Aug 162017
 

Editor-in-chief prepares to leave the building.

Now is the moment for reflection, gratitude, and farewells. Not that I am going away or anyone else connected with the magazine for that matter. It’s just that we won’t appear again in quite this form. (And I am going to sell the white horse, which has started to attract attention.)

The magazine started with a group of friends feeling outsiderish and piratical, and it has persisted in that light, though the names have gradually changed over time. There are 40 people on the masthead today; the list of artists and writers who have appeared in the magazine could fill a small town; and then there are our readers, most of whom we will never know, though some, in keeping with our policy, have become writers for the magazine and friends.

The fact that we got so big and lasted so long (on fumes) is miraculous.

It would be invidious to single out individuals, but there are some who by their intelligence and loyalty have altered my thin view of the human race. And others whose sheer bloody-minded willingness to throw their support behind an upstart magazine and persist have taught me something about the nature of friendship and the value of art. I will never forget the decency, kindness and camaraderie that have characterized NC’s inner workings. You are an astonishing tribe. I am eternally grateful.

My sons grew to adults under the sign of Numéro Cinq (while my dog — the blue dog of NC fame — grew ancient and incontinent). It was ever a topic of dinner table conversation (Mission Control has always been in the bedroom, where my laptop lives). Jonah designed the logo. Jacob still reads with the analytic eye he learned writing reviews for the magazine.

Now the feeling around here is distinctly autumnal, and I am a bit anxious about what I am going to do with myself when I don’t have to get up in the morning and attend to the magazine chores.

As for the site, it will remain live as a monument to us all. All your work, the archives, the special features and anthologies, will be available. Possibly, I will post in the NC Blog now and then on matters relating to the magazine. I’ve been using the “Out & Back” blog category as my personal blog; I might have to sort that out (or not).

There are going to be loose ends. Story of my life.

A few issues back I mentioned a speech from Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander that seemed to capture the feeling. It’s very early in the film. Oscar Ekdahl is making his annual speech to the cast after the Christmas pageant in the little family-owned theatre.

Dear friends, dear fellow workers, dear family! For twenty-two years I have stood here and made a speech. I am not really any good at this sort of thing. My only talent, if you can call it a talent in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse. And I’m fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds for a moment in reflecting the big world, so that we understand it better. Or is it perhaps that we give the people who come here the chance of forgetting for a while, forgetting for a while the harsh world outside. Our theatre is a small room of orderliness, routine, conscientiousness, and love. I don’t know why I am so awfully moved today of all days. I feel so comically solemn. I can’t explain how I feel. I had better be brief.

(He shakes his head, raises his glass, and looks at the people gathered around him.)

—Douglas Glover

Aug 152017
 

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Not sure why they want to fuck us. Is it because we look like children never been adults? Or is because we look like adults always been children? Either way the pretty tall boys keep on coming down from Colorado and California and stay at the El Paso Camino Real looking for a KILLVest® and some hot dwarf action. They say they can’t die up north anymore. KILLVests® illegal now. Dwarves mostly exterminated back in ’48. They tired of sitting around in their big houses going to work everyday, making money. Tired of all that life, all that living. They ask at what point living no different than death? They need a way to tell the difference. To remember who and what they are. Get themselves fake-killed. Be fake-resurrected. Fuck a dwarf. Maybe then they see the point of living again, go back to work refreshed, happy, love their wives like they should, give to charity, be good.

Problem is we don’t have no KILLVests® in the Free Zone of El Paso neither. We poor. All we got is my Big Billy Boy’s bowie knife and some old Texas Army Kevlar vests. We got to real kill with fake-KILLVests® just they like they got to fuck a dwarf so they ain’t cheating on their tall fake-boobed blonde wives. It makes sense somehow. Not to me, I’m just a dwarf, but to somebody somewhere, I suppose.

Billy Boy gives them a fake-vest don’t look nothing like a real vest and I start taking off my clothes real slow. Then right when they getting all into it, get a little taste, Billy Boy starts hacking. They excited for the knife until they realize they ain’t got no real vest and they going to real die. Or maybe not. Maybe they real die just like they fake die. Who can tell the difference? Not me. I can’t even watch.

Sometimes I get cold feet, beg Billy Boy to stop. I ask, can’t we just take the man’s money? But Billy Boy says how we going to let him go, Darling? Where they going to go to? They got to die because that’s what they really want to do, that’s why they here in the first place. He says if we let them go they just go back and tell more people where we are. Then they’ll come with the drones and the dogs and they’ll kill us for sure. I don’t know, I say. They people. My mama taught me all people got a right to live, tall, short, everyone. But he says life don’t matter much, anyway. All life meant to die. Whether they do it now or later just a matter of time, and time ain’t anything at all.

Can’t argue with him. He’s been all over the old U.S. with the Texas Army before he went AWOL and settled in the El Paso Free Zone. He’s done read a bunch of books too. Well, one book actually. But he’s read that one a lot. It’s a book about science. Explains the universe. Says we just bugs, all of us, talls, dwarves, even Billy Boy, and we all come from the sea and one day we all going back.

Hard to believe that’s true but I never read no book or seen no sea. Been in this desert ever since my mama brought me all the way to El Paso from Brazil when I was a little dwarf just like my grandmother took her from Naples to Brazil when she was a little dwarf. I told Billy Boy the other day I want to see the sea with my own two eyes, see if it’s true. I want to make it to the real water before I die. I tell him that’s how I know the difference between life and death.

Billy Boy smiles real big. Billy Boy thinks that’s the funniest thing in the world. Sea’s so big, he says. You so small! Go ahead and laugh, I tell Billy Boy. You know for a scientific fact we dwarves fuck. Think we can’t swim too? Think we scared of the sea?

***

Three weeks back I was coming out the Camino Real bathroom in a poofy-white halter-top antebellum number with more makeup than an albino clown and this boy says his name’s Absalom and he’d like to buy me a drink. But he says it all nervous like, like he doesn’t know how to use the words he’s saying, like they don’t sound right to him or he’s reading them from a book. He’s hardly a man at all, not tall, a boy really, might even have a little bit of dwarf in him, with those wrinkles around those bright blue eyes and pretty lips. I take his hand and lead him to the blue circle bar and say why, certainly I’d like a drink, we dwarf ladies do get parched during the summer months.

Billy Boy’s waiting in the truck outside. Good thing too. Way Absalom’s friends laughing on the other side of the blue bar, making faces and sticking fingers in finger holes, Billy Boy might start the slaughter early, then we’d never see no sea; we’d be murdered by the robot police or strung up on a West Texas crucifix. I ask for another Shirley Temple. Talls always love that. Think it cute. Sure tastes like shit though. Tried getting the bartender to slip some gin in there on the sly last year, but he’s an ancient Mexican with cataracts the size of dimes, thinks I’m a little girl. Always asking me about my momma. She’s upstairs I tell him. Got a wicked headache.

Absalom’s saying he’s here to economically develop the area around the Camino Real. He wants to revitalize the Border, show the South what the West can do for them because we all friends in the end. His friends saying they’d like to revitalize something all right and it’s about three feet tall with boobies like a Texas Barbie doll. I say I think that’s right and proper, decent of him, being so concerned with our border welfare and the good people of the El Paso Free Zone. The boy blushes real hard and I feel bad because I can’t remember the last time I blushed actual rather than used a brush. Days like this I don’t want to fuck no mark and certainly don’t want to see a man die. Days like this I just want to go home and watch a movie with Billy Boy, a movie about a different world than this one, ones that used to be or the talls used to imagine the world might be. But Billy Boy don’t watch no movies. Says they rot the mind.

“Aren’t you the sweetest thing I ever did see,” I say. Absalom’s friends think this is funny. “You sure are sweet, Absalom,” one of them says. “Absalom too sweet for a dried up dwarf.” Absalom tells them to shut up, but I say it’s all right, putting my small hand on his forearm, giving them other boys a meaningful stare. “We just having a good time,” I say. “Don’t none of us here mean no harm.”

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Billy Boy drives Absalom and me to the hotel like he a cab service and says he always likes seeing young love and for a little extra he can get the both of us some real thrills. Got him some authentic KILLVests® back at the place. It’s the same old song and dance. Absalom don’t know what to say. He tongue-tied. Keeps on looking into my eyes like he found something he’s been looking for his whole life. But his is a short life, maybe twenty years, going to stay short too. What he know about what he’s been waiting for? How someone live so little know anything at all?

Back at the apartment, Absalom’s feeling the whiskey and starts talking about his wife, how they just married and she don’t really know who he is and he don’t know if he loves her, because what’s love? Billy Boy’s already got the fake vests out, lined up on the table like they bumps of coke. He’s telling me to get comfortable too, show off my lacy underpants, telling Absalom what fun it is to die and then come back again, pushing the murder and the sex along, like he heard what Absalom’s friends were all saying to me inside, like he sees in this poor baby Absalom all those other men Billy Boy’s seen kill and rape and pillage dwarves and talls in those battles he fought on the other side of the border, or like he’s seeing Absalom for a number in that book he reads, like this boy all boys and all boys the same boy and it don’t make no difference how they die and who makes them die because they all already dead.

“Billy Boy,” I say. “Maybe Absalom just wants another drink. Maybe Absalom don’t want no KILLVest®. Maybe he just wants an old-fashioned good time. We don’t even know the boy yet. As an individual.”

Absalom’s picking at the vest, holding it up to the exposed light, eyes lizard big. Ever since they banned them up north ten years back, these northern boys want to know what the fuss’ about. Want to know why you got to ban something that kills and don’t kills a person. You think people would’ve sense enough not not kill themselves, especially one as pretty as Absalom. But next thing you know he’s got it on, and he’s looking at himself in the mirror. Feels himself a man now, big, taller than Billy Boy even, and sits down next to me on our old couch, a smile on his face like he just popped the prom queen’s cherry.

“You want a good time, don’t you, Absalom?” asks Billy Boy. “You want you to have a good time with Darling here. Maybe get yourself into a fight. Maybe get yourself killed. You want to see what it’s like don’t you? What it’s like to live like us? We got real lives down here in the El Paso Free Zone. This ain’t no Denver.”

Absalom’s laughing now. Thinks he’s a man. They no good. I know that. Even a pretty one like Absalom. They gladly fuck me and then see me strung up on the tiny crosses lining the road to Colorado. Wouldn’t even blink their giant eyes. Take all kinds of pleasure in beating me up. In seeing me hurt and then forgetting that dwarves can hurt all at the same time. But that don’t mean I can’t stand the light in their eyes going away. Light ain’t meant to go away. That’s all it ever seems to do. Especially with Billy Boy around. He’s got something awful for the light.

“Absalom’s friends saw me at the Camino, Billy Boy,” I say, pulling my dress back on, over my lacy underthings, not really thinking, just stalling, not liking the way the knife just stop things, all sudden. “Friends got big mouths. We don’t want trouble from the law. Maybe we should play with the KILLVests® some other time. Maybe Absalom needs to go back to his mama.”

Billy Boy gives me a look like he might kill me instead. He’s got big features, like a bat ate too many mice and then got so sick it can’t fly. Makes me want to laugh sometimes. Hard to imagine a face like that saw all the violence it seen, did what it did to these northern boys. Hard to imagine a face like that hurting cockroaches skittering up our apartment walls. But don’t matter how many dwarf wrinkles you got or if your face pretty and smooth as a baby’s butt, stabbing a knife is stabbing a knife, don’t take no monster to do it.

“Absalom’s a grown man,” says Billy Boy, pulling out that knife, staring now like Absalom a fish with a hook in the lungs, can’t go back in the water, going to die anyhow, so someone’s got to be a man, someone’s got to stand tall, finish the flopping thing off. Absalom got a big grin on his face, glancing back and forth at me and Billy Boy, like we at a movie about a dingy El Paso apartment with roaches on the walls, water leaking through the ceiling, like his life something his momma didn’t give him, just be thrown away like ours already has been. “Pull up that skirt now, Darling,” said Billy Boy. “Give pretty boy a sight to see before the end.”

I started pulling up my skirt, taking my underpants off, and then stop. Absalom crying. Scared. Like my momma was before the militias shot her in the head. Like I was before Billy Boy found me in a rain gutter up underneath Highway 10, eating banana peels and drinking Thunderbird, turning tricks for a motorcycle-meth gang. Billy Boy says you can’t show pity. You show pity, you die. But I can’t help it. I go to rub Absalom’s crotch, like I’m going to take off his pants. Absalom starts sobbing hard and I roll around him, onto the floor, kick Billy Boy in the shins. Billy Boy so surprised he drops the knife. It clatters on the linoleum like a gunshot. “Run!” I shout. “Run, Absalom! We going to kill you. You really going to die!”

Absalom’s not crying no more. Rubs his face. Backs toward the door.  “You can’t,” he says. “I can’t die.”

“We all die,” says Billy Boy, picking up the knife. But Absalom’s already off, stumbling through the door, down the stairwell. I hear shouts down the way, illegal boarders cussing him something awful for messing up their hallway blankets and their tents. Billy Boy picks up his knife, goes through the door, stands at the top of the stairs, his shadow hunched. I’m laying on the couch my skirt hiked up, my organ showing to the world, thinking about my dead mama, where dwarves and talls come from, wondering why there’s so much coming and going, so much undressing and putting back on, why we can’t be naked and stay that way, without no vests or knives.

Billy Boy walks back in, stands over me. “I’m sorry, Billy Boy,” I say. “I couldn’t do it.” Billy Boy leans down from up high, kisses me on the forehead. Says it ain’t no fault of mine. Says softheartedness an evolutionary condition. Price of being a dwarf, says Billy Boy. I aint got no perspective. Can’t see the big picture. I grab his fingers, tell him to come close, lie down, relax for a bit, talk to me. But he says he’s tired. He says he’s going to read his book, book says alls there is to say.

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Absalom had friends in high places. Should have known, pretty tall like that. Turns out he’s the son of a north general in charge of an army wants an end to all dwarf sanctuary towns, sick and tired of dwarf lies, wants peace forever and ever. They say on the loudspeakers and on the floating televisions screens if the El Paso Free Zone can’t control our dwarves then they can’t economically develop the city and if they can’t economically develop the city we all going to die and kill each other like wild dwarves so they going to clean up the city with their drones and their robots and their Assault Rifle Patriot Clubs.

But first they have to kill us. It is beautiful from the top of a mountain—the killing. The city glows like it never done from inside. Dark shadows, could be talls, could be dwarves, explode like moths flaring up in candles the size of Jesus. Drones dart in and out of the fire, putting it out with more explosions.  Camino Real and a few other hotels crumble. Highway 10 breaks in half. Billy Boy says many cities have done the same. No use getting upset. Billy Boy had some friends of his, Indian tribes come down from Ruidoso, take me up to Franklin Mountain to be safer. He says what’s going to go down no place for a pretty dwarf like me. I say it’s my fault. He says it ain’t no one’s fault. Bound to happen eventually. I say I can fight just like the rest of them. He smiles and says Darling, you a lover, not a fighter. I said he the same. That’s why we in love. But he says, no. He don’t believe in love. We just bugs in the end.

So I’m sitting on the Franklin ridge, holding Billy Boy’s science book, split like a hump between this world and the next, my small body peering down into the crackling flames, smelling the charring, waiting for my Billy Boy to come back, not believing it but knowing in my heart that he will, and then just when I’m about to give up hope, picturing him head shot like my Mama by some boy in blue, Billy Boy does come back, crawling up a path guarded by two fat young Indians. The Indians tell him to put his arms up but he says he can’t, his legs no good, shot to hell by drones. Indians says they better shoot him just in case. To be safe. Billy Boy says he just needs to say goodbye to his Darling. One Indian tells the other it be easier to shoot.

I scream, “Don’t you dare shoot!” and push past the Indians to embrace my Billy Boy. His face gone black with gunpowder and dried blood. He smiles. His teeth red as Texas wildflowers. They got my legs good, he says. Ain’t felt this kind of pain in a while. Ain’t felt anything this real in forever. Reminds me of the old days.

“Bullshit,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“Stop your moaning,” I say.

“But, Darling, this is the end.”

“Answer me a question,” I say. “Why you ever alive then, you don’t like life?”

“Why Darling, I don’t know. I’m hurting. I can’t think right. I’m in pain.”

His legs bone white and chunked red and black. Smells like burnt bacon. Fatter Indian smoking a cigarette now, says it sad but Billy Boy’s a goner, cooked like a turkey. Says they’ll bury him with the dead Indians if I want. Maybe he go with the dead Indian God though they seen no evidence of their god being a particularly powerful God, being how they living on a mountain and still dying in droves even five hundred years after they got their land taken from them. I tell them to shut their depressing mouths. We ain’t dead yet, I say.

Billy Boy tells me to calm down. Tells me he wants a kiss before he goes, one more kiss from Darling. I bend down to kiss but stop short, rip my skirt off. Indians start hooting and hollering and whistling. I rip my dress in half, wrap Billy’s boy’s legs above the knee, shove a piece of dress in Billy Boy’s mouth. Take his knife, jab it in the campfire for a minute. “Wha yo don?” Billy Boy mumbles. He’s fading fast. “Don’t burn my knife. My knife a good knife.”

I bring the knife down on his thick good thigh meat above the knee. “You the devil!” Billy Boy screams, spitting out the cloth. I do the same to the other. The Indians watch on, taking swigs of purple liquor, like they feeling his pain, like they wearing KILLVests® and I’m doing it to them. “Shit,” they saying. “Shit.” I cut harder, all the way through the bone, until I’m down in the dirt stone, until I’m stabbing into the Franklin Mountain itself.

“I thought you said we just animals?” I scream at Billy Boy, wiping spit and tears and blood from my mouth. “How I a devil too?” But Billy Boy can’t hear me. He’s passed out, drops of sweat beading like clay on his forehead, teeth sticking out of his lip, blood all over the place, like he a mosquito been popped by Jesus. The city burning harder now down below, more robots and drones and rampaging armies coming in from the South, and East and West, Mexicans, Arizonans, New Mexicans, Texans, Americans, Hell’s Angels, Banderos, Rangers, Zetas, Christian Nationalists, Jihadists, Shiks, Nazis, Communists, Libertarians, Anarchists, Russians, Brazilians, Montenegrins, all going to clean the place up, make it pure again.

I get the Indians to help me drag Billy Boy’s legs to a green bush, the only one on the mountain not burnt. We dig a hole and put the legs and Billy Boy’s science book in there. Then we drink purple liquor together, damn sight better than a Shirley Temple. “I never bury no legs before,” says one of the Indians after the last clod goes over Billy Boy’s chopped legs. “Don’t seem right.”

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We make it across Texas in Billy Boy’s truck, stopping only in small towns, telling them Billy Boy’s my papa. Cars and empty buildings flicking by so I feel like maybe I’m dead, maybe I died in El Paso with everyone else, and now I’m just running like I’m on rewind, repeating like a stuck video. But it’s not a bad feeling. It’s better than being afraid of ghosts like I was, killing and whoring because I didn’t know no better, because I can’t imagine a world different than it is. Billy Boy’s mostly quiet, sweating bullets, begging for death. But I tell him to hush. I tell him all you talls think you get to choose when you die, like you in charge of heaven and earth. But that’s not how it works.

Politician on the radio say dwarves’ evil. Got no soul. Maybe it’s true. How something with no soul know it ain’t got one? I don’t got no answer, so I turn the radio off and keep on driving, passing green trees, green lawns, green fields, so green it hurt my eyes. Then the truck’s engine and brakes screaming something awful, like a thousand child demons being cut to pieces under the hood, and I’m thinking we have another few hours driving left at most. I take Billy Boy’s hand. He’s moaning now, kicking his stumps, saying he don’t want to go back, go forward, go anywhere and in the engine racket I almost think this is the end, that the Four Horsemen caught up to us, going to split us in half, worse, split us apart, won’t let us be together. But then I look down and my stomach flips up into my chest: the sky’s in the wrong place. It’s come all the way down and around, rolling and running along the earth, eating up the green and the black and the brown all the way to the truck tires.

“Billy Boy,” I whisper, pulling to a stop, turning the engine off. He mumbles something I can’t make out. “Billy Boy!” I shout. I can’t wait. I’m already out of the cab. I’m taking off my clothes, my burnt white skirt, my bloody t-shirt, my underpants, peeling them off like shredded skin, like I’m a snake and venom in my scales not my teeth. I stumble on the soft gold sand and roll into the blue.

When I’m far enough out, when I coughing and choking on tinfoil blue, when it’s running along my hair and in between my toes, up my mouth and out my nose, I look back to shore. Billy Boy’s managed to get out the door, out onto the sand, and sits with his back against the truck’s burnt red-black wheel, bandaged stumps white eyes staring back at me. Truck hood puffs a string of gray smoke up into dark-bottomed clouds.

“The sea, baby!” I shout, standing up, letting the water run down me, like I’m a frog-fish and this the earth’s first day. “What I tell you? We made it to the sea!”

“We in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Darling,” he shouts. “It’s just a lake. We miles from the sea.”

I laugh and kick water, stumble back onto shore, out into golden sand, crawl up to my Billy Boy, lean over, touch his stumps with white-blue drops, kiss the drops one by one, suck the water up into my no-soul.

“What do you know of life?” I ask him real soft, touching his lips with mine. “What does a man like you know of the sea?”

—Michael Carson

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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He holds an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Aug 152017
 

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Love Letter from the Anthropocene

In my mind a waterfall. A coldness of water, dark cola currents in circular swirls. Rapids in miniature. I thought of some murky oil painting in the back of a gallery, this cove in the depths of the woods. In the shadows staring, shedding myself of people who parted like phantoms around me. This was a violent, childhood confrontation with the beyond, with possibility. If I entered the pool, I would forego my grounded, mammalian safety. I was young enough to know, to taste danger. This wasn’t salt water; there were no waves to toss me up, return me and hurl me to a distant shore where strangers would save me from the curious urge of myself. I would be sucked right down to the deep.

