Jan 152017
 

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After all, that was only a savage sight while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist—obviously—in the sunshine.

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow, captain of a slight and halting steamer, after many weeks navigating the treacherous Congo has reached his destination deep inside Africa, the inner station of the trading company where chief agent Kurtz presides, Kurtz the emissary of profit and reform, a model of the hopes of Europe, the leader of the native tribes, a genius at acquiring ivory. The subtle horrors are as much the fruit of Kurtz’s efforts as of what lies within the jungle, but also are Marlow’s own black projections on its darkness, not returned. The pure savagery brought to light is Kurtz’s symbolic gesture, heads of native rebels he had cut off and put on stakes, lined before the station house. The heads, however, do not face outward to warn tribesmen from transgression but inward towards the house, where Kurtz can contemplate their gaze.

I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hillah. Whenever I get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands, so I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo you want to smile.

We contemplated her gaze and that gesture, at least for a while, as she faced us, the smiling Army Specialist Sabrina Harman, who aided in the gathering of intelligence at her station, Abu Ghraib, the prison deep inside occupied Iraq. Or rather we saw her in pictures brought to light after years of subtle horrors in a war we thought was going well and whose mission we were sure of, the pictures bringing a clarification, an obviousness, a relief, their own kind of rightness. She does not look at what she smiles over or what she thumbs up but we see them, the pile of grotesquely hooded, naked men, the blackened corpse.

Was it over a decade ago or a century? It is hard to keep track of time in a world that recreates itself afresh every day. Somehow the Abu Ghraib pictures have been washed aside in the stream of things, of other disturbing images that continue to flow past. The distance between our purpose then and our behavior, between our professed ideals and the horror, however, has not been closed and the pictures still haunt me. I have not found a way to explain or discharge them, or come to terms with other lingering subtleties in a world where I do not know where I stand. I have no idea where we’re headed, though the world tells me we are moving forward. I do not know what to with my hands either.

Against all the sharp narratives that have played out the last years, in battlefields imagined on screens and in the world actual, it is to the muddy story about a captain who just goes up a river and back I most often return, a journey that resembles my own. I have only observed the horrors of history, of the present, from a distance, yet they still belong to my world and I have felt their currents, as well as sensed all that lies beneath them, unseen, unknown. Like Marlow, I work for a trading company of sorts—we all do—and my station is modest and my task simple. Like Marlow I have been on a long trek and kept my shoulder to the wheel. I think I am good person, or good enough, and have provided some service, though I know not to make anything of either or rest easy. Like Marlow I keep my distance, like Marlow I do not have any answers, like Marlow I do not forget easily. I have yet to meet face to face, however, anyone with the revelatory power of a Kurtz.

Kurtz’s virtue is that he can front the terrors that lie without and he holds within, face their contradictions, and feel their full effect. This is what redeems Kurtz in Marlow’s eyes against all others in the company who stumble through their corruption without pause. And Kurtz has a voice, though we hear few of his words, most significantly the two that refer to his black vision. Marlow stays detached—he has to—and observes the horror through Kurtz, one step removed, just as Conrad has us observe Marlow, when he does not speak, through the narrator, adding one more frame to the layering of frames. There was a morbid fascination, but Sabrina Harman’s reaction was one of mute disjunction, not approval, a frozen reaction to the horror she witnessed but could not contain. No one framed her, though she was following orders.

I would like at last to be able to look into the heart of things, within, without, and come to an understanding, though I have got no closer over the years and have yet to find a frame. I do not know what I project on the world, nor can separate that from what it returns. And I would like to find a solid voice I can live with, that sustains me and helps me reach out, though still it wavers. Like Marlow I need to keep distance without losing sight so I can find perspective and maintain it. There are times, however, I see myself as Harman, transfixed, stunned and speechless, though without a smile.

The thumbs up—it is our universal gesture now for everything, that graces all we have seen and done, that we sign above where we’ve been and where we are headed, whatever we happen to be doing at the present moment, which, along with an open face and guileless smile, the captured gaze we show the world and that defines us, has replaced the two-fingered sign of benediction, pointing to a another kind of transcendence..

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As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld. His remark received the status of pop wisdom and circulated widely.

Any life is a mission and every mission has a life, each a journey into the unknown, each a story whose plot charts the trajectory of beliefs and desires against the ground of reality over the course of time. It is the tension between the first and the latter that propels the action and moves us through the telling, leading us to climax, the locus of dreams and nightmares.

Marlow as a boy was fascinated by the mystery of Africa, as was Conrad, who made a similar journey upon which his novel is based, inner Africa then a white, undifferentiated patch on the map, a blank slate that stirred his curiosity. Rumsfeld, our Secretary of Defense, talked about what we know and what we do not know in a press conference to justify the invasion of Iraq based not on the possibility of the presence of weapons of mass destruction but upon the possibility of possibilities unknown, the blank space where he plotted his course and let his imagination sail.

There were no weapons of mass destruction.

What do we know we know?

We live in a culture that believes in itself and in us, in the value of our individual existence and our collective endeavors. We also recognize the necessity of managing material needs for survival and growth, which can lead to compromise and sacrifice. It is difficult to put our ideals and the physical world together. War, when deemed necessary, brings its own realities that unsettle any equation. The temptation is to consider ideals airy and insubstantial, thus suspect, and practical decisions defensible because they are grounded in reality, to favor realists over idealists, though ideals can have concrete manifestation and reality does not make sense without some kind of basis. Nor can concrete action be promoted without abstract justification or even be coherent. Then there are our desires, which do not fit easily with either reality or ideals, but flit fretfully between them.

Conrad’s Belgium, like Europe, was a champion of progress and enlightenment that it wanted to pass on to the peoples of the rest of the world to free them from misery and confusion, though not raise them to its level and give them power over their own lives. It also had a stake in claiming territory in Africa the other European countries were carving up in their dreams of conquest. And Africa had ivory, a symbol of purity, the mystical white growth of the tusks of huge beasts, a substance that is hard but suggestive to the touch and can be carved with delicacy and precision into curved and intricate shapes that endure, that was used to make billiard balls and piano keys and inlays and jewelry and knife handles and figures of saints, which at the time returned enormous profit.

We inherited the ideals of the Enlightenment, which we wish to pass on by example. We also debate our relationship with imperialism, where we struggle with distinctions. Of course there is our need for oil to warm and transport us and create our synthetic products, where we all are more involved than any of us might like to concede. Then there was the attack in New York and the fallen towers, the necessity to protect ourselves from invaders as well as appease whatever vestiges remain of tribal revenge, which shouldn’t be taken lightly. Bin Laden and Afghanistan, however, were soon abandoned, and plans had been made for decades to destabilize the Middle East and gain control of world oil supplies. Rumsfeld made Iraq a priority well before the towers fell, which event provided pretext for the invasion.

Past and present, our world has depended on the transmutation of pliable substances and unsettled values, and it is difficult to find stable ground.

Justification was provided, however, to allow action and keep our ideals intact, based on essential difference. Africans were seen as savages, thus fell outside standards reserved for civilized people. Kurtz himself wrote an eloquent tract for the International Society for the Prevention of Savage Customs. The difference was supported by concrete observation and physical proof, the contrast between skin white and black. For us the difference was that between free people and terrorists who oppress, which the Bush administration used to freely suspend the guidelines of the Geneva Conventions and allow brutal interrogation at Abu Ghraib, this supported by concrete evidence of the violence turned against us by the people of occupied Iraq, though we found no links between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda. Instead we brought them in.

Both differences, however, are based not on known knowns, or even known unknowns, but unknown unknowns. Marlow never penetrates the jungle to observe the people and their customs. He does not know the language, nor does Conrad give the natives a voice, except a handful of words they speak in broken English, the last to inform us of Kurtz’s death. Our government listened to no one except Chalabi, the Iraqi exile they wanted to put in power, and knew almost nothing about the Arab people’s beliefs and desires and customs, only just enough to humiliate them. Intelligence gathering had to come later, at Abu Ghraib. In Marlow’s story all we see are shots fired blindly into the jungle and dilapidated outposts at the fringes; in ours we largely saw our mechanized race through the desert, our guided missiles flying through the air, whose cameras showed us their blind destruction, and our command post at Saddam’s Palace, surrounded by tall concrete blast walls that separated it from the rest of Baghdad, from which civilian leaders of the occupation only timorously ventured.

And we saw what we now know we know but still strains belief. In Conrad’s novel Africans are taken from their villages, some set against the others, most forced into labor and chained, starved, beaten, and left to die. In real life Congo Free State, women, men, and children were freely mutilated. Failure to meet production quotas at the rubber plantations was punishable by death, and King Leopold ordered the hands of the guilty be cut off and sent back to Belgium as proof of execution. Natives also saw their children slaughtered, their villages burned. In the some two decades of Leopold’s occupation, the population decreased by an estimated ten million, this caused by murder, abuse, neglect, disease, and drastically fallen birth rates.

During the decade of the war in Iraq and since, civilian deaths from violence runs almost two hundred thousand, most caused by the sectarian violence we unleashed in a country we occupied but could not control, the total still rising. At Abu Ghraib, where thousands were detained, most civilians who posed no threat, prisoners were deprived of food and sleep and warmth; burned, beaten, flooded, and attacked by dogs; hooded with sandbags or forced to wear women’s panties on their heads; made to stand naked separately or huddled into piles; and raped or forced to commit sexual acts with each other or sodomized by a broom handle and a chemical light stick. The pictures we finally saw were part of the process, taken to double their exposure and multiply the humiliation. Specialist Harmon took one of the pictures of the hooded man standing on a box in a shower, loose wires attached to his fingers to make him fear he might be electrocuted if he stepped off, his arms raised high by his sides like wings or like those of another well-known figure, providing us perhaps with the most clarifying image from the war. The corpse she thumbed up had been beaten to death and put in a body bag and packed with ice, waiting to be taken out secretly to cover up his murder. Then there were the Abu Ghraib pictures we did not see because they were not released, along with the unseen torture at Guantanamo Bay and rendition at unknown places.

It is the excess of reality, known knowns, that taxes belief, not any buried secret or flight of ideals. Not seen, not known, not even known they were unknown and stretching belief further, were the horribly obvious ironies that sent our values soaring, that white civilized people savagely brutalized blacks they labeled savage, that our torture was carried out in the very prison Saddam Hussein had created to terrorize his own people, whose freedom and well being had become the final justification for our invasion.

Or that when we entered the heart of darkness we were looking at ourselves..

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America stands against and will not tolerate torture.

President Bush to the United Nations, well after the fact.

Exterminate all the brutes.

The note Kurtz scrawled with a shaking hand at the end of the pamphlet he wrote for the International Society for the Prevention of Savage Customs.

Marlow returns to Europe with nothing to sustain him other than the memory of Kurtz, who helped him see more clearly what he didn’t see well before. He is more distant from the world, or rather more aware of his distance. One’s journey to find oneself in the world begins and ends at home, perhaps to realize one has never left it, or that one has no home to return to. But the novel ends without conclusion, without resolution of plot, and Marlow himself reaches no larger understanding.

My challenge, then, is to see if I can pick up where Marlow leaves off. But I feel naive yet at the same time presumptuous for looking at what is so obvious and attempting to explain what should be self-evident, as well as perverse for looking at it again, the obviousness made no less obvious by its magnitude, or no more. And it is difficult to take on the obvious, what offends in its absurd and utter simplicity, with a straight, with any kind of face, and not lapse into sarcasm or ridicule. But there I run the risk of trivializing my opposition without effect, who simply can dismiss me, and alienating anyone else who might listen. Already I’m beginning to lose myself. But there remains the perplexing problem, perhaps not obvious, of why the obvious isn’t obvious.

So I persist and look at the severed head that rests on a pole and stares back at me, and ask the obvious question: Why wasn’t demolishing Abu Ghraib a first priority? Given how efficiently the Bush administration managed our perception of the war with its manipulation of the media, why weren’t we immediately shown the razing of its walls? The images could then have been coupled with those of pulling down Saddam’s statues, which we did see many times. The act would have brought cause and effect together and provided a conclusion that would have at least given the appearance of validity to their justification for the war—saving the Iraqi people from oppression—which might have satisfied the rest of the world and us, at least for a while. Doing so, however, might not have served their real purpose. It is also possible they did not understand the terms of this argument. Another possibility is that we weren’t especially interested in seeing that footage.

Bush did offer to tear down the prison, but Ghazi al-Yawar, the interim Iraqi president, refused because he couldn’t justify the cost. Given Yawar’s tenuous command and our administration’s overwhelming influence, it is impossible to believe he could not have been persuaded otherwise. Also the Abu Ghraib pictures had already been aired, so Bush was only trying to control damage, and his proposal was to build a modern prison in its place, which would have better suited his plan.

I can go no further, if I hold any human value, without stepping back, separating myself, and standing opposed, which is what I did at the time, a decade of total disaffection with our government, of skepticism about government itself. But to stand apart I need a justification to support my foray into interpretation and keep myself intact, and the justification will require creating my own essential difference: I am moral and they were not.

Our leaders were ruthless and corrupt, and acted without conscience, looking only to their own interests—both Bush and Cheney’s roots ran deep in oil—and those of the wealthy few who shared them and stood to profit from the war. Their only motive was to protect those interests and extend their power. There was the risk, however, that by ignoring the ideals of democracy they might undermine their standing in the world and the basis that kept them in power during elections. The only way they could justify their action was to create the difference between free people like themselves, like all of us, against terrorists, not like any of us, but they had no interest in freeing anyone. They needed a prison, and stuck with Abu Ghraib because it was convenient, so they could maintain control and gather necessary intelligence as well as intimidate the people of Iraq through fear. They had to maintain distance from the torture by keeping the details unknown so they would not be implicated or caught in contradiction as long as they could. By the time their hypocrisy was exposed, if that ever happened, it wouldn’t have mattered because by then they would have had control, what was done was done and could not have been reversed, and there was no other power at home or, with the fall of the Soviets, in the rest of the world strong enough to oppose them.

That interpretation to some may smack of glibness and political bias, and often leads to such accusations. It has always been hard to make it stick. Yet there is so much to support it and little that contradicts. Still, it doesn’t account for their behavior. Understandably they rushed to war and did not want to build a broader coalition. Time lost and shared participation might have weakened our support and their grip. What it does not explain is their haste. They likely did not have to worry about losing our support, not after 9/11. The Vietnam syndrome had run its course, and the war in Afghanistan was well received. If they did have to worry, they had created the fear of more attacks on us that would have bolstered our support if it flagged. So they ripped through Iraq, facing little resistance because Saddam had little resistance to offer, destroyed the regime, and planned a quick withdrawal, yet had no strategy for occupation, which makes no sense at all because they ran the risk of losing what brought them to Iraq in the first place, control of its people and their oil. And still left out is the excess of violence at Abu Ghraib, where, by so many counts, most of the intelligence gathered was of little use and often false. Tortured men will tell you whatever you want to hear.

Unless they were worried they might lose resolve themselves, that their justification, their distinction, might lose momentum. There may be a categorical mistake in assuming anyone can act without conscience, however perverse the outward signs. Also a political interpretation rests on the assumption their behavior was rational and they knew what they were doing. There is another way to understand their actions that takes us further into darker places, and I need to make another distinction to go there: I am sane and they are not.

Erich Fromm, in The Heart of Man, explains how our natural aggressive urges, our love of ourselves, and our affection for others, unchecked, can run rampant and grow malignant into necrophilous, narcissistic, and incestuous formations. In the powerful, the three can merge and lead to a syndrome of decay, where destruction becomes an end in itself and source of delight, as we saw in Europe the last century. Leaders need the support of their followers, of us, to build power, and do so by building our attachments to sterile things and hollow abstractions that flatter and melt reserve but do not strain us with difficulty, investing both with meanings they cannot hold, meanings that avoid meanings and deflect troubling questions. Stronger incentive is still needed, however, along with concrete proof, so leaders appeal to our sense of rightness by setting us against those who are not right, less human, or not human at all, and to make the argument conclusive, set us against those who can be readily identified and who are weaker and can be easily disposed of.

The only way the process can work is to remove the difference from reality and keep the unknown unknown so we do not see into hearts of those we oppose even as we attack, or see who we really are and what we are really doing. Otherwise the edifice of destruction loses its foundation and collapses. No wonder the statue of Saddam had to come down first. But it is difficult to maintain the illusion and keep the unknown unknown, yet the only way to support it is to push it further and step up the attack. Perhaps a guilty conscience did come into play, which only would have increased the strain, and with the strain, the necessity to put that voice aside and return more viciously to their argument. Proving superiority not only leads to paranoia and sadism, it depends on them.

And Rumsfeld’s logic of unknown unknowns was a spiraling ascent into paranoia. By controlling all intelligence, bypassing standard channels and having all intelligence run through him, accepting what fit and rejecting what did not yet at the same time removing himself from other intelligence, he was left to his own devices and worst fears. Perhaps he was merely being calculating when he thought he could pass off on us the reports of yellowcake uranium from Niger or the purchase of aluminum tubes made in China—both which might have been used by Saddam to develop nuclear weapons, both reports quickly rejected by the intelligence community worldwide—but his plan depended on weapons of mass destruction, so he bracketed them in unknown unknowns yet acted as if they did exist. He needed Saddam to have active ties with the terrorists, though Saddam had no use whatsoever—they only would have weakened his position—so Rumsfeld left known knowns, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, behind to chase the phantoms. Saddam’s paranoia has to be factored in, along with his smoke and mirrors, but the only way Rumsfeld’s scheme works is to take them at face value and not try to see past them, assuming he could make that distinction. Meanwhile pending, what might have been the greatest deterrent to the mission and helps explain his haste, was Saddam’s offer, once he saw our forces mass, to bring inspectors in—he was begging—and show he had gotten rid of the weapons of mass destruction for the obvious and convincing reason that he did not want to give the U.S. cause to invade and lose his power.

The racial difference of Conrad’s day had one advantage: positing savagery into color provided obvious identification to clarify the European mission and even open the possibility, however immense the task, of a total solution. Terrorism gave no such advantage, as the only way to identify terrorists from non-terrorists was by their behavior, or, in the absence of such behavior, signs to suspect possible terrorist behavior, and if those could not be found terrorists had to be created. Perhaps there was a racial element involved as well, but then the search spread here at home with the endless surveillance. By keeping the details of Abu Ghraib unknown and propping up the terrorist distinction, the Bush administration allowed the violence to go unchecked, and without definite limits there was no way to complete the mission and close the circle as it was impossible to know when to stop. There is no telling how far the torture might have spread had the pictures not turned up.

One way to interpret their plan for a quick retreat is that, unconsciously, they wanted to escape the terrifying strain of what they envisioned. Or perhaps they wanted to pass the violence off on someone else but instead got stuck. Either way, the evidence points to wholesale destruction as the end result, consciously planned or not.

Somehow, in this context, I have to find high ground to better see and chart a clear course. But if I divest myself of my government I remove myself from power, without even a thought of representation or possible action unless I discover or create a space outside it. To consider myself moral leaves me with a burden that is difficult to bear alone, where it is too easy to stumble, the burden made enormous by the enormity of the abuse I try to face. I will always have to walk stiffly erect on a narrow path. To consider myself sane in the face of monstrous insanity removes me from my own internal debates and narrows the path further, the path already twisted by pursuit of the monsters it created for me, ever present.

But our leaders were somewhat genial men, not charismatic tyrants, who at least feigned humility, and they genuinely wanted our support. And their appeal, however conflicted, was for freedom, not conquest, which might have been sincere. Also they knew they needed us, as we could could topple them in the next election if they fell out of our favor. We love our freedom and want to feel good about ourselves, about our attachments to our reflexive devices and to each other. The fall of the towers might most have upset us when we realized what they did not support and how much they did not support it. Or what upset us was what we didn’t know but lay hidden in our own unknown unknowns, which vexed us even as we fled them. We, so many of us, believe the purpose of government is to turn us loose and set us free. We want to protect our self-interest and the interests of those who freely gather wealth. The market collapse at the end of Bush’s second term did not take us to Wall Street but elsewhere to find causes. And what distinctions do we make? Savagery is not rejected but openly embraced, an appetite fed endlessly on our screens in an unending crescendo of climaxes. A case could be made that we weren’t misled by tyrants, but rather with open hearts shaped the men we elected to represent us, then gave them a free hand.

Irony requires a context, and if none of us, our leaders or the free people of the U.S., saw the irony of Abu Ghraib, it may have been because we did not have one. Either we didn’t want to see the irony or we simply did not understand it.

I need to step back further and make another distinction, but I am running out of room.

I have gone too far, I haven’t gone far enough. Reality is more complicated. Reality is always more complicated, though complexity might have been pursued in order to avoid it. The Iraq invasion rested on decades of pressing concerns along with questionable and ambiguous involvement with allies and enemies alike, themselves questionable and ambiguous, including American covert support of Iraq in its war against Iran where Saddam did use gas, that support not stopped when he used it against Iraqi Kurds. Or perhaps our leaders just got lost in the vast complexity of what they were trying to do. Factoring in incompetence offers some relief. To deny psychological or moral interpretations, however, is to concede values have no influence and that our minds do not come into play. That the Bush administration really believed, that we believed, with all our hearts, that by toppling Saddam’s regime and pulling out we would build allies in the Middle East and restore world order, that the Iraqi people would welcome us with open arms and, left alone, follow our example and build a democracy of free people, that oil would freely flow once more—does not contradict the moral and psychological interpretations, or, if it does, sends us all into chaos, which might be where we are.

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Marlow falls silent without finishing his last thought, leaving it in ellipsis, then sits apart from the other men on the deck of the cruising yawl on the Thames where he has told his story, returning to a cross-legged position, his back straight, arms down, and palms out, like a Buddha. Behind him, the brooding gloom of London. Before him, passage to the open sea.

But Marlow ultimately is a practical man, more occupied with managing his life than understanding it. Managing, in fact, is his answer, as, in a version of Freudian sublimation, he believes one should find oneself in one’s work, though he distances himself from the value of the work he performs. Efficiency is the key, and his main criticism of Kurtz is that he lacked restraint, that he couldn’t control the primitive forces inside him, inside all of us, and in nature itself, both forces coming together in Kurtz, corrupting and destroying him.

Freud in his later work, trying to account for the destructive course the world had taken, speculates that guilt from the conflict between our collective conscience and our dark, inner urges caused the malaise, the force of our desires unconsciously working on the guilt and taking a malicious turn.

What has held us back the last century, what have we not openly, freely tried? What does anyone feel guilty about now?

He also debates a death instinct, somehow somewhere inside us, maybe throwing up his hands.

Fromm prefers inside us a lighter, more creative force, which, when corrected by objective knowledge gained from science, might lead us from self-absorption and self-destruction.

What has our creative force brought to light, or our science? What hasn’t been explored by science in the mind, in nature? What hasn’t been diminished in both by the search?

All three, Marlow, Freud, and Fromm, posit some unconscious force, making a thing of the question they are trying to answer and thus avoiding it, leaving it in unknown unknowns that continue to haunt. And they miss what escapes them in their pursuit, what frightens us yet moves us and gives us the terror of hope—

There is nothing in the heart of darkness, except, perhaps, the heart.

I reread Heart of Darkness not looking for answers but a place to linger, and it is the novel where I most feel at home. The meaning of the story, as the narrator tells us, lies not in the core of the plot but outside it, this meaning enveloping it with an indistinct yet present glow, like a halo. It is the glow that draws me and keeps my doubts alive as I wander through a world only dimly perceived and try to navigate the jungle of Conrad’s thoughts, and of ours.

I am human and that matters. It is always the starting point and the point to which all journeys should return.

But I wonder if my best course now is not to sit apart, like Marlow, away from all fears and desires, and rest with the understanding that does not try to understand, the voice that does not speak.

There are moments, however, I am moved by bright visions and red passions, and I hear fresh voices from a distance speaking a strange language, and they come, and they gather, massing, and I join them, and they join me, and I lead them to light, and words come, and I hear a beating in dark places that matches the beating of my heart, faster, faster…

— Gary Garvin

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Notes and Selected Readings

It is difficult to know what can be taken for common knowledge when so much still remains disputed and denied, but all factual claims in this essay made have been extensively researched and supported elsewhere. Another irony of the war is that it has taken careful, responsible writers years of painstaking research to discover what happened so quickly and was hidden so long.

Seymour Hersh, in Chain of Command, provides details on the abuse at Abu Ghraib and traces the chain of command involved, as well as reviews other matters touched on, such as the questionable evidence for Saddam’s ties with Al Qaeda and the existence of weapons of mass destruction. He cites a 2003 poll that showed 72% of the American people believed Saddam was personally involved in 9/11. To what extent the poll reflects the effectiveness of the Bush spin on the war or our own desire to make the connection would make an interesting study, though it’s unlikely the two factors could be sorted out.

At least one operative knew Conrad. Hersh describes the clandestine special-access program (SAP) that was created to track down terrorists. Few were aware of it. According to one former intelligence official, “We’re not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness. The rules are ‘Grab whom you must. Do what you want.’”

George Packer, in The Assassin’s Gate, also reviews the events and influences leading up to the war and our subsequent occupation, our isolation and detachment during that time. He cites an early draft of the Defense Planning Guidance, written in in 1992, commissioned by Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, and overseen by Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary for policy, which states: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.”

So many of us quickly leap to accept conspiracy theories while others too quickly reject them out of hand. Peter Dale Scott, in The Road to 9/11, carefully and convincingly reviews decades of U.S. covert operations around the world, the questionable ties with allies and enemies alike, including terrorists; the administration’s ties to business; the secret policy decisions; and the hidden efforts to centralize power that led up to and influenced the invasion. The full details are dizzyingly complex and extend across the globe.

Only one example. He reviews U.S. covert policies under CIA Director William Casey and Vice President Bush at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in the 1980s, policies that continued and had effects later:

(1) to favor Islamist fundamentalists over native Sufi nationalists, (2) to sponsor an “Arab Afghan” foreign legion that from the outset hated the United States almost as much as the USSR, (3) to help them to exploit narcotics as a means to weaken the Soviet army, (4) to help expand the resistance campaign into an international jihadi movement, to attack the Soviet Union itself, and (5) to continue supplying the Islamists after the Soviet withdrawal, allowing them to make war on Afghan moderates.

Note also the view of business:

In 1997 the Wall Street Journal declared: “The Taliban are the players most capable of achieving peace. Moreover, they are crucial to secure the country as a prime transshipment route for the export of Central Asia’s vast oil, gas and other natural resources.”

That Rumsfeld’s behavior approached paranoia has been commonly discussed. I sketch my own interpretation for comparison. Scott develops the idea further in his theory of deep state politics.

The Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment has only recently been released and can be downloaded at http://detaineetaskforce.org/report/

Our support of Iraq in its war with Iran, in spite of its use of gas, is discussed in two New York Times articles:

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/18/world/officers-say-us-aided-iraq-in-war-despite-use-of-gas.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/15/world/us-says-it-monitored-iraqi-messages-on-gas.html

America stands against and will not tolerate torture. Bush’s full statement on United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, 2004, can be found at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=72674

The Yale Genocide Studies Program reviews the abuses and genocide in the Congo Free State at http://www.cis.yale.edu/gsp/colonial/belgian_congo/

The death toll in Iraq has been tallied and analyzed at Iraq Body Count at http://www.iraqbodycount.org

That the intelligence gathered at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers was unreliable is reviewed extensively, with links to many sources, at http://thinkprogress.org/report/why-enhanced-interrogation-failed/

This Wikipedia page reviews fully, with many sources, why Saddam’s ties with Al-Qaeda were insubstantial: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saddam_Hussein_and_al-Qaeda_link_allegations

Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris wrote a long piece on Sabrina Harman, “Exposure,” reviewing her behavior and reactions, in The New Yorker (March 24 2008), the source of the opening quotation.

