keep the text active, create charming juxtapositions, and root the reader to the page.

In early press and reviews for The Babysitter at Rest, George’s writing has been compared to the playfulness of Donald Barthelme and Chris Kraus, but the collection’s title story, both in subject matter and structure, also brings to mind Robert Coover. Though George shies away from giving the story a metafictional shade, she does, like Coover, capitalize on the classic Penthouse Forum fantasy of an affair between a man and his child’s babysitter. Also like Coover, the relations between these characters are highly sexual and graphic, broken into short fragments, and it’s here that George ratchets the strangeness of her story to comment on gender inequality. The husband saunters through life wearing cool guy sunglasses, acting as a generic vessel of affluence and depravity, while the babysitter, who lives in a group home with a slew of degenerates, spends nearly all of the narrative prancing about in a bikini—she loses her other clothes—valued solely for her sexuality and youth. This exploration of primal and stereotypical instinct is frequently hilarious—more than once, the babysitter says she’s, “Seventeen. But I might be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two,” a clever quip commenting on men’s justification of the well-worn fantasy of the sexy schoolgirl—but it also provides the collection with a universal thread of female exploitation, which comes up again and again. “Take Care of Me Forever” contains a sexual relationship between the dying hospital patient and her doctor, as well as a crudely worded help wanted ad that seeks applicants willing to “listen to problems and musings of (all male) staff,” be “flirtatious with all,” and who must “not have boyfriend,” and hopefully live with “cute roommates A+.” And in “Instruction,” the collection’s final story, a young female pupil becomes both the star student and sexual plaything of her professor, known as “The Teacher/older man with large hands.” In his conquest, he feigns interest in her ideas (“‘Welp, cool idea. Really neat.’ He succeeds in stifling laughter.”) to get in her pants, and the explicit results draw the ire of the student’s peers.

What is Jen George trying to say by including so many examples of older man/younger woman exploitation in her collection? It’s easy to argue that the answer is up to the reader, but the author offers up several hints as to her potential mission. The student artist in “Instruction” eventually breaks away from her instructor and wanders the country, sparking artist revolutions and turning “The Teacher/older man with large hands” into a lost soul, who eventually begs the student to explain to him why she abandoned their relationship. Meanwhile, “The Babysitter at Rest” sees the title character, after all of her adventures, holding her charge, a “forever baby” who will never age, in her arms and deciding that he is fortunate to never grow up into his father’s good looks or fortune, that remaining a baby is far more advantageous. If he never grows up, he can never become a predator.

In a way, these two women gain an upper hand in their situations, and while their moments of clarity may be short-lived, this evolution speaks volumes. And maybe this is what George wants her readers to notice. Then again, perhaps the ultimate goal for The Babysitter at Rest is to provoke the reader into considering the ways we all use one another to our own advantage. In any case, the collection is a wonderful experiment, full of electric twists that linger.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in HobartCorium Magazine, and Storychord. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia ReviewElectric Literature, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Nov 132016
 

background-el-saltoLeslie Ullman

 

Renderings of some Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.-

In 1975, the authors created the original pack of over 100 oblique strategies cards, a project born from their approaches to their work respectively as musician and artist. Each strategy is designed to help composers get “unstuck” by encouraging lateral thinking. 

§

Ask people to work against their better judgment

Go ahead—fling yourself against it
As in: take away the net; thrum
with vertigo; surprise yourself in dark
glasses and brimmed hat pulled low,
so mysterious, you might ask yourself
for an autograph. As in: slip
from the conference room and not tell
yourself where you’re going—

out of the neighborhood and all
the dependable gridlocks. Into a fifth world
that simmers beneath the topography
of your thoughts. Beyond the language
that has served you like a slipper
and the careful walls that kept out
rains fragrant with dirt and damp leaves….
You may not see yourself again

but watch for someone
faintly familiar, still
in transit, fumbling
a new tongue into hand signals
and hybrid phrases, fingers
alight, alive, and something
about to be said perhaps
for the first time.

 

Consider different fading systems

Maybe they’ve moved
elsewhere, now seen by
other eyes—or what might pass
for eyes—as patterns of
sound-wave, molecular traces,
jet streams and planetary
wanderings still vivid where we
can’t follow. We’ll never know.
They leave in their wake threads of gravity and broken

chains, half-outlines
sketching themselves beyond
the mind’s canvas.
the mind must break out of itself
to paint something new
over itself—the vanished parts,
embellished. So, when a few notes
rise from the universe of half-sleep
and then start to fade, consider
the invitation.

 

A line has two sides

if you let your eyes soften and even
cross a little as you stare at that line.

Soon you find yourself seeing from a soft
third eye, one you didn’t know

was there, and the line’s two sides blur
to three. It’s like teasing apart

then reuniting voices of rain all night while drifting
in and out of sleep: bouts of wind

and soft drops that rustle the leaves
and then torrent-noise that fills the open window

as a gutter overflows, drowning out what started
so gently. But the three sounds

remain, rushing and subsiding
and inviting you to listen for the ones

you can’t hear, or didn’t hear at first. And you can
do this all night, through the one ear

not buried in the pillow
then both at once.

 

Are there sections? Consider transitions

Consider an absence—space
between dots, no-man’s land dividing
claimed turf, mundane event left
off the page, break in dialogue, intake

of breath, pause before decision—
as volte. A presence. Where something quiet
happens or holds up or is preparation

for the next demand. Not a completion.
Not the blank I drew when I first
learned to jump horses, so relieved
to have cleared the fence and stayed
aboard, I forgot for a moment

there was another one ahead.
I forgot to breathe. I stepped away
from myself and then

had to regroup, all monkey-mind
and indecision as we approached the next
place to leave the ground. The horse
flicked an ear, wondering if I was

still there. Hence the difference
between apprentice and master—
seeing the demand between demands.
Showing up inside it.

 

Destroy-nothing-the most important thing

This journey is not sanctioned

or trackable. Where it
leads cannot be

found on the map
wrought from spyglass
and ink, artifacts embalmed

in history, plumed pen
and the scent of parchment

anchored beneath a circle of quiet light.

Step into a
something, a nothing

or the slow burn that renders bone
to sand, to ash, loved body
returned to the elements

from which it arose. This

is a form of kneeling. Now
wait. Two legs may not be

enough to raise you
this time. You’ll need
wings. Eventually

you’ll have to grow them.

 

Do the washing up

and, since you’re in a tepid
state, sponge cat hair from the sofa,
water that desperate plant—the one
dropping leaves all over the tile—
gather the leaves and dump the trash—
there’s something to be said for

empirical progress. Run a substance like
baking soda only more complicated
through the coffeepot, returning it
to what’s said to be its pristine
brewing condition, which may not
be obvious right now, but will be
tomorrow morning when your brain
is tricked into the taste of coffee resurrected…

is it time for a cocktail? Do you really
want a cocktail? By now you like
the idea of cocktail, and this slight shift
of inner weather is encouraging —you
started to say “slightful.” Slothful. Sightful.
Still off your stride but warming, you
strip off the rubber gloves.

 

Cut a vital connection

Your childhood, by
all accounts, was much
better than average. You want
to age gratefully, you want
to honor those who ruled there, all
rectitude and good intentions,
and you want not to abandon
memory’s seat at the table

around which a viable family
gathered each night, circle
of feet facing each other
underneath as the faces did
over the four food groups,
everyone’s right to be there
unquestioned. In this sense
you were loved.

The albatross that returns
now and then, trailing something
broken from where you’ve tied
and tied it down, is how you,
what little you then knew of you,
remained in question: That’s all
in your imagination, said their
tunnel vision. You’re wrong, said

their notion of what it meant to have
their version of the world and you
be theirs. In this sense, you remained
half-known, a cipher bearing a weight
of fears they harbored where they
had no words and, until you yourself had
the words, you were cloaked in wrong   
and later learned to thrive below a surface

none of them could penetrate.
They did their best. You would
do anything for them now
but where to put the voices
that sometimes dig up that unproven
you, drag it into the light
and place what you’re slow to
recognize, even after all this time,

as a gloved hand across your throat?

—Leslie Ullman

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ullman-book-cover-image

Leslie Ullman is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Progress on the Subject of Immensity, published by University of New Mexico Press in 2013. Her third book, Slow Work Through Sand, won the 1998 Iowa Poetry Prize (University of Iowa Press), and her first collection, Natural Histories, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1979 (Yale University Press). Dreams by No One’s Daughter was published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Her hybrid book of craft essays, poems, and writing exercises, many of which began as lectures given at VCFA, is titled Library of Small Happiness is just out with A Taos Press. She also is the recipient of two NEA Fellowships.

Now Professor Emerita at the University of Texas-El Paso, where she taught for 27 years and established the Bilingual MFA Program, she has continued to teach on the faculty at Vermont College, which she joined in 1981. She also does freelance manuscript consultations and teaches skiing every winter at Taos Ski Valley in northern New Mexico.

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Nov 122016
 

Jeremy Brunger

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This year I will attend the University of Chicago, a school whose reputation for serious academic study is nigh unparalleled; it compares to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, yet is half a mile from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the North American continent, the South Side, and a mile or two from neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham and Englewood. My area of study, one of general humanism, will have me pondering Foucault, the implications of Marx’s commentary on literature, the meaning behind Schopenhauer’s peculiar use of Latin. In a city that can boast of having over forty shootings in one weekend, I have to wonder what I can possibly learn of humanism while living in its own refutation. Many poor Chicagoans consider the city to be the very bustling embodiment of Hell: it is the nexus of Midwestern drug trafficking due to its convenient location and enduring sense of segregation, nearly a tenth of its citizens are out of work and live in what sociologists call deep poverty, and it out-competes every other US city in the arena of addiction to heroin. In 2015, the longest period of reprieve from gangland-style murder lasted only five days. Odd, that I have the privilege of moving to study at Chicago’s premier ivory tower when many of its citizens wish, above all else, to flee the Windy City and never look back.

That, of course, is the crux of my wonder: privilege is another word for access, and the underside of college towns is that their long-term residents rarely study past high school. I have access to an oasis in Chicago because I have a certain kind of privilege largely denied to those who want to escape those economic black holes which pepper the city. I am white—whiter than white, I already have a college education, which negates my lower class socioeconomic status—and so can graze the finest courses of education this country has to offer. The city of Chicago has one of the biggest, most developed economies in the country, and manages its own stock exchange, but half of the population starves for the fruit of that industry. Poor Chicagoans get murdered outside of one- or two-storey apartments with names riffing on Martin Luther King and faux-Parisian boulevards, not in front of Trump Tower.

Bigger Thomas, the murderous anti-hero of Richard Wright’s Native Son, would have lived ten minutes away from the University of Chicago when he smothered rich, white, and educated Mary Dalton in her bed. Bigger grew up poor and hated in the 1930s, but he did not grow up uniquely: today one in five children in Chicago live in the sort of poverty Bigger would have found familiar. Wright was a Marxist who found in urban misery a powerful signal that the proletariat not only can but ought to revolt against the nervous conditions which characterize the lunacy of poor life in big cities. Were he alive today he might find the inspiration to pen a sequel to Native Son, this one bleaker, more starkly realistic: Bigger would belong to one of the fifty-nine gangs in the metropolitan area, shoot other twenty-year-olds with a stolen Glock, and become addicted to black tar heroin before getting gunned down in retaliation.

The picture is one of apartheid—what should not be a first world complaint—which provides a perfect rendition of what is most wrong with America. Wealth inequality in Chicago is steep and is the source of its plague of violence; it is also an example, writ larger, of how those who live in other cities work and die without ever seeing the benefits of liberal progress. The city’s average income hovers around sixty thousand per annum, but its most violent districts earn a third of that market share at their luckiest. It is not for nothing that Chicago is the basis for Gotham, that grim, imaginary playground where Batman battles petty criminals and domestic terrorists. Gotham, too, is a wealthy city whose people are poor, but it just might have the better reputation. Chicago has no vigilante Batman, it only has vigilantes. In fact, its police force is currently being investigated by the federal government for racist retaliation against poor black people unaffiliated with gang activity and for structural racism ranging from street-level police murders up to its own city government. The city which harbored the country’s first serial killer, the Haymarket anarchist killings, and Upton Sinclair’s socialist fervor against corrupt business practices edges toward anarchy once again. Carl Sandburg would ill tolerate the city which gave him his richest poetry a century ago. Nelson Algren, who was more honest in his portrayal of Chicago, wrote in Chicago: City on the Make that “in the Indian grass the Indians listened: they too had lived by night.”

That night has lasted long for the city’s worst off and most abandoned, who, if they cannot recite Dante’s Inferno, can no doubt compare its concentric circles to the neighborhoods of Englewood and Auburn Gresham. The specters of lust, greed, wrath, fraud, treachery, and violence inform the news which Chicago exports, and haunt the lives of Chicago’s indigent all-pervasively. Recently, on the South Side, a body was found bound and burned to death; a pregnant woman was murdered in a drive-by shooting; several teenagers were shot for reasons unknown. All this within walking distance of a university that caters to the children of the elite and teaches the economists of the world that neoliberalism is morally useful.

What salve will a national election year offer Chicago? It has already produced a president, who maintains a house in the South Side for when his tenure in the Oval Office is at an end. Since 2008 the city’s murder rate has steadily increased, while black employment has steadily decreased. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton offer anything of worth to the most distressed groups in the city; both seem entirely at odds with the well-being of the urban underclass to begin with, since Chicago supports Clinton by political default and provides hefty ownership royalties to Trump by virtue of his properties.

 

Chicago, then, is a chimeric political animal. The rapper Common once called himself “a veteran of the Cold War” after witnessing gang violence and epidemic poverty in the city of his birth, and knew such horrors were but natural extensions of national policy. As neoliberalism wrenches Europe with its support for austerity, it wrenches likewise even the most dynamic of American economies, and exerts a special stranglehold on Chicago, which produced its main tenets radiating outward from the University of Chicago, to the White House, and back to the multiple slums which cluster for miles around the South Side grove of academe.

The late economist Milton Friedman, powerhouse and public intellectual of neoliberalism, has more to do with the phenomenon of gangbanging than any of his triumphant followers of the last half-century care to admit, for neoliberal policy was in large part his brainchild, and remains the cause and effect of Chicago’s ganglands. That the university, which has its own sub-department of Marxism in the humanities and social sciences, gave birth to the Reaganite policy of eliminating public budgets for the benefit of the private sector, says volumes about how the class schism operates in a city of three million people. The vocal support for one direction of the political process is naturally underscored by a real support for its neoliberal opposite. Slash money to schools, slash money to public aid, slash money to cultural works, slash money to housing—all in the name of promoting a capitalism which considers the advantaged and disadvantaged equals in market theory—and behold a polity which casually declares itself a war zone.

The few like Friedman, who spoke for the many, condemned the many to a suffering that has lasted for generations. Never mind that a monetary regime which considered abundance of cash flow preferable to a deficit—that abundance only needed to reach the rich—categorically impoverished those who had long benefited from New Deal policies. Hell features drive-bys and stray bullets, and the murdering of toddlers whose only crime was being brought into the world by drug dealers. Neoliberal economics is another name for social Darwinism, and on this, if little else, the laissez-faire capitalists of the Reagan-era Chicago School and the street gangs of Englewood agree. Gang life is capitalism in miniature. Neoliberal policy spread beyond American borders and beyond the borders of liberal democracy to influence the world from pole to pole and wreaked a havoc so similar between them one wonders why Chicago hasn’t been declared a national emergency.

That this war zone generally only encompasses a third of the city—those parts which white people like me can afford to not live in, nor rarely traverse—speaks pitifully to the legacy of racism which neoliberalism has inherited and maintained. Jean-Paul Sartre, in typical sardonic style, wrote the following impression of American cities, with 1940s-era New York City as his model:

But these slight cities…reveal the other side of the United States: their freedom. Here everyone is free—not to criticize or to reform their customs—but to flee them, to leave for the desert or another city.

Long after the death of that urbanite philosopher, the prospect of fleeing an American city looks more and more, and merely, to be the stuff of dreams for most.

—Jeremy Brunger

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Jeremy Brunger is from Tennessee and now attends a humanities graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests tend toward the Marxian: finding devils in the superstructure, studying the effects of poverty on mental life, railing against the dumb, brutal figure of capitalism. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.

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Nov 112016
 

nell-zink

Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. —Carolyn Ogburn

nicotine

Nicotine
Nell Zink
Ecco Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.99

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It’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems, one character tells another in Nell Zink’s new novel, Nicotine. “That was something your dad used to say, about how it’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems. If you look reality straight in the eye, you end up a lot less confused. It’s a matter of signal-to-noise ratio. Any story you tell has to be all signal. Any distraction is noise. Anything extraneous is noise. Now try to define extraneous. In life, nothing’s extraneous. There’s no noise. It’s all signal.”

In Nicotine, Zink returns to areas she’s taken on in her previous novels: identity and identity politics, class, race, and sex. Lots of sex. But it’s really the stories surrounding these rather than any particular issue itself that seems to interest Zink, and she’s not writing to convince anyone of anything. In fact, she doesn’t seem to care what the reader believes, or doesn’t believe. Zink’s writing is immersive, demanding the reader’s trust. You’re either on board, or you’ve missed the boat, with Zink.

Every aspiring midlife novelist will likely be familiar already with the oft-recounted biography of Nell Zink, but her story seems to remain somehow blurred, evocative, just enough like every one of us to be any one of us but also distinctly, markedly unique. It doesn’t dull with repetition. Zink, like many of us, missed the “5 Under 35,” and the “20 Under 40,” mailed off her first manuscript in her late 40s to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, with whom, in a twist of fate that only real life can contrive, she’d begun exchanging emails about the songbirds of the Balkans. Her emails (which he would describe using words like feisty and presumptuous) were both remarkable and relentless; Franzen assumed she was a writer he’d met already, and playing some sort of a joke. When he finally understood she was not, he actively encouraged her to try writing fiction. Zink is said to have replied: “Oh, I’ve already done that.”

Nell Zink was born in Corona, California in 1964; she and her two brothers were raised in rural King George County, Virginia. She finished high school at Stuart Hall School in Staunton, VA, then majored in philosophy at the College of William and Mary. After undergrad, she moved to Philadelphia where she lived in anarchist coops (not unlike the ones she describes in Nicotine) and where, from 1993-1997, she published Animal Review, a ‘zine that interviewed punk musicians about their pets. She moved to Tel Aviv, then Berlin. She earned a doctorate in media studies at the University of Tübingen. She got married, and unmarried, and married again. She’s worked as a secretary, a technical writer, a translator; she’s waited tables and worked construction. She worked for four years as a bricklayer in the Tidewater area of Virginia, a job, she told Kathryn Shultz in the New Yorker, that was “more valuable for my intellectual life than my entire college career. In college, they allow you to be entertained and let your mind wander, which is not good training to do anything difficult.”

In other words, she lived the kind of private life of many people who, not being famous, do not have to explain their lives. As Zink says, “there’s a very clear distinction between taking your career seriously and taking your writing seriously.”

Because Zink was taking her writing seriously. For over fifteen years, she wrote fiction that she showed no one but the Israeli writer Avner Shats, to whom she’d been introduced by her second husband, the Israeli poet Zohar Eitan. (Two of the novellas Zink wrote for Shats have been published this month under the title Private Novelist.)

At the age of 50, Zink’s first published novel, Wallcreeper, was named as one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2014. Wallcreeper explores the topic of marriage through bird watching and eco-terrorism. Her second, Mislaid, takes on racial and sexual identity; it was long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award.

§

Nicotine is the story of Penny Baker, a young woman in her 20s. Her father, Norm, is a self-help guru with massive real-estate holdings and a following of self-actualization groupies. His second wife, Amalia, is Penny’s mother; Amalia was a child of 13 when Norm first met her in the Colombian town of Cartagena. He adopts Amalia in order to bring her back to the United States after his first wife disappears, leaving her two sons, Penny’s half-brothers behind. In this free-wheeling familial structure, one that echoes the anarchist households in which the adult Penny will live, the boys’ mother’s absence is barely noticed.

Here’s what’s Zink writes about those self-help groupies who seek the promise of a better life, a description which again harkens forward to those communities Penny will find herself in as an adult:

There is tacit agreement among Norm’s followers that they make the world a better place by loving in it. They don’t change it. They redeem it, through the searching way they live their lives. The cult is populated by realist aesthetes. A cult of personality for those cultivating personalities. Expecting nothing more from life than self-actualization, accepting nothing less. Willing to settle for others’ self-actualization if their own turns balky.

Amalia is first shown at the age of thirteen; Penny is first shown at the age of twelve, naked and smoking and, shortly thereafter, accusing her decades-older half-brother Matt of attempting to rape her. The accusation is quickly dismissed both by her father and even Penny herself, but incest hovers like a palimpsest throughout.

The story proper opens in April 2016, exactly a year from the novel’s actual date of completion in April 2015. She tells us Penny, now in her 20s, is a graduate of an unnamed business school; her half-brothers, Patrick and Matt, and her mother, Amalia, are in their mid-40s. Her father, Norm, dies within the first pages of the book, and it’s his death that triggers a series of dissolutions that frames the narrator’s existence, if not the plot of the book itself. Zink’s book describes as closely as I’ve ever seen the transient nature of a certain variety of intimate relationship.

The first dissolution is Penny’s first encounter with death. She loves her father, seemingly the only one who does. She stays by his side as he enters Hospice care, whose dictate to do nothing to either prolong life or speed death means that he doesn’t get pain relief, and it’s up to Penny to swab out the crust from his throat. It’s not every novelist who would take on Hospice care in a satirical manner, but Zink’s attention is a serrated knife that takes no prisoners.

Once Norm dies, the family enters the well-known stages of estate management, another form of dissolution. In Norm’s case, this means primarily real estate holdings, some of which have already been sold, and others claimed. But, Penny is told, there is Norm’s parents’ home in Jersey City, which had been abandoned for years. When Penny is evicted from her father’s rent-controlled apartment upon news of his death, her step-brother offers her the abandoned house, advising her to evict the squatters living there. Instead, she falls in love, and moves in as a squatter herself.

As it turns out, the home, called Nicotine, is one of many semi-organized illegally occupied group houses throughout Jersey City. Though Zink describes only one of her many characters as “ageless and about thirty-five,” this breezy description could apply to just about everyone living in these collectives. There’s Stayfree, a feminist collective (“of both men and women”); Tranquility, whose residents protest for indigenous peoples’ rights; the DJD, the environmental collective that’s named for the enormous and enormously expensive couch that resides in the house. Nicotine’s ostensible purpose is to advocate for tobacco users’ rights, but most of the residents’ abundant free time is spent in the kinds of discussion familiar to anyone who’s ever spent any time with the rootless, international community of artists, grad students, armchair philosophers, and trustifarians who, while drawn from a diverse cross-section of racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identities, share the same attitude, both cynical and speculative, toward identity as they do towards property in general. That’s globalization; that’s modern life, Zink seems to be hinting. The reader quickly loses track of residents who come for discussions of, say, class or gender privilege, only to disappear, never to be heard from again. The dissolution of identity, whether politics, gender, sexuality or any other belief system also plays a major role in the novel. Forget the regional distinctions of nationalism; forget the myth that some people are indigenous and others aren’t. When a character (Sunshine) tells Penny, “It’s just context-dependent! That’s how identity works,” the reader, like Penny, starts to feel a little queasy. There’s a vague feeling that we’re being led on: a lot of this is satire, after all. But where the lines of satire are drawn is far from clear.

Aphorism may be Zink’s most natural setting. “Smoking is like moving to Fukushima for the privacy,” she writes. Or, “You can’t understand the modern world if you can’t imagine selling what you love best.” Zink’s cultural references are drawn with journalistic precision: she briefly references Donald Trump’s campaign, and a fictive President Hilary Clinton; includes 2016 state-of-the-art Virtual Reality sex toys, and describes a character retreating to her bedroom where she eats an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s and watches two episodes of Nurse Jackie. But the most contemporary element in Nicotine may be Zink’s slightly manic level of attention which offers what it needs to in two or three sentences before moving on. Almost everything is said via dialogue, in this style of writing, the ideas expressed more important than the character expressing them. This is literature styled by Twitter-feed, hashtagged by topic. Facebook is for old people.

Like Twitter, Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. It’s a kind of self-actualization of a narrative arc, pushing the reader into stasis, to rest in whatever is already known in the moment rather than pulling the reader towards what isn’t yet revealed. There’s a reason thrillers and mystery novels aren’t typically written in the present tense, but in the past. “And then I saw the gun, there, on the bed,” is inherently more suspenseful than, “I see the gun, there, on the bed.” (In fact, both a gun and a bed, make appearances in Nicotine; though both are used as guns and beds are often used, and occasionally in ways they’re not, there’s little in the way of suspense, which I place squarely on the use of the present tense.)

Zink herself refers to her choice, in a playful tongue-in-cheek way that’s characteristic of her writing. The rally against the TTIP (no one can quite remember what it stands for, but it’s clearly referencing the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership) is coming up and two Nicotine residents (Rob and Anka) are brainstorming slogans which can be converted to hashtags for their protest signs:

“How about TTIP SUX?” he suggests.
“Present tense is a tactical error,” she says. “Makes it sound like we already lost.”

And maybe we have, in fact, already lost. We, westerners of whatever background or belief, live in a time of global dissolution and climate collapse that none of us understand. There is a despair that pervades this seemingly light-hearted novel. When Zink writes, “A cigarette fights intense humidity in utter darkness. Its dim firefly of tobacco flies upward and brightens with an intake of breath. It falls and comes close to dying,” the reader almost feels the deep, smoky intake of breath herself, can almost see that breath drift across the warm night air. It’s one of the few passages that’s written to slow down attention, to welcome reflection.

The novel’s end finds the residents of Nicotine scattered—another form of dissolution—and the home itself transformed into a different kind of community center. Penny takes a job at her mother’s bank and shacks up with the no-longer-asexual Rob. The ending seems to belie the premise of the book’s title: nicotine, after all, is the addictive portion of tobacco. Nicotine isn’t what kills the smoker, not directly. Nicotine is what makes smoking so difficult to quit.

At one point, the novel’s sexy siren Jazz looks up from reading Jean Cocteau’s memoirs, sighing “He’s got that breezy, casual sophistication I’m always aiming for and never hitting.” Zink surely aims for breezy, casual sophistication, and in Nicotine, she almost hits it.

—Carolyn Ogburn

N5

Carollyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numéro Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.

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Nov 112016
 

author-photovia UnionHidalgo

 Pho

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Regardless of the common wisdom that, as Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen,” writers cannot escape being influenced by their environment, at any age. Just so with the Mexican writer Agustín Cadena, Mexican born, raised and educated, who has been living for years in Hungary, returning to México only for the three months of summer. In his recent collection of stories, Las tentaciones de la dicha, (The Temptations of Happiness) 2010, the permeating influence of Eastern Europe can be felt in at least four of the eleven stories. “Maracuyá” is one of these, set in a Black Sea resort town at the height of the season, in a vast club by that passionflower name, where one drinks Becherovka and meets people of a dozen nationalities, including an old Russian with a mysterious briefcase. What makes the story Mexican is its Spanish, the use of words like “cornudo” which fit smoothly in Spanish but seem so awkward when we write “cuckold” in English, and in this story, there’s a different twist on that characterization.  

— Translator Patricia Dubrava

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WE WENT TO that Black Sea resort because Dasha wanted so much to go back there. She had been once, six years ago, and said it was incredible: every summer, in August, the little fishing town transformed into the biggest tourist attraction of the Crimea. For a week, clubs, bars and restaurants stayed open 24 hours, hosting hundreds of tourists from all the Slavic countries and more distant places. Dasha fondly remembered dawns dancing on the beach among drunks singing in incomprehensible languages and couples who slept in each other’s arms on the sand after making love.

I agreed to go out of curiosity, but also because I wanted Dasha to have a rest. She was sick of working at the Peep Show, exploiting the beauty of her no longer so adolescent body and performing fellatio on fat tourists for twenty Euros.