Was this a pre-experience of drowning? Did it happen in a dream? I recall the Secret Forest, exploring every nook and cranny of stone engraved, of foreign trees and mysterious huts. Gnarled wood and nonsensical drawings. I could hear birds whose origin was beyond me. A mint-coloured cascade made visible by the gaps in the emerald canopy, these mottled disco lights of gold and green. Years later I would be alone, then with a lover; splinters in my fingers, leaves in my hair, skin pressed close to the soil. I felt like the mystery crickets, my little croaks buried in needles and the mulch of insects, peat. Six dark streaks to my cheeks. I was wild.

I used to dream of drowning in dark and two-dimensional waters, the kind you find on ancient video games. I would be slipping, falling like Alice through perilous pixellated water; nothing buoying me up, strength fading, lungs choking as they filled with this water. It hurt so bad it was a sort of burning. I’d wake up, suffocating on my pillow, unable to breathe for a good five minutes. It was terrifying; the sensation scored in my skin so I’d never forget the shot of panic, adrenaline. Terrifying, but a necessary encounter with elemental intimacy. In such moments I’d forget myself, fully and nearly.

No floundering involved; instead an essential plunge. The rush of imaginary air. I’d invented a zone, a kind of sublime. Always quite out of reach, always there beyond some brink. Soon I was drawn to any trajectory. My life splintered its lines of desire; I was always trellising a net of crushes and loves and plans and regrets. The sight of a robin in the snow by the ice-crusted Kelvin would kill me, move me to tears. I let the flesh fall off, felt myself fragile and clear and hard. I soon realised that I was an alien being, not really human, hardly animal. There were the transcendentalists, their promises of freedom and spirit. There were matching green bruises on each of my hipbones, the soft impress of moss on my feet. I let all my wounds slip away, a form of abscission.

Where were these flat, transparent waters? Where was the tug of pondweed, the evil fishes with their Coleridgean flash and sparkle? I had nothing to empathise with. I could not whistle to the trees, could not whistle the way they did to me. I was ill-equipped for Aeolian thoughts. I had to crack open the fissures of my mind, fill them with eerie powders and aculeate drugs which tingled the skin for hours. I swooned to the window to watch the golden streams of light, the way they caught on the leaves of the summer limes, this glimmer I could only in the moment call mystical. This was temporary suspension, the end of depression’s snaring loop. I unravelled my net, felt each feeling take shape in the air around me. There were new zones. Clutching a cup of coffee, I felt the weight of tangible ceramic, the ooze of surly stuff I could not trace. Again, that gaping sensation of origins lost. I wanted to know everything about this coffee, its transit from deep in the soil, across oceans, lulling in lorries and jarred in factories. How it would groan like an old jazz singer when stirred in boiling water. You do not do, you do not do. The hot rush of caffeine made my veins jolt close to my skin. Through the solarised surface, the blue lines wove their fluvial currents and again I thought of electric space, the nuanced beauty of his distant face. Eyes of moss-green, the shadowy canopies. I was aflame in frozen bronze, clung to a friend’s sofa; life-raft upon a rising ocean. Soon the funereal cataracts would swamp this city. Spill over as easy as New York underwater. He brought me garlands of roses, which soon furled at the edges, browned and rotted to a pungent decay. I didn’t mind dying; it was the condition for existence. The petals fell upon the carpet, I swept them up and felt each one bloom into orbs of light. It made me shaky, like violins shredding their trembling key of sharp; great gashes of sound filling the room with their dissonant, abstract emotion. I longed for it all to end that dramatic, for the shivering minims to draw out each breath with irony alone.

Only the petrified stone retained its sincerity. The burst bits of sorrow and quartz lay all around me, a thousand refractions of my poisoned aura. Again I saw the oil painting; glimpsed its dark torrent of petroleum, the flickers of sheep. When I stared too long, the flat black sky began to fluoresce with unguent neon colours, this arsenic rich red that blossomed into coruscating orange, yellow, coral. The chemical soda of panic; I drank it in, felt in my chest its urgent fizz. Overlaid was the image of the Lake Project, David Maisel’s poetic mastery, this jagged array of shuddering lines, planes of nasty vermillion. I thought of hardened lava, bicarbonate dreams, the catalysing forms of inevitable pollution. From a bedroom window I drank Coca Cola. The forest was ready, warm in my thought, the breeze so crisp on my dehydrated face. It was burnt up in flames another day, the phosphorylase taste of sticky glucose, dissolving sugar. A new arrangement of needles, the amethyst bruise planted on my neck. Gluttony.

On the image, there was no place to rest the eye. Every capillary was always shifting. A constant dissolution of perspective, parallax melting to absolute flatness. I thought of the time I asked what an A road meant, and the boy said arterial. As if the world was a great bodily network, the flow of currents and traffic with every cell of life just some minimal part in the clotting transience of meshing blood. Such a thing was what, a Latourian plasma? A spilled can of molasses, darkling its presence on the concrete, treacle-thick and of godly opulence. I studied the lines with glyptographic precision, looking for the cracks underneath. These are the times I have loved you, loved you as I have loved the steam from a kettle, the way smoke gets in your eyes or smoulders the crack of your mouth. How your hair is a freshness of curls and gold; makes me think of the colour of harvest, the ardent ache of late summer, sunburn, long afternoons. Every pore of this skin is a window; I let the bacteria sink in and together we share a form, a body. We are a strangeness of strangers. I wrote a litany and called it coexisting. There is always more of what I would be with you.

Sometimes, the arabesques of knotted wood. The die-back that kills the ashes. The writing that stings me. The eagles that tumble from the sky, shot down by showers of poaching bullets. The eternal time of the stone before it is ground to dust, smoothed to glass or marble. All rendering machinery merely an extension of the eye’s aesthetic violence. I see before me all transformations, all subtle undulations of everything in its right place, pulled out from the roots of primal being. These shadow forms, these chasms. All claustrophobia. The world is too much with us. I lay down my words in favour of a strong cobalt promise of ocean. Dash my crayola on the blank white surface, wait for the waves to take shape, to suck in and swallow me. There is no world as such. A lonesome note pulls its magnetic sadness from across the bay, cry of the faraway island; it knows me, salt-studded, glazed in the air, sweet and easy as falling octaves. The tang on my tongue that reminds me of you. When the sea comes, when the windmills collapse, the sky blackens and there’s nothing we can do, I’ll remember you. The helices of me, these planted cells and their algorithmic beauty, remnant of bone and blood in the starving soil; all will be love in the warming waters, the subduing horror, the coming of nothingness. Mutated creatures, muted symphonies. I ask that you join me in melting, just for a second while the air is still, some clarity around us. All we have is the sounding of our lips, the whistling trees, the sullen transmissions of a faltering breeze.

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Lime Tree

At the corner of some imaginary meadow, a lime tree. You had no idea for years what to call this tree, you only knew how green it was, how well-formed the leaves against the cool cobalt of a summer sky. How precious these things are to you now, far away where everything is always static, a vague and pressing grey. The tree sheds its honeydew and the aphids clamber for a taste of the limes; I have scratched that pitch with my fingers and placed its resin on my tongue. A taste of nature, extra-natural, too sweet and weird as if tasting chlorophyll itself, some abstracted process of photosynthesis taking place in the mouth. If the world has ended, I try to get closer to its remaining parts. These leaves are shaped like hearts. I once had a heart-shaped necklace, studded inside with the blackest sapphire. It’s a sin to forget who gifted this necklace; but I was only a child then, loose in my memories, vulnerable.

There’s a song called ‘Lime Tree’ on a favourite record and the singer says the string arrangements make him nauseous. This is a commentary on beauty, on how beauty marks the wonderful perception of an object’s weakness. When I see that minuscule split in the stem of a leaf, the thumbnail cleaving chain of daisies, I am overcome momentarily by a thing’s thingness, its originary mark of uniqueness. This whole secret life, this hidden agony. A heart-shaped stud of sapphire. In the mud there are all these tiny peridot aphids, glistening like something unknown beneath a microscope. I look forward to the taffyish pull of waning cirrus, the sky moving westwards in tandem with sun. It’s beautiful to not know how the atmosphere works, but instead to observe with that naivety of spirit, the hurt perception that longs for its heart-shaped necklace, its heart-shaped leaf. Place one on the tongue like a tab of acid. Again that taste, nature with added nature. You can taste too much of the natural. The chemical, the actual synthesis of light that is perhaps organic. Tiny nut fruits fall in October, pea-sized and gleaming in the old gold sun. Obsessed with the smell of the nectar, I return to the meadow, year after year. Children may spend their lives lying in fields, waiting for something to happen. I was content in the long shoots of aureate wheat, the true blue sky. I made promises to myself I could never keep.

Lime flowers cure headaches. I break them up in my tea and long for respite from insomnia. You had no idea for years what to call this tree. You named it a miracle tree; that was then and this is me. The wood is especially yielding. Somebody has sculpted great things from its pliant bark, its soft and workable material beauty. The elegant formations of time literally scar in the carved wood, making etchings and notches; each year a wound. Love’s young dream among the lindens. I feel more empathy with the tree than with anything. There are creases around my eyes, creases around yours too. Each one a scar of something dark and true, this honest mark, remark of the soul; elastic abrasions which ripple, sea-like, their former traumas. We make them new. Each expression brings life to the dark parts, the tears and rips and folds. In the forest, the leaves shiver shrill as a choir of children. I heard that line from elsewhere, a song or a whistle from a cup of coffee. Drink me, drink me. The leaves seem to sing. Time seems to sing; I can feel it, hear it shimmer in the sweet parts of the blood which rise in silence, subside in bright and flowery noise.

Underneath the autumn limes, a whole pastoral display of molten coppers and golds, we sip from miniature cups on tables built for urban grace. Somebody in the distance plays the flute, so intricate and soothing these tunes so old, so new. I have forgotten the origin. Almost the refrain from a video-game, imaginary landscapes materialise from somewhere inside my recessive mind.

Sweet-smelling trees that bear no citrus. Native, strangely ridged, slender of twig. Already craving the dull yellows, the fresh fade of autumnal cycle. These trees, hybridised, bred for flourishing in dirty cities. Little vapourers scavenge, triangular moths cling to sunspots. There’s such a lushness of syrup and pollenating dreams, I could lie in the bow of this lime tree like someone before me, merge my identity with a strange freedom, this crooked figure turning liquid, fading in the hum of the bees, the ornamental quality not quite what it seems. Sense of flourishing, slowly floating; the life-giving gold of arborescence.

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Isthmus

There is an idea of an island. Sometimes purely retinal, the glory of excess gold. It is birthed from the flickers, pieces between consciousness when dreams make use of the temporary coves, holes which give in the mind for need of will. For a while, obsessed with the sore points in a honeycomb, cox in the blood that blocked all manner of aspirin, felt a cool white sky of powder, the outwards dissolve. There is now an island. Maybe archipelago even. The one and the several. Songs about auras, auroras.

We summon boats from out of the blue. There’s a pureness to our sun-bronzed bodies, plucked ripe from the ether as if never as free as now. This perpetual experience of floating. On the topic of jewels, she was a sweet one, always lusting for easy agates and sometimes the dream blue larimar. You traced either bubbles or lines, endless trajectories of the inward, arterial. A secret vault for the excess passion, her hoarded meaning. Teardrops of dolphins, hardened remnant of basaltic lava. The certain pendant of the still-moving earth, simple inclusion of ebbs and flows.

The collected anemones. Her velvet case. The cool tide in the cool blue. She lived here a hundred years and didn’t age one bit. Not even the sun could. I was always pursuing that anamnesis of the mind and skin, feeling again the heart-shaped cliff. I have questioned the island, receding before all westerly gossamer of waves. Glimmers across another bay, the potential invisibles. Ships and buoys. Remember we came here as children, hopped on a boat and we were so sure of where we were going. It was a case of following lights. Right across the bay, a blueness distinct from the bottle-green sea. It was so soothing, so easy.

There is an idea of an island. I mark it in writing, make of its rock and grit a topic.

Sometimes the tide sweeps over me.

—Maria Sledmere

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Maria Sledmere is an MLitt Modernities student at the University of Glasgow. She is co-editor of two Glasgow-based poetry zines, SPAM and Gilded Dirt. Her work has been published in Bombus Press, DATABLEED, Fluland, Foxglove Journal, Germ Magazine, GUM, The Kelvin Review, Murmur House, Quotidian, and Thistle Magazine. When not lost in the gelatinous mulch of a dissertation on dark ecology, she contributes features and music reviews to RaveChild and GoldFlakePaint, and blogs regularly on everything from Derrida to Lana Del Rey at http://musingsbymaria.wordpress.com.

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Aug 152017
 

Grant Maierhofer

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I walked through the city limits
(Someone talked me in to do it)
Attracted by some force within it
(Had to close my eyes to get close to it)

xxxxxxxxxxxx“Interzone” – Joy Division

Whether factually or not, I’d trace the severe, consequent moments throughout my life to stretches of movement. I pace. I walk. When writing my first novel, I’d finish some mornings at four and walk outside in my father’s neighborhood in underwear and lie down on the street at the intersection. Nobody came, I wasn’t worried. I’ve convinced myself somewhere over time that all we do is bound up in all that’s done: i.e., you pore over documents researching projects, say, and feel it’s this that leads to good days of work done. What about the menial tasks? The mailbox walks. The family calls. The television watched. The food prepared and not; eaten, not. We pay attention to apparently massive events of import and neglect the steps it takes from where you sit to the place wherein your bladder can be let. I do this, in turn. I care little while the small moments are happening and even belittle them to my detriment, often feeling I’ve done nothing all day when to recount them would require sincere attention. I think of walking in these terms. I thought of it as necessary toward a particular kind of relief nothing else brought. It wasn’t constant, I didn’t walk great lengths daily but when I made time for it something else seemed to happen.

Walking for me changed when architecture changed, cities or long rural stretches suddenly took on meaning, became signs of something, warped. In Jarett Kobek’s novel of the 9/11 attacks, ATTA, his iteration of Mohammed, Atta, wanders cities hearing voices in their materials. I hadn’t known this prior to reading but Atta was a student of architecture, had written a dissertation in fact regarding the imperialist dominion of metropolitan architecture over the Middle East. The heft of these sentiments is largely unimportant to my purposes here, but I often wonder about the post-9/11 psyche and its relationship to architecture. Like the possibility of burned, sacked, destroyed works of art—either by the hands of their creators or fascists or mere accident—I wonder if anticipation of destruction alters our sense of the landscape in ways it simply couldn’t prior to the explosive power of our present. To be sure, it isn’t only terrorists who alter our cities, our landscapes. I grew up in a town in apparent constant search for redefinition amid advancing norms. Restaurants in husks of old diners, college campuses redone in glass opposed to brick, these are familiar shifts to anyone alive today. Although his final acts warp any logic one might glean from either the real or fictional Atta, this notion of an intensely personal, intimate, physiological relationship to one’s comparably inanimate surroundings would seem a thing not duly mined, considering its likeness to questions of AI, the Singularity, or our soured relationship to ecology.

***

In Tsai Ming Liang’s brilliant short film, Walker, perhaps the polar opposite to Kobek’s citydweller can be found. What happens: a bald monk walks slowly, almost frustratingly so, through the city. He holds a bag and by film’s end removes—slowly—a burger from the bag, taking slow, meditative bites. It’s my understanding that this sort of movement is occasionally a form of actual meditation. This makes sense to me. Turning inward and simply sitting there is often trying, but doing this while focusing in minute detail on every movement made, taking deliberate steps, asserting the body’s form against the horror of the world, this makes perfect sense.

I’ve always viewed walking as a literary matter, an artful matter, long before discovering figures like Iain Sinclair, or Guy Debord, or Baudelaire and conceptions of the flaneur. Walking has always proven therapeutic, whether doing so aggressively late at night and letting the apparent danger of the world present itself, or doing it mildly one afternoon after being inside for too long, the act of walking has simultaneously transcended a basic corporeal state, and asserted one.

***

Rogers Park is a neighborhood in north Chicago. Where I lived you’d exit the El and through a smear of shops and bodies have encountered a wonderful nodding of demographics. I lived in an apartment on my own with one room surrounded by large family apartments always hubbubing and boiling these complicated wafts. I never came to know them of minor nods and kept to myself that year from this perpetual tendency I have of eating or not the wrong medicine, worldview, or daily set of acts that led through all their variation to the same gutless solitude, a bitter living spoken aloud to myself and only made to wane through incredible heaps of television and the few far-between obsessions with the arts.

Leaving my apartment after turning right once you’d find entry to a beach. This beach is on Lake Michigan and I typically walked along it late at night. At my entry, a jut of large rocks allowed for a sort of pier whereon you could easily fall into water were you careless. I was often careless and ill-dressed for whatever occasion it was but I never fell in. I’d walk out, say, mildly winded from the trek from studio there, and sit on some rock’s jagged seat to watch the sky and water. This area isn’t exactly dangerous regarding crime but all the same one would do well to focus on matters and turn any potential needs—directions, whatever—inward. For myself these were paranoiac times. I’d come upon a unipolar depression summer previous after meddling with my skull since a youth and being poked at by various abbreviated meds. Then I took a heap of medicine each day and returned to Chicago bright-eyed. Then I threw my medicine into the toilet and sat in the bath without good light and read at pages of Jim Thompson or Céline until dropping the former into the tub to watch it waterlog, and leaving apartment night on night with latter gripped to ward off the world’s moods and chisel numb idiot notes upon my head.

***

So this beach was particular, dirtied, humming and full of death. I’d wear what clothes were there and sit on wet sand spreading my arms out beside me making bellows.

An aside: on arriving second year in the city of H.H. Holmes I wound up broke downtown without means to ride the L back up to Rogers Park. It being midday and having eaten—I, bodily, have diabetes mellitus and thus would note these things at moments—I decided to walk home. This walk took me eight hours and for the last two I dug in the garbage bins lining the lake for sips at discarded Powerades as my blood sugar had made its plummet.

***

Endless hubbub has, can be made of the opening to Wim Wenders’s masterpiece, Paris, Texas. I first saw this film when living in Chicago. I watched it and, some point after Harry Dean Stanton’s miserado “Travis” made his long walk through the desert valley, I said to myself “this is my favorite film.” What happens in its opening, as noted: a man in a tattered suit and red baseball cap walks. He’s returning, it seems, as he’s so disheveled, and carries a two gallon jug with remnants of dirty water. Simple, droney guitar emanates, and his walk continues. I know of nothing like it in cinema, not to mention films taking place in America, and I can’t watch it without feeling buried in some abstract sense.

Just as often as walking shaped my days and hours were spent focused on the few feet of ground just next, I’d create arbitrary treks to add small blips of meaning to otherwise empty, useless days. This was at a time when I’d begun work on my second novel. I’d turned 21 and lived alone. I’d read Frederick Exley’s trilogy and Céline’s Journey and thus when I’d come home from school or movies or walks, I’d etch away at staccato bits of narrative I then called Shadows to the Light. I’d wake and have coffee and work, then walk for X amount of time. I’d return with ideas or scribbled notes and work until I couldn’t, then leave and scale the aisles of an all-night grocery not wanting to go home just yet.

***

Long walks then along the beach and through the park as long successful coffee’d stints of work. Short, staccato blips I’d map out imagined lines from block to block nearby so as to stave off this constant note of failure.

Exley walked, if memory serves, after a hospitalization; he’d sat on his mother’s couch with dog to watch television for months. Eventually, and abruptly, he took to foot and spent his days walking until he couldn’t breathe or take it. I admired this and understood. All my life I’ve tended to saturate my head in often rotten media: literature sure and film but also hours upon hours of television. I’d do this then and came to realize that movement, physical movement, could right the muck. Perhaps it’s never entirely right but it at least put the muck to work in interesting ways. I’d walk say after reading Jim Thompson in the tub or watching police procedurals and edges of paranoia scattered my thinking.

There is, then, at best, a kind of art ingested through covering the city, letting the city cover you. My body would be anxious, slow of step and in my head I’m frantic. In retrospect it becomes simple to toss figures at it. Remember the monk, remember Baudelaire, remember Rebecca Solnit and the foundation here, walking as transmutative, walking as compelling, fundamentally human, Iain Sinclair covering the M5 and allowing himself to become swathed in the narrative where he stepped. I’d aspire to it, and perpetually fail. I remember Molloy and steps taken into the unknown and bodies affected by their environment until all that’s left is a withering tramp, a citizen without shoes sucking on stones and keeping time this way. Once I felt chased through the park. I listened to music. I turned Beethoven loud in my ears and covered ground where nobody would follow. Followed still, I turned and faced the person. I screamed at them and wandered off. I was losing myself. An older man saw me later and spoke with me. He flattered me. He flirted with me, he told me all would be O.K. and the person likely just wanted to speak to me. I imagined a life with that old man. I wanted to hug him, to kiss him and feel his history pass through me. I stood there with him and eventually he did hold me. I do not know how I looked. A confused person, thinned by anxiety and in search of something. I sometimes met older men that way, though typically it never went beyond conversation, always in transit. He was sweet, however. He sort of held me in his words. That night I returned to my apartment and received a strange message. I didn’t know where it came from and it showed a male stood up in his kitchen, a kitchen. I didn’t respond but it didn’t make sense. I was losing it. I’d continue my frantic pacing contacting strangers online and speaking with them on the phone, always older men and women and always touched with some bit of the anxiety of lust. The problem of walking is imagining your lives in every step, what might’ve been. The problem of reflecting is you’re brought back, wherever you’ve been, to feel the heap of potential history wash over you. I walked, then, to put myself at the feet of living and submit to human beings, to open myself and fail to welcome entirely the lonely glints returned in eyes as I went past.

—Grant Maierhofer

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Grant Maierhofer is the author of Postures, GAG, Flamingos and others. His work has appeared in LIT, Berfrois, The Fanzine and elsewhere. He lives and works in Idaho.

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Aug 142017
 

  Walter Benjamin

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My Red Heaven is collage in form. This piece centers on Walter Benjamin, and moves back and forth in time as he sits on a bench on Unter den Linden, beginning what will become The Arcades Project.

 

1.The only way of knowing a person is to love him or her without hope, Walter Benjamin pencils in his notebook, hunched on a dark green bench in the dark green shade of a linden.