Edited picture of Rumsfeld from The Huffington Post.

Picture of Sabrina Harman via The New York Times.

Man on a box picture via Wikipedia.

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Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

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Jan 142017
 

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A flurry of snow in the darkness taunts frames Inga Birgisdóttir’s film for Sigur Ros’s “Varúð.” Then a darkened landscape, a pink hue as the sun rises. I hesitate to interpret this as a sunrise though, as this is a mostly gloomy landscape, as though Turner had an extended stay in Iceland and discovered he loved darkness more than light.

Only by the end of the film, when what light there is sinks into darkness and the flurries return do we get the sense that a day has passed. This is winter here, too, flurries stuttering our eyes, a reaching out to connect across the darkness, the scraping of skates on the tennis courts turned ice rinks, the wails of the snow plow blades shuddering on the next street over. We fall we fall we fall on the icy steps, reminding ourselves of mortality and other cold Icarus dreams.

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What rises out of the darkness of Birgisdóttir’s film is a painterly landscape, Turner-esque, equal parts realism and psychological. The Icelandic Arts Centre describes her work as “a game of layers, both in her smaller collages and her bigger wall-pieces, as everywhere in her imagery one will find a mixture of old national emblems, waterfalls, mountains, and animals. Nowhere does Ingibjörg leave an empty space, evoking a Baroque-era fear of emptiness. Her symbols can be interpreted in various ways in a broad art historical context; all reveal evident sources of inspiration, especially Surrealism. As she samples and mixes from various fields, Ingibjörg’s ornateness nevertheless strips these symbols of meaning, leaving only a play of forms and giving her art a playful dimension.” She is a visual artist who Frankensteins her images together, suturing them into beautiful monstrosities.

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This film sneaks up on you. When you realize there is light, it is already gone. When you notice a cloaked figure on the hill, you wonder how long it’s already been there. Then another arrives. It is paradoxically a meditative film, which first suggests we watch as we would look at a painting, but then the painting betrays us and changes as figures appear. Each time they appear it as though they were always already there, watching, waiting to be noticed. I was always late.

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Film theorist Linda Williams would tell us that when we chase a film and arrive too late that there’s a bit of horror to it. Yet the figures are not in themselves scary, merely ominous. They appear on the ridge, flashing morse code messages out into the darkness and light, calling for someone, calling for a response. Then they find the response in each other. Birgisdóttir times the crescendos of the song with flurries of snow and then the arrival of subsequent figures in the landscape. These are indecipherable love letters for those of us who do not know the code, pleas across the barren landscape, across the winter light. A desire to connect.

As they appear, they outnumber us, their figures all eerily similar.  Freud suggested there is something uncanny in twins. he would probably have winter nightmares with these proliferating figures.

Birgisdóttir’s film is part of the Sigur Ros Varaki project and she made two films for that, the other Ekki múkk:

Numéro Cinq has featured two other articles on the Varaki films: Ryan McGinley’s short film “Varud” and Dash Shaw’s “Seraph.”

— R. W. Gray

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Jan 142017
 

javier-marias-author-photo-1

We all have secrets we would never divulge and secrets we wish had never been revealed. That we cannot fully know another is axiomatic, that we deny our own history and the histories of others, commonplace. Where, then, is the place for truth? —Frank Richardson

thus-bad-begins-jacket-photo

Thus Bad Begins
Javier Marías
Knopf, 2016
$27.95; 448 pages

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We all have secrets. We all have secrets we would never divulge and secrets we wish had never been revealed. That we cannot fully know another is axiomatic, that we deny our own history and the histories of others, commonplace. Where, then, is the place for truth? We live in a time when the Oxford Dictionaries awarded “post-truth” word of year. Javier Marías’s new novel, Thus Bad Begins, tells the perfect story for an age of relativism, for it is filled with characters who deny their pasts, who conspire to create glowing public images despite their crimes, who distort the truth for their own agendas, and who flatly reject known facts to preserve their peace of mind and their illusion of a stable, happy present.

Born in Madrid in 1951, twelve years after the Spanish Civil War, Javier Marías grew up in a society of secrecy, a country where secrets meant life or death. Javier Marías published his first novel in 1971, at the precocious age of nineteen. Since then he has published thirteen novels, two short story collections, a book of literary biographies, and writes a regular column for the Madrid newspaper El País. His books, with sales in the millions, have been translated into over forty languages and have won numerous prizes. Quickly following the commercial and critical success of his 2013 novel The Infatuations (reviewed by Numéro Cinq’s Laura K. Warrell), in a brilliant translation by Margaret Jull Costa, Thus Bad Begins examines our relationships with those closest to us—our spouses, our lovers, our friends—and asks how much we can know about them and, more disturbingly, how much we want to know.

The Voyeur

Set in Madrid in 1980, Thus Bad Begins is the first-person recollection of Juan de Vere, now ostensibly a writer living in contemporary times. Covering about a year of his young life, when he was 23, Juan de Vere—a quintessential Marías narrator given to meditative digression—reflects on the time he spent working for the almost famous film director Eduardo Muriel, his intimacy with his employer’s family, and his mission to investigate the lecherous and enigmatic Dr. Jorge Van Vechten.

The 448-page novel is divided into eleven numbered chapters, each with between four and eight subchapters of approximately equal length. The first subchapter of chapter one begins like many others, with Juan’s contemplations, which serve as thematic passages. Juan’s style is discursive, speculative, analytical. He explores his past through his prose and often loses himself in extended, lyrical observations. Here especially Marías employs his signature complex sentences, some stretching to a page in length. For readers familiar with Marías’s fiction, this will come as little surprise, and in this novel he once again creates a dense psychological representation of the narrator through the intricate syntax of his long sentences.

“Young de Vere,” as his employer calls him, is hired as a personal assistant whose duties range from translation to taking dictation to organizing Muriel’s library. Juan has an almost eidetic memory and quotes people verbatim. An effective conceit, Juan’s quotes serve two purposes: first, they move conversations forward in unexpected ways, and second, the repetition helps link the chapters and serves as a thematic refrain.

Marías’s first-person narrators often sound like third-person objective observers, and Juan’s chronicle subtly switches point of view and tense as he segues between his thoughts in the present, what he imagines he thought in the past, and what he suspects were the thoughts and feelings of others. Juan’s tone, while earnest and sincere, tends to be conspiratorial and occasionally evasive. A self-effacing Marías protagonist, Juan claims “there is nothing original about me” on the first page and near the end he states “there is nothing original about my character,” by which he means, in a suspiciously metafictional sentence, his character in the novel. As much an epistemological mystery as a plotted mystery, the problem of truth is a major theme of the novel, and Marías’s blending of fact with fiction finds in Young de Vere a perfect narrator.

When Juan’s duties become so time consuming that he spends nights in the Muriels’ guest room, he soon gains his first insight into the couple’s marriage—one of the principal mysteries of the novel. Juan, a sensitive, compassionate young man who admires his employer, is unnerved by the jarring contrast between Muriel’s normally charming and ingenuous behavior and his inexplicably cruel verbal abuse of his wife, Beatriz, abuse which she appears to absorb with a calm, long-suffering resignation.

Muriel and Beatriz sleep in separate bedrooms and one night she comes to her husband’s bedroom door. In classic Marías fashion, the narrator becomes voyeur and Juan watches while Beatriz pleads with Muriel, declaring he is the only one she loves and reiterating what she must have said many times, that she can’t believe he has broken off their relationship “over some stupid thing that happened ages ago.” But what she calls a “stupid thing” Eduardo finds unforgivable, and he brutally rebukes her. After witnessing the exchange, Juan concludes:

There are some things about which it’s best just to have your suspicions, as long as these are not pressing or unbearable, rather than pursue some disappointing or painful certainty that, as Muriel had more or less said, would oblige you to go on living, meanwhile having to tell yourself a different story from the one you had lived with up until then, always supposing it was possible to cancel out or replace what you had already lived. Or even cancel out or replace what you had believed, if you had believed it for a long time.

And so Juan begins to explore the idea of denying the truth, of avoiding reality and hiding in the comfort of ignorance.

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The Directive

Paralleling the mystery of the Muriel’s relationship, a second mystery grounds the primary plot: Juan’s investigation of his boss’s good friend, Dr. Jorge Van Vechten. Soon after he hires Juan, Muriel informs him that he has been told a disquieting story about his friend, a story that, if true, would mean the doctor had “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” Deeply troubled by the hearsay, at first Muriel denies the possibility of it being true, but eventually his curiosity wins out and he charges his young assistant with an unusual directive. He asks Juan to invite Van Vechten when he and his friends go nightclubbing. Muriel wants Juan to gain Van Vechten’s confidence, to “draw him out” by boasting of his sexual exploits, and if Juan doesn’t have any, no problem, he should invent some. Muriel knows his friend well enough that such company and conversation might, coupled with a generous amount of alcohol, loosen his tongue enough for him to divulge his secrets.

Although Juan’s morals are at odds with his assignment—he finds it odious to pretend to be someone he’s not with the deliberate aim of betrayal—he doesn’t want to disappoint Muriel, and in an ironic twist, a voyeur becomes a reluctant hired spy. As Muriel predicted, it doesn’t take long for Juan to confirm his suspicions about Van Vechten’s true nature.

Juan’s description of the doctor, however, is not confined to reporting his words and actions. Marías exquisite portraits are a distinguishing quality of all his novels. Muriel, Beatriz, and Van Vechten are all drawn in the finest, most purposeful detail. Marías’s portraits begin with physical features (coupled with commentary) and then broaden to include the character’s character:

Van Vechten did indeed have very blue eyes and the kind of blond hair which is still memorable in a country where such hair color is much more common than people think and admit . . . . [his] features suggested a triumphant, expansive nature, as did the way he behaved in public: with enormous confidence, perennial good humor, too perennial not to seem somewhat false . . . . Alongside that good humor, one sensed something voracious and troubling, as if nothing ever entirely pleased him, as if he were one of those people for whom nothing is ever enough, who always want more . . .

The portrait moves from the concrete to the abstract to the general. Once he has shifted to describing “one of those people,” Marías’s narrator now tangentially reflects on who “those people” are, generalizing the particular and extending the theme beyond the story and the specific details of character and plot.

Fact and Fiction

From the first page, Marías blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, and one device he uses is having his narrator address the reader. Juan isn’t a passive observer, a disinterested narrator; his fate becomes entwined with those he observes. Midway through the novel, Juan confesses he has his own secret, one he promises to reveal later: “And when I tell that secret here (except that here is not reality), you will all have to keep my secret . . .” Such coy pronouncements about the reality of his text are not uncommon for Juan, and his reticence evokes the impression of a man riddled with guilt who, although he wants to confess, cannot bring himself to accept the truth.

Like Shakespeare’s use of a play within a play in Hamlet (from which the title Thus Bad Begins is derived) Marías employs the literary device of a story within a story as another means to blend fiction and reality, and he does so using real people. During the scene where Juan delivers his first Van Vechten report to Muriel, the actor Herbert Lom is present. Lom is perhaps best remembered for playing the insane Dreyfus opposite Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther films. Inspired by Juan’s report, Lom tells the true story of producer Harry Alan Towers (with whom Muriel is also working), principal culprit in a sex-scandal in the 1960s involving Mariella Novotny and John F. Kennedy (before he was elected President). And Lom and Towers aren’t the only real people in the novel: Marías’s own uncle, the B-movie director Jesús (Jess) Franco is important to the plot and actor Jack Palance is featured in a scene. While Lom’s story may appear extravagantly digressive, the details cleverly parallel plot elements and expand image patterns; furthermore, the use of real people and historical details adds verisimilitude and is another way Marías generalizes the particular. Marías weaves fact with fiction so seamlessly it is impossible to tell them apart; indeed, this is thematically important since the narrator is often reflecting on the nature of reality verses fiction; thus, this intersection of the real with fiction becomes a thematic mimesis.

The story Lom tells is reminiscent of the anecdotes that W. G. Sebald used in his narratives. Marías admires Sebald’s writing and corresponded with the late author. Another thing they have in common is their use of photos. Thus Bad Begins contains two photos, one of Mariella Novotny and one of a painting by Francesco Casanova (brother of the infamous Giacomo). The latter is significant for the dominant image pattern of observation, particularly with a single eye. The painting features a mounted cavalryman looking over his right shoulder; you can only see one of his eyes. Muriel, blinded in one eye, wears an eyepatch. Being a film director, he is always looking through a camera, a single lens. And Juan, as if calling upon a muse, makes numerous references to the “sentinel moon” observing “with just one eye open.”

cavalryman-2Francesco Casanova, Cavalryman, n.d

Making Time

Laurence Sterne, one of Marías’s influences, wrote in Tristram Shandy “Now there is nothing in this world I abominate worse, than to be interrupted in a story.” How ironic, considering Marías has been criticized for his discursive style. His famous tangents might indeed appear, upon cursory reading, to interrupt the momentum and create suspense artificially through simple postponement. However, Marías continues in a long tradition—including Sterne and Proust—in his use of such digressions; he said in an interview “I’m going to make time that doesn’t have the time to exist, exist” (The White Review). Marías endeavors to create time as we experience it in memory, slowed to the speed of dwelling on signature moments, the ones we return to obsessively—as Juan does. Marías does use scene and summary in a conventional sense—scene for a slower pace with critical detail and summary for skipping quickly over moments of less importance—but he creates the Proustian time he spoke about through Juan’s meditations.

Part of Marías’s secret to creating time is his exceptional use of thematic passages. Ranging from a paragraph to several pages, the thematic passages are Juan’s attempts to understand his past; through his reflections he explores his thoughts and actions and seeks to make sense of the world. For example, when remembering an afternoon he spied on Beatriz, Juan muses:

“Hers is such a woeful bed,” I thought, “that she has to visit other beds . . . she looks for substitutes, as almost everyone does, very few of us ever find what we yearn for, or if we do, we don’t hang on to it for very long, and who knows how long she managed to hang on to her happiness.” We strive to conquer things, never thinking, in our eagerness, that they will never definitely be ours, that they rarely last and are always susceptible to loss, nothing is ever for ever [sic] . . .

Marías often uses such shifts from direct internal monologue of Juan’s thoughts of the moment to a timeless present rich in aphorism when Juan’s voice is subsumed by a broader, universal voice. The shift in voice is often paired with shifts in point of view, as here where he shifts from first-person singular to first-person plural. Adding depth of these thematic passages, Juan asks many rhetorical questions, as in this example where he ponders about love:

Why should we be loved by the person we have chosen with our tremulous finger? Why that one person, as if he were obliged to obey us? Why should the person who troubles or arouses us and for whose flesh and bones we yearn, why should he desire us? Why should we believe in such coincidences? And when they do happen, why should they last?

Juan’s rhetorical questions not only generalize the themes, but they link scenes in image patterns and serve as prompts that propel the narrative forward.

Another dimension of the thematic passages is that they often contain long, lyrical sentences, another Marías hallmark. He strives to create a musicality with his sentences, to carry readers as if they were “on the top of a wave” (Literary Hub). In his excellent introduction to A Heart So White, Jonathan Coe notes Marías’s spare use of punctuation, often relying solely on commas to separate independent clauses. However, unlike that novel from 1992, in Thus Bad Begins Marías uses a variety of punctuation to create the musical cadence he desires. For example, here Juan’s speculations about himself segue into second-person aphoristic generalization and then third person supposition in a stream of consciousness:

Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it now that I’m no longer young and am more or less the same age as Muriel was then or perhaps older; it’s impossible to recover the inexperience of your inexperienced youth once you’ve moved on considerably; once you’ve understood something, it’s impossible to not understand what you once didn’t understand, ignorance doesn’t return, not even when you want to describe a time during which you either basked in or were the victim of ignorance, and never trust anyone who tells you something with a falsely innocent look on his face, feigning the lost innocence of childhood or adolescence or youth, or who adopts the gaze—the icy, frozen gaze—of the child he no longer is, and the same is true of the old man who speaks out of the years of his maturity rather than out of the old age that now dominates his entire vision of the world . . .

Although he does use semicolons, without the full stop of a period this sentence mimics thought in so far as our thoughts are also an uninterrupted stream.

Thus Bad Begins offers a new perspective on the expanding universe of Javier Marías’s Madrid, his own Yoknapatawpha County, where familiar but always fresh characters struggle with the vagaries of life.

Marías describes his writing process as working without a map, but with a compass, a talisman Muriel carries and rubs between his fingers whenever he is “filled by doubts.” In the last major scene, Muriel worries the compass as he explains to Juan his behavior toward Beatriz in exchange for Juan keeping silent about Van Vechten. Muriel tells Juan:

We lose far too many people in a lifetime, they either drift away or die, and it doesn’t make sense to get rid of those who are left. So what if he committed some vile deed in the past or took advantage of someone or other? Here, during a very long dictatorship, almost everyone did at some point. So what?

We all have secrets, but Muriel’s denial raises difficult questions. Which secrets can be kept and which must be told? Should we always admit the truth, or only when it is convenient, when it won’t be painful? Juan, replete with his own secrets, learns caution, for his experience shows him the price of denial and the price of honesty. Marías’s novel doesn’t offer easy solutions but reminds us that one of the most perilous decisions we can make is to practice deceit, for thus bad begins.

—Frank Richardson

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Frank

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

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Jan 132017
 

Marjan StrojanMarjan Strojan

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Not in Noah’s Flood

They say, we write to remember and we read
to forget. Ignorant of either, I wished I could
write to grow up, especially the letter Y.
I’ve been practicing Y since I first saw it printed

on the covers of American picture books
arriving in U.N.R.A. parcels, safely tucked away
up in the attic. Y never failed to impress me,
looking both like girls’ legs pressed together

and the forked sprigs we broke off from the alder
trees to place our fishing rods onto when we were
going after the dace; and in my dizzier moments,
like the throats, slit open by broken bottlenecks,

of long coated dark men in cheery hats, who,
a few pages on, turned into corpses, floating in
booze or drowning in some other disastrous liquid,
but not, for all I could see, in Noah’s flood.

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On Returning a Book to a Public Library

I’ll make this short. Days always surprise me.
So when I’m returning a book to a library
it doesn’t mean I’ve finished it or had no
intention of reading on. It only means that
despite its renewal the library’s lease has
expired and that the times and places and
extravagant fortunes of men, with the traditions
of various schools and institutions of knowledge,
secret societies and writings of all ages,
collected and arranged into chapters

or classified according to their alphabetical
order, have found themselves locked behind
the doors of inscrutable hallways, keys flung
away as carelessly as if they were dandelion
seeds. No doubt they will go on along
the corridors of some cerebral Hades weaving
their lives quite independent of those that
time and again I capture in my glimpses
scattered or overheard in chunks of
fragmented conversation, however inadequate.

So, in the cobwebs of Saint Petersburg’s
Railway Station (in snow) Madame Karenina
still waits to throw herself under a train.
And I’ll probably never find out what Vronsky
could have done at the time, if anything.
Tatiana never finished her letter, though I presume
she had turned down the poet, who ages ago,
in his small neat hand, had been scribbling
in his notebook the names of his lovers.
And Doctor Rieux, even he – what did he,

after the danger had passed, say to a writer
whose fast traveling ladies clattered around
Bois de Boulogne in their carriages – if, indeed,
he survived the ordeal? Is this important?
I don’t know; take the book I was bringing
back this afternoon. I can’t for the sake of me
remember who wrote it; even his middle name,
a common and well-known one, evades me
completely. A tiny collection of verse, like
scenes of renaissance architecture and its triangles

and elegant stairways in precise, condensed
light, the color of salt. It was a book of
poems which now, when forgotten, seem even
better, compact in the language of vague,
unruly translation, opening new and unexpected
prospects on each of its metaphors – sharp and
twofold – like ‘pillars’ and ‘horse.’ There was an air
of something conquering, victorious in far away
places about them, like a clang of a sword drawn
from a scabbard: Vincente Cortázar Paladio.

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Remembering Hopkins

In our local Clinic stands a Tree of Health,
the branches of its richly grown crown
decorated by various inscriptions like Happiness,
Love, Good Personal Relations,
Friendship etc. Up the tree trunk
lines of multi-coloured twinkling fairy lights
lead on to them, which – in a circuit
as on big Christmas trees – then run down again
to the Tree’s mighty roots, bearing labels like
Recreation, Sleep, Nutrition and Relaxation,
Giving up Bad Habits, Healthy Sexuality, Hygiene.
Lord, send the roots rain.

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Zinnias in Bloom

Zinnias in bloom; a train
moving on, departing: maids’
work on the balcony.
An electric pole – a hedgehog
trying to climb it: a palm tree
by night. The branch of an elder
bush dressing itself up in black:
the scent of its inflorescence
quietly glowing. Among the wild
rose petals a spider hiding from
the rain. Had it not gone into
hiding it would have stayed hidden.
Night gathers; the starlings flock
onto a sign-board: in the sky
a child from the long gone past
is happily singing. Rain descends from
the heavens; fire licks the star
by the edges. One me coming down
to lie on the earth.

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Where are you?

I am sitting in the doorway
under the light; the grass is darkening,
the stream below the house
sounds clearer. I’ve been waiting
for I don’t know what, for you
to call me, for weeks. And now –
not in the house, here outside,
from over the hill, from the stream,
from the wind through the branches,
your voice sounds, soft and clear –
Where are you, what are you doing?
Moths are settling on my head.
They are drawn to what’s in there
and want to get to you.

—Marjan Strojan translated by Alasdair MacKinnon

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Marjan Strojan (1949) was raised on a small farm in Slovenia. He studied philosophy and comparative literature, and he has worked at one time or another as a baggage carrier and load-sheet-man at an airport, a film critic in Ljubljana, and a journalist in London. He lives in Slovenia.

Strojan has published seven books of poetry and many translations, including Beowulf (1992); James Joyce, a selection of his poetry (2000); Lavinia Greenlaw, a selection of her poetry (2000); Robert Frost, a selection of his poetry (2001); John Milton, Paradise Lost (Izgubljeni raj, 2003, 2011); Sydney Lea, a selection of his poetry (Na votlem ledu, 2006), and Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (Canterburyjske povesti , 2012). In 1997 he published his Anthology of English Poetry (Antologija angleške poezije). His latest books are William Shakespeare, Songs from Plays (Pesmi iz iger, CZ, 2016) and Marjan Strojan, Dells and Hollows, Autumn Hill Books, 2016.

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Jan 122017
 

Seiji Ozawa, left, and Haruki Murakami. Credit Nobuyoshi Araki (NY Times)

Absolutely on Music is the kind of book that makes you want to go find the music for yourself… These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening. —Carolyn Ogburn

Absolute Music
Haruki Murakami & Seigi Ozawa
Knopf, 2016
352 pages; $27.95

“…all I want to say is that Mahler’s music looks hard at first sight, and it really is hard, but if you read it closely and deeply with feeling, it’s not such confusing and inscrutable music after all. It’s got all these layers piled one on top of another, and lots of different elements emerging at the same time, so in effect it sounds complicated.” —Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music

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Absolutely on Music, by novelist and music aficionado Haruki Murakami and legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa (translated by Jay Rubin) is the best kind of eavesdropping. Although the book is (not inaccurately) described as series of “conversations,” the topic throughout is music, and the conversations appropriately become Murakami’s interviews of Ozawa regarding his long and storied career in the aftermath of diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Ozawa explains that “until my surgery, I was too busy making music every day to think about the past, but once I started remembering, I couldn’t stop, and the memories came back to me with a nostalgic urge. This was a new experience for me. Not all things connected with major surgery are bad. Thanks to Haruki, I was able to recall Maestro Karajan, Lenny, Carnegie Hall, the Manhattan Center, one after another…”

Murakami (b. 1949) is best known as a novelist, including Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (1994) and 1Q84 (2009-2010). He has received many awards for his work, including the Franz Kafka Prize and the Jerusalem Prize. He has published several collections of short stories and many works of nonfiction, including Underground, about the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Music often plays a strong role in Murakami’s writing. Scholars have long been drawn to exploring the musical worlds evoked in Murakami’s novels; they’ve created playlists  and written dissertations (and created more playlists. There is even a special resource on Murakami’s website that provides references to the musicians, songs, and albums mentioned in his writing. The biography of Murakami written by his long-time translator, Jay Rubin, is titled Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words.

“How did I learn to write?” Murakami asks. “By listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.”

Murakami’s and Ozawa’s daughters were friends, but the two artists only knew one another casually. They never spoke of their work to one another until Ozawa became ill with esophageal cancer in December, 2009. Because Ozawa had to limit his work, Murakami noted a new eagerness when they met to turn conversations to the topic of music, noting that it might have been the fact that he was not talking to a fellow musician that “set him at ease.” The task of publishing these conversations came from a story Ozawa told Murakami about Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein’s 1962 performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Murakami writes, “’What a shame it would be to let such a fascinating story just evaporate,’ I thought. ‘Somebody ought to record it and put it on paper.’ And, brazen as it may seem, the only ‘somebody’ that happened to cross my mind at the moment was me.”

Seiki Ozawa (b. 1935) began conducting as a boy in Japan when a rugby injury sprained his hand too badly for him to continue his piano studies. His skill soon brought him to the United States, where in 1960 he won first prize for student conducting at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood festival. The young Ozawa studied conducting under legendary conductors such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, who both figure prominently in these conversations. He went on to serve as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years, and as the principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera. He has received many honors and awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor and two Grammy Awards.

It’s interesting to note that the collection opens with a discussion of who is really in control during a performance of a concerto: the soloist or the orchestra’s conductor? Murakami initiates these interviews not with Ozawa’s own recordings, but with a discussion of Bernstein’s well-known disavowal of the interpretation of the Brahms First Piano Concerto as performed by Glenn Gould and the New York Philharmonic in 1964. Bernstein spoke to the audience prior to the performance, saying:

I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception, and this raises the interesting question: “What am I doing conducting it?” [Audience murmurs, tittering.] I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it too.

Gould often performed with tempi so eccentric that it was difficult to regulate his interpretation together with that of the orchestra. It was this that prompted a discussion between Murakami and Ozawa as to which artist, conductor or soloist, was really in charge of a performance. But in this dialogue of two renowned artists, Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami, who is in charge?

Though it is Ozawa’s history, the book ultimately belongs to Murakami. The comparison to Glenn Gould is an apt one, I feel, for Murakami’s prosody is, like Gould’s musical syntax, both engaging and strongly idiosyncratic. The language is unmistakably Murakami’s throughout. The syntax and rhythm of the words (at least as translated by long-time Murakami translator Jay Rubin) could be lifted straight from the page of any Murakami novel. I kept feeling as if a cat were gazing silently from the other room. If you are a fan of Murakami’s prose, then you will enjoy this book as well.

The conversational settings (the book consists of six conversations, separated by shorter “interludes”) are described only in the loosest terms. The first conversation, for example, takes place in Murakami’s home “in Kanagawa Prefecture, to the west of Tokyo.” Albums and CDs are pulled off the shelf to play as they talk, but the shelves themselves are never described; it’s as if they are being pulled from thin air. There’s something of the animated drawing about these conversations, the way that the suggestion of a particular recording prompts an immediate search for music. In the example here, the search is immediate. Though we haven’t any idea where the two are seated (or if they are seated), no sense of the room, or the light, the time of day or night, the mention of Lalo’s piece for orchestra and solo violin initiates a small flurry of activity:

Ozawa: “We [the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ozawa] Lalo’s Spanish something-or-another. She was barely twenty years old at the time.