So we pooled what money we had and, a day later, were on the train crossing the pine forests of the Carpathians, toward the Ukraine lowlands. To save money, we hadn’t wanted to pay for a sleeper, so made the whole trip in a coach compartment; during the day we talked, read, looked at the countryside, had brief conversations with passengers who accompanied us for an hour or two, on their way to some intermediate town. And at night we took turns: one watched so no one stole our backpacks while the other tried to get some sleep in spite of the cold, with our shoes on and wearing all our clothes. If we wanted something to eat, we had crackers.

We arrived tired and hungry, with barely enough energy to put up the tent in a more or less quiet section of the beach. But there was the sea, at last. The sea: a longing to live intensely and forever, escape to a timeless space where one could be eternally young, where love was imperishable. We sat contemplating it a long time, without talking.

We left stuff in the tent and went to town to look for something to eat. It was much as Dasha had described it: an idyllic place full of light, as if from a book of ancient poems. One high, winding street of old houses and shops full of shadows climbed a hill at whose peak stood a church, its twin towers topped with golden onion domes. The glow of polished metal, the sounds, the smells…it seemed as if we were seeing everything through the glass pane that separates reality from dreams.

We were starving, but didn’t want to go to a restaurant; we’d agreed that alcohol and entertainment were top priorities for our money, and we’d keep the minimum for secondary things. We bought four slices of bread, a quarter pound of bologna, another quarter of cheese, some pickles, and ate on a bench from which, in the distance below, the sea was visible.

We drank sweet wine in a small tavern, then went down to the beach to wade in the surf, watch the sunset and as it was getting dark, bathed in a public bathroom. An hour later, we arrived at the biggest nightclub: Maracuyá. They sold admissions for a day, for three days or for the whole week. Dasha wanted to buy the last even though it would take half our money.

“It’s cheaper that way,” she said. “And besides, I don’t intend to miss even one evening.”

The place was decorated as if it were on the Caribbean instead of the Black Sea: hammocks, fishnets, barrels half buried in the sand and live palm trees growing beneath large crystal domes.

We worked our way through the crowd, found a free table and looked over the menu: there was an incredible quantity of liquors, beers and wines from exotic places.

“What is this?” I asked Dasha, almost shouting because of the loud music. At the end of the wine list there was a question mark with a price; below that, two question marks, also with a price; then three, then four, five…

“Those are drugs,” she responded, also shouting. “One question mark is marijuana, two is hashish, three is cocaine; the others, I don’t know. Do you want something?”

“No,” I told her. “Pretty pricey. And you?”

“Get me a Becherovka.”

I went to the bar for the drinks. The place was a zoo. There were strange people of all ages, races and nationalities: old lechers, nymphs, aging women in search of adventure, young men with bare torsos covered in tattoos, Japanese, Scandinavians, Arabs…In the walk from our table to the bar, I overheard random words in unrecognizable languages; my sense of smell was saturated with a mix of sweaty skin, salt water, expensive perfumes, common deodorants…there was a line at the bar; I had to wait until the bartender took care of a six-foot blond and then a gay guy in a pink suit who didn’t know how to ask for silk stockings.

Finally, I returned to my table.

“Thanks, baby,” Dasha said, dancing in her seat to the music.

She took a sip of her drink, smiled at a guy who was giving her the eye from a nearby table and went to dance with him. I thought dancing a primitive display, so we had an understanding: she was free to dance with whomever. And “dance” meant whatever else also. It didn’t bother me. On the contrary: poor Dasha, it was only right that at least once in a while she could sleep with someone she liked. And in reality, she almost never exercised that option.

She didn’t exercise it with that guy. She danced with him a while, then changed partners, then sat to drank a glass with me, danced some more, sat some more…Near dawn, already a little drunk, I left her enjoying herself and went to walk on the beach. With each stride I took, the music of the various discos faded and mixed with the hiss of the waves that came in to break near my feet. Like weary fireflies, the lights of the little town floated in the distance.

We went to sleep in the tent at seven, woke around noon and after polishing off another package of crackers, swam in the sea. Dasha seemed happy: she smiled and hummed a song. She asked me every little while if this wasn’t a marvelous place, if I wasn’t enchanted, if I wouldn’t remember these days forever when we were no longer together.

In town we ate at McDonald’s, the cheapest alternative after bologna sandwiches, and walked through the streets, visited the Orthodox church. In the souvenir booth at its exit we stole a small fake icon. Then we returned to the tent to sleep at least a few hours before the new round of drinking and dancing in Maracuyá.

That night was very like the previous one, with the difference that a gang of 30 or 40 bikers dressed all in leather arrived, and set about making more noise than there already was. Before dawn I saw them on the beach, doing acrobatics with their motorcycles, the moon casting glints of light on the chrome of those enormous machines.

§

Leo appeared the third night. Dasha and I were sitting in the disco drinking Becherovka.

“Look at that!” she suddenly exclaimed. Near our table a man in his sixties, dressed in white, wearing sunglasses and a Panama hat, danced alone. But what was even more odd was that he was dancing without letting go of his briefcase; he had it hugged to his chest as if he was afraid someone would steal it.

“Perhaps it’s full of money?” I asked Dasha.

“Or drugs?” She speculated, amused.

We continued watching him. He didn’t tire of dancing nor of having his arms in that uncomfortable position, because no matter how little the briefcase weighed, anyone would be tired. But he, on the contrary, seemed to be enjoying himself enormously; he danced clumsily and it didn’t matter to him; nor did it bother him not to have a partner. A smile of satisfaction, of an old man realizing a long cherished dream, illuminated his face.

“What a marvel of a man,” Dasha declared. She downed in one swallow what was left in her glass and got up to dance with him.

After a few minutes she came back to the table. “Either he’s dancing with his eyes closed or he’s blind,” she told me, taking a drink from my glass. “He didn’t even notice me.”

“Why don’t you talk to him?”

And that’s exactly what she did, when she saw that he was going to the bar to get a drink. She approached him in English. The man answered her amiably, and by his accent, Dasha understood that he was Russian. She then changed to that language, which was also her mother tongue, and that’s how everything started: his name was Leonid and he was from Novosibirsk. Dasha brought him over and introduced me. The three of us had a drink together and then they went to dance. All this happened without Leo letting go of his briefcase.

At some point he disappeared. He didn’t say goodbye to us; we simply didn’t see him anymore. Dasha was upset.

“Do you think he thought I was an idiot and got bored?” She had that complex; it surfaced every once in a while.

“No. I think he liked you.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Didn’t you see how he looked at you? He even stopped dancing with his eyes closed.”

 “You think so?”

“Yes. Why don’t you have a fling with him? He seems like an interesting person. It would make you feel better.”

Dasha stared at me.

“But he’s gone,” and she twisted her mouth into that bad girl look the Peep Show clients liked so much.

“He’ll be back tomorrow.”

And in fact, the next night, Leo returned to Maracuyá. With his briefcase. Dasha avoided looking at him. If he’d left without saying goodbye, she said, he ought to make the first move now and apologize. “Men always scorn what’s easy,” she explained. That night she was especially seductive, with a black sleeveless dress—the best that she’d put in her backpack—that contrasted in a harmonious way with her tanned skin; a black choker around her long neck and a gold-plated chain on her left ankle.

Confirming the correctness of her theory, Leo came to sit at our table as soon as he saw us and apologized for having left like he did.

“The strange food,” he explained in English out of courtesy to me, without for a moment letting go of his briefcase. “It set off a revolution in my stomach. I was barely able to reach the hotel.”

More relaxed than at our first encounter, he mopped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief, bought us a drink and began chatting about how difficult it was to prepare well an apparently simple dish from his country: Shuba, potato salad, carrots and peas with mayonnaise, anchovies and beets.

“Of course, it doesn’t go all mixed together,” he said. “The salad goes inside, like a filling. The beets and the anchovies smother it. That’s why it’s called shuba, which in Russian means “overcoat,” and he continued talking about that and a pasta dish with mushroom sauce that didn’t matter much to us. What we wanted was to ask him about the briefcase, but we didn’t find the right opportunity. Finally he took Dasha out to dance.

It soon became obvious that he wanted to seduce her. And she began plying him with all the tactics learned in her not very long life. “Old men like you to make them believe you’re innocent,” her philosophy went. “Only young men are capable of valuing experience.” But Leonid didn’t look like an idiot: he couldn’t really believe that an inexperienced young woman would be vacationing with her boyfriend at an amoral beach resort, drinking Becherovka in a disco where anything and everything was for sale. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy Dasha’s company.

The night passed, along with her plan and desires. At three a.m. when Leo seemed more lively than ever, the young innocent said goodnight. She wasn’t used to staying up so late, she said, and was already very sleepy.

The next day we spent resting on the beach, walking around town and speculating about the mysterious briefcase.

“I tell you, it has to be money. It has to be the lump sum of his retirement, or pension, or liquidation of his assets or whatever, and he came to spend it here.”

“What if he’s a terrorist? From Chechnya? He doesn’t look like it, but he could be. He could be carrying a bomb, one of those that you make explode with a cell phone.”

Dasha was disposed to uncover the mystery and with that objective, employed the rest of her many charms that evening, with the result that she disappeared with Leo and I didn’t see her until the following morning. About eight, she appeared in the tent. She lay down by me without saying anything and also without saying anything, began to make love to me. It was her custom when she’d had an adventure. She said that was how she rid herself of the other skin.

We woke after eleven.

“O.K.,” I said. “What’s in the briefcase?”

“A book,” she told me, without the slightest sign of disappointment.

“A book?”

“Yes, a manuscript. He wrote it. It took him twenty years to finish it.”

“But, why did he bring it here?”

“Because he came here to throw it into the sea,” Dasha explained with a surprising naturalness, as if she were talking about the most normal thing in the world. “Only before doing it he wants to have a good time. It’s his double farewell.”

“Why double?”

“Leo’s saying goodbye to his book and to his literary career.”

“But, why?”

Dasha shrugged her shoulders.

“I didn’t understand his reasons at first either. But after he told me the whole story I began to get it. He spent twenty years working on that mountain of papers. And you know what for? For nothing. He’s taken it to more publishers than he can remember and all of them told him to go to hell with his book. Some—the least stupid—simply told him no. The others suggested that he change things, cut this or that. But Leo doesn’t want to change anything and I understand that. Why let a bookseller tell him how he ought to write? He got sick of it. If his book is trash, he told me, well then it will go to the trash.”

I didn’t ask her anything else and didn’t want to keep thinking about Leonid and his story. I was hungry. “Let’s get something to eat.”

“Leo invited us to dine at his hotel. He asked me if you would want to and I told him yes.”

“Good,” I said, “but let’s go. I guess we don’t have to take the backpacks?”

“No, leave them here. Only let me get my wallet and cell.”

The lunch was very pleasant. When he wasn’t talking about food, the old Russian was an excellent conversationalist. And the whole time he comported himself with Dasha in a respectfully paternal manner, as if there’d been nothing between them nor would there be. He told us that the next day he was going home.

“Would you read me something from your book before throwing it into the sea?” Dasha asked.

“Are you really interested?” Leo seemed incredulous.

“Of course I am. And I would love to hear it in your voice. That way I’d remember it forever.”

“Well, if you want…” He responded in the tone of a grandfather resigned to complying with the whim of a favorite granddaughter. “We can read something this afternoon.”

After a few minutes, he clarified, looking at me. “The book is in Russian.”

“No problem,” I told him. “Anyway, I can’t join you. I have a date with a friend at Maracuyá.”

It wasn’t true, but I wanted to leave them alone. The role of complicit cuckold isn’t comfortable. But a cuckold who knows himself cuckolded, accepts it and still makes a nuisance of himself is the most pathetic of all.

I spent the remainder of the day on the beach and when I got bored, went to play soccer with the bikers who had arrived two days ago. I made friends with one of the girls—a platinum blonde, thin as a stick—and that night accompanied her to Maracuyá. After a while we went to walk on the beach. We arrived at the end of the jetty, where the music from the discos could barely be heard and sat to look at the moon. Although it wasn’t full, it still looked enormous and orange, hanging quietly over the sea.

In the morning, Dasha arrived to wake us at the tent. She couldn’t even wait until I introduced my friend. “Come on, “ she said. “I want to show you something.” She looked very happy.

“What?” I asked, opening one eye, groggy with sleep.

“I’m going,” said the blonde, who perhaps didn’t want to be an inconvenient presence. And in fact, she dressed rapidly, gave me a kiss and left.

It was very early and somewhat chilly. The tide was still high and the last stars appeared and disappeared as if winking. From somewhere came a scent of roses and gladiolas.

Seeing that the territory had been vacated, Dasha crawled into the tent. “Look,” she was carrying Leonid’s briefcase. “He gave it to me. He gave me his book!”

I’d never seen her so happy, so satisfied.

“Did you read it? Is it a good book?” I asked.

“What does that matter? It took him twenty years to write it, do you realize that? As long as I’ve been alive he’s spent working on it. Something like this is a treasure regardless of what some critic or editor might say.”

She took out the manuscript, bound together with cardboard covers and put it in my hands with great respect.

“He’s gone,” she sighed. His train has to leaving right now.”

Dasha had never been sentimental, but at that moment she seemed on the point of tears. She turned to put the book back in its briefcase, took off her clothes and squeezed herself into the sleeping bag with me.

“What nasty perfume that woman left here,” was all the comment she made before embracing me and falling asleep.

At noon we went to eat in town. Bologna and pickle sandwiches. We told each other everything we’d done. We hugged. We promised that, come what may, we’d always be together.

We walked along the beach holding hands, talking again about Leo. We were happy—even more—we were deliriously happy. Stupidly happy.

When we reached the tent, our joy vanished: someone had robbed us. The backpacks were there, but the briefcase had disappeared. “Money or drugs,” the thief must have thought, who surely had seen it when it was still in Leo’s hands.

—  Agustín Cadena, translated from the Spanish by Patricia Dubrava.

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Agustín Cadena was born in the desert region of Valle del Mezquital, México, 1963 and currently teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, reviewer, poet and translator, he has published over 20 books. His awards include the University of Veracruz Prize for short fiction and essays, in 1992; the National Prize for Children’s Literature, in 1998; the San Luis Potosi National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2004; and the José Agustín National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2005. His works have been translated into English, Italian, and Hungarian, and adapted for radio and TV broadcasting. Cadena blogs at elvinoylahiel.blogspot.com.

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Patricia

Patricia Dubrava was born in New York and chaired the creative writing program at Denver School of the Arts. She has published two books of poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. She is an essayist, poet and translator whose recent translation publications include a dozen Cadena stories, most recently in Fiction Attic, Exchanges and Mexico City Lit. A Cadena story was included in NewBorder: An Anthology, in 2013. Dubrava blogs and has more information on her publications at www.patriciadubrava.com.

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Nov 102016
 

Mark Cox

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Level

Each evening when they stop at a campground, he helps his father level the trailer. Everything has to be just right. You want the water to flow correctly, don’t you? You want the floors to be just like home and to wake up refreshed without a headache, don’t you?  They move from corner to corner, tightening the jacks. The boy looks at the bubble in the level. He calls out when it centers itself. Everything is ready then. There is a calm when they place the folding chairs in a semi-circle around the fire pit. They hang the gas lantern from a limb and lug the cooler onto the picnic table. Then there is always the sun’s glow against it all as it lowers beyond the trees. Now his father can begin drinking in earnest and without pretense. Now it is time for the night animals to stir.  The strong can stalk and the weak must cower from place to place feeding as quietly as possible. The boy knows how it looks to the neighbors. A happy family. Everything calculated just so. What did it matter? The leaves fell each autumn and were replaced. All the foliage here would be reduced to dirt before he could even drive a car. The light would still glow blood red on leaves at sundown. The dark was sure to come. There was nothing for him to do about it. He knows just two things for certain: he never wants to become like his father and he must control everything he can. It is just a matter of time. One day he will have a family of his own and things will be done his way– his way and no one else’s.

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Suncatchers

His sister is home already. A school bus drops her off at the door to their apartment building. The boy, though, has a short walk home, first along 57th Street, then west on McNeill. There is a row of fast food franchises on the latter, so he usually grabs takeout before the dinner rush. Their father works even later now.  He will check on them by phone around 4:30, just to make sure they are safely there. After that, who knows when he’ll get in. Sometimes the two are in bed already, having left any schoolwork out for him on the breakfast nook table. The boy looks up into the glass and steel that rises around him on all sides. It seems he lives in a world of mirrors, mirrors that reflect only other mirrors. From the street, the windows, with the sun striking them, seem the blazing scales of some book’s ancient beast. He walks faster, but not out of fear. He doesn’t want his sister’s shake to melt. He’s almost there. Mike the doorman spots him at the corner, toots his whistle and waves him into the crosswalk. Upstairs, the girl has set up TV trays in front of the sofa. She has lost weight since March. He brings her bigger portions, but that doesn’t seem to matter. She stands at the apartment’s picture window and looks across into the office building across the way. The business of the world is getting finished. Papers are being stacked, desk drawers are being opened and closed, files are being filed, phones are being answered. None of it seems real to her. Everything now seems temporary. When her brother arrives, they will choose a movie. It will be hard to watch, it always is, but they can’t help doing it. At the park feeding ducks, a Christmas morning, a day at the zoo. Somehow it doesn’t matter that they’ve seen them before, there is something new to focus on every time. They ask each other questions. They help each other remember. In some, her brother is so young that she is nowhere to be found. Time, now that is real. Sometimes they pause or slow the movie so it doesn’t pass as quickly. You can truly see the faces then, the small changes in features between smiles and complete sentences. Sometimes her brother goes to the screen and points things out in the background, things he remembers that she does not. Sometimes they freeze Mother’s face right as she is talking to them. And they finish homework that way, while her suncatchers in the window flare brightly, then dim.

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Prisoners

The girl has grown up beside the prison. She sees the walls every day. She sees the sun glint on the razor wire and imagines she can feel the massive doors opening and closing beneath her feet. State vehicles often rumble by, rarely with more than momentary faces in a window. Some nights, the girl dreams of a prisoner’s hands at her throat. The man wants help escaping. Food or a weapon. The girl is frightened and runs to tell her parents, but always they lie murdered in their bed. What is she to do now? Alone in this life with a baby sister to protect? The girl readies herself for the worst, the prisoner has followed her to sister’s room. The girl has her body between the crib and the door. And always at this point she wakes, charged with drama, unable to sleep, her heart having quickened. Tonight, she opens a window to listen. There is a distant siren, but not so much as a tomcat on her neighborhood streets. The wind bristles in the elm trees. She thinks about life behind the walls. What the cells must be like compared to her comfortable bed and her bathroom with a door on it and the air hundreds of men have breathed first. What could be yours in a place like that? How could you stay you? Who wouldn’t kill or kidnap a school girl to get out of town? Now, her mother comes in and puts her back to bed, away from the window. A mother just knows. In fact, she has her own unsettling dream of the prisoner, as does the father, as does everyone in the town. Even the prisoner dreams, though he dreams of waking up to breakfast with loud children and a wife, then facing a job which he isn’t trained to do. But soon enough the dreams will stop. Soon enough it will be morning again. And only the sun will be vaulting the guard towers, only the birds will be flying to and fro over the high prison walls.

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Headstrong

Their skeletons are still below the spillway. There is even some ravaged hide left, if one would call it that. Tough way to go, the boy thinks. The two goats even seem to be facing each other, just as they must have on the dam itself, barring each other’s passage along the narrow walkway. Not quite halfway across is where it seems to have happened, they met here and could go no further. The boy kicks a stone down and feels it in his stomach as it drops and strikes the earth. It hasn’t rained much this summer, the crops are withering, the county lake is low. The spillway is as dry as–well, as dry as these bones, now uncovered and bleaching in the high sun. Goats are gifted climbers; even plain old billies are nimble by nature. It would have been easy enough to pass. Or for one or both to turn and walk the other way. Headstrong, his mother calls it. She says it with a mixture of disdain and resignation, and just a touch of pride. She says he comes from a long line of stubborn men. Men, he knows, who get things done. Men who finish what they start. Men who make things happen no matter what the cost. The boy knows that some people thrive on conflict. He has seen the aggressive kids get their way. Maybe people are just angry that life is brief. That’s why they want everything now. The boy kicks another stone over the spillway, then a bottle cap packed with parched dirt. It lands squarely between the two dead goats, their skulls still poised at one another. What does anyone really want? To have been understood in this world, to have walked this spillway, the hallways of his school, the streets of his little town, and to be acknowledged for having been. To be considered. To be reckoned with. To be taken into account. The boy stands at the spillway till he can feel the skin burning on the back of his neck. Then he turns and goes back the way he came.

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Balls

The boy’s testicles hurt. This is something new. He straddles his bike gingerly, one foot still on a pedal, the other on the guard rail of the overpass. It is 10:30 in the morning. Traffic has lessened but is steady on the interstate. It is the long distance travelers now, not the commuters. It is the people who are really going places, seeing things he would like to see. A hundred years ago, he would be a boy by a river, watching his bobber dip in the water, watching driftwood make its way downstream or the occasional barge. This tenderness, the internet says, is part of growing up. It has to do with need and physical change in the body. He can expect a lot more where this came from. If he times it right, he can spit onto the roof of a tractor trailer. He doesn’t know why this matters, that even a little bit of himself swept out of town is better than none at all. To him, it comes out more like contempt and just feels like the thing to do. He thinks a long time before he starts tossing rocks, gravel at first then larger, trying to see how much he can get away with. There’s contact, but to his amazement it goes unnoticed, the world just speeds by, no one pulls over or calls the highway patrol. It is going to be a long summer. He could look for Jimmy and his friends, they always seem to bike around in a pack. Or he could head south and check out the new construction in that neighborhood next to school. He could snag a beer from the workers’ coolers. Anything with an element of risk. He can’t go home yet, there is nothing there but chores he’s been avoiding, help his single mother needs around the house. Cars are still streaming beneath him. The spit on that truck, it is in the next county already and he is still here on this overpass in the searing sun watching the world in its various colors pass him by. None of it, none of it sets quite right with him. He squirms a bit to get comfortable and he tugs at the crotch of his jeans, making room.

—Mark Cox

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Mark Cox’s most recent book is Natural Causes, published in the Pitt Poetry Series. More recently, he edited Jack Myers’ posthumous poetry collection The Memory of Water (New Issues). New poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Green Mountains Review, The Florida Review, New Ohio Review and Miramar. He teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Nov 092016
 

jdf_1

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Winter arrives. The cinder has come to rest over me, too, in the silent mist of it. I’m alive, I tell myself, for a little while longer at least, during these unbound and bygone days. I still struggle the anguish in my voice, the cold I wrest it from. Rest, just rest here, in this cold furrow the weather has dug, go on with it, and suffer the hours death won’t complete. It is no use. Outside, around me, in every distance is something heard but too faint to interpret. Sometimes I wonder if I even hear anything at all. I lie motionless to listen with a purpose I never tire to deny myself. I am tired, though, I give it up easily, fidgeting amongst the foliage, the moss, the seethed sod. It’s the same hope I hear, words spoken to me without sound but a sensation I shiver. They are my words, of course, coming from me. Soon I will also struggle for warmth, under the shade I’ve chosen to reside, for the time being that becomes, not unusually, longer than I intended. I’m still here, after all that has passed, and now I can see my breath in the grayscaled evening, leaving me by a listless kind of labor. When I raise my head to receive the Emu of the sky, I find instead heavenly bodies I can no longer name, disappearing behind a tunnel of trees and appearing again when the leaves have ceased shaking. With great care, repeatedly, I trace the constellations that are yet discerning, gnostic to me, and follow them before they flee, before the morning recovers them. It is no use, even if the aurora will never ascend again. My sight trains itself on the space between paling embers, gathered in the darkness, and I can feel the earth spinning on its axis. I had been sleeping, it seems, with dreams of my decease, promised to me, swarming the embers’ dying glow, wanting not to restore their radiance but to collapse with them on the horizon. I had come to stop here after a walk, yes, a long, lonely peregrination, that at first brought me elsewhere, possibly, before leading me here. For how long have I settled? Under what conditions has my roaming stayed me? It is no use. I have not the ambition or strength to get up, go on, from here to where, for now at least, but I find my ways, have always. I thought I had seen Gulfoss, the Iguaza Falls, other cliffs my eyes felled on from out of reach, but that was another time, eating away at another’s marrow. I would have plummeted, but I chose the dirt over the sea, wherever my wanderings have taken me, the least hospitable, and a final resting place. I am afraid I may have missed my chance to go quietly, that’s why I stay here, and wait. Despite my confusion I still have reasons, must still make excuses. I do not worry, someone will find me here, eventually, some day, maybe not. I think now I am close to ending, the streetlights have turned out, dormant, inert, cockroaches emerge to herd on my skin, it begins to snow, or is it ash that comes down, no matter, it is no use, no impetus to move. Except now my surroundings begin to frost over, and to maintain the mire for which I had grown accustom I turn from my back to my stomach (I am numb at present). I press my face to the soil and till it with my cheek, creating a depression to fit comfortably the profile of my head. I hear a strong gust of wind with one ear lifted to the sky. Is it still night? Perhaps it’s another night now, to fall once more and recur again. The grass has died here, in the slough, perhaps it was I who killed it with my body. Perhaps this small patch of lawn will grow back when the season’s over, or it will be given seed and sown when I have left it, in one way or another, below or a part of. For now it’s hard to determine, too far for conjecture, I’d rather not say, pay any more mind to the point. Holding in my hand a small portion of surface I hollowed out from the marl. I presume the earth no longer belongs to me, crumbling to dust through my fingers. What thought will lend itself, heed me next? There’s hardened mud below my eye, like a teardrop, like a teardrop, like a teardrop I repeat, before memory mellows me, but it is no use, it is really just filth, I can be carrion now, though, unencumbered, when in my youth, under my father’s roof, to keep clean was a chore to be performed with the utmost care, or witness a harsher punishment than public humiliation. A foul stench is offensive, he would say, better to be kempt in this world. My father, he was a wretched man that nobody liked, I may have left because of him, but that is not likely, no, I was ill-fated to leave, without a reason but surely with blame, probably, or I was ditched, left alone, so I went. He didn’t die alone, though, like I am sure to do, dirty, feculent, soon, surely, with no food or water to nourish me. Somewheres along the way I hid what little possessions I had on me, brought from the beginning or otherwise purchased, begged for, thieved, found, or collected, until all that was left was the pursuit of images, real or perceived, it makes no difference. They are all but gone now, the objects and the effigies. With difficulty I can conjure them, which keeps me living, form unfaithful relics in their stead. I am unwilling, mostly, in this effort, I wish them not to be mine. I tried to leave them behind, but out of fear or regret, someday, even remorse, I kept record of their locations, maintaining with careful detail instructions on how to retrieve them again, had my mind changed about their meaning to me. I used to believe I would want them back, to taste again the whisky from Islay, the Dokha smoke on my tongue, to feel the weight of my notebook, the rough material of my change of clothes, to hold in my palm the silver ring passed down to me, gifted, then regained, but meaning is a brittle thing. Nonetheless the record has been lost, forgotten at the last gutter I came to rest at, and for this I feel great relief rush over me. It’s all memory, is it not, taking into consideration the extent to which it has been modified, over time becoming or long passed, reemerging. I would rather that which is not, when to be is to become a ditch. I don’t know where I am anymore, where I will go, if I am able, if anywhere, it’s no use, stay, I’ve made a nice little nest for myself, in spite of the temperature and the clouds, which are fine to me anyhow. Even the snow, which now coats, a thin layer, the lower region of my body. More sounds a far ways off, lulling me, guests arriving, perchance, it could happen. Feasibly it’s the birds, undecided if they should flock and fly south, or the pale rider, ringing the dinner bell with his horse’s hooves, more audible over ice and rime, but no less forgiving. I can never know, anyhow, never really have known, have I. It is a short field to march. A sound draws me nearer to the soil, voices maybe, and now I am frostbitten. I have not managed my appearance so well. To weep, to weep, to weep and to blubber, and grieve, would save me from perishing, but this indecency has become strange to me. It’s no use, just the slightest excuse, for having lived licentious and ugly. Dying in the silence has its uses, too, when death is not a consequence but a commencement, unsaid.

