Another brilliant issue, an overflowing issue, a monumental issue, the result of immense efforts on my part to shrink the magazine and make things manageable (read with irony). But, yes, brilliant, explosive. We have art work by Bonnie Baker, Denise Blake poems from Ireland, Dylan Brennan interviews Douglas J. Weatherford, translator of Juan Rulfo’s The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings just out with Deep Vellum Publishing, fiction by John Bullock and Madison Smartt Bell, plus a short story by Franci Novak, translated from Slovenian by Olivia Hellewell, also a selection of ghazals by our own A. Anupama, plus poems by Robert Currie and Michael Catherwood, a My First Job essay by Cynthia Holz, Patrick J. Keane on Yeats and Gnosticism, Michael Carson on plot (in short stories), Linda Chown reviews Madison Smartt Bell’s new novel Behind the Moon, Jeff Bursey reviews Steven Moore’s My Back Pages (and we have an excerpt), Dorian Stuber reviews Robert Walser, Frank Richardson reviews Compass by Matthias Énard, Joseph Schreiber reviews João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel, Julie Larios reviews Fleda Brown’s new and selected poems, and more! Indeterminate, untold amounts of more. Cataclysmic floods of MORE.
First we go under: a wide-eyed, thrumming, Rosamund Pike stumbles down a ramp into a subway station.
Before the tale even begins, her body is contorted, an arm out to the side like a broken doll, her gaze voracious, expectant and searching. A wounded creature.
The soundtrack features the sound of keys clattering, a jarring noise. She seems under threat before there is even a threat.
When she finds the hovering device in the jaundiced subway, it appears like an answer to her objectless terror. Does the device find her or does she create it to externalize her horror? Enough ambiguity to make one think the subway is wallpapered yellow. Director Ringan Ledwidge says he drew inspiration for the film from two sources: it “merges the menacing ball from Phantasm and the maniacal subway scene from Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession” cites Rolling Stone Magazine. The dance that follows haunts, seems familiar and uncannily unfamiliar. It haunts.
I am haunted, too, by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki’s chapter on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, how they note at key moments Godard’s film becomes about the actress, Anna Karina, not the part she is playing. Pike is playing a part here, of course, but it’s impossible to leave her out of it. She exceeds the role. Ledwidge in an interview with Alex Denney in Dazed magazine agrees:
It’s not a role that you would traditionally associate Rosamund with, quite often I think she hasn’t been given the chance to explore herself as an actress. Until recently you might have thought of her in a period movie or something like that, but then she did Gone Girl and you’re like, ‘Holy shit, she’s really capable of some dark stuff.’ So I thought if Rosamund really went for it, and went as balls-out mental as she would need to, she could be a really interesting, really surprising choice.”
The more traditional Pike of period piece films at odds with the disruptive and excessive Pike. The film evokes the first Pike to corrupt her with the second. Her out-of-date moss-green dress, her nylons, her heels, all seem to suggest something is not quite right, like she herself is a little alien here, out of time and place.
I am haunted, too, by the Salpêtrièr hysterics.
Georges Didi-Huberman summarizes in his Invention of Hysteria: “In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, the Salpêtrière was what it had always been: a kind of feminine inferno, a citta dolorosa confining four thousand incurable or mad women. It was a nightmare in the midst of Paris’s Belle Époque.”
Charcot gained a reputation for his Tuesday lectures. These partly live on in photographs. In his analysis, Didi-Huberman links the hysteric’s body with the doctor:
With Charcot we discover the capacity of the hysterical body, which is, in fact, prodigious, it is prodigious; it surpasses the imagination, surpasses “all hopes,” as they say. Whose imagination? Whose hopes? There’s the rub. What the hysterics of the Salpêtrière could exhibit with their bodies betokens an extraordinary complicity between patients and doctors, a relationship of desires, gazes, and knowledge. This relationship is interrogated here. What remains with us is the series of images of the Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière.”
The hysteric’s contortions then connect doctor and patient, a transference and counter-transference. Drawing back to Pike and Ledwidge, we also see the connection between the director’s camera and Pike’s hysterical performance, possessed, dispossessed and disruptive.
It’s hard not to see the alien device as camera, especially in the manner it seeks to possess and objectify her. Narratively there is no catharsis here, no place where she triumphs over the alien device or is set free. Pike’s body performs for the camera / device as it seeks to possess her, puppet her to extremes of expression, drive her to violence against herself.
Yet I am haunted by Pike, haunted by her laughter and her howls, her body as defiant. As Ledwidge notes,
For an actress you’ve got to be brave, because you’re doing things that are gonna make you look ugly or weird in certain moments, and if you’re not committed it ends up not looking great. But she really nailed it – we built foam tile walls she could slam into, but she was still pretty bruised and exhausted by the end. It was disturbing and scary and sexy all at the same time. You felt like you were seeing something you shouldn’t really be seeing.
Her laughter and howls rupture the puppetry. Maybe it’s something we shouldn’t really be seeing, but she is the voodoo doll and the bokor. Despite the possession, Pike wins.
—R. W. Gray
Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) was a Russian and Soviet poet who is often considered one of the greatest contributors to 20th century Russian literature. “Well, if you are talking about the twentieth century, I’ll give you a list of poets,” Russian Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky once said. “Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva—and she is the greatest one, in my view. The greatest poet in the twentieth century was a woman.”
The following new translations, by Mary Jane White, are from Marina Tsvetaeva’s final published collection, AFTER RUSSIA (Paris 1926). The poems are witty and lush, and are part of White’s long project of Tsvetaeva translations. White has recently compiled her translations into a 288-page manuscript, which is awaiting publication. White’s previous Tsvetaeva translations include the collections Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) and New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke (2007).
— Benjamin Woodard
On a pleasing Atlantic
Breath of spring —
Like a stupendous butterfly
My curtain — and — I
Like a Hindu widow
Enter the gold-lipped crater,
Like a listless Naiad
Enter the sea beyond a window . . .
5 May 1923
TO HONOR TIME
for Vera Arenskaya
On the refugee-road!
It whooped — and bolted
Headlong on its wheels.
Time! I don’t have time.
Caught up in chronicles
And kisses . . . like sands
In rustling streams . . .
Time, you let me down!
Of clock-hands and wrinkles’
Furrows — of American
Innovations . . . — Empty jar! —
Time, you give me short measure!
Time, you hand me over!
Like a debauched wife — a “new toy”
You drop . . . — “One hour, but it’s ours!”
— Your train leaves on a different
Track! . . —
Since I was born past
Time! To no purpose and in vain
You resist! Caliph of an hour:
Time! I will pass you by!
10 May 1923
Hell’s too small, heaven too small to contain you:
Everyone’s already at the point of dying for you.
But to follow your brother, sadly, into the fire —
Really, is that customary? It’s not a sister’s
Place, to radiate passion!
Really, is it customary to lie in his barrow . . .
With your brother? . . .
………………………………— “He was and is mine! Even if he’s rotten!”
— And that’s the order of precedence with graves!!!
11 May 1923
Time the upper reaches are laid bare,
Time you gaze into our souls — as into our eyes.
These — open sluices of blood!
These — open sluices of night!
Our blood surged, like the night
Our blood surged, — like our blood
The night surged! (Upper regions of the ear
Time: a world poured into our ears — as into our eyes!)
The screen of the visible pulled back!
On time’s distinct calm!
Time of the ear opening, like an eyelid,
No longer do we have weight, or breathe: we hear.
A world channeled into our endless ear’s
Helix: sucking down sounds,
Helix, — our endless soul! . .
(Time, you enter our souls — as you would our arms!)
12 May 1923
TO STEAL . . .
And perhaps, the finest victory
Over time and gravity —
Is to pass, without leaving a trace,
Is to pass, without leaving a shadow
On the walls . . .
…………………….Finer perhaps — to exact
By refusal? To erase myself from mirrors?
Like: Lermontov moving through the Caucuses
To steal, without disturbing the rock-faces.
And perhaps — the finest amusement
Given the finger of Sebastian Bach
Would be not to trouble the organ’s echo?
To collapse, leaving no dust
For the urn . . .
…………………….Finer perhaps — to exact
By fraud? To write myself out of the latitudes?
Like: Time moving through an ocean
To steal, without disturbing the waters . . .
14 May 1923
— Marina Tsvetaeva, translated from the Russian by Mary Jane White
Marina Tsvetaeva is considered by many to be one of the greatest contributors to 20th century Russian literature. Born in 1892, she published many volumes of poetry during her lifetime and was greatly admired by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anna Akhmatova. She committed suicide in 1941, and since then, her poetry has been widely translated.
Mary Jane White is a poet and translator who earned an MFA from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the recipient of NEA Fellowships in both poetry and translation. She has published numerous books of her own poetry, as well as Tsvetaeva translations, which include Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) and New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke (2007).
Draw the curtain.
Find the ground fasted –
an unspoiled, infinite, hushing
white. And planed by rigid light,
a light that slides like golden straps
across a stiff white cloth
one dares not rustle. Steady. Draw
no breath. Listen. Draw
thyself below the fallen snow.
Last night’s frost a shock to all systems.
What goes without saying: the key
turning in the ignition,
the engine not turning over.
Roll the boulder up the hill.
Repeat. The key turning, the key
turning. The engine finally
turning over. What goes without
saying: a prayer. The wheels turning.
Roll the boulder up the hill.
Repeat. Roll the boulder away
from the tomb. In the precise spot
between two towns the channels crack,
their signals scattered in the snow.
Pull over. Catch your breath.
Hear the nausea fizzing up.
This is where the tethers snap:
tundra: white noise, natural light.
No spires to fishhook Heaven.
No bats batting ’bout. No belfry.
Closest thing to a gargoyle here,
a grouse hunched in an alder tree.
No iron hinge, no oaken door;
no room, you’d think, for any god.
The angels get their hackles up.
Hoary-feathered skull-gull roosting,
a handsaw Jigsaw Gothic.
Creaking lightly past the ribwork
and lighting candles on the way.
Flotsam-coloured light kneels on
twelve carved apostles left alone
to digest and to ruminate.
You’ll notice their resemblance
to sailors who have disappeared.
An ancient furnace wails, its warmth
twenty thousand leagues away.
Whatever convoluted way
I come up from the furnace room,
a gravity will draw, will drag
my eye toward the Sacred Heart,
in the foremost lobe of church.
that solar plexus
where all prayers’ limbs’ nerve endings meet,
Introibo ad altare Dei
and feel those closed eyes follow me.
Paul’s First Mass at Corinth
In the warm drone of the first reading
Eutyches falls asleep
and tumbles over a railing
into the worm-drone of the first reading.
Eutyches falls. Asleep
he dreams a bird sailing
in the warm drome. The first meeting
and already, one sentenced to death.
Like Civil War re-enactments,
stamp collecting, priesthood something
a man just stumbles into when
he starts to feel the prick of time.
A radiator’s knuckles rap.
A rats’ nest in the linotype.
The dry tongues of a calendar
with every month epitomized
by one of the Old Masters.
December: the nativity,
Bronzino. But if I flip back
to March, El Greco, his pieta.
That fog-blue skin that Jesus has.
The Marys, Peter, turning blue,
like Jesus took all reds with Him.
El Greco – the Greek – how did he know
that springtime here leaves minute shards
of winter guilting in the bone
three bodies huddled can’t evict,
or all that fragrant red and gold
won’t hold the blue beneath our skin,
that winter here is a lifetime long?
“Down here, now, there’s nothing to be at.
But I worked as a machinist forty years,
and I always did love looking at the stars.
If not for this, I’d have me wife drove cracked.”
An arsenal of copper pipe and salvaged
mirrors he had piled up in that shed,
and a massive hole cut in the roof to let
the stovepipe out. Never mind the damage.
“I saw the Perseid showers once,” he lied.
He had porthole glass for lenses. Scratched to shit.
You couldn’t see a blasted thing. “Well, Father,
whatcha think? Can you see Heaven?”
“Oh yes,” I said, “they’re tinkering away
to try and get a better look at us.”
Seven steps from door to bed.
Shoes. Then socks. Then trousers.
Collar on the nightstand. Black shirt,
button button button, ’til I’m
xxxxxxxxxxxxdefrocked. A priest, naked.
When I close my eyes even I can’t
imagine it. I should prowl out
into the street to mystify
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI should turn in.
Stretch the full length of the bed,
fold my arms first in, then out
Christ. Corpse. Christ. Corpse.
my eyes groping
from bookshelf to sideboard
to phonograph, things left behind
by Father Whosits. This is how
a priest propagates, begetting
antiques and booklice. So do I
populate the earth: sheep after sheep
night after night.
Encounters with Men
A joke, to start.
So a priest walks into a bar…
and the place goes into rigor mortis. You can hear
the difference between talk and conversation:
a nod, a whisper.
Jesus. Never? Can you imagine?
A young fella like that, it isn’t natural.
Yes, well you know what that crowd are like. Keep an eye
on the kids, if I were you.
That’s what keeps the quiet between us
so thick the counter buckles.
When I was five, my father taught me how to fight. Or tried:
held my fists before my face, two knots of little bones
bound in pink crêpe. I’d have to find other means:
anyone can see my hands,
un-cuffed, uncramped, unblistered, clean as paper,
a joke to finish.
“So a priest walks into a bar…”
I feel awkward, shy, afraid.
But here it is, incredibly boring, so boring I can’t believe it’s true.
I never had an impulse to go to the altar.
I thought everything we were doing was awful.
There are many things in your heart you can never tell another person.
“I ain’t real sure,” for example.
Love is a publicity stunt, and making love – after the first curious raptures – is only
xxxxxxanother petulant way to pass the time.
He would have been a great director, which eventually he wanted to be.
I never said, “I want to be alone.” I only said, “I want to be left alone.” There is a whole
xxxxxxworld of difference.
I only said “The diaphragm is the greatest invention since Pan-Cake makeup.”
If a woman makes a mistake unintentionally, I don’t believe she should be condemned
Or shook with such violence that he left ten black-and-blue finger prints on my arms.
You should cross yourself when you say his name.
But once a woman has forgiven a man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.
People used to say that I had a feeling of closeness, a great warmth of loving everybody,
xxxxxx that they could tell me their troubles.
But the worst part of it all is this: no matter how hard you try, you find you cannot
xxxxxxpossibly please everyone.
They had to say something about me, so they wrote stories of their own fantasy and
xxxxxxcalled me temperamental and hard to handle.
That’s a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt, and bewildered
and no one gives a damn.
It never occurs to them that one is simply tired.
And hurt, and bewildered.
Love is disgusting when you no longer possess yourself.
All you have to do is to say you want to be alone.
A found poem, made up of quotes from silent film actresses.
Father, forgive me my sins. You see, Father, I had to come see you.
You see, my son – I, I mean, I’m getting myself tangled up.
Wednesday I hung out the wash and I took little Paddy out with me.
There’s never a happier child – Father, he wouldn’t say “boo.”
When I was done I knelt down to see what he’d got into. He was
playing with some kind of jar. No idea where he got that.
He was filling the jar up with ants and shaking them out on the ground.
I told him not to be at it. Why can’t I? he asked me.
Not in a saucy way, mind you. I told him the ants would get hurt if
he kept on shaking the jar – that they were frightened of him,
he wasn’t nice if he did that. But he shook them right out on the ground. I
said “I’m gonna count, mister. One. Two…” Do you think he would stop?
Dead ants. Dead. I tried taking it from him. I screamed myself red. I
could not get him to understand they were … and he
was so big. He kept shaking and shaking. I
struck him. I struck. O God, Father, what a clout I gave him.
Patrick O’Reilly is a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. He has written for untethered, The Partisan, and Numéro Cinq, where he is a contributor. In 2015, his poem “Shelter” was long-listed for Best Canadian Poetry. He lives in Montréal.
In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s 1915 story The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakens not as a cockroach struggling to escape his bed but as an interpellated black man struggling to escape the Western hemisphere. I preface my interpretation with an admission that I offer the critical reader a conceit to rival Kafka’s own, the enduring weight of which has, in peculiarity of both interest and insight, propelled his writing from his century into ours. Consider the human Gregor according to what he becomes: a dark-carapaced, living symbol of decadent biology, hidden away from and by the dominant culture, victim of an original sentence, mere animal bereft of the speech act, an innocent much abused by his social relations. Even Gregor’s heterosomatic blood is brown. For blood is the site where all racism makes its nest in the biological episteme of 1915 . I contend that Gregor goes to sleep a white bourgeois “commercial traveler” and wakes up a lumpenproletarian black man (Kafka 75).
Subaltern, for he cannot speak to authority without “a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, which [leaves] the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then [rises] up reverberating around them to destroy their sense, so that one [can] not be sure one [has] heard them rightly” (77). Lumpen, too, for he cannot engage in industry, Gregor the cockroach reveals in relief the relationship of productivity to whiteness and of the parasitic to blackness. This fallen, racialized modality of being I term Homo vermes, the most maligned product of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that physical arm of ideological racism which is a racism without a human face at all.
Interpellation as a method of metamorphosis: to the specific mechanism of his fictive, anti-humanist-by-other means interpellation of the body that enforces Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Kafka pays no textual attention. In the text Gregor simply wakes up on his fateful day and that is it. Gregor’s “hard, as it were armor-plated, back” as “he lift[s] his head a little [so] he [can] see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments…His numerous legs, which [are] pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, [wave] helplessly before his eyes” (Kafka 75). Gregor’s body, nearly dead, is also newly racialized, reborn under the domination of racism. There exist subtle hints in Kafka’s story which refer to the racial dimension as that which separates the real life of men from the fatal myth of cockroaches along racial, existential, and class grounds, which I examine in turn.
Upon his metamorphosis, Gregor develops a sort of rash on his carapice, an “itching place which [is] surrounded by many small white spots,” discolored manifestations of the racial apparatus imparted by whiteness onto a white man no longer white, “the nature of which he [can] not understand” (Kafka 76). I consider Kafka here at his most anti-racist and as one such thinker par excellence. In his story, the evaluative site of race assumes the form of a radical anti-humanism which he, desperate to impart to the reader the insidious effects on body and mind of the racial apparatus, equates to a dehumanizing force so enormously powerful it abolishes the whole charactery of human species-being.
Gregor Samsa, the man become less than nothing, is less than that if he is not the twentieth century’s prime conceit of the dehumanized person in literature. Here Kafka’s depiction ad absurdum of the descent of man from the racial to the carapacial exemplifies his understanding of contemporary anti-humanist and anti-Semitic propaganda , which advised white people that other people were subhuman or of a different species entirely. That such a radical interpellation could overcome a hard-working commercial bourgeois, a devoted employee who supports his whole family by his labor alone, whose material practices prior to metamorphosis repeat the demands of capital willingly and slavishly, whose family surname, a Hungarian derivation of the the Hebrew Shemu’el, means literally “the name of God,” reproofs interpretations of The Metamorphosis as an undifferentiated allegory for alienation. The “name of God” here does not refer to the ancient tribes of Israel whose descendants lived, like Kafka, in a diasporic state in Prague. It refers to a formerly white man failed by counterfeit humanism.
The Metamorphosis is not, then, a literary example of the process of alienation in a vacuum; it is not a springboard for discussing the concept of alienation in itself, for Kafka wrote the other majority of his ouvre in regards to alienation qua alienation. Such is why we still read even the isolated paragraphs of Kafka today, in which his left and right hands have a wrestling match, and men become sensuous, hunted beasts. Which striking image, plot twist, or characterization of the unfortunates in the narrative of Gregor Samsa beyond Kafka’s whispered lacuna of the racial could possibly alienate the well-adjusted, self-sufficient salesman prior to his transformation? Gregor’s metamorphosis is representative of alienation, but it is representative of a specific type of alienation coded primarily by the racial apparatus of which the ethnically Jewish Kafka was, beyond a doubt, all too well aware.
Racial anti-humanism is that theory of the human which denies all humanism owing to race. The carapacial is that subject-position which has fallen below the sunken threshold of mere, familiar racism, as deadly as it is. The carapacial is that ontological status below the most maligned victims of the most vicious racism imaginable. My argument that Gregor becomes a Western black man may meet with the counter-reply that he devolves from a Jew into a vermin of popular racist caricature and so contextualizes a commentary not on blackness but on the so-called Jewish problem from below. Criteria of the alienation of Homo vermes from the social and familial totality for both demographics at the time were, admittedly, similar in tone, and both were certainly thought of as subhuman, which criterial dehumanizations feature, I think, important exceptions in their discursive contours.
The Jewish and the black man alike were, by and large, despised in Kafka’s century. Jean-Paul Sartre writes in Anti-Semite and Jew that “there is a disgust for the Jew, just as there is a disgust for the Chinese or the Negro among certain people…it is not from the body that the sense of repulsion arises…rather it is something that enters the body from the mind. It is an involvement of the mind, but one so deep-seated and complete that it extends to the physiological realm” (11). But that involvement of the mind “only serves [the anti-Semite] as a pretext; elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man of yellow skin” (54). Although alternate translations of the term Kafka uses to describe Gregor Samsa, Ungeziefer, render forth the words insect, cockroach, and vermin differently—vermin may be insect, rats, or other pests—a rat does not have feelers, nor can a rat crawl on a ceiling how Gregor does in latter parts of the story. Neither does the black man as an object of racist criticism possess enough use-value to satisfy the anti-humanist racial apparatus (for he is always and obviously human, too): he must become ever lesser until he is something which even moral men may stomp upon beneath their feet, something so abject and carapacial no one in Gregor’s family cares about him once he plunges into physical grotesquery, something to be first looked after and then eventually discarded.
The viciousness of anti-humanism stretches throughout the centuries. Voltaire, the anti-Semitic idol of the Enlightenment, writes in his Philosophical Dictionary that “I have never been in Judea, thank God! And I never will go there… Frederick II, when he saw this detestable country, said, loudly enough to be distinctly heard, that Moses must have been very ill advised to conduct his tribe of lepers to such a place as that” (263-64). The premier derogatory stereotype of the Jewish persona contemporary to Kafka’s time was that of a rat—such an anti-humanist theme would later rage forth in the propaganda of the Nazis but is, in fact, much older a theme than Hitler’s doctrine— rather than a cockroach, while stereotypes of the black man in the margins have long riffed on elements of the pestilential and the insectal. Kafka admits he wrote of an Insekt. For instance, compare the brutalization apparent in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Prioress’ Tale,” in which Jews living in their isolated ghetto slit the throat of a Christian child, to the historical likes of Cotton Mather’s treatment of the human status of “The Negro Christianized” or his sermon on the state-ordered death of the slave Joseph Hanno he entitled Tremenda: The Dreadful Sound with Which the Wicked are to be Thunderstruck.
Discursive themes on black pestilence have a history in the West almost as long as that of the facts of anti-Semitic pogroms. It predominated even in the New World discourse of the seventeenth century, when Cotton Mather penned execution sermons like Tremenda in efforts to convert the condemned and “miserable African” before his summary hanging, while conflating via his fundamentalist religion the diseases spread by unplanned urban living prior to germ theory with the possession, if not its proprietary ownership, of black skin enslaved under the regime of whiteness.
The black and insectal appear in reaction even in the exploding bombs of anti-colonial discourse. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon offers a tantalizing image of the racial, in which Fanon, “little by little, putting out pseudopodia here and there, I secreted a race” (92). If Kafka wanted to write about an alienated Jew in Europe, he would have written about such a subject-position without insisting on its silence. Instead, Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, a story about a white man become black who, in consequence of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, becomes inhuman and carapacial.
The prevailing ethno-racism of the social thought of Kafka’s brief life, were he to reflect it back on itself in the ethical mirror of literature, would have bade him write Gregor as a character who sniffs the air of his apartment with his large, furry nose and who literally squirrels away fresh cheese, if Gregor were merely the caricature of the socially problematic Jew in Kafka’s critical imagination—not as a character radically alienated by the racial, who naturally consumes a diet of the rotten and degenerated food his sister Grete scatters to the floor of his bedroom, whose epidermis is replaced entirely with his uncanny carapice (Kafka 95). Interpellated Gregor has feelers but has neither a tail, fur, whiskers, nor any teeth at all. He is a carapacial rendition of the final product of the dehumanizing, hierarchizing discourse of racism, an animal ontologically beneath the lowliest of mammals under the regime of Western racism, a black man whose subject-position is more subordinate than that of the Jew less than a decade after the conclusion of the Dreyfus Affair and within a year of the Great War, which eventually unfolded its various crimes against humanity into Hitler’s racial doctrine writ gigantic.
The carapacial hide that covers Gregor’s racialized body bears little of the historical assaults on the chosen people or the propagandistic, bitter taints of blood libel. What constitutes his body is a reflective criticism—the shining carapice of a cockroach is itself reflective of the racial gaze—of those who criticize the humanism of blackness from the standpoint of whiteness weaponized entirely against blackness, whose author is ethnically Jewish, but who does not take here in The Metamorphosis the specter of Jewishness in particular as his urgent object. For here Kafka writes urgently. How, and why, does Gregor Samsa, if not quite his subjectivity as his capacity for sentience is not immediately impacted by his metamorphosis, become a cockroach? Kafka provides no specific explanation. The answer to this riddle of the racial apparatus, I think, lies mid-way between Martin Heidegger, who published his Being and Time in 1927, thirteen years after the publication of The Metamorphosis, and the 1970 theory of interpellation put forth by Louis Althusser. Kafka read neither Heidegger nor Althusser as he wrote his story, of course, but he was not unaware of the themes they would bring up as to how the human agent is summoned to become the living form of its opposite.
Kafka’s story can be understood in the light of Heidegger’s investigations of “the call” and Althusser’s conception of material interpellation via ideology. Happy, normalized Gregor is called—interpellated ideologically and thus materially—into his overnight devolution from one life-form of existence to another. Below I examine the mechanism of his metamorphosis via two philosophical anti-humanists, one a Nazi and the other a Marxist, and posit the universal significance of that mechanism for Kafka’s engagement with the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that wicked arm of the ideological which continues to haunt our culture as much as it haunted Kafka’s. In The Metamorphosis, even the universal is problematized as descending from the racial to that which produces and reduces Homo sapiens to Homo vermes, in whose body a virulently racist episteme comes home to roost.
Being and Time seeks to interpret two axes of universal experience. It is not Gregor’s notion of time that is appealed to by the racial apparatus; for all his newly-grown limbs and abilities to crawl upon his ceiling and consume degenerated food, his time spent among the social remains a grinding constant for him, however much his apartment becomes prison-like as his body becomes heterosomatic. His time remains very much the time of the family, though his phenomenology slides downward into ignorance—he forgets even that the seasons pass in the world beyond his apartment. Rather, it is his very being that is called to become carapacial by the appeal of the racial apparatus. I iterate how, via Heidegger, one can understand Gregor’s position. He falls into being by being called as a white man into the insectoid nether-realm of a racist society. How some people experience the call—as though awakening with one’s face in a water basin—Gregor falls ontologically, his face become, toothlessly, quietly, a symbol of the anti-human whose every social relation denounces him.