A bear occurs, a man playing a flute followed by twenty beautiful children.

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  1. Walter crosses out the sentence. He has spent his entire day here, the last three, in this park running up the center of Unter den Linden, in combat with a three-page essay about Parisian arcades for the Frankfurter Zeitung. The essay refuses to stay in its skin. It keeps wanting to unfurl into something larger, messier, less itself.

    .

  2. Suppose I were to begin by recounting, he pencils in his notebook, how many cities have revealed themselves to me in my expeditions through them in pursuit of books. Suppose I were to speak of a time, ours, when even the best readers have become frightened of imperfect, torrential monographs — ones that fan out into a maze of dangerous branchings.

    Suppose I were to bring up how easy a certain kind of completeness is.

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  3. He crosses out that paragraph, writes in a choked scribble I am falling in love with lostness, then the brakes, a woman’s shriek.

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  4. When he raises his head everything already exists in another tense.

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  5. An old truck, advertisement for a brewery across its side, run up onto the curb in front of the Adlon Hotel. Several empty barrels burst on the sidewalk. A smartly dressed man splayed in the street, pedestrians vectoring in.

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  6. (When a world war breaks out, all you can do sometimes is begin to translate the works of Baudelaire as faithfully as possible.)

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  7. The bear man stops. His triad of notes. The twenty beautiful children stop, at first confused about where to look.

    One points, a perfect girl, mouth opening, nickel-blue eyes wide with the world.

    .

  8. Walter squints through his chunky spectacles to determine if the man is alive or the other thing.

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  9. Suppose, he considers, his weak heart twinging, I am falling in love with disjunction. Medieval alleys full of flowers. Suppose I am falling in love with learning to interrupt my —

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  10. Three years ago. Island of Capri. Ernst Bloch crumpled down the newspaper he had been reading and glared at Walter over the dried-seagull remains. The pair reclined in chaise lounges on their pension’s balcony amid a tumble of shiny white houses overlooking the Bay of Naples.

    How just so fucking absurd it must seem, Bloch proclaimed, for an immortal soul destined for heaven or hell to find itself sitting in the kitchen in the form of a maid.

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  11. The bear waiting for orders.

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  12. The children.

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  13. We may call these images wish images; in them the collective seeks

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  14. But most of all the tiny squares. Medieval alleys full of bougainvillea clinging to stone walls. Plumbago. Yellow, red, powder blue rowboats pulled up on the Marina Grande’s pebbly beach. And Bloch saying: The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security. It is the loss of the capacity to imagine things other than they are.

    .

  15. For you were born under the sign of Saturn, planet of detours and delays, blunders and stubbornness; of those who see themselves as books, thinking as a method of gathering, organizing, yet always knowing when to stray, wander off.

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  16. For to lose your way in a city or a person requires a great amount of willpower.

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  17. It is Bloch proclaiming from his chaise lounge, newspaper seagull crumpled in his lap, and emaciated Rilke all those years after that first meeting at the University of Munich, praising in a letter to Walter from somewhere among the Swiss Alps Mussolini’s New Year’s Eve speech.

    What soaring language! What beautiful discourse! Fascism, our great healing agent!

    .

  18. The hotel doormen holding onto the driver of the truck until the police show up, and the belief Jewishness means a promise to further European culture, each epoch dreaming the one to follow.

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  19. Inaccurately.

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  20. These moments, those hours, the other days: Had Walter really accomplished anything at all?

    Wonders Walter.

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  21. It is Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap of paper Sois toujours poète, même en prose — Always be a poet, even in prose — and the ambulance disturbance rising on the far side of the heavy, coal-smoked Brandenburg Gate, and the found object, the readymade, the already extant message, the chance encounter, the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, that half of art of which the other half is eternal and immutable.

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  22. There was the juncture at which he understood he was not to become an academic instructor.

    There was that injury.

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  23. Wine. Bread. Thickly sliced salami.

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  24. The lizard with azure scales panting rapidly on a fence rail.

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  25. The sun, a glossy orange in the sunset sky: Capri.

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  26. There was that juncture, and there will be the one in which he can no longer remember what he wants as he reaches languidly for the bottle of tablets on his hotel nightstand in room number three.

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  27. Yet now it is those days with Bloch on that balcony, the nights with Asja Lācis in her bed, long umber hair tousled.

    Naked.

    Yawning.

    Her unselfconscious stretching, her body Y-ing on the mattress.

    Walter was completely open about the Latvian Bolshevik theater director when his wife, Dora, asked in her letters.

    But only when she asked.

    (She asked only once.)

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  28. Writing about a given place at a given time puts its existence between quotation marks, plucks it from its native context by engendering unanticipated new ones.

    This is collage’s capacity, through cutting up and cutting off, to open up and ou

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  29. We won’t be getting married, mana saulīte. I find divorce too hard on the nerves.

    Asja footnoting in mid-stretch.

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  30. Dora remaining behind in Berlin with their nine-year-old son, moody anxious Stefan, and Asja introducing Walter over dinner to Marxism as historical mutiny and late night Prosecco to sex as whirlwind.

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  31. Writing that looks like writing, however, thinking that looks like thinking, has come to feel to Walter progressively flat, faded, fated.

    Suppose, he pencils in his notebook, I were to rethink everything.

    Suppose I were to start all over again.

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  32. And thirteen years later, twenty-some-odd changes of address, standing outside the Bibliothèque Nationale on a thick spring day, twenty-four hours before the Germans howl into Paris with orders to arrest that Jew intellectual at his flat, Walter hands over his color-coded notes — green language, yellow, red; diagrams; copies of images that have collared his curiosity — to his grouper-mouthed librarian friend Georges Bataille.

    Over Georges’ shoulder, Walter’s last glimpse of the filthy Seine glistering.

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  33. Asja’s double enlivening: the erotic and the political slurred into a single unfathomableness.

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  34. Or this man, weak heart, weakening lungs, a mobile intelligence unit moving through the metropolitan streets, he likes to think of himself as, likes to believe he believes, maybe others, too, although what would happen if you began to imagine the essay you are composing, not as a —

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  35. After this shitty war, Georges telling Walter outside the library on that balmy pre-invasion day, Europe will resemble a de Sade novel. Watch out for Duc de Blangis. He will be everywhere.

    Georges not grinning then, but rather turning away, repairing to work.

    Walter watching his friend’s lightly pigeon-toed gait decrease in size down the sidewalk.

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  36. Suppose you began to imagine the essay you are writing, not as a piece of music that must move from first note to last, but rather as a building you could approach from various sides, navigate along various paths, one in which perspective continually changes?

    This building, we might submit, would constitute a literary architectonics that pits itself against narrative’s seemingly inflexible arc from birth to the other thing.

    .

  37. These lines written by the man who earned his Ph.D. cum laude eight years ago with a dissertation on art criticism amid German Romanticism, yet who has been assiduously unable to find academic employment ever since.

    That injury, too.

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  38. (Among others.)

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  39. There is that brief deliberation over emigrating from Germany to Palestine and how the bottle of morphine tablets catches the caramel sun in his tiny room at the Hotel de Francia on the Catalonian coast one autumn afternoon in 1940, police guard posted outside Walter’s door demurely clearing his throat every now and then.

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  40. Written by the thirty-four-year-old journalist unable to support himself, let alone his family, through his own labor, and so forced for a time to ask his wife to stop loving him so he could return to Berlin to reside with his parents.

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  41. To reside with his

    .

  42. Ne cherchez plus mon coeur; les bêtes l’ont mange.

    Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap.

    .

  43. There is that slightly less brief deliberation over emigrating to the United States through neutral Portugal as the Germans howled closer, and how Max Horkheimer negotiates a travel visa for Walter, who will only be able to flee as far as Spain over the Pyrenees before the Franco regime cancels all transit permits and orders the authorities to return those carrying them to France.

    .

  44. And on 25 September, 1940, there is that Spanish official with the pinched lips telling the group of Jewish refugees Walter has joined to prepare for deportation the following morning, and the emptiness on Hannah Arendt’s face taking in this information, on her husband the poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher’s, on their friend the Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler’s, on the German photographer Henny Gurland’s, her son Joseph’s.

    .

  45. Yet, despite the future, the bear man steps into motion again, melody picking up.

    .

  46. One by one, the beautiful children.

    .

  47. Do not look for my heart anymore; the beasts have eaten it, scribbling the poet who spent his last two years between Brussels and Paris, semi-paralyzed and unable to speak after the massive stroke.

    .

  48. The emptiness on the ambulance driver’s face as he employs a plain white sheet to cover the bodily fluids held in by tender skin.

    .

  49. Or the emptiness on the doctor’s face during each of his four visits to tiny room number three through that late September afternoon and evening, administering injections and blood letting as if these things might in the end somehow alter the configuration of that space.

    .

  50. It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Asja’s body in her bed, sheetless in silvery sun, along with the belief writing as collage draws attention to the sensuality of the page even as it strips itself of the tedious, tendentious pretense of originality.

    Suppose, therefore, it could be argued

    .

  51. Suppose we were to call it a meditative practice that allows one to be surprised by what one says next.

    A practice, we could even submit, of reading.

    .

  52. Or the other manuscript, completed, which Walter will carry in his suitcase from Paris to Portbou, which will disappear forever.

    That manuscript, too.

    .

  53. Suppose, therefore, it could be argued that we are all collage artists, pencils Walter, then crosses out the sentence, for there will be that juncture in two years at which Dora and he will have become separated, then divorced, the juncture in thirteen at which the other Jews in his party of refugees for no discernible reason will be allowed sudden passage through Spain into Portugal.

    .

  54. Four days later all will safely reach Lisbon.

    Minus one.

    .

  55. It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Hannah Arendt admiring the terracotta rooftops, the pale yellow dwellings, bunching down the steep Lisbon hillsides into bluegreen seasprawl.

    .

  56. The Spanish police will refer to the deceased forty-eight-year-old in their correspondence with Max Horkheimer, who will query about the details of his friend’s passing, as that German gentleman.

    .

  57. That German gentleman about whom you inquire, the Spanish police writing, died of heart failure.

    .

  58. Cerebral hemorrhage, the medical certificate will state.

    .

  59. The town judge listing Walter’s possessions at the time of death thus: suitcase leather, gold watch, pipe, passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, one pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, a few papers, contents unknown, and some money.

    .

  60. A few papers, contents un

    .

  61. How, because of confusion surrounding his identity, Walter will be buried in leased-niche number 563 in the Catholic section of the Portbou cemetery. When no one remembers to keep up the payments, Walter’s remains will be quietly exhumed and moved in the summer of 1945 to the town’s common burial ground, where their exact location will over time become unremembered.

    .

  62. Four days after Walter reaches for the bottle of morphine tablets he brought with him from Marseilles, just in case, Hannah Arendt will lean out the window of her hotel room in Lisbon, relishing the act of breathing, just that, while admiring the terracotta rooftops and pale yellow dwellings bunching down the steep hillsides into the bluegreen seasprawl.

    .

  63. Below, the streetcars clanking by.

    .

  64. Mosquitoey scooters revving.

    .

  65. That greasy scent of reprieve billowing up around her a flash before she steps back into life.

—Lance Olsen

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

x
x

Aug 142017
 

.
—after Rabelais

The Marquis had a grandson, Jake. As a child, Jake would spend weekends with his grandpa who’d make a very nice from-scratch pizza before retiring to the inner sanctum to play Halo. These pizzas that the Marquis lovingly made were really something. To see the smooth globes of dough sitting on the counter—a little dusting of flour on top like little round baby bottoms in talc—makes me sad to remember.

For they are surely gone. All gone.

Well, the kid could have grown up to live a straight, true, and happy life, but, man, things can get messed up. For Jake it was not so much the stuff that most kids have to go through these days, now that the maturing process and its rites of passage require the use of handguns. Like it or not, Glocks are the new normal for these kids. Like it or not, it’s become part of growing up. That first court restraining order is now a milestone equal to a driver’s license, high school diploma, college admission, and so on. Happily for Jake, the Marquis gave him a sort of happy, dopey reality apart from all that. As a consequence, he was as close to innocent as a young man could come in these withered days.

At a young age, Jake married and settled down in a modest split-level ranch house with his new wife, Fanni, let’s call her. Jake learned to make pizza for her, just like his grandpa’s, and they settled in for life…as it were. Here’s the future he saw: he’d cook pizza and after dinner he and Fanni would play computer games, kissing now and then. On Fridays they’d have grandpa le Marquis over and play Halo. They’d drink root beer. What he neglected to figure into this delightful scenario was the fact that Fanni also had a notion or two about what married life ought to be like. Unfortunately for Jake, she was of the opinion that her life with her husband ought to be different in important ways from her husband’s life with his grandpa. In particular, the eating of pizzas and the playing of computer games was boring to the point of wishing that her high school biology teacher would come by and “pith” her with a straight pin in the frontal lobe, just as he’d done with frogs. After a month or so of Jake’s idea of happiness, buyer’s remorse was the primary fact of her life.

Jake was a simple person. Fanni was not a simple person. She did not have Jake’s stable, happy background sharing time with a grandparent in blissful side-by-side interface with the good old X-box. What Fanni had was a single mother who lived on the left side of a brick duplex in the spiritually destitute region just south of Chicago. Their house was one of those structures that census workers look at and say, “Does this count?” Her mother supported their little family through frequent “presents” from various “close family friends” in the form of cocaine or cash equivalents. What these friends got in return is irrelevant or almost. In spite of all that, Fanni grew up a smart kid capable of wandering away from the daily horror show at the old duplex. She thrived at school, went to college, met the son of a Marquis (!) and, without giving it a lot of thought, married.

In the sad thereafter, their marriage counselor suggested to her that she should have known what Jake was like, she’d been to his house before they married, hadn’t she? And she said, “Yes, I knew what he was like, but I thought he was kidding.” Then she added, “And he did kiss me once under the grain elevator, and so I asked him with my eyes to ask me, and when he did I thought, ‘Well, as well him as another.’”

Jake was sitting right there, holding her hand as she said these hurtful things. The therapist’s response was to put his head in his hands (the closest he could come to neutral affect in the moment). The counselor, at least, knew that it was too late and Fanni had already gone to blazes. On the other hand, he could now also confirm that Jake’s form of innocence was, just as Fanni claimed, morally exhausting. He could see how it could drive a person to unpleasant extremes.

As for Jake, he didn’t yet quite know what to make of it all. But when he saw the counselor bury his head in his hands he had to wonder, “Is that how I should be responding to what she’s saying?” He looked at her sitting by his side. She was smiling pleasantly.

There was something damaged in Fanni, something broken. She was, in a sense, not “there,” not present. For instance, she could not seem to tell the difference between the good things that she did and the bad things. Make breakfast? Hit their barky Yorkie with a shovel? Essentially the same for her. But when Jake showed how they were not the same, she would get confused and start crying. “How can you be so sure about everything?” she’d ask, and then she’d go after the dog with a hoe because it had stuck its cold snout inside her summer shorts and smelled her fur. (She kept garden implements in the kitchen for such moments.)

She was also someone with the interesting and organic conviction that if the world spread out from her, it was her job to take it all back in. Perhaps it was some sort of bizarre maternal instinct gone wrong, but she had faith in the thought that everything should go back to her empty inside.

And then there was the shopping. She shopped with tenacity knowing that it was her responsibility to buy it all, to take it all inside. She was the Imelda Marcos of any- and everything. She didn’t shop in Big Box stores, she shopped for Big Box stores. She created shopping lists like the card catalogue at the Library of Alexandria.

When she wasn’t shopping, she was eating. Unfortunately, this duty, this “moral imperative to internalize the world,” had horrible consequences in restaurants. She did not understand the purpose of a menu. The idea that she should choose only one thing from each section—one salad, one entrée, etc.—simply made no sense to her. The idea that there were sections didn’t make sense to her. Appetizer. Entrée. What? Explain as Jake surely did, it was all beyond her. She thought Jake was yammering metaphysics when all he might be saying was, “Darling, you don’t start with the chocolate mousse. It is not an appetizer.” There were some meals that took the form of quest legends. It was as if she believed that there was some food, some perfect food, that would make her world right if only she could find it. In spite of all his goodness and his love for her, Jake lacked the will to enforce what he called, for her benefit, “food reality.”

When he said things like that, in what she took to be a knowing and superior way, she would say, “There is nothing so dull as innocence.”

Touché!

Once during the Christmas season Jake and Fanni were eating at the legendary Stockyard Trough down in Decatur. She started in her pell-mell way with a dilled Blanquette de Veau. The chef had prepared six portions for the evening and she ate them all. She followed that with dozens of pizza hot-pockets off the children’s menu. (Yes, some of the little darlings cried when they were told that there were no more pizza hot-pockets, but she insisted that some people would have to sacrifice for the greater good, and she volunteered the children.)

The headwaiter scrambled with a sponge to erase the featured dishes as they fell from the little chalkboard out front, inexorably, one after another. At neighboring tables, the waiters sensed the drift of things and began encouraging guests to order quickly while there was still something more than bread and butter to eat.

“What!!??” one obese old-timer complained, a Cargill seed cap cockeyed on his head, bloody stains from rib-eyes past on his overalls. “No beef? None at all? Not even an old piece of flank? Not even a burger? How is that possible? This is the Stockyard Trough, isn’t it? Do you know what a stockyard is? What’s that you say? Her? That little girl over there with the Marquis’s boy? Are you saying she’s eaten the entire cow? I’ll be damned!”

Having decimated the main courses, she retreated to the soups and polished off one pot each of borscht, split pea, and, soup du jour, potato/leek. (“André! Scratch the soups!”)  At this point she observed that her napkin was soiled and asked for another. Pitiless, she ate the herbed caviar roulade, the crepes with caviar filling, potatoes with caviar, caviar éclairs, oysters and caviar, and—a coup de main, de resistance, de theatre, d’etat, de grace, and de foudre—a cobbler with knuckle truffles (the low, obsequious sort common to the Aberdeens), creamed clotters, and crushed sweet-rind. (If you’re looking for the recipe, it’s in Mark Bittman’s Cobblers and Gobblers: Cooking with Cottage Clusters and Custard Clotters.)

And why did she eat these things? She ate these things because that’s just the kind of gal she was.

—Curtis White

.

“Dining at the Stockyard Trough” is an excerpt from Lacking Character, forthcoming from Melville House Press, 2018.

.from
Curtis White is a novelist and social critic whose work includes the novel Memories of My Father Watching TV and the recent book We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (Melville House).

.
.

Aug 142017
 

Credit: Ebru Yildiz

.
These two poems are excerpts from Wayne Koestenbaum‘s forthcoming book, Camp Marmalade, to be published in February 2018 by Nightboat Books. Camp Marmalade is the sequel to The Pink Trance Notebooks, which Nightboat published in 2015. Both The Pink Trance Notebooks and Camp Marmalade consist of notebooks — chains of aphorisms, linguistic tidbits, aleatory ruminations, lyric or narrative fragments…
.
.

#20 [thick book on mother-shelf pinnacled me o’er Tums]

.

……………………..good morning,
punctuated self—

_________

Lee Krasner proves it—stay
awake to the redemptive glyph

_________

………….scrutinized first chapter
and thought every statement dead wrong
except chartreuse and neon orange

________

……………………..cough
hurts right lung—even when I don’t
cough, the right lung has a lumpy
vanilla crunch feeling—in my arteries too

_________

………….M said Faerie
Queene is boring but thick book of it
on mother-shelf pinnacled me o’er
Tums—

_________

………….Hans Bellmer
receives hate mail USPS
grab bag of slain doll parts

_________

………….irenic
or oneiric gabbing
like 4-H club for gay hoofers
and Oona O’Neill
will be there and Nicole Kidman
good Nicole not bad Nicole
like moon Nicole versus Apollo Nicole—
but moon isn’t versus Apollo

_________

………….what is the
Harlequin Romance equivalent of
“friends, Romans, countrymen”?

_________

………….obtuse
is an ob word like obscene or
oblate or obsequy—

_________

……………………..to stretch
one’s loins across the public domain—

_________

……………………..why
do shrinks even when off-duty
refuse warmth and ebullience?
or do I specialize
in non-ebullient shrinks?

_________

use her talky head to block
the blinding sun

_________

tidbit was dead woman’s word, we
shared tidbit and also transcendent
and now she’s dead and I never told
her we shared tidbit and transcendent

_________  

………….seeing I Never
Sang for My Father with my mother
long ago in a movie theater—

_________

be glad you never sang
for your father

_________

………….trying to prove that I
was Jewish despite ignorance
of the covenant—

_________

……………………..I saw a disgruntled
bride in flipflops lift her wedding dress
and walk at rush hour past Penn Station—

_________

stretched out like her dead
nurse mother whose
malted milk taste I still can’t fathom

_________

………….mother whose car
we wrecked in stop-and-go traffic
en route to Richard III or The Oresteia 

_________

……………………..reaching
toward narrative but not necessarily
approving of the reach

_________

which Kafka was I glad to meet
in Mykonos dream?

_________

or a Massenet opera that might
not exist like La Bouillabaisse—
a long river cutting through Manon
a good river advocating conversion
to frivolity—

_________

reunion cakewalk for retiring
kindergarten teacher who
expresses recognition when seeing me—

_________

……………………..rose glow
reflected on dull warehouse, blue
sky shined flat and pink by emigration
of rival color—

_________

sped up from pink extrojection,
wanting to subdue him in a scenario
of erotic torture based on my thinness
and his fatness—

_________

woman who ran a French
restaurant in St. Croix—
I envied her boozy
leathery ease—motorcycle—finality—

_________

writing on a paper napkin
a few un-causal enlightenment
nouns, like junk, hazard,
dumbness, Dillinger,
sexpot, dysfunction

_________

………….two hours of giddy
threshold consciousness—

_________

a few stunned lyrics
to signalize my stupor

_________

again the hilly outline’s Pompeii
lump as the Jew hears it—
“the Jew” means not a
generality but a specific listener
who actually likes sex
and told me so

_________

………….unless I’m this Jew, too,
doublecrossing the earlier,
spread-out, novel Jew—

_________

………….stiff box for requested pearl
granted but lost, a pearl I didn’t
understand though I craved it
as girl-sign under night-cover
of boy-dawn

_________

everyone has a nadir, a
Nadja—even Nadja has a Nadja

_________

………….I spoke about
the solidity of nouns,
a U in the regarded
eggy or jizzy corner

_________

………….my throat
is not my own, it has become
a colony of national interests

_________

………….green soot posing
as lake cover

_________

………….cream of spinach
soup, my mother’s body when she suspected
food poisoning or experienced its greeny
symptoms—

_________

………….indiscreet
revelation about her ex—
I love triangulating
via unwise confessions

_________

……………………..my lips
logical except when I teach
my baby sister the art of shoplifting—

_________

Miltonic or Latinate relation to sideburn
length and thickness, George
Burns and Robert Burns and
Raymond Burr and Burl Ives—

___________

…………………………………leave Burl
off the list of treasured burns

_________

Blythe Danner isn’t burly

_________

……………………..Morton Feldman
was once my mother’s friend—
is that fact her property?