—Jared Daniel Fagen

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Jared Daniel Fagen is a writer living in Brooklyn. His prose has appeared in The CollagistPLINTHThe Brooklyn RailSleepingfishMinor Literature[s], and elsewhere. His nonfiction has been published in The Quarterly Conversation and 3:AM Magazine. He edits Black Sun Lit and studies at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

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Nov 082016
 

I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. —Lawrence Sutin

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My Private Property
Mary Ruefle
Wave Books, 2016
128 pages, $25.00

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As I am a friend of Mary Ruefle, I will not pretend to be an objective reviewer, if there is such a thing. But as I loved her writing before I ever knew her, I am no mere shill. I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. Ruefle kneads imagination and thought together into a delicate yet chewy dough that rises into brilliant little lyric rolls and pastries. The kicker is that, after eating your fill with delight, you may find yourself unsettled. Nothing you think makes sense any more because Ruefle’s language has untamed your mind.

In the two longest pieces in the book, “Pause” and the eponymous “My Private Property,” Ruefle makes use of diametrically different forms. “Pause” is made up of multiple short sections that are sometimes only a single sentence. “My Private Property” is one long paragraph that goes on for fifteen pages. “Pause” is about menopause of which Ruefle writes in bile-filled warnings as one who has moved on to “happy old age” with its “grace and gentle words, and ways that grim youth has never known.” The essay thus encompasses the lifespan of woman, as viewed by Ruefle, with menopause serving as the liminal passage out of the past of human ties, procreative ties, that have inhibited one’s creative evolution—“there are no longer any persons on earth who can stop you from being yourself.” “My Private Property” is about shrunken heads in all senses, not only the fearful physical shrinkings but also the bejeweled, bedaubed and photographed miniatures favored by every human culture as a form of remembrance. Ruefle takes in colonialism at its worst, the sketchy consolations of her own psyche, and the tenderness of loss and death. Having seen the Congo Museum in Brussels as a teenaged student abroad, she recounts in vividly accurate prose the shock of waking up, as an adult, to the history behind the museum’s sanctimonious cultural acquisitions—“wealth acquired by force of so filthy an unspeakable an evil our heads cannot fathom it and have no single word for it, but must resort to endless corridors of words, each corridor turning into another corridor a thousand miles longer than the last in our hopeless search for some inner chamber of understanding that does not exist.”

The inadequacies, the pliabilities, the mutabilities of language are frequent points of exploration for Ruefle, who well knows the roles of both writer and reader in language games. In “Lullaby,” Ruefle sketches in a Daoistic manner the pleasures of succumbing to somnolence, an oft-overlooked effect of artistic receptivity, be it to music, the visual arts, or writing. The examples Ruefle employs are the classical composer Brahms (his Lullabies), the Swiss sculptor Giacometti (his supple elongated figures) and—the surprise choice—the American writer Henry Miller. Ruefle’s portrayal of her hypnagogic psyche taking in Miller is a model of how, languidly and hilariously, to disarm a male language harangue without disturbing one’s composure: “I often fall asleep while reading him. When he uses that hard word cunt again and again, it finally becomes something soft, so very soft, which is startling because a cunt really is soft, it’s a warm, soft, wet-while-young place, a spot really, given the size of the universe, the way a star is a spot, but there are so many of them—I mean cunts—who can keep track?”

Scattered throughout the book (untitled on the pages themselves, though single-word color labels—Blue; Purple; Black; and so forth—are given in the table of contents) are a sequence of eleven short takes on sadness keyed by color—the other shades being gray, red, green, pink, orange, yellow, white, brown. These allow Ruefle to display her gift for imagistic writing as emotionally compelling as Expressionist paintings. Ruefle does not stray into psychological judgments of the natures of her sadnesses. By using precise details that are not strictly tied to color scheme (so as to avoid becoming too matchy-matchy), she rivets the reader by revealing the prismatic secrets of her sadness spectrum. Take, for example, green sadness, which is, among other moments in Ruefle’s imagination, “the funeral silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy.” Because vivid, specific details inherently (given the nature of human consciousness) contain multiple emotional valences, Ruefle’s pieces take on a trans quality. Ruefle’s note at the back of the book is astonishingly accurate: “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.”

To be fair, something does change. With the substitution, each piece remains subtle, vivid, and true. But the reader discovers that happiness and sadness happen in the same colors, which we can paint howsoever our minds allow. My one complaint about the design of the book is that I think the color-sadness pieces should have been given a sequential section of their own so as to foster their cumulative impact, rather than be scattered here and there between other writings.

My single favorite piece in My Private Property is a short work entitled “The Sublime.” In it Ruefle employs a trick often employed by poets though relatively seldom by prose writers. One chooses a title that serves, as it were, as the answer to the riddle of the ‘secret’ meaning of the piece. In this case, Ruefle describes a literally hair-raising drive over hair-pin mountain roads. The closing line: “Could see from the corner of my eye that there was an incredible view, but couldn’t look.” Again, as in the color-sadness pieces, Ruefle allows us to see that first-rate writing reveals more than we can possibly expect, which is why we read.

—Lawrence Sutin

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Larry Sutin

Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West. In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com. In 2014, he and his wife Mab Nulty founded See Double Press, devoted to unique interfusions of text and image.  Its first two titles are Mary Ruefle’s An Incarnation of the Now and his own The Seeming Unreality of Entomology.  An essay written and illustrated by Lia Purpura is coming out in Fall 2016.  For more, check out seedouble.press. Sutin teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Nov 082016
 

Jose de Trevi photograph_2José de Trévi

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In his 1944 existentialist play No Exit, Sartre famously wrote, “Hell is other people.” He was, of course, referring to the “perpetual ontological struggle of being caused to see oneself as an object in the world of another consciousness,” but the phrase has been misinterpreted and misused to suit our needs ever since. In my experience, Hell came in the form of a man named José de Trévi, a Belgian tenor who sang with the National Opera of Paris from 1930 to 1943. Tenors at that time were regarded as “princes among singers,” and de Trévi was a rare breed of tenor, one who could sing outside a tenor’s typical vocal range. Because of his talent, he made a career singing the most coveted lead roles in the most prestigious theaters all over Europe, specializing in some of Wagner’s most famous operas: Tristan and Isolde, Tannhauser, all four epics of the Ring Cycle. Over the course of his career, he sang in over three hundred performances throughout France, and was hailed repeatedly by critics for his singing, his acting, and his dashingly good looks.

de Trevi letterExcerpt of letter from José de Trévi to his wife, Elsa

All letter excerpts are from the author’s personal collection.

I first encountered de Trévi when I purchased a couple of his letters at a Parisian flea market in August, 2014. The letters were correspondences between him and a woman named Elsa—who I learned through the letters was de Trévi’s wife. I was captivated by the outpourings of “my dear beloved” and “my adored love” that de Trévi showers on Elsa. He tells her how much he misses her and their young son, Billy. He writes that he hopes he will see an end to their miseries soon, that he wants only to be with his little family. “But, my beloved,” he writes in one letter, “I am obligated to stay here, obligated by necessity, by money—that accursed metal that prevents you from doing many things, and prevents me from seeing those that I love!”

Elsa and Edouard de Trevi photoElsa and Billy 

His letters offered small glimpses into the personal life of a man who, in the 1930s and early 1940s, was a pretty big deal. But aside from a couple of short biographical articles about his career and a few brief mentions in out-of-print books about the opera, I could find nothing else about de Trévi. It seemed that he was quickly disappearing from recorded history. So I kindly took it upon myself to track him down and tell his story.

At first, it was all fun and games—deciphering his handwriting, translating his letters from French to English, digging into archives to read reviews of his performances. I fancied myself a kind of private detective, and everything de Trévi wrote about the opera, the people he spent time with, the way he spent his days, even his tone and the expressions he used were clues into who he was. But de Trévi’s life still remained largely a mystery. I could find nothing about who Elsa was, why de Trévi left the opera, or even how he died. I followed every lead and hit hundreds of dead ends and gave up on the project altogether more than once. And then, after a time, I’d feel the nag of unanswered questions, and I’d return to the books, the operas, the letters, and let de Trévi lure me back into the lonely hole of biographical research.

de Trevi letter fragment_2

If you are wondering if these road blocks I’ve encountered aren’t due to my amateur status as a biographical researcher, I’ll admit I’ve wondered the same thing. So I interviewed the much more seasoned biographer, Deborah Baker, who has written three critically acclaimed biographies on vastly different subjects. Her first book In Extremis was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography about the life of the writer Laura Riding, an obscure and enigmatic poet who was one of the most influential figures in British-American literary history before she renounced poetry and spent the last fifty years of her life as a recluse in the swamps of Florida. Baker’s second book, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, traces Allen Ginsberg, a poet and leading figure of post-WWII counterculture, on his spiritual odyssey in India in the 1960s. Baker’s third book, The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, was a finalist for the National Book Award and my introduction to her biographical chops.

The Convert is about the life of a woman named Maryam Jameelah, born Margaret Marcus into a secular Jewish family outside New York City in 1934. In her teenage years, she converted to Islam, and in 1962 she moved to Pakistan to actively live her faith under the guardianship of a man named Abdul Ala Mawdudi. Mawdudi was an influential leader in the mid-century Islamist revival and the father of its political movement. While living in Pakistan, Maryam began publishing essays on the evils of Western culture and the righteousness of Islam, and quickly became an active player in the growing divide between Islam and the West.

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Baker’s interest in Maryam, like mine, began with letters, a set of twenty-four that she found in the archives of the New York Public Library. And like me, she quickly became obsessed and spent the next several years reading and analyzing Maryam’s letters, her diaries, and her published essays to understand why she converted and how Islam served her spiritually. What Baker uncovered was a life fraught with peculiar events, strange circumstances, and ever-straining relationships with those who took Maryam in. Almost immediately after her arrival, Mawdudi began to pressure her to marry, though Maryam showed little interest in anything but her work. A year after her move, Mawdudi had her committed to an insane asylum, where she spent several months before being released into the guardianship of Mawdudi’s friend and political colleague, Mohammad Yusef Khan. Within days, Khan married Maryam without Mawdudi’s permission, and their relationship grew further strained. Eventually, Baker traveled to Pakistan to meet Maryam and discovered not the idealistic and hopeful woman of her letters, but a lonely old woman whose dreams of Islam did not seem to match her lived reality.

The book is an intersection between Maryam’s story and Baker’s tale of discovery. It weaves back and forth between Maryam’s letters and the events in her life and Baker’s research and reflections on what she has found. Reading Baker’s finished work on Maryam Jameelah was like looking at a perfect example of what I wanted my story of de Trévi to be. It combines mystery and adventure, is insightful and reflective, and follows Maryam’s life from her troubled childhood, to her awkward teenaged years, to her conversion to Islam. It details her life in Pakistan, probes into why she is committed to the insane asylum, teases out the truth about the circumstances surrounding Maryam’s marriage to Khan, all while exploring some of Baker’s own burning questions about cultural perspectives, the meaning of faith, and the seemingly irreconcilable tensions between Islam and the West.

But, misery certainly loves company, and so I was thrilled to learn that Maryam, as a research subject, was no less hell-inducing for Baker than de Trévi has been for me. In both the book and an interview I conducted with Baker about her research, I discovered just how frustrating biographical research is. It is not all fact-finding and mystery-solving. First of all, it involves a ton of tedious background research, road blocks, and dead-end leads. Second of all, you have to work for the truth. And finally, you spend years of your life researching and analyzing your subjects only to find that their lives are nonlinear, chaotic messes that you have to put into some semblance of a narrative.

Of course, if I had read the epigraph in the opening of Baker’s book, I might have avoided the frustrations altogether by never choosing to engage with de Trévi in the first place. The epigraph reads: “Whoever undertakes to write biography binds himself to lying, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flummery….Truth is not accessible. —Sigmund Freud.” But I skipped it or at least didn’t pay much attention to what Freud had to say, and so I’ll share with you now three hard-learned insights into what makes other people so hellish to research and write about.

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1. Other people play hard to get.

One of the first things that drew me to de Trévi was his obscurity. There were a few biographical articles written about him, but they were just brief overviews of his career path and the major roles he played. The letters gave me some details of his personal life not present in the biographical articles about him, such as the name of his wife and the fact that he had a son, but there were whole pieces of his life that remained opaque, and I was excited to be the one to unearth the mysteries. But obscurity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes for a more interesting subject, but on the other hand, the lack of information is an obvious roadblock to research.

de Trevi letter fragment_5

In researching de Trévi, I was particularly interested in why his career with the opera ended in 1943. There was plenty of evidence in his letters to show that at least through 1942, he was demanding more roles and new contracts, and that he was trying to continue singing until at least as late as 1955. So had he left willingly, or was he forced out? Had his voice begun to fade, or had he gotten too expensive, or perhaps too demanding, to keep on the cast? One article said he was let go for refusing to sing in German, but I couldn’t verify this claim, and so I added this possibility to the list of questions the end of his career posed.

Unfortunately, if your subject hasn’t given you the answer himself, a simple Google search probably isn’t going to yield an answer either. Furthermore, finding the answer to a question usually doesn’t mean finding the answer directly. When I began researching de Trévi’s career, I thought that I was looking for a letter or contract or newspaper article that would tell me exactly what had happened, but of course, there was nothing of the sort. But answers are usually buried in clues, and finding them means researching around the question itself, asking new questions and speculating about possible outcomes. And this means doing an absurd amount of background research so you know what questions to ask of your question.

If this seems obvious to you, then you are probably someone who pays attention to epigraphs. I, on the other hand, as someone who likes to just dive right in, thought that because I was writing about a particular person and not a history of the French Opera, a general understanding of the culture and time would suffice. I quickly learned that without being nearly an expert on pre-WWII Paris and the French Opera—or at least consulting with one—I wouldn’t know how to put together the clues given to me in the letters.

I looked to Baker’s book to see the kind of research she had to do in order to write the story. In all, she cites forty unique sources and sixty-eight unique citations, excluding the letters themselves. But she told me in our interview that, even before she began pursuing the answers to specific questions about Maryam, she read hundreds of books on Pakistan and political Islam, India, anti-colonialism, and general history of the 40s, 50s, and 60s in the Middle East and America. She also read English translations and analyses of the Qur’an, scholarly works on Islam and the modern world from both Islamic and Western perspectives, and any available biographical information about the people Maryam knew, most extensively Mawdudi. By immersing herself in Maryam’s world and her immediate environment, Baker was better positioned to answer questions raised by Maryam’s strange life.

Deborah Baker

One of these questions that the book tries to answer is why Maryam was sent to the insane asylum. In a letter home to her parents, Maryam writes that Mawdudi sent her to the asylum for various “transgressions” she had committed against him, but she does not go into detail about the nature of those transgressions. She also expresses fear of Mawdudi’s politically driven intentions, leaving Baker to wonder about the circumstances around the incident.

One of the great things about Baker’s book is that we can actually follow her train of thought as she investigates a particular question. In order to understand why Maryam was committed, she turns first to Maryam’s character, asking herself what she already knows about Maryam: she is outspoken, idealistic, and faithful, and though she rejects the West, is still of the West. She can then ask herself what the transgressions might have been: an argument with Mawdudi about a tenet of the Qur’an? Maryam’s refusal to marry anyone Mawdudi suggested? Or could they have been related to some cultural misunderstanding on Maryam’s part? Baker also asks questions of Mawdudi’s character: What were the nature of his religious beliefs? How did he feel about Maryam? What was his involvement in politics? Each of these questions gives way to new, broader questions: How does Islam view unmarried, working women like Maryam? How does it view mental illness? What was the political atmosphere at the time?

Every avenue of research that Baker pursues requires a constant interplay between Maryam’s character, Mawdudi’s character, the events in Maryam’s life, the social and cultural factors at play, and the larger sociohistorical backdrop in which the incident took place. And every possible answer gives way to new questions, new speculations, and asks Baker to reassess what she already knows. Answering the question, then, is not always a matter of finding the answer, but of eliminating possibilities and inferring an answer based on what you know about the person, her immediate environment, and her place in history. In the end, Baker concludes that Maryam suffered from some kind of mental illness, but that she was also a victim of the cultural divide between the Middle East and the West.

Sometimes, though, even your best efforts to answer a question yield nothing but dead ends. Where this is the case, Baker suggested “hanging your hat on something else.” In other words, don’t get too attached to a particular fact you hope to uncover about your subject’s life. Rather, allow your research to make way for something else—another dramatic moment or a new revelation about your subject’s character—that will hold your story up.

I have not yet found an answer to why de Trévi left the opera, and perhaps I never will. While I thought that this would be the scandal around which the rest of my story revolved, I’ve had to let it go for now and pursue answers to other questions. But there is also space in the story for unanswered questions. Toward the end of The Convert, Baker asks: “How well did Maryam’s pronouncements on the true Islamic way of life serve her as a wife and mother? How well did her frail spirit withstand a life defined not by abstract notions but by whooping cough, typhoid, malaria? Had she achieved something noteworthy, or had she squandered her life on a dream? If the story didn’t end happily, how did it end?” (Baker, 211). She never finds answers to these questions, but by acknowledging them, she reveals something about the mystery and complexity of Maryam’s character, and of life itself.

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2. Other people are liars.

If unanswered questions and dead ends are sound reasons not to engage in biographical research, then the ability to go through their personal letters and diaries is a rather tempting reason to engage. In fact, I’ll admit, my first interest in de Trévi was born of sheer nosiness. I pored greedily through his letters hoping to find some mention of an affair or confession of a crime or exposé of a deep, dark family secret. But I soon learned that even in personal letters, people are not so forthright as you’d hope them to be. You really have to work for the gossip.

de Trevi letter fragment_3

de Trevi letter fragment_4

For example, in one letter to Elsa, de Trévi writes, “As you know, it is necessary that the affair of M.C. gets definitively settled.” In another letter, he writes, “I see more and more that nothing has been done about M.C.” But he’s never told me who M.C. is, and I’m left feeling like an outsider to an inside joke, or even worse, an outsider to what I am convinced was the juiciest secret between them.

Not only does de Trévi leave out information, but also he makes conflicting claims about his intentions and desires. Remember when he told Elsa how much he longed to be with her but had to stay in the opera for money reasons? Well, in another letter that same year, 1937, he writes to Elsa that he had a busy upcoming winter season at the opera and promised that this would be his last season, the end of their miseries. But in letters that I discovered in an archive, written around the same time by de Trévi to the director of the opera, Jacques Rouché, de Trévi shows no sign of wanting to leave the opera at all. In fact, right up through the last letter of the collection dated in 1942, five years after he tells Elsa he is going to leave the opera, de Trévi demands to sing more roles, claiming that he is the Wagnerian tenor of the Paris Opera. Reading these letters, I couldn’t help but feel that de Trévi had misled Elsa and me, that in fact he never wanted to leave the opera, that he was an artist first and a father second.

Letters and other personal documents are full of missing or misinformation like this. Some amount of missing information is to be expected, of course, because like everyday conversations, the person at the receiving end of the letter already knows what is being referenced, and as a researcher, you are eavesdropping halfway through. But in many cases, the writer is intentionally vague or misleading in order to deceive the recipient, or perhaps keep a secret between them from a third, unintended reader, such as a nosy but well-intentioned researcher like myself.

Even the most intimate letters, where we hope to find honest confessions, and diaries, where we expect a writer to really open up, have an implicit audience and therefore, the writer will twist his thoughts, feelings, and accounts of events ever-so-slightly—or perhaps drastically—in the interest of presenting a positive public view of himself. The person on the page, then, is a kind of invented persona. But where the writer slips up and we can spot a misstatement or a lie, we see glimpses of the real person behind the façade.

Spotting a lie can be as simple as recognizing an inconsistency with a known fact. Maryam’s earliest letters comprise a memoir published in 1989 called Quest for the Truth: Memoirs of a Childhood and Youth in America, 1945-1962: The Story of One Western Convert. In these letters, Maryam describes being bullied at school, at summer camp, and generally feeling estranged from her own family. She details her questions about her Jewish faith and growing fascination with Arabic history and culture that gradually turns to a sympathetic understanding of them, to her parents’ disapproval. In letters written after her move to Pakistan, Maryam describes finally feeling a sense of purpose, of meaning, and of home among her Islamic brothers and sisters in Pakistan (Baker, 18). Through these personal pieces of writing, Baker sees Margaret Marcus evolve from a troubled misfit, to a soul-searching sympathizer with the Arabic plight, and finally, to Maryam Jameelah, devout Muslim and champion of Islam.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-5-20-33-pmLeft: Young Margaret Marcus, Right: Maryam Jameelah

But Maryam was also a liar. Aside from the memoir’s too-long title with one too many colons, it had a few issues. First of all, Maryam incorrectly dates one letter November 31, 1949. Secondly, she refers in the letter to a speech delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt at Maryam’s high school the previous evening, which, Baker discovered in a newspaper article about the event, actually wasn’t delivered until the following February, 1950. It seemed that Maryam had forgotten to fact check a few things, but luckily for us, Baker hadn’t. She determines that the letters were inauthentic, that they had been fabricated as a kind of backstory by Maryam while she was living in Pakistan.

We can also spot lies by being aware of conflicting accounts and statements, either within the writer’s own writing, or between the writer’s accounts and the accounts of another person. In letters she wrote home to her parents, Maryam describes her life with Khan, “I am now home with my Khan Sahib, my co-wife Shafiqa, her children and aging mother, and many relations… After a long search, I have found my place and I will never exchange it for any other. You no longer have to worry about me. I believe I’m going to be very happy now” (Baker, 159). But this fairy-tale ending to Maryam’s strange life began to show cracks after Mawdudi’s son, Haider Farooq told a different version of the story, one that reveals Maryam to be an aggressive, mentally unstable woman who essentially tricks Khan into marrying her. Of course, Farooq might have been lying as well. But Maryam had already lost a little credibility, and even in her own writing Maryam shows a lack of interest and, in fact, an aversion to marriage. Baker wondered if this sentiment was sincere. She asks in the book, “For whose benefit…had [Maryam] narrated her happy ending?…Had she written this to allay her parents’ fears about her welfare or to establish her triumph? Was it meant as a piece of entertainment or of propaganda?” (Baker, 191).

A third way lies are revealed to us is through inconsistencies in the writing itself. When we read letters, we get accustomed to the tone, style, and ticks of the writer, and sudden changes in these established patterns can alert us to some kind of lie. In the case of the fabricated letters, Baker was further tipped off by the fact that while in her other letters, Maryam always referenced family news, these letters were missing any reference whatsoever. Baker notices a similar inconsistency in the letter in which Maryam explains that she has been sent to the insane asylum. Whereas Maryam tends to be wordy and detailed about everything else in her letters, in this instance, she is reserved, almost flippant about the incident. Baker suggests that there is something she doesn’t want to admit to her parents or even, perhaps, to herself.

What, then, do we make of all the lies? While they can be frustrating and require more outside research, they also reveal more about our subjects than the content of the letters themselves. Truth here isn’t just about the accuracy of stated events and feelings, but about the implications of the writer’s lies and secrets. What motivates them to keep secrets, to misstate things, to invent other selves? How do they view themselves? What agendas, desires, denials are revealed about the subject through their lies? In considering Maryam’s fabricated letters, Baker writes:

Maryam had composed these letters as missives to posterity, a Cinderella backstory plotted to foreshadow how her embrace of Islam had rescued her from America. The evils of Western civilization amounted to no more than a stage drop for her private travails. It was as if [Margaret] never ceased mining the material of her own life to establish certain proof that Islam was the answer to all the riddles it posed. (Baker, 208)

Baker doesn’t believe that Maryam necessarily made up the stories about her childhood, though she does disregard their content. But the fabrication of letters reveals something deeper about Maryam: her desperate desire to prove that Islam had been the solution to all of her problems and, more generally, the problems with Western culture. Furthermore, the positive spin Maryam places on her life in Pakistan tells a much bleaker story than if she had admitted that things weren’t going so well right up front and begs the question to what extent she wanted to believe, or did believe, her version of the story.

With personal documents, we are not dealing with facts, but rather secrets, personas, and lies, and it is up to us to interpret them, distinguish fact from fiction, and determine what the lies are saying about our subject. The real truth about our subjects often lies not in what is credible, but in what is false. Where the views diverge from reality or statements differ from facts, we see our subject ripped wide open, their imaginations revealed, and their deepest desires exposed.

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3. Other people’s lives are messy.

When I started researching de Trévi, I was under the delusion that with enough persistence, I could uncover his entire story from birth to death, unearth all of his secrets, and discover some universal truth about opera singers or history or life. For nearly two years now, I’ve pursued every lead, followed every avenue of research, and unearthed a smorgasbord of facts and details and speculations about de Trévi. It is easy to get caught up in secrets and lies, and tempting to continue the research until we’ve answered every question. But sooner or later, we have to stop researching and start telling the story.

de Trevi portrait and signatureJosé de Trévi: photo and signature

Lives do not unfold in a narrative fashion like we’d hope, and as researchers, it is up to us to make sense of what we have, to connect the dots and create some order out of all the chaos. So after we’ve uncovered everything we can about our subject, what do we actually have? First of all, we have a general chronology of the events in the subject’s life, a list of events pulled from letters and interviews and historical accounts of the person. De Trévi’s major life events included his first performance with the French Opera, his marriage, the birth of his son, and the end of his opera career. From such details as this, we can identify particular dramatic moments, conflicts, and places that we can turn into scenes and settings. With some imagination, for example, I can write the scene where he first steps onto the stage or a scene in which he pens a letter to Elsa from his room at the Hotel d’Iéna. We also have a general historical chronology in which these events took place, in this case, just before and during WWII in Paris. We can see where the events in the person’s life might have intersected with larger events. For example, in German-occupied Paris in the early 1940s, the German soldiers made up the majority of theater audiences throughout Paris, and de Trévi would likely have sung for them on many occasions. These historical events give us a more believable and interesting backdrop and shed light on the lives of our biographical subjects. Finally, we have a sense of character, inferred from both the truths and the lies we discover in their writing, from what others have said about them, and from placing them in their sociohistorical surroundings. Sounds like all the makings of a pretty compelling narrative, if you ask me.

How then do we create order out of the chaos? Baker suggested defining the scope of the narrative. A biography does not need to give equal weight to, or even to include, every moment of a subject’s life. Defining the scope means, first of all, determining the chronological boundaries of the narrative. This is determined by both what information is available to us, as well as where we think the most interesting and dramatic moments are. In Baker’s book, for example, she focuses Maryam’s story primarily on the part of her life covered by the letters, from her decision to move to Pakistan, to her arrival, to the insane asylum and finally, to her marriage to Khan. She does some backstory about Maryam’s childhood, but covers her entire adult life in Pakistan after her marriage, including her life as a mother, in less than a chapter of the book.

Defining the scope also means determining the larger focus of the story itself. What themes can we tease out of our subject’s life, and what larger questions does their life answer? Baker asked me to consider my own story about de Trévi. Is it a love story? A war story? A 1930s Paris story? These things are not mutually exclusive, but defining the scope of the narrative can help us see connections between events in the subject’s life, and between the subject’s life and historical events, and we can ask how this particular life reflects life in a wider sense and what questions it answers for us. In The Convert, Baker asks What is the nature of the divide between Islam and the West? Maryam’s story, then, encompasses the larger cultural, historical, and metaphysical issues raised by this question. But by encompassing certain themes, we necessarily exclude other themes and issues, which helps to focus and direct the story and the research.