Heidegger writes in Being and Time that the “call ‘says’ nothing which might be talked about,” and which “gives no information about events,” much how Kafka is silent about Gregor’s devolving mechanism, and which “points forward to Dasein’s potentiality-for-Being,” that is, being another species below even what the racists refer to as the lowest race, “and it does this as a call which comes from [the] uncanniness” of “thrown individualization” (325). Is this not Gregor’s real instantiation of the racial, thrown into being a cockroach, in his uncomfortable, uncanny carapice? Gregor did not study the hardy texts of existentialism to become a cockroach; nor did he proof the ancient Heraclitus against his thesis that all things exist in fluxual metamorphosis. But Heidegger continues:
When the call gives us a potentiality-for-being to understand, it does not give us one which is ideal and universal; it discloses it as that which has been currently individualized and which belongs to that particular Dasein… Whatever the ways in which conscience is experienced or interpreted, all our experiences ‘agree’ on this ‘Guilty!’. Because Dasein has falling as its kind of Being, the way Dasein gets interpreted is for the most inauthentically ‘oriented’ and does not reach the ‘essence’; for to Dasein the primordially appropriate ontological way of formulating questions remains alien… this ‘Guilty!’ turns up as a predicate for the ‘I am’” (326).
Enough ink has been spilled about the relationship between Kafka and affective guilt—his father has probably been written about more than any other father excepting the celestial father of Christianity. “’Being-guilty’ also has the signification of ‘being responsible for’—that is, being the cause or author of something, or even ‘being the occasion’ for something,” according to Heidegger (327). Gregor’s metamorphosis is Kafka’s occasion to discuss guilt but it is also an occasion to discuss something else.
Of more importance is his relationship with Homo vermes, those who come to be defined by not the affect of guilt but the very ontological status of being-guilty of being Homo vermes. Cockroaches, after all, are guilty of nothing: they act on the world solely according to their nature. But the nature of men is manifold, capable of every emotion, and capable likewise of every dehumanizing transformation. So, too, with those assaulted by the ideology of the hardcore racists like de Gobineau and his followers. The Metamorphosis can be understood not as offering a projection of universal doom to those called into racial hierarchy but as a universal state of being, Homo vermes, who are not taken as the subectal object of the hated Jew but rather as the black man. It is at once a place for all to fall into the uncanny inhuman and a specifically designed reservoir of those most hated by the hegemonic sphere of culture. “In uncanniness,” writes Heidegger, “Dasein stands together with itself primordially. Uncanniness brings this entity face to face with its undisguised nullity, which belongs to the possibility of its ownmost potentiality-for-Being” (333). Gregor becomes a nullity where previously he was a full man integrated into the social life of the industrial West. This generous interpretation of the family, the productive enemy of all uncanny individualism, also has its problematic, which even through Kafka does not deliver freedom to those haunted by blackness.
So-called existential freedom under the umbrage of race offers stranger miseries than are usual in the course of human life. “Freedom, however, is only in the choice of one possibility—that is, in tolerating one’s not having chosen the others and one’s not being able to choose them” (Heidegger 331). The call to the carapacial is not universalist in scope, according to Heidegger: it calls only the absolute minority. Of course, the most absolute minority is “that which is individualized,” that is, the individual who “has falling as its kind of Being” (326). Every man is potentially and thus universally such material for metamorphosis, and so every calling develops into the universal via particularity. Every person is potentially Homo vermes according to one’s particular regime of episteme, depending on which kind of persons it casts aside and which kind it lets live; but every person is not individually threatened by being called into such a state of being as Homo vermes in Kafka’s episteme.
This horror of being Homo vermes is reserved for the black man in Kafka. “’Making oneself responsible’ by breaking a law…can indeed also have the character of ‘coming to owe something to Others’. This does not happen merely through law-breaking as such, but rather through my having the responsibility for the Other’s becoming endangered in his existence, led astray, or even ruined” (Heidegger 327). A more complete ruin than that of Gregor Samsa has not been written about except perhaps for the ruin of Job. The specter of racism, which always already references the most inauthentic mode of being human (the racial misrecognition of biology) to which humanistic critique is completely opposed, does not threaten everyone, at least not in Kafka’s sense. It threatens the carapacial who once upon a time were racial. In short, the human being, as utterly human as any other example of the species, becomes utterly less than that once he is called into being an example of Homo vermes.
The absolute minority is the individual Gregor Samsa who falls—I might term this waking up—into another level of species-being. I shall say more of his race and carapace. Gregor the salesman is white, but Gregor the cockroach is not: he has fallen into being a black man, the lowest scale of being according to the racist evaluation of his time, whose missionary impact Kafka seeks to deflect and re-humanize from head to hue. That is, Gregor transforms from the white universal into the black particular, whose instance must necessarily exist in a state of guilt so profound he grows insectal feelers, the uncanny ability to crawl on ceilings, and the capacity to put like with like in his diet of consumption—a rotten body able only to enjoy rotten food. Human beings typically do no such thing no matter their race; nor should any of us, save the racists, ever live in such a state of guilt. Only interpellated Homo vermes can exist in such a state, and at that, only when imagined by an author consumed by the notion that race dehumanizes a man called by anti-humanist racial apparatus.
But Homo vermes here is an imaginary object. No human being is a vermin. Racists rarely know they operate in the realm of the imaginary, that Homo vermes offers hope for humanism even when Gregor’s abused, humiliated body flattens unto his death, when he dies unmourned in a story written onto paper by the anxious fingers of a Prague Jew writing of the black man as an epitomic object of humanist criticism, or when the failed strategies of racists aim to build a master race but only offer posterity a long and painful laughter. Racial hatred is as absolute and boundless as the human. For the racists who developed Nazism, Kafka could be hated twice; the problematic Jew thrice over; but the black man has been hated ad infinitum even by those who offered theories that rendered humanism solute and replied still in 1915: but, he, the human, is still the aspect of the “miserable African.”
Kafka’s racists hated the Jew who wrote of blackness and so indirectly produced, via the medium of Kafka’s agency, the narrativa exemplum of anti-racism that defined their own century, equal in misery as the plodding century which howled of the plight of Cotton Mather’s “miserable African.” Yet this newer pessimism was confined to the domain of the racist, whose thinking was also novel for all its destructive faults; for, I think, the first true racist was born alongside the first cosmopolitan (consider the sea-faring Portuguese entry into the slave trade). Kafka, anti-racist, prevails against the racial apparatus all the more hopefully because he disproves the critical field of racist attention as living on fallow soil. We see more of Kafka’s defense of Homo vermes in the light of Althusser’s long essay On the Reproduction of Capitalism now that the race-thinking Heidegger inverts himself.
For Althusser, every man, woman, and child alive and active in modern society is recruited by that ideology which reproduces the status quo—“the State”—which “recruits them all” to its immanent demands (190). The state is not co-incident with the figureheads of government. It is co-incident with the state of economy and culture which rules a particular society. In other terms, what nineteenth-century Marxists called false consciousness is consciousness itself defined by material practice imposed from birth onward by the directive, reproductive needs of how things always already are and need to keep on being. It is this form of consciousness which, for Althusser, “recruits them all” into being subjects. But Gregor is not recruited into the economistic mold of the state, which tells its workers what to do and when to do it. He is recruited into a debased subjectivity even while maintaining sentience of such, which apparatus tells the racialized worker how to labor (or, in this instance, how not to labor); and more importantly, how to perform that lacunic labor which compares a dignified man to a man who relinquishes all dignity of the self. “We,” writes Althusser, “know what that means: these apparatuses operate apparently ‘all by themselves,’ without recourse to violence. In fact, they function thanks to means other than violence, namely, on ideology, or rather, ideologization” (79). The status quo of which Althusser writes needs people to die quietly. One such ideologized person is Gregor, who becomes an instance of Homo vermes, a vermin incapable of any speech act in consequence of the racial apparatus.
Kafka’s observation proves true as it metamorphoses from the realm of pure idea to the realm of materiality, material repetition, and material embodiment of which the recruited Gregor is a short-lived example. “We shall go on to suggest ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way to ‘recruit’ subjects among individuals (it recruits them all) or ‘transforms’ individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) through the very precise operation that we call interpellation or hailing” (Althusser 190). If guilt becomes an Insekt then Homo vermes is personal false consciousness become blackness entirely assumed. “This is a strange phenomenon, after all, one that cannot be explained by ‘guilt feelings’ alone, despite the large numbers of people with ‘something on their consciences” (Althusser 191). Prior to Gregor’s racial guilt, who, as a former bourgeois white man, did not know he could interpolate into blackness, and so was never aware of a false consciousness which is not false at all, Gregor was only a white man engaged in labor. In fact, it seems Gregor did very little else but work for the capitalist system prior to his metamorphosis; and prior to this event, Gregor was not carapacial and was probably not even racial in the sense that he was blind to his whiteness by virtue of being white. I say more of Althusser’s theory of interpellation before I say more of Kafka’s most tragic and carapacial character.
In his essay on ideology, Louis Althusser, in explaining his theory of material interpellation, rarely concerns himself with false consciousness, for such is the orthodox form of the enslavement of the workers with which he takes especial issue. Neither does Kafka much concern himself with false consciousness, for he, like the later Althusser, understands that the concept of the human is at odds with theories of the racial, the biological misrecognition of man, and those dehumanizing theories of the carapacial which he depicts at their harshest materialization in The Metamorphosis. For Kafka, the metaphorical is material. False consciousness is as false as race—the black man under realism’s regime is never Homo vermes and is always as human as Kafka, as you, or as I—but it does offer local criticism of the gigantic monster of the racial apparatus, whose form of praxis is racial anti-humanism.
That a Nazi like Heidegger or a Marxist like Althusser offer a fresh locus of criticism for Kafka’s work, even from the standpoints of two opposing totalitarian tendencies, exclaims his righteous demonization of all that is racial and all that tends towards the monstrous and the carapacial, which, as evidenced by his story, are exactly identical in critical orientation. Kafka supports the universal as much as anti-humanist thought supports the merely particular. The racial apparatus is as “repulsive” and “bound to go on being repulsive ” as Gregor (Kafka 101). A well-adjusted man like Gregor should worry that he might become, in the course of one dark night of the soul, an “Insekt.” Materially successful by Kafka’s account, keen on his nuclear family, happily individual, Gregor awakens, via no recognizance of his own, in the being-toward-death of a cockroach who loses his job, who slaved for capital and family through his own will and becomes a parasite without will, who integrates the sin of knowledge into a wound in his back—a book could be written about the apple lodged into his carapice and the sort of horrible knowledge its imposition represents as it rots—who whistles through his jaw, for he no longer has access to the Logos which is universally constitutive of the human being.
Gregor is the first cockroach who has a neocortex but no tongue. He dies as black and fallen as the Fanoniansubject whose will to revolution is killed under colonialism. Fanon writes of the colonized subject that “in plain talk, he is reduced to the state of an animal. And consequently, when the colonist speaks of of the colonized he uses zoological terms. Allusion is made to the slithery movements…to the hordes, the stink, the swarming, the seething, and the gesticulations” (7). Kafka seems to have noticed such a process in his own time, writing of Gregor that “hardly was he down [from his formerly upright posture] when he experienced for the first time this morning a sense of physical comfort; his legs had firm ground under them; they were completely obedient, as he noted with joy; they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand” (89). If Gregor wakes up in the bed he has peacefully slept in all his life as a cockroach against whom society must be defended, so may anyone, for such caprice of the carapacial “final relief” informs Gregor with the knowledge of that insidious operation by which the awful genius of anti-humanism operates its racial apparatus.
…Gregor realized that the lack of of all direct human speech for the past two months together with the monotony of family life must have confused his mind, otherwise he could not account for the fact that he had quite earnestly looked forward to having his room emptied of furnishing. Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background? (104)
The racial apparatus reduces everyone to Homo vermes not collectively but one by one. It reduces them all from a human background to a background that must not be spoken of in polite company, which reminds one of the rotten, the degenerate, and the dying whose death is not even a human sort of death.
I hope here to write the obituary of Homo vermes although Gregor’s death warrants no funeral. No one cares that he has died where in boyhood he used to sleep in peace—indeed, his family cared much more about Gregor when he paid all their bills. Kafka writes, “They had simply got used to [his employment], both the family and Gregor; the money was gratefully accepted and gladly given, but there was no special uprush of warm feeling” (98). Now that he is black and poor, no one fixes for him the final funereal suit which clothes the dead until they look as they were at their best in life, replete with rosy cheeks, meditative features, and business attire. Born Homo sapiens, Gregor exits this world Homo vermes, nuder and somehow more vulnerable than the day he was born. The Samsa family’s charwoman, a simple proletarian not much removed from economic slavery, sweeps away his carcass, now “completely flat and dry, as could only now be seen when it was no longer supported by the legs and nothing prevented one from looking closely at it,” as though his carapacial body were as ephemeral as his memory (Kafka 125). What use does the capitalist society of 1915 Europe, edging into the long race war whose end we refer to as World War Two, have for the racialized and the socially damned?
The West’s current multiculturalism, which is both historically nascent and yet already dissolves in its hopeful adolescence, is a long reaction to the parasitic specter of Kafka’s Homo vermes. Western thought thinks of black men and vermin as occupying the same ontological territory: one of “streaks of dirt stretched along the walls” and “here and there” “balls of dust and filth” (Kafka 114). It considers these categories of the anti-human under a dismal gaze that identifies eternally the black with the pestilential and announces that this foul identity is acceptable, required even, for the maintenance of the social whole. The West needs its cockroaches as upon a century it needed its slaves. Kafka writes, “The decision that [Gregor] must disappear was one that [Gregor] held to even more strongly than his sister…The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath” (124). Gregor, worn down by the slow death of his metamorphosis, wants at last to die, and finally, quietly does. He can bear no longer his interpellation from a happy man into a hated brute, of living a grotesque rendition of social death, removed from all possibility of communication with those who formerly shared even his blood, of being called into being poor and black.
Western society, a fantastically brutal example of the battle between the human and the racial in which the racial is often victor, must be defended against the carapacial specter. I declare this warning admittedly as a white man who is recognized as such by our society and who has largely escaped the suicidal call of the racial apparatus. For, we in the West, whether we adhere to the liberal register or the fascist, continue to think in terms imposed by our defining history of anti-humanism. We who defend the liberal imperative reproduce these categories and their moral lots as a matter of course, whose real and active course of thought we tend to neglect because it often does not affect our bodies or our subject-positions. For even Gregor’s sister, Grete, who loved him deeply before his metamorphosis, winds up declaring to her family that Homo vermes, once her brother, so thoroughly dehumanized he crawls around in his own filth, is not a victim of larger circumstance, but a “creature” who “persecutes us” (122). Franz Kafka, whom the social theorist of Theodor Adorno once called “the solipsist without ipseity,” is a hero to match the villainy in his stories and, indeed, a hero to counter our own hypocritical villainy which calls the very victims of the hegemonic racial ideology of whiteness our persecutors in turn (237). We persecute those who have been persecuted when we say, “Look, a cockroach!”
We have failed to enact in practical terms our ideals of the essential equality of Homo sapiens. Our failure does not surprise me, for even the heirs of Hitler think of themselves as heroes of the social order. Fascism, I suspect, is the insectal answer to our failing liberalism. Everywhere, Homo vermes lives outside of our sight, and everywhere he lives within our borders: who cannot think of one’s neighbors as potentially harboring some miserable Gregor Samsa, right next to one’s own house, looking forlornly beyond his window at those who have abandoned him in his hour of need?
Western abuse of world history and subsequently of every individual living within its course, if by this point the West still has a course, is a moral lesson against our anti-humanism, which we continue to reproduce even in our most liberal praxes. No one loves Gregor at his most vulnerable. Those who should be kindest to him throw him away as though he were the same trash they fed him. Race is where the hopeless go to die; it is the ontological means by which they are disposed of. It is my hope, now that we know its embodied horrors from our feelings to his feelers, that anti-humanism is selfsame with the realm of the racial, and that its meanest imposition onto blackness is the carapacial imposition, finds its grave-site sooner rather than later, and, furthermore, that this deadly manner of thinking and acting alongside our fellow human beings is buried near wherever it was the devitalized Ungeziefer found his resting place, as the word “nigger” was buried, if Kafka ever did bury Gregor.
Adorno, Theodor. “In nuce.” Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005. 236-238.
Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Verso, 2014. 74-191.
Bernofsky, Susan. “On Translating Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.” New Yorker, 2014.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Prioress’ Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. Penguin, 2003. 170-76.
Fanon, Frantz. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 2008. 89-119.
—. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, 2004. 1-62.
Foucault, Michel. “Eleven. 17 March 1976.” Society Must be Defended! Picador, 2003. 239-264.
Frasetto, Michael. “Medieval Attitudes Toward Muslims and Jews.” Misconceptions About the Middle Ages. Routledge, 2009. 76-82.
de Gobineau, Arthur. “The Meaning of Degeneration” and “Racial Differences are Permanent.” On the Inequality of Human Races. 1853. 23-140.
Haraway, Donna. “Universal Donors in a Vampire Culture: It’s All in the Family. Biological Kinship Categories in the Twentieth-Century United States.” Modest Witness @ Second Millennium. Routledge, 1997. 213-315.
Heidegger, Martin. “Understanding the Appeal, and Guilt.” Being and Time. Harper & Brothers,1962. 325-35.
Herman, Arthur. “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism.” The Idea of Decline in Western History. The Free Press, 1997. 53-60.
Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Collected Stories. Knopf, 1993. 75-128.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. Schocken, 1995. 1-54.
Voltaire. “Judea.” Philosophical Dictionary. Barnes & Noble, 2006. 263-64.
Wiener, Mark. “Let Us Make a Tryal.” Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste. Vintage, 2006. 33-50.
Jeremy Brunger, originally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
- See Donna Haraway’s article in which she delineates the genealogy of race-thinking according to a temporal, triadic conception of social thought, beginning with the thinking of the “blood,” passing through “population” theory, and ending with an account of the “genetic” cognizance of the human (219). Kafka wrote his story in 1912, three years prior to publication, but this period of writing is congruent with the “blood” episteme of contemporary social thought on race.↵
- Such propaganda was inspired to the last by the declinist racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau who, to his small credit, did not think such a degeneration as Samsa experiences was possible. For the anti-bourgeois de Gobineau, the differences between races—for him these differences were very real and world-historically meaningful—were permanent and immutable. The Inequality of Human Races explicitly denounces two progressive ideas: the improvement of the races towards equality, and the mutable nature of race. A minority race could not actually descend to the level of the insect even for this hardcore racist, albeit his curiously ill-informed observations made little impression on the half-educated racists of Kafka’s era, who took the theories of de Gobineau to their extreme logical conclusions. See Arthur Herman’s “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism” in The Idea of Decline in Western History for Herman’s account of the nineteenth-century transition of race meaning lineage to race meaning biology.↵
- See Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, in which the infernal machine, a literal apparatus, inscribes one’s sin on one’s skin.↵
- See Michael Frasetto’s article “Medieval Attitudes Toward Muslims and Jews.” He writes, “In the thirteenth century, the blood libel emerged, which held that the Jews killed Christians and used their blood in Passover ceremonies. The notion that they were subhuman also developed. Jews were depicted in animal forms, with horns and tails, crooked noses, and were thought to give off a foul odor” (79). Black Death Europe, it seems, had no cockroaches, but plenty of rodents.↵
- See Berfosky’s New Yorker article on the difficulty of translating Kafka’s German “hazy focus” into English.↵
- Even the hyper-egalitarian Karl Marx, himself of Jewish origin, was not above referring to another man, Lassalle, as “the Jewish nigger” in private correspondence, a contrary apotheosis of race-thinking if ever there was one.↵
- See Mark Wiener’s chapter “Let Us Make a Tryal” from Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste in which he examines the conflation of the black with the parasitic in the discourse of Cotton Mather.↵
- In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon has nothing to say about Kafka’s story but much, I imagine, to say about its outcomes regarding Hegelian recognition and the suicidal diminution imparted by racism. He does not often touch on the theme of anti-humanism and cannot be characterized as such a thinker; his criticism tends always to focus, like a rounded glass beneath the sun, on those most in agreement with him whose theories on race and Africa disagreed with his own. Hegel famously writes that Africa has no history; Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, hated Hegel’s dialectics, and yet Fanon synthesizes both in a clinical diagnosis of the racial apparatus. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” even resembles the description of the concept of interpellation in Althusser: “Look! A Negro!” (89).↵
- See Michel Foucault’s Society Must be Defended!, his 1975-76 lecture on the development of racism in Europe and in particular his theory that the state requires the racial apparatus in order to go on functioning (254-58).↵
This is the story, I said, looking at the blank page, and she said to me she knew it was written for her, but I knew I had not written it for anyone.
This is the story, I said, listening to the blank page, and she said she’d heard it before, and I said it is not possible because it is being told still.
This is the story, I said, can you hear it? Silenced it wants to be told, so the screen can crack.
I want to tell you of reading The Blank Page, the short story by Isak Dinesen in which a storyteller tells the story of the blank page.
I have been reading the story repeatedly, over the last few months—not to interpret its mysterious parable: I’ve been reading The Blank Page as an echo chamber, listening to the voices that speak to me through it, and through me to it and to you.
Today I’m not reading The Blank Page: I’m looking at a photocopy I made of the first page of the story.
The photocopy is not quite so blank, and I’m reading the notes I wrote on it during my repeated encounters with it, some of which appear obscure to me since the thoughts that prompted them have been lost, while others continue to generate further thinking. I am looking at this photocopy of the first page of The Blank Page as a record of past beginnings, disorderly poured into the ever-present of each repeated reading, return, rewind, da capo.
I am listening to and reading into this blank page as volume.
My eyes linger for some time on the title, and soon they move around my nearly illegible handwriting as they try to reconstruct in vain the sequence of these incomplete writerly incursions. I can’t resist the temptation of starting from the least obvious connection, from the most remote one.
Turquoise capital letters, on the left: PIZARNIK 139. Three turquoise thick lines around it. An arrow on the right: look at this, it matters.
How promising. My reading of The Blank Page begins with a diversion that precipitates me straight into another book.
I open Alejandra Pizarnik’s collected poems, Extracting The Stone Of Madness, page 139, and I remember the sense of urgency I perceived at the time, in finding an echo while reading Pizarnik during the same days as I read Dinesen:
Here is how I can go about reading this heavily annotated photocopy, entitled The Blank Page and anything but blank: with two eyes looking at the frenzied absence of the blank page, in ferocious void, listening. And, following Pizarnik’s suggestion on the page before, to let there be language where there ought to be silence.
Pizarnik’s blue handwritten name actually appears slightly off the page, although in close vicinity to it: on a rectangular scrap of paper that I glued onto the photocopy. There’s ambiguity between foreground and background, between the told and the teller, between who writes and who is being written, what is held and what holds: it enwraps the entire operation of Dinesen’s story and, inevitably, of my words with it.
Or: the glued scrap of paper that holds a specific instance of reading could be an attempt at staying very close to the material of such reading, while performing those small gestures of variance from which writing always rebegins.
Top right corner: CARMELITES. In a convent in Portugal, for centuries, Carmelite nuns have been keeping a collection of framed linen sheets, each one holding the trace, in blood, of the first nuptial night of a princess. One of these sheets is completely white, shows no trace of blood, and continues to attract pilgrimages of people who stare at it and interrogate its enigma: it is the blank page that gives the title to the story.
Why the sheet is blank, it is not told.
How the sheet in the story becomes a page in the title of the story, it is not told.
It is not told because it’s not what is expected to be heard, so I try to hear through its absence: something more, and something else than words, Pizarnik suggests to me. Like in Scheherazade’s 1001 blank nights (‘one more than a thousand,’ Dinesen wrote, I underlined) so much happens outside the frame. The blank page continues to compel readers who, like the procession of pilgrims described in the story, couldn’t resist the riddle of the blank sheet that it is generated from, and that it perpetually generates.
A strange and silent museum keeps the collection of bodily inscriptions framed by the stillness of gold, framed in turn by the telling of the story by the old woman at the gate of the town, framed by Dinesen’s own telling although, I’d underlined in red, ‘they and I have become one’. Dinesen haunts her stories, becomes one with them.
I want to hold on to this sense of porosity allowing the told and the teller to become one, rather than to the staccato of the framing devices. I’m drawn to the merging. Rather than considering spatial arrangements I want to think through time, and transmission. Scheherazade as transmitter, Scheherazade who continued speaking and being spoken through, Dinesen as transmitter, Dinesen who said she was not a writer but a storyteller, Pizarnik as transmitter, Pizarnik who wrote I cannot speak with my voice, but I speak with my voices.
At the bottom of my photocopy, after reading the story once, I wrote in capital letters:
“WHAT HAS GONE UNHEARD”. And untold, I add now. The blank page is the site where a more silent tale can be found, through the unheard and unspoken weaving that makes its material. The storyteller disappears in the story yet is present in it, as channel and substance.
I keep staring at The Blank Page through Pizarnik’s eyes and through her inner ears, to hear the place where silence is formed.
Have you read The Blank Page yet? Or perhaps you remember it from long ago? And if not, what do you think it is, beyond the first photocopied page? Are these words very abstract? What have you been reading so far in these words: a chronicle of blank, or a chronicle of engagement? Are you more drawn to what is missing, or to what is here? What holds the story, what emanates from it, and why this one? The story unfolds its charms and chances. You read the words and beyond them, something more and something else. Can you tell, now?
Top left, in red, thin marks:
POROSITY (not quite “resistance”)
I read again Dinesen’s story in the aftermath of Elena Ferrante’s ‘unmasking’. Today the lack of blood on the sheet bears a defiant statement: to be materially present within words does not call for a bodily mark, the material presence of a telling does not need to be legitimated or verified by a trace of the teller. I am tempted to read the storyteller’s disappearance into the blank page not as a symptom of hiding, but as a deliberate gesture that gives space to what Ferrante calls the truth of language, present and significant without the need for biographical evidence. Further down my photocopy I read: IS WRITING ALWAYS WOUNDING/BLEEDING? I wrote these while reading Susan Gubar’s acute analysis of Dinesen’s story in relation to female creativity, in which she refutes the claim that the evidence of a body is the only way for women to be recognised in art. The blank page is not a retreat: it holds meaning whose form is its truth. Along the left border, in red capital letters and referring again to Gubar: ‘Does writing always have to reflect / be a trace of the movements and motions that produce it?’
There is no way to enter the page because you are already there, and there are many ways of being there: I learned this from Teresa of Avila. The storyteller is there, through the blank page and its story, in absentia. Her presence is porous, it enables and hosts fabulatory activities as transmissions, and transmissions can be spurious. That’s how I read Dinesen’s storyteller’s / Dinesen-as-storyteller’s statement, ‘silence will speak when the narrator is faithful to the story’: the silence of the blank page is the storyteller’s poiesis, and the words it generates exceed the page: can you hear them? The people in the story keep watching, and I keep listening while watching, with Pizarnik’s eyes looking for the place where silence is formed.
In the lower centre, a mark in capital letters, red pencil: FRANTUMAGLIA 72. I recall, but shall not quote, the words of another invisible storyteller, Ferrante, in La frantumaglia, page 72 (Italian edition), discussing the truth of the story as keeper of its own truth, literary truth, with no need for external legitimisation—writing, later on, that the more effective story is the one which allows to gaze out at everything that’s been excluded from it, outside of the frame.