Murakami: Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espanole. I’m sure I’ve got a copy of that somewhere.

Rustling sounds as I hunt for the record, which finally turns up.

Ozawa: This is it! This is it! Wow, I haven’t seen this thing for years.

Here, too, you get a sense of the way in which Murakami, the first-person author, enters the page as himself rather than via the transcriptionist of his own words. He’s “Murakami” except when making “rustling sounds” as he searches for the record he has in mind, which “finally turns up.” Those details—unexplained rustling, the “finally turns up,” which insists on being read with a kind of drama whose merit is uncertain—is classic Murakami.

There’s no doubt, however, that Murakami knows his stuff. As Ozawa himself puts it in the book’s afterward, “I have lots of friends who love music, but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity. Jazz, classics: he doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of this dialogue comes through the two very different ways in which they’ve each come to know the music that they love. For Murakami, his knowledge of music comes through avid and detailed listening to recorded music, supplemented by live performances when possible. As he admits, “a piece of music and the material thing on which it was recorded often comprised an indivisible unit.”

Ozawa, on the other hand, is far less familiar with recorded works, even his own. His knowledge of music comes from his study of it. His first encounter with Mahler was through reading a score: “I had never heard them on records. I didn’t have the money to buy records then, and I didn’t even have a machine to play them on.” The music itself was revelatory, “a huge shock for me—until then I never even knew that music like that existed…I could feel the blood draining from my face. I had to order my own copies right then and there. After that, I started reading Mahler like crazy—the First, the Second, the Fifth.” The first time he ever heard Mahler performed was as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic. Because of the way in which he learned the repertoire, Ozawa, unlike Murakami, was less familiar with the range of recorded performances of any given piece. Murakami is struck by what he calls “the fundamental difference that separates the way we understand music.” He finds that difference between a music-maker and a music lover to be an almost-literal wall, “especially high and thick when that music maker is a world class professional. But still, that doesn’t have to hamper our ability to have an honest, direct conversation. At least, that’s how I feel about it, because music is a thing of such breadth and generosity.”

The first conversation revolves around a variety of recordings of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. A 1957 performance with Glenn Gould and the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan is compared with Gould’s recording with Leonard Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (composed of members of the NY Philharmonic) in 1959. The two then listen to Rudolf Serkin’s recording of the same concerto with Bernstein in 1964, which is taken at such a rapid tempo that Ozawa exclaims in astonishment, “It’s kind of an inconceivable performance.” They listen to another recording on period instruments, or the actual instruments for which Beethoven would have been writing: Jos van Immerseel performing on the fortepiano, rather than the modern-day piano, for instance. (Oddly, neither the orchestra nor the conductor is named.) This performance provokes the kind of observation that will delight the serious student of music, or anyone who enjoys thinking about sound: Ozawa says, almost as an aside, that in this period-instrument recording that “you can’t hear the consonants.”

Ozawa: The leading edge of each sound.

Murakami: I still don’t get it.

Ozawa: Hmm, how can I put it? If you sing a-a-a, it’s all vowel. But if you add consonants to each of the a’s, you get something like ta-ka-ka, or ha-sa-sa. It’s a question of which consonants you add. It’s easy enough to make the first ta or ha, but the hard part is what follows. If it’s all consonant—ta-t-t—the melody falls apart. But the expression of the notes changes depending on whether you go ta-raa-raa or ta-waa-waa. To have a good musical ear means having control over the consonants and the vowels. When the instruments of this orchestra talk to each other, the consonants don’t come out.

Murakami next brings out the 1982 recording of the piece with Rudolph Serkin again at the piano, and Ozawa himself conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Here, we’re privy to Ozawa’s self-critique—“Now, this is ‘direction.’ Hear those four notes? Tahn-tahn-tahn-tahn….I should have done more of that.”—and his suggestion that Serkin, who was now late in life, realized that it was probably “his last performance of this piece, that he won’t have another chance to record it while he’s alive, and so he’s going to play it the way he wants to. Period.”

Finally, they listen to Mitsuko Uchida’s 1994 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Kurt Sanderling. Earlier, the two have discussed the use of silence (the Japanese use the word ma to describe this quality) and the way in which Gould uses ma so naturally in his interpretation. Now they find a similar quality in Uchida’s playing, the silent intervals, her “free spacing of the notes.”

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3 / Mitsuko Uchida, Seiji Ozawa. Saito Kinen Orchestra

This concept of ma comes back as Ozawa describes to Murakami the conductor’s role in bringing the orchestra in following a break in the sound:

Murakami: When you’ve got an empty moment and you have to glide into it, the musicians all watch the conductor, I suppose?

Ozawa: That’s right. I’m the one responsible for putting it all together in the end, so they’re all looking at me. In that passage we just heard, the piano goes tee…and then there’s an empty space [ma] and the orchestra glides in, right? It makes a huge difference whether you play tee-yataa or tee…yataa. Or there are some people who add expression by coming in without a break: teeyantee. So if you do it by kind of “sneaking in” as they say in English, the way we heard, it can go wrong. It’s tremendously difficult to make the orchestra all breathe together at exactly the same point. You have all these different instruments in different positions on the stage, so each of them hears the piano differently, and that tends to throw off the breath of each player by a little. So to avoid that kind of slip-up, the conductor should come in with a big expression on his face like this—teeyantee.

Murakami: So you indicate the empty interval [ma] with your face and body language.

Ozawa: Right, right. You show with your face and the movement of your hands whether they should take a long breath or a short breath. That little bit makes a big difference….it’s not so much a matter of calculation as it is the conductor’s coming to understand, through experience, how to breathe.

Each conversation focuses very loosely on a topic, but the strength of this book is found in its soaring, tangential details. The second conversation revolves around Ozawa’s performances of the Four Brahms Symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the manner of organization within orchestral groups today, particulars of instrumentation in the horn section of Brahms’ First Symphony; Brahms evokes Ozawa’s mentor, Hideo Saito. Ozawa’s Saito Kinen Orchestra was formed to mark the 10th anniversary of the great conductor’s death. The third conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences during the 1960s as he moves from New York Philharmonic, where he was assistant to Leonard Bernstein, to working with the Chicago Symphony, to three recordings Ozawa made with the Toronto Symphony of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.

Seiji Ozawa conducts Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Toronto Symphony Orchestra 1967. 1st Movement: Rêveries – Passions.

In the fourth conversation, the two discuss the works of Gustav Mahler, a composer who’s work wasn’t widely performed until Leonard Bernstein championed his works in the 1960s. Of course, Murakami explains, one of the reasons Mahler wasn’t performed was that his work, like the works of all Jews, was “quite literally wiped out over the twelve long years following 1933, when the Nazis took power, to the end of the war in 1945.”

This is a fascinating dissection of both the composition and orchestration of Mahler’s nine symphonies and a history of the performance styles that were used over the decades that Ozawa has been conducting them. The emerging prevalence of recordings actually changed the performance styles; as recording moved away from recording the overall sound, focusing instead on individual instruments, so too did the tendency of orchestras to aim for a more transparent, detailed performance. The whole chapter on Mahler is one of the richest in the book. Yet, here’s Murakami, breaking in again to note Ozawa “eats a piece of fruit.”

Ozawa: Mmm, this is good. Mango?

Murakami: No, it’s a papaya.

Other times, Murakami’s interruptions are to provide poetic interpretation that comes in surprising passages, however lovely his descriptions may be. For example, while listening to the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, Murakami notes that “the clarinet adds an indefinably mysterious touch to the melody, the strange tones of a bird crying out a prophecy deep in the forest.” The line here, not unlike the mysterious touch of the clarinet, is surprising only because it is so rare; it’s a language from another time. In this book, the magic comes from two skilled craftsmen talking about their work with curiosity and affection.

The fifth conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences conducting opera, both staged and in concert performances. He recalls being “booed in Milan” at La Scala. Murakami presses him, asking twice, “Do you think there was some resistance to the idea of an Asian conducting Italian opera at La Scala?”

Osawa replies, “The sound I gave Tosca was not the Tosca they were used to.”

“Back then, weren’t you the only Asian conducting at a first-class European opera house?”

“Yes,” says Ozawa. “I suppose I was.”

That the two men are both Japanese, conversing in Japanese, is an issue that glides just below the surface of the conversation. Many times, Ozawa credits his lack of English fluency to explain why he simply didn’t notice the political waters in which he swam as a young conductor in New York and Europe. When he recalls the days in which Ravinia, the prestigious music festival outside of Chicago, was an all-white establishment (in the context of bringing Louis Armstrong to the festival), neither acknowledge that his very presence contradicts the memory of “all white”.

The final conversation centers on the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland. It’s a summer chamber music program that works with promising young musicians in small ensembles and extraordinary master instructors such as violinist Pamela Frank, cellist Sadao Harada, violist Nobuku Imai, and violinist Robert Mann. It’s a program designed around the very principles Ozawa learned from his first teacher, Hideo Saito.

Reading Conversations on the subway, or a cafeteria, or a picnic table in the late autumn sun, I could usually call to mind some of the music under discussion from memory, down to the scratchy sound of cracks in the vinyl, the thick humidity of the needle tracing silence between movements, as if it were playing just a the limit of earshot. But when I sat down to write about the book, I felt compelled to search out the actual recordings. I found many of them on Murakami’s website, which (as I mentioned earlier) contains playlists of works referenced in his other books. Other pieces, though not all, can be found online. These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening.

—Carolyn Ogburn

 Carollyn Ogburn

N5
Carollyn Ogburn

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

Jan 122017
 

david-huddle

x

I come looking for a job,
But I get no offers
Just a come-on from the whores
On Seventh Avenue
I do declare
There were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there.
–Paul Simon, “The Boxer”

1.

God help me people used to say. Maybe they still say it but I haven’t heard it in years. And now I who have no business saying it find it hovering in my mind all day every day.

Even as a girl I never thought of the deity as having a sex or being particularly human. I never doubted that something out there was responsible, but I was sure it wasn’t anything you could ask for help. In my seventies now, I see god as a kind of science cartoon. A mass of pastel gases in different hues, a seething cauldron of divine belligerence and whimsy, with equal measures of pure meanness and blinding kindness. No gender, nothing like a human language, doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, pays more attention to beetles, Koala bears, hummingbirds, and rocks than to the affairs of homo sapiens. Watches all of it like we watch TV. Turns it off and turns it on. Switches channels.

Moody, though–I could get behind a god who throws temper tantrums or falls into decades of a deep sadness that won’t go away. I have stupid, stupid thoughts, a head full of them! I sometimes wonder if intelligence of any sort has ever paid a visit to my brain.

I who have always questioned the intellect of others now find myself doubting everything I think. Maybe the god I am so reluctant to ask for help configured us all to be idiots. Seven point eight billion stooges.

Only a dozen or so people in my lifetime have found my conversation desirable. Of those I’ve been able to tolerate maybe five or six–and one of those was a dead man I chose to continue talking to for nearly a year after I read his obituary.

2.

When I was in my early twenties I lived with a man in New York. I left him not because there was anything wrong with him but because being with him magnified the awful things I saw in myself. He was probably the only person on the planet who could have put up with me year after year–and I think I knew that, but I also knew I couldn’t stand who I was in my own eyes when I was around him.

After I moved out, I got pretty crazy and went into what I’ve thought of as my “Sound of Silence” phase. I listened to that song a lot, but it was “The Boxer” that I fixated on. The verse of it about the whores on Seventh Avenue just kept ripping my heart out. For several months I was at its mercy. I needed to feel the pain of it again and again.

I began to think about going down to that corner of Seventh and Broadway where I knew the prostitutes still snagged their customers. At first it was just one of my ridiculous ideas, especially because I was a woman. But given what I’d just been through I definitely wasn’t about to look to a man for help. And the worse I felt the more seriously I took the notion of seeing what a woman could do for me–a stranger and somebody who knew about hard times. I had a little money, I’d seen where they did their business, and it would be easy enough to get there. What was to stop me?

I thought I might ask one of them—one whose looks I liked—just to go someplace and lie on a bed with me, maybe snuggle up and talk about our childhoods or what we liked to eat. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to have sex with a woman, but I felt so alone it was like I had a terminal illness.

One Saturday afternoon I took the Seventh Avenue bus down to 42nd Street and the minute I stepped down onto the curb, I saw the prostitutes. Their outfits weren’t subtle, and I didn’t hesitate–I walked by the line of them and did it slowly. Even though I looked into the faces of a couple of them–women about my age whose looks appealed to me–they paid no attention to me. So I wandered around mid-town a little while and ended up going to the bar in the Wellington Hotel.

The sight of those prostitutes from close up–and there must have been fifteen or twenty of them, black, white, and brown–had riled me up in this peculiar way. My excitement was too general to be desire but it felt like desire’s first cousin. I wondered if it would be so bad just to ask one of the prostitutes for sex and pay her for it and see what it was like. Even if the sex was horrible, I knew it would at least temporarily stop the lonesomeness that was making me crazy.

In the bar at the Wellington, I took a booth, nobody on either side of me, and when the barkeep walked over I ordered a Whiskey Sour. Good choice of a place to sit, bad choice of a drink. But that was okay, because it meant I’d drink it slowly. The place was dimly lit and quiet; there were only a few customers. I figured it was around three in the afternoon, a warm sunny day outside, as I remember it, though that bar was completely set off from the street–it was like its own little world. The only thing it lacked was a jukebox that would play Simon & Garfunkel for me. If I’d been able to hear my songs, I knew I could unleash one hell of a good cry right there in that booth. But even without music, the place was just fine the way it was. It answered my need of the moment.

I became so absorbed in my thoughts that I paid almost no attention to what went on in the bar. The sadness I was going through had a way of narrowing the world around me and insisting that I pay attention to it and it alone. People came, people went, while I stared at my hands, reviewing the faces and the outfits of the women on Seventh and Broadway. I kept remembering how purposeful they’d been in ignoring the signals I’d tried give them. No come-on for you, my dear, was what their manner had conveyed.

I was savoring my misery, which I was sure was the worst I’d ever experienced. I wasn’t hurting quite bad enough to try to get in touch with the man I’d been living with, but that thought did cross my mind. I knew he’d come if I called, but I definitely didn’t want to pick up our old life again. I didn’t feel like apologizing for leaving him, and I didn’t want to see disappointment in his face–ever again.

“May I join you?” said a man standing beside the booth. He seemed to appear from nowhere, and he startled me, even though he’d kept his voice soft and stood a polite distance away. I looked up at him, the words No, thank you, making their way down from my brain and up out of my chest. He’s old, was what my eyes told me, and I suspect that fact alone stopped me from saying anything at all to him, at least for a moment. Instead, I let my eyes pass down over his clothes and back up to his face in what he must have considered a brazen way.

He wore a gray suit, a navy blue tie, a white shirt, and shiny black wingtips. He was clean-shaven and his silvery hair had been recently cut. So this was a businessman who had an understated polish in his face and the way he dressed. Not quite handsome, probably in his early sixties, he looked like a man who was accustomed being treated with respect.

My trance of misery and mild general arousal still had its hold on me, and I knew it would be ever so easy to send this man on his way. Thank you, sir, but right now I need to tend to my loneliness. I was on the verge of saying something like that when I suddenly saw myself through his eyes.

I’d been silly enough to wear a dress that was more maroon that it was red but that was sleeveless, that fit me nicely at the neck and shoulders, and that modestly presented the little bit of bosom I had to offer. I’d picked my outfit with the aim of making an impression on the Seventh Avenue ladies, but clearly it had not impressed a single one of them enough to meet my eyes as I’d walked past them.

The man I’d lived with once observed that I had a Sunday school sexiness about me, a remark that pleased me. It was the closest anyone ever came to saying that I was sexy or pretty or good-looking or cute or any of those terms. Beautiful and terrific had always been out of the question, but I’d often wished for a word or words that went further than the nice-looking my parents awarded me all through my teenage years and that a boy named Felton Wadhams was rumored to have said of me in high school.

At an early age I’d reconciled myself to the fact that my physical appearance did little to recommend me. So I wasn’t surprised that the prostitutes had paid me no mind. But evidently the way I’d tricked myself out for them worked for at least one person in the city, and here he was politely asking for permission to join me. I almost snickered at the term, which I was sure he hadn’t intended in a lascivious way.

It was a what-the-hell moment, of which I’d had probably fewer than half a dozen in my life, and most of those I’ve refused. Something kept me from speaking, but the private joke I’d made of his word-choice helped me put a tight grin on my face, and I lifted my hand in a little welcoming gesture toward the seat opposite me.

The man scooted into the booth–with some grace–folded his hands in his lap, and straightened himself a bit, all the while not looking at me. After a moment of settling himself, he raised his eyes to mine, so that I had an instant of thinking he’d noticed how carefully I’d scrutinized him.

“Joe Arnold,” he said. He had the good judgment not to extend his hand toward me. And not to smile.

“I’m Hazel,” I told him. My smile was long gone by now. In fact I felt a jolt of wishing I hadn’t let him join me. I wanted my loneliness back–I knew it would give me no trouble. I leaned back and gave him the least friendly face I could come up with.

Joe Arnold nodded, as if to acknowledge my bad attitude toward him. Then he looked over at the bar and around the room. I thought maybe he was checking to be sure that I was the best company he could find at the moment.

When the barkeep appeared, Joe Arnold asked for a Coca Cola for himself and a fresh drink for me. I told the barkeep that the whiskey sour wasn’t working for me, and I asked him to recommend something. When he said he made a really good Rusty Nail, I told him that sounded like just the drink I needed.

After the barkeep was out of hearing distance, Joe Arnold told me he knew better than to start drinking this early in the afternoon. I told him that I wasn’t much of a drinker at any time of the day.

Then we sat and regarded each other while we waited for our drinks to arrive. I thought that when we did speak we might both say in unison, “So what are you doing here?”

That wasn’t how it went. The barkeep set down our drinks and went away. We let our glasses sit untouched. And I liked it that Joe Arnold didn’t seem to know what to do or say in the silence. I was fine with neither of us saying anything. Maybe this would be all there was to it, an afternoon of sitting in this booth, occasionally taking sips from our glasses, and saying nothing. Just sitting in proximity with each other.

“You first,” he said.

“What?” I said.

Then he nodded. He knew I knew what he meant.

I did know. I also knew that no matter what I told him, he probably wouldn’t challenge it. He just wanted me to tell him something. Or make some noise. I could have hummed “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain,” and he’d have been grateful. So I thought I would see how much of the truth I could pry out of myself. I felt reckless. What did I have to lose?

“I’m originally from Vermont. I’m doing graduate work at Columbia. I’ve just moved out of an apartment I’ve been sharing with a man for the past year.” I paused between sentences and said each of the sentences slowly while looking directly at Joe Arnold. “I can’t seem to adjust to living by myself,” I told him. I was certain I’d said more than I should have, but I didn’t care. I’d liked hearing my voice deliver those solid facts to another person. I was proud of myself for having stuck to the truth.

Joe Arnold had stared at me while I spoke and seemed to absorb each statement as I made it, but now that I was finished, he looked away. I thought maybe he was blushing and I wondered if I’d embarrassed him.

“I’m sorry for what you’ve been going through,” he said.

Whether or not he meant it, I appreciated the sympathy. I nodded.

Then he couldn’t seem to bring himself to speak. I was determined not to say another word until he took his turn, but he seemed paralyzed. I noticed that now he was indeed blushing. For a minute or so I thought he might simply stand up, apologize, and walk away.

Finally he shook his head and raised his eyes to meet mine. His face was slightly contorted. “I want to leave my wife,” he said. The words erupted out of his mouth in way that made them sound like I think I’m going to throw up.

I wasn’t horrified. I tried to be sympathetic since I knew what it felt like to leave somebody. I made myself say, “I’m sorry.” He probably heard the truth I wasn’t saying: I wish I could feel your pain, but I can’t.

 “I can’t imagine you’d want to hear the details,” he said.

I nodded. He was right–I didn’t.

“I haven’t ever said it aloud,” he murmured. “Maybe that’s all I needed to do. Get it out there where somebody could hear it.”

I blinked at him. Our conversation seemed to be moving us farther and farther away from each other.

“If you want to, you can leave,” he said, his voice very soft. “I’ll pay for our drinks.”

I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And didn’t know what to say. So I stared at him with what had to be a very stupid face.

“I probably would if I were you,” he murmured. “Leave,” he said. His expression was a weird combination of shame and relief. Truth be told, I preferred this look on his face to the tight-and-in-control version of himself that he’d presented when he asked to join me.

So I smiled at him. Or rather I realized that I was smiling at him–I hadn’t exactly decided to do it.

He seemed to relax then. “Look,” he said, leaning forward, clasping his hands together on the table top between us. “I asked to sit with you because I thought maybe I could persuade you to let me get us a room. I thought we could go upstairs and spend some time together. I guess I hoped for sex. Sure, I should just say so. Because you’d know it even if I didn’t say it. I’m sorry if you’re insulted. It’s taken me a little while to understand that you weren’t sitting here by yourself because you wanted company.”

I heard what he said and understood him perfectly well. And having recently cruised the line of Seventh Avenue whores hoping for a come-on, I could hardly be insulted. But I couldn’t put everything together in any way that helped me know what to say or do. I didn’t want to go upstairs with him–maybe just because I couldn’t imagine how it would go once we closed the door and stood in the room with a bed directly in front of us. I didn’t want to take my clothes off, and I definitely didn’t want to see Joe Arnold naked. But I also didn’t feel like standing up and leaving the bar. And I didn’t want to go on sitting in this booth by myself.

I wished I could just beam myself out of there, but then I realized I couldn’t think of a destination.

I closed my eyes and thought maybe this was the lowest moment of my life.

I kept my eyes closed until I was sure I wouldn’t cry if I opened them. The thought occurred to me that maybe Joe Arnold would take the opportunity to leave some money on the table, slip out of the booth, and head for the door. But when I opened them, he was still there.

And he was putting money on the table in front of him.

So he’s about to leave was my thought. I felt myself blushing. Out of some weird sense of decorum I didn’t look at the money.

I watched his face while he put his wallet away. He looked relaxed now, a little pleased with himself. I didn’t blame him. He’d hoped I’d be somebody other than who I was. I had often hoped the same thing.

“Yours,” he said, tapping the table.

Lined up like Monopoly money were four one-hundred dollar bills.

He saw my shocked expression. It made him smile. “Yours,” he said again.

I couldn’t keep my eyes from glancing out through the lobby toward the elevator–the Wellington was a one-elevator hotel.

He chuckled. “No,” he said. “It’s not for that. It’s just that I could have gone the rest of my days without ever saying aloud that I want to leave my wife. If you hadn’t been here. If you hadn’t let me sit with you. If you hadn’t said what you said, I’d have never gotten those words out.”

I know I looked down at his money again, and my expression must have been really comical, because he laughed out loud.

“Look,” he said, “here’s the thing. I may never leave my wife–I almost feel like now that I’ve said those words, I don’t need to leave her. But whether I do or not, you’ve saved me thousands of dollars I won’t have to pay my therapist if I keep on going to see her. Which I’m pretty sure I won’t.”

I stared at him. I wanted to feel like he felt. Free of something. Out from under this loneliness that was like a bully waiting for me every morning when I woke up!

“Yours,” he said.

It was the third time he’d said that word, and what struck me then was that maybe he didn’t know it, but this man was trying to buy his way out of hell. I wasn’t offended. In fact I was sort of thrilled. It came to me then that maybe I could make the deal work for both of us. I sat up straight.

“I’ll take it,” I said. I picked the bills up one at a time, all the while looking him straight in the eyes. I took my time because I was excited by what I was about to tell him.

“But I want to go upstairs,” I said.

His face changed. He actually looked a little afraid.

“With you,” I said.

He flinched.

“You and I, Joe Arnold,” I told him. “We’re going up there.”

3.

I was a lot worse off than I realized that day in the Wellington Hotel fifty years ago. And Joe Arnold was just as bad off as I was. He had no idea what a deep pit he’d been living in for years. Maybe that ignorance is a mercy of some kind or else a survival component that comes with the human apparatus. Like those soldiers who get shot up so bad they can’t live more than a few minutes thinking Hey, this isn’t so bad, I’m going to be fine.

I’ve come to believe that relentless pain can sometimes be a help to you. It humbles you, it realigns you with your brother and sister human beings, and it prepares you to be healed if you can find your way to something or somebody that can fix what’s wrong with you. Maybe non-stop hurting even guides you to that right something or somebody. Ridiculous as this may sound, I’ve come to think of loneliness as a kind of corrective angel. My deity of the pastel gases and the seething cauldron might dispatch such an angel to nudge a human creature who needed to be turned in one direction or another

4.

Joe Arnold and I got our clothes off pretty quickly in that room. I’d had no faith we could get that far without one or the other of us saying, I can’t do this and walking out. But we didn’t turn on any lights as we walked through the door, so what we had was just the late afternoon sun beaming through the window shade. Probably if I’d had a look at Joe in better light, I’d have been put off by what age had done to his body. I don’t think he’d have been put off by the truth of my body, but he also would have seen very little to convince him he should have come to that room with me.

A meticulously made-up big bed is a thing of beauty, a beacon of comfort, a reminder that respite is possible. We sat side by side on it and took our shoes off. From there the bed gave us permission, so that getting naked was easy. Joe and I had no problem making our way into that bed. From opposite sides we hopped under the covers like sixteen-year olds. Clean, ironed sheets whisper sweet messages to almost anybody’s skin.

All right. About the sex. We had it–I can certainly say that. It was clumsy and funny for a while, then it turned sad when it looked like we weren’t going to be able to make it happen. I think we both had thought failure was inevitable, and I don’t know about Joe, but I would have been in seriously awful shape if I’d had to walk out of that room without even being able to have intercourse.

Joe propped himself over me while we both struggled to get him inside me. Finally, when I knew he was about to give up, I told him to let me get on top and try something else. I asked him to turn with me, and I said please. Desperation can improve your manners. Something had transpired in those minutes of his trying so hard and wanting it so much and failing. Just plain old flat out failing. So I knew it was up to me, and at that point when we had every reason to be angry at ourselves and each other I think we both saw that kindness was really our only option.

I nudged him over, and I rolled with him so that for a second or two we were the beast with two backs. On top of him I snuggled in, I tried to get my belly and chest as close to his as I could, and I had my head on his shoulder so that my mouth was right up to his ear. This was a way of lying together that I’d never experienced with the man I’d lived with, though I’d always meant to ask him if we could try it.

I talked dirty to Joe. Or rather I whispered dirty to him. And my level of talking dirty was probably about that of a seventh grader. I told him I was really, really wet. Which wasn’t true. I told him I wanted his cock. Which was true. I told him my nipples liked the hair on chest. And I moved my skin on his skin while I said these things–and some others–again and again in his ear. I licked his ear, too, and I’m pretty sure that’s what woke his cock up. I sensed it down there, and God help me I felt like I was his voodoo princess. “I’m your whore, Joe,” I said. “I want your cock, and I am most definitely your whore.”

Okay, I don’t think either one of us thought we’d get much further than hooking up, as they call it nowadays. For damaged people like we were it would probably have been okay if that was all we could do–intercourse without orgasm. Not ideal but better than nothing.