_________

………….we have in common
a predilection for killing plants—
no ability to keep a plant
alive—that’s an exaggeration—
three roses in her sideyard, maybe more

_________

………….Carlotta my unmet
unphotographed step-grandmother,
to designate her with regal sobriquet

_________

another green succulent
covering a pond
surface with scum

_________

………….skim the nitwit
coating off my tongue

_________

………….Thoreau died at 44,
killed by Apollo

_________

………….you have to be killed
by someone, might as well
be killed by Apollo

.

§

.

#15 [imprisoned within Busby Berkeley or the ethereal phlox]

.

………….I draw butt
well because butt is elementary

_________

we say nautical because
we want to avoid naughty

_________

imprecise speech stovepipes
our position and we come
to love the stove
and its scarred pedigree

_________

immoral penis is the obvious
place to juxtapose somno-
fascist and dewlap?
figuration and abstract bagel?

_________

is Tachisme a movement
celebrating rough clumsy
texture—why sigh again like
Ophelia or her supporters?

_________

dipping into Frigidaire
we praise the book and
know its contours are
orderly, governed by proxy
and whim in lower region

_________

the sick mental wife drops
glove, and law helps,
law is recourse
when stents bloom, if bloom
squeezes his daffodils
or the ethereal phlox

_______

he pretends to know my sex
and photos it—

_________

………….1940 is she ten and
reading Black Beauty
watching Waterloo Bridge
Vivien Leigh?

_________

………….1958 I’m reading
Marjorie Morningstar, sending
emails to Leigh’s agent

_________

………….because syntax
has credibility and purse-like
we see syntax and can predict
its maneuvers and love
and forgive them in advance

_________

………….stones receive
sunlight, small
like teen friend dick-bush still
remembered

_________

lichen too has an unconscious—

_________

………….but his face
is so improbably handsome I
could die, his hair so phenomenal
I might need to do something radical—

_________

putting on lipstick
I wrote about fashion
classics in the Catskills

_________

………….he holds
himself like a hamburger,
hep to the hemisphere, an ass
presented to the camera
unconventionally

_________

………….Lauren Bacall
was Jewish and she died and I
really hope she doesn’t
show up because that would hold
a certain amount of bliss
in its pocket

_________

………….seersucker
yellow dream mother was
coherent, and the coherence fell
away like the difference
between ages 83 and 89—

_________

he treats me suddenly
with knife voice
edge shattering
Brünnhilde upon me

_________

………….the leaf of
when she thought I was her
favorite son and I leaned
upon her knee or its in-
dentation like A Star Is Born
oceanic suicide

_________

like a handsome guy in
basement doing laundry
and refusing to recognize me—

_________

my mother’s draught
of raw egg, raw beef blood
and onion—to ease
the ache of being
a girl in that household

_________

men were attracted to me
because of my big hips
she said

_________

cup with Sudek facets—
specialize in simple
forms and render them clearly—

_________

syntax contains only a few
available slots, capitalize
on each

_________

………….I called
my mother and she resorted,
bless her, to polite formula

_________

the recourse was mah-jongg,
the caregivers were three

_________

he sees me as evil but has
no prosecutor with whom
to share his verdict—

_________

………….it boils down to
a strange narcoleptic
cult of seriousness, to
be considered evil
by a quorum

_________

a consciousness defined by
the status (washed, unwashed)
of a coffee pot or a
cock (cut, uncut)—

_________

carving out a piece of
my Nachtigall stomach

_________

………….an eye imprisoned
within Busby Berkeley
corollas

_________

………….find
eros in blankness,
then behold his blotches—
don’t cry, he survives his
blotches and neither splices
nor censors them—

—Wayne Koestenbaum

.

Wayne Koestenbaum has published eighteen books of poetry, criticism, and fiction, including Notes on Glaze, The Pink Trance Notebooks, My 1980s & Other Essays, Hotel Theory, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, Andy Warhol, Humiliation, Jackie Under My Skin, and The Queen’s Throat (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist).  He has had solo exhibitions of his paintings at White Columns (New York), 356 Mission (L.A.), and the University of Kentucky Art Museum. His first piano/vocal record, Lounge Act, was issued by Ugly Duckling Presse Records this year. He is a Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and French at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.

 

 

Aug 132017
 

Doris Lessing writingDoris Lessing

 

“I think Miller was an early essay and Lessing a much later one, by which point I had grown quite practiced at entering imaginatively into an author’s life (and was probably overconfident about it!). I really loved writing these essays because every writer I chose, once you got down to it, was a hapless flake, making the most terrific mess of their life and yet stalwartly, patiently, relentlessly processing every error, every crisis and turning them all into incredible art. How could you not love these people and their priceless integrity? I felt like I had found my tribe. Didn’t matter in the least that they were pretty much all dead. There was just that precious quality – vital, creative attentiveness to everything wrong – that I cherished.”

 

1942 in the land that used to be Rhodesia. A 24-year-old mother spreads a picnic blanket out on a lawn beneath the delicate leaves of a cedrillatoona tree. On the blanket she sits her two children: John, a lively three-year-old and Jean, a sweet-tempered baby. They watch their mother with steady interest.

She explains that she is going to have to abandon them.

She wants them to know this is a carefully considered choice. She tells them ‘that they would understand later why I had left. I was going to change this ugly world, they would live in a beautiful, perfect world where there would be no race hatred, injustice, and so forth.’

Her comrades in the Rhodesian branch of the Communist party have been encouraging her for several months now to break away from her family. For the first time in her life, the young woman feels solidarity in her aims and her principles; the group has given her both strength and freedom to take this extraordinary step. But it is not really – or at least not wholly – politics that has provoked it.

‘Much more, and more important: I carried, like a defective gene, a kind of doom of fatality, which would trap [the children] as it had me, if I stayed. Leaving, I would break some ancient chain of repetition. One day they would thank me for it.’

The children, she believes, are the only ones who ‘really understood me’, unlike her husband, who is bewildered and shocked by her decision, and her mother, ever a stern critic and now in possession of a righteous rage. ‘Perhaps it is not possible to abandon one’s children without moral and mental contortions,’ the young mother would later write. ‘But I was not exactly abandoning mine to an early death. Our house was full of concerned and loving people, and the children would be admirably looked after – much better than by me.’ In her own mind, her act was one of desperate self-rescue. ‘I would not have survived. A nervous breakdown would have been the least of it… I would have become an alcoholic, I am pretty sure. I would have had to live at odds with myself, riven, hating what I was part of, for years.’

The young woman went on to become Doris Lessing, author of 27 novels, seventeen short story collections, numerous non-fiction works, and winner of the Nobel prize for literature. But when she left her children she had scarcely begun to write. She was Doris Wisdom, a bored and miserable housewife, irritated by her husband, ambivalent towards her babies, and terrified of repeating the strains and traumas of her parents’ marriage. All she had was her literary ambition and a hatred for the inequalities of the country she grew up in, which was almost as fierce as her love of the land.

From these disparate ingredients she would produce a first novel of raw, corruscating power, a novel that would take London by storm when she arrived with the manuscript in her suitcase, and inform a colonising power of the desperate abuses that took place on either side of the colour bar.

But before she left Rhodesia, she was going to make the same mistakes of marriage and motherhood all over again.

Doris Lessing with 2007 Nobel Prize in LiteratureDoris Lessing with 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature

***

Doris Lessing was born in 1919 to the dispirited aftermath of the First World War. Her parents met in the Royal Free Hospital in East London. Doris’s mother was Sister Emily MacVeigh, the clever but unhappy daughter of a disciplinarian father. Doris’s father, Alfred Tayler, had lost a leg, his optimistic resilience and half his mind in the trenches. While Emily nursed him, the doctor she intended to marry went down with his ship. Neither could have the life they wanted, and so they determined to make do with the shared burden of their disappointments. Alfred married in order to make restitution to the woman who had saved his life and his sanity, whom he knew wanted children. Emily did indeed want children, but marriage meant she had to refuse the offer of a matronship at St George’s, a famous teaching hospital, which would have been a fine post for a woman in her era. She did not do so without inner turmoil. And then, depressed and shell-shocked still, Alfred Tayler was insulted to the core when handed the white feather of cowardice by a group of women in the street who could not see the wooden leg under his trousers. Unable to tolerate his feeling that his own country had betrayed him, he took a post in a bank in Persia.

Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeighLessing’s parents, Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeigh

Doris Lessing believed that her mother was as depressed as her father, conflicted over the choices she had made, the sudden emigration, and the weariness of having worked so hard in the war. As a couple they had been advised not to have children too soon, but Emily was already thirty-five and may not have wanted to wait. They joked that she fell pregnant on their wedding night. In Persia, after a difficult forceps birth, she was handed not the son they wanted, but a daughter for whom they didn’t even have a name. The doctor suggested Doris. ‘Do I believe this difficult birth scarred me?’ Lessing would later write in her memoirs. ‘I do know that to be born in the year 1919 when half of Europe was a graveyard, and people were dying in millions all over the world – that was important.’

The early years in Persia were, in fact, to be some of the happiest her parents would know. On arrival, it was as if they sloughed off old identities, her mother taking on her middle name ‘Maude’ and renaming her father ‘Michael’, which she felt sounded classier. Maude loved the rounds of colonial parties with the ‘right sort’ of people, her husband was content at the bank, and another baby arrived, the much hoped-for son. Doris Lessing’s earliest memories were of slouching against her father’s wooden leg in social gatherings, hearing herself relentlessly discussed by her mother: how difficult and naughty she was, how she made her mother’s life a misery. Her baby brother, by contrast, was perfect. To the cross, elderly nursemaid who ruled the children’s lives, Maude would say ‘Bébé is my child, madame. Doris is not my child. Doris is your child. But Bébé is mine.’ It was a psychologically unsophisticated age, in which childcare was dominated by the strictures of Truby King, who advocated strict discipline in the nursery. Lessing never forgot her mother’s gleefully recounted tales of how she had nearly starved her daughter on a rigid three-hour feeding regime that failed to take into account the thinness of Persian milk. Doris and her brother were potty trained from birth, held over the pot for hours each day. ‘You were clean by the time you were a month old!’ Lessing remembers her mother saying, though she did not believe it. Nor did she believe her mother’s romantic expressions of love as the basis of her mothering. ‘The trouble is, love is a word that has to be filled with an experience of love. What I remember is hard, bundling hands, impatient arms and her voice telling me over and over again that she had not wanted a girl’. Doris’s birth had been inauspicious, and now her upbringing was proving catastrophic. ‘The fact was, my early childhood made me one of the walking wounded for years,’ she wrote. ‘I think that some psychological pressures, and even well-meant ones, are as damaging as physical hurt.’

In 1924 their time in Persia ended, but after a few months in an England that felt as depressing as ever to the Taylers, Michael went to the Empire Exhibition and was seduced by the thought of farming in Southern Rhodesia. With ill-prepared impulsiveness they sailed to Cape Town (though they both had all their teeth removed on the unsound advice that there were no dentists in Rhodesia). Michael was laid low with seasickness and remained in the cabin for most of the journey, whilst Maude had a wonderful time consorting with the Captain, regardless of the rough weather. They enjoyed ‘hearty jollity’ together and Doris found to her discomfort that the Captain was a keen practical joker. He told her one day she must sit on a cushion ‘where he had placed an egg, swearing it wouldn’t break… My mother said I must be a good sport.’ Doris was wearing her party dress, which was spoiled, and the Captain roared with laughter. There was worse to come. ‘When we crossed the Line I was thrown in, though I could not swim, and was fished out by a sailor. This kind of thing went on, and I was permanently angry and had nightmares.’ Looking back, she did not believe her mother was a naturally cruel person; she was simply grasping at a good time with both hands, drunk on pleasure and anticipation, falling in with the ‘done thing’ on board. But for Doris, it was an early, wounding lesson in how those in control could so lightly and easily humiliate others, barely noticing what they did.

By the time they arrived at the Cape, Doris was starting to steal things and to lie. ‘There were storms of miserable hot rage, like being burned alive by hatred.’ She took a pair of scissors, thinking she might be able to stab her much-disliked nursemaid, Biddy, with them. Then a sudden and unexpected balm to her spirits: for five days and nights they travelled in an ox wagon, leaving behind the niceties of home – Liberty curtains, trunks of clothes, silver tableware, Persian carpets and a piano – to follow on later by train. For Doris, bumping along the rough track into a vast emptiness ‘there is only one memory, not of unhappiness and anger, but the beginnings of a different landscape.’ Her impressionable sensitivity was being given a new world to work on. The spiralling horns of a koodoo, the glistening green slither of a snake, anthills for shade, beetles and chameleons, thick red soil churned by the monsoon rains. It was a landscape to echo the intensities and vastness of her misunderstood emotions, a harsh landscape for sure, but one of overwhelming beauty.

Her parents had chosen a grand hilltop site for their home, but they could only afford to construct a traditional mud house with a thatched roof upon it. It contained both the piano and furniture fashioned out of petrol boxes, the Liberty curtains and bedspreads made of dyed flour sacks. There were no ‘nice’ people in the district, to Maude’s despair. She had had dresses made for entertaining, calling cards printed, bought gloves and hats that she would never wear. Instead of the glamorous life she imagined, she had a toilet that was a packing case with a hole in it over a twenty-foot drop. The farm was too big for a man with a wooden leg, but too small to make any profit. The heat was crippling. They all had malaria. Twice. Maude took to her bed for a year with a ‘bad heart’, enraging Doris with unwanted, burdensome pity for what she understood even then to be depression.

European settlers on fruit farm Southern Rhodesia early 1920s via Wikimedia CommonsSettler farm in Southern Rhodesia, early 1920s, via Wikimedia Commons

Maude’s illness brought Mrs Mitchell and her son into their lives, supposed to act as ‘help’. Doris experienced them as another chip of nightmare, the woman a heavy drinker and her son a bully. Writing about them in her memoir, she realised they came from the extreme end of white poverty, from a life she could not have imagined as a child, and which the immigrant farmers around them never wanted to acknowledge as a depth to which whites could sink. Mrs Mitchell and her son roundly abused the black workers, and decried Michael Tayler’s attempts to treat them well. It was, Lessing remembered, the first encounter she had with the ugly white clichés. ‘They only understand the stick. They are nothing but savages. They are just down from the trees. You have to keep them in their place.’ The Mitchells left after a few months and Doris and her brother took to joining their father down on the land. Eventually Maude rose from her bed, having decided it was the weight of her hair that was giving her headaches. She cut it all off, reducing her children to tears as they rolled in shanks of it on the bed, then she bundled it up, threw it in the rubbish pit and set to work.

Doris Lessing with mother and brotherLessing with her mother and brother

***

Doris was eight years old when she was first sent away to the Roman Catholic Convent. The main subject was fear. The dormitories held grisly images of the tortured Saint Sebastian, the broken, crucified Jesus, whose swollen heart disgorged gouts of blood. At bedtime, one of the nuns would stand in the doorway and tell them: ‘God knows what you are thinking. God knows the evil in your hearts. You are wicked children, disobedient to God and to the good sisters who look after you for the glory of God. If you die tonight you will go to hell and there you will burn in the flames of hell’. They were allowed a bath once a week and were supposed to wear boards around their necks that prevented them from seeing their own bodies. In her memoirs, Lessing calls the atmosphere ‘unwholesome’, a notable understatement. Her parents’ attitude towards her was disquieting and she had a dawning sense that all was not right for the blacks on the farm. But this must have been her most clear and immediate experience of abuse by authority. She had never known power except self-indulgent or corrupt.

When a bad kidney ailment brought Doris into the sickroom and the care of one of the few kindly nuns, she found a power of her own in illness. It was a button she could push that made her mother jump, and she pushed it repeatedly. Lice and ringworm would sign her release papers from the nuns. At the next boarding school, measles gave six weeks of blessed quarantine and then a bad eye infection – violent to look at but not serious – set her free. She insisted she could no longer see properly, and made her mother take her home.

And so, at fourteen, Doris finished her meagre education and gave her full attention to the covert cold war with her mother. ‘I was in nervous flight from her ever since I can remember anything and from the age of fourteen I set myself obdurately against her in a kind of inner emigration from everything she represented,’ she wrote in her memoirs. When she returned to the farm, it was to a new level of her mother’s intrusive care. Her father had diabetes by now and had entered a long, slow decline that cemented his general air of helplessness. Maude nursed him with obsessive attention, and extended her compulsive care to her daughter, fretting over what she ate, and worrying about her going alone in the bush. It was not love that provoked this behaviour, Doris believed, but a struggle over control. For the biggest argument between them was over clothes: her mother wanted her to wear smart, frilly dresses, entirely inappropriate for her age and surroundings. ‘I knew what it was my mother wanted when she nagged and accused me, continually holding out these well-brought-up little girls’ clothes at me. “Well try it on at least!” They were sizes too small for me.’ When Doris sewed herself her first bra, her mother noticed, called for her father, and then whipped her dress up over her head so he should see it. ‘“Lord, I thought it was something serious,”’ her father grumbled, edging away.

Doris Lessing age 14Doris Lessing, age 14

Both Doris and her father hated the way she treated the black servants, always talking to them in a ‘scolding, insistent, nagging voice full of dislike’. ‘“But they’re just hopeless, hopeless,”’ she would wail when confronted. The ‘Native Question’ had become a topic of hot debate between Doris and her parents. ‘I had no ammunition in the way of facts and figures, nothing but a vague but strong feeling that there was something terribly wrong with the System.’ She read letters in the Rhodesia Herald, arguing that the black workers were inefficient because they were housed and fed so badly, and Doris felt ashamed at how little they were paid on her own farm. But such opinions felt vague against the pervasive conviction that blacks were simply lazy and stupid. Her father was kinder in his views but he was as ineffectual against her mother’s virulent opinions as he was in everything else. Small wonder that Doris was determined to escape, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Doris had already created a false self, a kind of persona she could hide behind in an attempt to keep her mother out of the private parts of her mind. She had early realised that ‘it was [my mother’s] misfortune to have an over-sensitive, always observant and judging, battling, impressionable, hungry-for-love child. With not one, but several, skins too few.’ After a bout of family enthusiasm for A.A. Milne when she was a child, Doris began to live up to her nickname of ‘Tigger’. Tigger Tayler was a daughter in her mother’s image, capable and resilient with brutal good humour, a good sport with a thick skin. At 18, she heard there were jobs to be had at the telephone exchange in Salisbury and moved there, mastering the easy work by day and joining in with the party crowd at night. Tigger Tayler was all about love and excitement, proud of her strong, beautiful young body. She smoked, she drank, she danced – and was a good dancer. It was 1938 and she knew, as everyone did around her, that war was coming. Tigger dreamt of becoming an ambulance driver, a spy, a parachutist, whilst throwing back the cocktails and losing herself to the rhythms of the music. The adventure she actually chose would be the most mundane on offer.

‘A young woman sensitised by music, and every molecule simpering in abased response to the drums of war, a young woman in love with her own body – she did not have a chance of escaping her fate, which was the same as all young women at that time,’ Lessing would write in determined self-absolution in her memoir. Tigger Tayler with her gung-ho attitude and smouldering sexuality had found a way to coincide with the lost, lonely, hungry-for-love child she was trying to cover up, although she would describe her reckless rush into marriage as happening under the effects of ‘the same numbness, a kind of chloroform, that overtakes someone being eaten by a lion.’

And so it was that, at 19, she returned to the farm with a fiancé in tow to introduce to her parents. He was Frank Wisdom, a civil servant – a respectable profession for which her parents were grateful, though they assumed Doris was pregnant. In fact she was, but didn’t know it at the time. They had a ‘graceless wedding,’ which in retrospect she claimed to have hated: ‘It was “Tigger” who was getting married.’ And then there were two children born in quick succession: a demanding and hyperactive boy, John, and a sweet, affectionate girl, Jean. For a few years, she played at the conventional role of housewife and did so with competence and much inner anguish. ‘There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very young child,’ she wrote. She was perpetually exhausted, partly from the demands of the children, partly from the pretence of being Tigger, partly from suppressed rage at her mother who now visited regularly and criticized her decisions, often calling her selfish and irresponsible in a way that must have utterly infuriated her, given her own memories of childhood.

Salisbury Rhodesia 1930 via Wikimedia CommonsSalisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 1930 via Wikimedia Commons

Frank did not understand why Doris took to bed, weeping with fury, once she had gone. But then Frank and Doris had quickly grown apart. The war was on, but Frank had been turned down for active duty on medical grounds. He nursed his resentment and shame over too many drinks at the club. He agreed that Doris would write when she had the time and energy, but he grew angry when the poetry she produced was fiercely critical of apartheid, afraid it might undermine him in his job. She would become increasingly involved with subversive organisations, and he would become a cliché of conventionality.