THE BLANK PAGE: I look at the title on the photocopy and beneath it, handwritten in red: THE IMMORTAL STORY. Outside of the frame I see Orson Welles, who’d once declared to be in love with Dinesen and who directed The Immortal Story as a homage to her eponymous tale of a rich man at the end of his life, who can’t believe that a story he hears and knows never actually took place, and who makes it happen: at the end, the protagonist of the story realises that, because he has actually been inside the story, he will no longer be able or willing to tell it.
That silence is the story’s porous boundary.
In the inversion of foreground and background, the blank is the material of muteness that exceeds the page. A telling, a spinning of a nothingdense: the truth of that form of silence, sounding with stories passed on, and with voices streaming into the volume of the blank page.
I turn the page:
‘Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence…. Who then… tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page. When a royal and gallant pen, in the moment of its highest inspiration, has written down its tale with the rarest ink of all—where, then, may one read a still deeper, sweeter, merrier and more cruel tale than that? Upon the blank page.
‘We,’ she says at last, ‘the old women who tell stories, we know the story of the blank page.’
In the previous page, the woman’s voice is introduced by ‘she said’.
She says, she said.
She says, she said, I read. This is happening now, it happened before, I’m stuck in the looped timing of da capo.
Sometimes the photocopy of the blank page can be disappointing, opaque. It’s a material of time. It doesn’t always have to hold meaning. It allows a germination whose movements are slow and difficult to perceive. I can’t exhaust the blank page. Some days it’s impenetrable and I’m drawn to this relationship that doesn’t always have to be meaningful but allows me to drift, or stay still, and nothing changes and its material does. I can’t extract too much from these marks. Only reread them and repeat them, and I’ll be able to hear something then: a troubling urge. This reading is not to find purpose, but to look with a purposive eye, and listen. I hear the sound of a spinning. That is the material of The Blank Page today. In the story, the fabric of the linen is spun from flax grown in the fields surrounding the convent. The making of the linen through spinning is the invisible/inaudible activity of every day which leaves no mark, but makes the material of silence possible. The blank page is dense with unseen work, its silence full with the sound of spinning.
I wrote of the linen of the blank page but I want to misspell it as limen, border.
And then I want silence to erode those gilded frames and see them rot.
On the border of my photocopy, bottom left: SPIN SPIN SPIN SPIN —— The urge to spin words in a succession of da capo. On the back of the photocopy, my words in cursive sound much like a curse:
On a page, not too different from this one. Out of sync but no. But the attempt. But the gestures. I know I’m writing, but I do not feel I’m in the place where my hands are. These words came before me. They inhabit the page from outside. The voice of the storyteller, that never stops beginning, torments these words, I hear in them what they apparently do not tell. Language is disturbed. The blank page beyond language. These words never finish leaving. Their beginning is absent. I wasn’t there. The muted perturbation of the copied page is the interval between the words I can’t remember. It shakes them but they are muted and cannot say what shakes them. Maybe it will never be named but it moves, shakes them. They gently shake by way of the specific quality of silence the surrounds them. A beginning doesn’t know how or what: it senses its where. It’s impetus before content. An absolute volitive. The space of the blank page transgresses the order of facts to affirm a rebeginning. A small variance allows writing to begin. Not pleasing, orderly and smooth but as disturbance, scratch, crack.
A desire for enchantment. I remember a voice from elsewhere:
These thoughts of mine… I have fetched them from far far away.
You’ll never hear her speak to you again. You’ll never hear her speak to you again. You’ll never hear her speak to you again.
She said. She says. I write. Will I tell? Is reading another way of telling the story of the blank page?
There is not a grand plan in my reading of the photocopy, but a daily engagement with its marks as interruptions, a sustained silent conversation with the page as material, and with the thoughts I hear through it: material. This is where syntax breaks, as it must attend to the rhythms of such material, not to a plan. This is how The Blank Page becomes a blank page and mine, through stillness. The blank page is the unnameable, yet visible and audible medium, that amplifies, transmits, echoes, extends, connects voices between interferences and unsteady unison. To lay it bare would be absurd. And to read it is not attached to the privilege of having certain doors opened, to the privilege of access: it is not tied to the ‘discovery’ of new material, but to the thrill of working through what is on the page, available as opaque substance, and rediscover its density and its excess.
Isak’s actual name was Karen. Isak means laughter. I think Karen meant some laughter too: at the thought that anyone might claim for the enigma of the blank page to be solved. Today I hear Karen’s laughter across the decades, defiant and distorted, against solutions, spinning more and more words, da capo.
There is no blank page as an absolute condition, no purity marked by bleeding: the blank page, loaded with the marks of its making, calls for the presence of more marks, voices, other copies, and screens, many more notes and scratches: the teller disappears into the story so more stories can be heard through her and through it while generating more. Silence holds the excess of words: anything that occurs off the page, and yet wouldn’t be there without it, states of stillness, and rewind, and mishaps, and sometimes nothing happens.
But, still, there. There I can disappear too: in listening, in channelling. I try to read the marks on the photocopy but the marks aren’t the only bearers of meaning: the whiteness is as dense. The blank becomes manifest as the material of muteness that exceeds the page.
I close my eyes. I too have something to tell, it’s not a story: a spinning of silenced motions in and out of languages, made of the debris of stories passed on, and half-forgotten voices. Reading the canonical from a partial view, placing the opaque in a position of prominence.
I look again at a snapshot of my photocopy of The Blank Page on my iPad, it’s full of noise, the screen is cracked, a telling in writing can rebegin.
List of References
Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert, Extracting the Stone of Madness. Poems 1962-1972, New York: New Directions, 2016.
Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia, Roma: Edizioni e/o, 2003
Isak Dinesen, The Blank Page and Echoes, in Last Tales, London: Putnam, 1957.
Isak Dinesen, The Dreamers, in Seven Gothic Tales, London: Penguin, 2001 (1934).
Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story, in Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, London: Penguin, 2013 (1958).
Orson Welles (dir.), The Immortal Story, 1968.
Susan Gubar, ‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 2, ‘Writing and Sexual Difference’ (winter 1981), 243-263.
Daniela Cascella is a London-based Italian writer. Her work is concerned with impossible silences, their residues and disturbances. She is the author of F.M.R.L. Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (Zero Books, 2015) and En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (Zero Books, 2012). Her texts have been published in Gorse, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wire, 3:AM Magazine, The Scofield, minor literature[s]. She is a Contributing Editor at minor literature[s]. Her next book, a hybrid text prompted by a reflection on rebeginnings and the transmission of knowledge, is entitled Singed: A Transmission of Muted Voices, After the Fire. Twitter: @enabime www.danielacascella.com
I, a travelling country of windows
All the bony roads,
spokes shaking off a mouthful
of sleet, and you
further forward than me, or inward perhaps
– a heaped bush – stop.
Fleeting shock of silence;
and then the rattling again,
struggling past the cages. Say one lunges
from above, tipping its point
like a Damocles sword – dare I?
I know what is in that box
stiffly packaged in white canvas
– the first of the seven sorrows –
this, then the next to come tumbling
will be – no, let’s
travel back, round the coastline up north
where the mattress groaned under
our bouncing feet and feathers flew
from the bolsters – wait!
Was that the creak of a door, pink
glow of the landing wallpaper?
He’s here! And fast as the smallest
laughing fury, we’re under the sheets:
one on the floor, pretend-sleeping
the silence intense as the thickness
of snow set across pillows
and pillows of fields.
after All my Friends,
an electronic composition by Edan Ray
Laugh! I nearly ran to the riptide
confluence where stories
are peripheral, and simply water
works. Only you know
the notion of it. Only you keep me
laughing. Only you rush
into the pedal of the music
silence that smacks
up against wayward torques
squeaking liquid and you and you
and you, my friends, run backwards, slow
motion as the ocean. Shhh…
or bass it. Strobe-light-fix
each gesture in distortion,
loose-wristed, star-fired, brainless
with excitement. Cha.
Nine ways to identify an alley cat
Her lashes are upstart
Her coquettish circling
is accompanied by a throaty,
She sets a flat rock
with found risks,
until others hanker too.
She cadges guts
from harassed butchers,
then lays them in the dirt.
She almost always
escapes the bolt.
Yes, she’s scratched, but still,
quickens with the music.
in a crowded corner.
Her hooping, toppling,
wounded movement’s like the lick
of a failing candle.
Her thought-ghost proves
that death’s mutation’s
merely a ruse.
Faith is the thing with feathers
Beneath the vaulting,
the elderly, deeply-kneeling
rock like a pendulum.
In each radiating chapel, a candle
forest is offered up to souls.
The choir’s complex
harmonics echo across pews.
Incense is a series
of hovering exhalations,
visible as umbrellas
in the narthex.
Prayers flutter, three
hundred breaths a minute.
hum white; each tongue
an edelweiss. Leadlight
in the clerestory: an angel’s
refractions, holding all this.
End of the blessing
To me you were the heart’s X
against my Guernica wall,
drowning out calamity.
I was addicted to your trip trap
words, lush as ferns,
all the way to fractal.
And the tandoor of my body grew
wide awake; tongue, a fire
racing through the field.
You seduced my mind,
till it was perpetually
What’s left inside me, now
you’ve drifted off,
taking all the alleluias?
The old philosopher is sharp as ice in winter,
fracturing all the wicked weights,
the resonance of his voice, lacerating
so-called safe spaces,
until they are ripped and sewn again,
upright as trees.
His words are gateways to the sublime,
conflating human agency
with the natural order, the body
of shared memory with the vanished sign.
There should be flowers, he tells us
in a clear-cut voice, simple as ink.
Every night, his teachings turn to the blue
laws, or stallions
or the book of hours. Come dawn,
he reaches the double zero
in a landscape of confession – luminous
and ferocious, divine and apocalyptic,
inviting invocation and resistance
to those overpouring
toward war – that avenue
lined with little lamps of snow.
Afric McGlinchey was born in Ireland. She grew up in Southern Africa, moving frequently between countries, and received degrees from Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town. She has also lived in London, Paris, Dublin and Spain. She returned to Ireland in 1999 and currently lives in West Cork. Her début collection, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things, published by Salmon Poetry in 2012, was translated into Italian and published by L’Arcoloaio. Among other awards and honours, in 2011 she won the Hennessy Poetry Award, and in 2012 she was nominated for a Pushcart prize, commended in the Magma and shortlisted in the Bridport competitions. In 2015, she won the Poets Meet Politics prize and was awarded an Arts bursary to complete her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat (Salmon Poetry), which was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2016. Runner up in the 2014 Sabotage Awards for best reviewer, she is also an editor. www.africmcglinchey.com
The following excerpt, the opening passage of Frontier, introduces the central character, Liujin. Note the the crisp, unadorned quality of Can Xue’s prose and the fine membrane between the ordinary and the surreal.
Frontier is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.
— Joseph Schreiber
IT WAS LATE. Liujin stood there, leaning against the wooden door. The ripe grapes hanging on the arbors flickered with a slight fluorescence in the moonlight. Blowing in the wind, the leaves of the old poplar tree sounded lovely. The voice of someone talking blended with the rustling of the poplar leaves. Liujin couldn’t hear what he was saying. She knew it was the man who had recently been coming here late every night and sitting on the stone bench near the courtyard gate. At first, this had frightened Liujin and she hadn’t dared to go outside. Time after time, she had peeped out the window. Later on, realizing that this bear-like old man was harmless, she worked up the courage to approach him. He had good eyesight: even in the dim light, his eyes were as penetrating as sharp glass. He was busying his hands twisting hemp. He didn’t like to talk with people; his answers to Liujin’s questions were always vague: “I’m not sure . . .” He wasn’t one of her neighbors; where did he come from? Although he didn’t talk with her, he seemed to enjoy talking to himself. His words kept time with the sound of the wind and the leaves. When the wind stopped, he stopped. This was really strange. Tonight, his voice was louder, and pricking up her ears, Liujin made out a few words: “At noon, in the market . . .” Liujin tried hard to imagine the scene in this indoor market: piece goods, gold and silver jewelry, raisins, tambourines, foreigners, and so on. But she had no clue what the old man meant. Even though it was late, a woman was actually singing piteously and plaintively on the other side of the street; the woman seemed to be young. Could she be singing for the old man? But he apparently wasn’t listening; he was talking to himself. These days, Liujin had grown accustomed to his voice. She thought the old man looked a little like the poplar tree in the courtyard. The poplar was old, and so this man must be old, too. Liujin asked: Are you twisting the hemp to sell it? He didn’t answer. Sleepy, Liujin went off to bed. Before she fell asleep, she heard the young woman’s song turn sad and shrill. When she arose in the morning, she saw that the old man had left without a trace—not even a bit of hemp had been dropped on the ground. He really was a strange person. When she inquired of the neighbors, they said they didn’t know of such a person. No one had seen him. This made sense, for people generally didn’t go out so late. Liujin knew that she went to bed later than anyone else in the little town: she had formed this habit a long time ago. Still, what about the young woman singing? Judging by the direction the voice came from, she seemed to be from Meng Yu’s family. That family bought sheep from the pastures, slaughtered them in the market, and sold the fresh meat. With the strange old man showing up in her yard, Liujin no longer felt desolate and lonely in the autumn nights. She felt a vague affection for him, but she preferred not to explore the nature of this emotion.
She had lived by herself in this small enclosed area for five years. Before she was born, her parents had moved here from a large industrial city in the interior. Five years ago, her elderly parents went back to their hometown with many others, but she didn’t. Why had she stayed? Why hadn’t she wanted to go to the big city? She had some impressions of the city from her father’s descriptions of it. These impressions were mostly misty, not very reliable; she had tried hard to synthesize them, but without success. And so when her parents packed their bags and prepared to leave this small frontier town to go back to their old home, she began to feel dizzy. She was even unsteady when she walked. Late at night, for several days before they left, she heard the cracking sound at the riverside: with her bizarre sense of hearing, she knew the sound came from the poplars. These explosions came at intervals until the wee hours. In response to this inauspicious sound, a vague notion gradually occurred to Liujin. When she suggested that she stay behind, her father merely raised his right eyebrow. This was the way he expressed himself whenever something confirmed what he thought. “You’re an adult. It’s your choice.” All of a sudden, Liujin realized that he and Mama had been waiting for her to suggest this: she really was an idiot. So she unpacked her suitcase and put everything back where it belonged. True, she was thirty years old: why did she have to live with her parents? When the train started, her parents didn’t lean out the window. She didn’t know what they were thinking about. But when the last car was about to vanish from view, she suddenly saw clearly the big city in the distance. To be precise, it wasn’t a city, but a large white cloud floating in midair, with mirages in the mist. She even saw the apartment in the tall building where her parents lived. She didn’t know why their window was so dark in the strong light. How had she recognized it? Because her mother’s old-style pleated skirt was hanging in front of the window. On her way back, she walked steadily. She was returning to the home that now belonged to her alone. She trembled a little in excitement.
At first, Liujin wasn’t used to living alone. She sold cloth at the market. Every day when she left the noisy market and returned to the isolated little house, it was dark. For several days in a row, a tiny white wagtail strode hurriedly into her house; the little thing cried out briefly and sharply, as if looking for its companion. After quickly patrolling around inside, it left with a despondent cry. Liujin heard it fly to a tree, where it continued chirping. Had it experienced some tragedy in its life? Sitting under the lamp, she thought about the man who had recently been coming often to the market. He wore glasses, and when he picked up the cloth to look at it, his glasses almost touched the material. Liujin found this amusing. He seemed out of place in the market. He wasn’t like the other shoppers, and he didn’t bring any shopping bags, either. He was dressed like a farmer from the frontier. Of course he wasn’t a farmer; one could see that from the expression in his eyes. He always looked at cloth, but never bought any. Nor did he glance at Liujin. The way he touched the homemade cloth brought about an almost physiological response in Liujin. What kind of person was he? “I’m just looking,” he said, as if imploring Liujin. “Go ahead and look as long as you like,” she replied stiffly. All of a sudden—she didn’t know why—she felt empty inside.
One day, although it was late, the white wagtail hadn’t returned to its nest. It was circling beside a thorny rose bush, singing sadly. Acting on a hunch that something had happened, Liujin walked into the courtyard. She saw the bespectacled man from the market talking with a young woman under the streetlight. Suddenly, the woman screamed and ran away. Looking dizzy, the man leaned against a power pole, closed his eyes, and rested. The wagtail sang even more sadly, as if it were a mother who had lost her daughter. Approaching the man, Liujin said softly, “Tomorrow, I’ll take out a few more bolts of new cloth with a snow lotus pattern. It’s like . . . snow lotus, and yet it isn’t.” When the man heard her talking to him, he relaxed a little and said “Hello.” He turned and looked at her courtyard. Just then, she noticed that the wagtail had disappeared. Without saying anything else, the man left. The way he walked was funny—a little like a horse. Liujin had heard others call him “Mr. Sherman.” Maybe her encounters with him at the market weren’t accidental. Otherwise, why had he appeared in front of her house today? She also remembered the way the young woman had stamped her feet impatiently; at that time, the wagtail was chirping non-stop. Later, Liujin ran into this man in front of her house several times and greeted him properly, calling him “Mr. Sherman.” He always stood there—a little as if he were waiting for someone, for he kept looking at his watch. Liujin wondered if he was waiting for the young woman. Why had he chosen this place? How strange.
With Mr. Sherman showing up, Liujin had more energy. She worked hard tending her garden. Whenever she had a day off, she went into full swing. She planted many chrysanthemums and salvia along the wall—near the thorny rose bushes that were already there. There were still two poplars, one in the front and one in the back of the courtyard. Now she planted a few sandthorn trees: she liked plain trees like this. She also fertilized the grapes. On one of her days off, Mr. Sherman entered her courtyard. Liujin invited him to sit under the grape arbor. She brought out a tea table and placed a tea set on it. Just as they were about to drink tea, the wagtail appeared. It walked quickly back and forth, its tail jumping with each step. It kept chirping. Mr. Sherman paled and craned his neck like a horse and looked out. Finally, without drinking his tea, he apologized and took his leave. Liujin was very puzzled. It was this bird—perhaps it was two or three birds, all of them alike—that particularly puzzled her. Liujin realized she hadn’t seen the young woman again. What was going on between her and Mr. Sherman? Just now as he was sitting here, she had noticed that his right index finger was hurt and was wrapped in a thick bandage. He was dexterous in picking up his teacup with his left hand. Maybe he was left-handed.
By and large, Liujin’s life consisted of going from her home to the market and from the market to her home. On an impulse one night, she walked out and took the street to the riverside. The water level was low, and the small river would soon dry up. The sky was high. She walked along the river in the moonlight. There, she saw the corpses of poplars. She didn’t know if the four or five poplars had died of old age or if they had died unexpectedly. Their tall, straight trunks were ghostly. At first sight, her heart beat quickly. It was hard to muster the nerve to walk over to them. She startled a few willow warblers: their sharp cries made her legs quiver. She turned around and left, walking until she was sweating all over; then finally she looked back. How could the dead poplar trees still be right before her? A shadow emerged from the poplar grove and said, “Ah, are you here, too?” The sound startled her and almost made her faint. Luckily, she recognized her neighbor’s voice. The neighbor wasn’t alone. Behind him was another shadow. It was Mr. Sherman, and he was laughing. As he approached, Mr. Sherman said to Liujin, “When one sees dead trees like this, one shouldn’t run away. If you do, they’ll chase right after you.” The neighbor chimed in, “Mr. Sherman’s telling the truth, Liujin. You haven’t experienced this before, have you?” Even though she was standing in the shadows, Liujin felt her face turn fiery red. Had these two been hiding here long? How had she happened to come here just now? She recalled sitting at the table earlier writing her mother a letter, and being unable to go on writing because her mother’s words kept reverberating in her ears: “. . . Liujin, Liujin. There’s no way for you to come back to us. You’d better take good care of yourself.” Did Mama want her back after so long? She stood up and listened closely for a while to the wagtail’s lonely singing in the courtyard. When she had rushed out the gate, she forgot to close it. Perhaps these two men came here often to study these dead trees, but it was the first time she had ever come here.
“Look, the others are flourishing. It’s only these few trees: Did they commit collective suicide?”
When Mr. Sherman spoke again, his glasses were flashing with light. Liujin looked over at the trees and saw the moon brighten. The other poplars were so beautiful and vivacious that they seemed on the verge of speaking. Only the few dead ones were spooky. Her neighbor, old Song Feiyuan, rammed a shovel against a dead poplar trunk. Liujin noticed that the tree trunk remained absolutely still. Old Song chucked the shovel away and stood dazed in front of the trunk. Mr. Sherman laughed a little drily. Liujin suddenly recalled how wild this neighbor was when he was home. That autumn, this old man had gone crazy and dismantled the rear wall of his house. Luckily, the roof was covered with light couch grass, so the house didn’t collapse. In the winter, he warded off the cold north wind with oilcloth.
“Brother Feiyuan, what are you doing? These trees are dead,” Liujin tried to calm him down. A sound came from the river, as if a large fish had jumped up out of the water.
Liujin was three meters away from the men as she spoke to them. She wanted to get a little closer, but whenever she took a step, they backed up. When she straightened again after bending down to free a grain of sand from her shoe, they had disappeared into the woods. A gust of wind blew over her, and Liujin felt afraid. She turned around to leave, but bumped into a dead tree. After taking a few steps around the dead tree, she bumped into another one. She saw stars and shouted “Ouch!” She looked up and saw that the dead tree trunks, standing close together, were like a wall bending around her and enclosing her. Apart from the sky above, she could see only the dark wall of trees. Frustrated, she sat down on the ground, feeling that the end of the world was approaching. It was really absurd: How had she come here? Fish were still jumping in the little river, but the sound of the water was far away. She buried her head in her hands. She didn’t want to see the tree trunks. She thought it might be her neighbor Song Feiyuan playing tricks. This had to be an illusion, yet how had he and Mr. Sherman caused her to produce such an illusion? She strained to consider this question, but she was too anxious and couldn’t reach a conclusion. Suddenly aware of a strong light, she moved her hands and saw lightning—one bolt after another lit up her surroundings until they shone snow-bright. The dead trees that had closed up around her had now retreated far into the distance. The branches danced solemnly and wildly in the lightning. She stood up and ran home without stopping.
Recalling these events, Liujin felt it was quite natural that the old man had come to her small courtyard. Perhaps it was time for—for what? She wasn’t sure; she only felt vaguely that it had something to do with her parents who were far away. She remembered that the year before he left, her father had also twisted hemp. In the winter, he had sat on the bare courtyard wall: he had watched the activity on the street while twisting hemp. Not many people were on the road then, and there were even fewer vehicles. Father twisted the hemp unhurriedly, and—a hint of a smile floating on his face—gazed at the people passing by. “Dad, do you see someone you know?” Liujin asked. “Ah, no one is a stranger. This is a small town.” Liujin thought to herself, Since every person was familiar, then Father must be taking note of something. What was it? Liujin walked into the courtyard and went over to the wall where her father had often sat. Just then, she heard the sorrowful singing of a bird. The bird was in a nearby nest; perhaps it had lost its children, or perhaps it was hurt, or perhaps nothing had happened. Or was it a pessimist by nature? From its voice, she could tell that the bird was no longer young. Maybe, back then, Father had sat here in order to listen to it. This seemed to be the only spot where one could hear it. What kind of bird was it? She guessed that the nest was built in the poplar tree in back, but when she walked a few steps away, she couldn’t hear the bird. When she returned to her original spot, she could hear it again. If Father had made a companion of it in the winter, it must be a local bird. Could it be an injured goose? If a wild goose had been injured, how could it build a nest in a poplar tree? It did sound a little like a goose. Geese flying south sometimes sounded like this. Whenever Liujin heard geese at night, she couldn’t hold back her tears. It was clearly a cry of freedom, but it sounded to her like the dread that precedes execution. “The sound is directional. You can’t hear it unless you’re in just the right place,” the old man addressed her suddenly and quite distinctly. The hemp in his hands gave off soft silver-white light. “Where did you come from?” Liujin walked over to him. He lowered his head and mumbled, “I can’t remember . . . Look, I am . . .” He broke off. Liujin thought, What kind of person has no memory? Is there a category of people like this? He is . . . who is he? She wanted to move closer to him, but she felt something pull at her right foot and nearly fell down. She was greatly surprised. After regaining her balance, she thought she would try once more—but this time with her left foot. She staggered and ended up sitting on the ground. The old man sat there twisting hemp, as if he hadn’t noticed. Liujin heard herself shout at him angrily, “Who are you?!”
Though it was late at night, a column of horse-drawn carts ran past. This hadn’t happened for years. Liujin had heard that the city was growing, but she’d had no interest in looking at those places. She heard it was expanding toward the east, but the snow mountain was to the east. How could the city expand there? Had a corner of the snow mountain been chopped off? Or were houses being built halfway up the mountain? Liujin had seen snow leopards squatting on a large rock halfway up the mountain: they were graceful and mighty—like the god of the snow mountain. Later, she had dreamed several times of the snow leopards roaring, and at the time, rumbling thunder had echoed from the earth. But even now, she wasn’t sure what snow leopards sounded like. Because it was the weekend, she resolved to watch the old man all night, and find out when he left and where he went. After the sound of the horse-carts disappeared, he stood up. From behind, he looked like a brown bear. He crossed the street and headed for Meng Yu’s home. Meng Yu’s window was lit up. After the old man went in, the young woman, who was singing again, began to wail sadly and shrilly. Liujin heard loud noises coming from the house: Was something going to happen? But after a while it grew quiet and the lamp was also extinguished. After standing there a little longer, she went back to her house and fell asleep. She didn’t know when daylight came. The night seemed long, very long.
— Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping
Published with permission from Open Letter Books
Can Xue is a pseudonym meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow.” She learned English on her own and has written books on Borges, Shakespeare, and Dante. Her publications in English include, The Embroidered Shoes, Five Spice Street, Vertical Motion, and The Last Lover, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.
Karen Gernant is a professor emerita of Chinese history at Southern Oregon University. She translates in collaboration with Chen Zeping.
Chen Zeping is a professor of Chinese linguistics at Fujian Teachers’ University, and has collaborated with Karen Gernant on more than ten translations.
Can Xue’s fiction is exceptional and notably difficult. Conventional narrative expectations are rarely met. It requires a surrender of the norms expected, even in dream-logic, if there is such a thing. Scenes have a disjointed quality. The most mundane moment can, without notice, take on magical elements. —Joseph Schreiber
It can be said that Chinese experimental writer, Can Xue, inhabits a strange and elusive territory in contemporary literature. With an idiosyncratic approach to writing, she has created an impressive body of work that effectively explores a geography of the spirit—mapping, if you like, the space where the real and the surreal, the personal and the political, and the magical and the mundane meet. Her 2008 novel Frontier, newly released from Open Letter Books in a crystal clear translation by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, has been eagerly anticipated by her admirers. Yet, for intrigued newcomers, it may well offer an excellent introduction the dazzling, and baffling, world of Can Xue.