Creating order is also a matter of structure. Though we are attempting to recreate a life, we do not need to put that life into chronological order. The Convert is structured, not according to the unfolding of events in Maryam’s life, but rather according to Baker’s gradual discovery of Maryam’s life. The book begins with what is arguably the most pivotal moment in Maryam’s life, her move to Pakistan, and then follows Baker’s line of questioning as she investigates Maryam’s life and tries to answer the root of the disconnect between Islam and the West. The story jumps back and forth through time, as each question that arises for Baker necessitates new investigations into Maryam’s past and inspires new reflection in Baker’s present. This structure in turn teases out the peculiarity of certain events, heightens the mystery, and allows the questions themselves to create tension and drama within a larger story.

Finally, creating order is a matter of self-reflection, about answering why we chose this particular subject in the first place. For Baker, Maryam Jameelah’s search for faith and truth mirror her own and help her confront her own biases and assumptions about the world in which she lives. At first, I didn’t think my de Trévi project was anything more than a completely selfless attempt to recreate another person’s life. But one residency, when I was excitedly telling a faculty member about the letters I’d found and my research of de Trévi, she stopped me mid-gush and said, “You love him, don’t you?” The question took me by surprise, but she was absolutely right. As much as I hate de Trévi for coming into my life and sending me on an endless goose chase to discover his, I love him, because he tells me something about myself and about the fragility and purpose of human life. De Trévi ends one of his letters, “Goodbye my dear, adored Elsa. You are my whole life and my reason for being on this earth.” In some ways, I think that de Trévi has become my reason for being, or in the very least, my reason for writing. At some point, the biography itself turns back on the biographer, and understanding what our subjects say about us can help us understand what we are trying to say about our subjects.

So researching and writing biography isn’t all bad. Despite the frustrations, the road blocks, the chaos, in the end, it is an act of self-discovery, of love, and a little bit of narcissism. It is also an act of creation. If Hell is (researching) other people, then Paradise is bringing them back to life, and it stands to reason that as researchers and writers, we are gods: we listen to their lies, clean up their messes, and try to make something beautiful out of them.

Works Cited

Baker, Deborah. The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. Graywolf Press: New York, 2011. Print.

De Trévi, José. Letters to Elisabeth de Trévi. Trans. Mary Heitkamp. Personal Collection.

—Mary Brindley

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Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born, Boston-based copywriter currently living in London. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction and is excited to make her publishing debut on Numéro Cinq.

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Nov 072016
 

lordan-viaDave Lordan via West Cork Lit Festival


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In the middle of the night The County Manager called to my door. I murdered him with the ceremonial dagger I always bring when answering my door, whether or not it’s in the middle of the night. I stabbed him in the voice-box. It was an efficient kill, then, although also, with hindsight, in this case something of a mistake. Actually, a big mistake, a major mistake, the consequences of which I am still paying for. He bled to death voicelessly and so he did not get the opportunity to explain to me why he, of all people, had taken it upon himself to call to my door in the middle of the night, a time when both he and I should have been in bed, sleeping. Of course I do not sleep very much, and never have, especially not in the middle of the night. I have since come to the conclusion that The County Manager was also, like me, a light, daytime sleeper, and that when he called to my door he was entirely and – for him – ordinarily awake. There is also the possibility – I don’t consider it much of a possibility – that he was sleepwalking, meaning that, when he died, he died in his sleep, somnambulantly, unknowingly. It’s the kind of lie about a gruesome death that no-one minds telling or pretending to believe. Although we all die unknowingly, don’t we? And I would go further than mere somnambulance, mere automatism in the case of The County Manager. I would say that when he died it was in the middle of a beautiful dream of managing a future county perfectly divided by a canal of his own design, named, in fastening honour of his eternal prestige as The County Manager’s Canal. On one bank lies the district in which it’s always day, and, on the other bank, the district where it’s always night. On the one side the things of the day, on the other side the things of the night. Everyone would, under The County Manager’s constant supervision, have strictly regulated access to both sides, and behave accordingly when in either. No mix-ups. No twilight. I say he died happy then, in a perfection of his own making. It was, if so, an ineluctably joyful death. Nevertheless, the County Manager is dead and surely he has left behind him several close ones, in several kinds of close relationships with him, all requiring that he not be dead, that he be anything but dead. These people must be feeling unhappy, perhaps also guilty, for reasons clear or unclear to them, that The County Manager is dead, or missing, presumed dead, or even worse from the point of view of emotional and, perhaps yet more grievously again, financial complications, missing, presumed alive. I am sorry to be so uncouth as to mention finance here in what is, in effect, The County Manager’s Obituary, but I don’t want to come across as insincere and stupid, as missing something so obvious, no matter what. For posterity’s sake, I suppose, for the sake of my reputation in eternity, I wish to be absolutely clear and complete in my sentences. There is more than my own microbial legacy at stake, I know; it’s to the afore-insinuated associates, colleagues, friends and relatives of The County Manager that justice calls for reparation, for the dead themselves remain forever unreparable. There’s no doubt in my mind about that much, most of the time. I am really writing this not for my own sake but so that interested parties, no matter what their particular species of interest might be, will be able, now and forevermore, or for at least as long as the present lingua retains its presently fading legibilty, to learn exactly what happened to The County Manager on the night of his sudden, unexpected, tragic, and, for certain, horrific demise. Now, consider this in my defense (not that I am seriously considering defending myself for an act so many out there are bound to be steaming in silent envy of): what if I were also sleepwalking at the time of this death? Would that not mean that just as he had innocently died in his sleep then I had innocently killed in my sleep? Would this not mean that, in legal terms at least, the event we are discussing never took place? It never legally took place. Well, whether it was within the zone understood by the law, or outside that ever-indeterminate territory, he bled to death rapidly on the rough ground outside my front door, his blood fleeing copiously downhill from him, a forlorn stream bound to dry out long before it reached the sea, to dry out within sight of its source. It must be the worst result for any kind of stream not to be able to forget that it has a beginning. Imagine if every time you turned around you saw your mother’s open legs, pouring the blood and gunk of your beginning. I live on top of the hill, by the way, in view of the sea, but in no danger atall from it. I have not had to take part in the furious debate about whether our coastal plains, upon which the far majority of our stacked and close-quartered County populace exists, are or are not in imminent danger of catastrophic inundation; and if they are what precisely it’s that he, The County Manger, should be urgently doing about it. Pity whoever the people select to be their saviour from the sea. I suspect – it’s one among many vociferous contending suspicions within me – that he called unannounced to my door in the middle of the night with the idea of apprehending me dozily off-guard and canvassing me to agree to make some personal contribution to The County’s Major Inundation Plan. Whether financially, or, more likely, through accommodating fleeing refugees. The County’s Major Inundation Plan is currently, according to all the media, under intensive review, by County Manager’s Order. Well, I put the dagger through his neck and the request or order or whatever it was never got uttered. Unsurprisingly, even though I may well have been technically and legally asleep, the sudden, unexpected occurrence of a death, and a messy death at that, in my demesne, catapulted me into that anciently inscribed emergency mode we now call panic. When I panic I call P. P is not calm, but he is calming, to me. P keeps secrets. P has a car. He was with me within half an hour, during which I had had the presence of mind, despite perhaps being asleep, to mop the blood and wrap The County Manager’s remains in a blanket. Together, we dismembered the body quite artfully, and rapidly – P was once a doctor and knows his anatomy, and he saws like a lumberjack – and wrapped the bits again in separate plastic packages. In my opinion the bits gain greatly in individual distinction and beauty, gain aesthetically that is, from their dismemberment. In isolation, under the contemplative gaze of the gallery goer, or at least one who understands how to act in a gallery, and separated from the coherent, preprogrammed, utilitarian mainframe of the body entire, hands, feet, genitals, and so on gain a new aura; numinous significances emanate, which nature never intended, and which, from nature’s point of view, are useless. The release from intention and utility is brief, but beautiful, or beauty-making. Rough speech I know, but what else have I? It’s a long time since I sat in a classroom. Or read a book. Or heard one read. Well, it goes to show that there is something at least to gain from being chopped up, and that we all have our own idea of beauty. We drove off, still with hours of dark to come, and distributed the packages in various lots and woods and tips and reservoirs among the scarcely populated uplands hereby; where, by now, nature’s making use again for sure, for nature’s purposes, whatever they are. The best way to hide a body, P told me, (several times – he is so fond of repeating his bon mots, as well as entirely lacking in short term memory, so that it’s never possible to diagnose which of these causes his habitual retellings) the best way to hide a body is to hide it severally. Anyway, he went on, you can’t hide a body on this earth. Bodies are always found, if not by humans, then by dogs; if not by dogs, then by rats; if not by rats, then by ants, and so on all the way down to the bacteria that are patiently devouring the spherical corpse we call earth. When we returned to my house on the hill the light was also returning, the cold, soggy, miserable light of a dawn hereabouts. P said goodbye and drove off downhill into the impenetrable mist that hovers beneath, covering everything everywhere, often for weeks at a time. Back to his wife, whom he informed me, not without shadenfreude, was always overflowing with erotic enthusiasm at this hour of the morning. I inspected the rough ground outside my front door; I inspected the door; the doorstep. No spatters. No suspect material whatsoever. Nothing seemed amiss, either inside or out. I wondered then if the County Manager had called in the middle of the night to launch a surprise, high-level inspection of my premises, with the idea of finding enough irregularity to justify my eviction? Did he want my out-of-way house on the top of the hill for himself? For a command post? Who knows? I went back to bed, and fell into a deep sleep for about seven minutes. I admit that. I know falling asleep means I wasn’t feeling any guilt, or even a mild sadness. But I maintain the possibility and the defense that, before I fell into this deep sleep, I was already deep in another one. I was in a sleep within a sleep then, and therefore was not consciously responsible for either my actions or my emotional disposition. I will, by the way, take the appearance of grief and guilt at any future point, about this or any other matter, as a sign that I am finally, indisputably awake. Anyway, these events are nearly three weeks past now and I still don’t feel guilty, though I am terribly anxious. I am racked day and night by pangs of regret that I did not wait until The County Manager had announced to me his reason for calling to my door so interruptedly in the middle of the night, before sticking him through the neck with my dagger – that overwhelming surprise at the end of his life, that bloody exclamation mark I climaxed his story with. I must allow for the possibility that there was no reason atall why he called, and therefore that he died, and I killed, for no reason atall. Such thoughts condemn me to restlessness all day and all night. I have, like Mishima, considered seppuku. I have the equipment for it after all. And I also believe I possess the necessary high courage, the rigorous and unflinching fortitude for a sacred act of self-punishment. It’s only seppuku if someone we know witnesses it, however, someone who can confirm to others we died honourably, staring oblivion in the eye, welcoming the dark in with more steel in our gaze than in our gut. I don’t know who I could ask to be my witness. Not P. He would only laugh at me. He wouldn’t understand atall. He’d say don’t be thick. Don’t be such a contrary bollox. Disembowelling yourself, ha? You will in your arse. Sure I’ll get you a pill and it’ll be over in no time. You’ll fucking enjoy it my friend. And the worst that’ll happen is that you’ll shit yourself in a happy hallucination like my mother did. She, when the priest came to give unction, mistook him for Donald Duck, and chucklingly farted her last. Instead of seppuku I try my best not to move, not to fidget. TV is the best aid. The best servant. I glue to TV for news of The County Manager’s death. But, there has been no report. No mention whatsoever. No talk of a replacement. No talk of contenders, front-runners, also-rans, or outside chancers for this prestigious, powerful, enviously remunerated, limitlessly influential position; no talk of sideways moves from other departments, nor of messianic reformers transferred from other, even more important counties than ours; no talk of drastic reshuffles in the county offices. Everything carries on as it was, as if the county manager, poor man, and also the esteemed office of County Manager itself, have been removed all at once from the planet, and not one living soul out of all those who, until that point, had been under his constant county manager management has noticed. Except for me, the man who stuck him at my own front door in the middle of the night, while almost all in the county surely were sleeping, or sleeplessly stretched out abed anyhow, awaiting a knock or a tremor or boom that would call them forth anytime now to rise, to kill or to die, at last to end their supine longing.

—Dave Lordan


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Dave Lordan is a multi-genre writer, performer, editor and educator. His latest publications include the short story collection First Book of Frags, the poetry collection Lost Tribe of The Wicklow Mountains, and the Young Irelanders anthology of new Irish fiction, which he edited. He is the researcher for the popular RTE Poetry Programme and is a regular contributor to Arena, RTE Radio 1’s flagship art show. He has appeared at numerous festivals and venues in Ireland, UK, Europe, and North America as a performer, panelist, workshop leader and MC. He edits bogmanscannon.com, Ireland’s alt.culture hub. Last month he launched The Pirate Show, an alt.lit radio show on Dublin Digital Radio. Listen here.


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Nov 062016
 

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Studio Stills

img_0924Wave 16-1, 12x13x7″, stoneware and paint

img_0921Wave Cradle 16-1, 13x14x6″, stoneware and paint

img_0922Wave Cradle 16-2, 13x15x5.5″, stoneware and paint

img_0917Wave Cradle 16-3, 13.5x15x5.5″, stoneware and paint

img_0911Partners 16-1, 18x12x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0913Partners 16-2, 11.5x16x5″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0915Partners 16-3, 13x20x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0916Partners 16-4, 13.5x22x5″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0912Partners 16-5, 14x21x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0914Partners 16-6, 15x22x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

—Anne Hirondelle

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Anne Hirondelle was born in Vancouver, Washington, in 1944 and spent her childhood as a farm girl near Salem, Oregon. She received a BA in English from the University of Puget Sound (1966) and an MA in counseling from Stanford University (1967). Hirondelle moved to Seattle in 1967 and directed the University YWCA until 1972. She attended the School of Law at the University of Washington for a year before discovering and pursuing her true profession, first in the ceramics program at the Factory of Visual Arts in Seattle (1973-74), and later in the BFA program at the University of Washington (1974-76). Anne Hirondelle has lived and worked in Port Townsend, Washington, since 1977.

Hirondelle’s beginnings as an artist were with clay. For over 20 years she was drawn to the vessel as an abstraction and metaphor for containment taking ideas from traditional functional pots and stretching them into architectural and organic sculptural forms. In 2002, to explore more formal ideas she abandoned her signature glazes for unglazed white stoneware and moved the work from the horizontal to the vertical plane. A year later she began painting the surfaces. Simultaneously, her drawings, once ancillary to the sculpture, took on a life of their own. Derived from the ceramic forms, drawn with graphite and colored pencil on multiple layers of tracing paper, they are further explorations of abstraction.

Hirondelle has exhibited nationally in one-person and group shows including: New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Scottsdale and Seattle. Her pieces are in myriad private and public collections including: The White House Collection in the Clinton Library, Little Rock, AR; The Museum of Arts and Design, NY; The L.A. County Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum.

She was the recipient of an NEA Fellowship for the Visual Arts in 1988. In 2004, Anne was a finalist for the Seattle Art Museum’s Betty Bowen Award. In 2009 her accomplishments were recognized by the Northwest Arts Community with the Yvonne Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. The University of Washington Press published Anne Hirondelle: Ceramic Art, a book about her work in February, 2012. In 2014, she was one of four Washington State artists selected to participate in the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) Program.

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Nov 052016
 

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This passage illustrates how neatly Jim Gauer merges financial terms, computer-speak, wine connoisseurship, literary allusions, and the demotic, along with somewhat recondite words, sly wit and smugness, as a “liquidity crisis” threatens the narrator, a venture capitalist, and his partners. —Jim Bursey

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So at this point we have more investors, three, than we do employees, two, and we are well on our way to everlasting greatness. The rest of the Book of Genesis, detailing the actual buildup of the company, the hiring of twenty or thirty software and silicon engineers, the circuit designs and Verilog testing and ASIC tape-outs and wafer lot shipments, and launch of the product, and failure of the market, we can let these run, in computer jargon, in background mode, while we run in main memory. VCs have nothing much to do with building companies; we have everything to do with Board Meetings, and most of all, Board Dinners. The Board Dinners at Elicit were strictly regimented, drinks first upon arrival while the five of us gathered, standing room only, at the marble-topped bar, then on to our upstairs table where the first wines would be ordered, two or three bottles of Cabernet to get us started, while we contemplated the menu, though we knew it by heart, and a bottle of Chardonnay, in a silver ice bucket, standing next to Chase, to supplement the reds. The reds would start out at moderate levels, maybe a Mondavi Reserve or Phelps Insignia or Silver Oak Cabernet, before progressing to the true cult wines, the signature wines of the great 1990s technology bubble, wines like Araujo and Bryant and Dalla Valle “Maya”, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Grace Family Vineyards, and maybe Colgin or Dunn’s Howell Mountain or Sine Qua Non, with its magnificent Rhone-style “Red Handed” Syrah, each of them ten times what I’d paid for my first car. If we were feeling particularly optimistic about the coming quarter, we might follow our sixth or eighth or twelfth bottle of Araujo with something more lavish from the Bordeaux region, a Chateau Lafite or Mouton or Margaux, particularly the 1982s that made Robert Parker famous, when he showed more than a few of these indelible creations a grave and sententious 100-point enthusiasm. For the moment, however, while the quarter looks adequate, we’re going to have to order another bottle of the Araujo, a wine that combines extraordinary power and richness with remarkable complexity and considerable finesse, a saturated purple/black color in the glass, followed by aromas of sweet vanilla and crème de cassis, intermixed with riveting scents of black currents and exotic spices, with overtones of minerals, coffee, and buttered toast, a subtle yet powerful giant of a wine, a wine that should age effortlessly for 30 or more years, though in this case we’re drinking it at the tender age of four, and while it is, undoubtedly, an alcoholic beverage, it’s so fucking tannic that you can’t feel your teeth, which seem to be cracking under the wine’s brute ferocity. Parker’s rating? Precisely a 98. In spite of our stomatological problems, we’re seriously discussing business, how the whole thing has stalled, how ATM to the Desktop doesn’t seem to be happening, how we’ve just had our eighth or twelfth or sixteenth quarter in a row of the exact same revenue, the company is going nowhere, while we sip another glass of an exquisitely fragrant but pugilistic beverage with a vicious left hook and anger management issues. One night in particular stands out from the rest, the memory is a little hazy, when one of my firm’s investors had come to check on his investment; at this point we’re the market leaders in a $0 billion market, with our losses slightly bloated by Board Dinner expenses, when we’re joined by Dan Leary, from the self-proclaimed legendary firm of Hartley, Budge, et al., systematic and analytical and precise investors, with riveting scents of Pynchon intermixed with a pithy skepticism, and just a hint of the paranoiac when it came to their money, which was gradually being converted into ethanol molecules, in order to pass cleanly through the blood brain barrier, and Dan wasn’t much of a wine connoisseur, no matter what sort of analytics were precisely applied, although he was, apparently, capable of counting, and the wine-bottle body count was shall we say staggering. Dan was…I think appalled would be the word…I’m not sure he understood the nature of true power and elegance, and everlasting innovation in the ATM field, and may well have regarded our drunken Bacchanalia as somehow inappropriate with the company under siege, and a liquidity crisis rapidly approaching, as we appended a couple of snifters of Delamain Très Vénérable, and savored its lingering fade from Russian leather to Eastern spice, and steeled ourselves at last to face the dark winter evening, knowing that while the real work had finally been completed, we still had to undertake some vital unfinished business: to stand up, in a stupor, and negotiate the stairs.

—Jim Gauer

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Jim Gauer is a mathematician, poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist Venture Capitalist.

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Nov 052016
 

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Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes. —Jeff Bursey

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Novel Explosives
Jim Gauer
Zerogram Press, 2016
722 pages, $15.95

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Introduction

For a long time, writers have been advised to be economical in their speech; to exercise restraint in the use of adverbs and adjectives (if they were compelled to use them at all); to show, not tell; to keep in mind that consumers want (or can only handle) friendly texts that are easy to grasp, mentally and physically; and to not mix genres overmuch for fear of sowing confusion. Exceptions to these rules include the works of Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, Richard Powers, and Joseph McElroy, living exponents of the encyclopedic novel. (Past members range from Gustave Flaubert through James Joyce and Robert Musil to William Gaddis, Roberto Bolaño, and David Foster Wallace.) After reading Novel Explosives, with its rich vocabulary owing much to philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Marx, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and others, to armaments manuals, to oenology, and to the inner workings of Mexico as well as the geography of Ciuldad Juárez, among many other apparently unrelated groups and sub-groups of knowledge, I consider Jim Gauer of the United States a member of that select group. I also feel, foolishly and falsely, that, at various times in my reading of his long, but never too long, first novel, I would be able to identify guns despite never seeing or touching them in real life, to know the purpose of different scalpels, and to slow down the world so as to notice everything, from the perspective of a turkey buzzard or a child astride a garbage heap.

What I mean to say is that in his novel Gauer, self-described on the back cover as “a mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist Venture Capitalist,” gathers together facts and data, transforms them into knowledge about systems that are then distributed among his main characters, and through this understanding of how things work, the author creates a narrative that indicts his home country for, at best, and only in some instances, willful blindness, but more often for serious and long-standing morally criminal activity concerning drug use and commerce in weaponry. It is also a performance that expresses deep anger, and possibly loathing, for his country, authority, and human behaviour. Those emotions are not plentiful enough in our better-known contemporary novelists, and may be considered impolite, unseemly, undisciplined, and not easily aestheticized. Yet this book is not a rant or screed. Alongside the anger, and not contrarily, it is playful, replete with narrative ingenuity and a command of form. It has a middle finger unflaggingly raised against the rules described in this review’s opening sentence. Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes (“Even characters in books deserve an evening now and then… [to] laugh at the creations they’d somehow been ensnared in, and the mind-numbing narratives they’d been forced to adhere to…”), and the threat or use of violence, though for anyone who’s seen The Counselor or Sicario (let alone the Saw movies) this novel is sedate, in its way.

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Set out in three parts, the action takes place from 13-20 April 2009, mostly in cars, hotels, houses, and buildings in El Paso and, primarily, Juárez and Guanajuato, Mexico. The book begins with an amnesiac trying to figure out who and where he is. A “United Kingdom driver’s license, with an address in Scotland,” identifies him as Alvaro de Campos, one of the many heteronyms[1] created by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), with an 80-year-old photo of Pessoa to match. The amnesiac isn’t taken in, and later on becomes Probably-Not Alvaro for a short while. Underlying the surface calm in the presentation of his situation is an edginess of mood when faced with no idea who he is, how he came to occupy his hotel room with a crude photo card, an ATM card with no PIN, and a large bump on the back of his head, or why a FedEx package with clippings showing mass graves relates to his life.  The second narrator is the nameless capitalist who provides a brief summary of his early life, mostly from the business angle, leaving out the identities of his first and second wives, but eager to discuss his financial successes, aside from a venture involving Dacha Wireless. The third narrative thread follows two gunmen, Raymond and Eugene, as they search for the venture capitalist whose financial gain from Dacha bothers their Mexican cartel drug lord boss, the Shakespeare-quoting Gomez. There are a few ancillary men and women whose lives intersect, briefly or longer, with these figures.

Despite Alvaro’s understandable bewilderment as to his own identity, he has a great deal of knowledge about money, poetry, and a host of other things; the nameless venture capitalist, who comes to be called Douchebag, understands computers, the stock market, wines, resorts in other countries, and more; while Raymond, whose thoughts we are privy to more than Eugene’s, is a veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore equipped with combat experience. Alvaro and VC narrate their (partial) lives; an omniscient third-person narrator describes the gunmen’s adventures and misadventures.

What will strike a reader early on in this book, apart from the fact that no one really goes by his or her name (in addition to Alvaro and Douchebag/VC, Raymond and Eugene are often called Ray and Gene), is the vocabulary each character has. Alvaro is aware his alleged name is a Pessoan invention, and that he can explain “how Riemannian geometry laid the foundations for General Relativity…” As well, his “meditation on wealth and irregularity, while seated on the Cathedral steps, personifying the streets, viewing them as sentient beings, reminded me once again that I still had a tendency toward poeticizing reality.” VC speaks in the language of hedge fund managers:

We’ve structured the deal as a Redeemable Preferred, with a 40% slug of cheap Common, with $4 million going in at $2 million pre; assuming the company cashflows on plan, we’ll get our Redeemable bait back in 36 months, and own 40% of the company with nothing at risk. If the company sells before the redemption, we’ll be holding a standard Participating Preferred, with a 4X liquidation preference, so even a real fire sale, at $20 million, leaves us with just under $18.7 million of the proceeds…. We set the Protective Provisions at a two-thirds supermajority, and have dragalong rights on the 28% of common held by the Founders, so we can block a sale even if we’re holding common, or force a sale under either scenario.

Ray and Gene, while negotiating a drug deal, think in their own terms:

The Russians, or Montenegrins, or Bulgarians, or whatever, were waving around oh shit not-this-again Micro Uzi’s, apparently intent on speeding up the process, a use for which the Uzi is an excellent selection: not only does it fire at 1,200 rounds per minute, but its grip-mounted 50-shot sheet-metal magazine gives it a highly distinctive and memorable profile, while the telescoping overhung bolt, wrapping as it does around the breech end of the barrel, makes for a nice clean compact well-balanced weapon, ideal for clearing bunkers in a timely fashion; the only real drawback, out here in the open desert, was that the Uzi has the exact same open-bolt blowback-operated who-gives-a-shit design that made the TEC-9’s prone to firing parabellum rounds almost anywhere in the world but where they were intended.

It might be concluded, from the second and third examples, that the usual language of the novel form has been abandoned in favour of prospectuses and Jane’s military publications, as if Guar had pasted in dry chunks of inert technical prose to pad out a long novel. (Anticipating objections to the length of this book and/or charges of logorrhea, Gauer has Alvaro say early on: “To make a long story short, before once again beginning the process of making a short story longer…”) The unfamiliarity of the terms can slow the reading down, but if the language is allowed to wash over one then a general sense of what’s going on gradually becomes clear.

For some, these may remain as serious obstacles to enjoyment, and bring up the questions: Why? And how is this literary prose? Years ago, someone I once knew came up with a handy triad (or else appropriated it from goodness knows where) that can be applied in diverse situations: esoteric—knowledge of which you approve; arcane—knowledge of which you are afraid; anachronistic—knowledge of which you are ignorant. It is no less intrinsically worthy to read about “Redeemable bait” than a description of a park or a character’s haircut. What matters most is that these distinct vocabularies assist in presenting and thickening the milieux the characters’ thoughts spring from. What at first look to be unwieldy fragments of language are entirely germane to the worlds inhabited by VC and Ray. As Ludwig Wittgenstein—a definite touchstone for Gauer—says in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922): “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Of course, nothing says those defining limits are claustrophobically confining.

II.

Novel Explosives itself is not restricted in theme and import simply because it is set in the United States and Mexico. Life in this novel, like life in any society—for example, a camp in Calais, pre-Brexit Great Britain, US cities where at any moment a uniformed individual will shoot a citizen, a leaking boat in the Mediterranean—is filled with terrifying precarity. There’ll be more blood, decapitated corpses, and gruesome backyard and desert graves due to cartels fighting over turf and riches than most of are likely to see, but that’s a matter of scale. Many people—to use shorthand, the 99%—are one blow (to the head, or wallet, or from snorting cocaine or partaking of another drug) away from losing their livelihoods, memories, and identities. This novel—an aspect not hidden by random and premeditated acts of mayhem or the specialized language—is built on connections: VC and Alvaro need each other, Ray and Gene are friends, the drug leaders feed off each other as well as their customers; one world crosses over into other worlds, not so much disregarding Wittgensteinian limits as never having heard that theory.