Not long after Jean was born, Doris made the decision to take a month off and travel to Cape Town with John. Her health had been suffering; she was tired all the time and had fainting fits. ‘I was miserable and confused, being torn apart by these two babes,’ she wrote. The demanding task of caring for two small children was complicated by an unformed, unarticulated sense of profound self-betrayal. A neighbour, who, according to Lessing, had longed for a daughter all her life, was lined up to take baby Jean. ‘I did not feel guilty about this then, and do not feel guilty now,’ she wrote. ‘Small babies need to be dandled, cuddled, held, comforted and it does not have to be the mother.’ This was to be a formative month, in which she met, at the boarding house where she was staying, a woman from a Christian organisation promoting good race relations by way of the sort of straight talking that hypnotised Doris. ‘“How can one describe a country where 100,000 white people use 1 million blacks as servants and cheap labour, refuse them education and training, all the time in the name of Christianity?”’ she asked, and Doris found it a ‘revelation’.

She returned home rested, revolutionized and newly inspired to write. Frank agreed help was needed and it was a sign of the times that a mother leaving her child for a month never raised an eyebrow, whereas hiring a black nanny and inviting her to live in the house was cause for scandal. Doris’s mother even ambushed Frank in his office to express her outrage. The nanny had to go, and Doris’s political and personal claustrophobia worsened.

It was at this time that she joined the Communist group that would have such an influence; Communist, socialist, progressive, these were very blurred lines at the time for her, but she knew for sure that her attitude marked her out pejoratively. ‘All over Southern Rhodesia were scattered people whose attitude toward race would be commonplace in a couple of decades, but now they were misfits, eccentrics, traitors, kaffir-lovers.’ The persona of Tigger Tayler – briefly Tigger Wisdom – was finally breaking down, under sustained assault by subversive political ideas and her suppressed rage and resentment. She was destroying her energy with domesticity, when she could be doing something of vital good to the world. Her situation was chaotic, messy, emotionally distraught. Frank hated her politics but didn’t want her to leave. Doris felt she hated him – because she was treating him so badly. She was desperate to be free. The holiday she had taken now turned out to be a rehearsal for something altogether more audacious, and her new political friends encouraged her. Those years behind the false self had left her feeling she was a stranger to herself and she could not bear it. Nor could she tolerate the ‘terrible provincialism and narrowness of the life.’ She knew that if she left she would be doing something ‘unforgiveable’.

She left anyway.

***

Doris Wisdom abandoned one family in 1942. In 1943 she married again, this time a man whom she didn’t much like even when she married him. Gottfried Lessing was a committed Communist, a hard-working lawyer, a German intellectual and, in Doris’s eyes, a cold, humourless soul. But they had met through the Rhodesian Communist group and he was at least a match for her politically. ‘It was my revolutionary duty to marry him,’ Doris wrote. Gottfried felt it would increase his chances of obtaining British nationality, for both he and Doris now longed to escape South Africa for England, and he believed that marriage would protect him from the threat of the internment camp, where his political interests could still land him. But what was really going on? Why would Doris, even out of a misplaced sense of duty, rush back into marriage with such impetuous self-abandon? She would claim it was because the marriage was a sham, just a matter of convenience, but it seemed as if she needed the impetuosity and the thoughtlessness to whitewash a deeper, more shameful need.

She was struggling hard to find out who she was. After leaving her husband and children she fell ill for a long time because, she believed, ‘I was full of division.’ The Communist group that she had placed so much faith in was not providing her with the certainties she hoped it would, for it had swiftly ‘dwindle[d] into debate and speculation. We were too diverse, there was too much potential for schism.’ Doris’s family were ever more horrified by her political engagements and her messy personal life. And her sex life with Gottfried was a disaster. But one positive change had been effected: she had finally started to write with commitment – the first draft of a serious novel about the deep inequalities that wracked her country and had spoiled her early life. Division might have been destroying her, but it would be translated with power and beauty into her writing.

Then, as if in sabotage of this step in the right direction, around Christmas 1945 Doris fell pregnant again. She and Gottfried had to be married for a while, so they might as well ‘fit in’ a child, they told their friends, ‘we’ve got nothing better to do.’ Her parents were horrified. ‘My father said: “Why leave two babies and then have another?” My mother was fiercely, miserably accusing.’ Lessing’s own explanation was casual and bizarre. ‘I believe it was Mother Nature making up for the millions of the dead… Besides, I wanted another baby. I yearned for one.’ Doris was at the mercy of her own poorly understood compulsions, and more so than ever as she tried to find her authentic self. But maybe her instincts, or the experience of thinking and writing seriously about the inequalities of power, were covertly working on her side, for when baby Peter was born, something seemed to click into place. Now having a baby was ‘easy going and pleasant.’ ‘I was in love with this baby,’ she wrote in her memoir, in a way that seems a thoughtless judgement on her abandoned children. One thing seemed to make a huge difference: she had discovered Dr Spock and the idea of feeding on demand. Her mother’s insistence on the timed feeds of Truby King had felt wrong and punitive to her when nursing her first two babies. Now she fed this one on demand, to her mother’s outrage, to her own exquisite relief. Now feeding was a dialogue with her child, not an act of oppression.

Finally at the end of 1948 the official papers arrived, permitting Doris and Gottfried to leave South Africa for England and the decision was made that Doris would sail to London ahead with Peter. In her suitcase she carried the manuscript of the novel that she had worked on in fragmented and frustrated fashion, between the demands of her baby, her mother, and her wide circle of political acquaintances. She hoped it would make her name.

What she did not know, in her elated escape to London, was that she was heading for a decade of single motherhood. Of all her situations, this one might seem on paper the worst of them all, scraping a living by writing whilst bringing up a son alone. But later she would claim this child had saved her. Although she finally sent Peter to boarding school aged twelve, those interim years saw her stuck to her writing from sheer necessity. She could not go out and party and find new lovers and make more disastrous marriages. She was obliged to commit to work, despite fatigue and loneliness. It is not certain whether Peter had the kind of mother that textbooks idealise, but it was these years of hard apprenticeship that transformed Doris Lessing from a natural talent to a phenomenally successful writer.

***

When she arrived in London, Doris Lessing sold the manuscript of her first novel quickly and easily to the publishing house Michael Joseph. The Grass Is Singing was the novel that had been written as she searched long and hard for her sense of a true self, that came out of the mire of hatred and resentment at the injustices she had suffered as a powerless child, and which she saw mirrored in the cruel country around her, where native ‘children’ were oppressed by a harsh and loveless white authority. In that shared suffering she had found her story—though the great audacity of her novel was to speak of racial prejudice in the voice of the white oppressor, to make the ugliness and the injustice of the colour bar stand out starkly.

The Grass is Singing collageCover and author photo from first British edition of  The Grass is Singing, via dorislessing.org

She had been warned over and over as a child against the dangers of black men and one true story had stuck in her mind: in Lomagundi, a white woman had been brutally murdered by her black servant. That memory provided the opening of her story: a (fictional) notice in a newspaper of the death of Mary Turner, a white farmer’s wife at the hand of her manservant, Moses. The opening chapter takes place in the shocked aftermath of the discovery of Mary’s slaughtered body by Tony Marsden, a recent arrival at the farm who is learning the ropes of colonial stewardship. Tony is dumbfounded by the attitude of the other men on the scene: the police sergeant and Charlie Slatter, the nearest neighbour and a farmer of the rich, efficient and brutal kind. The two men have more contempt for the victim than for the killer, for after all, a black man will always kill if suitably provoked. Tony wants to tell them the truth of the situation as he sees it: that Moses and Mary Turner had a strangely close and complicit relationship. But he comes to realise ‘in the silences between the words’ that he must never give voice to his testimony, because it opens up possibilities that cannot be held in the colonial mind. He understands his own social survival is at stake: ‘He would have to adapt himself, and if he did not conform, would be rejected: the issue was clear to him, he had heard the phrase “getting used to our ideas” too often to have any illusions on the point.’ And so it is understood that Mary nagged her servant and he killed her for it. The rest of the novel returns to the beginning of Mary’s story to reveal the unspeakable, complex truth.

Mary is an indigenous white whose parents belonged to the lowest echelons, her father a harmless, useless drunk and her mother a bitter woman who treats her husband with ‘cold indifference’ when alone and ‘scornful ridicule’ in the presence of her friends. Mary is pulled into her mother’s orbit as her unwilling confidante and escapes home at 16, as Doris did, to an office job in town. Here she lives mindlessly and contentedly in a sort of arrested development, feeling only relief when her parents die, until one day in her 30s when she overhears the unkind gossip of her friends at a party. They poke fun at her girlish clothes and make snide remarks about her unmarried status, and she is distraught: ‘Mary’s idea of herself was destroyed and she was not fitted to recreate herself…She felt as she had never done before; she was hollow inside, empty, and into this emptiness would sweep from nowhere a vast panic’. It is enough to propel her into the arms of the first available man. He happens to be Dick Turner, a cautious, uneasy man who dislikes the town and only feels comfortable on his beloved veld. For years he has been farming in a small, unprofitable way, loving his land and managing nothing more than meagre self-sufficiency. It has recently occurred to him that a woman about the place might be nice; someone to comfort and support him, and to boost his wavering morale.

What follows is the slow, painful and inexorable failure of their marriage. Mary is left to fend for herself in a tin-roofed shack, prostrated by the heat and half-dead from boredom. Dick, meanwhile, fritters their money away on overly optimistic schemes – pigs, turkeys, rabbits, all of which fail gently. Dick longs for love but is too isolated in himself, too caught up in his own foolish schemes and ventures to give Mary what she needs to be happy. Mary can’t assert herself against his implacable small-mindedness, her energy ebbing away as she realises she is stuck in a situation designed to drive her crazy. It is all too like her hated childhood, and their relationship starts to mirror that of her parents. For Mary is capable and intelligent; if she believed there were any happiness to be had she would work hard for it. Instead her feelings for Dick drift towards fury and contempt, which she then has to work hard to subdue because it is unbearable to admit they are wrong for each other and lack the ability to change.

Mary’s emotions are vented on the succession of black servants in her household without her even fully realising it. She is enraged by their neutral submissiveness, which she reads as shifty dishonesty, finding in the lack of relation between them an uncomfortable analogy to her marriage with Dick. The servant is ‘only a black body ready to do her bidding’ which angers her even more. When Dick falls ill with malaria she is obliged to oversee the men on the farm and the experience turns her into a vicious bully – her fear and insecurity, her frustration and claustrophobia channelled into an acceptable outlet. When one man insists on fetching himself a drink she brings her whip down on his face rather than bear his disobedience, and several months later she is horrified when Dick brings the same man to the house as their new servant.

Mary and Moses now begin a psychological dance to the death around each other. The scar of the wound she inflicted reminds Mary inexorably of her mistreatment of Moses, a crime she cannot admit to herself for then she would have to unpick a whole series of feelings that lead to even more unbearable truths. And so her anger and her violence turn inwards instead and she becomes terrified of him. Moses is aware of this and his blank, neutral servitude becomes tinged with other emotions – curiosity, contempt, his own unresolved anger. As their situation intensifies Mary’s ‘feeling was one of a strong and irrational fear, a deep uneasiness and even – though this she did not know, would have died rather than acknowledge – of some dark attraction.’ Mary gives up the fight in her own mind and the narrative shifts to a different perspective. Now we catch glimpses of her allowing Moses to help her into bed for her rest, and buttoning her dress when she gets up again. Whatever their relationship, it is untenable. Unable to tolerate the situation any longer, Mary sends Moses away, knowing he will return to kill her.

Doris Lessing had taken all the ugly, entrapped, rageful relationships she had experienced – her mother and her father, her mother and herself, old Mrs Mitchell and her son, herself and Frank Wisdom, every relationship she had ever witnessed between a white man and his black slave and had distilled the awful essence from them. What she wrote in The Grass Is Singing was that any relationship based on domination and submission was doomed to disaster for all parties concerned; the dominant had to rule so absolutely, the submissives had to be so crushed, that no full humanity was available to either of them. Instead they were locked in airtight roles, waging a futile war to maintain a status quo that damaged and reduced them both. On one side would be fear and contempt, on the other resentment and bitter self-righteousness. Compassion and sympathy – love itself – had no room to breathe, no space to nurture joy and pleasure. The complex reality of the individual was lost, and in the absence of that true self, perversity set in. She had witnessed it and she had lived it, over and again. She had come to understand that thwarted people lived stubbornly in self-division, pleading with others for the things they didn’t want, setting their faces obdurately against the things they did. Her unholy triangle of Mary and Dick Turner and their houseboy, Moses, provided a graphic, psychologically brilliant diagram for how the catastrophe took place.

Doris Lessing would go on to write more detailed autobiographical novels about her upbringing and early marriages in Africa, but this was the one she wrote as she waited impatiently to leave behind everything that was hopelessly wrong about her life. It was the one she wrote as she struggled to put her false self behind her and find a way of being that corresponded more accurately to her genuine desires. For the rest of her life she could be shockingly lacking in self-awareness when it suited her; it was a strategy that she never abandoned for its usefulness was too great. But when she wrote this first novel she was trying most sincerely to be as truthful as she knew how. She had done ‘unforgivable’ things in order to win herself that freedom. And in the shift from one family to another, in that new relationship she forged with her third child, she did seem to break free from the tyranny of motherhood that had haunted her for so long. Right back at its origins, the imbalance of power began at the mother’s breast, and the consequences could be seen in the colonised nations. She believed she could mother differently to her own mother, and in doing so she would break a vital chain – the figurative chain that kept all slaves in their place.

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Under My Skin Walking in the Shade collagex

Notes on Sources

All the biographical material in this essay is drawn from Lessing’s two magnificent volumes of autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997). The story I have picked out here represents a tiny fraction of the wealth of incident and insight that the books contain, for they are, as one might expect from her, wonderfully wide-ranging, brutally honest and suggestively rich. I warmly recommend them.

—Victoria Best

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Victoria Best

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Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books. http://shinynewbooks.co.uk

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Aug 132017
 

All photographs taken by the author.

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A note (unedited, in English).

Buenos Aires. 20.12.2016. A return — this seems to be one of the things I’m expected to write about. And now that I return, now that I find myself here, I haven’t even left the airport and I’m already toying with the idea of writing a return, perhaps just to surrender, to stop running away from that mandate. To write about a return to a hot place, by a fictional character, broken by (self)exile and memories. But how could this return be any different? What could this writerly return add to this well-trodden path? People — broken by (self)exile and memories — have been returning to hot places, for an audience, since Ulysses (the first one). And it’s a terrible destiny, to find oneself in the mouth of a lyrical poet. This is very likely the most dangerous part of returning, that poetic possibility, the dangerous and fake nostalgia all poetry entails.

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I

Missing Buenos Aires is a daily routine. Some days the longing arrives after a sound — memories are triggered, homesickness kicks in. Other times it happens after a smell, any smell, heavenly or foul. Most times the longing comes after the wanton recollection of this or that corner, any part of Buenos Aires that in my mind looks like Buenos Aires should look. Some days the feeling is overwhelming and I can spend hours wallowing in self pity. Most times the situation is manageable. I am writing this, listening to Astor Piazzolla, because today is one of those days where I can’t handle homesickness very well. And the music helps with the fantasy, it feeds it.

Because the thing is: I never lived in Buenos Aires. I frequented Buenos Aires a lot. But I never lived there, never managed to settle there, had my name on a bill there, or a fixed abode, or a favourite café, or a library card. Unlike Dublin, Paris, and later London, Buenos Aires was too much for me — I couldn’t tame it, own it, call it my own. I used to spend many a weekend in Buenos Aires but I would spent this time coach surfing, mostly off my head after rock concerts, preparing a landing that never materialised. So I miss the possibility of Buenos Aires. And by missing its possibility I can miss my own hometown without the uncomfortable bits, without all the impossibilities, the proximities, the complexities and familiarities. The parts that can hurt.

I miss an imaginary Buenos Aires instead of a real Rosario. Homesickness is safer this way. And besides, like this I can plug into some universal motifs of Argentineanness — perpetuated by literature, tango, film (Argentine and international) — that I no longer wish to contest, since I have long given up trying to express the nuances and the complications of being an Argentinean. Of course I miss Buenos Aires. Of course I play football. Of course I am a gifted tango dancer. Of course I am a charming Lothario. Of course I am prone to fits of passion and — unlike British guys — fits of tears. Of course I can ride a horse. Of course I am a streetwise intellectual who likes to sit in cafés to solve the problems of the world.

I have, during these past fifteen years away from the possibility of Buenos Aires, become a simplified version of myself. My life is better without corners. And more importantly, in (self)exile I have become what I always wanted to be: the stereotypical porteño.

I miss Buenos Aires. How could I not write about this now that I am here, now that I return to the city I never left, the city where I never lived?

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II

Ariel Ruzzo, professor of Latin American Literature in some college, University of London, arrives in Buenos Aires after a hiatus of five years. Actually make it professor of Comparative Literature, it will be easier to market. And Comparative Literature sounds less of a con. It sounds like he went abroad to do the vini, vidi, vici. Professor of Latin American Literature, for an Argentine character like Ariel, sounds like he escaped an economic crisis to then accidentally find his way into a modern languages department, where he ended up teaching unsuspecting and overpaying students the soporific drivel known as magical realism.

So Ariel Ruzzo — professor of Comparative Literature — lands in Buenos Aires after a hiatus of five years. He has come to sell a flat, a flat he inherited a while ago from an auntie, a flat in which he barely lived back in the late 1990s. He has found an overseas buyer, so it is only a matter of signing a couple of papers at the notary’s, some other papers at the solicitors’, receiving the money in his British account, and then back to London, to his musty office overlooking a central square. But there is also the thing with the boxes: he has to remove some boxes from his flat. Rita, an ex girlfriend, has been living there all this time, paying a symbolic rent. He would much rather avoid this, for a series of reasons, but he has already arranged to meet her tonight, have dinner together, old friends and all that, get the boxes out of the small storage corner under the stairs tomorrow. There must be five or six of them, said Rita. It can’t take him that long — most will go in the bin anyway.

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III

I don’t remember where I was or why I was searching for images of Buenos Aires — it might have been a moment of procrastination; it could have been research towards an essay; it could have been anything. The reason for my search is no more but I remember very well the words, scribbled on a wall in some porteño suburb, in blue: “morirse no es nada, peor es vivir en Argentina,” — “dying is meaningless, worse is living in Argentina”.

These words pin down very well the atmosphere of the 1990s and early 2000s — my 1990s and 2000s. The decade felt like a slow death, punctuated by a long series of socio-political and economic upheavals. Like many others, this slow death — peaking with the crash of 2001 — sent me away. In my particular case, away from the possibility of Buenos Aires, on a journey to become Argentinean. No I don’t know what I was before; I only know that I became Argentinean abroad, probably while I was cleaning a toilet in Dublin, and the toilet was full to the rim with shit. This was a defining moments in my life. The realisation must have hit me then and there, or during the series of crap jobs I had for years on end. Somehow, suddenly, it was clear: who I was, where I was from, what I could aspire to. It was both humbling and enlightening.

I know Ariel Ruzzo left for the same reasons, even if he likes to play the scholarly card. But I still wonder if he became Argentinean abroad. Is it a generalised disease, this displaced becoming? What was his “cleaning an overflowing toilet” moment, if he ever had one?

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IV

Ariel has had a stellar career. From his undergraduate studies in Puán’s School of Filosofía y Letras, to an MA in Cambridge, to a PhD in Princeton. A stellar career, from the very start, in all the right places. His thesis, which surveys the detective story from its birth in the mid 19th century all the way to the cinema noir, has become one of those rare documents that manage to leap outside of the reduced spaces of academia, in order to become a non-fiction classic. Reading the Detectives is into its sixth edition and in the process of being translated into French and Japanese. And Ariel is only forty.

And yet, success aside, here is Ariel, back in Buenos Aires, like any mortal, after a hiatus of five years, and even from before getting off the plane it is clear that it will be a difficult trip, that coming back to Argentina always involves a process of readaptation and submission. There is a transport strike and among the people exercising their right to piss off everyone else we should count those in charge of driving Ariel and his fellow passengers from the plane to the airport. And no, the captain won’t let them walk the scant hundred metres to the terminal, because it contravenes a series of safety regulations, even if passengers from other planes seem to be able to do the walk. A two hour wait, then, until British Airways manages to find a scab to do the job, in several trips, old people and those with kids first, no mention of literature professors — tenure opens doors but not all doors.

Ariel is back in Buenos Aires, after a hiatus of five years. He will have to come back later to get his suitcase — the strike — or get a courier to pick it up on his behalf. But he is back. Really back.

V

I should be taking notes, there are so many things to remember, so many things that could go into that piece about a return, things that add realism, the details, the lived feeling. Now that I find myself in Buenos Aires I should be noting things down, focusing on the contradictory bits, because people love the contradictory bits, not only of returns.

In the subte, Línea B, between Gallardo and Medrano: a mother with a disabled kid. She is having a loud go at him when he tries to eat a cookie and the crumbs fall all over the place, as he contorts visibly in pain with some muscular malfunction. The mother, tired, aged too soon — she resents the child, not that I have to guess this, because she says “I can’t stand you anymore,” in Spanish obviously, and then realises she needs to get off, and makes her move, politely asking the other passengers in the carriage to make room for her and the wheelchair-bound kid, all charm. This must be the first time in my life I hear a porteño say sorry, please, thank you. I am impressed.

This differs radically from my first experience of Buenos Aires on my own, perhaps in the mid nineties. I was walking down the avenue connecting the Retiro bus terminal with the city centre — it was an ocean of people. I was a bleary eyed lad coming to the smoke from a place where we swallowed the Ss at the end of the words. I was bleary eyed and scared and walking maybe too slowly and maybe in the wrong side of the pavement. A redhead guy suddenly turned up before me, kindly shouted in my face that I kindly move aside and pushed me aside, kindly. I almost fell kindly on the floor but I didn’t.

I wonder if this kind redhead is now as polite as the mother on the subte.

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VI

The car flies down the Riccieri. Thank god the driver is quiet and Ariel can dedicate his time to watching the ugly houses both sides of the highway, sprouting like verrucas. Many an Argentine house built since the big migrational waves of the early 20th century is an example of Feísmo, the modernism and beyond of the impoverished European, at home and abroad, he reminds himself, almost as if he were thinking in footnotes. Who lives here? What is it like to live by the side of this road that never sleeps, with planes over your head, in one of these eyesores?