Born in 1953, in Changsha City, Hunan Province, South China; Can Xue is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, who took her intentionally gender-neutral penname from a Chinese expression that refers to both the dirty snow that refuses to melt and the pure snow remaining at the top of a high mountain. This inherent duality is very fitting. In the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, both of her parents came under suspicion for their journalistic activities and were sentenced to hard labour. Consequently, their daughter was unable to continue her education beyond elementary school. Despite the brutal hardships her family experienced and her own ill health, Can Xue showed great resilience. With her schooling cut short, she turned to reading. Largely self-taught, she read fiction, poetry, and discovered the joys of classical Western and Russian literature, eventually going on to study and read in English. At the same time, she married, started a family, and worked as a tailor before publishing her first work in the mid-1980s.
She has since published collections of short fiction, novels, essays and literary criticism, including works of commentary on Kafka, Borges, Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Italo Calvino, and Bruno Schulz. While echoes of these writers can be heard in the distance, her own writing defies direct comparison to any other, and, as a woman writing avant-garde literature in China, she breaks all conventions. Many male Chinese writers have been especially hostile to her work, and to the irrational style of her self-described “soul literature.”
Can Xue’s fiction is exceptional and notably difficult. Conventional narrative expectations are rarely met. It requires a surrender of the norms expected, even in dream-logic, if there is such a thing. Scenes have a disjointed quality. The most mundane moment can, without notice, take on magical elements. Characters may respond with fear, complacency, curiosity—or some shifting mixture of emotion. Reactions can fluctuate without notice, leaving the reader—and frequently the protagonists—questioning what has happened. The multiple storylines are rarely fully resolved, while some disappear altogether without further comment.
In an essay for Music & Literature, Nell Pach presents a critical key to accessing Can Xue’s literary world:
Like the narrating beastie of the title story in her 2011 collection Vertical Motion, she has found not just a new direction but a new dimension to move in, a realm where conscious beings experience space, time, and each other unbound from the old rules. Can Xue moves through this new world as guide; she offers it to the reader as an aesthetic event. Properly received, she says, her work opens readers up to affect and intuition. With this otherwise dormant aesthetic logic “activate[d],” each reader can “find the structure inside himself and facilitate the structure to be in an agreement with the work—gradually.”
This approach, to look for structure within oneself, rather than expecting to trace it out in the text on the page, is especially critical for the reading of her longer works. When I first attempted to navigate Can Xue’s 2015 BTBA-winning The Last Lover, I filled pages and pages with notes, determined to follow the apparent logic as if losing the scent would leave me hopelessly stranded. Letting go and allowing the scenes to unfold before me was a revelation, leading to an exhilarating experience unlike any other. I fell under Can Xue’s spell. I became a convert.
Can Xue is not interested in ordinary reality, her domain lies in the dream world of the soul. As such, Frontier, is not a novel that lends itself to a concise, or even sensible synopsis. That is not to say that there is not a story of sorts, but it appears with abrupt shifts in perspective, in time and place, in remembering and forgetting. There are over a dozen primary characters, with a handful more who play secondary roles. Identity is sometimes amorphous. Nothing is ever exactly what it seems, least of all the isolated city in which it is set.
Pebble Town, is an enigmatic place, it draws people to it, but even the residents are unable to firmly grasp the town in its entirety. They muse about its nature, marvel at its fresh air, wonder what kind of magical place it is. Situated somewhere in northern China, next to the magnificent Snow Mountain, the location is necessarily ambiguous. The town stands on the frontier—but, the frontier of what? It is described as a border town; venturing beyond its boundaries may lead to farmland, or wasteland, to the foothills of the mountain, or at a greater distance, to the edge of the Gobi Desert. One thing that is clear is that it is a relatively new community, a town that has been conceived and constructed in this once desolate and remote location, a town dreamed into being. And the boundary between reality and the world of illusion is shaky and unstable. Wolves, bears, snow leopards and a wide variety of birds and other creatures appear and disappear, an elusive tropical garden is suspended in the air, rooms expand and contract, objects exhibit changing qualities, and the ground emits sounds and energies.
If Pebble Town and its immediate environs form the connecting tissue of Frontier, coming to an understanding of its essence feels like something akin to piecing together the reports of an elephant offered by the fabled group of blind men. Those who potentially would know the most—the director of the Design Institute, her African assistant Ying, and the ancient mysterious gardener—share little or nothing of their roles or experiences in the creation or maintenance of this place. Even the work of the Institute itself is murky. The town has already been designed and constructed, but people still busy themselves within its bleak confines.
The central character is Liujin. We first meet her as a thirty-five-year-old woman, living alone and working for a textile merchant in the market. She was born on the frontier and, as such, is innately sensitive to the flora and fauna, and to many of the odd sensations and occurrences in her home and garden. But she can be seemingly blind to presences others can sense. Deeply introspective, she frequently focuses on her own confused attractions to those she encounters, especially Sherman, a man who frequents her market stall. (Many of the names have been changed, with the author’s permission, from the Chinese originals—typically to a Western name with similar sound or meaning.)
Liujin’s parents, José and Nancy, were drawn to Pebble Town from distant Smoke City, to work at the Design Institute. Nancy settles in quickly, but José has more difficulty. However, the arrival of their daughter, an intense, bright, colicky baby, drives Nancy to take refuge at the Institute, while childcare responsibilities fall to José and Qiming, the middle-aged janitor at the staff guesthouse who is smitten with the child. Father and daughter share a close bond and a curious sensitivity that continues to mature as Liujin grows older. Late one night, after they have moved into their own home, she calls out to her mother:
“In the kitchen. There’s a hole at the base of the wall there. Maybe a fox made it.”
Liujin felt her way to the kitchen. No light was on there, either. Her father was sitting on a small recliner.
“I couldn’t sleep, anyhow, so I’m keeping watch here. I want to see if anything sneaks out through this hole.”
“Dad, you must mean comes in.”
“No, I meant what I said—sneaks out. There are some weird creatures in this house. I’m not sure what they are.”
Liujin sat down on a stool. She and her father were worried. The wind poured in from that hole. They shifted their position in order to shelter from the wind.
“On a windy night like this, they probably won’t go out,” Father said.
José glanced absentmindedly at his daughter, who was sitting beside him. He noticed that his little girl was growing quieter over the years. Too quiet for her age. Sometimes he wondered if her previous impetuosity now had truly disappeared. As he watched, his daughter’s shadow began wobbling and separating into a few parts. When he looked hard, the parts took the form of a person again. Liujin’s body could break up in the dark (perhaps he was only hallucinating). He’d seen this happen several times, and each time it surprised him. Why had she cried all night long when she was a baby? Was she scared? José’s insomnia gradually worsened. Somehow Liujin became aware of her father’s nighttime activity and began keeping him company. José sighed: a daughter was close to one’s heart. A boy could never be the same.
Years later, long after her parents have returned to their hometown, Smoke City, Liujin continues to be haunted by thoughts of her father, though it is now her mother with whom she maintains written correspondence. She often thinks of her parents in the faraway smog bound city she has never seen. There is a searching, a longing for completeness that seems to drive her, but she does not appear to know what she is looking for and it is likely that an answer, if any, will be found by following spiritual intuition rather than reason. One could say that Can Xue’s characters exist in her fiction the way her readers are invited to approach it.
There are many others inhabiting this dreamlike world who cross paths directly or indirectly. They include the ailing Lee and his pessimistic wife, Grace, a couple who arrived at the Institute a year before Luijin’s parents, and Sherman’s daughter, Little Leaf and her Holland-obsessed boyfriend, Marco. Enchanted personalities also appear in Pebble Town, like Roy, the ageless boy few people can see, and the alluring shepherdess, Amy, who comes from a village on the slopes of Snow Mountain. Early in the novel, the third person narrative perspective changes with each chapter, but as time goes on, the focus will shift between two or more characters, per chapter. Occasionally, a fleeting glimpse is offered into the thoughts of those who are otherwise known only through their engagement with others, while some will remain obtuse, mysterious, even mythical in nature.
To consider Liujin as the main character is primarily to say that it is her perspective that dominates, we spend more time with her and know her better—in so far as she knows herself—but it would be misleading to assume that her story is the backbone of a directed narrative path. The real question that surfaces through the actions and interactions that shape this novel is: What is the nature of existence at the frontier? What is distinct and disorienting about the world Can Xue creates is the absence of an overriding philosophical, or literary mandate. Her allegorical, fantastic creation seems to come from another, more intuitive, organic space that invites open meditation and speculation. Thus, reading her becomes a viscous experience that seems to expand as time passes, rather than becoming more focused and conclusive. In the end, one is left with a lingering sense of potentiality, as ideas continue to percolate and stir the imagination.
It is reasonable to suggest that it is Can Xue’s singular temperament that gives her work its necessary cohesion. She sees herself as a performer, an experimenter, a manipulator of creative forces. During the writing process, she holds to a rigid discipline, attending to her physical well-being and sitting down to write for one hour a day. She does not reread or edit her work. She is admittedly improvising rather than writing to a pre-determined end, allowing the “meaning” to reveal itself—typically after the work is complete. Granted this approach permits the occurrence of odd inconsistencies and explains the unresolved storylines, but taken as a whole, the result is a piece of fiction that more naturally and organically captures the strange, shifting, fantastic atmosphere of dreams.
In her enthusiastic and informed introduction, Iranian-American writer, Porochista Khakpour, suggests that her friend and mentor (who often refers to herself in the third person) is:
. . . almost more medium than artist, a vessel rather than a generator, creation being relegated to its perhaps most logical state: the mystical. “In my mind, my ideal readers are these: those who have read some works by the modernist writers, and who love metaphysical thinking and material thinking—both capabilities are needed for the reading of Can Xue.”
She has, then, channeled her self-directed education in the Western canon, through an original physical and mental routine, to produce a literature that is truly her own. As an accomplished and mature work with a truly engaging cast of characters, set in a community perched on the borders of everyday reality and whatever lies beyond, Frontier contains a world well worth exploring. However strangely disconcerting it can feel to surrender to the psychic geography of Can Xue’s fictional landscape, if you remember that your own dream-logic may well your best guide, the journey can be endlessly rewarding and entertaining.
The two poems which follow are taken from Make Yourself Happy, the latest collection of poetry by Eleni Sikelianos. These particular poems were chosen by our reviewer Julie Larios specifically because they made her happy—and because they represent a level of energy, concern, wonder, and engagement (with both the beauty of language and the beauty of the natural world) that is typical of the poems in the book. The review of Make Yourself Happy may be read here. We also have an interview of Ms. Sikelianos for Numéro Cinq readers here.
Making the Bird Happy
House finches bobbing on the branches
like fitful punctuation marks, comma in a puff of snow, blobs
of feathered exclamation
in the cold. They
decorate the view and entertain
the cat with red-winter tail feathers and caps. But
an hour later they’re gone. How/where
did they go?
They’re in the back of the bird book
with low “burry notes’
The red-shafted flicker who was also in the tree gives
a soft muffled bwirr
contact call, a clear keew
close contact call, a soft lilt
Every beautiful bird is in Texas.
Lazuli bunting. Look at that bird’s
Say’s Phoebe says
…………pidiweew, pidireep, pidiweew
a phoebe never mistakes herself
for a bird………………she will never mistake herself for someone’s happy nest
“that’s not the way the bird would see it”………..soaking
…….in ultraviolet spectrum,….magnetic fields,……….sunset’s polarized glow
….a feather drab to us hovers in bird-world in pearlized light
yet when Parker plays “Ornithology” even the cat looks up
belief, the bird is happy
to the bird I keep applying what I think I know
Do Nothing Fancy
I shall do nothing fancy
to make myself happy. Help!
I dwell here because I do not dwell
among the dead. But sunlight
is lethal to some, so shall I
make a golden ring that replicates itself or build a golden
hour from which is banished grief to
make the hour so roundly happy? Some will bind
themselves in beautiful things and some
in chains. Some made a fetter from
………..– the sound of a cat’s footfall
………..– the beard of a woman
………..– roots of a mountain
………..– sinews of a bear
………..– breath of a fish
………..– spittle of a bird
but what kind of beard?
Name your letter….name it Gleipnir
(a manackle smooth and soft as a silken ribbon)
call it the wolf-joint………or call it the wrist, it is
where the wolf or the world will bite
(put your hand it its mouth as a pledge)
Now: How will you settle an argument with only one hand?
wrist…..wreathe….wrest…..writhe….wr – to twist
the human mouth makes the movement-sounds
twisting out of the bindings
twisting away from how
make yourself happy moving
freely towards the experimental sky
and language the false start to love is
Eleni Sikelianos is a poet, translator, memorist and professor of creative writing at the University of Denver. Her books include Make Yourself Happy, The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead, Body Clock and many others.
Eleni Sikelianos is the author of several books of poetry (one of them a book-long single ode titled The California Poem) and two hybrid essay/memoirs (The Book of Jon and You Animal Machine); she has translated work by Greek, Russian, Chinese, and French poets. She received her MFA from the Naropa Institute in 1991 and currently teaches at the University of Denver, where she is the director of the creative writing program.
Ms. Sikelianos generously agreed to answer some interview questions from our reviewer, Julie Larios; the poet’s responses can be read in conjunction with our review of her new book, a collection of poems titled Make Yourself Happy.
Julie Larios (JL): Can you tell our readers a bit about Naropa University and your MFA studies within the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics? That one word—“disembodied”—is especially interesting. What does it mean to you in terms of your own work?
Eleni Sikelianos (ES): I went to Naropa in the late 80s and early 90s, and was lucky enough to study with or be around an incredibly range of writers and artists: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Amiri Baraka, David Hockney and Marianne Faithful are among the most well-known. But I had classes with Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Susan Howe, and these all marked me in various ways. Perhaps one of the most important things I learned at Naropa — besides being exposed to groundbreaking, culture-changing work — was to think of the poet as a figure of engagement. Engagement can mean many things: working in at-risk communities, or studying Sanskrit, but it means doing your work in a serious way.
I think “disembodied” came in as a bit of a joke (I wasn’t around at the founding of the school in the 70s), since the writing school was named for a dead man, and there were lots of dead writers who were genii loci, inspirational figures. Language itself is disembodied, you could say, despite its relation to the body that sounds it or writes it or reads it. One of the things I strive for as a poet is to embody (thought, feeling, experience) in language — and that is one of the great experiments of poetry — the ongoing journey back and forth between embodiment and disembodiment that the medium of language necessitates.
JL: You’ve been called an “experimental” poet. What do you think of that designation and/or the whole idea of designations and categories when it comes to poets?
ES: I was on the radio last month, and the radio host introduced me as an “experimental poet” about fifty times. My graduate students who heard it wondered why he couldn’t just say “poet.” I’m not that interested in categories in this regard, although I do feel fiercely loyal to communities and very connected to lineages. “Experimental” is kind of a stand-in word for a number of things, one of which might be writing that creates meanings as it makes itself, rather than heading toward predetermined meaning. Just a quick look in the Merriam-Webster will tell you a lot:
1 a : test, trial
make another experiment of his suspicion — William Shakespeare
b : a tentative procedure or policy
c : an operation or procedure carried out under controlled conditions in order
to discover an unknown effect or law, to test or establish a hypothesis, or to
illustrate a known law
2 obsolete : experience
So, a kind of writing that allows the tentative nature of the world into its proceedings, that admits that meaning and reality aren’t fixed and sets out to test them, to discover and to try (the root meaning of “experiment”). And that has a historical connection to experience (which might itself be becoming somewhat obsolete). If we define it thus, then, yes, it’s a good designation. And if it’s a way for people to understand an approach to writing and reading in a meaningful way, then I’m for it.
JL: Your work indicates an interest in science as well as language. Some people approach poetic investigation and scientific investigation as if they were diametrically opposed perspectives on—and responses to—the world we live in. Why do you think that is?
ES: Well, science is itself a language, a way of communicating things about our world. The word “experiment” serves us perfectly here. I think of both poetry and sciences as ways to test out and discover things about the world, about meaning and structures. I’m not sure most people do think of science and poetry as diametrically opposed, but if they do, it might be because of a cliché about poetry’s sole or primary function as affective. That is not to say that carrying emotion isn’t an important behavior of poetry, it’s just not the only one.
JL: Any recommendations for our readers of poets whose work you're inspired by or of writing in general that interests you and/or informs your own work?
ES: For Make Yourself Happy, I went back to some of the poets who have been important to me for a long time. I was thinking about the joy and bounce in Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, about the devotion of Lorine Niedecker’s sequences, and the combination of astringency and delicate care in Reznikoff’s Testimony. Ed Dorn’s fresh encounter with genre (the Western) and experiment in Gunslinger was in my mind, too. Although these didn’t go into the writing of Make Yourself Happy, recent books I’ve been excited about are Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed, Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye, Dolores Dorontes’ Style (translated by Jen Hofer), and my student Carolina Ebeid’s You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior. I just started Valerie Mejer Caso’s This Blue Novel, and am loving it.
—Eleni Sikelianos & Julie Larios
Eleni Sikelianos is a poet, translator, memorist and professor of creative writing at the University of Denver. Her books include Make Yourself Happy, The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead, Body Clock and many others.
Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.
The book’s purpose is not to suggest that language muddies things up permanently; instead, language in Sikelianos’s hands has a fluid quality to it, it has a round-about-ing quality. There is pleasure—and an increased appreciation of the strangeness of words and the power of words – when a reader goes with both the swirl and the forward movement of the river Sikelianos creates.
Reviewers sometimes bite their lips with trepidation when a review copy comes in that has been written by an “experimental” poet. Will the experimental nature of the work in their hands be understandable to someone not fully aware yet of the parameters (the “controlled conditions”) of the experiment? Will the reviewer’s unfamiliarity with the poet’s style, if that style is linguistically challenging, get in the way? Will the knee-jerk desire for a normal narrative line or for easily-absorbed syntactical structures obscure the reviewer’s grasp of meaning? That is, will the reviewer (me, in this case) have the energy and the patience to “get it”?
Eleni Sikelianos is described by critics as an “experimental” poet, but her latest book, Make Yourself Happy, calmed my reviewer-related anxieties quickly. The poems throughout do play around with normal narrative thrust and sequencing, and there are syntactical structures that require a second look, and a slower look. So yes, energy is required. But there is nothing about the poems that provokes impatience, nothing that leaves the reader behind, wondering what just happened. The cumulative effect of reading the poems in sequence, from cover to cover (not something I always do with books of less inter-dependent poems) is inclusive—the poems draw you in one after another, and you travel with them (even the title refers to this second-person “you” engagement with the poet—you are invited to make yourself happy, though you sometimes might mis-define or misunderstand what “happiness” involves.) The book’s purpose is not to suggest that language muddies things up permanently; instead, language in Sikelianos’s hands has a fluid quality to it; it has a round-about-ing quality. There is pleasure—and an increased appreciation of the strangeness of words and the power of words—when a reader goes with both the swirl and the forward movement of the river Sikelianos creates.
Make Yourself Happy is divided into five sections, prefaced by a few reconfigured lines from William Carlos Williams in which he chides his readers, “Come on! / Do you want to live / forever?” and ends by calling poetry the art of “listening / to the nightingale / of fools.” Then Sikelianos begins in earnest with the first—and title—section, thirty-nine individual poems—individual, yes, but interconnected by their juggling with and questioning of the word “happy.” The opening poem (“Through the lower window”) ends with this advice: “Get on a donkey / and learn some grammar Get on a donkey / and ride.” Who can resist that imperative?
On second thought, is that advice imperative? The next poem—the title poem—makes us wonder: “We do confuse what is a command and what / a prayer / statement and threat, question / and answer.” So we’ve been warned to be careful, as we read further, about the assumptions we make in our lives: those assumptions might not make us happy. At least, not happy in the way sunlight or a croissant in Paris or butter standing “in a bright rectangle of light” might make us happy, says the poet, nor in the way that the ear “tends to hear what it needs to make itself happy.”
We make assumptions, we create the idea of happiness, we are taught it, sometimes incorrectly. Sikelianos recognizes that we feel happy when we eat ordinary bread, or when we see the buds on the lemon trees. But “Tomorrow / we’ll learn all things to undo in the Making Ourselves / Happy school.” Further along in the first section, at the end of the poem which begins “I had taken the long way home…” , we hear the speaker say, “I would not wish to live anywhere, ever, where everybody’s always / happy.”
A choice must be made between “the pursuit of property or of happiness,” and a difference must be established between relief and happiness. People get confused, they sometimes mistake their privileged status for happiness. So we need to be careful with definitions, Sikelianos suggests. Maybe by doing “nothing fancy” we can make ourselves happy. Or, in the poem that begins “To make myself happy in the face of error…” she admits that the sounds of words can make us happy. “To make myself happy in the face of error I repeat / bandicoot long-nosed bandicoot. You / try it. And see how happy / is the b, the oo.”
It’s clear that Sikelianos—a poet, translator, memorist and professor of creative writing at the University of Denver—enjoys the sound of words, and enjoys the way words themselves seem physical (embodied, capable of movement.) Early on, we begin to hear chiming and rhyming, with the word “ombre” sitting next to “hombres,” and, later, the word “wrist” morphing into “wreathe…wrest…writhe.” Later in the book we hear blue/hue/shoot/thru; in another poem, spare/air/there, and in a poem only six short lines long, we hear softshell, sinner, saved, saved (again), saint and shrine. In the poem which begins “How Happy Are You” (which includes Likert-test boxes measuring our responses to what is being said, from Less True to More True) Sikelianos states, “O how a word can hover in its surroundings between sense and sorrow / a narrow sound shivering / as if the world itself rushed in decay toward that trembling.”
There are many guesses and suggestions in this first section about the how-to of making yourself happy (and about the how-not-to’s.) In the same poem about the sound of the b and the oo, Sikelianos writes, “I look through the pine trees and think / of children who are hungry / somewhere, this poem / can’t feed them. That is not / a right way.” Poetry can’t, of course, become embodied enough to substitute for what materially feeds us. But Sikelianos said this in a recent poem-essay titled “Experimental Life” (American Book Review, July/August 2016):
My concerns now as a so-called experimental poet, are different than they were / …when I wanted to tear everything apart and start anew / …but certainly from when I was dedicated to the poetic performance of language above all else. Now it has come to seem that culture-making and art-making are preservationist acts / For salvaging some thinking and feeling among the tatters.
Poetry can, she suggests, matter. It is a “sensory remnant, as if we could still taste it on our tongues.” Sikelianos recognizes “the tatters” that exist, and she commits herself to examining how to live as a creative person in that kind of world. Further into the ABR essay she says this about life (“animation,” we are told, is the word Aristotle used):
…to consider only material in the abstract (like capital or language) / Is a way of reducing us to bare life / But to consider material’s animation, its movement and interactions / Means to take spiritual, emotional, political, personal and material risks in the poem / And these things (we will call them) together are what make context / (from the Latin: to weave together) / Which is a way to live in the world
For Sikelianos, happiness seems to mean that a way has been found to salvage thinking and feeling and to establish context. As a poet, she must work to “animate” language, to weave what is material with what is abstract, and to take risks with words. She enjoys “… the sound of each word rubbing up against the others / The rhythm of each jostling in its context / Rhythm being one of the things that animates the living.”
As she says in the poem that begins “One Way,”
a fuzz of white pine sapling says yes yes
in the wind then
no, no! when it says yes
and when it says no make a
is how to live.
We must do our best to make a go of it, she suggests, just like the pine saplings do. And one of the tools poets use to do their best is language. Of course, language can be a fierce wind, too, blowing on those saplings: “Gustave Flaubert’s father / had a voice like a scalpel, able / to skin the feeling right off / the surface of the body.” We hear another warning: Be careful not only with definitions but with words themselves.
As the first section proceeds, it becomes clear that Sikelianos is interested in dichotomies—life/death, inside/outside, money/honey, green/grief (“coming to be” and decay), the natural world / the constructed world. This interest becomes even clearer in the second section of the book, titled “How to Assemble the Animal Globe,” which consists of thirty-one poems divided into seven sub-sections, all relating to extinct species (“lastlings”) on seven continents, all the extinctions due directly or indirectly to human action / inaction. This is the natural world vs. the constructed (man-made, man-destroyed) world.
The poems in this section contain many lines of encyclopedia-like information about the animals. For example, these lines about the Bubal Hartebeest of North Africa: “…when viewed head-on, the horns / formed a U; the last captive female. died November 9, Jardin des Plantes, 1923.” I can find no poetic language, only information, in the poem about the Tasmanian Tiger. But many of the poems in this section also break into lyrical passages, like the poem about the Mauritius Blue Pigeon which ends with a ship’s artist who “up in the river gorges, saw / the plucked earth coming”.
There is a whole song of extinction in this section, as well as several small, haiku-like poems. About the Pied Raven, Sikelianos writes “over hill and dale the only thing moving / like a riddle a raven/ is as little in its yellow eye / as mine.” A poem titled “Great Auk” uses alliteration with abandon (beautiful / bird / bizaare / burning / burning /body’s / buried / bones / beaks) and tops it off with clever near rhymes: auk—skin / auction / unction. It’s a pleasure to see the poet enjoying the tools in her toolbox.
Two poems (“For You to Write About” and “Lost and Found (Lazurus Species”) do what many great poets love most – they name things. These two lists of extinct animals beg to be read aloud, with names that roll around on the tongue: “Broad-faced Potoroo / Darling Downs Hopping Mouse / Crescent Nail-tail Wallaby / Pig-footed Bandicoot….” In a footnote to the Lost and Found poem, we learn that the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect was also known as “the walking sausage or the land lobster.”
The fourth section—a 34-page poem titled “Oracle Or, Utopia”—charts a path through the jungle of man’s abuse of the planet (“…what it means to be live alive, when the world made its first sounds / …what it means / to be gone agone) and the possibility of weaving one world from the previous two (man/nature or past/future.) Of course, nothing about this path is easy; “Utopia” is an imagined place, and an “oracle” is a prophecy with ambiguous meaning. The section focuses on the future, but it sneaks in lines like this: “Then if the past / comes bustling in like a band of cocked revolvers…” Trying to determine how the past and the future can flow together smoothly, with “all the pictures moving forward and back / the old rock dust and the new new planet” involves poetry, which can move between “rupture” and “rapture.”
“Is There a River Here / Epode,” the fifth section, offers up a lovely 2-page poem ending on a welcome note of optimism, as does the sixth and final section, “There Were Ancient Questions Inside My Head (Rider.)” Added after the last poem are fascinating endnotes—often expanding on scientific principles mentioned in the book—and acknowledgements for the many images used throughout.
For readers of Numéro Cinq who shy away from experimental writing, I encourage you to give Make Yourself Happy a try. Consider the words of critic Warren Motte, who said this in his essay titled “Experimental Reading”:
[T]he experimental text involves us, enrolling us willingly or unwillingly in the process of textual production, and enfranchising us in that process as full partners. In the first instance, it may shock and bewilder us insofar as it beggars traditional, normative strategies of reading and interpretation. Yet by the same token, it grabs us and demands a reaction from us; it engages us and insists that we do something with it; it rejects outright a passive reception in favor of an active, articulative one. …Experimental writing obliges us to read experimentally….