Very near the end the narrator speaks to us: “We warned you all along to stay out of Juárez… What were your [sic] even doing in Juárez in the first place? What’s that you say? That wasn’t you? You had nothing to do with any of this? We should leave you out of it? It’s a little late now to be protesting your innocence. It’s as if you think the world is somewhere else, somewhere far away, without you in it.” The connections are drawn more sharply a little later:

…fortunately for all of us, this [mass and indiscriminate killing] is a Mexican problem, the Mexicans, while lovely, are evidently quite a violent people, and through it has nothing at all to do with us, and the $30 billion in drug profits we lend to the cause, much of it repaid in armaments purchases, we are, let’s say, concerned for their health, which is why we read these stories with such avidity, since the moment the last true Mexican dies, we’ll feel totally bereft of violence pornography…. You’ve been wandering around Juárez like a zombie in a thought experiment, an experiment in collective guilt, where the zombie is shown the morgue-slab photos, and responds by saying I’m truly sorry, and making out a check to Amnesty International…

III.

Almost 700 pages in, an extraction or confession that rings a change on E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” is demanded of us, a charge that we should accept that our participation in the world’s ways—through drug use, support of governments that deal in arms, passivity, short-sightedness, and greed, however we might like to describe it—have led to the condition of present-day Juárez, as it has before to the detriment of countless other places. The omniscient narrator refers to Germany before the Second World War: “How, after Auschwitz, is beauty even possible?… Brecht’s warning to the world, and those born later, about the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and we, those born later, having already been warned, why do we act as if we haven’t heard the news?” (Yet in a puzzling omission, at no point does the omniscient narrator refer to the famines, purges, dispossessions and mass population movements in the USSR that killed many and destroyed in other ways the lives of others; or even to Mao or Pol Pot.) What is our response to another story about bodies spread across the Mexican landscape? The narrative calls on us to be aware of our actions and to take on the burden—not the guilt, Jim Gauer isn’t Graham Greene—of the ramifications of those actions.

Novel Explosives ends twice, in two registers, but it would go against the skillfully wrought architecture of this fizzy, fierce, maximalist, encyclopedic, allusive and word-drunk book to give away the conclusion. It deserves to be read and connected with.

—Jeff Bursey

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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 newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe 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.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A heteronym is something like an alter ego to which Pessoa, the originator of this device, gives characteristics that set it apart from his or her creator, and it lives an independent existence.
Nov 042016
 

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In this passage the unnamed narrator is staying in Connemara in Galway County, Ireland. He rides a bicycle down to the seashore and reflects on death and the journey of Famine refugees across the ocean. His attention then turns to an outing in the same region with Gjini, an Albanian immigrant who acts as his occasional driver and tour guide. Gjini talks of his own experiences as a refugee. —Joseph Schreiber

Panorama
Dušan Šarotar
Translated by Rawley Grau
Peter Owen World Series,  2016
208 pages, £9.99

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Like a mirage at the end of the road, without reflection or gleam, dark and grey, a geometric plane shadowed in pencil on a yellowed sheet of drawing paper – that’s what the sea looked like – shallow, motionless, monastery beer spilled into eternity on to a black stone floor, but mainly trapped in a wide, ever wider, nearly limitless landscape; the nearer I was to the shore, the greater, the more impressive was the bay, in the middle of which stood a black lighthouse on sharp rocks, no bigger than a wizard’s ring, hovering on the motionless surface, while the master’s pale hand, still wearing it proudly, had long ago sunk beneath the sea. Without braking, I went down off the asphalt road on to a wide, neatly mowed grassy area in front of the boathouse and rode up to the sea. I leaned the bicycle against a low breakwater that was protecting the lawn from the high tide and slowly made my way over the grey sand, between the slippery rocks, the black pebbles and the rotting seaweed, into the oneness, the residue and abandonment, the world that remained when that sunken, dead arm last unclenched its hand and released the silt on which I now stepped, I thought as the smell washed over me, as if I was standing in an old, abandoned, invisible maritime cemetery, eerily beautiful none the less, like the romantic landscapes of the Old Masters. Death comes here to rest, the thought ran through me, after guiding the wandering, lost souls every day on their final journey, taking them far across the sea, to invisible islands chiselled from soft white light and overgrown with tall, dark silences, like a lyric nocturne in the middle of the sea; and after traversing the width and breadth of Europe, this is where she lays down her cold, sharp work tool, on this remote and hidden shore, and maybe for the first time in her eternal deathly life she lets slip from her shoulders the foggy shroud that shields her dark and hollow radiance, which pulses like a lighthouse from another world. Now I was hearing death with every cautious step I took in the black sand, sensing it in the swell, the gleam of the motionless waters, in every story, every marker along the road; I saw it on the threshold of every lonely deserted house standing open to the sky, roofless, without window or door, without a crucifix or the Book, which the fugitives

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had taken with them, in good faith perhaps or in mortal terror, on their uncertain voyage across the sea that lay in front of me, and which, if not for ever lost or at the bottom of the sea, are now holy relics safely stored again in a drawer, in a new home across the Atlantic, as a memory of forebears, of a lineage with a forgotten name, and with a consciousness of ancestry, the dark trace of identity that still rings in the soul like a terrible wind in a dream; standing by the shore, I heard it, I saw it everywhere then – death, resting here. The scene, a stirring ritual of farewell, which apart from love is the single most deeply binding gesture that lies in a person’s heart (as the poet Boris A. Novak described it), was repeated, was literally doubled, as if I was hearing the echo of my inner voice, the first time I stood in front of the painting An Island Funeral, then on display at the Galway City Museum, which I visited one afternoon after my return to the city – but first I went with Gjini to the place he had told me about on the drive to Clifden, when we had first met.

A long, narrow road through a gorge, next to the dark, still shores of lakes encircled by mountain peaks, which I couldn’t distinguish from the great veiled white clouds, grey on the edges, that were gathering and rolling through the damp green vapours of the morning air and without accent or nuance in their description settling on

img_2229the muted orange wasteland, the damp and stifling, heavy, crumbling earth, which was hardly breathing, was gasping like tired, smoke-filled lungs, all this dripping damp and piles of mouldering, scorched grass lying on the earth were like a moist fuel, a black fire, burning earth – peat they call it here – which once warmed the walls of houses now a century deserted, which are scattered like lonely lost lambs across the entire country, bleating their harsh and gloomy, mysterious and mournful, but also beautiful and inaccessible, even cruel, Irish poem for human destiny, in an elusive tonality between the pathos of Gothic narrative and elemental folk balladry, or, maybe better, in the style of the romantic landscape painting that I was only now discovering here. That’s how I remember my first trip with the study group to this gloomy, hidden landscape, godforsaken you might say, which is how it seemed to me at the time. I remember that we stopped a few times on the way for no good reason, which from my student experience in my old homeland I found almost unthinkable; I mean that students would simply go trotting off when they had obligations or, worse, would forge friendships, be both drinking partners and academic colleagues, with the professors, Gjini said; so, as I said, whenever the sun came out for a moment and lit up the black surface of the lakes and the murmur of the mountain streams, we would run off far from the cars, away from the road, deep into the peatlands, hiding from the wind and the damp morning fog, which rolled down from the bare reddish peaks that wouldn’t be green for a while still, since winter had not yet breathed its last, and we would lie down between the tall, evenly cut, carefully stacked piles of black, decomposing earth, the peat, which was drying in the meagre sun. There, sheltered by earth, as if we were just now being born, we smoked cigarettes and drained bottles of black beer, and then moved on, a ragtag band of scholars, a brotherhood of professors and students. Although I was a foreigner, an immigrant, and still learning the jargon of high academia, and was moreover the oldest student in the group, a person who with some effort and for his own survival was merely skilfully concealing his homesickness, swallowing his anger, the disappointment and despair of the refugee, which were still mixed with will, with determination for a new beginning, and with inconsolable nostalgia, which, in fact, appeared and found its true name only later, when I had somehow got on my feet, as soon as I sensed that we would somehow make it, would be able to transplant ourselves, put down at least shallow roots in the new soil, and even later, when I would come back again and stop here, mostly on my own but occasionally with my family, and take long walks, when my second education, if you will, was successfully behind me (my first degree I had received long before in Tirana, in political science and journalism) – that’s when I realized we were in some way alike, we can’t hide or suppress our background, no matter where we are from or where we are born, we’re made out of a substance, like soil or an island, and on top of it, nostalgia, Gjini said, and the Irish understand this. I still grab every available moment I can to get in the car and escape here, to this magical, deserted, dark and inhospitable landscape, and for at least an hour or so I put on the mud boots I keep in the car and go for a walk over the damp ground, even when rain is pouring down on me or fog is hiding me; under its protection, in its sheer, shimmering whiteness, as if I was floating high above the waters, in the rediscovered memory of the landscape of my childhood, when I was similarly always getting lost in hollows and pastures, where no foreign word could reach me – my only world, our only world, was built solely of names, with no questions asked about meaning or significance – there, under the protection of silence and always the same faces, which accompanied me from my birth to my emigration and will in a sense be with me until I die, which I feel more and more each year, there I remembered and named things with a mere glance, I lived in an endless, silent and humble presence, there was nothing I missed or needed, and my whole reality, even the imagination in which I lived my childhood freedom, is still somewhere deep inside me, and from it, from this eternal source, I learn again every day unknown words, search for the deeper, the deceitful meaning of my second life, my immigrant life, Gjini said and was silent for a moment, as if he’d forgotten his point, or maybe we had missed a turn again, I thought. I didn’t see any sign or road marker, I said tentatively, and, in the awkwardness of the moment and just enough to let me wade through the silence, I started assiduously wiping the misted windscreen with my sleeve. When you are far from your language, you are also far from your home, more and more each day, and the distance increases and deepens with every new word; the lost word is usurped, seemingly replaced, by the other, more convincing, better word, which everyone can understand but which is still foreign; the immigrant, this eternal guardian but also suppresser of his own language, knows that the loss, the void, the dissolved malt of forgetting within it, which he tenaciously envelops and fills with learning, which is the only vaccine against loneliness, despair and madness, is nevertheless irreplaceable, painful and incurable, like love, Gjini said and noticeably slowed the speed at which we were driving. That’s why I come here, he said and looked off into the distance, to relearn the only language left from my childhood, the language of silence, of looking. I walk in silence and observe the landscape, the earth, I lose myself in the fog and soon I can’t make out anything any more; I don’t know who I am or even where I come from, I don’t even remember what language I’m thinking in, what language I name the world in. Then I write a poem. Totally wet, totally sweaty or totally cold, I drag myself back to the car and take a notebook out of the glove compartment,one that Jane gave me, and for a few minutes or until it gets dark, which is when, no matter what, I go home for supper since my family always expects me on the dot, so before I go home, I write. And I always try to translate every word, from one language to the other, so the poem from which I am made doesn’t burn up like earth, like black fire, peat, as they say here. At home, of course, we all speak Albanian around the table, not just my wife and older boy, but even our little girl, who was born here. Enough so she doesn’t forget where we come from, Gjini said and, taking a long bend in the road, he silently and with unusual concentration slowed the car, as if he was getting ready to make an important announcement; I could feel the tension and weight of his silence; then came a rumbling sound and a moment later the grey and weary road was flooded, the surface heaving with water; the storm, which came down into the gorge like an avalanche from the surrounding peaks, poured on to the road and the car was carried as if in the middle of a turbulent ocean. All I could see through the misted windscreen, which I was now wiping frantically with my sweater sleeve, were long translucent ribbons of water pouring down faster and faster, harder and harder from the low clouds, like a densely woven curtain; despite the gusting wind, which was constantly shifting the direction of the waves on the road, the heavy drops were falling to the earth in perfectly parallel lines, as in some ideal garden of pure Euclidean forms, and the very next moment, even before we had completed the bend in the road, even before I had made another desperate sweep of my arm to open a tiny slit for my eye, which searched for a view of the sky, as if seeking an answer or making a request – that’s when Gjini, with a curse on his lips and a curse in the corner of his eye, slammed on the brakes. There was pounding and popping, like stones hailing down on us, and when the roar of the rushing waters beneath the wheels had subsided a little, all we could do was gather our strength. Gjini, without a word of warning or any indication, hastily shoved open the door and I saw not a river but a turbulent sea racing past, and then this man, my guide, the only creature I knew in

img_2360the middle of this deluge, stepped knee-high into the raging waters, in his shirtsleeves, with just a linen hat on his head, and vanished in the diagonal rain. His blurry shadow, which I tried to catch through the mist on the foggy windscreen, evaporated like a soul cut from its body, even before I could wipe the glass with my hand.

—Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau

N5

dusan-sarotar

Dušan Šarotar is a Slovenian writer, poet, screenwriter and photographer. He has published five novels (Potapljanje na dah/ Island of the Dead, 1999, Nočitev z zajtrkom/Bed and Breakfast, 2003, Biljard v Dobrayu/Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, 2007, Ostani z mano, duša moja/ Stay with me, my dear, 2011 and Panorama, 2015), two collections of short stories (Mrtvi kot/ Blind Spot, 2002, and Nostalgia, 2010), three poetry collections (Občutek za veter/Feel for the Wind, 2004, Krajina v molu/ Landscape in Minor, 2006 and Hiša mojega sina/ The House of My Son, 2009) and book of essays (Ne morje ne zemlja/Not Sea Not Earth, 2012).

grau

Rawley Grau holds a master’s degree in Slavic languages and literatures from the University of Toronto. His translations from Slovene include a book of essays by Aleš Debeljak (The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World, 2004), a collection of short stories by Boris Pintar (Family Parables, 2009), and a novel by Vlado Žabot (The Succubus, 2010).

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Nov 042016
 

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The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. —Joseph Schreiber

panorama-cover[larger image requested]

Panorama
Dušan Šarotar
Translated by Rawley Grau
Peter Owen World Series,  2016
208 pages, £9.99

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Some literature defies simple description. Case in point, Panorama, by Slovenian poet and writer Dušan Šarotar. One might be inclined to define it as a meditation within a travelogue within a novel. Or perhaps you would prefer to rearrange those terms, it probably wouldn’t matter, because in spite of its subtitle: A Narrative about the Course of Events, Panorama stands at a curious angle to space and time. It is a novel of remembering, of telling and retelling, narratives within narratives, bound together by a coarse thread of repeating themes that are at once timeless and timely.

One of three Slovenian novels to be released this fall as part of the Peter Owen World Series, a new collaboration between Peter Owen Publishing and Istros Books, Panorama is Sarotar’s fourth novel, and his first to be translated into English. Born in Murska Sobota in northeastern Slovenia in 1968, he studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. In addition to his novels, he has published collections of short stories, poetry, and essays; and has written numerous screenplays. His prose, as exemplified in Panorama, has a poetic and richly cinematic feel.

So, maybe we could start with a short piece of film. This novel is narrated by an unnamed man who resembles Šarotar—a Slovene writer, of approximately the same age, who travels to various locales, either to work on a manuscript or give a reading. Here then, is a glimpse of the author himself. The setting is the Ljubljana Railway Station. A light snow is falling, and the trains come and go. This video is part of an online documentary project entitled Gathered: The Secret Side of Things We Share in which a number of prominent Slovenian writers, artists, philosophers and other academics were invited to offer their reflections—to muse out loud—about the state of modern society and the impact of technology on our relationships with nature and each other. It dates from 2013, the year before Panorama was originally published and presents, perhaps, a broad context for some of ideas he was exploring at the time.

Šarotar admits that when he sits at the railway station (an activity that will ground several important encounters in the latter part of his novel) he always thinks about time and space: “We are basically determined by time,” he says, “and by the fact that we are mortal, that we come from silence and we are returning to silence.” He goes on to consider that although we have very efficient modern means of transporting people, information and money; the most basic and fragile things, those that capture the essence of our humanity, are always the most difficult to transport through space:

A change in human society always followed a radical change in transport. At first, humans were conquering the steppes, then came the next generation braving the oceans and now we live in a time when mankind has conquered the entire globe and reached the limit. There are no ships, trains or aeroplanes that can take us beyond. We have reached what I call the limit of the universe. Today’s man is ready to head for the universe. It’s an imaginary limit of space and time. Poets, however, would say that the universe is a space within us. So I think it is no longer a question about communication or logistics, it is more about correspondences between the visible and invisible, between what’s the deepest inside us and everything that is furthest outside.

Panorama opens in Galway. The narrator has come to this Irish county, set at the very edge of Europe, to find a quiet place to work on an unfinished manuscript. Upon his arrival, he meets Gjini, an Albanian immigrant who will serve as his occasional driver and tour guide during his stay. Much of his time will be spent exploring the windswept mountainous landscapes and rugged coastline of the Connemara region. Here, and back in Galway City, he is haunted by thoughts of the thousands of starving refugees who set sail from these shores to face a dangerous and uncertain journey across the Atlantic during the years of the Great Famine. The crumbling abandoned houses and the solemn monuments stand as silent testament to these desperate souls. Migrants and refugees will be a recurring motif throughout the book, as will the related connections between landscape, memory, language, and loss.

As Gjini, who is also a writer, accompanies the narrator on sight-seeing adventures—hikes though the hills, a rough trip out to an outlying island by hydrofoil, a visit Kylemore Abbey—he shares his experiences as a newcomer, arriving eleven years earlier without a word of English, his wife left waiting behind until he can find his footing. Woven into his story, is an account of his friendship with Jane, a woman who had come from North America, to make sense of her own roots and identity. Her father was born in Connemara area. After the Second World War, some good-hearted nuns had put him on a ship bound for Canada, along with other war orphans and immigrants. Her research and journeys had taken her, he said, to Belgium and France and on into Central Europe as far as Sarajevo. As two outsiders, with a connection, however loose, to an area of the world close to the home he was missing, he was happy to have her company and offer his services as a driver. Gjini, and through him Jane’s story, become part of a key thread that will be picked up again, as the narrative progresses.

Shortly after his Irish visit, the narrator travels by train from his home in Slovenia to Brussels. This time, the main purpose of his visit is to give a reading in Ghent. The landscapes that attract his eye here, are urban—gothic structures played against inner-city decay and ruin. While in Belgium he will meet or re-connect with colleagues who have some tie with the states of the former Yugoslavia; individuals who articulate, in their own ways, the complex interrelationship between language and identity, and how it becomes distorted through time. And he will meet up again with Gjini who now, in his role as a freelance journalist, is intent on tracing yet another line of Irish-related migration, that of the Benedictine nuns who abandoned their destroyed convent in Ypres and made their way to Connemara after the First World War. Finally, chronologically speaking at least, the peace the narrator has been seeking for his work on his manuscript is found in Sarajevo where he stays with some friends.

On a superficial level, given this rather rough outline, Panorama might sound like a travel diary. The grainy black-and-white photographs that illustrate the text reinforce this impression. However, the narrator’s travels do not delineate the narrative, as much as they offer a framework against which the voices of his characters can be woven into a larger multi-layered meditation. He allows those he meets and spends time with a space to articulate the tensions they feel between their inner experiences and their relationships to the borders they have crossed in the course of their lives—whether those are lines marking identity, nationality, or even the policed barriers of a city under siege. The disorientation caused by the loss of one’s language, or the lack of contact with others who share one’s native tongue, is a persistent theme. Gjini describes it well on one of their early outings:

When you are far from your language, you are also far from your home, more and more each day, and the distance increases and deepens with every new word; the lost word is usurped, seemingly replaced, by the other, more convincing, better word, which everyone can understand but which is still foreign; the immigrant, this eternal guardian but also suppresser of his own language, knows that the loss, the void, the dissolved malt of forgetting within it, which he tenaciously envelops and fills with learning, which is the only vaccine against loneliness, despair and madness, is nevertheless irreplaceable, painful and incurable, like love, Gjini said and noticeably slowed the speed at which we were driving.

While in Brussels, he reconnects with Caroline, a fellow writer whom he had met on his first trip to Belgium a few months earlier. At that time, she had told him, “I don’t have my own landscape, I search for and invent the spaces of my language,” explaining that although she was born in Belgium she lost her mother tongue growing up in Spain before she went on to study Romance languages and work in Paris and Nigeria.

…I think, Caroline had said, that the idea of some inner bond between language and place is still alive for most people, it’s still a given, something eternal and immutable; I would say that it was their only tangible identity, but for many this bond has been broken, or lost, or seemingly transcended – many people, painfully and sometimes tragically, are forced, or for pragmatic reasons desire and are able, to transcend and break this bond; consider, she had said, people who are immigrants, refugees, the various diasporas, and so I ask myself what is still left to the writer’s experience.

The act of writing, the nature of tangible memory, and the complex relationship between language and landscape are the questions that ground this richly textured novel. Šarotar’s long, winding sentences evoke the meandering flow of reminisces while his narrative effectively compresses time—the encounters the narrator describes are not locked in the moment, they are broken and retrieved, guided by his remembrances of previous meetings, the memories recounted by these friends and colleagues, or even the tale of a complete stranger who buttonholes him after a reading in Ghent, to share—or perhaps confess—a family secret. The absence of chronological consistency creates an ebb and flow of recollections—some directly experienced, some reported and some imagined. In the beginning, the absence of quotation marks within paragraphs that extend for pages on end, can make it difficult to tell exactly who is speaking. Yet, with surrender to the movement between speakers and accounts, the reader will find the confusion falls away as the narrative repeatedly returns to pick up earlier threads and move forward.

The influence of W. G. Sebald is unmistakable, witnessed in the unnamed narrator with a curious similarity to the author, the long sentences, and even longer paragraphs, and by the employment of imbedded photographs. Šarotar has read and been inspired by Sebald’s work. Toward the end of Panorama, he even offers a direct allusion to Austerlitz as the narrator waits to meet a friend at the iconic Antwerp Station. However, Šarotar’s style is not strictly imitative. If Sebald acquired some of his narrative energies from Thomas Bernhard (seen, for example, in the repetitive occurrences of “Austerlitz said” in the secondhand accounts that form the basis that eponymous novel), Šarotar’s work maintains an even stronger Bernhardian sensibility at times, especially in the nesting of Jane’s story within Gjini’s accounts:

… a few times I remember when, after we’d been driving around all day in the car or just walking in the countryside, usually by the sea – she loved the bluffs, the high cliffs with the waves crashing far below; yes, that’s something you still have to see, he said, I’ll definitely try and organize it – yes, so, late at night, when we got back and had already said our goodbyes, he said, Jane would say, I’m going for a swim. I was surprised, of course, and tried to talk her out of it – not now, Jane, it’s late, it’s raining and the waves are rough, I’d tell her, and it’s night, there’s nothing you can see now, Gjini said; the lighthouse, Mutton Light, is shining there in the distance, Jane said; I can see its beam in the darkness, so you go on now, I’m going to have a swim; I’ll meet you here in the morning – good night, Gjini, Jane said; good night, Jane, Gjini said.

As well, with respect to the use of photographs, Šarotar, himself a photographer, is—or at least appears to be—using his images more intentionally. Sebald was a great collector of flea market finds around which he crafted his narratives. The portraits included in this text seem to stand in for characters who may or may not actually exist, but another significant influence on Šarotar’s photography is the work of German photographer and painter, Gerhard Richter. In fact, it is Richter’s retrospective show, “Panorama,” that gives this novel its name. The dramatic stormy cloudscapes that feature in so many photos are especially reminiscent of Richter’s well-known images of clouds.

cloudGerhard Richter, “Cloud Study”

In tone, Šarotar’s prose maintains a distinctly rhythmic poetic feel, captured beautifully in the translation by Rawley Grau. His narrator, a writer, imagines himself in line with the traditions of other Balkan literary heroes, especially Slovenian poet and songwriter, Gregor Strniša, and Bosnian writer, Ivo Andrić. The latter’s poignant short story “Letter from 1920” figures toward the end of this novel, as yet another echo of the endless trend of leaving one’s homeland when a viable future can no longer be imagined. This piece is one of a number of Andrić’s stories that could be said to be of questionable autobiographical authenticity, as if truth and imagination are somehow incompatible. Panorama raises the same questions about where the line between fiction and nonfiction lies. But why is that an issue at all?

For Šarotar, it comes down to the way that literature is understood in Central Europe. If asked to draw a distinction between literature and journalism, he says that, for him, literature deals with the soul, that is, it begins with memory; journalism, by contrast, starts with “facts.” He claims to be writing from memories—writing about what it was, not how it was.[1] To enhance that sense of memory, small intentionally misremembered facts are left uncorrected in the text. As a more specific example, he offers an interview with Amos Oz from the Paris Review. When asked about the very serious way Hebrew writers seem to be taken in Israel, in contrast to the way they are seen in the west, Oz responds:

We have a somewhat different tradition. In the West, at least in English-speaking countries, writers, even great writers and poets, are usually regarded primarily as entertainers. They can be fine, subtle, deep, but still they are entertainers. Even Shakespeare is regarded as a magnificent, perhaps the greatest, entertainer. By contrast, in the Judeo-Slavic tradition, writers are regarded as prophets. This can be a terrible burden, for unlike the prophets I don’t hear voices from above, and I don’t think I’m any more equipped to be a prophet—to foresee the future or serve as the people’s conscience—than an American or a British writer. Yet there is a huge expectation here, and so it is also in Russia or Poland.

The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. Whether any of the characters, even the narrator, bear more than superficial resemblance to “real” people does not matter. This is a work that gets at the heart of important truths that couldn’t, at this moment, be more relevant. As the human flood pouring into Europe reaches crisis proportions it is more important than ever to remember that this is not a new phenomenon. The forces driving the desperate movement of men, women and children—conflict, violence and poverty—have similarly forced individuals, families, and communities to cross waters and borders for millennia. This meditation on memory, time, identity, language and loss circles continually back to the price that migrants and refugees pay and the wounds that never completely heal.

—Joseph Schreiber

 

N5

jschreiber

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

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. D. Šarotar, (personal communication, Sept. 28, 2016)
Nov 032016
 

jody-and-nicky

x
Trakl’s Daughter

Her hands are cramped in the rain
and the air outside is grey as ruined skin.
Her village is eaten by shame.
Four horses stand waiting
in the wet. As they climb the hilltop
they have a readiness
clenched in their shoulders.
She cannot see them very well,
nor smell the breath from their nostrils
as they loom, ready and huge.
Her hands twist through cold water; tonight
they’ll sleep upside-down against her throat.

I share my father’s birthday —
you can call me Gretl, Elena, Amina, Jane;
There’s nothing mysterious about me.
I could sit down next to you on the train
or hand you the foaming cup across a counter.

Conceived at the edge of a cliff, born
into propriety, I was the wrong fish
in tiny denim overalls playing
with that red, wind-up bird which had flown to me
right out of my father.

For Papa?   Blue apples and lanterns
to blackmail him out of the fog.
The stained slope has darkened, boot-prints and blood.
Is she ready to walk up another ragged hillside?
Dawn drips honey on the horizon
but the way she travels remains in shadow
and the blue apples barely shine.

I trusted you!
But all you gave me was incessant moonlight —
its syringes, glint,
and a bowl of broth
that had already been bitten through.

nc

Talking to Myself on New Year’s Eve

Let me speak for the horse torn by crows
one horse, no rider. Left foreleg
raised up into those crows which have rushed
at his hide, his mane, his flesh
to eye socket and bone.

Let me tell of the small girl, thumb
in mouth, stepping down the street
as she looks side to side and over her shoulder
hair fringed by blood.

Let me sigh for what lived in the forest
and now is ash.

Let me write for the crash of water into the sheepfold,
for the saturation
where nothing will grow and,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxelsewhere,
for those drying winds:
the suffocating crust where nothing
sprouts, or rises even an inch
into the shaken air.

Let me find what calls me to sit for a moment,
sift out my tightened, held breath;
let me write so no one’s shadow
crosses the page without soon
moving freely away –

nc

More Beautiful

Nothing made the evening more beautiful than memory, not that the memory itself had to be lovely or even pleasant, just that the glow of recognition slid warmly down her throat and settled between the ribs. Outside her window the constant gentleman watched. He was never visible but she could feel the flick of his eyes across her shoulders light as silk and it was a comfort to her.

The gentleman in his long wool coat and fedora kept away from the corner streetlamp. Watching the quiet woman sit with her book was calming as though he’d swallowed a joy so deep it could never leave him.