You probably think it is crazy and inappropriate for a woman in her seventies to talk this way, and I completely agree with you. But I have one more thing to say, and it’s maybe the most useful observation I have to offer. Suffering can teach you how to say and do what’s necessary, and even then maybe all you’ll get out of it is more suffering. But doing and saying what’s necessary can sometimes—maybe just occasionally—take you to the other side of your anguish.

So Joe and I got our clothes off, made our way under the sheets, and miraculously accomplished the act of penetration. When I felt him holding his breath, I realized that was what I was doing, too. We were right at that point of understanding we might not have more than a minute or two of being properly and happily joined. It felt really precarious.

“I’m your whore, Joe,” I whispered. I swear to the god of divine belligerence and whimsy that my sex registered his sex gaining what I’ll call conviction. So our bodies were doing their best to take us where we needed to go. “What are you?” Joe asked in a kind of rasp-whisper that startled me with his mouth so close my ear. I told him what I was. And when he asked it again, I told him louder.

It came on us fast–like maybe seven minutes. I could feel Joe moving way too quickly for me, and just about the time I was about tell him to stop or at least slow down, he bucked and grunted and trembled, so that my body spoke back to his body with a couple of contractions that brought a little shout up out of my chest. It barely qualified as an orgasm, but I never had one that made me any happier.

I stayed on top of Joe until I could feel him wishing I’d get off. So I did. And we lay on our backs for a while. Then he turned on his side toward me and said, “You know what?”

I turned on my side toward him, put my hand on his chest, and said, “What?”

I watched him getting his words straight in his mind. Then he said them slowly. “I didn’t even know I was dead. And now look what you did to me.”

I didn’t really want to, but I knew I had to cry, and so I just let it go. And Joe Arnold, bless his heart, just scooted up close and hugged me and let me keep crying as long as I wanted to.

5.

Okay, half a century later, I’m the same fool I always was. Except that I don’t live in hell any more. What I did with Joe Arnold in the Wellington Hotel was nothing I ever wanted to do again. I might have thought of doing it if I’d ever gotten that deep down into sadness again. But I didn’t. I got back on track and I’ve more or less stayed there. I don’t think I lowered my self-esteem because of what happened in that room, but I did find it lots easier to see things in other people that made me respect them. I guess that’s what Joe Arnold taught me. If I had to say what it is that I know from what I hope has been a thoughtful life, it might be just that. Finding ways to respect other people makes me happier with myself. I’m a natural born fault-finder, so I have a lot of trouble doing it. But I’ve got this voice I sometimes hear when I need it, and I listen hard. What are you, Hazel? I’ll hear. And I know the answer. I’m your whore, Joe. I’m your little whore.

—David Huddle

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Originally from Ivanhoe, Virginia, David Huddle has lived in Vermont for 44 years. He teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and in the Rainier Writing Workshop. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, The New Yorker, The Sow’s Ear, Plume, and The Georgia Review. His most recent poetry collection is Dream Sender (2015); and his new novel is My Immaculate Assassin (2016).

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Jan 112017
 

stuart-barnes-480pxPhoto credit: Leigh Backhouse

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stuart-barnes-book-cover-380px

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Ross Creek Triolets

Red

High tide: the drunk drops a line where salt
water, fresh converge: subtropical trompe
l’oeil: honeyeaters squeak on asphalt,
stab redly at chalk grapes: the Coral Sea, salt
like speech, scallops trawlers, fault on fault:
sudden whoosh, O God! from mangrove swamp:
the meth head rehydrates the brat: sugar, water, salt:
the black hour pitches: four thousand bats tromp.

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Green

Are the bats suspended like concertists’
quavers, or have their wings been splayed by God, bored
with reassembling angels’: this loneliest of taxidermists
has no faith in showered concertists:
frames sway greenly in powerlines: photojournalists
(everyone’s one) flaunt their sleaze on Instagram: floored
by echolocation flawed, canvaslike concertists
waver: forty wings in which black holes are bored.

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Blue

A fortissimo carves the heavens’ bones:
drunk, meth head, brat star the litter of the gutter:
wool-tipped mallets tar a vibraphone’s
ribs: the full moon’s floating bones
disentangle bluely: old grindstone’s
whine: God tortures linoleum cutter:
four menangles of bats’ bones
stutter Pianissimo from the black gutter.

Violencento

On the day of the explosion
Everything is liable to explode. Many times

Just take the imagists. Their heads explode.
The manufacturer of explosives, and so on,

Buildings sculpted by explosion
Like a stab of paradise: explode: and then at last

Stars explode.

I breathe in, breathe in and don’t explode.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.

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Note: a cento from Philip Larkin’s ‘The Explosion’, Fady Joudah’s ‘Sleeping Trees’, Paula Tatarunis’ ‘SCHOOLS’, Louis Simpson’s ‘On the Lawn at the Villa’, Alicia Ostriker’s ‘The Window, at the Moment of Flame’, John Koethe’s ‘Domes’, Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change’, Pura Lopez-Colome’s ‘Echo’, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’

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Qing Song

Seven Chinese needles. I needn’t watch,
I do not watch. On this organ cushion, others cry.
Might I transfigure elements.

I sense enviousness, Goliathless statue
unafraid of my nakedness
now. Diagrams bow from the walls.

A footpath, a man with glasses and my mother,
two thawing snow skin mooncakes. I slow
at the junction, their autumn jackets ripple like paddies. ‘Hand

me a handful of earth, a red rose.’ Moth-breath
issues from my lips. I listen
serenely to ambulances, cattle trucks, ear

a mosquito’s blood bag. I cannot see her handsewn floral
skirts, her terry towelling nightgown,
the spotless venetian blinds, the bedroom’s square

of cubbyhole. I try
the Red Boat’s soloist’s notes;
my diaphragm balloons.

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Note: a terminal from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’; ‘With the sestina as a model, John Tranter has created the terminal — a new form similar to, but far more flexible than, the sestina in its emphasis on end-words. Taking only the line endings from previously published poems, the terminal can be any length.’ —Brian Henry

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Pains

I’ve looked into the Spanish eyes of El Dorado.
I looked — a dream — and saw the Soul of Spain.
xIn this dream-Spain,

Under Spanish clouds, a summer bliss. Oh:
In Spain, the bougainvillea entered
Spain wears whole groves of them

In another flat a Spanish lament tilts its stealthy ardour
Spain — an itch along the skin,
xxNow I’m his Spanish boy, who died in his city

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Note: a cento from David Rowbotham’s ‘Snow Decembers’, Peter Porter’s ‘Antonio Soler’s Fingertips’, Victor J. Daley’s ‘In a Wine Cellar’, Luke Davies’ ‘(Shudder)’, MTC Cronin’s ‘Garden Flowers (Las Flores del Jardin)’, Kate Llewellyn’s ‘Oranges’, Gig Ryan’s ‘The Cross/The Bay’, Jan Owen’s ‘Travelling Light’, Adam Aitken’s ‘The Connoisseurs’

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Central Queensland rondelets

Anemones
meltdown in Coral Sea’s fishtanks;
anemones
seized from sunbelt’s frangipanis:
fishy clowns’ magnificent pranks.
White, edible petals close ranks,
‘Anemones.’

Black fruit bats drop
mangoes on steel corrugations.
‘Black fruit bats.’ ‘Drop
it’: useless appeal. The backdrop
billows, tangles constellations.
A squeal of abbreviations —
black fruit bats drop.

Curlews’ night-shrieks
grieve the grey dead centre of town.
Curlews’ night: shrieks
of coal trains chill Mount Archer’s peaks;
two foals mill by a broken-down
harvester; the third upside-down
‘Curlews’. Night shrieks …

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Fifteen

and, fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands …
—Acts, 27:17

Father F wanted to talk to me.
O fuck, he saw me nicking candles.
In the musty vestry
he drew the green velvet curtain.

‘Schmuck, I’ve seen you nicking candles.’
One hand in wrinkled black pants; the other
drew the green velvet curtain.
To the sofa he moved, closer, closer,

quicksand in wrinkled black pants. A groper
expelled a steaming cup. He padded
to the sofa. He moved closer, closer.
I smelled brown spirits on his breath.

I held the steaming cup. He patted
my knee. ‘I have to tell your father.’
I smelled foul spirits on his breath.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, weeny meanie,

my knee—‘I have to tell your Father.
If that hand crawls any farther north’—
weeny meanie, my knee—no! weeny meanie
‘I’ll break its fucking fishy bones.’ I paused.

‘If that hand crawls any farther north’—
Father F sweltered like devils—
‘I’ll break its fucking fishy bones.’ I posed.
‘You make a hell of a cup of tea.’

Father F couldn’t swelter weevils.
Father F wanted to talk to me.
He made a hell of a cup of tea
in the musty vestry.

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—Stuart Barnes

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Stuart Barnes was born in Hobart, Tasmania, and educated at Monash University. He was runner-up for the 2014 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript. He won the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Prize, resulting in the publication of his debut collection, Glasshouses (University of Queensland Press, 2016). Since 2013 he has lived in Central Queensland and been Poetry Editor for Tincture Journal. He tweets @StuartABarnes.

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Jan 112017
 

 

ONCE, dureth the premiere quartern of mine simpering nonage (as a-goed I solo in weepsome wander, blown hithery-thitherward ’twixt fortune’s crosswinds), came I to a mansion in the deep of the forest. [Gen 28:17][1] Stately stood such capacious coverture o’er mine surpris’d espying: a visage of security and grandeur, plot proud aback that well-kempt plat. So palled in count’nance wast I, and wained in will (worn rough thorow seasons of hard hungerings, set a-ravin for scantest lee, viz. some calmly embowerment with an maw appeased), that I breach’d it unknock’d, and ensu’d to interview its contents, as ’twere I its menselord. [Ezra 9:7][2]

Immersed in the trespassion, nary a blot bedaub’d the speck o’ mine conscience, nor pang stirr’d atop mine stomack—so rawhewn a ware was I, tofore arriving hearthside out of that lifepart lost to the stygian, abysmal wilderness. Less man than ape, less ape than shag, e’ery territory whatso bode beforth I betook as mine own: a creature of cormorant contumancy. [Ecc 10: 3][3]

But O noumenal engines! Strange machinations of fate! Since when hath sin paved the way to salvation? How longst hath sinister paws moonlit works for their goodliest adversaries? Such topsy-turvydom unbeknownst me in those years of vassalage to a daimonion of deception wholesome, whoso hath me enthrall’d to an heathenism most desperat and prav’d. Embogged wast I formerly in the gomorrahic quad, risking perpetually to whelm under that murky mire, putrid pool in-filled with the undammed lust which sluiceth fountainous from mine torrid heart… [Psa 69:14][4]

But ne’er hath I reck’n’st heretofore, that sorrysome obliquity could volant vault one unto the imparadised headspace of true religion, whereof spiritual satiety is ’stablished via an o’erabundance of hea’enly commodity. [Luk 19:20][5] Hardly a hint I’d – this coxcombical paynim, a veritable Nabal [1 Sam 25:25][6] – that sottish dalliance would embeckon me to seat at Beulah’s table! [Isa 62:4][7]

O, and to espy in mine mind’s eye that cornucopia afresh! Blessed be the site of mine enraged ingurgitation! Mine gut distendeth at the mere memberance, for behoveth I thenst myriad abounds, baskets, closets, drawers—e’erything robusting with fitliest firstfruit! Forthwith flagons of ambrosial stock plashed mellifluous into mine bejewelled goblet, whilst an exquisite caravan of victuals made pilgrimage to mine bowels. Yum pottage bub’d slabby on the stove, dulcetous censors vaporating pendent, erewhile viands enumerate in excelsis. [Mat 22:2][8] Forsook wath I – in that poverish’d state, as an infidel to the faith – to be seduced by such an alimental horde of engorgements! [Jam 1:14][9]

Forsooth! So starv’d was I, swound on the spot by insuperable gratuity, that recalleth I coting a couple of queries, sayed more out of astoniment than reprobate: ‘Hast the gnat e’er comest to council He who Is? Or the prawn mounteth Sinai? Did Gabriel erst learnst the wyrm to read His message?’ Whilst pondering liken paradoxes of Providence, I hied to repast of the soldanic surfeit, and thereby liss the massy weights which fate hath me cast. [Psa 55:22][10] Scarcely I’d satt’st mine thirst and attain’d second heaven of gustatory gratifaction, whence, in a glance askance, spott’d I e’en more alluring, yet greater gainsomely properties…

What comely caparisons! What fulgent finery! Weren’t mine clots so cloven, ow’d to the hevy habergeon I’d accoutried to fend mine bosom from battailous onfalls (which oft-times, amidst the arbours endur’d unto the hour of mine deliverance, wast bidden to valourise its reputed proof by experimental mettle), thenst peradventure I’d not incline to wot covetously of my host’s affects, for affright of a right scourging. [Jos 7:25][11]

But dreadfulest lust of novelty! Carrion history! So sin-slain and loth of self wast I, mine crave, wound of want and ressentiment, couldnst stave off the prospect of poaching some raiments, and dissembling mine mien to impose my host. [Eph 4:28][12]

Cometh eventide, donning clouts chose from mine patron’s wardrobe, draped with Urim and Thummim, [Lev 8:8][13] in so repose I contemplated mine own gratulated appetence. [Prv 22:3][14] But lo! a shadowy flicker in the vestibule—cursed luck! Divine folly! Wast it the vice-gerent of Philistia, shrewd Beëlzebub, whom cometh to collecth mine soul? To enter yet another specie of sinner into his sepulchral vault? [Job 1:7][15]

No, be it by the prevenient grace of God—though verily in that inmost moment of fear didst mine humours vacate unto mine undercarriage, commixing black and yellow biles into a draff most foul! [Rom 16:20][16]

Of an all-to-befooled torpor, of the type which accompanieth gross induement amidst softly environs, I gat braked. I hast’d mineself procinct to spot in a pinch howst mine beholder heldst me begirt, interpos’d ’twixt mineself and the onely outgang. [Joe 2:1][17]

Specting henceforth to catch hurt or halter, I hid hind my hooks to targe the charge I ticipat’d to wrack mine personage. ‘By den or Topheth, I’m annihilate!’ mine mind fix’d thusly. Yet, dumbfound me, for naught a chiding nor elstwise doleful obloquies fell ’pon mine brow that nocent moment. O sovran savior! Halleluiahs heightliest for thine vicar fair and true! [2 Cor 11:14][18]

“What means this?” spake a voice from yonder corridoorway, athwart the hall. [Hos 14:7][19] A-sensing clemency in the tenor of this interlocutor, mine sensibilities demi-restored, timorous tarried I forth an apology:

IME. “Prithee, do not cheweth me out! Hasten not to umbrage! I shamble humblewise at thy hoofs, plaguest with grief for mine unwelcome carriages. Hearken thy eres to mine weepsome storie: I am me, who ye do not acquaint, but who nauther doth desir’st to hector thine person nor cozenage tempt! I deem mineself thine manservant, mine liege, if ye deign to make no stick with me, tho ye findest thyself in thy just jurisdiction to seek recompense. Or elst shalst I pledge anon to loitereth no furthur in thy midst, and intermeddleth ne’er ’gan in thy busyness? O, how to essay the heart-humiliation I beseech thee to besee emblazons like a burning bush on mine bosom!?” [Tit 3:3][20]

At this I couched submiss in grovelage, and so saith she (I espying her matronic features as a-stepped she into the luminate chamber), “Sirrah! Sociate a tad, if ye beest not too hot for Heaven to go a-repenting presently for yer e’erlasten soul! [Acts 3:19][21] Tell me, what are ye made up of? What wears ye? Yer a-fooling if ye would have me believe thou arenst familial, haltered in familiar garbs… Pillag’d I gather from the rectory vestry?”

IME. ’Pon being discover’d, I’d disremember’d mine attire! Damnation! “Fair arbitress, let me swage thy doubty inklings: in truth I be a cock of the right kind, and not the scrub beseen afore thee. These last days, and for at least a fortnight preceding, stretching immemorial into the yore of mine anguished rind, hath seen me subducted nethermost, notwithstanding mine struggles to upstay soul and bodie. But with God as our ternary, bear me witness here and hence: I avoweth to aright mine appropriations, and make reparations for thy depletions forthwith.” [1 John 1:9][22]

ALP. A-stepping forwarder, quoth the authorial lady-person (I a-hearkening her pitch, which beseemst accustom’d to hote), “Afterthink not thy meagre samplings of the grounds’ produce, and keep thine picked equipts, meetest shouldst themst thou deemst. [Luk 6:29][23]Thou art forgiven. [Mat 6:14-15][24] Thine wrongdoing is absolv’d, and ye may egress peaceably, or loaf awhile if thou mayest.”

IME. “Puissant arbitress! Stupendous nurse! Which is the heavenly host I shouldst direct mine prayers of gratitude?”

ALP. She chortleth at this praise, and so revealed her holy agname. “I be Avia Lux Promethia, headmistress and abbess of this seminary. This glebe wast lent by His Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a testament to the devotion of His Royal Majesty to the One True Religion,” – whence, as an aside: “(tho’ maugre His fixtur’d entitlement, His presence be vap’d here, a mere nominalist spectre).” Promethia continu’d: “Thus we are left to travail as we willst, (in despite of His ghostage,) tho most ignominably with the devices and means of His charitable subsidy. Our dignity thus resides in our collectivity, the way we work in a common way, [Col 3:23][25] dig the land together, and level the burthens and bounties alike. [1 Tim 5:8][26] Whilst I extendeth ye petition to won with us for a furlough, ye must opt to cooperate and learneth the modes and methods of our diurnal practices. That is, so long as ye dwelleth under a shared domicile, and resume to surp the lush of our seasonal vintaging.” [2 Thes 3:10][27]

IME. “O venerated catechist! Evangelic succourstress! Ministereth truely to this dumpish doat, how to intervolve mineself with thine magnificence, and, by and by, to genuinely earn thine glorious fealty. No ginning schemeth, nor pragmatic plot do I stow to misfit your plantation or go a-roguing. Whate’er be the mission, set me on’t, and I shall press thee dearly.” [John 14:14][28]

ALP. “Then bestir yetn’t, lest rooted in doped derpitude thou wisheth to remain. The hadj at hand may demand domesticity and focus honed inly, pace peregrination to distant lands. First, riddle me this: canst thou read and write?” [Hab 2:2][29]

IME. “A tittle.”

ALP. “Then thou must ’prove ’pon these principle parts of thy dividuality! For this be the mandatory faculty at our seminary, where we be devoted not solely to doing goodly deeds. We seek as well the comprehension that goeth withal, which codeterminates these acts from abaft the scenes. [2 Pet 1:5][30] Thusly one canst justly rejoind the braggadocio and misgone musings of the e’ernewing whelps, [2 Tim 2:24][31] who be born appetent of mindfulling foodstuffs, as each babe doth ingress empty-bowel’d to the great chain of appetition. How elst shallst one cognate the quiddity of some thing, ’cept thru timing hours aside to attentive focus, not onely of its boding, but of its root wyrds, their limitary and subtle connexions? [John 1:1][32] Since any craft consists of divers tasks, solely thru years spent on intelligental labours can one master wholly the ethereal essence of a quid, and attain o’erstanding enow to ply practicion wiseliest. Thine firstmost duty, then, is to read—see thou yon librarie thither. Inure thineself with manuscripts and incunabula, aware that they be sembled specific for neophytes such as thineself, who wish to turn a new leaf on life. Aft ye shall finish this scholastic sacrament, one graduates to the division of especial research that relateth to the guildcrafts and their coordinates, whence one can start to tribute at a capacity yond that of a mere philosopher.” [Mat 10:8][33]

IME. “But thems a lot of books, methinks! They lo lumbersome, and lack appellant coverage. Besides, for endeavours literary I’ve not the disposition, nor natural knack. Is it really so wrong that the orphan’d striplings go without literacy, and the finescripts and aggravat’d headaches that attend therewithal? Many great men hundreds of years ago were illiterate. Natural tutelage is better, by the by, and one should not deviate from the norm’s prescription: to do is to know—and nothing besides!” [Ecc 4:5][34]

ALP. “Avaunt ye!” Promethia utter’dst, her charitable beam befouled into a lour, “and glozeth not: ‘Do I have to? Can I do it?’ Ye must, so thou shalt! Don’tst commit thyself premature to the lazier house. Know the cupidic whispers a-courting surrender be aimed by the fiend Apollyon, who aims to steer thine journey back out into the horrent hedge, and headfirst into pandemonium. [1 Pet 5:8][35] But yield not to the flattery of the fiend—thou shalt persist [Col 1:11][36] – ’tis e’en a third of the trifold commandment of Alma Mater Zelda!” Here she interrupteth herself to perform orisons that in due course I wouldst adopt as mine own, and proceedeth to wit: “She who founded this commune, didst so on the grounds of this precise precept, along with two other axioms of piety: ‘Thou shalt ken’ and ‘Thou shalt limn.’ The force of this trinity, which Zelda gaveth to guideth our actions in this misfortunate world, is absolute. [Rom 6:23][37] Beknownst not to dispute with the One True Religion! [Deut 6:16][38] Nay, elst I be left no choice but to holler forth, and deployeth the nuns’ militia to interdict ye under manacles.”

IME. “Aye, so shalt I abate mine protestations,” sigh’d I, a benighted novitiate, yet in the dark to the glorious gift that that cordial moniale, oracle of the sacred heart, hath arranged for me. [Prv 1:7][39] “Go thence, and sign to me thine most rever’d inditements. Just tread lightsome on’t, and spare me thine sharpest snibs, tho’ tardy progress might I onely plow ’pon this bibliodyssey which thou hath layed upon me.”

ALP. Promethia reaffirmed: “Ensue at thy wont, and spect not to suffer mine cavilry. I depart thee so ye can initiate thy duty in sanctitude. Just pledge to keep patience at the forefront of thy conversation. [1 Thes 5:14][40] Take this as the paramount of mine sapience, since alack this virtue, one shant ’spect to surmount those stacks o’ shelves, or o’errun those rows o’ logs, which standst in the way of thy salvage. So fuse the aforemention’d virtue into thine heart, and thou shalt see e’en the mortalest sin of acedia moralis [2 Cor 7:10][41] – the origin of dejection, inborn stain of slothfulness – shalt speed apace in its palling and purification from the human soul, and erelong shalt the curricula be history.” [Gal 6:9][42]

ALP. “So baptise thy innermost being in patience,” proceedeth Promethia as she bid me to the athenæum adjacent, “for thou art hereborn reafter as a disciple of the One True Religion. No longer a no one, thy newly nomination ist Gnosis Patience Reading. Heed thine archmother Zelda’s triune appeal, Gnosis, and recalleth for thine inspiration the patience shewn at thy chancy apparition in the parlor, whence stricter lawgivers would’ve demound worsen penance for thy misdemeanours. In kind, as a welcome guest lets bygones be of his proprietor’s o’ersights, untoward banters, tasteless tangents, loopy lapses, and descents into arcane argot and lore of inconsequence—belikewise, as a chile in the house of God, thou shalt be lithe whilst visiting the Hall of Metaphysicks (or the Temple of Theology, or the Ashram of Ontology, for that matter), and tolerate the company, voices, and thoughts expressed therein, at least awhile, afore ye pronounce them decrepit or defunct or dead or gone or over, or some other hasteful judgement. [Prv 18:2][43] Endeavour to sedulity, rather than repeateth oncemore that unsightly ritual by which legions of indolent lads and wenches fallst farst into an exile self-imposed, namely by fancying themselves born-again know-it-alls. They cloak their confusion in a blanket of condemnation, and relinquish to childish choler the prerogative to adjudge the qualities of a multitude of works, when really ’tis but their crippled sense of forbearance that refuseth to admit any wares for e’en the most liminary of inventories. [Prv 1:22][44] Forsaken of patience, they sabotage their avowed quest to illuminate, ending up lost in the woods—retracing their missteps, victims of their own interminable circuitry.”

ALP. Promethia hadst me secured to attain spiritual success, ready to be sealed in the scholarly sanctum for mine virginal session, whence, ast she departed, parled she once last: “In place of letting the quick of thy wit become a capricious censor, plod with patience at thy hardest core. [Heb 10:36][45] Elst the hillsides of lofty learning makest for toughgone treading, so long as yeest struggle shy of the surmountainous vantage by which ye can commence to fathom one’s uncommensurability with the sprawl supernal. There, once ye have peak’d the mound, patience manifests naturally, and doth not dissipate with the downclomb. [2 Pet 3:15][46] It holds on the horizon, even aft the descent, so long as ye can review the same perspective which scop’d it atop that lightening crest, and recogniz’d forthwith that paragon of perseverance whom sits astraddle an empyreal throne, spanning cosmos, awaiting calmly for being’s cease… So ’til thou hast crost that luminescent plateau, and met Patience in the flesh, recite to thineself what it is made of, learn it by heart, and put it into practice in one’s pilgrimage on the path to the One True Religion, and the future shall be yers, for ever and everest. Amen.” [Luk 21:19][47]

—Noah Gataveckas

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noah-and-malcolm-raymond

Noah Gataveckas lives in Toronto with his partner Amanda and their newborn son Malcolm Raymond. He teaches Math and Computer Science at the high school level, as well as provides editing and consultative work to educational groups in Canada. He has previously published works for Numero Cinq, the Danforth Review, Platypus Review, and North Star. Aside from teaching and creative writing, his interests include critical theory and social activism. He also continues to work on finishing his first book – Symposium: A Philosophical Mash-up – and finding a publisher for it. ‘The Philosopher’s Progress’ is taken from chapter 13 of this unpublished manuscript.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. And he was afraid and said, ‘”How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
  2. From the days of our ancestors until now, we have been steeped in sin. That is why we and our kings and our priests have been at the mercy of the pagan kings of the land. We have been killed, captured, robbed, and disgraced, just as we are today.
  3. When he that is a fool walks by the way, his wisdom fails him, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.
  4. Deliver me from the mire and do not let me sink; May I be delivered from my foes and from the deep waters.
  5. A third servant came and said, “Master, here is your original funding, which I laid away in a piece of cloth…
  6. Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name—his name means Fool, and folly goes with him…
  7. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Beulah; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.
  8. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.
  9. But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.
  10. Cast your burdens on the Lord and He will sustain you…
  11. Then Joshua said to Achan, “Why have you brought trouble on us by stealing? The Lord will now bring trouble on you.” And they stoned Achan and his family and burned their bodies.
  12. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he might have something to share with anyone in need.
  13. He placed the breastplate on him and put the Urim and Thummim in the breastpiece.
  14. A prudent person forsees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.
  15. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
  16. Soon the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet. May the grace of our Lord be with you.
  17. Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of our Lord is coming; for it is nigh at hand…
  18. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light…
  19. People will dwell in my shadows; they will flourish like the grain, they will blossom like the vine…
  20. For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved by various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another…
  21. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.
  22. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
  23. …And if someone takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic as well.
  24. If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours.
  25. Whatever you do, do it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…
  26. If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially his own household, he has denied the true faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
  27. For even while we are with you, we give you this rule: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.”
  28. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!
  29. The Lord said to me: “Write my answers plainly on tablets, so he who reads it may run with it…
  30. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and your virtue with knowledge…
  31. The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, and be patient with difficult people.
  32. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
  33. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!
  34. The fool crosses his arms and starves himself.
  35. Stay alert! Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
  36. You are being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might, so that you might patiently endure everything with joy.
  37. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through our saviour…
  38. You shall not but the Lord to the test, as you did already…
  39. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
  40. We urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are lazy and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
  41. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
  42. Let us not loose heart in doing good; for in due time, if we do not faint, we shall reap.
  43. Doing wrong leads to disgrace, and scandalous behaviour brings contempt.
  44. How long, foolish ones, will you love ignorance? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?
  45. For ye have need of patience, so that, having done the will of God, ye may receive the promise.
  46. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation…
  47. By your patience you will win life.
Jan 102017
 

mary-di-michele

x
x

Black Dog

I had yet to use the selfie stick I got for Christmas
so I took this photo when I could not find the words
for even my empty coffee cup Chez Fred. The tattooed

barista, all piercings, and black torn stockings, fills it up;
always americano lungo, s’il vous plait. What makes
a Parisian lawyer open a bakery in Montréal?