We go at the experimental text hammer and tongs, gradually realizing that the text has been conceived with that very process in mind, and that in fact it anticipates our interpretive efforts. In other words, whatever else the experimental text may speak about…it also (and crucially) speaks about us, and about our efforts to come to terms with it. Moreover, it addresses that speech directly to us, in an unmediated manner—just as if it were inviting us to engage in a conversation….
This is the conversation Eleni Sikelianos invites us to in Make Yourself Happy. She starts the conversation by asking us what happiness is, and though she doesn’t feed us answers, she closes the conversation six sections later with these lines:
Of happiness, what have we lost? What wilds it?
I call all
Here, I want you entirely happy.
Note: The poet – whose poetic voice is generous and inclusive—also generously responded to questions for a Numéro Cinq interview running concurrently with this review. You can link to her responses here. And you can read two of the books poems (“Making the Bird Happy” and “Do Nothing Fancy”) in their entirety here, with thanks to Ms. Sikelianos and Coffee House Press for their permission to reprint these poems from Make Yourself Happy.
Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.
If she weeps, maybe then they won’t find her amusing.
But she doesn’t, so they do.
“We got a lady here who… a lady with a… only maybe you better see for yourself,” fake-whispers the attendant from her desk in Mercy Hospital’s ER lobby, phoning news to the staff about the 2 a.m. patient with the bat bite, not. The big doors swing open on oiled hinges, a smell of coffee ghosts out as the patient slips in, the blended odors of sterile gloves and unrolled gauze featuring so sharply in the patient’s recognition of prior ER visits as to be either actual, resurrected by nostalgia or conjured by dread. The nurses all wear Crocs and the creak of those soles across laminate flooring is likewise as real as it is conjectured. The doctor wears saddle oxfords, the patient sham Uggs, Chuck lies barefoot at home sleeping off the night’s tantrum. In pigtails and bangs like Abby Sciuto’s on NCIS, the ER attendant enquires of the chairs in the now-vacant lobby, “Why would someone of driven to Mercy at 3 in the a.m. wanting rabies vaccine when there wasn’t a bat? What’s wrong with ’em?” A large scrap of frayed burlap pinned with a message on notebook paper – Don’t Touch This Curtain God Forbid – blocks entry to her cubicle.
“Tell us why you believe you were bitten by a bat if you saw no bat,” says the ER nurse.
“Tell us what you were doing when you think a bat bit you,” the doctor says.
“I think kayaking,” the patient says.
She thinks she was kayaking? Or she was kayaking? Or maybe she only thinks she thought she was kayaking? The doctor keeps such fulmination to himself, since the patient is of his mom’s generation. Even her chart, indicating decades of medical predicaments causing him to surmise she might have Munchausen Syndrome but which on random scrutiny reveals breast cancer detected, pin-pointed, aspirated, evaluated, differentiated, operated, irradiated, abbreviated, eliminated, PET scanned, overlooked, and once again investigated, might as well be his own mom’s medical history, all co-paid promptly with a Venture card. Hoping someday to globe trot on credit card miles himself, he pictures both women’s, his mom and this patient’s, Experian scores:
Payments: Never Late.
Potentially Negative Items: Blank.
Miles, thinks the doctor. Lima, Prague and Hanoi subsidized by infiltrating carcinoma. Like Mom, tonight’s patient jets off between crises, bucket list in hand. It’s not unlikely the two almost oldish ladies were once or twice seatmates on a plane somewhere. NOOK Books, Bloody Marys, and neither one of them abashed on rising yet again to make her way to the toilet. Also a shared hubris at being unequipped to master the inflight entertainment system.
Fifty-eight and proud of it, the doctor sees of his patient, just like Mom. College professor two grown sons one divorce three pregnancies tobacco use never plus a smart smartass boyfriend with a baseball cap lousy pectoral muscles but mind-blowing arms. The doctor’s mom once smoked too but when her premiums jumped, she too stopped admitting to it. Her divorce went through when the sons were mere boys. As for the abortion, if it would have been the doctor’s now grown-up sister, he grieves for her.
The bat likely was roosting inside the storage hatch of the hard yellow plastic sit-on-top kayak. Atop the hatch a lid hangs sideways, threads stripped from being opened and shut too often although she never stores things there since only air, only buoyancy belong in there. Since new, the lid never screwed up right, allowing leaves spiders rainwater and snowmelt to find their way in, plus a squirrel must have nested in there one spring hence the cracked apart nuts that spilled out of the hatch when she flipped the boat over to hose off gunk. She shuts the lid with a swift hard thwack of her amphibious shoe, flicks twenty spiders onto the lake then swivels to see if she’s paddling hard enough to leave their hundred and sixty legs behind. On some days the flicked spiders skate alongside for a couple of strokes but on others they’re towed by cobwebby muck. Fishes glide past pulling tangles of algae and once, mid-winter on ice so thick there are roads plowed for driving, she hiked right past a hand without registering it there amid dormant bubbles then lurched backward for a double take at the cold dead fingers that turned out to be a glove not black exactly but colorless, glassine, suspended in ice like a glove paperweight. She thwacked it hard with her boot. It remained unmoved.
Because of the whole of Lake Winnebago sloshing at her crotch when she’s kayaking, she’s in the habit of peeing freely while paddling, declining to use the bathroom before setting off so that her pee might commingle with duck pee goose pee fish pee cormorant pee fisherman pee kid pee heron pee pelican pee fly pee turtle pee frog pee swan pee gull pee and worm pee, then be rinsed and cleansed anew as if the lake were a Kohler Memoirs® Vertical Spray Bidet with four faucet holes. Bat colonies, if you have ever built a house for one like Chuck has in hopes of rescuing a mating pair from white-nose syndrome, prefer to roost on scored wood slats within narrow vented chambers with precisely measured landing strips. The unscrewed hatch of the kayak isn’t ideal but it’ll do in a pinch if the bat scooches forward into the nose and remains well hidden, as it really must have done since she never once saw it, like sometimes when her doctors ask where she hurts, she answers, “Everywhere. Nowhere.”
“It’s safer to assume it’s a bat if it’s not, than that it isn’t if it is,” had warned the nurse at Nurse Direct on the phone at 1 a.m. although the patient was already certain of this from reading WebMD, “since you’ll die if you have rabies but you won’t if you don’t. So drive to the hospital and get the vaccine. Don’t go to bed and don’t wait until morning. Only how did it bite you if it stayed well hidden?” the nurse at Nurse Direct had kept wanting to know.
“If you didn’t see the bat and you don’t remember being bitten and you’re not feeling sick dizzy nauseous or feverish and since your blood pressure is only moderately elevated, then why do you believe you were bitten by the bat if there’s nothing apparently wrong with you?” the doctor went on.
“My blood pressure’s only elevated because I’m at the hospital,” she says, noting “a” has changed to “the” as if to signify a shift in the doctor’s credulity even as the nurses gather close enough to hear while pretending to make themselves occupied. “Besides there was nothing apparently wrong with me the day before I learned I had cancer either except a nightmare I had about monsters on Amtrak throwing gobs of diarrhea at passengers. Doesn’t everybody’s body know they’re sick before their minds know it? Haven’t I read something sort of about that on Mayo Clinic MD?”
Understanding she brainstorms too many questions and is governed by too many bursts of indignation but drinks way too little booze to have booze, like Chuck does, to blame them on, she wilts for a minute before revving up again, recalling her complicity in recent, shared tantrums such as by waking Chuck up accidentally on purpose by phoning Nurse Direct at 1 a.m. this very morning from her desk down the hall eleven footsteps from their bedroom, where she had known she was mistaken he wouldn’t hear. Like other of their fallouts it boggles her brain how small the offense and how far-flung its imputations, these seeming to pertain to some man-poet, maybe, someone Chuck dreamed up from her teaching job and now appeared to believe she was chatting it up with since that’s how wounded he was, how enraged she might waltz out without saying goodbye and “quit raising my blood pressure quit complaining so much” quit wrecking his Type-B existence here at home with the dogs who unconditionally revere him … except there is no poet, only Chuck’s distinctive intellect, his grasp of U.S. and world political history, his adorable grocery shopping addiction, and those dazzling forearms to keep in mind. To all males since grade school the patient’s least composed responses come from glimpsing those least guarded planes of their bodies, although the forearms she’s familiar with from snippets of love poems – when you emerge from the bedroom in a clean cotton shirt sleeves pushed back over forearms scented with the rains I hurried thinking of you your far away lover your forearms decked with bangles old companion of your arms beautiful again the slipping bracelets stay in place now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face – are never stand-ins for battered male ego but perfumed, starlit, bedazzling, and becalmed.
“Who the fuck are you talking to at one in the morning do you think I like waking up to your crap?” Chuck shouted, his love handles jiggling when he slapped at the door jamb.
“Oh for God’s sake Chuck at least put on a shirt.”
The nurse gathered her wits to ask a third time, “Only why would you suppose you were bitten by a bat if you saw no bat?” making the question sound philosophical, which meant it had no answer.
Atop the desk chair was draped the gift of a shawl from the patient’s younger sister a preposterous pink purple velvet flounce that looked sexy on the furniture but if she wore it made her look like a Musketeer. She pulled it closer around when Chuck loomed at the threshold overplaying his unease about her nonexistent man-poet, mainly because she really should have a poet, a beatnik, her beatnik, especially since the hottest she and Chuck ever get is when waltzing to ‘The Thrill is Gone’ in a loft in a barn at a friend’s yearly Halloween party, Chuck dressed as a rabbi and she as a dog.
Chuck bellowed he was sick of her. She reminded him he’d been sick of her since the day they fell in love if you could call it that. He told her you couldn’t. She promised to pack her suitcase and be out of there by noon so he had nothing to worry about “except I’ll never pay you back the money I owe you I’ll donate it to Wildlife Conservation Society which gets four of four stars on Charity Navigator.” He said, “the dogs stay here.” Their loss, she conveyed, without needing to speak it, since he already knew. Nurse Direct went quiet, stupefied, while the patient shrugged the shawl back onto the chair as if removing the armor that wouldn’t protect her in favor of the bare skin that wouldn’t, either. Chuck prefers to forget all their hullabaloos since they’re all about nothing. Next day, he’ll forgive all row and invective. He’ll ask, “How’d you sleep, Hon?” when they wake in the morning. He’ll ask does she have laundry she needs him to do since he’s doing his anyway and should they drive to the Sturgeon Trail in New London to watch the dinosaur fishes spawning along the Wolf River or would they rather stay in bed and watch George Stephanopoulos while waiting for the flocks of Indigo Buntings to finally arrive at the freshly filled feeder, to which she’ll answer “Fuck you,” “Maybe,” “Probably,” and “Yes.” Such hangovers – Chuck’s clemency and her acquiescence– is the price they both pay for their anger mismanagement, though if he looks away for long enough she’ll give him the finger. “Oh for fuck’s sake give it a rest, Hon,” he’ll scold, which means he really does remember, remembers all the crap they fling at each other and even some of the rage they hang onto for later, like when she’s driving them home from some party or other along dark wooded roads unfamiliar to her. How loud he gets, when she is designated driver. And how she wilts in return then flares up again.
“Shut up don’t call me Hon when you’re angry at me it doesn’t work like that you’re so ignorant when you’re drunk you’re cerebrally challenged you don’t know it but that’s part of it and by the way it’s getting worse with old age,” she taunts, then changes her tack and asks for a lecture since teaching always calms him down. “Tell me again why President Adams defended the Boston Massacre soldiers,” she offers, getting part of her question deliberately wrong just so Chuck can correct her: “Adams wasn’t president just an attorney we weren’t even a country the revolution hadn’t started, Hon, don’t you remember?” Her feet in strappy gold sandals all but skidding off the brake because the truck is too big the night dense and surreal no matter how many times she has driven them home through a forest so dark that when there’s a deer, the deer looks like two storm lamps launched at the windshield. Then sober or not the truck veers nearly into the trees, just missing a sofa someone propped in the dark at the edge of the road for whoever likes plaid enough to haul it away. The times she doesn’t fight back it appears she’s a dupe, but only if there’s someone around to hear.
“Do you wear sunscreen while kayaking?” the doctor asks the patient. Like her sons’, the doctor’s eyes remain fixed on hers when he and she are speaking as if he’s practicing taking his own mom seriously like on a beach with her once when he was a kid they found a grave in the sand: the lamination shredded on some British tourist’s driving license and underneath it as they dug further down to search, a basket of gnawed-on chicken bones.
“Not always,” she concedes, exposing for his perusal her shaven leg on which the bat bite waits to be further examined. “I took a photo of the fang marks in case they disappeared before I got here, it looks just like the one on publichealth.gov,” she says, but here the pinpricks still are, two markings, like fangs, and around them a welt with no burn no itch no numbness no ooze and on that scale of one to ten they use for triaging pain, zero. The doctor aims his stylish flashlight as if to funnel the markings onto a map that might reveal to him her actual reason for being here. It appears he keeps the flashlight at all times on his person for how naturally he avails himself of it, flinching at the sight of the radiation scarring on what might otherwise be a still halfway admirable if matronly cleavage not unlike Mom’s. He requests she repeat the details of her most recent image-guided core needle biopsy, to ascertain how much her plotline varies with each inquisition. The combed top of his head, what if she reaches to tousle it the way she does her sons’ curls but never Chuck’s pate under the baseball cap, the scrooge of leftover hair? Frowning she examines the fang marks again, recalling yet another rabies symptom from healthexperts.com: a fear of water so strong you can’t swallow your saliva, your slop pail of tears. There’s a cousin she’s met of Chuck’s too many times who makes cum jokes at weddings and to funerals brings a lady friend who reminds her of herself when she and Chuck are squabbling – wild and sweet from a hillside away like a possum she saw once in snow in Ohio but up close there’s the snout like a mutant hyena’s and the cutthroat tail.
“You’ve been through a whole lot,” the doctor offers, slapping the file with the palm of one hand.
“I know but lucky for me I don’t mind too much being in hospitals. My dad was a doctor I enjoy spending time with medical people the very worst of it is I can’t donate plasma any longer because of the meds I used to love giving plasma you just lie there read novels and get paid twenty dollars, thirty on Thursdays.”
She straightens her posture, proud to bear scars that leave her feeling so fine as to push off on her kayak Saturday mornings only to be done in by a bat. That is, if it’s rabies, of which according to PatientSymptoms.net the incubation period lasts anywhere between a week and seven years but which you don’t know you’ve got until the symptoms appear, at which point you die. She might be lying around with Chuck watching George Stephanopoulos three hundred and seventy Sundays from now and all at once be drooling, terrified of light, scared stiff by the noise of the telephone ringing and then convulsing gagging passed out dead. Bowing his head as if to make it appear a world weary sigh the doctor reminds her of cradle cap, the way new mothers swab their newborns’ fontanels with cotton batting soaked in baby oil, the yellow scales rubbed free as if releasing the newborns from the eons of fishes that via ontogeny are still turning into them. Unlike the doctor with his red mites of hair, Chuck is balder than most babies on the day of their births. A dull forensics show on television pleases Chuck for moving so slowly as to forestall aging, his and hers.
“Is there anything else wrong that’s troubling you maybe even that last biopsy but by the way that’s terrific news on the cancer I see it’s been five years with no recurrence?”
“Not quite five,” she corrects him. “Four and three quarters.” She can tell what the doctor hopes to suggest: that it’s the cancer she’s scared of, the cancer that bites, not some waterlogged rodent with forlorn wings. More patient than she, he gets the lay of her karma, taking her temperature minus the usual choice of thermometer. Rather he employs only filial tact and the discretionary slender trendsetting flashlight. She doesn’t mean to be flip. It must be nice to own a torch you can switch off and on according to what you wish or have no wish to find.
“The thing about this abrasion it could be practically anything,” the doctor concludes. “We see this kind of abrasion from minor falls kitchen mishaps the kind of incidental trauma no one thinks twice about unless it ends up here. Now, that isn’t to say it’s not possibly a bat bite. There’s nothing about this scratch here that tells me it’s a bat bite, but then again there is nothing about it that tells me it’s not. But if a bat chomped down on you, that’s a sizable animal. A bat might look tiny compared to you but it’s a hundred times bigger than a biting fly and when a biting fly bites you, you feel it, right? Add to that the chances of a bat biting anyone are all but practically nil. Then, too, less than one percentage of bats even carries rabies virus. That’s less than one in a hundred,” he says.
Frowning she plucks at the fang marks again recalling something else Nurse Direct had to say or was it QuackWatch.com, that there are two kinds of rabies: Furious and Dumb.
“You call this a scratch?” she asks.
The drive home from Mercy takes place in the dark, dawn not having risen or broken yet like at dinner last night when she and Chuck were at their fancy friends Bob and Harriet’s dinner party eating cake at the table beneath the pergola, an opulence for which you might pay extra at resorts although to sit underneath the tall ribbed beams is like being digested by a whale. Dinner is always a five-star affair at Harriet’s, but though the patient is always shooed from the stove, she’s allowed to help out with the serving and clearing like by ferrying mugs of Harriet’s coffee across the lawn to the pergola. The door she kneed open while wielding the tray had swung heavily shut on the hem of her skirt, leaving only a scratch and a couplet of pinpricks of blood on her thigh she forgot all about until home from the hospital, climbing in bed where Chuck lies sleeping, all curled up.
You didn’t bite me, she transmits, it wasn’t you after all the doctor thought it was the cancer but it was Harriet’s door he might of cured us otherwise God forbid.
She holds her face to a smudge on Chuck’s cool bare lavender-tinted arm, urging her burnt-out scrap of breast upon slackened fingers. He hasn’t showered but he never stinks, and instead of her waking him up on purpose, she lets him snore like a baby. It’s not so terrible fighting it’s just how we do things how we get by we knock our commas around we knock out our connections. In some languages birth isn’t passive like in English but active and intransitive. She learned this from the elder of her two sons: You’re not born, you born. You simply skid into somebody else’s arms, together in darkness rather than moonlight but you can’t have everything.
— Abby Frucht
1. Title: modified lines from the poem, “Nine on a Happy Reunion,” translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
2. when you emerge from the bedroom in a clean cotton shirt sleeves pushed back over forearms scented with: Deborah A. Miranda, “Love Poem to a Butch Woman,” from The Zen of La Llorona, Salt Publishing, 2005.
3. the rains began I hurried thinking of you your forearms decked with bangles your faraway lover old companion of your arms beautiful again the slipping bracelets stay in place: modified lines from the poem, “Nine on a Happy Reunion,” translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
4. now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face: Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” from New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, Beacon Press, 1992.
Abby Frucht is the author of two short story collections, Fruit of the Month, for which she received the Iowa Short Fiction Prize in 1987, and The Bell at the End of a Rope (Narrative Library, 2012). She has also written six novels: Snap, Licorice, Are You Mine?, Life before Death, Polly’s Ghost, and A Well-Made Bed (Red Hen Press, 2016), on which she collaborated with her friend and colleague Laurie Alberts. Abby has taught for more than twenty years at Vermont College of Fine Arts and has served as a judge for the Pen Faulkner award for Fiction. She lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
When the Rawlses finally arrived at Grandma and Granddaddy’s house in Eufala, there was no place to park. Cars crowded the lawn and driveway, and TV vans lined the shoulders of the road, leaning out from the pavement as if feeling poorly and ready to topple over and give up the ghost. (“The ghost,” the boy whispered. Was it bad? Bad to say words aloud as you thought them?) So Dad left the pickup down the block by a house with a tree where a farmer in overalls was hanged by the neck until dead. Spooky, since it was already getting dark.
Jordan had been taking pictures of the sunset with Mom’s iPad as they headed south from Muskogee, and he knew it was “unworthy,” the word she had used—“unworthy of you to keep harping on it on such a day”—but the thought came to him, There’s still time. (“Time,” he said.) Time for trick-or-treating, he meant.
Dad carried Su Ellen, asleep in her car seat and tented in a pink blanket, and Mom brought what Dad called the “superfluous bucket of chicken.” “I know my people,” he’d said, but she insisted you couldn’t show up empty-handed. The boy followed, his school backpack slung over one shoulder. Dad buzzed his own head every Sunday morning, except for a curl from his widow’s peak, and you could see a port wine birthmark as big as a pancake on the back of his scalp. Mom’s hair was frizzy and dark, and she had a slight overbite and a zit at the corner of her mouth which she had daubed with makeup.
At Grandma and Granddaddy’s yellow home on the corner, its American flag at half-staff, they’d forgotten to string up the spooky orange lights this year, but their neighbor’s house had an inflatable witch, a huge spider clinging to the eaves, a dummy holding a jack-o’-lantern head, and fake tombstones for IZZY DEAD and IMA GONER and BARRY A. LIVE.
“I hate Halloween,” Dad said.
Reporters were waiting on Grandma and Granddaddy’s lawn. Their cameras and microphones were labeled with ABC, CBS, Fox, and others, too, but some of them just had notebooks and recorders. Noticing Jordan’s family—the Chicago Rawlses—they stopped checking their smart phones. Dad, usually surefooted and long of stride, slowed, as if considering whether to retreat and find another way in. When the Rawlses reached the yard, the reporters huddled around with faces arranged so sad, Jordan wondered if they, too, had known Uncle Aaron. A lady in hoop earrings said, “Excuse me, but are you all family?”
Dad said, “I’m his brother. Was.”
“I am so sorry. I can only imagine.”
The reporters all nodded. They, too, could only imagine.
Dad looked at the house as if hoping his folks might come out and rescue him, but nobody stirred in the house. A cameraman had him state and spell his name for the record. Dad handed the car seat with baby Su Ellen to Mom and she stepped aside. He was wearing civvies, but the reporters must have guessed from his haircut, because someone asked for his rank (“Captain”), then said, “Navy?” and he told them, “United States Marine Corps.” The reporters wanted to know how Dad felt. He said it was a living nightmare. The NBC lady asked how long Aaron had been a soldier, and Dad corrected her: Marine, ma’am. Not soldier. When someone asked if there was a wife, he said no, just the ex, she’d be flying in tonight. No; no kids.
One reporter wanted to know what Aaron was like as a kid. Well, sir, Dad said, clearing his throat, my brother, he was always getting up on top of things. He gritted his teeth and for a moment Jordan thought his father was grinning.
The FOX lady asked, “Like, for instance?” Oh, Dad told them. Like when Aaron was three and he clambered up onto the carport roof. Yes, ma’am, three years old. Little monkey. Dad was seven, followed him up to make sure he didn’t fall off. A neighbor phoned their mom, is how she found out. Nine years old, Aaron hauled his bike up on top of their father’s tractor-trailer rig and rode off the end, pretending to be Evel Knievel. Broke a bunch of bones.
“He was my kid brother,” Dad said, “but he was my hero. Nothing scared him.”
Mom slipped a tissue in the hand at his side. He dabbed his eyes and nose, apologized. The reporters said of course, no need. A CBS lady touched his arm.
Just then Jordan’s backpack slipped off his shoulder and spilled open. He’d forgotten to zip it. Out tumbled the Wimpy Kid books and his Evil Gesture costume, which Mom had packed for him. The Evil Gesture wore a three-horned hat and a suit of a red and black check pattern, with tiny skulls instead of bells hanging from the zigzag collar. But what everyone was looking at was the cackling skull mask. Jordan was too horrified to move. Mom’s face changed from sad and weepy to really, really angry, and she crammed everything back in and zipped up the backpack. Jordan was hot with shame. His grandparents were not supposed to see the mask, today of all days, and here it was, revealed for TV.
A gray-haired reporter said, “You fixing to trick-or-treat, son?” Jordan didn’t answer, afraid this man, too, would find him unworthy. The reporter said, “Well, that’s a pretty spooky costume.”
Somebody asked if you had one message for the American people today, what would it be? Dad said he did not feel called to advise the nation right now. He added, “Excuse us,” and led the family into Grandma and Granddaddy’s side door, where a sign read, NO MEDIA!!!
The kitchen was over-warm even though a window was open, and a biscuity, hot-doggy smell filled the air. People at the counter were chopping carrots and distributing ice in red plastic cups. The Grands, as Mom called Grandma and Granddaddy, were nowhere to be seen, but Jordan recognized their pastor from the Free Will Baptist Church and Dad’s cousins and uncle of the Tulsa Rawlses. Across the room, Aunt Staci, Dad’s big sis, was listening to a marine staff sergeant in dress blues who was shaping an invisible lump of clay with his hands as he spoke. Aunt Staci was an army nurse but wore civvies today like Dad. Uncle Dave, her husband, a doctor, was deployed to Afghanistan.
With a glance that told Dad, “You were right,” Mom set the bucket of chicken on a sideboard already crowded with a crockpot of gumbo and a pan of ribs and fried chicken and mini-hot dogs and biscuits and salad and corn with specks of something red like peppers in it, as well as brownies and cookies and cake. Su Ellen began crying, and Dad removed her from her car seat and tucked her in a baby carrier on his chest. Babe-zers blinked in bobble-headed astonishment. Were there dis many people on Earf? Where dey come from? Babies were so funny if you scrutinized them. Aunt Staci, puffy-eyed, pinching her nose in a much abused tissue, rushed over and hugged Mom and Jordan, then captured Dad and Su Ellen in a baby sandwich. People turned ugly when they cried.
“I just can’t get it out of my head,” Aunt Staci said.
“You didn’t watch the video!?”
“Oh, God, how could I miss it? It just was on in the Emergency Department. I mean, not all of it, but enough.”
“Where’re the folks?” Dad said.
Aunt Staci led them to Dad and Uncle Aaron’s old bedroom, where Jordan and his parents always slept when they visited. She knocked and peeked in.
In a room lighted by the afterglow of the sunset, a very large couple had pulled up tiny chairs beside a bed on which a skinny, white-haired lady lay facing the wall. Jordan knew them—the Reiersgords, Grandma and Granddaddy’s best friends from church. He was a throat-bearded man whose belly bulged in his orange OSU Cowboys jersey. His wife was a frog-shaped lady who seemed to have slipped rubber bands around her wrists, elbows, ankles, and neck. The white-haired lady rolled over on the bed to squint at them, and with a shock Jordan recognized Grandma. She’d always been roly-poly and pink-cheeked, but she had wasted terribly skinny, and her jet hair had gone white since he had last seen her on the Fourth of July. She was part Choctaw (“though not enough to do me any good”), and her Indian features were pallid, even bluish.
“OH!” she cried, her eyes seizing Jordan. “Come here, you!” Her face wrinkled up, and she swung her legs off the bed as she sat up to hug him, smearing his skin with her wet, whiskery cheek. “What took you all so long? I was so worried about this guy.” The ferocity of Grandma’s embrace alarmed the boy.
Mom and Dad sat down on either side of her and hugged her sidelong, and the grownups all cried. Mrs. Reiersgord said, “We’ll be getting back to the kitchen.” She nudged her husband, who lumbered out after her, supporting his belly as if it might otherwise sag down around his ankles.