Some evenings the trees were full of leaves, thick and absorbent. Others, the air was chilled, shiftless – the leaves a bitter brown or even fallen and blown away into the cold season. But the street itself always smelled sweet; it was that sweetness which shaped memory out of its drift of smoke.

The woman knows that sometimes memory is brutal and while the gentleman can never rescue her she will, the next morning, stretch out of her bedclothes—imperfect and alive.

nc

Baby

Baby has sweet toes & the boughs
Of the willow drape
gritty with shade. Mum & Dad
swing their knives
through kitchen air while Sister
plucks at Baby’s nose, tickles
her feet. Mum presses at the nick
on her upper arm; Dad’s
flung his knife away. His boot-steps
vanish down the street.
Baby giggles, then wrinkles up her face.
Sister wants to fall asleep
or swim with friends in the boy-flecked lake.
Mum wipes off the kitchen counter,
lifts down bread, jellied meat, mustard
& cheese. She doesn’t want
to call her daughters in, doesn’t
want, but has to.

nc

Only Child

I had a dove and she was fiction.
As I lay on summer grass
looking up through leaves,
she flew right down to me.

I kept my dove beneath my shirt.
At night she roosted on the bedpost
at the edge of dark pools
only I could slip my body into.

I wasn’t the kind of child
who carried death
like an opened book before her.
I tried to keep small, unnoticed.

I had a dove and she told me
stories; her voice,
low and rounded, comforted the air.
In winter we shared a rocking chair

by the icy like window. I held
her small heartbeat against my cheek.
My dove, who said she never lied,
taught me how to.

nc

The Scent of Phlox

travels with her
ahead  .    a dark twist of clouds
and stones spinning up off the highway

her windshield cracks

yesterday    on the window ledge   a dragonfly
caught in a spider web

she touched it with one finger
a moment’s last breath

the purple   phlox
lives in the corner of her eye

her windshield shatters

the road is slick and churning
as she peers straight ahead

two hands tight on the wheel
she remembers when she was five

how tall the bright short-lived sunflowers
between house and barn –

a first telling
of light from the earth

—Pamela Stewart

x
Pamela Stewart (known as Jody) is a true “boomer” and New England born and bred. She took up writing in grade school because she couldn’t draw. She received a BA from Goddard’s ADP Program and an MFA (sort of) from University of Iowa. She’s taught creative writing at several universities including ASU, University of Arizona, UC Irvine, and University of Houston. In 1982 she received a Guggenheim and traveled to Cornwall in the UK, where she returned to live for seven years. Jody came back to western Massachusetts in 1990, and in 1994 she and her then-husband moved to a farm at the edge of Hawley. Over the years she’s published in a number of magazines, received three Pushcart publications, and is the author of six full-length books of poems: The St. Vlas Elegies (L’Epervier press, 1977), Cascades (L’Epervier Press, 1979), Nightblind (Ion Books, 1985), Infrequent Mysteries (Alice James Books, 1991), The Red Window (University of Georgia Press, 1997), and Ghost Farm (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2010.) A chapbook, Just Visiting, was published by Grey Suit Editions, London, in 2014. (All of this quite surprised her mother.) Jody continues to live on the farm with seven dogs, a number of elderly sheep, a rescued race horse, a couple of goats, and some old pigs and birds. At some point she intends to tackle a “new and selected” if the dogs let her, but first she’ll arrange and write a forward to some delightful letters sent between the late poet Lee McCarthy and Guy Davenport. She has a lot to be grateful for.

x
x

Nov 022016
 

Brian Leung, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program. (Purdue University photo/Charles Jischke)

.

She listened to me, that much I know, because when they found her she was wearing house slippers and a blue cotton night gown.  I’d told her to lock the door and go to bed. Yes, she’d listened to me and then forgot halfway through. Her body lay in a heap of weeds near an onramp to the Hollywood Freeway, wild anise a lacy shroud hovering above her small torso. The boy who discovered her thought she was homeless and asleep. I found out about it on the morning news in a live shot, only I had no idea who they were talking about. I had no idea that her son would call me that afternoon with a desperate apology, nor that minutes later I’d ring home for the first time in nine years, that I’d be hung up on and that I’d understand, at last, what she had meant about making family.

Along with a house key and seventeen cents, in her purse the police found my phone number. I know exactly the scrap, the torn corner of a manila folder from weeks earlier, quickly chosen because I wanted her to have something that wouldn’t immediately crumple. Above my number I simply wrote “Brian, Grocery” to distinguish myself from others with the same name whom she might know. I was a checker at a supermarket. When the police called, they ignored the comma and asked to speak with Brian Grocery.

Niola was 82. Sometime during the night she’d left her apartment and walked the length of Melrose Avenue, past shuttered iglesias and late night bodegas, a strip she must have traveled a thousand thousand times in her red and white Oldsmobile 98. A gift from her man in the 1950s when she was a cocktail waitress at the Down Beat. It wasn’t easy then to be Black in Los Angeles, she told me, but it was better than Little Rock.

At first I thought it was a wonder that nobody stopped this confused old woman wearing a nightgown out on the street, but then, it’s L.A. and such a sight wouldn’t necessarily call attention to itself. Or perhaps someone had reached out, in English or Spanish—she could speak both—and she’d called up the veil of lucidity that had fooled even me for a while. “Sólo ando por aqui,” she would have said lightly, or, depending on her audience, “Oh, I’m just headed right over here.” I’d heard the latter many times in the previous weeks.

Based on her injuries, the police surmised that Niola had been sideswiped by a car, but it was the blunt force of her head hitting the ground that killed her. The boy found her wigless, but of course, he wouldn’t have observed that detail. In the few years I’d known her, even in her latter, confused state, I’d only ever once caught the slightest glimpse of the gray hair beneath her wavy black wig. It had gone askew when she fainted in my checkout lane.  Head in my lap, she looked up when I adjusted it into place.  She was a bit dazed, but managed a sly wink.  “Have you called your mama yet?”

I half-smiled, hand supporting the back of her head. She was with it enough to take advantage of the situation, or at least call up her most persistent question. Her wet brown eyes stared up at me, waiting.  The answer was that I had not. My mother had married a man who hated “faggots” and “Arabs.” “A-rabs” as he pronounced it. Mom called it a tick. But I couldn’t bring Lutfi to the house anymore. Lutfi. I hadn’t spoken to him in years either. Niola knew this. Or she had.

§

When the police called, they asked about my connection to “an elderly African-American woman.”  They didn’t use her name because she wasn’t carrying I.D.  They didn’t tell me that she was dead, only that they were trying to locate someone who could identify her.  I told them who she was and gave them my information and told them who I was and what had happened the night before. Maybe it wasn’t in that order. I could barely think because it had finally happened, Niola had gone off and gotten lost and now she was sitting in some police station frightened and confused. Breathless, I gave the police her son’s Oakland phone number. It was the second time I’d done that. Fucking Hebron. Fucking me. I slid to the floor, because for months I’d heard Niola but apparently only half-listened.

§

An hour before the police called I was at Niola’s apartment.  I’d taken her car keys from her the night before. The 98 was in the store’s parking lot. After my shift I drove it over and parked it in her spot. She’d lived in the same apartment for over thirty years, part of a beige, mid-century modern cinderblock complex called The Zephyr that had gotten a little rough around the edges.  Maybe I was being overly optimistic, but I was relieved when she didn’t answer my knock. Her son had listened to me. He’d come and gotten her. To be certain, I tried the security screen, and finding it locked, reached inside the pass-through and tried the inner door, which opened. I called to Niola but nothing. All the curtains were pulled and the lights were off. The stacks of hardcover books rising from the floor all over the living room were just as they were the night before, a diorama of skyscrapers in silhouette.  Niola’s son would have to come back to empty the apartment. I tossed the car keys with their brass saxophone fob toward the coffee table and missed. A clink, and then silence.  Niola had vanished from my life, a fact that left me deeply saddened but relieved.  She’d be safe with her son in Oakland.  I’d made that happen. At least some families could be reunited.

Before I walked back to the store to get my own car, I paused in front of The Zephyr to take one last look.  A pair of tall, thin palm trees divided the view into four rectangles and towered well above the roof of the building. They stood entirely still, their shiny green bloom of fronds catching not even a zephyr. It was an establishing shot in reverse. I’d moved to L.A. to break into screenwriting. But I had no stories. Maybe it was time to write about Niola even though in a screenwriting workshop I’d been warned against that kind of work. Stay in your own lane.

§

Just the night before the police physically carried Niola into her apartment and it was violent. I had no choice but to make that happen. I’d been a good way through my shift, scanning the groceries of Snake Guy, the uninspired nickname given to one of our regulars, a White, tattooed dude who shopped with a small yellow python draped over his neck. My manager tapped me on the shoulder and whispered. “Your old lady is here.”  He meant this literally.  “Righteous,” he said, which was his exasperation go-to. Off the clock he was much worse.

Niola was standing a few feet away, clutching her brass handled purse, looking shaky and teary-eyed.  It was too warm for the wool coat she was wearing, but she had it cinched around her waist as if it were about to snow, and her house slippers weren’t matched. “Man, they’re trying to kill me.”  That’s what she called me, “Man.” If I didn’t understand, I might have leapt from the checkstand. Instead, I asked for my last break and had my manager bring a chair and set it behind me.

“Let me finish with these nice people,” I told her as she sat; “then we’ll see what’s what.”  I turned, then came back to her and without asking, withdrew the car keys in her purse.

“Man?” she asked, unsure and trembling.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said, removing the tiny saxophone from her keychain. “Watch this for me?”

On my break I put a pre-made turkey sandwich in Niola’s left hand, my only option, and gave her a chocolate milk. In her early twenties her right arm was amputated just below the elbow, but she was pretty nimble about using the remaining, shiny nub which she moved not unlike the overbite of a sock puppet.  With her coat off I saw that she’d left the apartment quickly because she was wearing only a thin pink nightgown. She’d lost weight recently, and there wasn’t much to lose in the first place.  I guessed she wasn’t remembering to eat.  “What’s this about someone trying to kill you?” I asked.

She looked down at her chocolate milk, and then at me, almost as if she was hoping I would answer the question for her. “The people,” she said. “And they stole my car.” I doubted the last part, because I had her keys in my pocket. She held out the tiny saxophone in her hand as proof.

“We’ll find it,” I said. “Let me send you home in a taxi, and I’ll check on you after my shift. Does that sound okay?” And that’s what we did. I called a cab, gave the driver the address, and stepped back into a checkstand. Ten minutes later the cab driver came through the doors and rushed my manager.  “She crazy,” he screamed, hands flailing in the air and accented by thick gold pinky rings.  “She won’t leave the car. She has no money. Who pays?” My manager looked at me and shook his head.

“She’s been a customer at this store longer than I’ve been alive,” I said, as I passed him and went outside. Niola was cowering in the back of the running car.

“Get out,” the cab driver yelled behind me. “Get her out.”  But then something sudden and strange. “Wait,” he said, exhaling slowly. “I see this. I’m sorry.” He gently pushed me aside with his thick, hairy arm and opened the door. “Mother,” he said as he extended his hand. There was something about the way he spoke the word with respect and sincerity that caught me off guard. I heard myself, fifteen-years-old, sitting with my own mother in the hospital when she confirmed the Do Not Resuscitate order for my grandfather. I had sounded like this once.

“Mother,” the cab driver said again. “Mother, you’re here. Let’s go inside.”

She leaned forward and took his hand, whispering. “We’re here?”

“Man,” she said, seeing me as she gently stepped from the car, “I think Barbara has the hot plate. They’re trying to kill me.”

I knew nothing of a hotplate nor a Barbara. “Okay,” I said. “You’re with me now.”

“Someone can pay fourteen?” the cab driver asked.

It was nothing to take Niola’s purse from her hands, but useless. “Right,” I said, already knowing there was no money inside.  I gave him what I had from my own wallet, which he didn’t bother to count.

“Does she have children?” the cab driver asked just before his head sunk below the roof of his car on the driver’s side. “If no. She needs you.”

“The store is dead,” I told my manager. “Let me take her home.”

Really just an assistant manager, he rubbed his moustache, confused as to what to do. “Righteous,” he said. “There’s liability here.”

“Then what? She moves in?”  We were talking as if Niola weren’t standing right next to us. In a way, she wasn’t.

“I’ll have the police drive her home.”

“Yes,” Niola said unexpectedly. “It’s late. I would like to go home. Momma will have my hide.”

Just before the squad car arrived I thought about calling Hebron, but there was no time, and I doubted it would do any good. Niola didn’t seem to take special notice of the two police officers escorting her to their car. They may as well have been adult children walking their mother down the aisle at church.  Instead of organ music, Los Angeles played the thrush of its street traffic. When the police began to close the door to the back seat, Niola put her hand out. “Man? Aren’t you coming?”

“I’ll clock you out,” my manager said, exasperated. “Righteous.”

Niola’s place was five blocks away, and for the first couple, she was fine, purse in her lap, placid expression, as if we were returning from a pleasant evening at a concert; as if the police radio offering its low grind of random information was a Charles Mingus piece. But when we turned onto Niola’s street, she stiffened with recognition, then frantically looked around. “Where are they taking us?”

“Just giving you a ride home, Miss Niola,” one of the police said. “Nothing to worry over.”

“I can’t go there. The people will kill me. They took Herman.” She was nearly hyperventilating and grabbed my arm. “Man, tell them.”

I played along. “What good would it do to shock her now with Herman’s long ago death? “That’s why we have the police with us.”

“No. No. They’ll kill me.”

The policeman driving the car looked at me in the rearview mirror. “Who’s trying to kill you Miss Niola?” His baritone was calm.

“The people there.”

As we pulled in front of her apartment building, Niola clutched my arm and pleaded with her eyes. “You’re not. . . ” she whispered, “Man, you’re not going to let them take me, right?”

The look on her face was devastating, maybe even more so because I no longer had any idea what was happening on the other side of her shiny brown eyes.  I only knew she was terrified and I was about to lie to her.  “They’re going to protect you from the people,” I said, even though I was certain the threats populating her mind were beyond the reach of anything the police could do.

The officer in the passenger seat stepped out of the car and walked to the complex, the dark blue strip of her disappearing around the corner. “How long have you lived here Miss Niola?” the remaining officer asked. “It’s a real nice place.”  I knew that’s not what he was thinking, maybe it used to be nice, but he was trying to calm her down.

Niola was shaking, but she answered. “Herman gave it to me. . . ”  She didn’t so much as pause as come to a red light.  “Man,” she asked without looking at me, “just when was that?”

“The ’60s, I think.”

“That’s right,” she said as if she was pleased with herself.  She looked out the window at the dark building studded with rectangles of light.  The officer was already returning.  Since that night I’ve thought often about how when I was a kid we raised rabbits for meat. The shriek of a terrified rabbit is one of the most horrific sounds a person will ever hear, and that’s about what Niola let out when the female officer opened the door and asked Niola to step out. She clutched at me and flung one slippered foot out of the car to fend off the officer who was firmly insisting on Niola’s exit.  Now both of Niola’s legs where flailing in defense and she was screaming at the top of her lungs.  The second officer got on the radio and asked for backup.  In minutes three officers were carrying a writhing, screaming Niola to her apartment. I was frozen next to the squad cars where they’d told me to remain, red and blue lights angrily flashing against the apartment complex and the spectered faces peering out from the windows. I was standing, holding Niola’s purse, helpless. Please don’t let her wig come off, I thought, but wishing for her dignity felt like the merest of gifts.

In less than a minute the captain, a worked-out Asian man that reminded me a bit of my late father, jogged back to the car. “We need the keys and we need you,” he said. “You’re Man, right?”  I nodded and ran with him to where Niola was crouched and cornered next to her apartment door, the porch light glaring down on her as if she was about to be interrogated.  I saw her through the wall of three officers. Her eyes were glassy and defeated, the nub of her right arm slowly twitching like the tip of cat’s tail. It was an awful tableau and I wondered just then where Niola was, in Los Angeles or Little Rock where her father was killed. Was she afraid of losing another arm, afraid of losing him a second time? Pajamed tenants, a family of six, filled the adjacent steps, the father, dyed brown comb over askew, yelling in English and a language I didn’t know.  “She’s crazy. Take her to the crazy people hospital.” The wife put her hand on his back and said something to which he replied angrily, sending her and their children back up the stairs.  He turned and threw his hand out as if to be through with us. “She says everyone trying to kill her.”

By then the captain had opened Niola’s apartment with the keys I’d handed over. “Think you can coax her in?” he asked me.

“Niola,” I said quietly.  “Come inside?”

“Man, is that you?” She squinted through the light and beyond the stiff bodies in front of her. She’d come back.

Inside, the female officer and I escorted Niola to her small kitchen table, its white Formica top decorated with a red heart at each corner. She’d earned it with Green Stamps. The captain stood at the front door while another officer checked the apartment. “She’s living like this?” the captain asked. The front room was not as I’d last seen it. All her books were off the shelf and stacked on the floor with barely any room to move in between, a maze leading in one direction to the kitchen and the other to the hallway. I thought to get Niola some water and something to eat.  The refrigerator contained only expired bologna, crusted condiment jars, and a teacup holding half a lemon. I called to the captain.  “Yes,” I said when he was at my side. I pointed to the open refrigerator. “She’s living like this.” I pulled a phone number out of my wallet and handed it to him. “It’s Oakland. Please call her son.”

Finally, I thought, as I watched the captain dial Niola’s green rotary.  After a couple rings, a man’s voice answered. It was coming together.  The captain explained who he was and the situation.  “You need to get your mother,” he said.  He listened for a moment and then interrupted. “Sir, two weeks isn’t going to do it. She’ll be dead before that.”

Minutes later I was standing outside of Niola’s apartment, a half dozen police behind me. They wouldn’t let me stay. I wasn’t a relative. I locked on her glassy eyes. She was veiled behind the mesh of her security screen looking tiny and scared. “I’ll check on you in the morning,” I said. “Go to bed and lock the door.”

“Okay,” she said with a suspicious glare, slowly closing the door against people who were trying to kill her.

§

A few weeks before the night I had Niola escorted home by the police I was on break and made two phone calls from the store with permission from my manager. I’d gotten the first number from Niola. The call was to her sister in Atlanta. I briefly explained Niola’s descent.  “And it’s getting worse,” I said, “trying not to sugar coat the situation.”

“Well, honey, it’s sweet of you to call, and five years ago I mighta been of a body to get out there. But I’m eighty-four and my gears is about rusted.” Her voice was spunky, but graveled.

“Do you know how to get hold of her son?”

“Hebron? That son-of-a-bitch?” I heard her turn away from the phone and muffle the receiver as she said something to whomever was in the room. “Sorry, Honey,” she said, returning. “I asked my husband to hunt up my address book.  Far as I know Hebron is still up in Oakland. And good luck getting him to lift a finger for Niola. He and I are not so close.”

“I’m getting that,” I said. “But maybe it’d be better if you called him?”

“Truth is, Niola and I haven’t had much to do with each other unless someone in the family dies and that well is about dry except for us.” She thanked her husband and excused herself to find Hebron’s information.  “If it ain’t changed, of course,” she cautioned as she slowly called out the digits.  I thanked her but she wasn’t ready to hang up. “She ever mention Herman? He was a fella she used to run around with.  I come out to California and took up with him for a bit, and well, now you see. You can’t dip the coffee spoon in the sugar bowl and not expect a taint.”

“Herman,” I say. “Niola thinks he’s still around.”

“Well, that’s real sad.  I thought he was a no account, messing around on my sister all the time, but then, well, I was one of ‘em, that smooth son-of-a-bitch.”

“I should go.”

“I expect,” she said. “Sorry to tug on your ear so long, but let me give you one stitch of advice on getting Hebron to tend to his mother.  Tell him Niola’s on her way out and he might wanna come see that her affairs is in order. If I know that boy, he’ll be down quicker’n spit off a railroad trestle. That building of hers will set him up real nice. If he don’t give two shits about her, he’ll sure care about the money.”

In two minutes I was on the phone with Hebron, though I held off on playing the inheritance card. He was all “mmm-hmmm, mmm-hmmm” until I got to the part asking him to come down from Oakland. “What’s in it for you?” he asked.

I was a little startled by the question. “Peace of mind, I guess.”
“Right.  And you say you’ve known Mother how long? She hasn’t once mentioned you.”

“Since I started working at the store. A few years I guess. We’ve had lunch.”

“Well I appreciate your concern but she gets a little confused is all. I spoke to her last week and she was fine. And anyway, I’m due down at the end of the month. I got a business to run. So if that’s all. . . ”

“The apartment building,” I blurted.

“What about it?”

“Your aunt said that you. . .um. . .might want to make sure Niola’s affairs are in order.”

He didn’t wait even a half a second. “Fucking Aunt Francis? She’s still kicking? Listen you little fucker, I don’t know what kind of shit you’re trying to pull here. . . What’s the name of where you work?”

“Just please come get your mother,” I said. And then I hung up. In front of me, on my manager’s desk was his calendar. The next day would be my mother’s sixtieth birthday. Fuck her for living another year, I thought.

§

Earlier on the day I called Niola’s sister and Hebron, Niola arrived at the store in a bright blue dress suit and matching pillbox hat and clutch.  I’d seen the outfit under plastic in her closet, a remnant from her “fancy days,” as she called them.  That day she was clear-eyed and walking tall as she approached me in my checkstand.  “Excuse me,” she said to the woman whose groceries I was scanning, “I have to transact a quick lick.”  It had been months since I’d heard Niola’s voice so strong and direct.  She didn’t wait for a response, and I continued scanning as she spoke. “Man, I have a lunch date. That’s why I’m wearing the blue.”

I didn’t understand how it had happened but another world had gotten into Niola.  I turned and caught the gleam of five large mother of pearl buttons up the front of her jacket “You look beautiful,” I said, and then to my customer “Doesn’t she look beautiful?” The woman understood what I needed, and agreed enthusiastically. “Niola,” I said as I pulled the last of the woman’s items across the scanner, “a lunch date? I’m jealous.” A bagger arrived but Niola hardly budged to let him do his job.

“It’s only Herman,” she said. I immediately halted because Herman died in the early ’70s. “But the strangest thing,” Niola continued, “I can’t place where I’m supposed to meet him.  Man, where am I supposed to meet him?”

I raised a polite finger to Niola and finished the checkout. “Have a lovely lunch,” the woman said, pushing her cart past. Beyond both of them the shift manager was staring at me shaking her head. “Didn’t Herman postpone?” I pretended. “I thought you said he postponed.”

“I don’t think so. I wrote it down but I don’t know where.”

Only one of us knew this wasn’t true, or if it was, it was a thirty-year-old truth. I had to do something.  “Let me see your purse,” I said.  Without a second thought she handed it to me and I fished around for the small brown address book I knew she carried.  I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before.

Niola had no cash and no credit cards, but she had the book.  No Hebron, but I jotted down the number of her sister, Francis, and checked to see if my number was in there. It was, but just in case, before I returned the purse, I tore the corner off a manila folder and wrote “Brian, Grocery” above my phone number. “Okay,” I said, hoping she’d go along, “really, I just remembered, you told me Herman couldn’t make lunch Friday.”

“I told you that?” she said as if Herman hadn’t been dead all these years. “Okay then, I wore the blue for nothing.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

“Probably got one of them others on his arm instead. You men. . . ”  She looked at me tight eyed. “What’s the name of your girl again?”

I took me a second because it’d been a while since my fictional girlfriend came up. She remembered one thing, but not the other. “Charlene,” I said, though I supposed I could have offered any name.

Niola nodded, though she didn’t look satisfied. “I best get the blue back in the closet.”

§

I think about it now and realize that the first sign something was wrong came maybe eight months earlier. I was about to clock back in from lunch and saw Niola at one of the checkstands just as the clerk, a new guy, was finishing her order. They were speaking in Spanish. “Where you headed?” I asked from behind her.

“Man!” she called out in a big, brassy voice as she turned, tan purse hanging at the elbow of her handless arm. She’d gotten a new wig, a wavy auburn that set off her large, happy eyes. “Headed just over there, you know, and I’ve got news.”  She turned to the clerk and asked in Spanish how much she owed. Then she opened her purse and stared into it for a few seconds. “Now what was I looking for?” The clerk repeated the amount but it clearly didn’t register with Niola as she stared again into her purse.  “Man,” she giggled, “I’m just not one for figures today. Be a peach and pluck out what I owe?”

At the moment I didn’t understand what was happening. I just thought, well, she’s close to eighty-three, and she was so adorable about it, so I took her purse from her and complied.  “What’s your news?” I asked as the clerk handed her the receipt and we walked behind her cart to the time clock.

“Spoke to Hebron this morning and told him he could stay in one of my apartments for free.”

“Wow,” I said. They hadn’t spoken for months. “What brought that on?”

“He called asking for money because maybe he has to close the business, so we figured out how much it would cost to get him down here.”  She was beaming. The one regret about her life I’d ever heard her express was that despite all her efforts, her son had drifted away. “Just did Western Union before my shopping.” Suddenly she was teary eyed with happiness.

“That calls for a hug,” I said, opening my arms. “I know you miss him.”

She stood on her toes and squeezed me tightly. “You’ll have dinner with us when he gets here, right, Man?”

“Of course,” I said, letting go after a few seconds.  “We’ll celebrate.”

“Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve mentioned you to him.”

§

Niola was independent, but there was a courtesy she insisted on, that I open the car door for her when I picked her up for lunch and when I dropped her off.  It was after one of these lunches as I opened the passenger door in front of The Zephyr, that she paused and looked up at me before stepping out of the car. Large brown sunglasses concealed her eyes, and the bright daylight gleamed on freshly applied red lipstick. “Man,” she said, swiveling her legs out of the car and offering me her hand. “I believe I’m going to have a martini. It’s been awhile.”

I laughed, not thinking she was serious, but she squeezed my hand to let me know she was.  “A little early in the day for a cocktail, don’t you think?” I said, closing the door behind her.

She turned, raised her chin at me, and placed her hands over the large brass buckle that cinched in her brown jumpsuit.  “Only,” she lilted, “if I was drinking alone.”

“Niola, you’re flirting with me.” The idea of it was preposterous, but I was touched by the effort.

“An old woman like me? Flirting?” she asked with a smile. “It’s just that today is my birthday.”

What was I going to say to that?  It would be the first, but not the only time I was in her apartment before that night the police carried her across the lawn of The Zephyr. In a minute I was sitting on her plastic covered couch listening to her mix our drinks in the kitchen.  The apartment had been lived in.  It wasn’t dirty so much as densely packed, every wall lined with dark-spined books, the coffee table stacked with them too.  The floor was covered by uneven layers of carpet square samples, giving the surface the look of a choppy, multi-colored ocean.  “You never told me you were a reader,” I called out.

“After Herman passed,” she said, rounding the corner and carrying a tray on which stood two full-to-the-brim martini glasses each one with a toothpicked olive.  She’d taken off her shoes, her child-sized toes tipped with peach colored polish. “You’ll have to help me with this part,” she said, leaning toward the coffee table, which I didn’t understand at first because it was easy to forget she was missing the lower part of her arm.

“Oh,” I said, catching on.

She sat down next to me and took her martini from my hand.  “Haven’t had one of these in maybe twenty years,” she said.

I held my glass up to her. “Here’s to your birthday.” Maybe it was best to drink up and go.

Her sip left a thin lipstick print on the edge of the glass. “I’ve had a lot of birthdays,” she said, laughing, and butting my shoulder with her short arm, “but the truth is today isn’t one of them.”

“Shame on you,” I said. It was this playful quality that made her so fun to be around.

She pointed with her martini to the top of one of the shelves where a large black and white photo was propped against a line of books. I couldn’t make out all the details, but I recognized the woman in the crisp white dress clearly in mid song. “That’s me back in the day,” Niola said.  “Pretty thing, wasn’t I?”

“Beautiful,” I said, “but you never told me you were a singer. Is that what you wanted to do?”