He is about to find a provisional answer to this question when the love motels catch his attention. He might have gone to all of them, here at the outskirts of civilisation. What a perfect site for love motels. A perfect place to stop for a shag before you make it to Buenos Aires and get lovelessly screwed by the city. He once was in one of these love hotels — or he imagines he was in one, or I imagine he was in one, which for a fiction piece would be the same — called “París”. He might have gone there with Rita, before he got the flat, when the options where shagging against a tree or in a rented room, shifts of two hours, mirror on the ceiling, adult channel not included in the standard rate. They might have gone to a room called “La Torre”. There might have been a photo of the Eiffel Tower glued to the window, both blocking potential perverts peering in from the parking lot and providing the ambience. Or, like I said, he could have imagined all this, or I could have, thinking about his ghosts, planning his return in my head.

But it doesn’t matter who imagined or imagines this — soon Buenos Aires is there, to the right and to the left, tower blocks, barrios, more lack of planning, advertisement hoardings that look like soft porn, seen from the elevated Avenida de Mayo. And a song starts playing in his head, make it a tango, make it Piazzolla, make it legible for foreign audiences, the ones likely to read this piece about a return.

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VII

And the poor, their dark faces underground — it is always a matter of skin, whatever Argentineans might tell you. The pregnant woman with several children, begging barefoot in Pueyrredón, when I get off to change to the line that will take me to Once station, where I have to catch a suburban train to Ituizangó. The kids’ dirty faces, their shredded clothes. They might be the same poor kids I see later on the train — poor but with air conditioning. Poor but spoiled after the tragedy of Once in 2012, when fifty one died crushed like sardines, when the 3772 from Moreno to Once, decided to enter the station at full speed. I can’t guarantee trains are able to stop now, but at least they have aircon.

These kids or other kids, around eleven or twelve years old, drinking warm white wine from a plastic bottle, happily and prematurely off the trolley. And the itinerant salesmen, offering everything from sweets and colouring books to a CD with the latest hits of x radio — they are playing the songs with a contemporary ghetto blaster, the salesman showing off a voice probably acquired during a journalism degree. And the Africans. Africans in Buenos Aires — they are back. Speaking a language I can’t pin down, sitting in groups of two or three, ignored by the other passengers, for better or worse, travelling to provincia with bags and suitcases. What are they doing here? Where are they going? There used to be many of them in Buenos Aires but then they vanished — blended into the white population over the years, according to some; decimated by the flu and the war with Paraguay, according to the ones who know better. And now they are back. Like ghosts. Is there any other way of being back than as a ghost?

Everywhere is full of ghosts and ghosts taking down notes.

VIII

Ariel uses his keys and comes in unannounced. The door is heavy. He remembers the door being heavy but it must have gotten heavier during these past five years.

Soon he is riding the lift all the way to the sixth floor. It is an old Otis with scissor gates. He thought they had been banned — children kept getting their hands and feet crushed by the gates. But here is this lift with scissor gates and it feels like being in a film, cinematically moving up with the numbers of the floors painted on the walls turning up one after the other and this irregular chiaroscuro of shadows and lights, scrolling in vertical pans.

And soon the sixth floor. Ariel leaves the lift, closes the scissor gates behind him, and the lift disappears towards the ground floor, called by another person and the door of his flat opens and Rita is there, unwilling to be taken by surprise. And she looks beautiful, the same, she hasn’t aged a single minute. Or maybe he never paid attention.

IX

The dead. If I were to write that piece about a return, of Ariel’s return, I should make a reference to the dead of Buenos Aires. The dead might explain the ghosts, or add some material basis for them, or just some colour.

The dead of Buenos Aires, underground. Not as in buried six foot under but given a platform in the actual metro stations, on station names and writing on walls — the battles, violent men, terrorist attacks, catastrophes, accidents, disappeared writers. Caseros — Ejercito Grande versus Juan Manuel de Rosas (another station and a tough we love to hate) 1852. Pasteur / AMIA — vaccination / suicide bombing. Carlos Gardel — plane crash, Medellín, 1935. Rodolfo Walsh — killed in Constitución, 1977, disappeared. But maybe I am exaggerating, forcing wanton connections. Or maybe not, because Cromañón.

By the tracks, in the depths, a small mural consecrated to the dead in the fire of Cromañón, where almost two hundred music fans burned to death during a rock concert, in 2004. The choice of words in the mural, on the black wall, links to other deaths: Cromañón Nunca Más. Nunca Más, Never More. The words chosen back in the mid 80s to attempt to quantify and qualify the crimes of the juntas between 1976 and 1983. Nunca Más was the title of the book by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), two words that would also become a call to stop death. In the mid 1980s the call was to stop state terrorism. In the early 2000s a call to stop another type of death: one born out of the state’s disappearance, all the corruption and oversights that would make it possible for almost two hundred — many of whom were children — to die in a blaze.

A piece about a return to Buenos Aires wouldn’t be a piece about a return to Buenos Aires without some paragraphs dedicated to the dead. This is, of course, another trope I am expected to write about, another form of surrender, part of the demand that Argentine writers fill the page looking back towards this or that violent past. Disappeared, victims of terrorism or petty crime, any of these will do to please the reader. Perhaps the dead might grant me the attention of a publisher too.

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X

And of course they have fucked by now. Ariel is smoking a cigarette, lying in his estranged bed. Rita is smoking too. Of course they are smoking.

And of course a dialogue will here ensue, one of those dialogues full of love, longing, and bitterness. Like Graciela Dufau and Héctor Alterio talking while promenading by the rotten Riachuelo in a 1982 film about another return, Volver, unimaginatively named after the tango tune with the same name.

Alfredo (Alterio) comes back to Argentina, tortured by (self)exile. He comes back for work, although not only for work. He is a successful businessman in the USA, and he comes back to Buenos Aires, in 1982, when the dictatorship is crumbling, and the Malvinas idiocy is yet to happen. He returns, and he works and he beds Beatriz (Dufau), an old flame. And then —  or even before they get laid, I can’t remember and I don’t wish to watch this film again — they are walking by the Riachuelo, in a clichéd postcard spot better avoided, yet abused by art, cinema tango and literature. There are still dock workers here and there, because they had not yet been decimated by Menemism. And Alfredo and Beatriz walk, loving one another and hating one another in dub, in sepia, with corny phrases, so much to say, in so little time. And of course Beatriz is a journalist, just like Rita, who starts speaking over the dialogue in Volver, perhaps reading my mind, or Ariel’s, or perhaps to stop me from reproducing the original exchange of platitudes.

“Why did you come?” asks Rita.

“To sell the flat, you know that,” says Ariel. “And to see Buenos Aires…”

“I mean why did you really come? You didn’t really need to…”

“I was curious…”

“Tourists,” says Rita bitterly. “In just a few days they want to see everything: visit all the museums, watch the tango, the football. Everything. As long as it is authentic.”

“And I really wanted to see you,” says Ariel. “I’ve missed you.”

“Have you realised how much we sound like characters in a bad Argentine film?” asks Rita.

“It’s the fate of all Argentine characters,” says Ariel and lights up another cigarette. Or I might say that. But he definitely lights up a cigarette because I quit smoking years ago.

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XI

And the dead of the AMIA, murdered in the terror attack of 1994. How many of them? Was it eighty five of them? The names are painted on the walls at Pasteur / AMIA — white traces against a black wall, also underground. I don’t count them.

The ideologues behind the attack were never found. The investigation pointed towards a cocktail of islamist terrorism, state and police complicity, inefficiency, and old school Argentine antisemitism. There was an Iranian connection and a national prosecutor in charge of the investigation. He was found dead twenty and so years later, in January 2015, a day before declaring before the congress, in a move that according to some would have compromised the then president Cristina Kirchner (who had recently signed a controversial deal with Iran in order to advance the investigation, if you ask some, in order to shelve it, if you ask others). As his death was investigated things started to turn up about him, dirty laundry. Inappropriate exchanges of information with the American embassy, bank accounts abroad, links to foreign secret services. No one will ever know who suicided him. Like very likely no one will ever know who bombed the AMIA in 1994, or the Israeli embassy some blocks away, two years earlier. Justice is so slow in Argentina, that frequently it never arrives. And everyone is a bit dirty, make sure to make this clear.

I can’t remember if it was after the attack on the embassy or the AMIA when a old lady on the telly, reflecting upon the atrocity, outraged and emotional, ended her speech with “why do they have to put a bomb here? They haven’t only killed Jews today. They have also killed Argentine people, innocent people.”

XII

Ariel spends the night with Rita. The next morning he goes for a walk.

If the piece had taken place during the 80s Ariel sooner or later would have bumped into a disappeared-theme demo. If it had taken place in the 1990s, he would have bumped into one against the political corruption and the economic misery that characterised the decade. In 2001 he would have bumped into a horde of angry citizens demanding that all politicians go — que se vayan todos. In the past fifteen years he would have bumped into demos for or against the populist saints or sinners who saved or destroyed the country, that bunch of holy crooks, the Kirchners — Argentina is a country of radical binaries, don’t ask me to explain this in this limited space.

And now, after hanging around Florida and Lavalle, Ariel is walking down Carlos Pellegrini heading towards Corrientes, being the tourist he is, when he bumps into a demo, pure coincidence. The posters betray the same lack of imagination as in any demo anywhere. The semiotics of red and black, block capitals, synthetic slogans. A large flag with Che’s face confirms that the lack of imagination in this opportunity is left-leaning. And here a closer look at the posters and signs: they don’t make any sense. Ariel feels dizzy but nevertheless starts to walk with the demonstrators, gets in the midst of the noise, unable to understand the language they speak (metaphorically) and he crosses 9 de Julio avenue with them, and then stops and watches them disappear banging their drums and singing the chants against the traffic down Corrientes, with that obscene erected Obelisk behind him.

He watches them disappear. Unable to process what is going on, what do they want, what is it about now? He can’t understand because he has spent five years away, because he has slowly disengaged himself from his country, because he doesn’t belong here any more — Rita is right: he is a tourist. And yet he is already thinking of a possible conference paper, why not a journal article: “Peripatetic Literature: Argentine Politics and the Poetics of the Demo”. The title just turns up in his mind. He doesn’t even need to know what the demo was about in order to write this — the reason can be found out later, or just invented. He only needs to know that the demo happened. That it will happen again. That Argentines love a demo. And that demos are just another form of literature. And that all literature can and should be compared. vivisected, CVfied.

XIII

I spend two weeks in Buenos Aires and never make it home, to the place where I was born and where I spent twenty five years of my life. Let’s just say that a number of personal and work-related commitments impede it. I get to see my family, most of them. But I don’t see my friends, except for the ones who have turned the possibility of Buenos Aires into a reality. A natural order is repaired by my inability to bridge the 350 kilometres that separate me from Rosario. Some friends verbalise their disappointment and I stop responding to their messages. Others stop replying to my fake apologies. The important part is that a heavy ballast is dropped: we should have stopped talking years ago — we were victims of the Dictatorship of Nostalgia that comes with social media.

I spend two weeks in Buenos Aires, meeting this or that writer or publisher or filmmaker, sorting out papers, buying books and films and eating meat and drinking wine. Working but not only working and having a reason to be here, for once. And taking down notes — I take down lots of notes, on my notebook. Obviously I take notes with a fountain pen, on a Moleskine — this is part of my process of simplification, of embracing the stereotype.

I take notes in bars, on the bus, on the train and the subte. And people peer at my notes but the notes are in English. A girl on the train speaks to me in English after eyeing my writing, “where are you from?” she says. I reply to her in Spanish. She seems disappointed and asks why I write in English, then. I reply that I don’t know. She laughs. She is beautiful and young, and gets off at the next station, Villa Luro. This girl was some moments ago sitting zazen on the train floor. I had never seen anyone sitting zazen in Buenos Aires. It is never all about poverty or misery, is it? Not even when I think for an audience, for the page, speculatively, erasing the complexities and colours, in order to please, to be read, to be synthetic and available.

At some point I start missing London. I count the days. Thank god the days fly. I can live a different lie there, one that feels real.

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XIV

After one more session of love with Rita, more tender than passionate, and very likely sterile, hopefully, Ariel sets to the task of getting the boxes out from the storage place.

What he finds will colour the nature of his return, whatever else happens before or after. Perhaps he finds notes. Or notebooks. Yes, notebooks of his years as a porteño intellectual, the years before the Big Leap into other continents and into a properly structured way of life, a career. Or maybe he finds nothing of any significance. The thought makes him anxious.

He does open the boxes. The first two house old books eaten away by damp and cockroaches (do they eat books?). He moves these aside, keeps opening. Old clothes, old readers from his undergraduate degree years. Everything ready for the skip, smelling of moist and time and somehow death.

But the smell of coffee soon starts to fill the flat, the melancholia is aborted, and Rita turns up with a cup, wearing a long white shirt, barefoot, all post-coital happiness. She moves next to Ariel, crouches next to him, passes him the cup, kisses him on the cheek.

“It’s all rotten,” he says, Ariel, opening another box.

“It’s very humid down there,” says Rita; she sits on the floor, careful that the t-shirt clothes what some minutes ago was exposed in the open, because this is how old friends sleep together.

Paper, this is all paper, and yes, he finally gets to the notebooks. He had the foresight of wrapping them in cling film. They seem unharmed. Two notebooks, pseudo-Moleskine, national production, they will fall apart as soon as the cling film is removed. He moves them to a side, doesn’t bother with them, not now.

“All this can go in the bin,” he says, pointing at the rest of the boxes, the six stinking boxes, with their mouths open towards the ceiling.

“Polo,” says Rita, referring to the building doorman, “he can sort this out when he clears the rest of the rubbish tomorrow night, after I leave.”

“Is Polito still alive?” asks Ariel, surprised.

“He looks like,” says Rita.

“He must be,” says Ariel. “I’d love to say hi to him,” he adds. He won’t.

XV

I am waiting in the departures lounge, Ezeiza airport. I lie to myself, that I will be back before the end of the year, that this time I will make the effort to go back home, not to an ideal or imaginary place, but to the only place I really left behind, to whoever still speaks to me there, to my mother’s house, my childhood things, the books I wish I hadn’t read, the places where I used to spend my time.

They have wi-fi in the airport now — it works quite well. I play with my phone, read the news in English, respond to banal messages, and when I run out of battery look at the passing people, singling out my compatriots without effort, their familiar ways and blue jeans and gigantic Nike trainers sticking out in the flurry of wealthy Brazilian tourists, mugged Europeans on their way home, and air hostesses and pilots with their small suitcases rolling over linoleum floors.

I sit here, waiting to fly back to London, and I think about Ariel’s return, about how the rest of his journey might unfold for him.

In the next days, after relocating to an AirBnB flat in Palermo, he will dedicate full-time to sorting out the final details pertaining the sale. Rita will be too busy, organising her move first and settling into her new place later, to meet him until the very last moment. He will welcome this space, spend his time in the bookshops of calle Corrientes, the bars, perhaps even go watch a film in one of the old cinemas left in the centro, if any hasn’t been turned into an evangelic temple. He will end up signing the papers by the end of the week and receive the confirmation of the bank transfer the following morning. The notebooks will remain unopened until after the sale, the transfer, after all the to dos, and Rita. Until he has had time to breathe and properly realise that he has nothing left in Buenos Aires, that all his traces in this place are contained in these two notebooks. So he leaves it until this very last moments, when I am sitting at the departures lounge in Ezeiza airport, waiting for the plane that will take me to London, to the place we call home.

The cling film comes easily and the notebooks don’t fall apart. The first one — a clutter of blue and black ink — contains mostly quotes from this or that book. The second one, this is the one that matters. The first page makes it clear.

A note (unedited, in Spanish).

Ezeiza Airport, April 13, 2002. A departure. This seems to be one of the tropes I’m expected to write about. And now that I depart, now that I’m here waiting for the plane that will take me away, I toy with the idea of writing something about a departure, perhaps just to surrender, to stop running away from this mandate, or from the fact that I’m leaving. I’M LEAVING. And I don’t have a clue what will happen with my life, where I’ll end up, doing what. It’s such a cliché, for an Argentinean to depart, and to write about it. It’s a terrible destiny. But at least it’s something to do. And what’s more: departing is meaningless; worse is living in Argentina.

—Fernando Sdrigotti

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Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London. @f_sd

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Aug 132017
 

Bees are the Overseers.

Bees are the Overseers

-Bees are the overseers of the world of light. The moon belongs to them,
…………as does the sun.
-Those who insult the moon are within the moment stung with lightning.
-Just as the kitchen is the navel of the house, so the bee is the navel of the air.
-The Devil paves his streets with bees.
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-Seven, that auspicious cipher, numbers the ways one may disencumber oneself
…………..of a corpse:
It may be set in a slipper-shaped jar and buried in the sea, sinkhole, well,
but if some continue to dress their dead in aprons and caps of threaded shells,
it is no longer fashionable to entomb the dead among ants.
The dead may be kept in honey, or wine, or salt, or tar, or aromatic gum.
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-Death is about change; architecture isn’t.
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-As it may be entered, the mausoleum offers an adequate receptacle
…………….for the idea of the departed
without offending propriety.
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-If the mummy, official portrait or bust are symbolic facsimiles of the deceased,
the dome both acknowledges the buried skull and anticipates its sequel.
The dome suggests stubborn persistence; the pyramid, infinity. As for the obelisk,
here vertiginous loss is dwarfed by vertiginous height.
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-In the charged company of thugs, the skull both breathes and barks.
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-Power, as embodied by architecture, is less fickle than the mourners who, sooner
………………or later,
will abandon their black weeds for sexier attire.
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-Power never abandons its funereal mantle, nor its funereal appeal,
yet some continue to mistake the dubious attractions of secular authority for
the natty garments of seduction.
..
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-One has a tendency to ascribe intention to the Abyss, even a logical scheme,
although it has been demonstrated, time and time again, that any given hypothesis,
…………..even “verified”
is contingent on provisory facts. As the nursery rhyme asks:
In the mouth of of despot, what is more fickle than facts?
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Thus is Philosophy forever seated on the horns of chronic uncertainty. Science,
……………Her Right Hand,
insists that the First Quality of the Abyss is surprise.
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Who knows?
…..—Venda
What Now?
…..—Vam Wemba
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-Space is measured by the time it takes for one bee to fly to another.
If it were not for the bees, there would be no astrological computation,
nor could the transit of the human soul across the planets be observed.
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-Wind, air and trees: these animate and exemplify the gardens of the bees,
which are intended for the ears and lungs only.
Sight is seduction, says the philosopher, evoking the whore’s commons
with their deep beds of blossoms, smoking furnaces, the dubious fascination
of mechanical songbirds.
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-Like sight, sound sails the air on strings.
Compare, the philosopher entreats us, the fleshy arguments
…………..of the whore’s parterres,
to the spontaneous infinity of the sage’s bower.
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-The word on the page transcends all things made of brick and bone.
Spoken, it rends the air, as do the bees, beams of light,
the stars that elbow their way across the night.

—Rikki Ducornet, Collages By Allan Kausch

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

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San Francisco Bay Area illustrator Allan Kausch has edited over 1,100 projects for Lucasfilm Licensing (including the manga adaptations of the original Star Wars trilogy, for which he won the Eisner and Harvey awards), five volumes of the Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick, plus hundreds of projects for Tachyon Publications, Black Widow Press, Night Shade Books and PM Press. With Michael Moorcock, Kausch coedited London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction. Kausch’s semiautomatic writing has appeared in Antiseptic, Furious Fictions, Athena Incognito, Leviathan IV, Fantastic Metropolis and John King’s VERBAL.

 

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Aug 122017
 

Photographs: Jowita Bydlowska

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We are half-drunk and the alcohol cracks us open, lets in some air. We’re not entirely relaxed but we’re better than we were when we left home, all stiff and silent, wedged into the opposite corners of the back seat of a cab.

Now, my husband says, “But if you had to? Five grand.”

“Okay, maybe the one with red hair. With the tattoo. But probably not,” I say. The one with the red hair with the tattoo is one of the three bartenders. The game is of what if. What if I had to sleep with a woman. For five grand.

I used to get crushes on girls in university. They all dressed better than me or seemed more comfortable than me in how they were in their bodies, their clothes—I wanted to be them and on rare occasion I wondered if I maybe wanted to be with them.

And I wanted to kiss Helen before, in high school. I would watch her plump, small mouth talk and talk and think of penises she sucked and I would get jealous. I wanted to kiss that mouth. I was curious. She drunkenly confronted me about it once, at a party, asked me in front of people if I wanted to make out.  She said I was creeping her out with the way I stared at her. She laughed and I laughed along with her. I left the party as soon as she left to get another bottle vodka from the kitchen.

“Why not? She’s beautiful,” my husband says.

She is. I would kiss the redheaded bartender. I’d probably do it for five bucks or for free but I like lying to my husband, pretending to be hesitant about it.

I think he lies to me all the time. I have no proof but if you lie you think everybody else is.

There are other women here but the bartenders he can see best; they’re displayed right behind me. I wonder if my husband still sees me as beautiful. He never tells me I’m beautiful, any more.

His eyes never leave the girl display. “That would be incredibly hot.”

I say, “Your turn. Which one? The waiters.”

“They’re all men,” he says. “It’s different.” He finally looks back at me.

“Ten grand. Just a blow job.”

“No way,” he laughs.

“Fifteen.”

The patio is full, most of the tables occupied by couples similar to us, slightly crumpled stylish 30–40somethings. Perhaps they all play same stupid games. Perhaps, like us, they are parents set free for one night. If this is true, if you were to total the amount of money spent on tonight’s outing for this whole patio, it would be in thousands: outfits, sitters, cabs, dinners, booze, hotel reservations for some.

The restaurant itself is one of those places where car parts are used as decoration and drinks are served in mason jars with twine wrapped around them. Inside, the walls are exposed brick and air ducts under the ceiling and chandeliers made out of deer horns. Outside where we are, there are no special accents unless you count the waiters who all have moustaches and tattoos. It’s been like this for years now in Toronto, and there’s no sign of these sorts of trends going away. I try to imagine what the next trend will be, perhaps something to do with space, again like in the 80s but with some new twists: everything shaved off even eyebrows but armpit hair and it will be dyed; everyone will sit on the floor in restaurants, the walls will be empty and white, metal ceilings.