Jordan felt bad, as evil as an Evil Gesture, but when he thought of Uncle Aaron, he couldn’t cry, because he didn’t feel sad, only afraid. He’d been sick to his stomach ever since he first learned about Uncle Aaron’s kidnapping in Tajikistan last May. He would ask Mom to drive him to school, and she’d say, “Since when do you need a ride?” All the way there he was alert for kidnappers and would notice whenever a passing car or UPS van slowed down, possibly to grab him. The boy barely remembered his uncle, whom he had only seen twice in the last three years, and in his mind, the strong, shaven face of Aaron in his Officer Service Uniform had been replaced by that of the gaunt, bearded man in orange, kneeling before some kind of Ninja in black. The boy did remember his uncle tickling him once on the floor of the den as he screamed for mercy. Jordan had kept a wary distance after that.
Last spring Uncle Aaron had mailed a Kyrgyz felt hat, as tall as a pope hat, that he had found in a market. He addressed the gift to “The Chicago Rawlses,” but Dad decided it was for Jordan. Mom thought it would make a great Halloween costume. Hearing this, the boy made a point pushing it off the back of the dresser in his closet, to be forgotten amid the dust on the floor. After Uncle Aaron was kidnapped, he felt guilty, though not enough to put on a stupid hat like a Smurf might wear and regular old clothes and call it a costume, which is the kind of lame-o idea grownups came up with. Luckily, Mom had forgotten the hat.
These past months Jordan had been more anxious for his father than for the remote uncle of legend. “Are they going to try to kidnap you, too, Dad?” “Buddy, they wouldn’t dare. Besides, the bad guys are way far away.” Still, Dad had bought a Colt M45 Close Quarters Battle Pistol and began taking Jordan to the shooting range on weekends. At night boy armed himself with his Nerf gun in bed, and this upset Mom when she sat on it while tucking him in, because she thought he was playing with it after lights out. Actually, it was for protection. He was not a moron, he didn’t think a Nerf bullet would kill a Tajik, but if it hit him in the eye, it would give Dad time to come running with his gun.
Last night Jordan had awakened to find himself in the back seat of the pickup. Out in the darkness a billboard glided past with a smiling lady’s face and the words FREEDOM FROM PAIN. Headlights came at them and taillights streaked away. Su Ellen was asleep in her back-facing car seat beside him. Oddly, Mom was at the wheel. Dad slumped in the front passenger seat, his head bobbling forward and righting itself.
“Where we going?” Jordan said. (“Going,” he whispered.)
“Shhh, let Daddy sleep. Grandma and Granddaddy Rawls’s.”
“What about Halloween?” he said.
“You can trick or treat there.”
The next time he woke, it was daylight and Dad was driving. They were pulling in to a McDonald’s. The boy asked where they were. “Springfield,” said Dad. “Abe Lincoln’s old stomping ground.” It wasn’t until they finished their pancakes and sausage that Dad said, “Buddy, we got some bad news.”
Now Grandma released Jordan. As she pulled her palms down her face, stretched her saggy skin.
Jordan said, “I’m very sorry about Uncle Aaron, Grandma.” (“Sorry,” he whispered.) He glanced at his mother, who nodded that this was the right thing to say. Grandma peered at the boy’s face, but not finding something she sought, she lay back down facing the wall. She kept a hand on her tummy. Maybe she was hungry.
“Grandma, I’ll share my candy with you after I go trick-or-treating.”
Mom swatted his shoulder and bugged her eyes angrily at him. What? he mouthed, and she nearly swatted him again.
Dad said, “Your ulcer acting up, Ma?”
Grandma shifted in a lying shrug. Aunt Staci nodded for her.
“Maybe you ought to see a doctor,” Dad said.
Grandma pulled a pillow over her head. “OHHHHH, stop it! All of you.” Jordan’s spine shivered all the way to his tailbone. The grownups looked like they didn’t know what to do.
For a while they sat there stroking Grandma’s shoulder and leg. She reached back, but when Dad took her hand, she pushed it away and found Jordan’s instead. What should he do? Just stand there holding his grandmother’s soft, boney hand? Mom nodded: Just like that. He surveyed the room. Grandma’s treadmill stood along one wall, stacked with boxes. A bookshelf was lined with Uncle Aaron’s old collection of toy Indian warriors and cavalrymen in blue, made of tin and painted. One of the soldiers had long, yellow hair like Custer. He was threatening to saber a brave in full-body black war paint who brandished a tomahawk.
“Kirsten’s in the living room with your granddad,” Aunt Staci told Jordan. (Kirsten was Jordan’s cousin.) “Maybe you two should go say hi. Your Mom and I can set with Grandma.”
They found Granddaddy watching Fox News with Kirsten. Who had pink hair! They both stood up for hugs. She was wearing jeans and pink socks and a pink hoodie that read MIZZOU, which is where she played mellophone in the marching band. Granddaddy had the same old circus barker’s mustache and goatee, and his bald, spotty head sprouted stray hairs, shimmery against the light. After hugs Granddaddy said, “He’s with the Lord now,” and Dad said, “He sure is.” The left side of Granddaddy’s face kept flinching into a half mask, baring his teeth and flexing the tendons of his neck, as if a malevolent lightning bolt had illuminated a painting in the Disney World Haunted Mansion. A tissue box lay by Granddaddy’s chair, and they wiped their cheeks and honked their noses and talked about Grandma. Ought to see a doctor for sure, but try telling her that.
Kirsten nudged Jordan with her hip, throwing him off-balance. “Look at this big guy! We’re going to have another linebacker here, just like Luke.” Luke was her brother, but he didn’t play football anymore because he was studying for his master’s in England.
“Jordan’s playing Pop Warner,” Dad said. “Offensive tackle.”
“I lost a tooth,” the boy said. He opened wide to show his cousin the hole in his gum.
“Last week, middle linebacker knocks him flat,” Dad says. “Hits the turf so hard, he spits out a tooth, Jordan. So he finds it and runs off the field and hands it to Mom. Didn’t want to miss out on that dollar.”
“Whoa!” Kirsten said. “You stud!”
In fact, Jordan wasn’t very good at football. His size had excited the coaches at first, but he was clumsy and was frequently humiliated by smaller opponents who wriggled past to sack the quarterback or take the running back down for a loss. His team had lost every game but one. In the car home Dad always advised him on everything he had done wrong. “You cost your team twenty yards holding.” His head coach told him the same thing, at the top of his lungs.
Kirsten was chewing her hair, which was so bright it did look eatable, like cotton candy. The boy’s fingers reached out and combed her pink locks. “What are you going as?” he said.
At first she didn’t understand; then she giggled. “Jordan, this isn’t a costume. It’s my normal hair. I dyed it.” To Dad she said, “He is so funny!” But maybe she decided smiling was unworthy, because her face fell and she tucked the hair back in her mouth.
Granddaddy said, “Sit down, take a load off your mind.”
He bent at the waist and at the knees and groped back for the armrests and tottered back into the easy chair. He pulled a lever to clump up the footrest. “Little woozy with the meds they got me on.” Kirsten sat in the rocker and held his hand. A couch was aligned with its back to the dining room and the kitchen beyond, and Jordan sat beside Dad and Su Ellen and was enveloped in her aroma of talcum, pee, and milky barf.
“So how was the trip down?” Granddaddy asked the TV. “Y’all get out before that ice storm? They showed it on the weather.”
“Dodged the worst of it.” Dad lifted his hands from his knees and let them fall. “Little sleet is all.”
“Well, that’s—.” The spasm seized Granddaddy’s face again. He raised his Crimson Tide coffee mug to his lips and peered in, then set it down.
Dad asked what they were going to do about “arrangements,” since they didn’t have a—. But he did not finish his sentence.
“Seeing as how the government wouldn’t let us come up with the ransom, maybe they’ll let us purchase his REMAINS!” Granddaddy cried. “You heard, right? The terrorists are offering to sell us his body. Maybe they’ll give us a discount on the head.”
Glancing at Jordan, Dad said, “Dad, he doesn’t know how it happened.”
A commercial came on for a man who owned a fleet of red plumbing vans and a herd of cattle and was promising to stand up for Oklahoma values.
Kirsten said, “Can I?” and took the baby from the carrier on Dad’s chest and went back to her rocker. When Kirsten stood Su Ellen on her knees, Babe-zers made a face like, Pink hair! As if! You could see how every little thing amazed her.
Dad took his father’s hand. Granddaddy glanced at the hand that was holding his, patted it, looked back at the TV. Dad let go and picked up the remote. “Mind if we turn that off?”
Granddaddy gestured at the table with a gnarled finger. “You put that dang thing down.”
A blond lady with big eyelashes told the news about the USA. Oklahoma was red and Illinois was blue. So were most other states, boldly the one or the other, excepting a handful that were pinkish and blueish or gray, neither hot nor cold, as if they might be spewed from the mouth of God. Jordan jiggled his knees. Dad stopped him with a hand on his thigh. “I was just telling those reporters how he got up on the roof.”
“I remember that,” Granddaddy said.
Now it was that TUMS commercial where a headless chicken slaps up a man at a barbecue. Then the man fights back, and the chicken respects this, so they become friends and play volleyball.
The boy went over to peek out the curtains. Darkness seeped up from the black forms of the journalists and the TV vans and through the veiny trees and across the sky. Jordan slipped a wooden rod into the sliding glass window to lock it. Down the street a car stopped and let out three kids, hard to say what, maybe a Zombie, a Princess, and a Batman. They skimpered up to a double-wide trailer. Dad patted the seat beside him, and Jordan came back and plopped into the deep of the couch.
“When are we going trick-or-treating?” Jordan said.
Dad shushed him with a look of fury.
On the screen beside the news lady, a photo of Uncle Aaron appeared. He was wearing a beard and a shirt like the Oklahoma State Cowboys when in fact he’d been a Sooner. A Ninja was standing beside him with a knife. “2nd Lt. Aaron Rawls” was printed on the frame. Across the top of the screen it read, NO MERCY.
“Leave the room!” Dad said. “Now!”
“Why can’t I watch?”
“GET out of here, or I’ll burn that costume in the fireplace.”
The boy fled to the kitchen, squeezing past Mr. Reiersgord, who was watching the TV from the doorway. Mrs. Reiersgord put mitts on her rubber-banded hands and opened the oven door. Hammy steam gusted out. “Stand back, Aar—Jordy. What am I saying?” (“Air,” the boy whispered. He was not air, was not Air Jordans, was also not Aaron. Plus he hated the name Jordy.) Over at the sideboard he snitched a finger lick of frosting off the cake. From the doorway Mr. Reiersgord hollered, “Statement from the White House!”
Jordan sneaked back in with everyone stampeding from the kitchen. The TV screen was split, showing the news lady and an empty podium with two flags behind it, American and a blue one with stars. Kirsten vacated the rocker, handed Su Ellen back to Dad, and sat on the floor at Granddaddy’s slippered feet. People laid hands on Dad and Granddaddy as if for a calling upon of the Holy Ghost. Rubber-banded hands, as heavy as fat little haunted house gremlins, landed on his shoulders from behind. Obama came onstage and said, “Good evening, everybody.” He gestured a fist with his thumb sticking out and said something about Aaron Rawls. He was mad. At Uncle Aaron? Turned out the president, too, could only imagine. He said the entire world was appalled, and the people who did this were not Islam. But we would confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with hope and civility. When he was done, reporters asked questions. The president said it would be premature to speculate, but make no mistake. He walked off, and the air seeped from the lips of the watchers here, as if they’d been expecting something else, though just what, nobody said.
What Jordan was not clear on was, was anybody going to revengence the Tajiks and Ninjas? But he did not ask, because everyone was crying again except for him. Granddaddy’s whole face was frozen in his evil mask, his eyes red. Dad came over and half-crouched to hug Granddaddy, his cheeks shellacked with tears, resting his chin on his father’s bald pate.
Now the TV showed the blond lady at her desk, they’d be right back. An X-ray of a skeleton danced in high heels. The watchers began filtering back to the kitchen, and Mrs. Reiersgord’s hands departed from Jordan’s shoulders. The skeleton flapped its arms and wriggled its hips. It turned into a lady with gray hair. She was smiling.
Granddaddy said, “You note how he always tries to explain away the religion. How stupid does he take us for?”
“Dad, he’s just making the point that not all—”
“So who should we blame, then? Mormons?”
The front doorbell rang and Jordan cried, “I’ll get it!” Out on the dark porch were the trick-or-treaters he’d seen earlier, the Zombie and Ballerina and a Darth Maul, it turned out, not Batman, wearing a rubber mask with its red and black devil’s face and baby goat horns.
“Kirsten, we got any candy?” Jordan called.
She palmed her brow. “Oh, jeez, did we forget candy?”
In the street behind the kids, two dark heads were watching from the car. Jordan ran to the kitchen and hollered, “We got any candy?”
“Not before dinner,” said Mom.
“Not for me!” Jordan cried in vexation. “There’s trick-or-treaters!”
But she was talking to the preacher, and she raised a finger. That’s one! Jordan checked Aaron’s room, but Grandma was gone. Upon his return, the living room door was a kidless rectangle of dark. Anyone could have infiltrated the house. He shut the door and hung the security chain.
Su Ellen was crying, as purple-faced as Coach Barker after a fumble. A poopy smell wafted. “You’re right, Pop,” Dad said in a tone that suggested he did not wish to argue, and he added, “Sorry, we got a situation here.” He headed for the hallway. By now, everyone had cleared out of the living room except for the staff sergeant, Jordan, and Granddaddy.
“So who do you think they were, Aaron?” Granddaddy asked Jordan. “Presbyterians? Buddhists? Maybe your grandmother should’ve dressed up for that press conference in orange lama-lama robes instead of that danged headscarf.”
The boy’s skin prickled all over. “My name’s Jordan, Granddaddy.”
The staff sergeant’s face blanked as the gravity of the error sank in.
“Well, I know that!” Granddaddy said.
“But you said—.” Jordan bethought himself. His mother always urged him to do this, to bethink. “I have to go.”
He was waiting in the hall as his father emerged from the washroom with Su Ellen, who was still crying, though at a lower volume.
Very respectfully the boy said, “Dad, may we please go trick-or-treating now?”
Dad gritted his teeth. “Jordan, did you not just see what—?” Then he paused, bethought. He said more calmly, “I need to be here for Grandma and Granddaddy. We haven’t even eaten dinner. Be patient. What did I say?”
“Maybe, after seven-thirty, is what I think I said, if there’s an opportunity. We’ve got plenty of sweets here, anyway. Did you see those M&M cookies?”
“Come on, they’re calling us.”
Mr. Reiersgord and several church friends who had been helping prepare dinner had departed, leaving his wife, the preacher, and the staff sergeant as the sole remaining non-relatives. Mom took Su Ellen off to feed her. Dinner was ready, but Grandma, Granddaddy, and Aunt Staci were unaccounted for. Mrs. Reiersgord went to round them up but she returned with Granddaddy alone. She said, “Charlotte won’t be eating. Staci’s with her.” She told Dad, “She’s back in their bedroom, so whenever you all want to move your stuff in—.”
Everyone huddled around Dad and Granddaddy and bowed their heads. The preacher beseeched Almighty God to come in this time of grief and bless this family. And bless Aaron, Lord, up there with you, and, and Holy One, thank him for defending our freedom, God, for greater love hath no man than to lay down his life. This drew “amens” from the crowd. Everyone loaded up paper plates at the sideboard and sat in the dining room. Mrs. Reiersgord circled the room, distributing napkins to those who’d forgotten and topping off water, coffee, 7-Up, and Coke. Finally she plopped down, fanning herself, and said, “Whew!” Nobody talked much except for murmured requests for the salt or the butter. Granddaddy broke apart two mini-hot dogs with his knife and fork, eating the crusts separately from the wieners, his face flinching to a mask and then softening. He cleared his plate and headed to his and Grandma’s bedroom. Aunt Staci returned in his place.
Jordan nibbled at a drumstick. Using the green beans as fencing, he created a hog wallow for a farrow of red-speckled corn. He hoped that this evidence of activity on his plate would substitute for the actual consumption of veggies, but when he said, “May I please be excused?” Mom replied, “Not until you clean up your veggies.” Dad told her, “Leslie, forget it. Not tonight.” On the wall Jordan noticed a clock. Eight thirty-six! No, seven thirty-six. But still. Dad saw where he was looking and misdirected: “You can play on the iPad,” even though Jordan had already used up his gaming time.
He played Terraria in the kitchen until the clock over the cup rack showed eight-o-six. He returned to the dining room and stalked around the table twice, then whispered in his father’s obscene earhole, “May we please go trick-or-treating?” drawing an eyeball rebuke.
A strategic withdrawal was required. The boy retreated to Dad and Uncle Aaron’s old room, cutting a cake-slice of light in the darkness as he opened the door. Should he enter? He should. He closed the door but for a crack. Maybe he’d hide here until the grownups noticed he was gone and panicked, thinking he’d been kidnapped. Couldn’t you have taken the child trick-or-treating? That was all he wanted, and we had to make him feel bad about it. As Jordan’s eyes adjusted, they took in the shadowy figures of the toy cavalry and Indians on the bookshelf. Had Aaron worried about Mormon Islams as a kid? A Sioux warrior’s arrow poisoned with horridness shot through his chest.
ACCEPT PAIN, INFLICT VICTORY: this was his football coach’s motto. It was on the team T-shirt. But “accept” sounded wrong, because pain came barreling in, accept it or not, like an illegal clip from behind that took you down. What about fear? Should you accept it, or was it better to resist? And how did you uninflict fear when it flicked you? Jordan closed the door the rest of the way and was enveloped in darkness. Was he afraid?
The glow beneath the door starkly planed across the carpet shag. As his eyes adjusted, he scowled in the mirrored closet door, but the effect was comical. No tears came, just silly-putty terror.
Only the Evil Gesture could scare off the Ninjas.
The boy pulled his costume from his backpack. He put it on over his clothes, the sleeves and pant legs bunching up uncomfortably. Without the cackling skull mask, he was just a plain old kid, fattened by the extra layer of clothes. Did he dare put on the mask?
Evil Lord Gesture darkly surveilled himself in the mirror. The transformation encouraged him. Ninjas would panic at the sight of his cackling skull face. And poop in their pants!
Pardon our stinkiness, Lord Gesture, they’d say. We bow to your submission.
Verily, thou shalt die anyhow, says the Gesture. In revengence for Uncle Aaron.
NOOOOOOOOOO, we don’t wanna die!
The Evil Gesture revenges the Ninjas with his diamond Minecraft sword. And they poof into clouds of vile black dust.
The Gesture reached his dread hands for the tin soldiers. Which one would be the bad guy? Custer, of course. Jordan felt around in the dark to figure out which toy was which. The Indian with the tomahawk toddled over and hacked at Custer’s neck. Yah! De-headed. (“De-headed,” he whispered in his mask.) Custer’s body fell over and died. With his fingers the boy tried to break Custer’s head off, pressuring it this way and that, but the solid metal would not budge.
Something moved on the bed and Jordan nearly peed his pants. A dark form lay there, staring at him. Grandma. He yanked his mask off, taking with it his hat. Hadn’t Mrs. Reiersgord said she’d gone back to their room?
Grandma said, “What’re you supposed to be?”
Jordan told her. (“Gesture,” he repeated in a whisper.)
“An Evil Jester?”
“What happened to the one you wore last year?”
This puzzled him, because they had not been here last Halloween. Maybe Mom had sent photos of him in his Spider-Man costume. “I outgrew it.”
“Oh, come on. I could have altered it.”
Jordan did not know what to say.
“Nothing scares you,” Grandma said.
“Boys,” she told him. “That’s your downfall. Right off the top of the semi.”
Jordan eased toward the door. “Want me to get Granddaddy?”
When no answer came, he left, shutting the door behind him.
Back in the kitchen, the boy hid the mask behind the refrigerator. He left the lights off. (“Downfall,” he said.) In his array of costume, he evilly manifested himself at the counter, within sight of Dad at the dining room table. But Dad was looking the other way, at Aunt Staci, as she told about the time a couple years back when Aaron met up with Uncle Dave, who was passing through Kyrgyzstan on his way to Afghanistan. At a roadside market two Kyrgyz women got in a fight, pulling hair and knocking over a watermelon cart. Aaron tried to separate them, so they started punching him and whacking him with bunches of carrots. Aunt Staci wiped her eyes and said Aaron laughed very hard about that and loved to tell the story afterwards. Kind of like Afghanistan and Iraq, he said. Turns out they’d rather be let alone to fight each other, didn’t want to be rescued by us.
Jordan’s eyes returned to the iPad, but all he did was whirl it on the smooth countertop. Twirl, thwup, whup, whup.
The kitchen light flipped on. Jordan did not look up.
Dad said, “How come you’re sitting here in the dark?”
Twirl, thwup, whup, whup.
“Trying to make your mean, old father feel guilty for not taking you trick-or—?”
Thwup, whup, whup.
“I’m sorry, I just find it hard to believe that you don’t care what happened to your uncle. This horrible, horrible—. And yet you—.”
“The old silent treatment.”
Thwup, whup, whup.
Dad said, “They cut his head off, Jordan.”
He looked sickened at his own words, as if he wanted to take them back. A horrid feeling pierced Jordan, the poison arrow, and his skin prickled.
“I know,” he said.
“I shouldn’t’ve told—. You know? How?”
Jordan interrupted, “I never said you were mean.”
“All right. All right. Get your mask.”
Jordan reached behind the fridge for the cackling skull face. It was bearded with greasy dust. Dad brushed it off over the trash can and washed it in the sink.
“How come you stuck it back there?”
“You said Grandma and Granddaddy shouldn’t see it.”
Dad considered this. He dried the mask with paper towels.
They slipped out the back door and cut through the neighbor’s yard to Third Street, where Granddaddy had parked so he could come and go without encountering reporters. Granddaddy had told them that there was a “Trunk-or-Treat” at the church, where the grownups dressed in costumes and distributed candy from their cars. (“Trunk,” Jordan breathed.) Youth group buses came from forty miles around. This one doctor, he always went as Frankenstein’s Monster. That’s where they headed, the Free Will Baptist Church, Dad up front, Jordan in back.
Thus it was always so with grownups, the Evil One thought as he buckled the seatbelt around his coat-fattened tummy.
But the tables would be turned in the Trunk-or-Treat, when he manifested himself in his dark power, scaring everyone pantsless.
Dr. Frankenstein, look! Ninjas would cry. The Evil Gesture is here!
Impossible! Frankenstein answered. He lives in Chicago.
It’s true, Mine Hair! Run! He’ll poof us into dust devils of black powder.
There can be no outrunning our doom.
But when they got to the Free Will Baptist Church, the lights were out and the parking lot was empty. No cars, no Trunk-or-Treat, no Doctor Frankenstein. Both Chicago Rawlses, father and son, peeked in the dark windows of the Fellowship Hall, where three headless half-men hung from a wheeled coat rack. “Nichts,” Dad said. Granddaddy had told them the Methodists and the Mission Outreach Full Gospel Church had started copycat Trunk-or-Treats, and Dad circled by, but they, too, were abandoned.
“Jeez, it’s barely eight-thirty,” Dad said. “I can’t believe they roll up the sidewalks so early.”
Jordan took off his mask. The skin of his under-face was cold. “I told you!” he said. “We waited too long, and we missed Halloween!” And although he tried not to, in his unworthiest act in a day of unworthiness, he started to weep, not for his uncle, or for deheadings and incivility and Ninjas, but for the candy he was missing out on. He was embarrassed by his own greed and childishness, but he could not hold back his tears. “I thought Halloween would be fun, but it’s not. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about Uncle Aaron. You think I don’t, but I do.” (“But I do.”)
Dad did not scoff, as he did when Jordan cried in football, or lose his temper and shout, as he was known to do, but slumped a little at the wheel. “Look, Aaron. Jordan! Jeez, my brain.” He reached back and, his cold, hairy hand groped blindly to clasp Jordan’s. Presently Dad withdrew the boom of his arm and wiped his eyes. He found a pair of gloves in his coat pocket and inhabited them with his hands. “Why don’t we—?” he said. “Your Aunt Staci and me, we used to take Uncle Aaron out. And—.” He shook his head at some memory.
“And there weren’t Trunk-or-Treats back then. We’d go house-to-house, like in Chicago. Aaron, this one year, he—.” Dad snuffed out a double-barreled burst of air. “Come on, sir, we’ll find you some candy. Come on up front.”
“But I’m not supposed to.”
“It’s Halloween. We’ll defy the law.”
He could see better up by Dad. Most houses were dark, and almost no trick-or-treaters were circulating. When Dad found a promising site (decorated, porch light on), Jordan hesitated.
“Go on, Ace.”
“Will you go with me?”
“Jordan!” Dad indicated the house with his thumb like an umpire calling an out.
The boy dried the cold, wet mask on his knee and put it back on his face. Re-Eviled, Re-Gestured, he ran to the front door and rang the bell, ready to flee if any criminals sprang out. He counted to five, then ran back to the pickup.
Over the next twenty minutes, Jordan accumulated only eight pieces of candy and a toothbrush from a lady who said she was a dentist. Back in Chicago, you got half a pillowcase of candy on Halloween. Several homeowners said they’d run out, he should’ve come earlier.
Eventually they stopped at a stucco house with lighted windows and a front-porch banner of the Holy Ghost descending as a dove. Jordan ran up, rang the bell, and raced back to the car, ding-dong-ditch. As he was getting in, Dad said, “Hey, you didn’t wait long enough.” A Jabba the Hut lookalike stood backlighted in the door. “Look, it’s Mr. Reiersgord. Go on.” The Gesture evilly returned to the porch and presented his flimsy Walmart bag. Reiersgord’s bearded jowls blubbed over the collar of his orange Cowboys jersey. Could that rubbery face be a mask, hiding a fatso monster?
“We don’t have any candy,” he said, “but I got something even sweeter.”
He offered a postcard from a stack in his hand. On a background of candy corns were two illustrations:
Jesus, with a lamb draped around his neck (right)
A cackling Devil with a face like the Evil Gesture’s (left)
For those who couldn’t figure which was which, the images were labeled JESUS and SATAN.
A message read:
DON’T BE TRICKED
It’s the DEVIL’S Day!!!
Whom Shall Ye Serve?
SATAN, Prince of Darkness?
Or JESUS, Lord of Life?
It’s the Sweetest Treat of All!!
—Reiersgord’s Ice Cream Parlor
Jordan turned the postcard over. On the back was printed: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life!!!” Along the bottom, the card advised: “Bring this card in to Reiersgord’s Ice Cream Parlor at 436 E. Grange Avenue and recite John 3:16 for a FREE single-scoop ice cream cone of any flavor (except licorice)!!! Limit one per customer.”
Mr. Reiersgord asked, “You given your life to Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, young man?”
The wrinkling of Reiersgord’s brow indicated he was not altogether persuaded. “Then you ought to know not to wear an evil costume like that.”
Jordan dropped the card in his bag. Reiersgord’s eyes followed the motion of the boy’s hand. “Pretty meager haul,” he said, not without sympathy. He was an ice cream man, after all.
“We missed the Trunk-or-Treat,” the Evil Gesture said.
(“Trunk,” a boy’s lips whispered within the mask.)
“’Course you did, heading out at nine o’clock at night, practically. Don’t tell me you’re the Rawls boy? Jordy, is it?”