The run off in gutters is icing over again and
that’s what they call le printemps in this city, n’est-ce pas?
After 25 years of planning, the Egyptian themed

theatre up the street has yet to reopen. Anubis
presides over its grave, not its rebirth. Anubis is
a god with the head of a black dog. Beware of the god.

I sort through stacks of newspapers left behind, the read and
the unread. I like that it’s quiet; and the aromas
of espresso and madeleine, the loudest things. I open

the door to a medley of crows calling, no, it’s seagulls,
and a dog, tied outside BBP orthopedics, barking.
Nobody likes to be left alone. It’s Saint Patrick’s day, or

it was not too long ago, shamrock stickers still plaster
the windows of Liquid Lounge. There’s a family picture
taken in Belgium, my brother swaddled in a carriage;

when my mother started to lose her memory she kept
this photo in her pocket; it’s folded into quarters
and badly creased. Some might say it was ruined. Red mail truck, red

mailbox, it’s a cheerful colour on a dull day in No
Damned Good. How did I get here? I grow old, I grow old, I
will wear the bottoms of my blue jeans rolled. Clouds are pinking

in a cerulean sky; I wax poetic. I am not
home yet where another era’s technologies: the Sony
cassette player, the Olivetti typewriter and my

65 year old brain ne marchent pas bien. What of the bowl
on the desk, filled with pine cones? No trees will grow from them.
I’ve set up a little shrine around the folded family

photo I flattened out and then framed. After death there is
an aura, a palpable halo around the faces
in photos of the departed; their silence says this once was.

x
x

Like Kafka’s Ape
xxxx(after Giorgio Caproni)

…your life as apes, gentlemen, in so far as something of that kind lies behind you, cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me.

No, it’s not mine
this country I was shipped to,
not born in. Now
even among the crowds
I’m at a loss and lonesome,
I’m an outlier, an anomaly like
a stained-glass angel in the church
of There’s No God. Like
a human on exhibit in the zoo.

In my heart there’s another country
I long for. It’s somewhere al di là
in the idea of a memory, a hometown,
a city, gloomy by day, but by night
all aglimmer with lights, trembling like
yahrzeit candles lit for the living.
When the moon rises, resplendent
over the cemetery, the young go
there to boogie among the tombs. O city,

O country, where none, not death, not
the devil can ever take me back.

x
x

De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette

I can no longer get past that scene
where Maria pawns her matrimonial linen,
a poor woman’s dowry, and so precious
to her, while in the background there are
piles of such bedsheets at the shop.
They have no money and her husband
Antonio needs a bicycle to get a job
putting up posters around the city.
It pays good money every week, they can
even buy an egg for their first born
daughter– no, that’s not in the movie,
that was my family in post war Italy. I remember

the first egg. My mother punctured the top
with a needle and I drank it down raw.

x
x

Robert Lowell Reads at Scarborough College, circa 1970

An audience of one came to hear the renown
poet read, if you do not count the coterie of three
accompanying him, so they left the lecture room
for an open lounge in the hall. The building
– a titanic monolith – was itself of interest
and worth the move to view walls rising in slabs
of concrete. Even the windows were bulwarks
of glass through which light leaked, snow filtered light
falling from the firmament and about to flatten

the world. They sat, the three, along with one student
come to see a real poet, a living one, with a sense
that she was about to partake of a sacrament,
a mystery. To prepare herself she had read him,
standing in the library stacks. The poet
was about to manifest. The word, so fragile, so

friable, made flesh. He stood – nor did he seem aggrieved
to speak to so few – his book holding him up.
A bit of preamble on the Cuban missile
crisis and what it means, what it meant, to live
in the shadow of nuclear annihilation,
a sky about to fall on us all, and end
life as we know it. He was right to be depressed,
it was far more than brain chemistry at work.
His poetry was not political, but he had been
a fire-breathing Catholic C.O. – or so he confessed

in Memories of West Street and Lepke. Head angled
in Modilgiani melancholy or as if a violin
were propped between shoulder and chin,
Lowell read as if he were listening
to someone else, some invisible other reading.

More than forty years later now does she still
imagine him, eyes fixed on the printed lines of his page,
and literally seeing the blue threads as thin as pen-writing
on his father’s bedspread? Did he scry there his last
moments: New York City, in a taxi, on the way back
to Elizabeth, the critic spouse? There were three wives,
one always lovelier than the last, three times
the whoop, the wail, the woe that is in marriage. Until

he looked back and saw what he could not see then,
what cannot be seen head on with looking.

x
x

A Poem About Absolutely Nothing

“I have done absolutely nothing
for six weeks,” in a letter to Woolf,
Eliot admonishes himself, “I have been
boiled in a hell broth.” He was referring
to his mother’s visit. All day I too
have done nothing.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxWho begins a letter
that way? or, for that matter a poem?
The aspen admonishes, the spruce censures
me. I have been advised, sagely, as a woman
to wear pink, it will disarm my enemies.

—Mary di Michele

x
Mary di Michele is a poet, novelist, and member of the collaborative writing group, Yoko’s Dogs. Her books include the selected poems Stranger in You (Oxford University Press 1995) and the novel Tenor of Love (Viking Canada, Simon & Schuster USA 2005). A tenth collection of poetry, Bicycle Thieves, is forthcoming from ECW Press in April 2017. Her awards include first prize for poetry in the CBC literary competition, the Air Canada Writing Award, and the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize. She lives in Montreal where she teaches at Concordia University.

x
x

Jan 102017
 

cover

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The other day I began by writing Dear Alba at the top, but it was impossible. As a matter of fact, I can’t write you if I use stationery, which is why I’ve been using notepaper. All I want to say is they are re-doing Nadeau’s Grocery. They’ve pushed out the back wall so it’s bigger inside and they’re putting in a new tile floor and bright lights everywhere. It looks a lot brighter. I know this is trivial and stupid, but I kept thinking Oh, I should tell Alba about this. Now I’m back from Nadeau’s so I’m writing you this note. Don’t worry, I know this is crazy.

§

Scott phoned and asked did I want to have lunch someday this week. We ate at the Kitchen Table Restaurant, and when the waitress took our orders she told me, rather crisply, “Maybe you can finish your sandwich this time. You need to eat more.” She was the thin one, middle-aged, named Lilian. I ordered only a half-sandwich, anyway. After she left, Scott asked me, “You come here often?”

“Not really,” I said.

“She’s right, you should eat more.”

“I’m never hungry.”

Scott hesitated, seemed about to speak, but didn’t say anything. I told him, “You can’t make up your mind whether to be sympathetic or critical.”

“I think I’ll change the subject,” he said. “What do you want to talk about — sports, politics, philosophy, war, peace, the economy? How about the economy? What happened to money?”

“I haven’t been keeping up with anything.”

Scott sat back in his chair and studied me a moment. “How have you been?” he asked.

“I’m OK, I’m getting by. What about yourself  ?”

“Me?” He looked surprised. “I’m all right. My ankles were getting swollen, but my doctor reduced my blood-pressure medication and I’m fine now.”

We talked about our blood-pressure medication until our waitress arrived with Scott’s bratwurst and potato pancakes, and my half-sandwich which they’d purposely overstuffed. I remembered he had attended a conference in Boston a week ago, so I asked him about that. He made a brisk, dismissive gesture, as if brushing something away. “Papers and discussion groups on artificial intelligence, computers and thinking machines,” he said. “Philosophers and mathematicians, mostly.”

His career began in philosophy and took a turn into symbolic logic, and from there it branched into mathematics, thence computers and artificial intelligence. Now Scott, being Scott, quickly become bored by the conference discussion groups, so he went out to visit the neighborhood where he had grown up. That was Mattapan, which I should tell you is as far down the map as you can go and still be in Boston.

“I hadn’t been down Blue Hill Avenue for fifty years,” he told me. “And I knew I shouldn’t go, but I was curious so I went. After the exodus, you know, the blacks moved in. African Americans, I mean. And Caribbeans.” He paused and thought a moment. “It was a wonderful place to grow up in, years ago. And the street was lined with interesting stores and little shops. Sort of urban, but haimish. The past is memories,” he decided.

It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him otherwise, but I said, “What did you do at the conference. You gave a talk, right? So how did it go?”

“Went well, I’m told.” He shrugged. “Big discussion on free will. My point was that we don’t have free will and if we ever get around to building a machine that thinks, it won’t have free will, either.”

“Are grown-up philosophers still arguing about free will? We did that in high school. No wonder you got bored. — By the way, I have free will unless someone puts a gun to my head.”

“We disagree about that. — But the important thing is that I visited the scenes of my childhood. My past is intact. I have memories.”

“Well-meaning people tell me I have memories of Alba. They think that’s a comfort to me. They don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”

“You have —” he began.

I cut him off. “If I didn’t have children, I wouldn’t believe I’d ever met her.”

He looked at me. “I won’t argue with your feelings,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“But you were married to a brilliant woman for —”

“The past doesn’t exist, Scott.”

“Time goes by fast, much too fast. I understand that. But it was at least fifty years and you know those were good years.”

“The past doesn’t exist. Haven’t you noticed? It’s gone. That’s why we call it the past. It’s not real anymore.”

“What you had with Alba —”

“It has no more reality than a wish,” I told him. “It’s a romantic fiction.”

He started to speak but changed his mind, shutting his mouth so abruptly I heard his teeth snap together. Looking back, I see that Scott was remarkably patient with me, for he believed wholly in reason and I was clearly mindless. His father had been a linotype operator for a Boston newspaper, his mother a Trotskyite and later a worker for the Democratic Party, and Scott had grown up a secular humanist — “a tribe without a God,” he liked to say. Scott was a good guy.

§

It was strange to live alone, to embrace no one and to have no one put her arms around me, and sometimes it felt like my nerves were on the outside, aching to be soothed, or inside like it was thirst. But it wasn’t thirst or pain, it was loneliness. Lucy Dolan who had done babysitting for us was now in her mid-fifties but still slender and straight, and at Vanderzee’s exhibit she had given me a tight warm hug that lingered, the way vibrations linger after you strike the nerve strings.

§

I liked Shannon. I’d buy a cup of coffee, then stand under the leaky awning to watch the cars going by in the rain and talk with her between customers. She showed me she had moved her wedding ring to her right hand. “Because if I keep it where it was, people will think I’m married to Fitz and I don’t want anybody to think that. I wanted to keep wearing it on my left hand at least, but it only fits my ring finger, so I had to move it to my other hand.”

I told her I never had a wedding ring, but hers was beautiful, I said.

“Yeah, I know,” Shannon said. “I told him not to waste the money but he insisted. The emeralds make it different.”

“My wife’s ring is in a little velvet bag on her bureau. I never knew her fingers were so slender. It’s a small plain gold ring. That’s all. With our initials inside.”

“I have a friend whose husband died last year and she wears his ring on a necklace chain,” Shannon said.

“That’s something.”

“It hangs down, you know, so it’s over her heart.”

When I got home I looked through Alba’s jewelry and found a silver chain and put her ring on the chain and wore it. It hangs down to my breastbone. It’s comforting and whenever I want I can touch it.

§

Before sunset I always go for a walk the way we used to at that gentle hour. It’s a roundabout walk and halfway along it crosses through a field with a creek and a margin of tall grass where redwing blackbirds nest and wild flowers grow, and eventually the path goes beside Franklin’s Four Seasons, the flower nursery. Alba always took an interest in what was blossoming in the greenhouses. Then the path rises up a little slope to where we would have to lift the branches of a birch and duck under to go out the street and so to the road where we lived. Now I would remember how sometimes her hair would catch on those branches and I tried to recall just how her dress would swing as she stepped ahead. If she was here with me on these walks, all those times — and she was, she was — then I don’t understand how she cannot be. You cannot be at one moment and then not be at the next.

§

Q. What is man?

A. Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.

Q. Is this likeness in the body or in the soul?

A. This likeness is chiefly in the soul.

Q. How is the soul like to God?

A. The soul is like to God because it is a spirit that will never die, and has understanding and free will.

.

I understood all that. I knew what my body was and what my mind was and my personality and my character, but I didn’t know what my soul was and I began to wonder about that. One day I was watching my father work on a grave marker, a rare artistic job that only he and none of the two or three workers he hired could do, because it had a butterfly carved at the top and a border of pomegranates to the left and right of the inscription, old symbols of resurrection. After a while, I asked him what the soul was. He removed his safety glasses and rubbed the two pink indents that the glasses had pinched on the bridge of his nose. He smiled a bit. “I think that’s a question for your mother.” I told him I had already asked her. He hesitated, then said, “Well, there’s your uncle Zitti. He talks about his soul as easily as other men talk about their digestion.” He put on his safety glasses and took up the chisel again, then turned to me. “Or you could ask your uncle Nicolo,” he added. “He has opinions about the soul, too.”

Uncle Nicolo had a big book with illustrations by Gustave Doré which Nick and I used to take from the bookcase and open on the floor to look at — dark and frightening scenes, like those naked men trapped in the ice of a frozen lake, one man gnawing on the bald head of another, or that naked woman who was twisted around, pulling out her own hair. Those were the damned being tortured forever in Hell, which was the first part of Dante’s long poem. The second part was Purgatory where people got horribly punished, but after doing penance for their sins they were admitted into Paradise, which was the third part of the poem. The pictures of Hell were the ones we looked at most, because they were so gruesome and because everyone was naked there, unlike in Paradise where the souls wore clothes. The souls were really souls and not bodies, but Gustave Doré drew the bodies to show how the souls in Hell felt horrible pain forever, which Nick and I thought was terribly unfair of God, because forever was way too long a time even if they had sinned when they had been alive, but it did give you an idea of how cruel God could be when he wanted.

A few years later, Nick said he didn’t believe in souls. We were walking with Veronica, coming back from the field where Sandro used to fly his hawk and where Dante and Mercurio used to shoot, but now uncle Nicolo had a Victory Garden there because of the war. We were crossing the old burying ground when Nick announced, “Frankly, I don’t believe in souls.” Maybe that was because his father was an aeronautical engineer at MIT and didn’t believe much in religion. But Veronica said she was sure we had souls. “We have understanding and free will, which is what the soul has, and the part of us that has understanding and free will, that’s the soul part.” She smiled, waiting for us to see how clear and obvious it was, but I still wasn’t sure if I believed in souls or not.

Nick said, “Oh, no. Because if you believe in a soul you have to believe in heaven and hell, and maybe heaven is all right, but what about hell? Do you really truly believe in hell?”

Veronica didn’t answer and we walked along and climbed over the low stone wall into the backyard. “So what if there’s a hell,” she said lightly. “Nobody actually goes there anymore.”

§

Some days when Shannon wasn’t at the Barista stand I’d swing around to the Daily Grind to see Gordon and we’d talk about the strangeness of life or what was wrong with politicians or the Red Sox, but today he talked mostly about whether he should look for a shop with more floor space. He missed the old place in Boston, which was larger, but he liked Lexington “because this town is full of intellectuals who drink coffee all day.” Here he was on the main street, but if he moved to a bigger place it would be farther from the center of town. On the other hand, if he had more floor space he could serve more people and sell more Rancilio espresso machines — but there was a lot to be said for staying in the same place, because the Daily Grind, having been here ten years, “now these fussy people know where to come to buy Hawaiian Kona or Monsoon Malabar.” So Gordon went from this side to that side, debating with himself while we worked on the ancient coffee roaster, until eventually it was fixed and I held the fancy front end while he bolted it back into place. We must have talked an hour, and all that time I was able to forget who I was.

§

It betrays Alba to say she has died or she is dead and I say it only because that’s what people can understand. I believe Alba will never die, that she has understanding and free will, and that she knows me. I would like to die and be united with her forever, the way we were. I don’t know what I believe.

§

I drove to La Pâtisserie and bought two plain croissants, just so I could have twelve minutes of bright chat at the pastry case with Katelin (twenty-five, welcoming smile, warm white arms, and a flower in her hair), but she could not rescue me so I drove away, ashamed of myself, to Café Mondello to buy a latte so I could chat up Felicia (twenty-one, blue jeans and a tight white top with a blue dab of shadow under each nipple), after which I drove home, horribly alone and feeling like shit. I do things like that every day.

§

One time I was having lunch with Scott and he asked what I was doing these days, and I said, “Not much, really.”

“Have you been painting?”

“No. No painting.”

He nodded, as if in agreement with me. “It’s too early. You need more time. A little more time.”

“What’s the point?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean, what’s the purpose of all this — all this living, this going on? I really don’t understand. I’m serious. What’s the point?”

“That’s a rather large question. Whole philosophies have been built —”

I cut him off. “It’s not a philosophical question for me. It’s in my guts. I don’t understand what the fuck I’m doing here. Why am I doing whatever I do? I ask myself that every shitty day. What’s the goddamn point? 

Scott shifted uneasily in his chair, then he looks at me a moment and says, “Did you enjoy your sandwich? Your half-sandwich, I mean.”

“I guess so, yes.”

“Were you enjoying our conversation?”

“Yes, sure.”

“That’s the point.”

That’s the point?”

“Yes.”

§

I drifted from room to room (nothing out of place, the books in a row, the pillows smooth, the empty chairs at a conversational angle) and I realized I’m the ghost haunting this house — I’m dead and Alba is alive and this world is an illusion I have because I’m dead.

§

Danae and Chiara will be away at college soon, so before they go they came here to be with their grandfather for the day — you’re right, Alba, we’re fortunate to have such grandchildren. We were driving on Great Meadow Road after a shower when we saw a big rainbow and of course they wanted to take pictures of it, so I pulled into the parking lot at the playing fields and they took phone photos. The rainbow was large and seemed to hang in the air above the faraway soccer fields and I kept wishing I had my camera so I could send you a photo of it. That’s what I mean by crazy.

§

It’s a privilege to love someone and I loved Alba. “I’m so happy you found me,” she used to say. I was handsome, her man from the sea, and the one she loved best in the whole world. She’s gone, so I’m not handsome anymore. I’m an old man driving home with a pizza and I’m sobbing because some cheerful asshole is singing on the radio about his love who is gone beyond the sea and the moon and stars, but she’s waiting and watching for him, and someday he’ll find her there on the shore and they’ll be together and he’ll embrace her, just as he did before. When the song was over I stopped sniveling, blew my nose, drove back onto the road and got home in one piece.

§

Can you follow this goddamn story? I know it’s a jumbled mess but it’s what I can recall, and also some notes I wrote to Alba, plus unconnected pieces. Parts are missing and some of them may be important, but they’re missing because I don’t remember, or because I do remember and don’t want to. I want to write about that first year, though I don’t know why I want to do even that much. I’m blundering ahead, like our moronic blundering Creator.

—Eugene Mirabelli

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Eugene Mirabelli is the author of  eight previous novels, as well as numerous articles, reviews, short stories and interviews. He has received a Rockefeller Foundation Award, was co-founder and co-director of the Alternative Literary Programs in the Schools, and is a professor emeritus of the State University of New York at Albany. He grew up near Boston and that city, and indeed all New England, remains his favorite locale.

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Jan 092017
 

alison-prine

x

Story Hour at the Monkey House Bar

The rule is that the story
must belong to the teller
last five minutes
and be spoken without notes.

So it’s a surprise when
in the stranger’s tale
your mother appears
disguised as a ringing phone
and your chest
a field of grain.

The teller emerges gradually,
as if whittled from a block of wood.
Then applause
burnishes and clarifies.

Did you see the moment
when the speaker’s face
became boundless
and complete in the same breath?

Each story lives as a cairn in the forest,
an arrangement that says
I was here, but am no longer.

x
x
Lost Season

winter didn’t come
the lake remained open and moving
the robins never left

we waited for the muffling
for snow to fall through the hours
absorb all the hum and clang

crows failed to gather
high in the bare trees
and something happened

to our sleep to our ground
all that couldn’t go dormant
strained in the growing light

the pull from freeze to thaw
went slack and the sap
held back in the maple

we needed one another less
no bitter wind to recoil from
nothing to crack or loosen

so we said what would
have been left to silence
and felt our old lives forget us

x
x
Carry

Fear settles in the body at variable densities

depending on levels of iodine
or derision in your parents’ conversation.

We get exhausted differently.
While you travel from Kenya to Vietnam

I will head to the dark end
of the hallway.

We were told the stitches would dissolve.
A small white pill was prescribed

to quiet the windows in their frames.
Can you see how time is tearing through me like a storm?

We were told the memories
would slowly fracture and become absorbed.

The you in this poem is you
and the narrator a woman whose hands are cracking.

x
x
Your Last Winter in Savannah

We cut a path through the sabal palms
though soon you will leave them.

Here your past isn’t thick –
and finer still, tomorrows:

delicate Spring plumage of the night heron
thin shadows of live oaks with sprays of Spanish moss

air touching everything lightly.
The ancestors here do not belong to us, are strangers.

Time now when you don’t want any more surprise
no more beginnings.

You said, watch the wood storks as they circle,
their grace disappears so utterly when landing.

Hard to decipher the dank smell of the paper mills
from the old salt of the marshland.

Soon we’ll forget both and in our absence
the nests of these egrets will fall, stick by stick.

x
x
My Sister’s City

Tall buildings put us in the shade
for most of the day, blunt edges
pushing hard against the soft curve of sky.

We move among the snarl and the slow
renovation, protected by and sealed off by
scaffoldings. So much conversion.
The disconcerting brush of many glances
as up through the muscles of my legs
I feel the rumble and groan of an undercity
and all its trespassers.

If I find a bench and sit with my sister
in a comforting beam of sunlight
then who can I believe has really
been a member of the same audience?

This is not like home
with all its debts and ashes.
Here I could be reinvented
while cement cutters grind at our lives
like precious stones.

—Alison Prine

x

Alison Prine’s debut collection of poems, Steel, was chosen by Jeffrey Harrison for the Cider Press Review Book Award and was released in January 2016. Her poems have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Green Mountains Review, and Prairie Schooner among others. She lives in Burlington, Vermont where she works as a psychotherapist.

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Jan 092017
 

gary

So, summarize Lutz? Put forth tweet-worthy versions of the four stories in Assisted Living? Nope, no such luck. Experience on your own the sentential event for which Lutz has become known. —Jason Lucarelli

scoutmaybe

Assisted Living
Gary Lutz
Future Tense Books, 2017
32 pages, $5.00

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People really make a fuss over Gary Lutz. Google his name. Read through the results. Read Justin Taylor’s interview at Bookslut, Derek White’s interview at BOMB, Kevin Sampsell’s mini interview at The Rumpus. Read one or two positive and critical Amazon reviews (do the same at Goodreads too). Maybe appreciate a more astute, more literary review (here’s one, two). In reading you might find, panned or loved, Lutz produces no subtle response in anyone. But Lutz is anything but subtle. His every story seems like a dare.

Sample the stuff: “She was the glummer of the two of us, more out of sorts with herself and the harangue of our heartbeats. She bulled into her sleep and came out of it with unperfected follies of feeling.”

These sentences from Vasovagal would wind up piecemeal in the stories inside Assisted Living, Lutz’s chapbook of new fiction out now from Future Tense Press. It’s his fifth collection of stories and his second for Future Tense editor and publisher Kevin Sampsell, who also published Partial List of People to Bleach as a chapbook at 56 pages. Assisted Living amounts to a mere 36 pages, yet the four stories inside are as fractured and syntactically textured as anything in previous collections (Stories in the Worst Way (1996), I Looked Alive (2003), Partial List of People to Bleach (2007), and divorcer (2011). These stories are less stories and more “concentrations of verbal matter.” Each highly wrought instance of inked language showcase a sick obsession with the sentence. His commitment to the form has been admired by authors from Amy Hempel to George Saunders. Ben Marcus has called Lutz “a sentence writer from another planet, deploying language with unmatched invention,” and Diane Williams has said, “His authentic language conquers any habit of speech.” In his own words, Lutz says readers encounter in his stories “instigated language, language dishabituated from its ordinary doings, language startled by itself.” He says, “To me, language is matter—it’s a substance to be fingered and disturbed… I like to see what happens.”

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and currently residing in Pittsburgh, Gary Lutz is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He was the visiting writer at Syracuse University in the spring of 2003 and at the University of Kansas in the spring of 2007. In 2008, he delivered a pivotal lecture to Columbia University students titled “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place,” which was published by The Believer in 2009. In this instructive essay on the act of sentence-making, Lutz describes the kind sentences he wants to write: “the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.” Such sentences have “the force and feel of a climax,” and the “acoustical elegance of the aphorism,” where each word bears “physical and sonic resemblance to each other.” The essay introduces specimen sentences through the context of a set of poetics Lutz learned from his teacher Gordon Lish. These poetics involve a handful of maneuvers, one of which is called “consecution…a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows.” In a sequel of sorts, “The Poetry of the Paragraph: Some Notes,” appearing in 3:AM Magazine, Lutz discusses the “acoustical symmetry” and “verbal pressure” achievable by certain successions of sentences inside paragraphs. The essay looked at how paragraphs emerge from sentences by means of another maneuver Lutz learned from Lish called “the swerve.” The process of moving from sentence to sentence is “not one of addition or accretion but instead a revisionary process” so that each “new sentence breaks away from, or reconstitutes, its predecessor.” Such a paragraph resembles a “sequence of declarations, each of which is crying out for eternal visibility and audibility, and seeking preeminence.” Instead of “building to a climax,” this kind of paragraph “delivers a series of climaxes.”

While these essays reveal a few of Lish’s important workshop teachings, they also help to make sense of Lutz’s unique method of composition. Because the truest satisfaction from reading Lutz comes from considering how the text was made, these essays—like essays by Stein, Sarraute, or Robbe-Grillet—may be used by readers to read the work against and examine the merits of of the text. His sentences, their “forms and contours,” their “organizations of sound,” are so strange they should be studied for their selection.

So, summarize Lutz? Put forth tweet-worthy versions of the four stories in Assisted Living? Nope, no such luck. Experience on your own the sentential event for which Lutz has become known. Here is the title story’s opening paragraph:

Whether she came on to me or just came at me testily, without much sleep to her name, should make no bit of difference to anybody now. I tried to be a father to her, and she wanted to try being a daughter—that was to be the understanding, effective whenever.

The first sentence is held together by an “intra-sentence intimacy,” the “physical and sonic resemblance” of its words: the assonantal relations between “came” (2x), “name,” and “make”; and “me” (2x), “testily,” and “sleep.” (Note the musical flourish of “testily” before the prepositional phrase.) As for the content of the sentence, conflict is created between the story’s supposed characters of “she” and “me” in the first fifteen beats. Readers wonder what the nature of the relationship is between these characters. The verbal pressure of consonants in “no bit of difference to anybody now” emphasizes this conflict. The second sentence attempts to add context to the relationship (“I tried to be a father to her, and she wanted to try being a daughter”), but the infinitive of “to be” reaches meaningfully, distancing the “I” of the sentence from “father,” while “wanted to try” similarly implies a failure to subscribe to these rules of engagement: a kind of paternal relationship. The phrase post em dash (“that was to be the understanding, effective whenever”) reinforces halfhearted resolve. (Note the verbal symmetry of syllables and shared e’s in “effective whenever.”) In each sentence, the drama of content, the “subject matter” of these sentences—the relationship between the narrator and the girl—“is supplemented or deepened by the drama of the letters within the words.” These sentences contain what Stanley Fish calls “an angle of lean” and create motion by promising “content in prospect.” Lutz reveals content on one hand while concealing it with the other.