For now, this is one of the it restaurants downtown. You need double income to sit in these barbwire chairs without getting nervous about the injury and the prices, and you need high tolerance for hipness, which is why people like us eat in restaurants like this one. We’re not hip but we try to hang on to our youth. The way everyone does in their 30–40s. I don’t know if everyone else hates this shit secretly, like I do.

I share my observations with my husband.

“Yeah, if you’re right, we could probably live for a year on what’s being spent here tonight,” he says.

“Buy a nice car. Travel to China. I could travel to China where I would meet a man who’d murder me quietly in a dark alley somewhere.”

“You should try to go back to writing,” he says. “You always make things into stories.”

“It was a lame story anyway. You mocking me?”

“Yes, everything is a hidden insult.”

“I’m sorry. I thought you were mocking me.”

“No, I mean what I say. There’s no hidden agenda. You like to live in an imaginary world.”

“Not true,” I say even though it’s true. Despite the alcohol and the sudden ease it affords, I know I will never bring up how things are between us. I don’t know if he caught on that I’ve been fantasizing about leaving him. On some level, he must feel it—he must know that there’s something wrong, he must be aware of this ultrasonic scream that I scream. Then again, I’ve been pretending to be me for so many years that perhaps it is impossible for him to tell deception from the truth. The world he thinks he lives in, with me, is real to him but it’s something that I’ve created. He’s completely right about the imaginary world.

He sighs. “Fine. Not true.”

“Are we having a fight?”

“Of course not.” He laughs. “But do you remember when you thought I was this big playboy? You had this idea of me that had nothing to do with the truth?”

“You’re trying to have a fight.”

“No I’m not. I just always wonder why you need to make up these little dramatic scenarios. Life is quite interesting the way it is. Just write about penguins. You’d be great at writing childrens’ books.”

“I thought you were the novelist in the family. Anyway it was just a joke. About China, come on. Relax.”

“I’m relaxed. But think about the penguins,” he says and tries to ruffle my hair but I move back.

“Okay. I’m a bit testy tonight. You’re right,” I say when he grimaces.

I empty my glass of wine.

He says, “So has this thing with Helen and Rick been in works for some time?”

“No. It’s new. She just told me last week.” A lie.

“Did you know things were bad between them?” he says.

“Kind of. She wasn’t too happy. You know their baby issues.”

“The baby.”

“Rick doesn’t want a baby.”

He says, “Yeah, I always forget. I don’t think about babies. But there must be more to it. Divorce is a pretty drastic thing.”

I say, “Babies can be enough reason for women. I don’t know. Babies are a big deal.”

A moustachioed waiter brings us the next thing to eat. It’s broccolini; it slides on the plate in greasy sesame sauce and soya sauce as the waiter puts the dish on the table. The way the waiter describes it, he makes it sound like it’s a fancy gazebo. I can’t wait for him to go away. He does eventually.

I’m hungry so I scoop most of the thing onto my dinky plate and my husband looks on, “Glad you’ve got your appetite back.”

“What about my appetite?”

“You’re too skinny.”

“Like unfuckable?” I still care to be fuckable to him. Or I just care about being fuckable.

“You’re a skinny white mattress,” he laughs. “Just joking. I always want you.”

“I am what?” I say. I’m impressed with this joke. But it sounds like he thought about it a lot, like he just couldn’t wait to say it out loud. So now that he says it, I play the game where I will have to return the banter. I come up with something.

“A skinny white mattress. I could sleep on top of you and it would be pokey,” he says, “pokey, pokey, pokey.”

“I like heavy blankets.”

“Bam,” he says. He chews on his broccolini. “This is like eating an asshole. Like inside of an asshole. Like the asshole passage.”

“Ileum.”

“A what?”

“Small intestine. I read about it when I was looking up what my mother has been up to lately. She eats things that will pass through it undigested. It’s some new diet,” I say.

“Disgusting.”

“I like that she has hobbies now,” I say and the same waiter or one that looks just like him, with tattoos of words and symbols shows up with another dish. Some kind of shavings of meat like scraps of roadkill. Apparently a pork something.

“You have it,” I say to my husband after the waiter leaves.

“It’s not fattening,” he says.

“I know it isn’t. But you have it. I can’t eat pigs.”

“Why?”

Because I read an article about pigs being intelligent like dogs or even more intelligent. Because I watched a documentary about a slaughter house when I was 13 and had to cook for my mother and myself and I decided we should become vegetarian and she didn’t mind. I’ve never had bacon. The documentary, what I remember of it, was of pigs marching toward their death by taser and an ax to the tunes of Carmina Burata. It made me think of Holocaust. I told my husband the story a million times and he still doesn’t remember. He thinks this is about weight.

He eats the scraps as I gulp my glass of wine and motion for another.

I don’t know if it’s the same thing at other tables but when I look around, the other couples look as tired as I imagine we are. I picture them like us, in cabs, disgusted with their partners and horny because of wine, and resigned. Everyone wants to move the hell out of their lives.

I’m projecting. The proof is in a couple next to our table. The man reaches for the woman’s hand and she looks at him and it’s like a viagra commercial: her face beams with happiness.

“You think this is his secretary?” I say.

“It could be his wife,” my husband says, his voice low. I know he loves me more than I love him. It used to matter; now it doesn’t. He’s told me recently that he feels lonely. That ended up in sex; I had nothing else to console him with.

Another dish shows up and we split it; it’s a vegetable and at this point I don’t care what kind of vegetable; it’s marinated and so full of flavour that it shuts my mouth up. I count backwards from 20 then from 10 then from 20 again and order another glass of wine.

When we get home, we relieve the babysitter, my husband’s friend’s daughter with thick glasses and a 10-year-old blog. I read her blog to see if she ever writes about us; she never does. I can’t tell if I’m disappointed or not that we’re not important enough or not more important than the food she eats and writes about.

“You should check out Anhedonia,” I tell her. It’s the name of the restaurant that we just ate at. It’s a name too lazy even for a hipster lowball of being nonchalant.

“I have. My boyfriend is a waiter there.”

“Which one?” my husband asks as he hands her a stack of 20s.

“He’s got a beard.”

I’m in a satirical novel about intentionally funny dialogue, which is not funny; it’s trying too hard.

“Oh, him. Yeah, he was good,” my husband says as if he could identify the waiter.

“Mark. He’s got my name tatted on his forearm.”

“Yeah,” my husband says and winks at me. This makes me cringe but then I feel sorry for him immediately, for his inability to hide his age. I think about how we used to be a glamorous young couple at events, how there were no babysitters—the luxury of being able to pay for babysitters, too!—in our old lives and the biggest conundrum was which high heels to wear with what dress.

*

The last summer before Henry, we decided to become novelists. We would both finish books by the time summer was over and we would quit our boring jobs after publishing offers would start to roll in. My husband no longer took pleasure in attending launches of condos or multi-blade razors, and I kept bouncing from one administrative assistant gig to another.

The idea to become novelists came about after one of those TV shows about unusual jobs. Someone was a writer. He seemed to be doing really well. It was the first thing we both got excited about in months.

We rented a small cottage in the woods by a lake. We spent mornings writing, afternoons fucking, evenings watching movies; every night a movie from the convenience store in the small town where we got groceries. Movies about funny love coincidences, with blonde actress daughters of blonde actress mothers, or comedies; everyone with big twinkly eyes.

Somewhere in the middle of this idyll, I abandoned my novel. Or it abandoned me. When I read what I had written so far, it turned out to be just a string of words, characters complaining about other characters. No plot.

I did not tell my husband about it. To look busy, I wrote long emails to friends. To Helen mostly. Back then she was dating someone who had children. There was a lot of drama. I had to analyze things he’d say to her, give feedback. It was ever-absorbing.

For a short while I thought about using our emails in my story, see if a plot would evolve on its own, organically, out of the emails, but it didn’t. Helen and the guy kept not breaking up. They also weren’t having any breakthroughs. It was a slog of bitchy little arguments between them. Nothing else. Exactly like the characters in the book I abandoned already.

After writing and lunch, my husband would take his nap.

One afternoon, I read what he had written as he napped.

The plot was solid because the story had really happened. All he had to do was type it up and give people different names; call himself Mark, which he did, and write from third-person—now it was fiction.

I knew the story because he told me it when we first started dating. The thing was already few dozen pages-long and right away I could tell who it was about. It was a story of his ex-girlfriend who had disappeared. He had found her eventually but by then she was married and pregnant and she lived in a small town and she was fat although he didn’t write that.

I hated that the story was about the ex-girlfriend, not about me. The long descriptions of her body, elastic and light brown, and the way she made elaborate dinners for him, shaking her ass as she cooked—why was that still in his head seven years after he’d last seen her. Why wasn’t I?

The writing wasn’t bad.

I didn’t tell him I had read his novel and that I wasn’t writing mine. My disappointment was speechless with indignation. It wasn’t a novel, it was therapy, I wanted to say to him but instead I just kept that thought inside me

I thought of emailing Helen about this but it was too humiliating. I didn’t want her to think my life was imperfect too.

I started taking his sleeping pills in secret. I’d swallow them during our evening movie time. I’d be passed out by the time the movie would end.

He’d lead me drugged and mostly asleep to bed. Maybe he’d have sex with me maybe he wouldn’t; I didn’t care. I didn’t have to think of her brown elastic body that was in his head, when he would or wouldn’t fuck me.

That summer, I felt there was something different about me even before we came to the cottage but I ignored it. I was always very cavalier about my female body. I had no idea how many days passed between my cycles, I didn’t do self-exams of breasts. I didn’t take birth control pills because I didn’t even have a family doctor and I smoked.

In any case. We weren’t trying to have a baby. He’d always pull out of me and wipe me carefully afterwards. I never asked him why he was so paranoid about it but once when I turned over too quickly, he grabbed my shoulder and said, “What are you doing with your hand?”

He thought I was impregnating myself.

Ever since that time, I’d lie there like a cadaver, waiting for him to clean me up till he deemed me satisfactorily sperm-free.

But something got through. One little determined tadpole. And once at the cottage, it was the peacefulness of nature and the quiet that made me stop ignoring what I could feel already: cells multiplying, weakening me inside.

Out in the country, there were no honking cars around me, no sirens, no houses on fire. Just rustling of leaves, and at night, cicadas, frogs; a gold-wire sound of August insects in the grass during the day. All of that calmed me down; I was also slower because of the sleeping pills in my system. A nervous, whirring machine inside me stopped.

It was that quietness that made me pay attention, admit that there was a possibility inside me. I left early one morning to walk into the nearby town to a big grocery store, to buy a pregnancy test.

In the big grocery store, I locked myself in the bathroom and peed on a stick.

Not far where we rented our cottage, there was a farm. A big meadow where horses ran free and ate grass. After peeing on the sick and seeing two pink lines, I walked around the meadow, changed, no longer myself. There wasn’t just me now. There were two of me.

The horses didn’t come up but would look toward me occasionally. I felt spiritual in those moments, like I was connected to everything—the horses too, of course. “I am going to have a baby,” I told one of the horses and it looked at me uninterested.

*

My husband comes home smelling of cigarettes and beer.  He says, “Helen was at the bar.”

“Oh.”

“She had an argument with Rick.”

“I should call her.”

“You should,” he says and stands there with his hands hanging against his sides.

In the past, he’d be sitting on the couch beside me, trying to kiss me, grope my breasts. But my body no longer invites it. And he tries very little to break through it. Mostly in bed. And even then, only if I turn a certain way. Often only if we both drink, our bodies come together under questionable consent according to the magazine articles.

“How was she? Was she okay?”

“She was fine. I walked her home.”

“That’s sweet of you,” I say. “Come here.”

He walks up to me then and bends down, stiffly.

He kisses my forehead with his lips.

Up close I think how he smells kissed-already. I picture a blonde 20-something-year-old throwing her thin arms around him, his baldness cute to her, manly. His body is a body of a former athlete. Women like him.

It arouses me to imagine this some girl kissing him and I pull him down by the neck and kiss him too, kiss him properly.

His mouth is surprised but only for a flash.

We stumble upstairs.

My orgasm is easy, fast. A build-up orgasm.

He pulls out of me and before he comes I angle my body so that it won’t land anywhere on me. The wetness grazes my shoulder. I picture the box of Kleenex on the night table on his side.

*

I told him after at the end of that summer that I would leave him if he were to try to publish it.

At the end of that summer, my body too was brown—brown like the body of the girl in his book—and smelling of sun. My hair went blonde from all the walks on the hot beaches. I was tall and gorgeous like a swimsuit model. A girl you marry so that others won’t fuck her.

I stood in front of him, with that body, in a swimming suit with my hair like that and I gave him an ultimatum. He was immortalizing someone else not me. The novel was not a love letter to me. He married me but it didn’t matter, all that sun and the body wouldn’t matter if he were to publish the novel.

And he said, “Then you have to leave.”

I didn’t believe he was truly a writer like that, that he really meant it. His stance surprised me.

Later on I thought that it was maybe his independence that he was standing up for. We were both blending in with each other as people tend to do in relationships, and he was fighting it.

We flew home on the same plane, different seats, without speaking.

I started looking for apartments.

He started reading and revising what he had written. He cursed in his office, “shit shit,” as he read it; I could hear him groan at night.

I heard him joke on the phone to someone telling this someone he would pay a dominatrix to not degrade him sexually but instead to insult his intellect, his creativity, to tell him how bad the writing was because he could no longer tell if it was as bad as he suspected. He wanted to destroy it but somebody else had to tell him to do that. It has to be a stranger, he said to the person on the phone.

Eventually, there was silence, no more cursing late at night.

I felt as if I’d won and it felt terrible. It felt as if I killed him in some small way. Now, desperately, I wanted him to go back to the manuscript. I couldn’t tell him that.

I found an apartment and put a deposit on it. I couldn’t imagine myself living on my own but here I was, about to do it. I had a vague idea about having to get a crib, set up a space for the baby-to-be. But I felt no enthusiasm about it.

I waited for my husband to tell me not to leave but he never did.

He took on extra shifts, wrote copy for magazines about dick products and shitty cars.

He would come home late and not check on me in the guest room where I lived now. We didn’t speak to each other, more than it was necessary: “Have you seen my umbrella?” “Rick is coming over.” “Helen called.”

I began packing. My plan was to do it loudly, obnoxiously, but he was never home. I cried but only out of frustration of nobody witnessing my misery.

After he’d go to bed I read what he had written so far. I read it again.

It was even better than what I’d read before. The writing was sharp, disciplined. The parts about the girl were tender but nothing over the top. Just simple words describing the protagonist’s desire and madness and self-loathing passages about loss: He felt offended by the world—it had the nerve to go on despite him being dead in it.

“You have to go back to it,” I told him, finally breaking our silence.

He was working late that night and I waited for him and he came home and I said that to him. It was almost midnight.

“You have to.”

“Have you found a place to live?” He asked without looking at me and his voice broke.

“Yes,” I said and we stared at each other and then we were kissing and it felt as if I could finally breathe.

“It’s so good,” I said, “your book, it’s so good.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Please.”

“If you want us to work out we can’t talk about it any more.”

“It’s so good.”

“Please. Stop.”

“I’m pregnant,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “Good.”

And that was all. Good. He said nothing else about it then and we made love and fell asleep wrapped around each other, his hand on my belly.

*

The pictures online show a small house, a lake, a small beach. Another year, another vacation.

Inside the cottage, there are chairs, bookshelves, old comfortable couches. A large TV to watch DVDs on.

I move the cursor over the pictures. In some of them the lake is almost black against the washed out blue of the sky. The beach is all pebbles. There are Spectacular Sunsets!! advertised in the posting. A deck so you can look at our Spectacular Sunsets!!!!

The sunsets. And after the sunsets end, and the sky turns darker and after little Henry goes to bed, a deck to sit on, with a glass of wine, thinking up stories: me stories about penguins, my husband stories about former girlfriends.

Later on, we can make love by the Working Fireplace!!!

But first, before we do all that, I need to find his manuscript.

It will be like breaking a spell, finding this manuscript, having him go back to it

It will break the spell between us.

I don’t know what exactly I mean by that. I don’t believe in magic. But I suppose I do now: I have been reading horoscopes and articles about relationships on-line and I’ve played Solitaire obsessively like it’s an Oracle; playing till I win because I need positive answers to everything: Should I stay, should I go?

Yes, I still want to leave but I always come back; I place bets but the answer never comes—I’m always betraying myself in the end, even if I make a decision. I’m driven by chaos, not logic, emotions, not intentions. So perhaps the only thing left is magic, spells, breaking spells.

I go into my husband’s office to find the manuscript.

I’ve looked in the basement already but there’s nothing there, just crates of tax returns, hammers and rubber boots. No manuscript.

In his office, there’s nothing in the file cabinets, nothing on the shelves in the banker boxes. Lots of papers but none of them are the manuscript.

Perhaps he destroyed it.

I even look in a wooden box full of pens, hole punchers, staplers, magnifiers, a mirror with tiny grits of wet cocaine powder stuck in the scratches. Because maybe on the bottom.

Not on the bottom. Instead, I find a hotel key card, but not from the hotel we went to.

Once I find the key card, I become a detective, determined to find more evidence of whatever I think I’m about to discover. The manuscript is no longer important; the key card is.

I look behind the ship in the bottle. I don’t know why I look there. Maybe because I notice that the photograph of me pregnant is gone; it used to be right there, next to the ship.

How does this happen in movies? What is the buildup?

I try to recall specific movies, specific scenes, actresses, too, but I can’t; it seems there are so many—scenes of female characters going through drawers like me—through the pockets of her husband’s jackets, and the laundry. Kate Winslets, Michelle Pfeiffers, Cate Blanchets looking looking. Lipstick smudges on collars. No suspicion until the moment and it’s always a surprise, a hand to the mouth, a close-up on shocked eyes.

I see myself as if in a movie when I finally come across the item that confirms what I didn’t know but what I was looking for.

It’s tucked in behind the ship in a bottle. Not the photograph of me pregnant. A note.

I hold it in my fingers. I don’t have to unfold it. I can just stick it back where I found it.

I unfold it.

It reads: Can’t wait to fuck you again.

Then two hearts. A face with tongue sticking out.

The note is teenager-like but there’s carefulness even to the multiple exclamation marks that gives away this pretender. The writing is familiar, instantly familiar, actually; it’s Helen’s writing.

I have a quick, physical reaction to my discovery, a funny taste in my mouth, metal. Then, like a swift electric zap, desire to self-harm, too. To scratch my skin or smash my head against the wall. My body lunges forward inside me but I don’t move my body.

I wait.

I get up and go downstairs to the kitchen where I drink a glass of water.

I drink the glass of water; the desire to self-harm passes.

It’s getting dark outside. My husband and my son are at the museum looking at dinosaur bones. They will be home soon.

I drink another glass of water. Two glasses.

I walk up the stairs and go into his office.

I stick the note back behind the ship in a bottle.

I don’t know why I do this, like I’m not going to confront him about it but maybe I’m not—I can’t even tell.

All I feel is deep cold inside me, like everything is freezing. Like I’m freezing. The world is not the world. It is a movie. Maybe this is what betrayal feels like. Unreal. Unbelievable. Impossible to absorb.

There’s noise outside the door. My son shouting something. Boots stomping.

When I open the door, my husband shoves a bouquet of flowers in my face and then pulls me close to smash my mouth against his.

Henry is squealing, trying to pretend-push us apart.

It’s impossible. It was a joke. Some leftover thing from a party, maybe we played Charades, maybe Cards Against Humanity, maybe it was some sort of dare…

The was a party like that at someone’s house, last year. Songs. Charades.

I had to do “Love will tear us apart,” and I emoted—arms flying open from my heart, pretending to tear my hair out next, him watching and smiling, unsure.

It was hot outside, the windows were open, letting in the sticky, moist air.

We took a break from games and someone brought out cocaine. It was clumping from the humidity so everyone shouted, “hurry, hurry.”  We cut it on a big butcher’s table and snorted big cloying lines and went back to Charades.

That was the last time we played. Helen and Rick were there but I don’t remember any notes, nothing like that, there were no games that would produce notes like that, everyone just talked fast, and later we couldn’t fall asleep, although we must’ve fallen asleep eventually.

But if the note is a leftover thing, a jokey thing why hang on to it, why hide it?

As we kiss now, my tongue becomes a feeler, trying to feel out this secret, the wetness of his tongue not telling.

His mouth smells of mint and cream. I lick the corners of his mouth to figure out the taste. Some kind of dessert.

There was the card key, too, from a hotel.

He makes a sound, a muffled growl. I kiss him deeper, licking now and biting. It’s like an athletic endeavour almost, this kiss, me tonguing, tonguing. Kissing like I’m buying myself more time to figure out what I need to figure out.

“So so so gross,” Henry says and walks away, his shoulders drawn forward, feet stomping in a performance of exaggerated annoyance.

My husband breaks the kiss and laughs, “Whoa!” His face is red.

Perhaps this is good. The note. Perhaps it will make things easier, maybe this will be the thing that will put me over the edge. This is a substantial thing, a thing people commit murder over. Infidelity. My best friend. How could he?

I’m an actress with tragic eyes; I should run to the basement and grab all the things and burn them in the backyard.

*

Rick answers the phone right away, “Nina.”

“Can we meet?” I hold my breath.

“Sure.” He laughs. It’s not nice laughter. But this is especially not nice laughter. It’s nasty. It’s laughter that knows why I’m calling.

I want to shout at him, tell him—what? Him knowing why I’m calling, laughing like that makes things easier for me.

“When can you meet? Can you meet today?” I say. I try to keep my voice as straight as I can. A line of a voice, a strong line. No wavering. Fuck him.

“Sure, let’s meet.”

I show up at their house.

He’s wearing a middle-age-crisis jacket, kooky patterns, too much red. He seems to be on his way out, “Hey,” he says.