“Well, why didn’t you say so? Show me your face. Should’ve known you were a Rawls just by the stance. Your grandma’s right: spittin’ image of your uncle at that age. Now, you ask yourself if you’re one hundred percent sure that if you’re run over by a cement truck while you’re out trick-or-treating tonight, you’ll wake up in the arms of the Lord.”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“I’d like to believe that. Same for your brother. Would like that reassurance. Your uncle, I mean. Because I remember him.” He shook his head. “You know, we had a boy, Mrs. Reiersgord and me, but he went to be with the Lord. April the twelfth, 1992. We have that faith, we do earnestly contend. Whereas Aaron—”
Dad honked the horn, and Mr. Reiersgord waved. He eyed the Walmart bag. His plump fingers rummaged in his pockets and came up with a dollar coin, a paperclip, a matchbook, and an unopened roll of TUMS. “Tell you what, I can offer you a dollar or the TUMS. Taste like candy, and they work pretty good if you got acid reflux, which I don’t know if you do. I’m not offering the matches, you’ll burn the house down. So what’ll it be?”
“The TUMS,” Jordan said.
“TUMS it is, but you ask your folks before you try them.”
That night Mom and Dad tucked Jordan into Aaron’s old bed, and they made up an air mattress on the floor for themselves. (For now Su Ellen was sleeping in Aunt Staci’s room, near the living room, so the grownups could hear her cry from the living room. She’d be moved later on.) They kissed him before slipping out and closing the door most of the way. But just as Jordan began following the children carrying shovels and a Styrofoam headstone to bury their dead guinea pig, the bedroom door cracked open, tipping him out of the drift-boat of sleep.
A black figure entered. Grandma. “Scoot.” She lay down beside him, Fixodent breath in his ear.
“Ma’am, I got you something.” Jordan reached across her and felt for the TUMS on the bedside table. “For your stomach. Mr. Reiersgord gave them to me.”
Grandma clutched them but did not open them.
“Is Uncle Aaron in heaven?” Jordan said.
“I don’t understand. What do you mean?” Grandma sat up on her elbow and pinned him to the mattress. He was afraid to answer. She turned on a lamp and began opening and closing the desk drawers. “I got all your letters.”
Jordan’s skin prickled. The gospel postcard on the desk drew Grandma’s attention.
“It’s from Mr. Reiersgord,” Jordan said.
“How come he thought you’d need this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why, he was there the day you went forward in church. Every day you were gone, we reassured ourselves thinking of that.”
After sorting in every drawer in the desk, she gave up, wringing her hands. “I’ll look tomorrow. I can’t seem to find—.” She hunched forward and rocked, face in her hands. Finally, she turned out the light and lay back down on the bed. “Not that there weren’t moments of backsliding. That Halloween, Daddy laid down the law, but it was M-80s and tipping cows just the same. And when Deputy Wurth brought you home in handcuffs! That window cost us three-hundred fifty dollars. Lucky thing we knew him, or your so-called celebrating would have landed you in juvenile hall.”
(“Celebrating,” the boy whispered.)
“That’s what you called it, you and that Anoatubby boy. Deputy Wurth called it vandalism, pure and simple.”
The door opened, and orangish light flooded in as if from a spaceport, and within this bright rectangle appeared two silhouettes like Ninjas. They took Grandma’s hands and helped her up.
“Ma, it’s his bedtime,” Dad said. “Come on, you can talk in the morning.”
“Charlotte,” said Granddaddy, “let Jordy be.”
“Jordy?” she cried. “What about Aaron?”
“Aaron’s gone,” Granddaddy told her.
Dad quickly assured, “He’s perfect. No more tears, no more pain. We just—. Come on, Mom, Jordan needs—”
“Gone where?” Grandma said.
“Shh. Come on this way.”
Dad and Granddaddy led her out, each holding a hand. The door closed on Jordan.
(“Celebrating,” the boy told the dark.)
Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story. A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Business Week, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post, the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.
Levine’s spare language works brilliantly to capture both the vastness of the open water and the claustrophobic chaos of underwater caverns. — Benjamin Woodard
Much like her thrill seeking protagonist, author Elise Levine’s isn’t interested in convention, and in her new novel, Blue Field, she cleverly toys with structure and omission to tell the story of Marilyn, a woman who takes up cave diving as an outlet to escape the sadness she feels for her recently deceased parents. Levine’s spare language works brilliantly to capture both the vastness of the open water and the claustrophobic chaos of underwater caverns; it also provides a heightened, stylized canvas for Marilyn’s addictive nature, which encourages her to push her skills to their dangerous limits. The result is a tale of self-destruction and hubris, and it is absolutely gripping.
Written in a close third-person perspective, Blue Field unfolds in six parts that cover brief moments in Marilyn’s life. In the first, she falls for her instructor, Rand, as she learns the basics of diving. Part two centers around a dive two years later. Marilyn and Rand are now married and Marilyn’s friend, Jane, has also taken up cave diving. The dive goes sideways, and the results carry over to part three, which features yet another large time jump.
This bouncing ball pattern continues throughout the remaining sections: Marilyn loses her confidence in diving, is on site to witness a freak tragedy, and then returns to the water with determination. By trusting the reader to fill in the blanks left by time gaps, Levine not only eschews unnecessary narrative beats, but she focuses her text on the agony and ecstasy of diving. This decision reinforces the adrenaline rush that comes with the sport, where water means everything and clouds all other of life’s threads, and it drops the reader into the single-mindedness of Marilyn and her gang.
As these characters dive, Levine’s style transforms the page into a kind of textual illusion, for passages simultaneously present the underwater world as wide open and confined. When Marilyn submerges in part two, for instance, Levine begins by writing:
First one in, Marilyn hung. Alien, aquanaut—trussed and bound, packed tip to toe into a sealed drysuit. Hoses from her tanks tentacle around her and a nylon harness cradled her chest and hips and crotch and cupped her buoyancy device to her back like wings.
In this passage’s first sentence, the word “hung” implies weightlessness in the water, but also restriction. (What does one typically hang from? A noose? A tether?) From here, the next two sentences take this restriction and exploit it with descriptions of the equipment strapped to Marilyn’s body, complete with constricting language like “tentacle” and “bound.” Yet, mere sentences later, Levine segues to ruminate on the limitless feeling of standing at the bottom of a body of water:
But here, twenty feet beneath the surface in a pewter-tinted corona of visibility that extended maybe thirty feet in all directions before blurring like smoke—thirty-foot viz—just water, water everywhere. Freshwater. Middle of the north channel between two great northern lakes.
When read together in a single paragraph, the juxtaposition is effective, as it creates alternating feelings of safety and discomfort, and as Marilyn and Rand move to explore their targeted underwater ruin, the reader is primed for ratcheted tension. Levine maintains this momentum with fragmented sentences (“Here but she wanted out. This instant.”) and repetition (“Think, she thought from some pit deep in her brain. Think hard or die. Had any thought ever been clearer? Think and live.”). Sentences begin to collide, and a textual panic takes over.
In fact, even outside the water, flashes of panic present themselves, and throughout the novel, nearly every aspect of life takes on a yin/yang duality. The relationship between Marilyn and Rand wavers from loving to toxic: Rand screams at Marilyn in frustration; Marilyn accuses him of striking her; they frequently make violent love and threaten to break apart. Likewise, most of the peripheral characters in Blue Field, like Rand’s diving buddy, Bruce Bowman, are portrayed as difficult live wires who will also give you the shirt off their backs, and the extreme diving community itself is painted as one with questionable loyalty. At one point, Marilyn looks at an online diving forum’s fatality list, and is greeted with headlines like “FAREWELL, TRAVELLER, DIVE ON IN THE BEAUTIFUL AFTERWORLD” and “BYE DUMB BITCH, PUTTING YOUR LIFE IN HELL ON PURPOSE EARNED YOU A BODY BAG.” These contrasts add dimension to Marilyn and Rand, and they help the novel achieve an interesting balance, and, perhaps thesis: life is good and bad, freeing and suffocating, loving and perilous.
Fans of James Salter may see Blue Field as a quasi-homage to the late author’s own Solo Faces, for both employ spare language to chronicle extreme adventurers (Salter’s novel tackles mountain climbing), and both include a character named Rand as the seasoned veteran, taking new thrill seekers to nature’s limits. To continue with the idea of balance, one could see Salter’s creations as high above life and Levine’s as deep below. Whether this comparison is Levine’s intent or not doesn’t ultimately matter, however, for Blue Field is a remarkable novel on its own. Its story reflects the modern escapist fantasy so many desire, yet never achieve. As Marilyn becomes obsessed with her passion in an effort to figure out life, we recognize her craving and experience her thrills vicariously.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Hobart, New South, and Cog. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, Electric Literature, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.
miss my friend Robin. Robin Kilson. She was a black panther who was raped by the Black Panthers. And I met her when I was fairly young and she taught me a lot about betrayal, and betweenness, and belonging. And she died ten years ago and they say not to look into the face of what is sacred and to close your eyes or to avert your eyes or maybe just cover your eyes because then your eyes are still open and what you’re seeing is something beyond sight.
I think Robin talked so much about deprivation of belonging, and all of the places that she fought to belong in and arrived at only to realize she didn’t belong and she didn’t want to belong and I wonder if she feels that way now that she’s dead.
Does she feel a sense of belonging with the dead?
She’s not my relative. There’s no blood between us but she has felt like an ancestor ever since she passed away. More of an ancestor than my own ancestors, and there’s no reason for me to belong to her but I feel that I belong to her. And somewhere there’s a long thread that hasn’t been broken between the two of us.
Most of what we talked about were broken threads. Most of the time we spent together was holding threads to see if they would reach. She was a sixty year old quadriplegic African American Black Panther and I was a 19 year old lost child in the west and we would take these strings and somehow they tied together and the knots still hold but I know for her there were strings she tried to tie to people she thought were like her, other black panthers, other women, other afro-caribbeans, other people from Boston, other professors, other people in wheelchairs, other people with shaved heads.
I don’t think the strings that we always expect to connect are the ones that hold.
But the one that we tied, has held.
2. THE SECOND TO RISE
I must have been around nine probably when my blood grandmother said she had a very exciting day planned. And we packed a picnic together.
There were crickets in the summer. It was absurdly green in the South in June with noises of bugs and leaves and flowers bursting out and we were making fried chicken and ham sandwiches and Dr Pepper bottles and I knew we were going for a picnic that’s all I knew that we were going for a picnic and we got in her car and we drove and we got out and it was a beautiful place but it was a cemetery and a graveyard and I asked her why we were there and she seemed so happy. And so full of joy about the surprise that was awaiting me. And this adventure that we were on. And she said I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you, and we ran through the graves in her housedress and me in my brother’s clothes like a little boy and we reached a tulip poplar tree full of huge pink flowers falling all around and she pointed glowing at the ground and she pointed and pointed and pointed and she said, look look look, here’s your grave.
And I realized somewhere that day that she had bought my funeral plot. She had gone to the cemetery and bought me my grave. And that she hadn’t done this for anyone else. It was just for her and my grandfather. And she said, So that you’ll always be here. You’ll always have a place to belong.
And we ate our fried chicken and our Dr Pepper and its bottles on this beautiful green sloping blossom-filled path, where I had been given a place to decompose.
And I realized that was not where I belonged.
I think she wanted me to lay with my ancestors but the ancestors that I had were not her.
The thread that I tried to tie to her was not a thread that tied and held.
3. THE THIRD TO RISE
We have pipelines threading underground. The Black Snake pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, the black snake of prophecy that is connecting the north to the south of this continent and is burrowing through the sacred and its eyes are open but it’s not seeing. The people who are destroying the earth and tunneling through the graves of the ancestors are not seeing. Their eyes are open and they are not seeing and I want to say, go to your grave, and lie there, and open your eyes in the darkness. Who will reach out to you? When you descend that far, whose string will follow you down?
There’s a sense that the pipeline doesn’t belong. It doesn’t belong in sacred space. It doesn’t belong. Oil doesn’t mix with water. Oil doesn’t belong in our water. Gas doesn’t belong in our water. It has its own grave. Which perhaps are dinosaurs. Perhaps bringing the fossil fuels from the earth is the most ancient grave robbery we’ve ever known.
All I know is that at night when it’s dark and my eyes are open I want to reach down farther than a drill, farther than any equipment could go, to the birthplaces and death places and sacred places that are under what we take for granted.
I was raised not believing in dinosaurs. My mother said that dinosaur bones were placed in the earth by god during the seven days of creation so that when they were found in the 19th century, in the 20th century, in the 21st century, they would test the faith of the nonbelievers. And it wasn’t until I was 20 that I learned that dinosaurs were real. The black snake of oil, of gas, of fossil fuel. A fossil is a body. Is a dead body of something that was once living. That people have chosen to exploit. My grandmother decided where I would be buried while I was still alive—even at nine that felt like a form of exploitation.
How—how do we see the dead?
4. THE FOURTH TO RISE
I was in Vienna working on a project that involved the archives of the anthropology department at the museum and there was a young anthropologist who had found some disturbing files. She was a woman, and the department was male dominated and they didn’t like her around. Interrupted their reality, I suppose. And they put her down in the vaults, which are underneath all of the beautiful Hapsburg plazas of Vienna. And she said, I’m afraid what I found is going to get me fired. And I’m afraid my supervisor will destroy them. And they have to be seen by someone who can see them. And I didn’t know what these were. She told me to bring my camera and told me I needed to see.
And I saw hair and fingernails and she explained they were from Jews collected for anthropological purposes a few days before they were murdered in the gas chambers. And each of the envelopes had a number. And each of the numbers corresponded to a name. And each of the hairs were different. Some were light, some were dark, some were straight, some were curly—there were fingernails of infants, there were fingernails of old men, everything numbered and I thought this is what I’m here to see, the remains of the dead something sacred, and she said, no there’s more. We must have to go down deeper. So we took the elevator and we went down for a long time. It was the longest elevator ride I’ve ever taken. And at the end of it were tunnels and more tunnels and at the sides of the tunnels were climate controlled—almost prison cells—but they called them archives and she opened the door with a key and there were banana boxes everywhere. As far as you could see down the metal industrial shelving cold—so cold—so far underground—banana boxes. Banana boxes from the 1930s, the 1920s, the 1950s, and then older boxes that were also fruit boxes that said—in languages from all over the world—bananas, oranges, and she looked at me and I knew I was supposed to see, I was seeing boxes of fruit but maybe if I closed my eyes I would see what she wanted me to and I did and it felt terrible down there. It felt terrible down there.
And she led me over to a box, and it was full of carefully marked femurs. And she said, this was a tribe in Niger. And we walked a little ways further and there was another row of shelves and there were orange boxes and there were newspapers and she just said, we’ll just unwrap the first newspaper. And there were finger bones and wrist bones—an assortment of tiny fragments and she said this was an aboriginal tribe in Australia and this, this continued through every continent. Another collection of fruit boxes filled with such strange fruit, and I asked her as I tried to breathe why the fruit boxes and she looked and me and she said, they so closely correspond to the size of human bones.
And I realized the orange is the hand. The fist. The black fist of Australia. Is the size of an orange on a ship brought back to a museum in Austria. And a banana is the length of the femur of a pygmy tribe in Africa, brought back by camel, by train, carried down stairs after stairs after stairs down into a cold basement in Vienna where they were fossils. And they were fossil fuels. They were fuel for hatred. They were a fuel for power. They were a fuel for control. A fuel for sadism over other people.
We don’t get to choose very often where the fossils of us remain. I don’t know how I feel about an afterlife. If Robin… The Robin I remember from the Black Panther photographs. The Robin I remember as she lay in bed dying still loudmouthed, still brave, still damaged, still full of threads.
Is she an ancestor fossil? I draw strength from her but I don’t desecrate, and I want the oil workers and the gas workers and the everyday people with their pipeline and their black snake to go down deeper. They don’t respect the fossils.
How far down do they need to go to learn respect?
And will it take their lives, as well as ours?
5. THE FIFTH TO RISE
In the middle of the United States there’s a town called Saint Louis. There’s the Saint Louis Arch, which would go by the name of a landmark. A landmark. A mark on the land that we all can agree upon perhaps when it’s erected, when it’s an arch that’s erected in a town like Saint Louis with the Mississippi River running below this arch that connects nothing with nothing to nothing. White is not connected to black. The segregation of Saint Louis is not affected by this landmark, arch, bridge from nowhere to nowhere.
It was 1992, I feel like it was before we recognized bombs as something that could land on us, here, there were stink bombs and smoke bombs for Fourth of July. Winter. New Years Eve. A holiday where a smoke bomb could be lit off against a white bank of snow or a dusky twilight early in the evening for children to be out. A flash of magenta or a flash of turquoise the gorgeous colors of smoke bombs from roadside fireworks stands. But in 1992, I only knew magenta and turquoise and saffron and cyan as the vivid colors coming from bombs that did not explode but only smoldered.
And so I was in Saint Louis with a young man my age who was very angry. And he was not interested in smoke but he was interested in bombs. And this young man had gotten me into his car and we had driven and driven and driven—I had no idea where he was taking me and then in front of us is this archway. And an archway is a gateway is a point in a journey where you’re crossing a threshold. But the threshold was so unclear. It didn’t cross the Mississippi, it didn’t cross, nothing was connecting, it wasn’t a bridge it didn’t make sense, and then we were in the elevator. The elevator at the Saint Louis Arch is a box that ascends a staircase it rocks the shape of the architecture the bend of the steel. The chamber is so small—it’s crypt-like—your knees are touching knees and you’re rocking as the car, a cube, is making a journey up an angle that is circular and there’s the roundness that doesn’t fit with the squareness and yet by god you’re going to the top.
By god, I went to the top. And this is where the bombs were not going to be smoke bombs but incendiary bombs, explosive bombs, bombs that would bring the arch down. The arch from nowhere to nowhere would explode in the name of this boy’s anger.
At the top of the arch it’s surprisingly narrow and you lie on your stomach at a strange angle that’s not standing up or not lying down, it’s suspended but you’re supported, it’s the angle of flight but gravity is still pushing you down onto this carpeted surface and there are windows and you look out on black Saint Louis and white Saint Louis and the Mississippi River and he says to me I’m going to blow it all up. And in that moment in that position in the arch from nowhere to nowhere, the gateway was the belief that I and everyone around me was going to die. It’s not a question. Might we die. Could we die. We’re in the process of dying. It’s—we are about to die. And since that threshold, that was crossed with no visible explosion, I have never since been human again. Not in a sense of being mortal and not in a sense of being immortal, but at that angle, suspended, between lying down and standing up, lying down and standing up. Lying down and standing up. In the space in between the two where you’re at an angle, traveling towards a destination that is no longer human.
6. THE SIXTH TO RISE
To escape this man, I got a bus going anywhere. I was in Nambé Pueblo, I was in Española, I was at a Greyhound station, it was blindingly bright and it was as far as my money would take me. Somebody—I don’t remember who—a woman, came up to me and she said you look like you need help. I’m not sure she used the word help. Then her husband was standing beside her. And I remember nothing about the word help. I just knew that I was to go with them. And when I arrived in their adobe there were ravens on the windows, one by one, each window I would look at and they, they said again this thing to me that was not help, it was not, you need our help, it was a word that I cannot remember. And they kept saying, you need, you need, and I was not lying down, I was not standing up. I was not human, I was not alive, I was not dead I was not mortal, I was not immortal, and they gave me peyote and I became a scorpion.
For five days I was a scorpion. I was not a scorpion but I was a scorpion. I was not a human who thought she was a scorpion. I was not a scorpion who thought she was a human. I was neither a scorpion nor a human. I was a human and I was a scorpion.
They told me my tail had the capacity to kill. I had never thought of myself as having the capacity to kill. I looked at myself and I was black and shiny and deadly. I had never been deadly before. For five days I was deadly. I walked. I walked outside. I walked the pueblo. I was not dead. I was not alive.
I was not human, I was not scorpion—I was deadly.
I asked them what I was supposed to do with this capacity to kill. What was I supposed to do with this capacity to cause pain? Was it justified as self-defense? Could I light this bomb of poison in the name of something like justice? Like revenge? Could it be a firework display of power to say, I can choose to make the living dead.
For five days I walked. I didn’t kill anyone.
7. THE SEVENTH TO RISE
Years later, I was working in northern Mexico, on the Tohono O’Odham. We were finding parts of women. They hardly seemed dead. They would have a leg with a shoe, and I would expect it to walk. The desert was full of bodies of women who were fossil fuels but they were desiccated and buried after they were exploited. There was no river of their blood coursing through a land of genocide, it was drying in their veins under the soil—sometimes I knew their names and sometimes… Sometimes there was no name.
I was walking in a forest in northern Europe, and there was a pile of ashes as high as I am tall. As wide as I am long. Grey. A kind of grey the sky will never turn. The kind of grey a rock will never be. Only a human incinerated will turn that color grey. It’s not forgettable.
How much have we forgotten in our landmarks? How many of us know the land on which we walk? The black snake pipeline. What does it really travel through?
Interstate 10. What does it truly travel past?
The Autobahn. Over whose ashes is it built?
8. THE EIGHTH TO RISE
I sleep at night but it’s not sleep, it’s something else. It’s not a human sleep because I don’t wake from it. All I know is there’s darkness, and I know I’m dead, and I’m lying down, I’m aware, I’m lying down and there’s darkness, and I’m dead and this lasts and it lasts and it lasts until the shapes of my room come back—the squares the circles, the angles, I sit up, I stand up, I’m upright. Upright is alive. I go outside into the desert so that I can feel the land and I feel like stomping. I feel like pounding. I feel like I should be on all appendages—scorpion legs. Human legs. Arms. Everything pounding, to let out what’s in the earth
Those who are sleeping are not quiet. Our ancestors who sleep—are they dead?
My grandfather sleeps in a green Naugahyde chair after dinner and we’re happy that he’s peaceful, we’re happy that he’s not angry, we’re happy that he’s fallen asleep after an insubstantial meal, and we go about our evening so delighted that he’s resting until we realize his chest isn’t moving, there’s nothing rising and falling, there’s no up, there’s no down—there’s just him at this angle, at this slanted angle suspended in a green Naugahyde easy chair and his heart has stopped and he’s here, but he’s not here.
9. THE NINTH TO RISE
For animals when they are fearing death, they have three choices. They can fight, they can take flight, or they can freeze. Those are the only three options. Those are the only three options for survival. Fight or flight or flee. And we who are not human who have not earned the title of human, those of us who are dead or have become something else—we have these choices, fight flight freeze, fight fight fight flight freeze, up down over, standing, lying, leaning.
And in the morning when the sun has come up, and I think it might be possible that I’m alive, and I stomp my feet on the desert floor—I want them to rise. I want all of them to rise. I want the trafficked women to rise. I want the genocided tribes to rise. I want the lynched to rise. I want the incinerated to rise.
Do I want them to fight? Do I want us to fight?
And I’m a scorpion again and I know I’m dead and I’m deadly and they’re dead and they’re deadly. And the living are dead and the dead are living and we’re in pain.
And I think, can this tail be used for justice? Is it possible? Can we protect and not protest? Can we have our tail and not be forced to use it? And some mornings as it turns to autumn and the fog rises from the Bosque and for a minute I think, yes, we’re rising—I can’t tell who fought back and who did not. Who froze and who fled. Who fought and who fled. Who fled then fought then froze. Who froze then fled then fought. There’s too many. There are too many. They go on. And on. And the deeper the soil and the deeper the rock the deeper they’ve climbed out and we stand and we look at each other and we say, we want justice, what do we do now?
—Quintan Ana Wikswo
Quintan Ana Wikswo is the author of The Hope Of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (Coffee House Press), a collection of photographs and stories, and a forthcoming novel with photographs, A Long Curving Scar Where The Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press, 2017). Other work appears in magazines such as Tin House, Guernica, Conjunctions, the Kenyon Review, and Gulf Coast, and in anthologies, artist books, and exhibition catalogues. Her projects have received multiple solo museum shows in New York City and Germany, including the Berlin Jewish Museum, F.A.C.T. (UK) and are presented in galleries such as Ronald Feldman Gallery (NYC) as well as in museum and public collections throughout the United States and Europe including the Brooklyn Museum, the Jewish Museum Munich, and People for the American Way.
This Polaroid series created during a ritual walk for Thanksgiving Day, along the Jornado del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man) desert of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro: the genocidal road of the Spanish conquistadors, the site of the explosion of Trinity (the plutonium infusion fission nuclear bomb), and the American Indian Wars against the Apache and other Native Nations. The bones depicted in these photographs are of the skulls of cows left chained to fence posts. Thanks to the Creative Capital fellowship and the Theo Westenberger Estate. These images are part of a multidisciplinary collaboration in progress with Matt Contos and Andrea Clearfield.
The first thing one might remark about Harry Mathews is that it is virtually impossible to describe his writing in a really satisfactory manner. For his writing is utterly particular, emphatically its own thing rather than any other thing. It is moreover elusive, interrogative, sleek, and agile. The best way to account for it, I suppose, would be to reproduce it in its entirety, from first word to last. That would be a most interesting and illuminating exercise, without a doubt; but it is clearly impractical (and undoubtedly illegal) here.
One can say that he was an experimentalist, someone who was committed to exploring the boundaries of his art, continually putting those boundaries to the question in order to demonstrate that the vital horizon of literature is far broader than one might have imagined it to be. In that sense, Mathews takes his place in a tradition of twentieth-century American prose experimentalists, among people such as Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, William Burroughs, William Gaddis, David Markson, William Gass, Gilbert Sorrentino, John Barth, Walter Abish, Robert Coover, Ronald Sukenick, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Rikki Ducornet. Like many (if not all) of those figures, Mathews was an internationalist, someone who felt as at home in Paris or Venice or Dorset or Lans-en-Vercors as he did in New York, his birthplace. The fact that he died in Key West makes a great deal of sense, because Key West, as everyone knows, is located at the very edge of the world.
Quintessentially American but at the same time deeply internationalist: where many people might see contradiction, Harry Mathews found complementarity. It is safe to say that he learned as much about his craft from Proust, Joyce, and Kafka as he did from Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. And it also should be noted that those two traditions, the European and the American, broadly conceived, cohere and enrich each other in Mathews’s work, in the kind of “infinite conversation” that Maurice Blanchot points toward as the highest function of literature.
Harry Mathews was a writer’s writer—and if that term seems a little bit belated in our vexed and dithering present, it is no less apposite. He was surely influenced by two French writer’s writers, in the first instance at some remove, in the second far more closely. I’m thinking of two “Raymonds,” Raymond Roussel and Raymond Queneau. Today, Roussel is virtually unknown to most general readers, as obscure now as he was during his own lifetime (1877-1933). He is nevertheless a giant of the French avant-garde, the living link between Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Jarry on the one hand, and Dada and Surrealism on the other. His writing is elaborate, intricate, often arduous, always invigorating. Roussel is perhaps best known for his novel Locus Solus (1914), and it is not by chance that Harry Mathews borrowed that title for a literary magazine that he founded, along with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, in the early 1960s. Roussel was a patrician figure who lived off a private income. He was famously eccentric. Both an accomplished pianist and a champion marksman, he designed what must be understood as the ancestor of the recreational vehicle; he imagined a reading machine that would make his own books more understandable; he filed a patent on the use of emptiness. Though not as obviously extravagant as Roussel, Harry Mathews was also a patrician figure, especially among constitutionally impoverished writers. Always well turned out, he was also something of a dandy, and a boulevardier—and once again, one might note just how belated those two terms may seem, right now.