Instead of examining the relationship, in a kind of swerve, the next few sentences hover over the girl herself (“she was already sinking in a life of mild peril, of shortages sought out”). Sentences and paragraphs bat back and forth the content of their lives and the content of their relationship, the context of which is indeterminable. The narrator riffs about the girl’s siblings, her mother, the shape of the girl’s hair (“sketched onto the skull, then scumbled”), and her two jobs. Sentences centering on the narrator and the girl tend to point both backward and forward in the story: “She wanted to report to me. That was my importance to her,” or “There wasn’t enough testing of affections on each other.” These kinds of sentences may be deciphered over and over without getting any closer to conclusive certainty. In a Gary Lutz story, acoustics and ambiguity are dramatized at every turn.

At one point Lutz launches a “scene” from a turn of phrase: “Everything, I repeat, was on the level. It was so level we could set things out on it, the whole of whatever it was, with its jumpiness and discomposures, without anything of hers ever having to touch anything of mine.” The stickiness of their relationship, their situation, is simply implied. Yet the story seems to reach a climax when the narrator bumps into the girl after not seeing her for some time:

Nine, ten months later, I bumped into her at a bus terminal. Or maybe it was at a car service. She was wearing old-looking clothes that were new to me. She had a handbag—a first. She was applying to veterinary schools, she said. (We shook hands over it.) I said that at my age, you start to realize you might have loved only once, if that. This came out sounding newsy and impatient.

She said, “It’s been years.”

The semantic character of earlier sentences is evident, but here the narrator actually reveals himself through actions and language. The handshake resembles a fatherly gesture. The sentence right after undermines the handshake by putting forth thoughts on love. The narrator’s implied speech seems to rush forth (a humdrum phrase might be built with “blurt,” but here Lutz chooses “newsy and impatient”). Heartbreaking is the girl’s response, if you fuss with it, and you must because meaning-making is up to you. Has it been years since she loved only once? This is as funny as it is sad. Her phrase widens the gap that has been there from the beginning. She shows her age, her lack of experience. The narrator’s hurts turn out to be worse than hers.

While sometimes the lengths Lutz goes to when manipulating and arranging language in such cryptic chronicles are comical, it pays to seriously wonder where his language comes from. When all else fails, it’s this wonder that keeps you pinned to the page.

Each subsequent story in Assisted Living conveys a similarly disjointed “motion of moments” within collapsing marriages and fragmenting relationships. These are stories of lonely, sexually ambivalent characters never “lacking for a loss” interacting depressedly in the “physical hooey” that goes with being human. In “You Are Logged In As Marie,” the narrator describes his marriage to an ex-wife, “an ex if ex, just this once, is allowably abbreviative of expeller, or excluder, or exiler—take your pick,” and dolls out a line through which the entire collection might be viewed: “To wit: Wherever there are two people, people even anything like us, one is forever the casualty of the other.” In “This Is Not A Bill,” the narrator confronts the truth of “I was either a bad reflection on my parents or their one true likeness” by looking at his own children. But, by the end of the narrative, he doesn’t seem to get anywhere, and the final sentence responds to the very first: “I go into a day saying, “I won’t let myself know.”’ In “Nothing Clarion Came Of Her, Either,” a woman comes between two married women in an account of “an open marriage, leaking from both ends.” The narrative concludes with an epiphany (“when it finally just comes to you”) about the wife and their relationship, though this epiphany occurs, in effect, off the page.

Once, in an interview with David Winters, when asked where his writing fits into his life, Lutz replied, “My writing isn’t a career or a craft or a hobby or anything like that. It is more like a tiny annex to my life, a little crawl space in which I occasionally end up by accident in the dark.” That statement makes Assisted Living seem like a surprise, even mirage-like. Yet these stories are strikingly real, demand devotional attention, and make reading anything in their aftermath seem a little light, a little less the show.

—Jason Lucarelli

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Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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Jan 082017
 

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Allan Cooper: Many of your poems seem to have a sculptural, polished form, even the long free-verse poems of Kicking the Leaves and The Happy Man. Did your work with Henry Moore change your way of seeing the world, perhaps in a more sculptural way?

Donald Hall: You know I’ve known the old poets (and wrote about them in prose) and Dylan Thomas (who never got to be old) and Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. And I’ve often said that I learned more from Henry Moore than I ever learned from any poet. I think I’ve talked about a couple of things. One is the difference between size and scale. Henry gave me a little bronze maquette, eight inches long–and its scale is about as big as a basketball court. I surely thought that it was size that conferred scale. No way. Another that Henry said, and maybe he was repeating something Rodin said? Never think of a surface except as the extension of a line.* One sees it every minute, looking at his sculpture–but think of applying it to a poem! I’ve tried.

Allan Cooper: The Selected Poems of Donald Hall is a very tight collection, reflecting your changes in subject matter and form over the past sixty years. And yet your distinct voice remains constant throughout those changes. This becomes evident when you place an early poem, for example “The Town of Hill,”next to the later poem “Great Day in the Cows’ House.” In your Postscriptum you say you chose the poems “willy-nilly.” But to me this seems a very carefully considered choice and placing of poems. Was it difficult to leave out a poem such as “Elegy for Wesley Wells” from this selection?

Donald Hall: You ask why I left out my Elegy for my dear grandfather. I wrote it when he died, when I was in Oxford in March 1953. Of course I tinkered with it after that, but I seemed to feel it was not good enough, that it strained to become, oh, “Lycidas” maybe. Of course he turns up everywhere in my writing, I’m thinking of prose writing, as well as my daily thoughts–along with Jane Kenyon of course.

When I was young I looked upon successful careers as continual rising. Of course you go up and down, up and down. In my 30s and 40s I had a long down patch, and published many hideous poems in magazines that I never reprinted—but also reprinted many in books or pamphlets that I should not have printed. One was published by David Godine in a sort of hardback pamphlet called The Town of Hill, and the title poem was the nearest thing to a good poem that I’d written in five or ten years! It was late in that volume, which came out just as Jane and I arrived in New Hampshire. My lowest point coincided with my divorce and five years of booze and casual promiscuity before I met and married Jane. When we were first married, it took me a while to get started. Actually I wrote the first parts of The One Day, although I couldn’t bring it together for another dozen years, and started “Kicking the Leaves” (the poem not the book) before leaving Ann Arbor to move into this New Hampshire house. Here the place and the marriage to Jane flowered, and I wrote the book Kicking the Leaves, with my horses and my cows et cetera. It was my breakthrough.

Of course since then I went up and down and up and down. Jane’s death was an overwhelming emotional moment, and poems kept coming out of it for years. She died twenty-two years ago next spring. Some of the best of my late poems, like “Kill the Day,” or “Her Garden,” or “The Wish”–came out of her death years after her death.

My last “selection” was much, much too long, White Apples and the Taste of Stone. I make up for it. I left out a couple of poems that I truly like but they are each too long.

Allan Cooper: Several more recent poems, such as “The Master” and “Affirmation” seem to me to be almost Buddhist in nature. There is the sense of the emptying out of life in “Affirmation,” and the idea that the poet had best keep his or her nose out of the inner workings of the poem in “The Master.” Is this a fair assessment, or did you have something quite different from this in mind when you wrote these poems?

Donald Hall: I was not conscious of following Buddhist thought or practice, ever, during the composition of these poems–and I know what you mean! I can’t tell you the source for them. Each of them has had a lot of attention. I had more mail from the magazine publication of “Affirmation” (the New Yorker) than I ever had from any other poem. People cutting it out and sticking it on their refrigerators! Not quite so much from “The Master” but relatively speaking…

*The original quote by Moore is “Never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume.” Here Hall is referring to the line (or lines) of a poem.

—Donald Hall & Allan Cooper

allan cooper.

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

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Jan 082017
 

donald-hall

To write poetry is to enter the golden room, the music of vowels and consonants and images. To love intently is to enter the golden room where there is a synthesis of two people. To mourn or grieve intently is to enter the golden room of memory and loss. —Allan Cooper

selected-donald-hall

The Selected Poems of Donald Hall
Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
160 pages; $22.00

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When the British sculptor Henry Moore was in his 80s, Donald Hall asked him “Would you tell me the secret of life?” Moore replied, “To do what you want to do…” We can interpret what you want to do in many different ways, but I feel that Moore is speaking here about something more along the lines of Joseph Campbell’s “Follow your bliss.” For any artist, it means to follow your path as deeply and as intently as you can. There are no guarantees in the artistic life, and you have no idea of how far you will have to go, or how successful you will be in the end.

Hall was born in 1928 in Hamden, Connecticut. When he was 16, he met Robert Frost at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which consolidated his desire to become a professional writer. Early in his career he became the first poetry editor of The Paris Review; he also was co-editor of the ground-breaking anthology New Poets of England and America (1957). Hall has published over 50 books, including poetry, biographies, essays, plays, children’s books, memoirs and textbooks. His many awards include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (1988), the Frost Medal (1990) and the National Medal of the Arts (2010). In 2006 he was named Poet Laureate of the United States. He has lived for many years at Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire.

It’s important to include Hall’s second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon in this discussion of his work. Their move in 1975 to his grandparent’s farm in New Hampshire was a new beginning for both poets. As he has said, they sort of “camped out” to see what would happen. And what happened is that life on the farm and the landscape of rural New Hampshire nourished the work of both poets. Hall published his seminal work, Kicking the Leaves in 1978. Kenyon’s first collection, From Room to Room was published the same year. Before her death in 1995, Kenyon published four significant collections of poems, and one collection of translations, Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova, which appeared from Robert Bly’s Eighties Press. It was one of the first clear translations of Akhmatova’s work in English. Together, Hall and Kenyon were following their own bliss.

§

For some poets, doing what you want to do often means developing and deepening the concerns, themes and style of their early poems throughout a long career. There’s a certain tone to their work that deepens over time, but the tone is always familiar. Other poets, such as Hall, go through a more embryonic development—their style goes through radical shifts over many years. Hall’s voice is always consistent. One of the great joys of reading The Selected Poems of Donald Hall is that we have samples of the diverse styles of his poetry from the last sixty years in one slim volume. They include the early formal poems of Exiles and Marriages and The Dark Houses; the experimental poems of A Roof of Tiger Lilies, The Yellow Room: Love Poems and The Town of Hill; poems rooted in memory and a loved landscape in Kicking the Leaves and The Happy Man; the prophetic and socio-political concerns of the book-length poem The One Day; and the many poems he wrote for Jane Kenyon and his life with her.

In the “Postscriptum” to this Selected, Hall says “I’ve told the story before, how a grumpy stranger asked me, “What do you write about anyway?” I blurted out, “Love, death, and New Hampshire.” It’s true. Love, death, and love’s death—in early poems maybe love for death?—and always Eagle Pond Farm.”

I would add pleasure as well–the pleasure of a known landscape, love’s pleasure, and the inner room that two people build together, if they’re lucky. One of his early poems about pleasure came at a time when he was moving from formal verse toward experimental free verse:

THE LONG RIVER

The musk ox smells
in his long head
my boat coming. When
I feel him there,
intent, heavy,

the oars make wings
in the white night,
and deep woods are close
on either side
where trees darken.

I rowed past towns
in their black sleep
to come here. I passed
the northern grass
and cold mountains.

The musk ox moves
when the boat stops,
in hard thickets. Now
the wood is dark
with old pleasures.

This poem was quoted by Robert Bly in an essay on Hall’s poetry in the third issue of Bly’s poetry magazine, The Fifties: “This poem…suggests that the way out of the middle class is by a door the middle class cannot find—a secret life. The concept of the poet as a man with an inner life is, as we look back, the central quality of a poet as developed by Yeats, and the Spanish, and this image seems the one least developed in America.”

Hall further developed the idea of pleasure in the title poem of his collection Kicking the Leaves. One of the surprising elements of this long poem is that he perceives pleasure not as a rising energy, but a kind of falling. There’s a gravity to the poem that seemed to be absent in the early collections. Here is the final section of “Kicking the Leaves”:

7.

Now I fall, now I leap and fall
to feel the leaves crush under my body, to feel my body
buoyant in the ocean of leaves, the night of them,
night heaving with death and leaves, rocking like the ocean.
Oh, this delicious falling into the arms of leaves,
into the soft laps of leaves!
Face down, I swim into the leaves, feathery,
breathing the acrid odor of maple, swooping
in long glides to the bottom of October—
where the farm lies curled against winter, and soup steams
its breath of onion and carrot
onto damp curtains and windows; and past the windows
I see the tall bare maple trunks and branches, the oak
with its few brown weathery remnant leaves,
and the spruce trees, holding their green.
Now I leap and fall, exultant, recovering
from death—on account of death, in accord with the dead—
the smell and taste of leaves again,
and the pleasure, the only long pleasure, of taking a place
in the story of leaves.

If you read these lines out loud you can hear what he calls “the vowels of bright desire.” We say we fall in love with a person, a place, a thing, an idea, but falling—a submission—is always part of that love. His best poems are always a kind of submission. “Gold,” written earlier than “Kicking the Leaves,” carries the idea in a different way. Perhaps the act of giving up to another person creates something else, what he calls a golden room:

GOLD

Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
quickly, then
slowly again,
caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily
touching my hair now.

We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.

To write poetry is to enter the golden room, the music of vowels and consonants and images. To love intently is to enter the golden room where there is a synthesis of two people. To mourn or grieve intently is to enter the golden room of memory and loss. After Jane Kenyon died, Hall wrote “Letter with No Address.” Part of that poem is quoted below:

……………………………You know now
whether the soul survives death.
Or you don’t. When you were dying
you said you didn’t fear
punishment. We never dared
to speak of Paradise.
At five A.M., when I walk outside,
mist lies thick on hayfields.
By eight the air is clear,
cool, sunny with the pale yellow
light of mid-May. Kearsarge
rises huge and distinct,
each birch and balsam visible.
To the west the waters
of Eagle Pond waver
and flash through popples just
leafing out.
………………Always the weather,
writing its book of the world,
returns you to me.
Ordinary days were best,
when we worked over poems
in our separate rooms.
I remember watching you gaze
out the January window
into the garden of snow
and ice, your face rapt
as you imagined burgundy lilies.

I can’t imagine finer lines about a life lived well together.

§

Poetry, love and death are each a kind of letting go and a returning. Hall, who began writing formal poems, came back to them in recent years. Again, from his “Postscriptum”: As I read my poems in chronological order, I am aware of changing sounds and shapes. I move from rhymed stanzas to varieties of free verse, and later—out of love for Thomas Hardy’s poems—go back to meter again.” One of the strongest examples of his late poems is “Her Garden”:

…….I let her garden go.
…………………let it go, let it go
…….How can I watch the hummingbird
……………….Hover to sip
……………….With its beak’s tip
The purple bee balm—whirring as we heard
……………….It years ago?

……………The weeds rise rank and thick
…………………………let it go, let it go
…….Where annuals grew and burdock grows.
………………Where standing she
………………At once could see
The peony, the lily, and the rose
………………Rise over brick

…………….She’d laid in patterns. Moss
………………………let it go, let it go
………Turns the bricks green, softening them
………………..By the gray rocks
………………..Where hollyhocks
That lofted while she lived, stem by tall stem,
……………….Dwindle in loss.

§

In a 1971 interview with The Tennessee Poetry Journal, Hall talked about the kind of poem he would like to write:

I am mainly interested in trying to write a poem in which, as Galway Kinnell said to me in conversation last fall, you bring everything that you have done, everything that you know, together at once. That’s not quoting Galway exactly, that’s what I got from what he said. That kind of poem involves knowing yourself. You have to be able to get at the truth of your feeling and not to distort it. This is where I want to go now, and where I hope I am going.

He might not have known at the time that it would take a lifetime to write that kind of poem. He first published “Affirmation” in The New Yorker on May 21, 2001, when he was in his early 70s:

AFFIRMATION

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

To lose everything. As we age, there is the thinning out of things. People that we have known well and loved leave us, or die. But there is still the residue of love, alive in the great sounding box of memory:

Ordinary pleasures, contentment recollected,
blow like snow into the abandoned garden,
overcoming the daisies. Your blue coat
vanishes down Pond Road into imagined snowflakes
with Gus at your side, his great tail swinging.

( from “Weeds and Peonies”)

Donald Hall has said that he will write no more poems. In a long life of poetry he has written a dozen or two of the best poems of his generation. What do we expect from any poet? We carry lines of their poems with us, sometimes whole poems in memory. They rise mysteriously inside us when we need them the most. They comfort us and feed us, bring resolution to our grief, our loss, or affirm our joy and deepest convictions. Whether he writes more poems or not, he has given us many gifts. I’ll let these lines from his poem “The Master” have the final say:

When the poet disappears
the poem becomes visible.

What may the poem choose,
best for the poet?
It will choose that the poet
not choose for himself.

–Allan Cooper

N5

allan cooper

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

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Jan 072017
 

John Madera

 

But let us concede that the observation that “wherever you go there you are” is true; what happens, though, when the “there” is a destabilized something or other, that is, is a zone of uncertainty; is this “there” the same there about which Gertrude Stein would reflect on and write: “There is no there there”? In any case, there we were, “there,” on our way to the Absolute Quiet Room, drinking a smoothie (it was a “Hawaiian Lust,” a tangy blend of orange juice, strawberries, bananas, and something else, papaya, maybe?), thinking, as we sipped, about line 462 of Book I of Virgil’s The Aeneid, where you find Aeneas gazing at a Carthaginian temple’s mural depicting battles of the Trojan War, Aeneas, driven to tears as he recalls the deaths of his friends and fellow citizens, saying, “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” which could be translated as “There are tears for things and mortal matters touch the mind,” but which Robert Fagles translates as “The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart”; and Robert Fitzgerald as “They weep here / For how the world goes, and our life that passes / Touches their hearts.” Franz Liszt’s Sunt Lacrimae Rerum en Mode Hongrois was a response to the disastrous Hungarian War of Independence and the executions following it. The mournful four-note motif opening the piece is iterated throughout the composition, the piece’s rhythmic angularities colored by both ominous bass and plaintive melodic figures. Strangely enough, James Elkin’s Pictures and Tears, a book purporting to be a history of paintings that have made people cry, doesn’t address Aeneas’s falling apart at the sight of the mural. (Elkin does refer to Ingres’s Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, which might be an intimation of the abovementioned famous scene.) Perhaps Elkin is making too fine a distinction between characters and people, a distinction that we often find ourselves making with a kind of stringency that may well be worth sometimes being skeptical about. The word lacrimae inevitably always makes us think of the band Tool, whose music offers its own peculiar kind of catharsis, its members once claiming to be inspired to form after reading The Joyful Guide to Lachrymology, a book supposedly written in 1949 by Ronald P. Vincent, a “crop-spray contractor.” It was a hoax, of course. We have been tempted to actually write this book, since crying is something we know something about. We could talk about Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” for instance, a song which has made us cry, a song also used to eerie effect in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Rita, still awake at two a.m. after having sex with Betty, insists they go to a theater called Club Silencio, where a man onstage explains in several languages that everything is an illusion, after which a woman, after emerging from the stage’s red curtains, begins singing “Crying” in Spanish, said singer collapsing toward the song’s end, the song continuing, the vocals disembodied, as it were, these thoughts leading us to think about the popularly held notion that some things are unthinkable, which leads us to think about the outset of “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” where Jacques Rancière registers the titular question’s undecidability by first indicating that the notion of the “unrepresentable phenomenon” is often an umbrella term linking a “constellation of allied notions,” that is, “the unrepresentable, the unthinkable, the untreatable, the irredeemable.” Unfortunately, Rancière’s inventory, bolstered by another inventory of specific “phenomena, processes and notions,” doesn’t adequately address the differences between each of these varied phenomena, processes, and notions. We are not sure how defensible it is to simply contest how these disparate terms have been subsumed under the heading of the “unrepresentable phenomenon.” It would have been useful to have these terms defined and to see the ways in which they have been arbitrarily formed and connected. That said, Rancière’s project is a nuanced one: it is a series of inquiries toward ascertaining the circumstances under which an event can be said to be unrepresentable, followed by demonstrations of how that unrepresentability might be unrealizable.

Rancière investigates his subject through the lens of aesthetic inquiry, calling representation a “regime of thinking about art,” his use of the word “regime” surprising, since, for us, it immediately conjures up not only a generalized conception of organizing systems and patterns, but of governmental structures, particularly oppressive ones, its use, however, surely deliberate since one of the primary currents with which this essay engages is the supposedly inexplicable acts performed by fascistic entities. Rancière proceeds by engaging common notions about what art can and cannot do. So then, we have two “heterogeneous logics,” that is, the representative regime and the aesthetic regime, or, as Rancière puts it, a “Platonic plain tale” and “a new art of the sublime,” the majority of the essay finding Rancière disentangling these intertwining logics, while also engaging with Lyotard’s idea of the “‘witness’s narrative’”: “a new mode of art,” an idea which, though necessarily inadequate, is supposedly intrinsically capable of attesting to the existence of something that is unrepresentable.

Rancière refutes Lyotard’s new sublime by addressing the witness narrative, a seemingly singular attestation, as it were, as it pertains to the Holocaust, comparing the language, or, more specifically, the “paratactic linking of simple perceptions” that Robert Antelme employs in The Human Race (an eyewitness account of his imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps) with that found in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, demonstrating that the language of testimony is no different from the “common language of literature.” Rancière argues that this “extreme experience of the inhuman confronts no impossibility of representation; nor is there a language peculiar to it. There is no appropriate language for witnessing”; it is instead a manifestation of qualities typical of the aesthetic regime, and is therefore intelligible.

Rancière concludes his essay by returning to the titular question, claiming that the idea that “some things can only be represented in a certain type of form, by a type of language appropriate to their exceptionality” is “vacuous,” reminding us of the passage in George Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood, where the narrator also confronts the idea of the unsayable: “I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside of writing, it is what prompted it in the first place); I know what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation,” the narrator’s circumlocutions suggesting that what is unsayable is ultimately what is actually left unsaid, which makes us think that what we thought we had known we do not now know. Until now, only we knew that we had known and do not now know what we had known. If only we did not know that we had known what we did not know and only we knew what we had not known and had known what we know now before we knew what we had known. We know that we knew that we did not know because knowing what we now know about what we knew we did not know about what we knew back then and knowing what we knew we had known about what we know and did not know back then has shown us that we do not know what we know about what we had known and did not know and do not know now.

Yes, there we were, thinking about thinking, and thinking about so-called intellectual property, thinking that if ideas are property, then they are meant to be trespassed; in other words, there we were, profoundly enjoying our Thursday, until we realized it was Monday, realizing our mistake as we passed Mt. Hope Community Baptist Church’s lawn, where a sign reads: “Words can make things wither and they can bring dead things to life,” making us think, first, of the Gospel of John and the Logos, and then also making us think about Derrida’s attack on “logocentrism,” but then also making us think about another sign that we are not sure we had ever seen but had simply heard about, namely, “Stop, drop, and roll isn’t going to work in Hell,” which made us think of another sign, which we are sure we had often seen when we worked in Jamaica, Queens, a sign that was unironically suffused with schadenfreude: “When your back is up against the wall, remember that Christ’s was on the cross,” all of which made us return to our own uncertainty about certainty, especially with regard to ideas and beauty, and language, doubting whether language could be anything other than a figure, a representation of a thing, rather than the thing itself, wondering whether we would ever know the thing itself, and whether it was even important to ever be able to identify that thing.

Blocks away from the Absolute Quiet Room, we heard cawing and looked up toward crows flying above our heads, and watched the ever-shifting patternings of their flight, and followed them to where they eventually landed, that is, a copse of oak trees, five of them, in fact, on old Prospect Street. The trees were bare, of course, though, probably as confused as the rest of us were by the sudden change in weather, their uppermost branches bent by crows. There must have been a hundred of them, black black and cawing, and we realized, with all due respect to Wallace Stevens, that there were more than thirteen ways to look at them.

Before you come to the Absolute Quiet Room, you will find on the wall, immediately to your left, a reproduction of a Mark Rothko painting flanked by two nondescript abstractions by some easily forgotten artist, each of those paintings clearly indebted to Rothko’s approach, but each one, though sharing, superficially, a similar palette to the aforementioned painting, containing similar hues of oranges, blacks, and yellows, actually contain nothing of the gravitas, the pathos of the Rothko, a painting which even in reproduction, substantially and necessarily reduced in size (the reproduction at about one by five feet appearing to be what we imagine is only a quarter the size of the original), and the icy glare from the crisp squares of fluorescent light, not to mention the reflection of the area itself, a convergence of lines where the ceiling and walls meet behind us, an image which is nevertheless still imbued with light, color-saturated lozenges floating within an overall field of magma-like intensity, these tiny swatches dissolving into the overall orange field, like disks of aspirin which have been plopped into liquid, fogging up its contents (much like the ice in the cup belonging to the woman who sat in front of the poster while we looked at it); a large black rectangular shape portentously taking up about two-thirds of the field, the combination of orange and black not conjuring up the Halloween we are most acquainted with, that is, an anesthetized, a Mickey Mouse version, of the Day of the Dead, but, rather, of death itself, that black shape like an amoral splotch of cancer slowly metastasizing, in quiet resolve and confidence, wrecking an otherwise healthy body, that black shape reminding us of Rothko’s final paintings, each one a portal, of a kind, into darkness; which makes us think of Andrew Bird’s “Dark Matter”; which makes us think how, on a terrible day, years back, falling face forward toward glass-scattered concrete, we had not been thinking about how it, the ground, looked like a shattered kaleidoscope, or about how Billy had called us a cocksucker, or how that was not an insult anyway—not that we were gay or anything—or about how this fight was a long time coming (we had long tired of Billy’s duplicity), or about how, later, our scar-streaked face would remind us of some phosphorescent and tentacled slimy thing on the ocean floor, or a paper birch’s branches, anything dendritic really, like the lightning that shook us awake as a toddler, forcing us to cry, only to have our mother tell us that it was nothing, that we should be a big boy, that we should go right to bed; we had not been thinking of any of those things, thinking, instead of one of Rothko’s black squares, as if plunging into its maw, its absence, its erasure, that emptiness thrumming in our chest whenever we think back to the fight; and as our face smashed against the ground, and a tooth squeezed down our throat like an aspirin, we had not been thinking that Esther, Sasha, and especially Jasmine, who were all standing around screaming, were all secretly rooting for us, rather than trying to keep us from getting completely pummeled, and we had not been thinking about how, just moments before, we had splashed our beer across Billy’s face because Billy had told these same three women how we had peed on ourselves when we were in the first grade, and as Billy’s boots carved into our stomach, and the bouncer from Mulchahy’s was pulling Billy away saying, “Get off him or deal with me, Motherfucker!” we had not been thinking about the sweet sick smell wafting from the hot dog stand on the corner, or the bus’s seeming illness as its doors congestedly wheezed open, or how everything went wrong, how everything always went wrong whenever Billy was around, and as we grabbed his shoe that somehow wriggled off when we were getting our ass kicked we watched Billy jump into the bus, and then threw our shoe at the bus, and saw Billy’s unmarked but beer-wet face curled into that same sitcom smile, and Billy flipped the bird at us, we had not thought of how Billy had once again got the last word, instead thinking how everything was what it was, turned out to be what it turned out to be: bus fumes, tires spinning, rainbow in oil, us tonguing our cheek; which makes us think back to the splotch, leading to thinking about news we had recently received about our ex-father-in-law, who has just begun experiencing “monocular transient blindness,” a symptom of what they refer to as a “mini-stroke,” a man we were once close to, who will, in a few days, have surgery to remove the plaque in his carotid artery, which is ninety-five percent blocked; thoughts of these correspondences raising, for us, a kind of skepticism about what might be described as circumstantial contiguities, the resonance of which, at first, brings satisfaction, but which, after reflecting that these were all really just incidental accidents, fills us, in the end, with horror, making us think about Henry James’s preface to The Turn of the Screw, where he writes: “My values are positively all blanks save so far as an excited horror, a promoted pity, a created expertness,” making us further feel that the tenuous grasp we have on meaning is about to snap.