“Hell no. Only thing I wanted to do was work for the phone company.” She shook her head as if I’d asked the world’s stupidest question. “I had aspirations. Not every Black woman with a voice wants to sing professional. Now fetch it down here and I’ll tell you a little story.” With the photo in her lap she lay a finger next to the younger version of herself. “Makes me look three shades darker, but that’s how pictures come out back then.”  In the photo she was standing on a small platform, front lit, a white hand and the fingerboard of an upright base just in frame on the right, and a few on lookers below and in front of her. She told me that she’d been working at the club serving drinks a few months while she was trying to get in with the phone company.  One night, a regular at the club asked if she could sing and she made the mistake of saying she could, a little. Before she knew it she was upfront under one hot spotlight.

“What’d you sing?” I asked.

She was already a third of the way through her martini. “I didn’t take myself too seriously, even back then, so I started up with “These Arms of Mine,” which wasn’t really the kind of music they played, but I thought it would be funny. You know that one? Otis Redding?”

“Of course,” I nodded, mainly because I was feeling distinctly less cool than the woman sitting next to me.

“Now, this is a cappella, and at first everyone did kind of laugh because, well listen.”  She sang the first few lines, These arms of mine, they are lonely / Lonely and feeling blue. / These arms of mine, they are yearning, / Yearning from wanting you. “There I am with arms out wide open, missing part of the one, but then a couple of the boys caught on and gave me a little backing and we sounded good. Even got a standing ovation.”  She stood up and pointed with her glass. “Back there is Ornette and he’s whistling, and up front, right up front. . . This is the part I left out, Mr. Sinatra is smiling and clapping and those blue eyes are just fixed on me like I was the only person in the room. Ornette and Mr. Sinatra on the same night.”

I looked again at the photo, and though he’s not quite in profile, it’s him.  “This is amazing. How come you never told me any of this?”

Niola sat down and set her martini on a copy of Ficciones. “It was just the one song.”

“But Sinatra,” I said. “That didn’t make you want to give singing a shot?”

“Ornette,” she gently corrected, indicating the pecking order. “And singing? All that smoke and uncertainty? No thank you. I had my sights on working full time at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Did it too. Started at Thornwall 6. That’s where I learned talking proper was like flipping a light switch.” Leaning forward, she gestured toward the wall. “There’s the plaque from when they retired me.”  Niola plucked the olive from her drink, popping it in her mouth as she pointed to a man in the Ornette/Sinatra photo. “But one thing come of it. Herman was there that night. That’s when we met, and boy did we meet, if you know what I mean.”

In the photo, Herman was seated in the background, facing the camera.  It wasn’t a crisp image, but it was clear enough.  He was older than Niola, it looked to me, late thirties, early forties. White, hair tight to his head, he wore a gray suit with a dark tie, and his eyes were perfectly centered in black rimmed glasses. “Handsome,” I said.

“Handsome?” Niola laughed. “No. The man was right as pancakes and just as syrupy, but he wasn’t handsome.”  She looked at the photo.  “Now, he was a straight-shooter from start to finish, and not just with me.”   She waved her martini around in a gesture that was bigger than the room. “Not to say he didn’t have ideas that sometimes maybe weren’t on the up and up, if you know what I mean. He told me every time he cheated on me.” She offered cheers with her eyes and brought the glass to her lips.  “His first kids was besides themselves when it turned out I owned The Zephyr clean and clear. Some sort of tax thing I didn’t understand, but when he died, it was mine.”

“So, Hebron has siblings.”

She bottomed her martini and went to fix another. “If you can keep a secret,” she called from the kitchen.  “Hebron’s my sister’s boy with Herman. Them two were at it a bit. Of course I didn’t know. Then Francis goes off to Atlanta and has a baby she didn’t want, and a year later Herman goes back east and brings home Hebron.”

I waited for the ice to stop shaking. “You’re kidding. You adopted him?”

Niola leaned out so I could see her face. “Got to open another jar of olives.”

“Which means to me it hasn’t been twenty years since you had a martini.”

“In housefly years.” She disappeared and I heard the pop of the jar. This time she returned with a pitcher and the olives. “Let’s not with this up and down,” she said, refreshing my drink, and hers.  “I didn’t adopt Hebron outright. But I raised him and called him son. Still do.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at a drink made cloudy by a bleu cheese stuffed olive, “so he knows.

“Well, Francis got a Jimminy Cricket on her shoulder after she watched some damn show on T.V.”

“Didn’t go over?”

“Not since. I’m his momma but not his mother and that makes a difference to some folks.” She shifted a carpet square with her foot. “Makes it all the harder that’s what he calls me, Mother.” She leaned in close, martini glass under her chin. “But let’s talk about us. When are we going to get this going?”

I saw it in her bright eyes and happy smile. She didn’t have to define “this.” Then I turned into a slack-jawed idiot. Just that morning I’d left the bed of one of my regular customers from work, an attorney whose boyfriend was also someone I’d slept with. Best looking gay couple I’d ever seen and I needed their stamp of approval. . . separately and secretly. That was my thing. Gratification without attachment. Play.

“Is that your man, Niola?” I asked, pointing to a photo on the wall.

She looked confused. “Baby, that’s Herman. And I thought you was my man.”

I knew who it was, but I feigned. “Well, it’s in color. I didn’t recognize him from your singing picture. And, I’m sorry, but I have a girl.”  Somehow I thought it would spare this older woman to think she’d been hitting on a guy taken by a girl rather than another guy.”

Niola, suspicious, leaned back and one-eyed me. “What’s her name?”

“Charlene.” Where that came from so quickly I’ve no idea.

“Well, don’t that beat all.” She set her drink down and scratched at her wig with her nubbed arm, one-eyeing me again, this time even more intently.  “Say her name one more time.”

“Charlene.”

“Oh hell,” Niola said, slapping her knee and taking a drink. “I’m a fool. Sssharline. You’re a queer boy.”

I stood, surprised to find myself shaking. “Niola, I should go.”

“Man,” she called me for the first time, “you sit right down.  I’m not done with you.” I complied. “Am I right?”

I nodded, and then I started crying, uncontrollably. I sob-spoke the story of my mother and her husband, and about losing Lutfi, about pretending I could be a screenwriter, all the while feeling like the only person I had in my life was this eighty-plus-year-old-woman who was a customer where I worked.  I don’t know everything I said. I mainly remember only the sound of my voice and the images, like a movie collage, of parts of my life rushing through my mind.

Niola patted my back when I was finished, played out.  “Where went you?” she asked softly.  I looked at her but had no answer. “That’s what Momma used to ask when our minds went traveling.”  She handed me my martini and winked.  “When I woke up this morning I thought I was getting a man today, but it looks like I got a child.  But don’t you worry. I’ll grow you up.”

“I’m sorry for all that. I was just thinking back to when things were easier.”

“Yeah,” Niola said, topping off her martini, “I think about them days too. But the only world we got to live in is now. You and me having martinis on Tuesday at 2 o’clock. That’s us living.”

I raised my glass. “Here’s to us. . . and Charlene.” Niola tinked her martini against mine and sipped, her partial arm resting on the back of the couch. At that moment I realized I’d got it wrong. I always thought of her as missing part of a limb. She was missing nothing. But, even epiphanies can lead one down the wrong road.

“Listen to Niola,” she said. “That far off will creep up on you now and then, but you may as well be dead if you try to live there. You got to have folks around. Call your momma. You need her and she’s going to need you in not too many years. If that don’t work out, you better start collecting some love. That’s what I do. Hebron and I aren’t close, but I got the comfort he’ll be there for me when I start living far off. And if he isn’t, guess I got you. I make family.”

“You do,” I said.

“Worst thing is to end up with nobody to look out for you.”

Like every toddler, I stumbled. “Hey,” I said, “maybe you’re my screenplay. Maybe I should write about you.”

“Man,” she said with an incredulous look, “This isn’t the movies. This is real life. You’re a Chinese-something gay boy and I’m an eighty-two-year-old lady. You don’t know me.” Her tone was stern and caught me off guard.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just thought. . . ”

She touched my shoulder with the nub of her arm, softened. “No, no. Man, you go right on ahead. I insist. We’re making family here. Type up my story. Everyone should do that, write other people’s stories. You won’t ever get it right, but you might learn something about yourself.”

—Brian Leung

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Brian Leung, author of World Famous Love Acts, Lost Men, and Take Me Home, is a past recipient of the Lambda Literary Oustanding Mid-Career Prize. Other honors include the Asian-American Literary Award, Willa Award, and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. His short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, online venues, and anthologies. “Shuhua’s Suite” originally appeared in Blythe House Quarterly. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University. He lives with his husband in Lafayette, Indiana, where he is the Director of Creative Writing at Purdue University. http://www.readbrianleung.net/

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Nov 012016
 

torino2-018-beterAn Apology for Meaning, Artist’s Book, Genese  Grill

 http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

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My real delight is in the fruit, in figs, also pears, which must surely be choice in a place where even lemons grow. —Goethe, Italian Journey

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.  —Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

 

In Torino, Italy, once called Augusta Taurinorum in honor of the bull sacred to Isis, goddess of fertility, where Nietzsche went mad, embracing a beaten horse and weeping, dancing naked in his room, and practicing Dionysian rites of auto-eroticism; where, before his collapse, he enjoyed the air, the piazzas, the cobblestones, and the gelato; where the ladies chose the sweetest grapes for this reluctantly German philosopher, it is easy to feel the sensual, life-affirming, Pagan roots of myth-making, to understand those humanistic allegories that sing of life, love, pleasure, and appetite. At the opera, I heard Tosca sing, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived for art, I lived for love). I indulged in long wine-drenched lunches on unseasonably-sunny piazzas, and gazed at gleaming artifacts from ancient times in dark museums. There was a secret restaurant where a small fierce woman named Brunilde roughly took my order, displayed magical cakes with her wide toothy smile, briskly removed the empty plates that once held the most delicious food I’d ever eaten, brought me a shot glass with grapes soaked in absinthe with dessert, if I pleased her by ordering it, but growled me out the door if I was too full or too stupid to partake of her pride and joy. I was in residence at the Fusion Art Gallery on Piazza Amedeo Peyron, presided over by the wise and warm painter, Barbara Fragnogna, who told me about the market across the way which sold beautiful mushrooms, wild strawberries, and bread sticks huge, juicy olives. When I wasn’t eating, or wandering in museums, I was building an elaborate book which folds and unfolds, and is painted and glued and stitched, and “gold-leafed” with foil wrappers from the many gianduji chocolates I enjoyed. I threw off the layers of the Vermont winter to feel the wind and sun on my body, and was reminded of how much our conclusions about what life means are influenced by the relationship between our own physicality and the material world which surrounds us.

isis-and-osirisPage from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Meaning is not something that we need to artificially superimpose on the objects and events of the world through some transcendental narrative or morality. It is not something we need to be taught or coerced into seeing by external social construction or manipulative indoctrination. If one is healthy, has an appetite, and senses for seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching, beauty will be everywhere, as “the promise of happiness” or, indeed, in the knowledge of happiness’s fleetingness or absence. We are given the gift of colors and sounds, of textures and of temperatures. And if all else fails, this should be enough reason to be grateful for life. In addition to this inherent meaning, this meaning without thought and evaluation, our intellectual response to the physical facts of the world makes us dream, imagine, and invent ever new celebrations and laments. These expressions will survive and proliferate insofar as other humans resonate with them. And what resonates will be made manifest in real made things, in built places, in enacted experiments. This is a discourse and manifestation over millennia, from the ancient cave paintings to today: humans trying to make sense of the terror and tenderness of the world. We do not despair, we artists and “creative subjects”. Nor do we invent meanings that attempt to twist the facts of nature: Gravity and Mortality are real. Instead, we work with what there is, and endeavor to embrace it in all its fractured glory. Thus, also, the things that we make with our hands, out of paper, pigments, wax, string, fire, earth, water and air, will fade, crumble, dissolve in good time. They are already fragile, already very imperfect, already mostly forgotten. And yet, their fleeting presence is of the utmost importance.

I am sitting on a bench in a church entranceway. A gray, cool, dreamy late morning. Some high school students, girls and boys, gather at the other end of the stone courtyard, gossiping, talking, laughing. Old people, alone, walk in and out of the church. It is a Monday, and most shops here are closed, their metal gratings pulled down. Dirty pigeons coo. In the back streets, a gentle squalor; clothing hanging from lines; abandoned bicycles resting against elaborate gates. On the walls, scraps of political agitation, left and right, shreds of old posters, graffiti scrawls. People talk, but I don’t understand. Markets everywhere, with abundance: artichokes and more artichokes, wheels of cheese, sausages, chickens, lamb shanks, lemons. People smoke and joke, are grim or warm. On my walk here I passed a waitress carrying a tray of espresso down the street from a café out of sight, and a silver piece of paper blew to the ground. I picked it up and handed it to her. Grazie, Signora. An elegant lady walks up the church steps now, in perfectly matching brown and gold, soft brimmed hat with gold trim, a brown cane, brown coat with fur collar, a purse of gold and brown plaid, little brown shoes, dark sunglasses. All her belongings and all her faith perfectly intact from another era. Trucks rumble by; otherwise it is quiet, peaceful. Balconies preserve foliage from the summer, not quite dead, but not quite blooming, vines dangling; a single bruised yellow rose lilts; while back in Vermont everything is covered in snow and ice. This is a life. Anywhere is a life. How different, how similar is it to and from mine, from or to yours? And how does it happen that it evolved to be like this here and some other way somewhere else?

As Goethe noted in his famous Italian Journey, an experience of difference both enunciates one’s individuated self and dissolves it. Visiting another world, you imagine that you might have been, could have been, still might be, sort of someone else, leading a different life in a different country, in a different language, with a different family, lover, children, vocation. Your certainties, the things you took for granted, are called into question. You would be more comfortable not examining them, not questioning: why do you and your fellows do what you do? Are these differences a result of customs, habits, social constructions, error, accident, nature? Are they the result of our upbringing, something atavistic in our blood, or determined by the atmosphere, the landscape, or the history that surrounds us? The external differences—are they petty? Do they alter from the outside who we are inside? Or are they representative of who we are, from the inside out? Ask a novelist or a method actor how much each gesture, each phrase, each seemingly minor choice reveals about identity. The way we eat, how much beauty we need, or how much labor, leisure, love, rigor, sleep, poetry, space, air, skyline, horizon, practicality, recklessness.

And now I am experiencing the differences, the strangeness here in Torino, among people for whom all of this is natural, normal. I enjoy this sense of difference, to a point, as most of us do. We seek it out, we are sometimes sick to death of our own lives and want to gaze at, play at others’ lives; but only for a spell. It can be tiring; one feels alien; sometimes wants to cry out of frustration because everything is so confusing and the simplest things seem impossible; and the people look at you like you are an idiot and you are in a way. You are an adult who does not know things that a child knows.

I get lost often. Sometimes a piazza will have four different entryways with a statue in the middle. Who can remember which way one entered or egressed from? Since I am not usually in a hurry, I wonder why this should matter to me. Maybe because we want always to seem like we know where we are going and as if we already have everything we want. And this has something to do with desire and the desire for love, which is sometimes shameful. As a stranger one wants something. Is looking for something. Has left home to find something that one does not already have. Desire is the need to become one with what is foreign, to take it into oneself and to be embraced by it as well. As Ann Carson tells us in Eros the Bittersweet, we long to be one with the other, but when we have assimilated what was once strange, it is no longer the other and no longer serves its purpose. Knowledge comes only at the cost of desire fulfilled; we can only seek out more and more things, people, places, books, mysteries we do not yet know, have not yet seen or solved or read so that we may experience that supreme thrill of coming to know again and again. We crave difference, but we also cannot keep from looking for likenesses. We seek both everywhere. And the new experiences we have are continually threaded back into what we already know.

NietzscheNietzsche ca. 1875

In the Egizio Museum in Torino I am astonished by the way the ancient Egyptians had the same instinct for symmetry as ours; for placing each depicted object or vignette centrally within a frame; for aligning each hieroglyph in a uniform square of space; for leaving the most graceful and harmonious negative space between the hand of the man holding a slaughtered bird by its neck and the fronds of the plant in a vase by his side. A sense of what is beautiful, evidently, is at least somewhat natural and universal. And the works of art or ritual made with this sense of what is beautiful still resonates with a mysterious significance, even if we today cannot fully understand or believe in the things that were sacred to the people who made them. Translation across time and cultures is needed for a more thorough comprehension of these artifacts, but something very powerful, something powerfully familiar is present even without a struggle. What we want is to maintain the strangeness, while approaching a comprehension. What we must avoid is to diminish difference in the interest of a complete and total homogeneity.

I am operating in a language I barely know, but I do make myself understood, more or less, with the few Italian words I mispronounce and the few I manage to understand. A good part of the pleasure of communication is in the frisson of partial misunderstanding, in the incommensurable distance between one mind and another, struggling to approximate a shared vision (as in the erotic desire to become one with the unknown). Translation is necessary even without a language barrier, and we all do our best to reveal and also to conceal our meanings from each other. It is a dance. Sometimes clumsy, but sometimes surprisingly beautiful. The differences between language, as Steiner suggests, may be a result of a human need to differentiate one group from another, to keep secrets, to individuate from what may be a basically universal commonality. There are twin drives to compare and contrast, to find analogies, metaphors, likenesses; and to delineate differences, incompatibilities, untranslatables.

Today our basic assumptions about correspondence and difference are paradoxical. On the one hand, there are those who insist that everyone is equal, the same, indistinguishable (or that they should be, were we to look beyond external, physical differences). On the other hand, these same people tend to insist that it is impossible to understand the other; that there are no universals; that there is no shared sense of value; and that language barely helps us to communicate with each other at all, since it is so very distant from the things it claims to signify as to be more deceptive than descriptive. Both of these assumptions depend on a denial of the importance of the physical world; on a denial of any meaningful relationship between nature and cultural norms, between the physical world and the language that describes it; between the human brain and its sensory apparatus; and, finally, between one human brain and another. In reality, things and people are self-similar and they deviate from sameness; but even the deviations do not prohibit some approximation of understanding.

Those who deny difference and simultaneously insist on incommensurability are trying to do two contradictory things at once: 1. to strip away differences that might cause conflict or justify hierarchies or discriminations, resulting in a neutering and neutralizing homogeneity, and, 2. still paradoxically denying that these newly neutralized beings will be able to understand each other despite the pervasive removal of the characteristics that seem to have caused all the trouble in the first place. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the neutralization and leveling, the moral rejection of the physical world (beauty, ugliness, pain, pleasure, difference) will eventually really result in a homogeneity so complete that, even if we no longer have anything interesting to say or any unique artistic expressions to make, we will at least make no more war, at least harbor no more resentment or hate against the “other”—because there will be no more other. And no differential qualities whatever to get in the way of perfect passive niceness. On the one hand, we are ignoring the inevitable consequences of our neutralizations, neglecting to weigh how much difference makes life rich and strange and fascinating. And, on the other hand, by critiquing conceptualization, deconstructing symbolic archetypes, and undermining the significance of language, we are denying the natural affirmative instinct for finding likenesses and correspondences.

On one level, seeing shapes and patterns where they are not “really” present may be called “pareidolia,” most often ridiculed as a psychosis that sees Madonna and Jesus faces in rock formations and baked goods, endeavoring to prove through argument and scientific study that the piece of fabric housed in a crypt in Torino once was wrapped around no one other than Jesus Christ. The Shroud Museum has rooms filled with “evidence” of why we should believe the shroud belonged to Him: there are blood stains from where the crown of thorns would have been; stains in the shape of wounds suffered when he was tortured, an exemplar of the instrument with which he would have been scourged. The fact that there is just one wound mark where his feet would have been is explained by arguing that both feet were punctured, one atop the other, with but one nail. There is no mention in the museum of the carbon dating done on the fabric, which dated it to a time much later than Jesus’s supposed death; but there is an example of the loom upon which the cloth might have been woven and an example of a crown of thorns, which is arched like a dome and not open like a wreath. Image after image is presented to convince the skeptic that the shroud belonged to Jesus. At first it is hard to even see the shapes that would suggest any face or any body, but, as if one were gazing at one of those magical illusion pictures, if one looks long enough, the desired shapes begin to come into focus—and fade just as quickly into indistinguishable marks again. Desired shapes: the shapes one wants to see.

torino4-019Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Fresh lovers often insist that they are “exactly alike,” noting that they both amazingly like chocolate or were born on a Friday as signs that they are made for each other. And even someone as wise and experienced as myself may choose to be deluded into reading into signs that may not be there at all, thinking that the intern at the artists’ residency is making eyes at me, when really he probably just looks at everyone like that. He had told me tales of rituals in his home town where someone would dress up as Dionysus in animal skins and horns, a bag of blood hidden under the pelts, and someone else would chase after him and “kill” him, spilling blood all over the streets. But what did that mean?

Of course, all of our seeing is a process of selecting out that to some extent overlooks the fact that reality is a mass of non-delineated color and light, a mass of shifting molecules temporarily huddled into seemingly distinct shapes and entities. We can question whether the things we see are really rightly to be delineated as separate or if our particular arrangements of what belongs with what or who belongs with whom are comprehensive contextualizations or merely constructed biases, wishful thinking, or limitations. We can say the same thing about words and the concepts that they form—that words are a crime against the multifarious differentiation of reality, that they name and delimit what is really irreducible and unnameable. Names and words and categories pull some things together with other things, leaving other things out, and ignore the qualities of the named and categorized things that do not fit in with the given names—qualities that might render these things more fitting to be named and arranged in different categories altogether. Is the creation of a concept a form of psychosis, hallucination, wishful thinking, pareidolia?

When we note a pattern, say, of bird or insect movement, of repeating forms in nature, in fairy tales, or of habitual actions in our own lives, are we ignoring all of the elements that would render the categorized thing, action, or thought unfitting to be classed within the desired arrangement? Or is there really a way to establish that something is enough like something else to conclude that it is a pattern and thereby attempt to draw meaning from it? Of course, this is essentially the scientific method, but we use it indiscriminately every day, without the necessary “controls” to make our experiments scientifically viable. And science itself is subject to the same kind of criticism: even if its trials are well-documented and avail themselves of responsible criteria for investigation, the scientists have, as we well know, already decided to ask some questions over others, thereby determining what kinds of answers might be found.

But here is the crux: we do all this because we want, we need to draw meaning. And we draw meaning most readily from things that repeat or seem to repeat, from something that seems to be universal or at least not a mere exceptional random aberration. It might be absolutely accurate to say that (at least on a molecular level) everything is everything and thereby all patterns and all names and all conceptualizations are inaccurate and limiting, that the only accurate vision of reality is of a moving mass of colors and light without delineation or individuation. Babies start by seeing that way, but over time begin to recognize (or is it imagine) shapes, distances, faces. Carl Sagan writes that pareidolia itself might be an evolutionary adaptation, since those babies who were able to recognize faces responded to expressions, inducing them to smile, and make eye contact, so that they were cared for, and thus survived. This is rather suggestive, because if we were to consciously try as a culture to repress conceptualization, arrangement, and the meaning-making that rests on this patterning process, we would end up being unable to communicate with each other, and we would simply not survive as either individuals or cultures. Autistic children have a hard time making the kind of eye contact that Sagan suggests was good for survival. And many say that we are now becoming a culture of autism, one in which people do not communicate, one in which people are trapped in their own worlds without the ability to share experience, emotion, ideas. Thus, although the process of making arrangements and making concepts does perforce leave things out, although it may sometimes be inaccurate, although it may sometimes look like psychosis or pareidolia, it is far better to make provisional arrangements and to use language and concepts (always acknowledging that they can change and rearrange) than to exist always in an undifferentiated sea of colors, sounds, and non-shapes, unable to communicate.

But after visiting the Shroud Museum in Torino (the actual cloth is carefully hidden inside its box, only to be taken out on rare jubilee days), I do not believe that the shroud of Turin belonged to Jesus. The form of the body suggested by it is simply not sinuous and beautiful enough to satisfy our mythic desire for him. The image that the experts draw from the bloodstains is of a bulky square-shouldered man, not at all the sweet beloved of the visionary mystics as depicted in paintings over centuries. Just as the scientists who discovered the shape of the DNA molecule knew that they had finally found it because the double helix was the most beautiful configuration, so we can see that the shroud did not belong to the son of God because of the gracelessness of its traces.

256px-full_length_negatives_of_the_shroud_of_turinFull length negatives of the Shroud of Turin

There has to be a difference. Difference is thrilling, is frisson, is friction. If there were no difference, no distinction, no discrimination, no delineation, we would see nothing. Everything would be one blended morass, one moving, shifting mélange of everythingness. No shadows, no lights, no textures, no patterns or deviations. So we like to go away, discover new things, challenge ourselves, compare and contrast the familiar against the strange in order to understand, again, our expanded selves. And yet we find ourselves in a constant emotional oscillation, a cycle swinging between comfort, tedium, restlessness, curiosity, desire, risk-taking, danger, exposure, discomfort, exhaustion, home-sickness, comfort, tedium…ad infinitum.

Thus we come to the necessity of maintaining some borders at a basic level, personally, and then globally. We need secrets, mysteries in order to remain where we are, among our fellows in our homes, in our romantic relationships; or else it is as if we were running rampant around the neighborhood, around the world, continually searching for newness, making so many things the same as we unite with them, making everything homogeneous and known all too quickly. A promiscuous lover is someone who has not learned how to mine the depths of himself and his beloved; is quickly bored; doesn’t have enough inner resources to discern the depths hidden in his lover; thus he moves on quickly in order to stimulate his poor imagination. Curiosity, desire, conquest of new ideas and intellectual territory, all have their value: but they should not be gluttonous. If we are to feast, let us leave time for regeneration of resources; let us make sure we properly savor what we are sacrificing and devouring. The communion of the self with the other cannot be celebrated so swiftly that all differences are leveled out, sanded away, consumed by the Moloch of desire for newness. This touches on the problem and pleasure of materiality. The basic limitation of resources; that they are not infinite. You can melt down idols to make new ones, but then the old idols no longer exist. How can we contrive to keep the old ones and erect new ones, too? Of love we can barely speak in this regard: the old lovers are replaced by new ones, yet they remain, one hopes, still within us, and we within them, in traces, some very potent, as we continue to consume and appropriate and expand, becoming new ourselves and shedding strangeness as we go, exploring our anti-selves, the characteristics we harbor that are anathema to our primary identities and the identities of our native lands and cultures.

After writing The Sorrows of Young Werther, and serving many years as advisor to the Duke of Weimar, Carl August, Goethe “stole” away at three in the morning, from his friends, his duties, and his romantic (but non-sensuous) relationship with Charlotte von Stein, to sojourn in Italy for two years. There he found himself in contrast to the differences he experienced, searched out the ancient remains of classical Rome, learned about architecture at the foot of buildings designed by Palladio, learned to see by looking at Italian paintings, developed his concept of the universal Ur-Pflanze from which all plants metamorphose (Alles ist Blatt), and enjoyed, above all, the weather and the fruit. His wonderful account of his adventures includes detailed descriptions of the geology, flora, and fauna of the countries he passed through), along with evaluations of artifacts, architecture, painting, and peoples (he burdened down his pack with rock specimens as well as heavy books). Referring to the Greek god, who could not be conquered in wrestling matches as long as he remained in contact with his mother, Gaia, Goethe writes, “I see myself as Antaeus, who always feels newly strengthened, the more forcefully he is brough into contact with his mother, the earth”.