Mathews never met Roussel, of course (he died just three years after Mathews’s birth); but he did come to know Raymond Queneau. Indeed, in 1973, at the invitation of his friend Georges Perec, Mathews joined the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or “Oulipo,” a group that Queneau had cofounded with François Le Lionnais in 1960. From then until Queneau’s own death in 1976, he would see the writer at the group’s monthly meetings, in the company of other young people like Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, Marcel Bénabou, and Paul Fournel. His association with Queneau and the Oulipo served to confirm a taste for formal rigor that is already apparent in the novels that Mathews wrote prior to joining the group, such as The Conversions (1962), Tlooth (1966), and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971-72). Crucially, the Oulipo provided Mathews with a theoretical logic for formalist experimentation, one that was firmly based in both tradition and innovation. For if the Oulipo, under the guidance of its elders, was committed to the elaboration of new literary forms, in an aspect of its work the members called “synthesis,” it was no less committed to another aspect called “analysis,” which involved research into the history of formalist expression, and the identification of precursor figures whom the Oulipians wryly identified as “plagiarists by anticipation.”
Another element in the Oulipo’s aesthetic that would be crucial for Mathews was the rejection of inspiration in favor of hard work. The notion of inspiration was firmly entrenched in Romanticism, but is was massively appropriated by the French avant-garde, most notably in Surrealist thought, as the latter is articulated in André Breton’s manifestos. Raymond Queneau has been a member of the Surrealist group as a young man, but he broke with them in 1930; and indeed in that same year he was one of the signatories of “A Corpse,” a pamphlet denouncing Breton’s dictatorial leadership style. The lessons Queneau learned would come to shape the nascent Oulipo in key ways, mostly by counterexample. Thus, where Breton was the undisputed pope of Surrealism, the Oulipo’s leadership model was far more diffused and broadly shared. Thus, while Breton took perverse delight in excommunicating dissident members, the Oulipo explicitly outlawed exclusion, insisting that members always remain members—even after their death. Thus too did the Oulipo take the idea of inspiration out of the creative equation, viewing it as capricious and unforeseeable, a notion that handicaps rather than helps an artist. They replaced it with “perspiration,” with the principles of artisanship and craft. One can see those principles at work in a lot of Harry Mathews’s work, but perhaps most obviously in 20 Lines a Day (1988). His title is borrowed from Stendhal, who famously said, concerning the difficult work of a professional writer: “Twenty lines a day, genius or not.” Mathews took him at his word, and applied that maxim to his writerly practice during what he described as a difficult time in his life, a moment when he had to attend to a great many family preoccupations, while at the same time trying to finish his novel Cigarettes (1987) and struggling to come to terms with the premature death of a man whom he described as his closest friend, Georges Perec.
That friendship, between a French war orphan and an American who had enjoyed both fortune and privilege, was in many ways a curious one. But clearly it was a powerful, rewarding relationship for both Mathews and Perec. They translated each other (Perec translated both Tlooth and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium into French); armed with cigarettes and drink, they spent whole days listening to Wagner’s Ring cycle; and beyond a doubt, each made the other a better writer. By his own account, Perec’s death from lung cancer at age 45 hit Mathews very hard indeed. Working through his mourning over a period of several years, Mathews remembered his friend in a text entitled Le Verger (1986, translated two years later as The Orchard), as moving an elegy from one writer to another as one is likely to find. In that text, Mathews borrowed a technique that Perec himself had borrowed from an American writer named Joe Brainard, which consists of prefacing each utterance with the phrase “I remember.” The vignettes that Mathews are brief, laconic sketches—but they are no less pungent because of their formal concision. One of them, near the end of this short book, serves to put on display the impulse that animated the project as a whole: “I remember experiencing great happiness on the day in June, 1975, when I realized I loved George Perec without reservation.”
That moment is a startling one in which Mathews focuses closely and largely without embellishment on raw truth. It is all the more astonishing in view of the fact that such moments are relatively rare in his work. That is not to say that Mathews was uninterested in “truth”; but it is legitimate to point out that he was skeptical of it—or at least of the easy ways in which we commonly understand it. In the penultimate chapter of Tlooth, for instance, he causes a saturnine doctor to declare: “My dear, in medicine the truth is a goal one cannot attain.” Rather than truth itself, Mathews was interested in the construction of truth, the transformation of truth, the translation of truth—and perhaps indeed more interested in those very principles themselves than in the way they inflect “truth” or the “real” or “life” or “experience.” For those latter things belong to the domain of things that are, whereas construction, transformation, and translation are all matters of becoming, and Harry Mathews was far more interested in becoming than in simple being.
One of his Oulipian texts illustrates that point nicely. Entitled “Mathews’s Algorithm,” it outlines a process whereby given elements of a literary text (alphabetical letters, or words, or phrases, or even paragraphs) are arranged in a table, whose order is then subjected to predetermined permutations, furnishing new kinds of textualities. The claims that he stakes for his literary machine are strikingly bold ones: “The algorithm can make use of existing material as well as of material specially invented for it [. . .]. It can be used both to decompose (or analyze) texts and to compose (or invent) them. [. . .] It is capable of dealing with fragments of letters, either graphic or phonetic. as well as their component parts, not to mention amoebas, molecules, and quarks. It can juggle not only episodes of fiction [. . .] but entire books, indeed entire literatures and civilizations, planets, solar systems, galaxies—indeed anything that can be manipulated either in its material or its symbolic form.” It is important to recognize, however, that Mathews’s purpose is centered upon the theoretical rather than the practical dimension of his machine. That is, his principal concern is not the texts that can be derived from it, but the model itself, its combinatorial potential, its power to transform, and thus its consequences for the way we understand literature and its crucial process of becoming.
In a similar perspective, one should note Mathews’s skepticism of the sign, and most especially the literary sign. “But whut do you dou with the significant?” muses a character in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. “A road sign say, Miami 82 mile. What re-ality do this indicate? Miami? The distans be-tween the sing and the sity? The location of the sign? The semi-ottic (?) re-ality, the mmediate realita, posit a structsure . . .” Mathews was certainly not alone in questioning the sign during the early 1970s, but I feel that his skepticism is more radical than that of many of his contemporaries. It was certainly more sustained, and the fact is that he found ways to turn that skepticism to immediate artistic purpose in his writing. Throughout his career, he put the very idea of meaning on stage, causing it to perform in different ways, following a variety of scripts, in order better to understand both what is essentially reliable in that notion and what is demonstrably hollow.
In regard to translation, Harry Mathews might be described as a fundamentalist, a true believer and a crusader. In “The Dialect of the Tribe,” a text included in Country Cooking and Other Stories (1980), he has this to say: “The longer I live—the longer I write—the stronger becomes my conviction that translation is the paradigm of all writing. To put it another way: it is translation that demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving speech, that supremely human gift.” Once again, quite patently, it is a matter of becoming: the very idea of translation suggests that things may be articulated in different ways, that signification is dynamic rather than static, that what we are is less important than what we do. The lesson is a welcome one, not least by virtue of what it suggests about our status as readers, and about the way we ought to come to literature, as active participants in the construction of meaning, rather than as passive consumers.
For my own part, I feel that such insistence on mobility lies at the very center of Harry Mathews’s particularity. He is a mercurial figure, an artist constantly on the move, and thus largely unseizable in any definitive way. Rereading him is a pleasure—and, at times, a revelation. It obliges one to think of him kinetically, putting literature to the question again and again, always taking literature seriously but at the same time pointing out its ludic vocation. It is bracing to see the way he mocks the conventional boundaries between fact and fiction in a text like My Life in CIA (2005). It is amusing to watch him speculate about literature and its uses in Singular Pleasures (1999). It is bedazzling to see him juggle the small and the large, the subject and the object, the momentous and the trivial in The Journalist (1994). It is agreeable to imagine him traversing literary space in the broad, easy stride of a fictional character like Larbaud’s Barnabooth or Perec’s Bartlebooth, an individual who stoutly refuses to be confined to the world in which he was conceived.
Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.
Black blood. Stringy flesh. Clutching. Entangling. Stumbling. Close-third person. Present tense. A hot center. Van Reet’s opening scene establishes the motif of within and without—a hall of dissimilar but equally destructive mirrors, of characters who seek escape and end up tangled in razorwire. —Michael Carson
In his 1955 preface to Isaac Babel’s Collected Stories, Lionel Trilling confesses to being disturbed by the “terrible intensities, ironies, and ambiguities” of Babel’s Red Cavalry. “They were about violence of the most extreme kind,” says Trilling, “yet they were composed with a striking elegance and precision of objectivity, and also with a kind of lyric joy, so that one could not at once know how the author was responding to the brutality he recorded, whether he thought it good or bad, justified or unjustified.”
Brian Van Reet’s first novel, Spoils, also disturbs. A veteran of the Iraq War and Michener graduate, Van Reet has published award-winning short stories about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and U.S. soldiers returning home from Iraq. There is a tenacity in his prose unique to soldier writers, a furious exactness, and yet a delicacy also, an earned incandescence. Reading him, one understands that this is not a young man recording his war experiences, a “moral witness”—this is an artist, an artist compelled to write war.
Spoils opens several weeks after the 2003 Iraq invasion. Cassandra Wigheard, a female Military Police specialist, pulls security in a Humvee at a roundabout outside Baghdad. Two males, one crass and bigoted, the other paternal and sentimental, keep her company. It’s unclear why they have to sit there exposed. It’s also unclear why they are in Iraq at all. The Why is muddled. All that matters is the now. The fact of war. “This one is bored tonight,” says the narrator. “She would move closer to the war’s hot center.”
Mortars answer her prayers: “Down below, the driver’s door opens, and Crump stumbles into the street, clutching his face, yelling: black blood falls from his hands, stringy flesh draped on his cheek. The other door opens, and McGinnis looks up at her helplessly before ducking around to the back side, out of her line of fire, going for Crump, who has stumbled farther away and tripped over a roll of concertina, thus entangling himself in razor wire. Everything going to shit too fast to believe.”
Black blood. Stringy flesh. Clutching. Entangling. Stumbling. Close-third person. Present tense. A hot center. Van Reet’s opening scene establishes the motif of within and without—a hall of dissimilar but equally destructive mirrors, of characters who seek escape and end up tangled in razorwire. The section concludes as another soldier drags Cassandra into a canal “over which streams of glowing red and green tracers hurtle gracefully like a hail of burning arrows launched from the wall of a medieval fortress.” She sinks down “into the dark tangle of fluid reeking of pungent, musty life.” She is no longer bored.
The next narrator, one of those responsible for the mortar attack, also seeks an end to boredom, an escape from the aimless ennui of civilized hypocrisy. Al-Hool abandons an upper-middle-class life in Cairo for that of a mujahedeen in Afghanistan, then Chechnya, and then, eventually, Iraq, because this is what the logic of exit demands, the rotating absolution of movement toward ever-greater violence. Al-Hool has many justifications for his jihad adventurism, none of them especially religious—he, like all the protagonists, have little patience for or with God—the most succinct of which is this: “Exit. War.”
That warm hot center. Later, trapped in an apartment in Fallujah, Al-Hool can’t bear to think he has been repeating the same mistakes over and over again, “that the years have taught me nothing or, worse, that I have learned something vital but am unable to apply it.” His fellow mujahedeen video the beheadings of U.S soldiers. They saw off heads. Their broadcasts send the war spinning out of control (if war is in fact a thing controlled) and give the adventurers the lack of control they thought they craved. “Praise God that what is gone, is dead,” Al Hood prays, remembering his dead son, swallowed by jihad.
The final narrator, a U.S. Army tanker, alone relates events in the past tense. A “watcher” with a fainting problem, Sleed leaves his parents’ basement and pill snorting to find “a higher purpose” in the Army. He talks much about thing getting “real.” His tankmates take pictures of massacred Iraqis. They steal from Saddam’s Palace. They accidently kill civilians. They blow up buildings. Things become “real.” He has found that place where “everything matters so much, it is pointless to worry about anything.” “Believe me,” Sleed says after escaping an IED blast, “I’ve tried them all, and there’s not much that will get you higher.”
His tank crew speeds back and forth across the hot center, touching it and running away, like a child’s game, a dare. Sleed picks up the shattered skulls of Americans who didn’t make it to the other side: “A deep pain beat at the center of me, and I thought I was going to faint again, but all I did was retch up water.” They bumble forward in their ten-million dollar machine blowing up mujahedeen and civilians and everything in between. “The whole world watching,” says Sleed, “and no one but us knew the truth.”
Mistakes are made. A quest plot is twinned with an escape plot (and what is the difference, really?). Later, in another cell, a captured U.S. soldier: “Come and do it!” he shrieked, the kind of unmodulated shrillness that can only from a human being pushed to a place where the lines between fight and flight approach a vanishing point. “Just get it the fuck over with!”
This is not a story about patriots. No one defends home and hearth in this book. Not Al-Hool, not Sleed, not Cassandra. This is not a story about disillusionment. This is a story about people who seek out the lines between fight and flight, those in love with this vanishing point, who perhaps want to vanish into the point. This is a story about people escaping home. This is a story about adventurers—those already disillusioned, and who seek out war to bury what is left of illusion.
How do you write a war story about those who are not patriots in the traditional sense? You triangulate their desires: you make a trinity that sabotages the either/or of war, what Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory called “adversarial proceedings” or “the gross dichotomizing” that “great imaginative habit of modern times.” You create a form to fit the subject, a trinity that does not allow any neat parallels, but a chaotic orbit of clusters, forever trading places around that warm sun of war.
Choric voices converge in Triangle (!) Town, a suburb of Baghdad, a derelict backwater populated by crippled Iraqi children and their destitute elders; it is a new warm space, another of those spots that draw the adventurous like moths—a geography, like Afghanistan, “at the edge of the known world and at the same time, its obscure, violent nexus.” There, freshly trapped in Humvees, tanks, factories, basements, and ditches, our heroes find an escape. They escape into darker cells, new prisons.
One of their number, Cassandra, knows this already. Her story, related entirely in the present tense, risks becoming nothing but the present, becoming nothing at all: “No matter how much she wants to, she can’t close her eyes, and even if she did, no sleep would come. Her heart feels like it’s working too hard, straining itself like a leaky pump with more air than blood rushing through fleshy valves. Time stretches thinner and thinner, shedding its one elemental quality, forward progression, like a strand of gold spun so fine, it loses atomic color and becomes clear.”
This clarity, this moment, this invasion, the videotapes, the American money, spawns “forward progression,” more invasions, more death, more money, a rippling effect not unlike a tide pool with waves going to and away from and parallel to shore. Triangle Town will be destroyed. Iraq too. We (of the future) know the ending. But that doesn’t stop the story does it? No one listens to Cassandra. Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon; Orestes, Clytemnestra. Athena saves no one. Time stretches thinner and thinner. We move ever onward to that warm center. Clarity.
Sleed, the voyeur, the fainter, the trophy-hunter, claims “the whole world watches but no one but us knows the truth.” But the truth deceives, takes away when it gives. “The night before,” says Sleed. “I’d been destroyed by regret, but now it turned inside out, to anger, like when you do something wrong and get called on it.” Regret becomes anger and anger violence and violence regret and regret anger and anger violence. Sleed has his own prayer: “There’s a certain way of doing it where the good guys become bad guys and the bad good, and there’s another way I wish I do where there are no categories.” He still wants an exit. But he is already at war.
Near the novel’s end Al-Hool looks on the Iraqi landscape. The beauty surprises him: “It was the palm groves, I think, the neat rows of them, the way they appeared from the moving car, each tree shifting in parallax with those in front and behind, creating an illusion of infinite depth, as if you could walk forever through the groves.” From the right angle, the prison bars offer hope, from another, a hall of mirrors. The sins of Al-Hool and the Americans—the decapitated heads and destroyed neighborhoods—are resurrected on televisions and computers across the globe. “Praise God that what is gone, is dead,” Al Hool prays.
“This is the end of boredom,” says Baulin, a war-wasted frostbitten twenty-two year old platoon commander, to the feckless narrator of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry—that voyeur, that “milk-drinker.” There is nothing Babel’s narrator covets more. But neither is there anywhere to go from there. That’s the point. The myth of Cassandra is not a happy one; it is, however, an artful one.
In his discussion of Red Cavalry, Trilling describes writers predisposed “to create a form which in itself be shapely and autonomous and at the same time unusually responsible to the truth of things and events.” This writer “concerns himself with the given moment, and, seeming almost hostile to the continuity of time, he presents the past only as it can be figured in the present.” Van Reet’s novel does not merely replicate war experience like the ubiquitous recording devices in the novel itself, or as a moral witness might, eager to expose the horror of this or that incident of war for hope of a better, less violent, future; neither does Spoils offer excuses, justifications, that sliver of hope which comes with the past tense, that perspectival arrogance of a known future.
Instead, Spoils offers us shared tragedy—our shared attraction to the vanishing point and perhaps our shared hostility to the continuity of time. The enemy, it turns out, stumbles for an exit too; the enemy, it turns out, recoils in horror at not just the violence at every exit, but the way in which time transforms and redeems this violence. The enemy is us and we are the enemy. Thus are the spoils of war. Van Reet’s prose is supple. There is a kind of “lyric joy” in this brutal record. It never drags. It is we who drag—the way we inch ever closer towards war’s hot center.
Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
In Book of No Ledge, one of her new collections, poet and writer Nance Van Winckel brings together poetry and visual collage in a series of brilliantly reimagined encyclopedia entries and maps that are a pleasure to read. Witty, both lyrical and satirical, beautiful to look at, and wonderfully inventive, the collection lives up to poet Mary Ruefle’s description of it as “a book of wonder.”
Recently Nance Van Winckel spoke with U.S. poetry editor Susan Aizenberg about Book of No Ledge in a series of emails. Numéro Cinq is thrilled to present here two of the collages from the collection, together with a summary of their conversation, and a third, more recent piece of what the poet calls “wall writing.”
Susan Aizenberg (SA): I love your charming Introductory note, in Book of No Ledge, in which you describe a child first infatuated with a handsome door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, and then in love with the books themselves. Though there was no handsome door-to-door salesman in my experience, I remember feeling as a child a similar fascination with encyclopedias and illustrated guides of various kinds. I’m wondering if you would talk a little about your childhood experiences as a reader as they relate to this book.
Nance Van Winckel (NVW): Well, I was a reader as a kid and I was very interested in the sciences. Because my family moved frequently, I was often the new kid in school, and I read in the lag time it took to make new friends. Books were a “constant” in my life. I liked the diagrams of how things worked— especially bodies and body parts. Early on in life I wanted to be either A.) a spy or B.) a laboratory scientist. And perhaps becoming a writer/poet was a sort of melding of those two professions.
SA: I love the idea of writer/poet as a melding of spy and scientist. I’m particularly drawn to your vivid description, in the intro, of the point of view and voice of the encyclopedia, wonderfully personified as “Mr. Explainer,” and how they change over time as Mr. Explainer realizes the “you” has become a much older woman with “nice sharp scissors and even X-acto blades” – another image I love – who questions his authority. This idea of voice or voices seems important throughout the book, which is rich with wordplay, satirical humor, puns, and seemingly effortless shifts in diction. I’m wondering if you would speak a bit about voice in your work, and how the idea of being in dialogue with Mr. Explainer shaped (if it did) the series of photo-collages.
NVW: Yes, exactly! Talking back to Mr. Explainer from a future quite different from the one he (Commandant of the Past) posited so definitively, so upbeat and full of happy endings—that was very much the tone, which for me is a kind of fuel. I have to get the stance before almost anything else. The attitude. If only as an adult I could again be the imp-kid, the sassy girl, I was when I was ten. That girl got smacked sometimes or sent to her room. I squashed her down. But hey, apparently she ain’t dead yet!
SA: Clearly, and thankfully, she is not! Can we talk a bit about the conception and creation of the book, which seems to me equally a work of literature and visual art? It is, first off, a lovely physical object; the pages are silky (like encyclopedia pages?) and the collages quite beautiful. There is so much to look at and read and consider on every page – I love the richness of it. I don’t think I can overstate what a genuine pleasure it is to read. Would you talk a bit about your process?
NVW: I worked on these pages over the course of about five years. The encyclopedia I altered is actually 13 volumes, and at about a sixth grade level. As I paged through it, it brought back those memories from girlhood and reading, and I fell back in love with all the graphic elements. So I mainly used pages that had a lot of visual material on them. My method was to work on these very “visual” pages, which were all in black and white, and part of what I was doing was teaching myself—as I most always am these days—new techniques in colorizing, cut-and-paste, and many other things available from my old friend, Photoshop. (I’ve been noodling around with that program since back when I was a magazine editor [of Willow Springs] and designing the magazine with a program called PageMaker, which evolved into Photoshop.) As I worked on the visual layout of a page, I would often write new text to replace the old text. Sometimes I just carried printouts of the pages around with me in their waiting-for-text states, i.e. big blocks of space where text would go. I liked this method because I could work on other projects simultaneously—linked stories, other “regular” poems, etc.—and these encyclopedia pages would wait patiently for me and, as I mentioned above, I sort of knew the persona to slip into when I returned to them.
SA: You’ve generously shared with us two of the pieces from the collection. Would you speak a little about them?
NVW: One of the aspects I’m drawn to in this work is how the visual material can interact with the text—fill in gaps in the “story,” provoke a nonlinear kind of logic, or suggest a larger worldview/context than the text alone permits. This page, now titled “He Who? She When?”, was originally called “Advancements in Medicine.” I don’t feel in any way obliged to stick with the original subject matter of a page. For me, it’s all about the interplay of words with images that have “tangential” connections, thread-like, or tonal. The sense the pieces make, I hope, is more intuitive than conscious and rationale.
I haven’t said anything about the maps, and I’d like to. Most of these were not part of the encyclopedia I altered. Rather, they were from an online website (from New York Public Library’s “digital collection”) of public domain “rare” maps. I used these in the book a little like section dividers, and I am forever grateful to Pleiades Press for allowing them to be double-page spreads and displayed so well. (I’m grateful to Pleiades for so much! The support of the editors and designers there has been extremely helpful to me.) Here, my little bit of text—”We were in a boat and we were in love and we maybe made you in the blackest moments of this sea”—is spread out upon a map of The Black Sea, a place I’ve actually been. The text is stamped around into the sea with all sorts of variations on the arrangement of these words. This felt like a kind of homage to ancestry, not just mine but “ours.”
SA: Thanks so much, Nance! Can we end with you sharing with our readers what you’re working on now?
NVW: Yes, my eighth book, Our Foreigner, received the Pacific Coast Poetry Award and is just out from Beyond Baroque Books. I’m working on a book that’s primarily a memoir; it has many sorts of hybrid forms going on in it, including some visual black and white collages.
And I continue to do a little wall-writing. This is a recent piece.
I have a website for examples of this work.
Nance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreigner, winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017), Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016), and Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2014). She’s also published five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014) and Boneland: Linked Stories (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2013). She is on the faculties of Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers and Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing Program. The recipient of two NEA poetry fellowships, the Paterson Fiction Prize, Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Poetry Award, a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, Nance lives with her husband Rik Nelson in Spokane, Washington.
Susan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award.
The seaweed salad beside an ice cream float.
A flop-eared goat on the doghouse roof.
An elbow peers out of a torn sleeve
among the poolside breasts, partially eclipsed.
“Strange neighbors,” came from the neighbors.
Favorite sweater aboard the emptied bus.
A spoon between axes. An ax beneath the truck.
Outside the circus a planet inside a puddle
shivers like a horse near an orchard.
Next to me and wide of you. Trickling light
down my back, just when I’m settled into
an orbit far from the sun with its noisy huddle,
I’m nabbed by a grammar that unmatters me.
To an Oak
A chatter of acorns, a cloud of wigglers—
in a flood of excess we started out,
worked our way into a squishy place
and gathered strength for the big push.
The ponds emptied their faces to the sky.
You kicked out the floor of the seedcase
and sprouted hairs to drink with. I was cut loose
and hurried down the hallway by a nun.
For a time we could stand head to head.
You laid down tracks of time, a blink
of green each spring laddered into reach,
every leaf celebrating the feast of light.
Greedy for the hurry and soon enough
I was grown and sloughing seeds.
Your bark furrows, your shadow breaks,
clearly you weather your share of sorrows.
But I don’t think you get lost wondering
what it’s worth. Now fifty, sixty years go past
and you’re just setting to work. Your first
crop of acorns meteors the garden
and I am what nested for a while.
I Ain’t Studying No War
Like the picky monarch in the milkweed
forever can thrive only on the maths
of theory which is also the habitat
gods, exaggeration, and the grasping need
and the flipside, never, never, never.
Mother, brother, brother, younger sister
and now–coronas break up like whispers.
We could use Lear’s dexterous fool to turn
inside out the rule of these war metaphors,
to pluck apart this laughable lingo,
so we could cradle the goose-fleshed thing
and tender in our hands the thrashing heart
of beauty which can grow only because it starts
and therefore must dwindle and die
like every bird and every star.
Oh, reason not the need.
And don’t ask why.
Sooner or later we all lose at war.
Mother, brother, brother, sister and now
the claws snap fast inside me as well.
I won’t strap up and flail against the swell.
The wind and the rain grumble from the west.
I want to be stroked apart like a flower.
Your final date comes to even numbers:
geometry writes the line as 2—
it means length without width. At 12:44 a.m.
you started riding the incalculable
line narrower than the dragline a spider
throws out, tinier than the silk’s proteins
tied head to head (& absolutely straight),
smaller than quarks inside lightweight
hydrogen: for even a quark isn’t only math.
Now you live in pure theory. The point
on the calendar has only position.
Nothing is less. “2,” legless swan,
the number that separates. The line,
the border you crossed wasn’t chalked,
but I see it and toss a stone before me
and hop toward where it doesn’t land.
Four tangerines on the table,
one rolled behind the salt
as if to simper all alone.
Well, it’s no one’s fault.
The snow is coming down
welcome for once, a comic cloud
in all its riot gear. Things go.
What happens to me now
and next won’t be about
loneliness. Ahead, a drop off.
And the clock that says an hour’s coming
you cannot start or stop.
Michelle Boisseau won the Tampa Review Prize for her fifth book of poems, Among the Gorgons, published by University of Tampa Press in 2016. Her A Sunday in God-Years, Arkansas 2009, in part examines the slave-holding past of her paternal ancestors in Virginia, into the 17th century. Trembling Air was a PEN USA finalist, University of Arkansas Press, 2003; she’s also published Understory, the Morse Prize, Northeastern University Press, 1996, and No Private Life, Vanderbilt, 1990. She has been publishing her poems in prominent literary journals since 1980, and her work has appeared in many anthologies, websites, and textbooks. Recent poems are appearing in Best American Poetry 2016, Poetry Daily, Poetry, Gettysburg Review, Yale Review, Southwest Review, and Shenandoah. Her textbook, Writing Poems (Longman), is now in its 8th edition. Boisseau has twice been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she is Senior Editor of BkMk Press and Contributing Editor of New Letters.