A person, just passing us, sounded like he said, “ex nihilo reflexivity.”

Then there is the question of the woman, whose presence underneath (she is sitting) the faux Rothko has prevented us from properly deciphering what is apparently a signature on the hack’s painting. She has asked us to watch over her computer so that she may use the restroom. Actually, what she had meant was would we care to look after her rust-colored sweater, which was draped over the candied-apple red leather chair, from which she had just risen; the two spiral notebooks, one of which, the traffic-divider yellow (a yellow that also reminded us of the jaundiced disc and glowing goop wedged within the croissant of a promised egg and cheese sandwich purchased from a local eatery) one, rather than the sick pink one, stood on her seat against the inner-part of the armrest; the opened spiral notebook sitting on the aerodynamic circular table with wooden top and metal legs; her plastic cup of iced coffee, the ice having long since watered down what had probably once been a caramel brown into a kind of blanched tan, if that were possible; the empty, overturned bottle of, what was it? Sprite? Mountain Dew? or some other rarefied promise of sparkly effervescence, a kind of quintessence of delight, but what was instead a plastic container of citrus syrupy swill and fizzy ooze; an empty paper bag (But how do we know that it was really empty, since, from the angle from which we had observed it, said bag could not with any degree of certainty be said to, in fact, be empty. In any case, we can say that the bag bulged out in such a way that suggested it contained nothing save, perhaps, a straw’s long since removed papery husk and perhaps even the straw itself, nicked at its top from its respective drinker’s teeth.); the army green bag on the floor; the almost pocket-sized notebook (also enspiraled and also splayed open, with about four handwritten lines of text inscribed on it, as undecipherable as the abovementioned signature, alas); the textbook that she placed on the seat, which was still indented from her buttocks, the book’s opened page containing a bar graph; the unopened bottle of water standing between the almost-finished cup of iced coffee and the black pouch-like thing, presumably the case for the abovementioned laptop.

Said woman returned and did not acknowledge us in any way, forgot to thank us, in fact, instead lifting her textbook from the chair, positioning her face in such away as to offer us a perfect profile, displaying a disproportionately large head, her oak-tree-leaf brown hair styled into a sumo wrestler’s absurd coiffure, the sight of which forced us to quickly scan away from her head and down toward her toes, which were covered by her heinous sandals, Birkenstocks, in fact, which we were surprised to discover are still sold and, even more surprisingly, bought.

Someone, a bearded boy, stopped to talk to the abovementioned woman, saying something about the so-called big picture, saying it was a picture without borders, quickly adding something about his abiding belief in the power of love as the guiding and redeeming energy of the Universe, quickly claiming that on some days he was a Gnostic Christian Mystic and other days a Taoist, but most of the time he was neither of these things, just someone enamored of readings and musings about the world around him and within him. The woman, who had tossed requisite oh-my-gods like stones into his meandering river of talk, finally told him that she had to study, after which he embraced her, whispering something in her ear, from which hung an enormous earring, which used to be referred to as “doorknockers.” We should say that our comment about Birkenstocks was admittedly a flippant one, a flippancy you may find in similar comments we have made about those ridiculous winter boots supposedly from Australia you see all kinds of people wearing, that flippancy, though, coming with an awareness that our own preferences are subject to our own subjectivities, and are therefore tangled with our own biases, blind spots, and whatever other limitations. As we think about this, we find ourselves feeling like we should talk about how one’s sense of “beauty” is arguably more the result of nurture than of nature, how what constitutes what is beautiful, sexy, or whatever is the result of a play of intertwining scripts and discourses, while also registering how difficult it is for women to find clothing, and especially shoes, that are comfortable at all, let alone comfortable and sexy, all kinds of notions of gender, commerce, sexism, and on and on surfacing for me, which should immediately and necessarily cast suspicion on anything we might say about “beauty.” That said (and at the risk of hurting your feelings, which we really do not wish to do, so please forgive us), Birkenstocks have to be the ugliest footwear we have ever seen, displacing the boots we have described above by a wide margin, but also (and by a lesser margin) most of the sportier sandals other companies have produced. They are clunky things that make feet look like they have been bandaged by leather strips and some cardboard and cork-like amalgam used because there was nothing else available, inevitably making said feet look almost exponentially bigger. We have the same critique about most men’s footwear, generally speaking. In fact, when it comes to buying boots, we usually start in the “women’s section”— scare-quoted to highlight that these sections are gendered and therefore constructions. We are silly enough to think that companies prey on the idea that you cannot reconcile “beauty” with comfort, that is, deliberately uglifying über-comfortable products. When it comes to sandals, you will most likely find us wearing Havaianas flip flops, which we find simple, sleek, and comfortable.

What we are suggesting, in other words, is that the Absolute Quiet Room, its surround, is a kind of discordia concors.

—John Madera

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John Madera’s fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other publications. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, and many other print and online venues. Madera edits the forum Big Other.

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Jan 062017
 

kathy-fagan

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WINDY, WITH CLOUDS BREAKING

My note from the night before reads
Drink water. Lots of water. Only water.

For when clouds break
xxxxxxxxxxxx it matters they be empty.

The performance coach says It matters
you know how your look reads.

On another note
are the syllables mots-a-rell-a
so dad will eat the cheese he no longer has the word for.

And another, Mr. Goldstrike, for the zone-appropriate plant
I can’t remember the look of right now.

So much is about forgetting.

Wind scrubbing the young stands of sycamore at the river
until they reach like tuning forks. Clouds breaking
xxxxxxxxxxxxx as if we could see inside.

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COGNITION

I’m here, riverbank—
wearing John Berryman’s glasses
like everyone else.

I was thinking that evergreen
looked like a Leonardo, i.e., the umbrella
pines of Rome.

I was thinking of their soft
candles in spring that aim toward
the sun like birds each

morning, careening beyond the visual
mayhem of geranium
red. In that color

riot, it’s a relief to see female
finches & cardinals bland as cartoon
balloons overhead,

pitted stonefruits, aging
uteruses, pantoums all: repeat, repeat,
done. You want something

you don’t have? What is it
you have now? The sky swims into the river,
the skylights, & windows;

traffic writes its Hebraic script
each night.
The MOCA test requires that one recall only

five words: Velvet. Face. Church. Daisy. Red.
Dad got none of them.
With or without my glasses,

not one is not a picture I will never see.

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FORESHORTENING

The man I’d hired cut the mower’s engine, shouting
uphill to me he had to go pick up his son. Lost his license.

DUI. He’s a Afghan vet with that post-partum stress depression.
Seen things you and I can’t even phantom. I thought I could,

so waved him off as understanding people do and turned away.
Skype and middle age had made me wary of being

looked at from below. Zelda Fitzgerald drew everything
from that perspective, as if seated always in the orchestra,

or a child at the foot of a drawer at the morgue.
When the neurologist illuminated my father’s brain

scan at the V.A., I had to re-adjust my own perspective
to understand that we were viewing from below.

Through jawbone, nostrils, eye sockets, a series
of curtains parted to reveal, finally, his frontal lobes,

twin prosceniums so dark, nothing could be seen.

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EMPIRE
xxxxwith a penultimate couplet adapted from Sabrina Orah Mark

I went out looking
at Europe & all its stones
its diagonal churches & bronze
horses my shoes clattering like their
shoes my eyes as wild

If the heart is a cup
if coins are diamonds
well then we are
full & we are rich

Here
baked sometimes inside the cake
is a favor not a file
Here
sometimes cake is all we eat

How pretty the pedestrians inside
their full-face haloes of dog fur

Arrow is my hometown—
isn’t that what Stein meant?

How can I choose between
Heaven & Sorry
when I own both
of them so much already?

—Kathy Fagan

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Kathy Fagan’s forthcoming book is Sycamore (Milkweed Editions, March 2017). Her first collection, The Raft, won the National Poetry Series; her second, MOVING & ST RAGE, the Vassar Miller Poetry Prize. Recent work appears in The New Republic and Narrative. Director of the Creative Writing Program at Ohio State, Fagan serves as Series Editor of the OSU Press/The Journal Wheeler Poetry Prize. Her website is http://www.kathyfagan.net

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Jan 052017
 

lmdfamily-croppedAuthor with parents

 

About the time when my father, Abraham Morganstern, started to lose his memory, he began to sort through the household trash on a daily basis, picking out with surprising care bent hangers, sole-less shoes, cracked mirrors, unattached buttons, and other items he deemed worthy of resuscitation. His triumphant scavenging at first irritated my mother, Hadassah Morganstern, and me when I happened to return for a visit to the ever-more-cluttered house of my childhood, but after a while we both accepted it as a permanent facet of his new personality. I suppose if you are falling away into some sort of mental darkness, you hold onto anything concrete, even if it’s broken. It may also be his instinct to broker junk into something useful, now gone awry. My father is a self-identified junkman, the son of a junkman, himself the son of a Russian shoemaker, and before that who knows–the ancestral line lost in the rough and decisive Atlantic crossing. And Abraham Morganstern, in his heyday, was the King Midas of east coast junkmen, a working-class boy who, having lost his father as a teenager and finding himself responsible for a widowed mother and two brothers, had wheeled and dealed in paper, rags, cans, and cigarettes on the docks by the Chesapeake Bay and in the printing presses and paper mills of east Baltimore, until he assembled a small fortune. How massive his fortune, I couldn’t say, as he always retained a deep-seated sense of his lower-class origins and a childlike awe of those whom he considered truly wealthy. “That’s a self-made man, right there,” he would gush about the father of one or the other of my classmates at the Bryn Mawr School for Girls, a private school loosely affiliated with the college, both having been founded in the late 1800s by M. Carey Thomas, a cross-dressing philanthropist with a passion for female education. “He’s made of money. And you know what–you couldn’t ask for a nicer guy. That’s the whole package. Me, I’m barely middle-class.” If his progeny, my sister Eloisa Isobel and me, applied themselves then, with the benefit of postgraduate education, we could ascend into the heights of upper class, and, he always added, take care of him in his old age. That old age confronted him far sooner than I had expected, as before his sixtieth birthday he commenced the torturous process of drifting away from himself. At sixty-seven, his mind seemed increasingly defenseless against the waters of Lethe, which flushed out all traits of tenderness and humor but somehow left the stubborn hell intact.

King Lear, which used to be my least favorite Shakespeare tragedy, began making sense to me after witnessing my father’s decline. He seemed to be lost perpetually in an erratic storm I couldn’t see. Sometimes he jumped back and shielded his eyes, as if in the wake of a lightening flash. And while he instantly forgot the anger that thundered through his body at unpredictable moments, it left us all awestruck at the strength still lingering in his failing body. The stress of soothing him through moods alternatively volatile and timorous became too much for my mother. She retired from her job as an English teacher to care for him but even then she needed to take breaks. During the winters she absented herself in Florida for as long as she could prevail upon my sister or me to take over as companion for him. A desire to relieve her for a bit, along with the lengthy vacations endemic to an academic career, has led me to spend increasing amounts of time with him. I spent nearly a month at home during my sabbatical, during which we fell into an unaccustomed intimacy, without the buffer of mother and sister and apart from the rhythms of work and school that had always held us in check from each other.

***

newyearsatthedinerAt the diner, New Years Day 2016

When my father, Abraham Morganstern, was fifteen, a Baltimore city bus rode over his right foot. He lost three toes, missed four months of his freshman year of high school, and was subsequently ineligible for the Vietnam draft. Being what he has always termed derisively a bleeding heart liberal, I can hardly regret that he didn’t have to suffer unendurable horrors for inexplicable reasons like many of his contemporaries and most of his high school friends, yet I’ve always thought he would have thrived in the army. He enjoys uniformity, regularity, conformity, and consistency. He is a man who possesses a deep-seated suspicion of the abstract, preferring newspapers to books, Norman Rockwell to Pablo Picasso, print to cursive, and dogs to cats. He has worn Docker slacks and Redwing loafers for forty years and only stays in Hampton Inns regardless of whether he is visiting Tuscaloosa or Paris. Alzheimer’s has only intensified the comfort he finds in the habitual. And thus, every night I stayed with him during my sabbatical, we ate dinner at The Acropolis, a twenty-four hour diner run by kind-hearted Greek emigres accustomed to my father’s habits.

Every night, we enacted the same rituals. My father introduced me to the waitresses and busboys, all congenial offshoots of the Greek diner familia, and we all acted as if it were the first time, as if we too had fallen into the minuscule eternity of a perpetual moment. “This is my daughter. She’s the professor,” he announced in delight, as we took our seats in the red leather booth next to the jukebox. The waitresses and busboys would wink at me and exclaim how smart I must be, how I looked just like my mother, and shake my hand to introduce themselves.

I always ordered for both of us. I varied my order between various breakfast foods but without fail he ate a turkey burger with onions but no lettuce and tomatoes and a side of waffle fries. Whenever the waitress brought us our drinks (Diet Coke for him, glass of slightly dreadful house red wine for me) I always watched him carefully fold up his straw wrapper with studied concentration. Only after he had placed it carefully in his back pocket would he turn to me, his face bright, shining, excited, expectant.

“Tell me what’s new!” he said to me one night at the diner. “I haven’t seen you in almost six months.” I didn’t protest although I had been home for about a week at that point.

“Well, I do have some good news, actually. I found out that I have tenure now.”

“That’s wonderful,” his smile split open his long freckled face.

“Thanks! Check out my business card.” Before leaving home I had stuffed a stack of business cards in my purse for precisely this purpose. He turned it over in admiration and asked if he could keep it. I had given him dozens over the two years since I had actually gotten tenure.

“Well, I am really proud of you. You are so smart.” He shook his head. “You must get that from your mother.” That was the wrong word at the wrong time. It triggered a reverberation of memory and betrayal. His face reddened and his voice grew thick with menace. “Where is your mother? I know she’s not here. Did she go away? Why didn’t she take me with her?”

I was afraid of him in those moments. Because I like things to be polite and calm and peaceful. Because he was still my father, and his flares of temper reminded me of the days when he and my mother had arbitrated morality, judgement, and penance, when I talked back, when I lost my retainer, when I announced I was majoring in medieval studies instead of something they deemed practical. Because his voice thundered too loud for polite conversation, and at that moment in the diner, people were starting to turn around, and I didn’t want him to reveal his weakness to a world that had always shown him deference.

“She just went off for a few days. But I’m here. And I’m here for almost a month,” I said quickly and brightly.

“Well, I didn’t know that. A whole month.” He shoulders relaxed and he opened up his copy of the Baltimore Sun. “Do you want the sports section?”

“Yeah, right.” I grimaced and held up a book on French convents I was meant to be reviewing for a tiny feminist medieval journal. I was relieved. If unchecked, his anger could flail out limitlessly. Last winter, he had chased my mother and sister into my old bedroom and punched a hole through the door. Now he wanders by the room in surprise, puzzling at the gap in the wood.

He held up his newspaper to the fluorescent lights, squinted, and then brought it close to his nose to sniff, as if he could smell the oil on the machines that pressed out the pulp and before that, the perfumes the wood had exuded at the moment of splitting. I had seen him repeat this action a thousand times over the years. Most of his business had come from buying and selling paper, and he understood and respected its shades and varieties. At my childhood birthday parties, he would carefully unfold all the wrapping paper I tossed aside in an ecstasy of anticipation and lovingly examine it like a Vatican official authenticating a sacred relic.

Despite that brief moment of calm, his body would stiffen again and again that night and each night, and I would watch his internal temperature drop or rise into anger, I was never sure which one. Anything could provoke the outbursts–the lack of industry in America today, his french fries touching his cole slaw, the price of gas. Regardless of the issue, his voice thundered like a minister denouncing Satan. I would speak in soothing tones, handing him my business card, creating word games to play on the place mats, pulling out my phone to show him pictures of my dogs, anything to coax him back into tranquility.

***

It seems to me that humans are obsessed with imposing order onto the rhythms of earth. Do we follow the pull of the moon, the cycles of the sun, calculations Julian or Gregorian? Is it a day of rest or a day of work? How do we steady ourselves upon this spinning world? Some internal clock had shattered in my father; all the calendars in the world couldn’t seem to ground him in time. He still knew who he was, and as long as he was somewhere familiar, where he was, but he could not grasp when he was and the impulse to remember left him frantic.

“What year is this? How old am I?” he asked me plaintively, on a loop, in the morning when he first awoke, during meals, during drives. If I was in the same room, I would watch him count the years on his fingers, his ring finger scarred from when it once caught on the roof of a truck he was loading with paper rolls.

“Am I sixty-six?”

“You are sixty-seven, Daddy,” I would call out, while brushing my teeth, or reading, or running the water for dishes.

He would launch into a lengthy explanation about how even though he was already eligible for social security he was planning to wait so that he could increase the amount so my mother would have more when he died. I always agreed with him although I never really listened. I probably should have paid more attention. He had always understood how to invest, how to profit, whereas I could never save a cent. But my attention always wandered, out of habit, as if he were instructing me about stocks and bonds and I was still a bored teenager nodding to keep him happy.

He was able to sustain the conversation for about five minutes before the cycle began again. In mid-sentence, suddenly, he would pause and ask what year it was, how old he was.

Why were we both stranded on different planes? I could move through the day as if through a museum, with paintings and sculptures by different artists from different ages, from golden icons to rotund Madonnas, changing from room to room. He saw each day, each cycle of a few moments, as one painting in a series of the same object, like Monet’s water lilies, going increasingly out of focus in an afternoon of lengthening shadows.

***

allandianecroppedAuthor’s mother and father

On the outside, the house my parents had moved us into when I was three years old still looks like a respectable suburban split level, but on the inside, it is decaying. The water from leaking pipes has bruised the first floor ceiling with purple water stains. A giant hole above the stairs exposes the skeleton of the house, aging and failing no less so than its inhabitants. Until sympathy for my mother’s cares had overcome my hygienic scruples, I had avoided staying at the house more than once or twice a year.

The house had always been cluttered, although generally sturdy. For years it was the repository of familial possessions from both sides. When my father’s uncle Sheldon had a heart attack at the Pimlico racetrack, his Dinah Shore records, his roll top desk, and his threadbare plaid suits infused with cigar smoke, all ended up in our living room. Esther Collector, my mother’s mother, couldn’t abide possessions, and over the years she had sent her diminutive good-humored husband to our house laden with Wedgwood sets, teak end tables, and porcelain planters, all of which had ended up in the hallway in wobbly stacks. These shabby heirlooms gathered dust side by side with sheets of bubble wrap, disembodied and translucent like antique wedding veils, cans sticky with soda, my sister’s college futon, outdated copies of the Baltimore Jewish Times in tenuous heaps. The clutter had built over the years, forming archaeological levels–Level 1 1980-1982 AD, Level II 1982-1984 [early, middle, late], each level built on the rubble of the previous years. The present level existed in some late decadent age from a civilization in decline, fraught with invasion and decay. Of course, I thought wryly, even the Germanic barbarians had maintained the Roman baths. Out of three bathrooms in the house, only one still has a flushing toilet and running water in the sink. The shower is entirely off limits. If you turn on the water, it runs through the floor into the living room below. My father and I conducted our ablutions as best as we could in the one sink, which drained poorly and bore a lingering patina of hair and soap suds. The other two bathrooms had become glorified storage closets, full of mildewed towels and empty bottles of anti-aging creams.

I had avoided coming home for years because I had found my efforts to fight the chaos continuously frustrated. It was far easier, I realized, to accept the reality–the hordes of newspapers and old litter boxes and the styrofoam cups towering unsteadily to the ceiling. With no working showers, I just gave into the grubbiness and settled in among the disarray. It was glorious, in a way, to simply become the body I already was, without fighting the daily onslaught of effluvium and odors. My pillows smelled sour from my hair, and when I sunk into the sheets at night I breathed in a nutty fragrance, as if I was stretching out on a forest floor. What did it matter, really? I drove to the library each morning and then accompanied my father to the diner each night. I moved through the grocery store and the post office anonymously. My rhythms were entirely his. I half slept at night, alert for his turnings and grumblings, his faint sleepy cries in the early morning– “Hadassah, I hurt so bad.”

I slept in my sister’s old room, since she had rendered my own uninhabitable when she moved home two years ago, moved in her kitten, and promptly moved out my old bed, ripped off my Pre-Raphaelite posters and playbills from high school triumphs from the wall, and then moved back out, leaving behind the detritus of a shopping addiction and a cat with a urinary tract infection. She was two years younger than me, a short plump brunette who had recently moved to Boston with grand promises of becoming a freelance fashion writer.

My mother kept the door to my old bedroom closed, so Capricious the cat didn’t disappear inside. I did venture in one time. The light bulbs had burned out, leaving the ridges of possessions cast in grey light through the shuttered windows. My sister had left in a hurry, as if fleeing a war zone, abandoning piles of shoes and leather purses. The dresser was stacked with towers of Starbucks cups with lipstick rims and half-filled water bottles. An acrid smell in the air indicated that she had left a full litter box under old boxes spilling over with tissue paper. Somewhere beneath all that were my old dolls and books. She had attacked the room with a certain hostility indicating she had never forgiven me for existing, for enjoying the bigger room throughout childhood, and for resembling the fair-haired slender Collectors rather than the stocky Morgansterns.

She possessed far less patience for my father now than I did, which was surprising, given that she had always been the Daddy’s girl growing up. They rode bikes together, shot baskets for hours on end, told jokes and sang song lyrics in the car. Their clamorous antics embarrassed and annoyed me. I was very much my mother’s daughter, which meant I was quiet and absorbed in my own world. My father and sister were more sociable creatures. They possessed matching unpredictable tempers and were partners in rage as well as play. I knew I loved him (I wasn’t so sure about her) but I did spend a lot of time wishing him away, willing the house into quiet and calm. “You’re too loud with her. She doesn’t like it. Can’t you see that?” I remember my mother chiding him over the years.

In return, he courted me, stilling his loud, clumsy attentions and approaching me with a kind of reverence. He presented me with small offerings of books and ideas, usually age-inappropriate, gleaned from conversations and articles and radio shows so that at six and seven I read Clan of the Cave Bear and War and Peace and a scintillating host of Jackie Collins novels. I remember one glorious yard sale where he bought me a biography of Anne Boleyn, a biography of Queen Victoria, and a battered copy of a book about girls who went to summer camp and learned how to make voodoo dolls, and after reading all of them in furious delight, I decided that I was going to become a writer, and a historian, and go to camp the next summer. He watched me fill up a series of floral-covered bound notebooks with fledgling biographies of queens and stories about girls going to summer camp, and then he brought me home a gleaming electric typewriter.

“And why does a ten-year-old need a typewriter?” my mother had demanded sharply, but fondly.

“You’ll thank me when she gets into Harvard,” he responded smugly, watching me enthusiastically hunt and peck on the shiny black keys. “She’s smart, like you.”

I didn’t get into Harvard, but like almost all graduates of the Bryn Mawr School for girls, I ended up at a reasonably rated four-year college, and my father spent a sticky August afternoon in upstate New York moving endless boxes into my fourth-floor dorm room. After a trip to Kmart to buy an area rug, a mini-fridge, the dorm-authorized sticky gum that wouldn’t leave marks on walls, and all the other forgotten extras, my mother headed to the car, exhausted, for the seven-hour drive back to Baltimore, and he stayed behind for a moment. I had been nervous and impatient all day, by turns clinging to them and encouraging them to leave. We stood looking at each other in this room newly hung with specially purchased Pre-Raphaelite posters, and surrounded by standard wooden furniture into which I had to unpack all my clothes and books and suddenly, with his eyes still fixed on me, his body sagged and slumped and finally ruptured into sobs such as I had never heard before. Spontaneously, as if mirroring him, I cried furiously, hot with resentment at this assault on my shaky confidence in my new life. After a few moments, he gasped in a way that was almost a wail, and then turned on his heel and stumbled out of the room, and I didn’t see him again until Thanksgiving.

***

Every night, blue light flashed from the TV down the hall, and I fell asleep listening to the spluttering and popping of gunshots. My father watched old cowboy movies late into the night. He found comfort in the familiar plots and the simplistic binaries of good and evil without any moral ambiguity. In between the shrieks and the shots I could hear him murmur to the cat, “You’re my favorite daughter. I hope you know that.”

One night after I had been home for about a week, as I rolled up in an old bathrobe and a crocheted coverlet, drifting off to sleep, I heard his bed creak. The floor groaned as he made his way to Eloisa Isobel’s old room. He lingered in the doorway, his tall body drooping, his face growing so long and thin it seemed to disappear into the hollows of his throat.

“What’s going on, Daddy?” I murmured, sleepy, but alert.

“What do you think of that cat? She’s really something, isn’t she?”

I agreed with him, somewhat irritably. No one would believe it, but he had never even liked cats until a few years ago. My sister and I had begged him for a pet for most of our childhoods, to no avail. Now Capricious had become the one creature to whom he was always kind, to whom he always spoke softly. He stood in the doorway and kept talking while I wished he would go away so I could fall asleep. When I think about these moments, I wish I could have been more patient, the way he must have been with me when I was a baby and interrupted his sleep with my nonsensical noises.

He came and sat on the bed and groaned. “I’m falling apart,” he proclaimed. He wore a frayed yellowing undershirt and underpants full of holes that hung off his hips, heedless of modesty. I wondered at this frail failing body, and I thought how impossibly strange it was that he had once been a young man, that this body had once conceived two children in desire and raised them up in hope. This whole thing baffled me—the way the image that sprung into my mind when I summoned the word “Father” had shifted over the years from a red-headed giant who could repair, lift, or solve anything with which the world confronted him to a shadowy being who I needed to protect from that same world.

***

lmdallan-cropped

There is one picture of my father and I taken when I was about five, that remains my favorite. It’s a close-up of the two of us, his arm is around my waist. I’m in a blue checked dress with a white lace collar. My hair was lighter and his was darker, so we both have matching copper curls. His face is unlined, heavier, his smile is so wide it practically splits open the picture. I remember that day in diffused dreamlike scenes. He had taken me to a house where there were girls my own age. I think they were the daughters of his college friends visiting from out of town. I was supposed to be playing with them, and for some unknown reason, a sense of dread palpable even today, I refused to leave his side. I clung to him all day long, despite his attempts to nudge me in the direction of the other girls. It may have been a dream I imagined to explain the picture. But what I remember is this desire for him to shield me from the unknown. Somehow he had become the unknown, with his quicksilver moods and his storms of anger. That father to whom I had clung with such adoration was gone already, lost to the shadows that pulled him further into another world. It was as if he was stuck between those two planes of existence, and the result was mental and physical chaos. What I couldn’t decide was whether I still wanted to cling a little bit longer, how quickly I hoped he would disappear entirely into wherever he was meant to go.