The Germans have always harbored a romantic longing for the physicality of Italy, “the land where the lemons bloom,” as Goethe writes, as mythic antithesis of everything Germanic (stoical, cold, disciplined, abstract). Nietzsche sojourned to Torino, a Dionysus on the River Po, in conscious ex-patriot spirit. What meanings did he find there, that philosopher with a hammer who famously denied the existence of “Das Ding an sich,” and called on us to bravely consider the abysmal probability that there is no meaning or purpose to life whatsoever? He certainly meant that there was no predetermined meaning or God-given purpose, no purpose ordained by a God. But he did not mean to repudiate the ways in which the world can be meaningful (affirmed, celebrated, enjoyed). For his rejection of the “thing in itself” was decidedly not a transcendental call to celebrate merely the disembodied life of the alienated mind out of touch with the physical world (a thing in itself, surely, despite Berkeley’s skepticism, and despite the inability to know it absolutely or objectively beyond phenomena). Here in Torino, this city so beloved by Nietzsche, while I am struggling with the question of meaning, I feel compelled to come to terms with him on this question. We are in agreement on the central importance of the material sensuous goodness of the world and on a deep suspicion of any ideologies which aim to affirm something in contradiction to the facts of this real.

goethe_stieler_1828Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828.  (Public domain)

Ecce Homo, which he wrote while in this city, begins with a serious discussion of the vital importance of digestion, weather, and music, all experienced by Nietzsche (and clearly by Goethe as well) as fundamental physical requirements for living the right life. The theological-metaphysical questions are deemed unimportant at best, treacherous deviations at worst.   Thoreau, whose first chapter in Walden is called “Economy,” planted beanstalks as the most efficacious conduits to a realm where one might best consider “higher laws”. It makes one wonder what would have happened to Thoreau had he visited Italy (he traveled a great deal, he noted, in Concord). Would he have abandoned his dietary restrictions against drinking coffee? Might he have succumbed to the animal spirits and fallen in love? Margaret Fuller, who translated that comprehensive man of spirit and sense, Goethe, complained about the disembodied tendency of her friend Emerson (and Thoreau was even less sensual than his mentor), did travel to Italy and fall in love, gave birth to a probably illegitimate child, and participated in the Italian revolution. If she had not tragically drowned on her return home, she might have infected all of Concord with a new European sensuality! Just imagine. Nietzsche, who admired Emerson greatly, who was just about as abstemious and celibate as Thoreau, still knew how to reason from the hands to the head, as the bard of Concord counseled—and from the stomach too, though, it would have to be a strong one.

Love of Fate meant for Nietzsche a love of life exactly as it is, which seems to suggest a belief in a thing in itself after all…the world in itself, as it is—mediated by our senses, our tastes, our interests, our desires, yes, but not subject to utter transformation of its basic realities: mortality, gravity, pain, beauty, brilliance, energy, stupidity, music, pleasure, illness, cold, sunshine. Darwin explained all of this in his own way. We don’t live in a friendly universe. The world cares not a fig for our personal happiness, though our genes may well fight mightily for their own generation. And the connection to Spinoza, greatly admired by Nietzsche, may be helpful: the world was not made for us humans, and thus should not be judged according to how well it does or does not serve our aims and desires. The world is good in itself. Is god, is divine in itself, whether we are experiencing petty miseries or committing atrocities. The world is beautiful, even without the concept of beauty invented by humans. We are to look at the world from the “perspective of eternity,” which is not a transcendental perspective, but, rather, one which provides an angle beyond our own particular immediate interests. Objectivity? Well, not quite. With Nietzsche we can speak of a perspective from the mountain top, as far away from the flatland as possible, but with a knowledge of the subjective world of taste and senses. Nietzsche writes, in The Twilight of the Idols, “One would have to be situated outside life, and on the other hand to know it as thoroughly as any, as many, as all who have experienced it, to be permitted to touch on the problem of the value of life.” For, if our reflections seem all-too mercurial, shifting, and arbitrary from the perspective of eternity, closer up they are instinctive and healthy tastes, responses to and engagement with the world.

As subjects, creative subjects, we make of this world as it is what we can. We cannot help but make meanings about it. But let these meanings be in metaphoric harmony with the real facts of nature. Let us make and preserve myths which help us to understand, to celebrate and to weep over the true facts of human existence, and its true pleasures and pains. Gilgamesh is struggling with the death of his friend. He searches for a way to be immortal, to conquer death. But when he thinks he has found it, a snake eats the magic herb he has foolishly left on the shore while he swims. Thus, although humans must be mortal, a snake can continually shed its skin. A true myth. The kind of fiction that Nietzsche railed against was of another kind: a false fiction, one that repressed the reality of death, repressed natural instinct and pleasure, repressed sexuality and the will to power, repressed beauty and energies and great health and desire in the interest of a transcendental Idealism offering an afterlife, and some sense of pious righteousness in exchange for all that made life meaningful. The myth of Christianity he would battle with the myth of the beautiful drunken god: Dionysus versus the Crucified One. Thus, he aimed, not to do away with all myths (that, in fact, was Socrates’s great sin, according to Nietzsche), but to celebrate the myths that are in accord with the true facts of life. Steiner quotes a cryptic passage from Nietzsche’s notebooks: “God Affirms; Job Affirms.” And glosses that Nietzsche was referring to his idea of the aesthetic justification of the world. The world of wonder and beauty. Look at what I made, says God to Job. I made the Leviathan. I am an artist. Don’t talk to me about your petty troubles.

And here in Torino, Nietzsche, enjoying a rare respite from his chronic pain, in withdrawal from Wagner, the Wagnerites, the Germans and their obtuse Idealism and Morality, enjoyed the sunshine and the air and the food and the gelato (but not the wine); enjoyed the graciousness of the people; and the lightness of Carmen (Torino was “tutti Carmenizzatto”). The world that Nietzsche celebrated was not so much a world of the future, a world of future higher men, but a revival of Renaissance and Pagan values. Not at all the postmodern insipid relativity of values with its snide rejection of beauty, nobility, genius, aristocratic individualism.

512px-friedrichnietzscheturinNietzsche dedicatory plague in Turin

Meaning has been attacked from two sides: on the one hand by the commercialization and commodification of life, by the simulacrum covering up an abyss of shallowness and the emptiness that is left over after the orgy of sensationalism, as humans become more and more bereft of any real connection to nature, human relationships, history, culture, beauty, pleasure, divinity, sacredness. On the other hand, it has been attacked by the cold lizards of theory, who feel nothing themselves but only touch us with their clammy hands so that we too feel a chill and cannot sense the heat in what naturally should move us. These theorists even dare to claim Nietzsche as their own. Because he questioned the idea of a transcendent meaning, aiming with his iconoclastic hammer at the ideology that denied the real meanings of the world, they use his words as an attack on meaning altogether. Because he called for a transvaluation of values, they use his words as an attack on values altogether, missing his joyous celebration of the values of nobility, of the Renaissance, of ancient Greece, of great art and great men, of genius and beauty and rapture. Indeed, he had a hammer (though sometimes it was a tuning hammer for a piano, not a bludgeon), and there was smashing to be done. He was a great destroyer, who called himself “Dynamite.” But he destroyed only as a preliminary to creation. The epigones took up his hammer and began smashing even the idols Nietzsche himself had venerated. They smashed veneration altogether. And in their adolescent giddiness, in the din of their mob fury against what was once great, in their ressentiment, they did not hear the most important part of his message: the axes must be turned into chisels, to carve new idols, new values, new words, new forms, new metaphors, ones that honor what is vivid and beautiful in life, ones that affirm the instincts and the senses.

In a museum in Torino I saw a painting of Santa Lucia, her bloody eyes on a plate. She was a good pious girl, promised in marriage to a pagan, whose mother was ill. She was called by an angel to devote herself to Christ instead of the Pagan fiancé, and in exchange, her mother would be cured. She willingly did so, refusing to bow down to the Emperor, and giving her dowry to the Church instead of her future husband. For this, some say, her eyes were gouged out. Or else she cut them out herself so as not to be attractive to her husband-to-be. She is lovely and fierce in the paintings, and probably the man they had chosen for her was a brute and not to her taste; and her devotion to Christ healed her mother; but can we not think of a better story for her? Is this really a model worthy of imitatio? So many of these maiden saints, who refused arranged marriages and gave themselves to the disembodied fantasy of the beautiful, scantily-clad Christ instead, were exercising the only power they had, and for this they are admirable. They found, by these religious subterfuges, one way of protecting themselves from drunken brutish masters in the form of husbands, pimps, and fathers. But their virginity was no great prize. Can we not imagine stories for them with better endings? Lovers to their tastes, freedom to choose, to adventure beyond the convent or house-wifely walls? Instead of continuing to venerate the lives of these pious girls, we would do well to imagine new vitae for them, lives lived in rebellion, not against Pagan Emperors and sexuality, but against the control of their bodies and souls by male authority figures, lives lived in full flowering of their sexuality and pleasure-loving instincts, in celebration of female desire. We must make new saints, and also revive old models worthy of veneration from the archives of history, woman and girls who knew light and dark, pleasure and pain, flesh, the devil, and the divine sweetness of the embrace of a beautiful, living beloved body. Poor Santa Lucia. We pity her and regret the loss of her beautiful eyes. And then, in her honor, we go looking for traces of other myths or at least a few fallen figs from some controversial historic feasts, to savor from the safe distance of a relatively tame and unromantic time.

512px-santaluciaPainting of Santa Lucia, Syracuse Italy

I am on my way to Gardone Riviera, on a pilgrimage to visit Il Vittoriale, the monumental house, shrine, and garden of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italian novelist, poet, patriot, lover, and aesthete. When I mention him to people here they sometimes seem uncomfortable; because he was wild enough to disregard the Treaty of Versailles and take over the island of Fiume to turn it into an artistic utopia; because of his relationship with Mussolini; because he represents or seems to represent many things that are nowadays in bad odor. To get there I have to take a train to Milan and one to Brescia and then a long bus ride.

It is a misty, cool, warm morning in February, and confusions proliferate: about trains, ticket machines, banks, language, customs. They seem to do everything differently here, but for them that is how it is done. Then I realize that even in my own milieu I am strange. That I am strange, wherever I go. An artist is outside of society, but also very inside it. Inside of life. Observing, but also feeling through and for everyone and everything. After writing that down I wonder if it is arrogant, as if I were suggesting that regular people don’t feel, are not conscious. No, it is not that, but rather that their attention is mostly elsewhere, and ours is so often concentrated on reflection, on the symbolization of everything. Watching gestures and configurations, listening to emphases and choices of words, noticing formal variations and repetitions. As Suzanne Langer notes, to use symbols (rather than just signs) is to talk about the world, not just to denote it, not just to deliver information, but to consider how things are, and even why. And as artists, our lives are consumed by symbols and symbolic interpretations. The entire phenomenal world is to us a sort of symbol-picture of something else. No, not of another world, as Plato would have it; not a bad copy of some perfect original, but actually a symbol-complex of itself.

The phenomenal nature of the physical world means to us. But we don’t make of it what isn’t there, but see in it all that there is to be seen in it. Well, not everything at once—that would be too much, that would be a jumble. But we see many things, one after the other, from different perspectives, in correspondence; we have many ways of seeing meaning in what is. We are curious about how things are made; where they came from; how they were invented; what human need they answered; what history they contain; what natural materials; what natural miracles are evident in their existence; what they tell us about human and animal life, past and present, about desires, fears, curiosities, mistakes, kindnesses and cruelties, despairs and foolish hopes. Thoreau, allegedly an arch anti-materialist, collected and used objects to trace history… as artifacts of material culture, looking, always, for the law and the deviation. Goethe, a naturalist and collector of botanical, geological, and artistic specimens, traced the variety of the plant world back to one original Ur-Pflanze, and then envisioned the entire world of objects and behavior as an allegory for this constant development, this constant Becoming (Werden), from out of the essence of Being (Sein).

All artists mine objects, physical acts, stories, events, speech utterances, places, buildings, man-made and natural, for their significance, for traces of how and what we have dreamt of and done battle for; for their own qualities and also for the way in which they are allegories for other things, feelings, events, experiences; for the way they seem to echo and repeat. When we see repeating patterns we naturally sometimes think we have learned something about life, some tendencies or natural laws…and, despite the doubts shed upon such instinctive correspondence nowadays, often it is true. But it would be foolish to take only one or two experiences and construct a final story about life. The largest, broadest vision would be necessary to oversee all the conflicting narratives before coming to any conclusions. Life is brutal, life is tender. Humans are brave, are craven; are polygamous, monogamous; people of habit, craving change; we like to deviate and to stay close. So, whenever we try to maintain just one thing we discover another side or possibility, but not to the extent that everything cancels everything else out. We may still come to provisional conclusions about the nature of the world, society, our lives, about what works and what does not; in fact we must. But let these not be rigid or polarized, let us not base hasty conclusions solely on either the sum of the good or the sum of the bad experiences. A little hope is healthy, as is a touch of denial, since sometimes things turn out better than one expects, even in the worst of circumstances. As much horror as there is, there is also always good. Neither can be cancelled out by the other. We must see it all. Read it all into what we find before us. Find a way to embrace it all. Amor fati—Love of fate.

I arrived at Gardone Riviera too late in the afternoon for a tour of the house, so began my visit to D’Annunzio’s Il Vittoriale degli Italiani with a sunset stroll around the “most beautiful garden in Italy”. From my Neo-Classical hotel, with its palm trees, classical columns, and reproductions of Roman sculptures, I walked up the steep winding paths and stairways to the grounds, past little houses perched amid orange trees and covered in vines, until I found the gate and entered D’Annunzio’s strange dream: grottos with idols; walkways beneath portentous archways; a sudden St. Francis of Assisi; a fountain encircled with gorgon heads; a lofty monument to the heroes of Fiume; a giant boat docked on land; columns topped with statuesque nudes. A sign before a sun-dappled little garden made up of rocks, small columns and upright missiles, informs the visitor that this is the most sacred spot of all. The “little lake for dancing” is at the bottom of a steep ravine, reached only by winding down hundreds of small stone steps. The large amphitheater is encircled from behind by tall cedars and the snow-capped Alps, and its stage has a gleaming Lake Garda as its backdrop. I imagined Isadora Duncan, one of D’Annunzio’s many lovers, walking there—as if on the water—in consummate Classical grace.

torino2-015Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

That night I wandered around the out-of-season resort town, looking for somewhere to dine, lighting upon Caffe D’Annunzio itself, one of the only places opened, where three or four locals were crowded around a counter drinking wine. I nursed a negroni on the closed-down patio while wondering what Il Vittoriale means. Why, I wondered, should it make us uncomfortable? D’Annunzio had a sense of the heroic about him that is out of fashion today. A sense of superiority and sacredness, a will to power, a contempt for lowliness, sickliness, vulgarity, cowardice. People may mock D’ Annunzio’s mythologizing, moralistically decrying his frequent bad behavior, I think—or perhaps this is the gin and the absence of a restaurant—, but at least his impulses were signs of life, of appetite. D’Annunzio might well be censured or ridiculed for his celebration of militarism and his association with Mussolini , for his many lovers (whom he adored, but also treated atrociously), for his many dogs and his race cars, for the consciously elaborated mythology of himself as a demi-God, for a combination of wounded pride and delusions of grandeur—except that he was a great writer, and his grand lifestyle enriches our collective imagination.

 

nunes_vais_mario_1856-1932_-_gabriele_dannunzio_sdraiato_mentre_leggeGabriele D’Annunzio Reading by Mario Nunes Vais (1856-1932)

Compared to the lukewarm morality of today, our smug conformity and communal piety, D’ Annunzio’s mythic theatricality exercises a certain attraction. Considering all of this, I found myself laughing out loud at the mad, mad world, strolling on the closed-down boardwalk. I was dwarfed by a 19th century edifice, crowned with a bright yellow Renaissance-style tower with the words GRAND HOTEL emblazoned in golden-tinted mosaic. It was a huge sprawling place where Churchill and Mussolini, and many other mortally-flawed heroes and villains stayed. Like most everything else here, the historic hotel was boarded up until May, and the boardwalk was surreal, empty, but for a lone palm tree swaying on the promenade. In my drunkenness, with the help of a kind stranger, I managed to work the cigarette machine I found on the way back to my hotel, and smoked a rare cigarette—which, in its rareness, got me even higher—and wondered about the difference between aesthetic individualism and fascism. The cigarette, in its naughtiness, helping me to flirt with the decadent charms of immorality.

Aesthetic individualism is associated with culture, beauty, delicate sensibilities, the collection and preservation of fragile artifacts, and an internationalism that revels in the multiplicity of the creative imagination; fascism is nationalistic, collectivist, brutally destructive, anti-intellectual, a danger not only to human beings and their ethical freedom, but also to the beloved precious buildings, artistic and historical artifacts so admired by the aesthetic individualist. So why would they ever, why do they sometimes keep common cause? In the case of D’Annunzio, we have a man of letters whose only real political affiliation was with the Party of Beauty, but who in fact did collaborate with a man who would subsequently become a fascist dictator. But even before Mussolini came to be Il Duce and to be called by D’Annunzio “an evil clown,” their relationship was strained. They came together at the start of World War I, over a shared vision of a new Roman Empire, a romantic ideal that called for the re-annexation of Trieste, Fiume, and other territories that had once belonged to Italy and which, they both agreed, should once again be theirs. D’Annunzio roused his countrymen to enter the War and to defend the French culture under siege, with speeches and street theater, and fought on the front lines. But after the Treaty of Versailles failed to reward the Italians for their sacrifices in the war, he took history into his own hands, and, with a ragtag militia, easily took Fiume back for the Italians, to the cheers of the mostly Italian populace, and tried to found an artistic utopia with a democratic constitution there. Mussolini kept himself scarce and watched from afar as the dream foundered over the course of a little more than a year, only later to seize Fiume from the Austrians himself, this time, much to D’Annunzio’s displeasure, to make it part of a fascist state. The fascists were frequently embarrassed by D’Annunzio’s eccentric sybaritic antics, his poetry and his displays of what they considered “feminine” voluptuousness; his nude sunbathing and worship of art. His association with workers’ collectives agitating for unions and civil rights also complicated matters. When D’Annunzio was not being swayed by the democratic socialists, or being lured into shady dealings by the fascists, he was doing whatever he fancied, collaborating with composers on operas, writing plays for his lovers, writing sumptuous novels and books of poems about his lovers, spending money he did not have on beautiful books and objet d’art, and making love. He felt that Mussolini had abandoned him at Fiume and that he did not give him the credit he deserved for bringing Italy into World War I; but Mussolini the dictator saw to it that a national edition of D’Annunzio’s complete works was published and that the extensive quixotic renovations of Il Vittoriale be funded in part by the Italian government. D’ Annunzio, in turn, dedicated his house and grounds to the Italian people as a monument to the soldiers who dared to take Fiume with him. It was also a retreat. Although he had dabbled sensationally in politics and war, he was, by nature, an aesthete who enjoyed comfort and sensuality. Luxury, he wrote, was as essential to him as breathing. He liked to sit at the feet of lovely women, and shower them with flowers, leaf through ancient leather-bound books and recite poetry in the dark. Over the course of a five year period, he once wrote over 1000 letters to one woman alone. They don’t make men like D’Annunzio anymore. In the mostly empty dining room of my hotel, there were none to be seen, so I gave myself to a large piece of black forest cake with whipped cream, and the conversation of the owner and his friends, who tried to get me to drink more and more champagne and spoke to me in a mixture of broken English and mostly incomprehensible Italian. Somehow I stumbled upstairs alone, somewhat nauseous, and had a nightmare about D’Annunzio. Or was it a dream?

The following day I made it into the sanctum sanctorum, D’Annunzio’s house. In the entryway to what he called “the Priory” stands a column to divide the guests into welcome and unwelcome. The many creditors would have to wait on the right, the women, mostly artists and poets and actresses, would be ushered in on the left to a room filled with incense burners and a helicopter blade hanging from the ceiling. The lucky ones would be brought to the music room, cocooned in dark tapestries. D’Annunzio had lost an eye in the war and was sensitive to light. Besides, music requires concentration of the mind. The floors are covered in carpets and pillows, for lounging or making love; busts of Michelangelo and Dante, his ‘brothers’, stand like witnesses. Books and music folios line the walls, surrounding life masks, sculptures, lamps of blown glass fruit, leaded windows, an organ, lyres, lutes, bells. The predominant tones are red, gold, and black. From the music room we proceed to a writing room, with a large desk, where D’Annunzio died, and a medicine cabinet filled with drugs. Over the doorway from the writing room to the bedroom, we read: genio et voluptati —genius and voluptuousness. The bedroom is called The Room of Leda and overflows with chinoiserie and silken fabrics and cushions. But genius is not all pleasure and happiness. Consider the Leper Room, for meditation on the death of his mother and Eleanore Duse, which features a bed in the shape of both a cradle and a coffin, “the bed of two ages”. Two leopard skins are draped over the steps leading down from the bed. A painting of Saint Francis embracing the leper hangs near the bed. We are to understand that D’Annunzio considers himself a leper in the eyes of society, in exile here after his failed attempt to raise life to its rightful gloriousness despite the philistine, luke-warm good behavior of his fellows. In his Italian Journey, written back when words like lofty, harmonize, exalt, true, and noble could be read without embarrassment, Goethe commented on the poor reception granted to a number of Palladio buildings:

How poorly these choice monuments to a lofty spirit harmonize with the life of the rest of mankind…it occurs to me that this after all is the way of the world. For one gets little thanks from people when one tries to exalt their inner urges, to give them a lofty concept of themselves, to make them feel the magnificence of a true, noble existence.

Alas, Goethe saw the tendency of things, already at the end of the 18th century. Though I wonder what he would have thought of D’Annunzio’s taste. The Relics room is a syncretic temple to all religions, mixing sacred objects with profane military paraphernalia. There are elephants, bronze Buddhas, medieval crosses, rows and rows of Catholic statuary, and a Fiume flag on the ceiling. Over the doorway is written: “Five Fingers, Five Sins”. Out of the original seven, D’Annunzio had excluded lust and greed. These two were not deadly sins, but virtues in his creed. A broken steering wheel on the altar, which once had belonged to an English racecar driver friend, symbolizes the religion of risk. His workshop, the only room in the house to let in natural light, can only be entered by prostrating oneself beneath a low ceiling and taking a few small steps. The writer had to humble himself before his muse, his great love, the actress, Eleanore Duse, whose bust sits upon his desk, covered with a silk scarf so her beauty would not distract him from his work. La Duse, as she was called, earned the full adulation that Il Duce was denied.

torino4-037Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

D’Annunzio called his house “the book of stones,” and like all good books it is filled with symbols. Everything means something. And the many mottos written on ceilings and round the rims of rooms and over doorways help us should we falter in our interpretation. And yet, I probably will be trying to understand it all for a long time to come. Certainly, although it would be simpler to outright reject grandeur and beauty, because of its sometimes questionable provenance, I cannot moralistically deny myself the intellectual and sensual pleasure it brings. And yet, the provenance and history of objects is significant and fraught with tangled skeins of so much seeming good with so much seeming bad. I will continue to be curious about all the life and the history that can be gleaned from material remains—portals to other worlds and times—and to embrace the wild contradictory nature of humanity with an amor fati—love of fate—communing, even if need be, in occasional discomfort, with all kinds of ghosts, neither assuaging nor simplistically censoring the transgressions of these haunted spirits.

What would D’Annunzio have thought, however, had he known that the souvenir shop outside the grounds would feature not only snow globes with little miniature Il Vittoriales and coffee mugs emblazoned with his face, but also a section devoted to his special friend and nemesis, Mussolini, offering brass knuckles and ominous riding crops for sale? Would he have approved? I would like to think he would he have considered it an impudent intrusion, actuated by purely capitalist vulgarity, a treacherous re-writing of his more nuanced story, rather like the posthumous revision of Nietzsche’s biography by his Wagnerite sister. (Elisabeth-Forster Nietzsche, as is well known, attempted to posthumously present her brother as a proto-Nazi, he, who in reality despised the Germans and who called in his last days for the death of all anti-Semites. The Mussolini display made me feel queasy, so I quickly exited the little shop and walked down the hill to beautiful Lake Garda, which Goethe, on his visit, had called “magnificent,” trying to separate the marvelous and admirable Italian writer from his unsavory companion. I caught the afternoon bus out of town, and made it back to Torino by late the same evening.

I spent my last week wandering around gazing at everything, saying goodbye with my eyes, entering dark churches on rainy afternoons and returning to museums I had already visited. I abandoned my foolish infatuation with the intern from Sardinia. It had been a case of pareidolia after all, or a matter of witchcraft. I visited Brunilde one more time, who had been angry at me after the last lunch for refusing dessert, a strawberry delicacy which the blackboard claimed was “the cake of love.” Probably she had cursed me, and my refusal to eat the cake was the cause of my romantic failure. This time I was all alone with her in the little restaurant. We talked despite my faulty Italian and her non-existent English, and she even gave me the name of another restaurant, scribbling it on a little piece of paper, which I did not lose and used the following day. I knew better now: I would do whatever she said and eat whatever she suggested. Lunch was orecchietti with spinach pesto and a mouth-watering cutlet swamped in delicious artichoke sauce, a glass of red wine, sparkling water, and for dessert a divinely magical zabaione with roasted almonds, an espresso, the traditional shot glass of absinthe-soaked grapes, and something extra this time, to mark my initiation: a little jar of sugar cubes soaked in liquor and spices, which I did not know really how to eat or drink. She became frustrated with me and took it away, “Only the sugar, only the sugar;” but she had accepted me, just the same, this woman whose gruffness was a legend, but whose favor I had longed for. I was sure she was a witch, and that she could help me or hurt me. After the espresso, I paid the bill, but was short some 60 cents. She waved me away; it was a mere trifle between such good friends. I wished her a beautiful life, una vita bella, and Brunilde the fierce blew me a kiss! I was blessed.

torino4-030Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

On the way to the airport, the Alps, covered in snow, were visible behind the utilitarian architecture at the edge of the city. All along the street, shutters opened and green curtains were extended from inside to out and draped over the little balconies. From a tall building, a white sheet, like a small cloud, was shaken out in the fresh morning air in the wind and sun. Church spires rose up, shopkeepers brought out boxes of fruit for display, and old men in gray caps trundled along the sidewalk, newspapers tucked in the pockets of their old tweed jackets, ready to be unfurled along with the far-off world at the nearest caffè. The time had come to leave, and the following were my last words with which I armed myself for a return to the American landscape of ironic nihilism, that nihilism born in part of a fear of the complexity inherent in material objects and in the often painful distance between dreams and reality which they reveal:

Whosoever today does not respond, does not resonate to the stirrings of beauty and the energetic life force of the world as it is, who is not filled with wonder at its teeming multifarious richness, who mocks those in the past who have made objects and symphonies and wrote poems to celebrate the intricate, elaborate, strange, cruel, and tender rhythms of life, must be dead of spirit. In the Palazzo Madama museum, after bathing in sunlight streaming into a room of baroque golden splendor from a grand window, I entered the tiny tower housing a collection of small treasures, and any lingering doubts about meaning were immediately purged from me. I knew that the doubters were blind, deaf, and dumb. These intricate treasures were immediate palpable evidence of the perennial human need to celebrate the real delights and dangers of nature and civilization. Carved ivories, etched gems, blown glass, cast bronze. Fancy— made out of the real substance of the physical world, its colors and textures and qualities. I was thus armed to do battle against the skeptical intellectuals and their social construction blasphemy. I knew: Whosoever does not love Nature and the artifacts of humankind’s love of matter (colors, curves, sounds, textures, words, flavors, rhythms, light, light, light!) may as well be dead. Such a one is bereft of heat, of senses, of love, of lust, is a lizard of theoretical idiocy; just as much a repressor of the instincts and the body and nature as any inquisition or poison-spider priest. Philistine sophisticates, parading as the new intellectuals and new anti-artists, may you chortle on the dust of your own dreary scoffing. We others, we naïve ones, have been filled with wonder by the beauty of the world.

—Genese Grill

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Genese Grill is a writer, translator, and book artist, living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). She has just finished a collection of essays entitled Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, which is looking for a nice publishing house in which it might live. Essays from the collection have appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Georgia Review, and The Missouri Review, and one of them won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Nonfiction. She is proud to be on the masthead of Numéro Cinq as special correspondent.

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