Laura Michele Diener

 

Laura Michele Diener author photo

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

 

 

Jan 042017
 

amongthedeadcbsd

samuelligon

Among the Dead and Dreaming is written in chapters no more than a few pages long, and most contain multiple points of view, refracting off each other. It’s an intricate narrative that resists excerpting; by mid-book, each first-person fragment is so congested with interpersonal history that it’s impossible to extract. The following chapter—the book’s second—takes place right after the motorcycle accident that kills Cynthia and Kyle. Here, Kyle’s lover, Nikki, recalls her violent past, which is about to catch up to her. Meanwhile, her soon-to-be-threatened daughter, Alina, expresses a healthy disdain for her prevaricating mother.

—Dawn Raffel

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Nikki


At seventeen, I ran from home with a boy named George who left me broke on the street in Providence. I never found another love like we had those weeks before he disappeared, though I looked for it everywhere I went. That was my real problem, all that searching and hunger. I didn’t know you can only fall in love and run from your mother once in your life. George was the best mistake I ever made.

I stayed in Providence for months after he left, then moved to Austin, where I met my worst mistake—Cash. Maybe I was too hungry, remembering my time with George, or maybe we got together too fast, before I could really know him, but whatever the reason, pretty soon it was just me and Cash and nothing else in the world that mattered. We were happy, too, until I started looking for work. He had plenty of money, he told me, would buy me whatever I wanted. What I wanted, I told him, was my own money. I got a job at a barbecue place and the interrogations started. I wasn’t interested in anyone else, but he’d accuse me of cheating or plotting to cheat. Why else would I talk to someone or look at someone or go to a coffee shop or have ever been born?

I’d been independent too long to put up with that kind of shit. But I did put up with it—until he called me mouthy.

“What did you say?” I said, and he said, “I’m tired of the mouth on you,” and I said, “So leave,” and he said, “I don’t want to leave,” and we got into it worse than ever before, fighting all night.

He said it again a week later—“What’d I say about mouthy?”—and that’s when I knew it was over for good. But he promised to change, and even though I knew better, I forgave him. We lived in a big house on Duval Street, with a lot of other people, him in the basement, and me on the second floor. After I took him back, he started spying on me. “You don’t know what love is,” he told me, before and after I broke it off for good. “You don’t know what love is,” he told me as he stalked me and haunted me for months.

He’d break into my room, follow me around, and the more cold and pissed off I became, the more threatening he became, unhinged and dangerous, until I finally had to move out of that house. But I didn’t run far enough—only across town, where I thought I was hidden. There was a moment of rest then, maybe a month. I was so young and stupid, so hungry for love, even after all that. Maybe because of all that. I fell for this guy, Daryl, and Cash tracked me down and hurt me more than I’d ever been hurt before. I ran to Oregon, where I waited for Alina to be born, praying she was Daryl’s baby, but the minute I saw her face, blood streaked and furious, I knew she’d come from Cash. She had attached earlobes like his and my eyelids, and she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, even if she did come from Cash.

I never meant to kill him. Or I meant to and couldn’t follow through and then he died anyway, before I ran from Austin with Alina just a speck in my belly. So Kyle wasn’t my first boyfriend to die—just the one I could have made a life with, maybe, if things had been different. What happened with Cash was self defense and another reason to get on another bus and keep moving, always moving from the minute I left my mother in Manchester, always hoping to lose myself completely.

I didn’t know Cash had a brother until Burke called a few weeks ago. For a second when I heard his voice, I thought Cash was back from the dead. I couldn’t make sense of the moment, because I didn’t know Burke existed. The sound of his voice on the phone stripped me to something I didn’t want to recognize in myself, like I was eighteen again, sprung to run, ready to pop. But I wasn’t eighteen. I was thirty-one. And the only thing thatmattered was making sure Burke never found out about Alina.

Alina

My mom talks about the mistakes she made when she was young and wild, but she never tells me what I want to hear. My father, she says, died in a car accident before I was born. Other than that, she won’t talk about him at all. Ever. I’ve never seen a picture or met a grandparent. “What about diseases and stuff?” I used to ask. “What about genes?” I knew that would get to her because of her own mother’s death from cancer. And her aunt’s.

“What about genes?” she said.

“I should know who he is,” I said, “where I came from.”

“You came from me,” she said.

“You don’t know his name?”

“Jim,” she said.

But sometimes he had other names.

That was when we were living in Seattle, before I learned to stop asking. They skipped me a grade, from second to third, because I was bored and getting in trouble and she wouldn’t let them put me on drugs. She was with Hal then, off and on, a guy she met at the restaurant. I didn’t care about Hal. I didn’t care about any of them until Kyle.

Nikki

“Make sure Kyle calls and writes,” Alina told me yesterday morning, before I left her at her new school in Michigan. “He will,” I said, so grateful she was gone. Now, I’ll have to bring her home and get her away again safe, but with a broken heart this time.

Months ago, I was furious with Kyle for encouraging her to attend Interlochen. He knew I couldn’t afford boarding school, that I didn’t want her in a place filled with rich kids, that I didn’t want to lose her so young. But he kept talking about the place. He’d gone to art school himself and it changed him, he said, made him a better person. He wanted to pay her way, whatever wasn’t covered by scholarships. We’d only been seeing each other a few months.

“She doesn’t have to know where the money comes from,” he said one night when we were watching the water from a bench on the boardwalk. “It’ll be like another scholarship,” he said.  Alina was at a friend’s house. We hadn’t talked about it in weeks.

“And if it doesn’t work out, she can come home.”

He looked so open and vulnerable, so hungry to help.

“I appreciate the offer,” I said. “I really do,” and he said, “So let me do this,” and I wondered if I could—for Alina’s sake, but also because I thought falling into his debt might be good for me, too, an act of faith, a kind of surrender. I didn’t want to hold myself so tight forever. I surprised us both when I took him up on his offer a few days later, grateful for his help, until Burke called, and then I was just grateful for a place to hide Alina, pulling back from faith and surrender as fast as I could.

Kyle loved me, I know that much, whether I deserved it or not. But he was in love with Cynthia, too, and had been for years. She was rich like him and careless about money, careless about everything, the way rich people always are. The nudes he painted of me had her eyes, the reason I couldn’t love him right, because he was in love with her, the lie I told myself, the lie I keep telling.

—Samuel Ligon

N5

ligon-photo

Samuel Ligon is the author of four books of fiction, Wonderland, Safe in Heaven Dead, Drift and Swerve, and  Among the Dead and Dreaming. His stories have appeared in New England Review, Prairie Schooner, The Quarterly and many other places. His essays appear regularly in The Inlander. Ligon is the editor of Willow Springs, and Artistic Director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. He teaches at Eastern Washington University.

Jan 042017
 

ligon-photo

Ligon never lets the intellectual energy flag; he keeps the collisions coming from every direction. — Dawn Raffel

amongthedeadcbsd

Among the Dead and Dreaming
Samuel Ligon
Leapfrog Press, 2016
233 pages; $16.95

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Samuel Ligon’s exquisitely risky new novel begins with a collision. A woman named Cynthia narrates the first page, recalling her ride through a treacherous mist on the back of a motorcycle. The driver is Kyle, her lifelong friend and covert lover. Complicating matters, Cynthia is secretly pregnant—just barely—with a child whose father is her on-and-off boyfriend, Mark. The moment of impact sparks a kind of omniscient ecstasy: “I was weightless, flying, the anticipation of landing lifting me into this bright, raw awareness,” Cynthia says. In that moment she flashes on the name of her unborn child: “the beautiful baby I wrapped myself around as we flew.”

On the second page, Kyle recalls those same few instants:

“One minute we’re grounded in this gauzy white mist, the next minute we’re weightless, up, coming down…I became aware of my heartbeat in my ears, muddy and monotonous, and then I was outside of myself and frantic, listening as hard as I could—to paramedics shouting, to tires hissing and the sound of the ocean over the berm, to a train’s whistle across South Oyster Bay. But I couldn’t hear Cynthia anymore, anywhere.”

Cynthia and Kyle (along with the unborn baby, Isabelle) are dead. Turns out that what we’ve been reading are crystalline memories of the deceased. As an opening, it’s a high-wire act without a net, fraught with emotional, philosophical, and artistic jeopardy. One false move could plunge the narrative into mawkish pop sentimentality (characters looking down from heaven, anyone?) while playing it affectlessly safe would be fatally arid. Ligon maintains superb control, a feat that begs a second million-dollar question: Where does one go from here? How to evade the graveyard of novels that open astonishingly and then, the author having exhausted himself, descend into amateur psychology and other hallmarks of predictable lit (you know, that moment when everything could’ve gone right….).

Ligon never lets the intellectual energy flag; he keeps the collisions coming from every direction. The first-person narrative races between a dozen or so characters, living and dead, each speaking for only a page or two, as we start to understand not only what led up to the motorcycle accident but also how it reverberates into the future. In an extraordinary act of creative empathy, Ligon breathes life into Cynthia (privileged and lost), Mark (idealistic and emotionally bruised), Kyle (an artist with a generous, conflicted heart) and his cheated-on girlfriend Nikki (a beautiful young woman with a teenage daughter and a violent past). But oh, how the reviewer’s parentheticals reduce these label-resistant characters. Parents and exes have their say—even poor, doomed Isabelle has a word—creating a verbal kaleidoscope, a jagged and fluid illumination of death and misconnection.

The yearnings and compulsions leading to Cynthia, Kyle, and Isabelle’s deaths could, of their own, sustain a novel. Ligon renders the betrayed survivors’ rage and confusion with eerie intimacy. When Mark goes back to Cynthia’s apartment, he can’t bear to listen to the messages blinking on her answering machine “because checking them would mean she was never coming back.” Later, he forces himself to hear Kyle’s recorded voice (“Hey, baby….”), then continues to listen to the tape after slamming a potted plant to the floor:

“Another message came on the machine and for a minute I couldn’t tell if it was me or the caller breathing so hard, and then I knew it was him again—his ragged, raspy breathing—maybe dead now, somehow calling from deathland,” Mark says. “But as I made my way to the kitchen, I heard myself saying her name on the machine, my electronic voice so muted and small, as if a pallet of bricks was sitting on my chest.” This was the call he had made right after her death, longing to hear her voice on tape, leaving a message consisting only of her name. “Or maybe,” Mark says, “it was me from the future, somehow calling from deathland.”

The nervy juxtaposition of the living, the dead, and the living past, accrues to the sense that everything happens—at least on some level—simultaneously, and part of what’s here is a deep meditation on ever-present loss. After Mark understands that Cynthia was pregnant, he says, “I sat in traffic surrounded by people going to work, imagining Cynthia and Kyle and the baby ghost floating through space, weightless, holding hands, never growing older, and I wondered what age would be ideal for death if that’s how you’d spend eternity—floating through space like an amoeba on the ocean.” But Ligon’s genius is to rip us away from moody brooding by layering in a page-turning plot, giving the trio who died an endangered counterpoint in Mark and Nikki, and Nikki’s daughter, Alina.

Unlike the manicured company in which she finds herself, Nikki has a bloody past. As a pregnant teenage runaway, she accidentally killed Alina’s rapacious, drug-fueled father, Cash, in drunken self-defense. Nikki fled Texas, and no one suspected her. More than a dozen years later, Kyle had become a father-figure to her daughter. But just before the crash that killed Kyle, Nikki began receiving harrowing phone calls from someone who sounded alarmingly like dead lover #1.

Burke is Cash’s brother. We learn, through his fevered narration, that he’d taken the fall for his sibling in a drug bust and was stewing in prison for the entire duration of Cash and Nikki’s relationship. Upon his release, having sacrificed fifteen years of his life for his little brother, only to have that brother snuffed out, he fixated on long-ago photos of Nikki. She had to be dead, he reckoned, killed by whoever murdered Cash (bumbling drug thugs, likely). When he discovers that she is still alive, with a home on Long Island, New York, his thoughts turn poisonous.

Burke is crazy and canny, with nothing to lose, which makes him a perfect, malevolent storm. From his first phone call to a startled Nikki, he knows she is lying about a few things—for instance, her improvised statement that she had already moved and was living in Oak Bluff, Illinois, the night Cash died. “I didn’t want to believe she done it and didn’t believe it,” Burke says, “but the suspicion would creep up on me, the guiding hand turning my head to something I didn’t want to look at, things she said or how she said them, like the fact that there wasn’t no Oak Bluff, Illinois, at least not according to Rand McNally, though maybe I heard it wrong, because I knew she loved him and would love me too, especially with him gone and me the person most like him in the world. But then it seemed like she just wanted to push me away—maybe because she was still so hurt, I couldn’t tell. And I didn’t know how to test it without pushing her further, which I didn’t want to do. She was all I had and wanted in the world.”

In subsequent phone calls, a panicked Nikki offers $10,000, then $20,000 she doesn’t have in order to get Burke to leave her alone; he ups the ante to $50,000. Convinced by now of her guilt, he schemes to retrieve the payout and then exact fantastic revenge. Soon Nikki has grief-addled Mark enmeshed in her desperate quest for the blackmail money. Most urgently, she wants to protect Alina, who knows nothing about her father or her mother’s past.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say the story turns brutal, as Burke, Mark, and Nikki converge at the edge of madness, and Alina becomes a target. But Ligon keeps twisting events in unexpected ways. It’s rare to find a hair-trigger plot in a novel this elegant; you could call it a literary thriller, if that term hadn’t lost credibility by being slapped all over books that are neither literary nor thrilling.

Ligon, it’s worth noting, is equally gifted as a short story writer, with a formally inventive collection, Wonderland, also out this year. He is also the author of a well-received previous novel, Safe in Heaven Dead, and first collection, Drift and Swerve. A writer’s obsessions are portable—beyond that, inescapable—and his are desire and peril, tinted noir. Ligon teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University, edits the journal Willow Springs and is the creative director of the Port Townsend Writers Conference—a literary hyphenate whose bio lists him as “writer, editor, talk show host, teacher, goat and donkey enthusiast.” He just can’t help but flip you a trippy wildcard, as if to say, whatever you were thinking, think again.

Among the Dead and Dreaming is a book to read and re-read—once because you need to know what happens, a second time because you want to linger over particular passages, and then perhaps a third time, to try to figure out how he pulled the whole thing off. As with any book worth studying, you’ll never fully know.

In Ligon’s world, every emotion and impulse shimmers with its opposite, every moment is saturated with the consciousness of others, and every boundary is subject to erasure—as when Mark says of Cynthia, “Her presence was everywhere and then her absence, and then her presence again, so that her presence and absence felt like the same thing.”

Perhaps it’s nascent Isabelle, never to be born, who says it best in the one word ever allotted to her: Oh.

—Dawn Raffel

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Dawn Raffel

Dawn Raffel’s previous books are two story collections — Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division — and a novel, Carrying the Body. She is the books editor at Reader’s Digest and the editor of The Literarian, the online journal of the Center for Fiction in New York.

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Jan 032017
 

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newspaper

I saw my first airplane when I was eight.  Stiff and angular, it growled across the sky, leaving behind it a trail of white shit.  I found Mother cooking porridge, and asked her what kind of bird that had been.  She called it a plane, and said it carried people from one place to another.

“Can’t the people walk?” I asked.

“Planes go places too far away to walk,” she said.

“Where do they go?” I wanted to know.  “What do the people do when they get there?

“Mapenzi,” Mother said, “can’t you see I’m busy?”

Thus began my fascination with flight.

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As I  was walking home from school a few months later, Grandfather called me over.   He measured my height against his walking stick and pretended to be impressed.

“Doing well with your studies?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“Do you want to work in the yam fields when you grow up?” he asked.

“I want to ride in a plane,” I replied.

“Eh!” he laughed.  “You have to be important to do that.”

“How do I become important?”

“Stay in school,” he said.  “Listen to your Mr.”

But I struggled in school.  I fidgeted and I squirmed.  A million thoughts and ideas flew in and out of my mind, none of which had anything to do with Mr.’s plodding lessons.  He often called me out during the day. “Sit still, Mapenzi!” he would say. “You’re disrupting class again.”

One day he reached into his desk and pulled out a bush yam, which he held in front of me.  “Mapenzi,” he explained, “this used to be a student just like you.  But the boy disobeyed his teacher, so God deserted him. Look at him now.”   The room went silent.  I searched Mr.’s face for some sign he was teasing.  He balanced the yam on my head.  “If it falls,” he said, “you’ll feel my ruler on each ear.”

The yam fell twice that day.  I went home with red ears and a bruised ego.

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Yet there were two things about school that I did like. I had recently discovered the World Atlas, which rested on a five-shelf cabinet that comprised our school library.   I spent my lunch hours leafing through its plastic-coated pages.   The world map captivated me most: candy-colored, cloud-shaped countries, nestled against the pale blue backdrop of our six connecting oceans.  Mr. had inked a small black dot on the map, pinpointing the location of Chisongo.

“Chisongo’s that small?” I asked him.

He nodded.  “Even smaller.”

“That includes the school, and the students? The police station, and the church, and my village, and my family, all that?”

I understood now the importance of airplanes.  There were so many places to see that were too far to walk.  I learned the names of the countries.   Some were easier to remember than others: Chad, for example, and Mali.  Some sounded elegant and exotic:  Bolivia, and my personal favorite, England.

The other thing I liked about school involved the walk home, which took me through Mazuba’s village. She would greet me in the road, lifting a fistful of peanuts or a dumpling from inside her skirt and placing them, still warm from her skin, in my hand. Mazuba would accompany me for a distance, encouraging my stories of places we would one day visit together.  She knew about my difficulties in school, and I shared with her what Grandfather had said.

“I don’t know what to do,” I confided.  “I am not a good student.”

“Why not ask God?” she suggested.

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That Sunday at church I sat upright and still.  When the priest asked us to bow our heads and pray, for once I had something to communicate.  “Dear God,” I said, “Staying in school won’t help me fly.  Is there something I can do instead?”   I waited for an answer but heard nothing.  When the choir began to sing I opened my eyes and found the priest looking my way. He shook his head as if to say ‘No’, before turning towards the singers.

I spent two more days that week with the yam on my head, and multiple welts on my ears.

Mother said she liked to go down to the river and talk with our ancestors when she needed something.   So I took the narrow path through the tall grass to the water, and squatted on the sandy bank.  What did it look like to ask ancestors for something?  I picked up a rock and tossed it into the current. It disappeared with a blopp!  “Good evening, Ancestors,” I said.  “I was born to fly in a plane.  I know this like I know a river is a river and the sky is the sky.  Can you help me?”  I left two dumplings on a small plate of leaves, hoping it would further my cause.

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The next day in school I felt particularly restless. I recall someone behind me whispering “Uh, oh, Mapenzi,” then Mr. approaching my desk with the yam and his ruler. I pulled my shirt collar up to protect my ears, and suddenly mayhem broke out. The students around me began to scream. He is going to do something terrible, I said to myself, burrowing further into my clothes. I hid, awaiting a blow that never came. Desks rustled and footsteps shuffled. Someone pulled back my shirt.  Above me the students hovered in a circle.

“Mapenzi has turned into a yam!” a boy yelled. Mr. pushed the students aside, took one look, and fainted.  Eager boys stepped over him to get a better view.  Three students left the classroom and returned with the headmistress.

“Children!” she cried. The students cleared a path to my chair. “This is Mapenzi?” she asked, picking me up.  She turned me around, studied me from up close and far away.  She sniffed my skin, then found the oldest boy in the class: “Have the secretary tend to your teacher,” she instructed, “and tell her I’ll be back.”  She carried me over the red clay schoolyard, past the church, and across the five-block town to the police station.

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“You are telling me this is a boy?” the police officer asked.

“He’ll be safest here,” the headmistress said.

“I have an empty cell,” he suggested.

“You’re going to lock him up like a criminal?”

“Headmistress,” he replied, “this is a jailhouse, not a hotel.”

My parents arrived shortly thereafter: Mother, crying, with my baby brother strapped to her back, my two sisters, older brother, and finally Father, who talked with the police officers outside the cell. Mother spit into her palm and attempted to tame the roots sprouting from my sides like wiry appendages.

“My poor Mapenzi,” she lamented. “Don’t worry, though, Father is talking with the officers about bringing you home with us today.”

I did not go home that day.  The police chief explained to my wailing mother that had he been present when I arrived, he would never have let them book me. But since I was now officially incarcerated, procedures had to be followed.

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Lying on my back in the jail cell, a sense of wellbeing overtook me. Perhaps because I had no way to move, I no longer felt the need to be in motion. No one told me what to do in there. No one punished me for what I seemed unable to do.

Word of my condition spread quickly, and a line began to form outside the jail. One officer wondered aloud why they didn’t charge admission, and so they did. To the “Northern Provincial Jail” sign outside, they added “See Yam Boy — Price 3 Kwacha.” Soon the station also accepted homebrew and cigarettes from would-be gawkers with no cash. I began counting days in faces rather than hours.

Mazuba visited, bringing sunshine into my cell. She waited silently next to my chair, as though expecting a travel story, and it broke my heart that I couldn’t deliver one. When an officer rapped on the bars and called out, “Time’s up,” she set a fistful of peanuts on the chair beside me. For a moment I could almost feel her warmth radiating off of the shells. But then the guard swept them absentmindedly into his pocket as he bellowed his okay for the next customer.

The priest came by. He examined me and asked for the head of police. “What kind of circus are you running here?” he asked. The chief fingered the keys on his belt loop and said nothing.

The congregation built a special receptacle for me inside the church. Mother cradled me in a towel, with the priest beside her as we walked from the police station. A parade of believers followed, praising the Lord for the sign He had given.

The priest soon began expressing concern about the expenses involved in housing a tuber, so entrance fees were reinstated. People arrived from farther and farther afield. They prayed over me, they touched me (an extra fee), they asked for my blessing. Mother visited one day in a new green flowered dress. She hung a map of Zambia on the wall next to me, marking with toothpicks the hometowns of our visitors.

The church expanded to include a café, and then a bookshop. Chisongo’s first hotel went up, and then people with light skin and fine, silky hair began to arrive. The Chinese quickly paved a road from our small town to the capital in the south. Mother hung a map of the world next to the one of our country.

Words could not express my delight when the priest hired Mazuba to collect Yam Boy tickets during the day, and to sweep the floors after closing. She stayed longer when she could. Together we would listen to the vibrating tymbals of the cicadas, and breathe in the fragrances of curbside dinner preparations. One evening when rain had left the air wet and heavy, she sat down on the font pew. “Remember those stories you used to tell me,” she asked, “about all the places we’d fly together?” She sloped onto her side, yawning. “It seems so silly now, but I used to really believe that one day they’d come true.” She closed her lids and slipped gently into sleep. I could not take my eyes off of her curled form, off the delicate flaring of her nostrils with each inhalation. How was it possible feel so utterly miserable in the presence of someone I loved so deeply?

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My body began to transform anew. Dark blotches established themselves on my skin. A crack developed in my side, with a crusty edge that flaked off to reveal more discolored tissue below.

At Mother’s request, Grandfather came by to evaluate my condition. He ran a thickly calloused finger along the fissure.  “Yam rot,” he confirmed.

Mother twined her fingers.  “Can he be saved?”

“My dear Child,” Grandfather put a hand on her shoulder and looked at her fixedly, “I’ve been growing tubers all of my life. Whatever this might have been before, it is now a yam. It has no intelligence, no consciousness, it can’t think or feel.

Mother began to cry.

“You can prolong its life,” he added, “but only if you are willing to treat a yam like a yam.”

Back home I traveled, in the fist of my grandfather. He toted me to the outskirts of our village, repeatedly turning around and telling Mother to scram.

I willed myself to jump and run as he pulled out his knife. He wasted no time lacerating my skin, cutting a deep gash around the fissure and scooping out the damaged tissue. Oh the pain! If only I still had teeth I would have given Grandfather a taste of his own medicine that day. He snipped away the remaining areas of discoloration, then rubbed my weeping, tender flesh with wood ash. He corralled the infected scraps with his foot into a pile and set it alight with a match.

I cured for four days with the harvest’s damaged tubers, sweating and steaming under rice grass and jute bags.   I drifted in and out of sleep as my wounds healed and a new, thin protective outer layer of skin formed.

My family constructed a simple, open-air hut with an elevated grass mat to maximize ventilation. I detected a hint of pride as Grandfather installed me, renewed from curing, in my new home.

Mother eyed me approvingly.  “So he’s all healthy now?” she asked.

“If you want it to last forever,” Grandfather groused, “take it to Solwezi and have it canned.”

Mother began to cry.

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Mother continued to come by, but she no longer sang or brought news of my family.  Folds of skin began to develop beneath her eyes.

My hearing and vision started to dull, and my base softened.  Mother packed healing herbs around me in hopes of preserving what she could of my fading health.  Grandfather confirmed the worst.  “It will not be long now,” he said.

Late one afternoon as the church was preparing to close for the day, a visitor from afar stepped into the room.  She introduced herself as Ashley.  She had flown from Europe after a friend had forwarded her a newspaper clipping about me.  Ashley’s cameraman lifted me out of my receptacle with great care, and snapped pictures from various angles.

“My church in England wants you to come visit,” she said.  “You’re famous.”

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For days after Ashley’s visit, Mother informed anyone who would listen that I was not going anywhere.  “He can’t travel,” she said.  “He’s dying.”

The priest dipped his head with understanding.  “A mother’s primary concern is always what’s best for her children,” he said.

Our priest often disarmed congregants by ascribing good intentions to them. As Mother’s mouth softened and her shoulders relaxed, I had a hopeful sense of where he might be taking her.

“And yet,” he said, “Mapenzi’s time on earth is soon ending, whether he stays or goes. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves what he would want in the short time he has remaining.”

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I was small enough to qualify as a lap child, so the English church paid for Mazuba to accompany me. In her handbag she carried instructions for the packing and transportation of my remains back home to Chisongo.

I wove in and out of consciousness as we taxied over the tarmac to the runway, and then slowed to a stop. The deep voooorrrrrr-ing of the engines rattled my insides.

Mazuba held me up to the Plexiglas as the aircraft rolled forward, crawling at first, then picking up speed. The fields and trees shot by, eventually blurring into a solid wall of green. The pilot nudged the plane’s nose into the air, and we were off.

The magic of flying — the pressure of my body against Mazuba’s hand as we gained altitude; the losing and regaining of the horizon as the plane turned once, then a second time; the peculiar sensation of being rooted on solid ground while floating on the air coalesced with the pride of having achieved my goal.

Below us the square roofs of the city gave way to kilometers of forest speckled with occasional clusters of thatched and metal huts. I imagined one of those groupings to be Chisongo, with the students waving from the red clay courtyard; Mother, Father and my brothers and sisters shielding their eyes from the light to catch a glimpse of me, traveling somewhere too far away to walk. I sent my heartfelt thanks to Mr. and to all of the other human and spiritual advocates, for the roles they played in getting me here. We passed into a layer of clouds, then up into the bright sunshine with a sky as blue as the six connecting oceans of my schoolroom atlas.

—Laura Fine-Morrison

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Laura Fine-Morrison has worked in a variety of organizations, largely in a human resources capacity.  She has moonlighted as a freelance journalist and business writer. During college, she was awarded a three-month research fellowship to study community banking among market women in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. She has also volunteered as a French-English interpreter in Mali, raised funds for fistula clinics in Tanzania, started a small business venture with an Ethiopian leather goods manufacturer, and rooted for Ghana in the South African quarterfinals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. She lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter. This is her first published short story and she is damned pleased about it!