“Can I come in?”

“No. Let’s go,” he shakes his head and I don’t ask where but follow him instead.

He drives without speaking.

The silence is uncomfortable. I find it arousing too. The same repulsion-attraction I’d felt when he licked my ear that time when we played Charades and he was supposed to whisper a word in my ear.

We check into a small boutique hotel converted from an old rooming house. The concierge is a young Indian guy who checks me out. He’s unusually attractive with wide features—wide nose, lips—and I wish I was going with him.

“Coming?” Rick says. The concierge gives me a small smile.

Inside the room, the walls are raw bricks. They make hotels out of old asylums, doll or glycerine factories, remove all the innards and stuff them with slick sculptures and beds with sheets and quirky art on walls. Blown-up photos of female body parts in black and white.

We are silent.

I sit on the bed, under a photograph of a shaved armpit.

He goes to the bathroom and stays there for too long.

I take my coat off.

I fluff my hair. I need to wash my hair. I haven’t washed my hair in a while. It doesn’t matter.

He comes out, his face red, shining with wetness.

He sits in a chair across the room.

He watches me sitting on the bed.

Outside, there’s a courtyard, an old van with an airbrushed mermaid parked in it. Garbage bins and garbage bags. A tree with sparse, sickly leaves—a tree that wants to die and can’t.

“What are we doing here?” I say.

“We’re here because our spouses are shitty human beings and we are going to get revenge by fucking like crazy,” he says.

“Is that a good idea?”

“Why are you here?”

“Because I thought it might be a good idea.”

“There you go,” he says but doesn’t make any move.

I say, “When did you find out?”

“I paid someone. To follow her. Like they do it in movies,” he said. “I have pictures. I can get into her texts. It was almost fun. I felt like a kid detective. Nancy fucking Drew.”

“You actually paid someone.”

“Yeah. I can’t just spend my days spying on her. I was worried I’d hurt her, too,” he laughs. The laugh is short, fake. “I thought it was this little douchebag from her workplace. I wanted to see pictures of him, of them together. But then surprise!”

“Surprise.”

We fall silent again.

I look out the window. A man gets in the mermaid van. He doesn’t start the car. I wonder if he’s a detective too.

“Well I’ve always wanted you,” he says.

“That’s natural. Proximity.”

“Maybe.”

I say, “I should be angry. But I’m only doing what I think I should be doing, calling you. I don’t feel angry.”

“You’re trying to convince yourself you don’t feel angry,” he says.

“I love him.”

“I’m sorry,” Rick says. He gets up. He comes up to me and wipes under my eyes with his thumb.

He bends down to kiss me. His kiss is soft, softer that I would’ve expected from a mouth that says so many idiotic things. I kiss him back, take a clue from his softness, make my mouth pliable, submissive.

I wait for a bite but it never comes.

When he pulls away I let out a sigh. To him it probably sounds like desire.

But it is desire, too. It’s despair and desire.

He undresses me quickly, and I undress him.

We don’t spend much time on foreplay.

Our coupling is dry and fast. It’s unpleasant for a moment but then my body takes over, overcomes the initial discomfort: it lubricates.

Rick breathes rapidly, and I start to breathe rapidly too and I move along with his rhythm, close my eyes and let it take me away.

I can feel his rage, how it makes him hard.

He kisses me again and this time he bites.

I bite him back.

“Dammit,” he shouts. He touches his lip, looks at his fingers. No blood. “Dammit.”

He goes at me, faster now, to punish me, perhaps. He groans like an animal. He sweats a lot. Our bodies slick and slide. I adjust to this new rhythm quickly and I groan, too. A fucking panther. Fucking. We’re a sex zoo.

I feel the warmth: contract, pulse, squeeze.

I pull him even deeper inside me.

I clutch onto him, I love you, I think, feeling my orgasm fire off inside me.

After he collapses on top of me, I push him over.

He goes to sleep.

I lie with my eyes open.

I fall asleep briefly into a quick, satisfying dream. I dream of being made love to by a short, old man. Nobody I know. He holds my legs down as he kneels above me. We are both amused by how flexible I am, by how my open thighs touch the ground completely flattened out as he thrusts.

When I open my eyes, Rick is in the shower. I put my clothes back on and leave the room.

I walk through the underground shopping maze to get to the subway. When Henry was born, I used to come here all the time with the stroller. It was one of the places that opened very early. Like most new mothers I needed to have all kinds of stupid things to do before noon in order to prevent dying of boredom and guilt from not loving my child enough.

My favourite store was a large bookstore with bright lights inside.

I would go in and read all the magazines I would never buy. Tabloids and magazines about how to parent, or repair bicycles, and magazines targeted to lesbians, and music magazines.

There was a condo building above the shopping maze that was nicknamed “The Menopause Manor” because it was mostly occupied by the elderly. They, like the stroller-pushers, would come out first thing in the morning. They would buy expensive coffees and English muffins and eat them while in the little food court by the bookstore, watching everyone who wasn’t them. People like me, the young.

If I would sit down, there would suddenly be two or even three women with trembling white hair and lip-smacking fuchsia mouth, cooing at the baby, looking up at me with what I read as a plea: Get me out of here. But the “here” was age and we were all going that way. I wanted to shout that at them, tell them to leave my child alone.

Later, I softened. I thought of how carefully they dressed to display themselves to the world, to prove that there was nothing wrong, no loneliness, no death.

I recalled reading about sick animals, how often you couldn’t tell they were sick because they would present themselves as healthy—the outward appearance was a defence against a world that is ruthless in discarding its weak.

As Henry grew, I would take him back to the shopping mall and we would sit down and wait for the first cloud-haired lady and we would tell her what Henry’s name was and what he liked to do the most—art— and was he good to his mummy, yes, he was.

I felt like I was being charitable.

Today is the first time since long ago that I walk through the mall.

The bookstore is bright and shouty with front-store shelves displaying the latest hits: books on gluten, gardening, how to overcome being an asshole.

The elderly are occupying every table in the small food court by the coffee shops.

A stooped man in a t-shirt that reads “pushing 95 is enough exercise for me” stands at a table occupied by a flock of white-haired ladies. He says things that make them laugh.

He looks at me and winks and I wink back, without thinking.

I try to imagine who he was—I try to imagine him as my sexual counterpart.

As him, he is tall and his eyes are bright blue, not cloudy, and he has wide shoulders and wiry, black hair on his strong chest; he is a rugby player, a guy who drinks and fucks and laughs on yachts.

I think how that guy is trapped inside this twisted body, how there’s no getting out, how his desire must learn to die but it is refusing to die. The desire drives him, it tells jokes to ladies, the way it used to; it is a wink, a lighthouse in the darkness: I am still here.

I cannot get on the subway yet. There’s too much time between now and later.  The house is empty. That note.

I need a distraction.

I worry that in the empty house, I will behave badly, look through old photos, go on the Internet and do quizzes. I will compose emails to Helen or to a relationship advice columnist and I will never send them.

Many of the elderly look up when I halt in the middle of my walk. Sharp eyes. Anticipation. Maybe I will start screaming, fall down. A woman alone, disheveled.

There’s a movie theatre on the main floor of this place and I turn around, decide to go see a movie. A movie that will make me not think for a few hours, any movie will do.

I pick a movie about people in space. Three-D glasses.

The people’s space shuttle gets blown to pieces by cosmic debris and there are only two survivors.

They float in space to try to get to other shuttles to get back to the earth. It doesn’t work out for the guy; he floats off to his death. She survives somehow; it is a movie after all. There are dozens of scenes where she almost doesn’t survive. Almost dies all the time.

         —Jowita Bydlowska, Photos & Text

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Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, was published in 2017.  Her short story “Funny Hat,” published on Numéro Cinq, was selected for the 2017 edition of Best Canadian Stories. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.

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Aug 122017
 

Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19

There has been no one else in my life like Bill, little as he was in it. Slender and soft spoken, not withdrawn but not forthcoming, had he found himself in a crowded room he would have been the one who called least attention to himself. He did have an eye patch, the result of a childhood accident, but he wore it in such an unselfconscious way that it blended with his reserve. Yet he showed an inward centering that gave him a quiet presence, as if he were in touch with something beyond him, essential and illuminating, that set him apart from the rest of us, and when he looked back you felt he saw you with both eyes. I never heard him speak ill of anyone.

He would explain things, and patiently keep explaining, and treat you as if you were capable of understanding, which is what first drew me. Once, when I was a boy, he told me why the spokes on the wheels of my toy car moving forward appeared to go backward. In the world in which I grew up, defined by roles and ceilings, by the rules of settling down and settling in, he provided a model that helped me wonder what else might be understood and think about where that might take me, to believe that understanding is an engagement worth doing in itself that doesn’t need explanation or purpose, whose reward is the exhilaration of wonder, whose place is the presence that comes from reaching, from grasping. With the presence, the hope some pursuit of my own might return me to a larger, vital world.

He was, in fact, a particle physicist, who devoted his life to the study of the composition of the ultimate parts of nature and the forces that drive them, the understanding that there is no separation between the two but instead a relationship. He would explain that, too, and keep explaining as long as you listened, but it was over our heads and no matter how much he tried to break it down we soon got lost, leaving us with utter bafflement, some of us with skepticism, some of us with suspicion. It is difficult to trust the things we cannot understand, no matter how fundamental.

When I went to Berkeley in the late ’70s, grad school in English, I stayed with Bill a few weeks while I looked for a room. Then I lost touch, as so often happened there. We were all caught up in what we were doing.

Some four years later, midsummer, I got a call from his mother in North Carolina, a distant voice. She was polite and stalling in her desire not to impose and only made brief, oblique reference to Bill, not much more than she hadn’t heard from him in a while. I didn’t know what her concern was or even if there was one. After I hung up it occurred to me she wasn’t sure herself.

So I walked up the hill to his apartment in North Berkeley, but he wasn’t in. I looked in all the windows and nothing stood out. Everything was in place, everything looked as I remembered, everything looked as might have been expected. I debated breaking in, but had no evidence or cause, and was disturbed I even gave it a thought. He simply could have been on vacation. There were other places he might have been. Also I was dealing with a mother’s concern, foremost in mind. I didn’t know her well, and she seemed a little strange on the phone.

Still, I needed to put her at ease. I went back a few days later and saw the same. I started making calls, beginning a search to see what I could learn, not knowing what I was looking for or that I had any reason to look. What I also needed was to settle the doubts I had turned loose within myself.

.

Today, afternoon, midsummer, so many years later, elsewhere, trying to think, to understand, to define a mood or find one, but mind wandering, I look up from my desk and notice before the window a few motes of dust hovering nearly motionless in the still air but not quite, slight reminders of indeterminacy and dissolution, yet, illumined by the sun, bright, tiny specks that break the surface of the ordinary, faintly suggestive, faintly marvelous. Outside the window the foliage from the backyard trees shifts irresolutely in a gentle breeze, a dense, erratic pattern of dark and lighter greens, a constellation of rough-edged, roundish oak leaves, largely rising, and the smooth, long leaves of a walnut and Podocarpus, thin and thinner, largely falling, and of the leaves of the other trees behind them, almost covered. Now, inside, at the corner of the window, a jagged crack suddenly appears—it has always been there but has been forgotten and put aside—that runs to the ceiling like a bolt of lightning, a rip of quick terror, or a rent in the commonplace that opens revelation. Now, outside, flash reflections of the sun on the front leaves, the leaves glaring, nearly white, nearly bleached of detail, bright and blinding, like the rush of shock, or surprise. In only a few gaps among the leaves, small and scattered, can I see the sky. Beyond the sky, all the rest.

The day speaks—

Everything is exactly what it is.

In the beginning—

Or rather 10-43 seconds after the beginning, some 14 billion years ago, according to the standard model, a symmetry breaks and the universe explodes from a size so small that it would be pointless to state it, having a denseness, in comprehension, inversely related to its size. Its energy is 1032 Kelvin, against which the energy of the sun would not provide manageable comparison, but it is cool enough to allow the force of gravity to separate itself from the other forces, though nothing sensible can yet be said about its effects. The energy, however, is still too strong for quarks to join to form neutrons and protons, much less neutrons and protons join to form nuclei, or nuclei to draw free electrons to form atoms, or atoms to join to form molecules and gas clouds and masses and the planets and stars and solar systems and galaxies we now see. Our knowledge of the universe depends on understanding this moment.

The very beginning, zero time, may be beyond the reach of physics. The questions as to what existed before zero time and where the Big Bang took place and what existed beyond may not make sense because this may have been the time that time and space were in the process of being created. Also our common conceptions of time and space are inadequate to explain time and space.

The first step is to find the questions we can ask and learn their terms.

Bill was my uncle’s brother, the brother of the husband of my mother’s sister, thus no blood relation. I’d see him on rare occasions during family trips to my grandmother’s house in a small, crossroads town in rural North Carolina when he visited his brother and family who lived there, back from California, Germany, Switzerland, other distant places. We knew he was there when we saw his Karmann Ghia parked in the dirt drive, for us then an exotic car.

His ascent was meteoric, almost from nowhere. He grew up in rural towns nearby, as small or smaller, then went to NC State where he received near perfect grades and was awarded a Fulbright, which allowed him to study at Heidelberg University in Germany and work at CERN, the nuclear research labs in Switzerland, in preparation for his master’s degree. When he returned to the US he had choices, deciding on Berkeley to get his PhD. No one I knew had gone so far away or risen so high. He broke the mold of expectations.

After his PhD he stayed to continue his research. He had a part-time job at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and picked up part-time teaching at UC Davis and Berkeley to supplement his income. But his real work still lay elsewhere, further out and further in. The Bevatron at Lawrence had limited experimental use, so when grants came through he went to the more powerful accelerators at Fermilab near Chicago and SLAC at Stanford. That is one reason it was not surprising not to find him the day I walked up the hill.

When I arrived in Berkeley, late summer 1978, I had made arrangements to stay with friends of a friend. I discovered quickly I wasn’t welcome. I called Bill for advice, and in twenty minutes he drove down, now in a Volvo, and helped me load my stuff. I had no cause to expect such care, yet he apologized for not coming sooner.

His apartment, like his dress, was neat, sparse, and functional, though had a few distinctions and showed diversions and other depths. Beneath the stereo, albums of two modern classical musicians in San Francisco, whose performances he helped record. On top of the bookcase, a well-made windup robot, German, I think, a miniature marvel of engineering. On the shelves, among others, books and articles that defended Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the author of the Shakespeare opus, which drew from me heavy skepticism, in fact I thought the theory was crazy, but he attempted to explain that too. He was experimenting with making wine and I tried some. I had no opinion; he wasn’t satisfied. There were corner windows in the living room, one which looked out on the bay, the other over the campus. Late afternoons I watched the coastal fog approach, climbing and descending the San Francisco hills, covering the city, the bridge, the bay, some days the school up to the Berkley Hills, with its dense, quiet resolve.

He also gave me a tour of the campus, then the town. The bookstores on Telegraph—Cody’s for new books, where national and international writers read from their work, where wounded protesters once were treated and books by and on Wittgenstein sold well; Moe’s and Shakespeare’s for used, the only places I could find many books I later needed, out of print. The cafés, two floors of Caffe Med, where street life met campus and conversations ran the spectrum. All were crowded at all hours, Telegraph stirring with their traffic. Ideas mattered, and the town radiated the slow burn of minds. Bill had received offers of full-time positions to teach elsewhere but turned them down as the schools didn’t have the facilities and would have taken him from his research and this world. My parents couldn’t understand that decision, or him. I envied his life and began anticipating mine. What he laid out for me was the locus for my own later work.

And he took me to his office at Lawrence, where he showed me a picture of a reaction in a bubble chamber from one of his experiments.

At the time quark theory, like the Big Bang, had gained the status of the standard model. He talked about string theory as well, still debated now. We hear these terms, and if we don’t repel from them, maybe they give us a jolt, a push to the side, a moment of disturbance. Or we learn to repeat and use them to spice our talk. Not long ago it was reported that the Higgs boson—the “God Particle”—might have been discovered, whose existence was predicted by theory, the particle that indicates the field that gives other elementary particles their mass, the universe its substance, belief in which still holds today. Sooner or later, however, we let the words slide and move on. What difference do they make? What is lost is how much is involved, how much our certainties are pushed, how much vision itself is challenged, how far we might be taken, further in and further out.

To research particle physics first the body of the theory has to be understood, then experiments designed to confirm or extend it. Teams are formed, proposals written and submitted to get time on the accelerators. At the site accelerators hurl pulses of particles at tremendous energy towards a detector, where collisions are observed. Deflections reveal what exists inside an atom; other particles are released, some of which point to the existence of still others. At SLAC particles are shot two miles at 50 billion volts. The detector Bill used was a bubble chamber, the technology of the time, which was filled with a medium such as liquid hydrogen that the particles struck, where pictures were taken to record the reactions. In one experiment Bill performed at SLAC, 500,000 pictures were taken over a period of three months; other experiments might take tens of millions. Then this mass of data has to be analyzed for the rare, meaningful event. An experiment, start to finish, can take years, even decades.

The scales used to measure the particles defy any scale we can handle. Particles may exist only an impossible fraction of a second and have a size dwarfed by the size of an atom, though at this level of nature physical size does not apply. Yet these particles and their reactions define the universe, and experiments are now being run in the accelerators to simulate its early stages. The forces involved may extend infinitely or only cover a subatomic gap, yet in the latter case the potential energy is enormous. To study particle physics is to learn that everything is almost nothing, yet that almost nothing has universal extending order. The research is a drive towards total grasp. What particle physicists are looking for are the ultimate parts of nature that cannot be broken down further and their single, unifying force.

If we are disposed to wonder, what else better do we have to wonder about? If we want to understand the ultimate nature of reality, this is the direction to go. However difficult it is to fathom the theories, there is nothing arbitrary or fantastic about them. The movement of the stars away from us and each other now points to the Big Bang, whose background radiation has been measured. Particle physics is supported by a century of thought and has been confirmed by experimental observation, the laws of physics, and the coherence of math. The theories are not complete, but whatever comes next will be derived from what is solid and accepted now, or will break from that ground.

What strikes me now, as I look outside my window and stare at the leaves and their bright reflections, is the enormous irony of effort and perception, one that strains that literary deflection. The picture Bill showed me, set against what it revealed, for all the time and effort that went into its creation and selection, was nothing more than white scratches, lines and spirals, on a black field. And those scratches were not the particles themselves but bubble traces caused by their reaction in the liquid gas, their paths guided by a magnetic field in the detector that provided the means for their precise measurement. There is cause for a kind of wonder just in this irony itself.

When I close my eyes, afterimages of glare on leaves.

But as great is the marvel that a mind, a man, could be moved to study matters so complex, so essential, who could approach nature on its first terms. It is another kind of wonder, a large part of what makes us human.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. . . .

Hamlet.

.

Any investigation will be affected by the influence of the investigator, the tools, the means at his or her disposal, which need to be factored in or filtered out. What assumptions are brought in, what biases? What does one expect to find? Outside influences—noise—also seep in and have to be dealt with as well. The temptation is to invoke Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but that would not only be an inaccuracy but also a mistake of category.

Uncertainty, however, is what I found. I called Lawrence first and got a colleague who apparently knew Bill fairly well. He was friendly but seemed distant and strange in ways I couldn’t pin down. But I was a stranger, and his reserve might have come from the need to protect what was personal. Also I must have seemed strange myself. I didn’t want to raise alarm because I had no cause, yet still I needed to push some question to continue my search. But I didn’t know what that question was much less how to frame it, so I fumbled for several minutes. My call, in fact, was just like the one I had with Bill’s mother and I realized her dilemma. I’m not sure I didn’t raise concerns about me that may have drawn sympathy, maybe tactful evasion, maybe, likely, doubts. He did give me a few names to call, however, including the musicians in San Francisco.

I made those calls and got similar results, again sensing aloofness and something else in the others I could not identify, again wondering what impression I might have made. But I got more names—a contact at Davis and another woman in Berkeley, who was working on her PhD in classics and was closer to him than the others—and kept calling. The others started making calls themselves, the calls reaching out in a widening circle, those calls among those who knew Bill better, where perhaps private knowledge was shared. Then again, it didn’t appear in my calls that anyone knew much. The only thing that was certain was that no one knew where he was, though all agreed there could have been several reasons for his absence, well within normal expectations.

I also made more trips to his apartment, where all was exactly the same as before, nothing moved, nothing out of place, and again debated breaking in, even more disturbed I thought about doing so. I felt like a spy. And the tension I felt might have come from my own misplaced fears. I was also part of a chain reaction in which I wasn’t sure of my influence. I worried I had violated Bill’s privacy by making calls and asking questions, that I may have raised undue doubts about him among the people in his life. Suspicion is insidious and even in the best of us can grow into a monster. And I had disrupted the working assumption of all of us that keeps our lives in order and sustains us when all is quiet, that we are well, that all is well, that all is as it should be.

I had this troubling thought: if I went away without giving notice, could someone find me? If he or she talked to those I knew, what would they say? What suspicions might be unleashed? What would anyone have to say?

Still it seemed we all moved around something that would not go away, but it was only an object of indefinite shape that could have been the ghost of our uncertainty. Yet after another week we were settled that something was wrong. Reserve melted, barriers broke. The police were called. We opened up and talked frankly and pushed the search, extending the net of our humanity to catch one of us who might have fallen.

.

I grew up looking at pictures of order, demonstrations of function and purpose, of meaning, models of the world that located me and reassured. In grade school science texts I saw diagrams of atoms that looked like miniature solar systems, clusters of balls, perfect spheres, neutrons and protons in their nuclei around which smaller balls, electrons, revolved in perfect orbits. I don’t think I ever wondered what kept the nuclei together since their protons had the same positive charge and should have pushed away, why the world did not fly apart. I also saw colorful pictures of our solar system, more balls, more perfect spheres, the nine planets revolving in their orbits around the sun, moons around the planets.

Here on earth I was presented with diagrams of men and women in various uniforms and dress walking between buildings that represented our institutions, who carried a dollar bill or a law to show the orderly workings of our society, of our government, of our economic system. Also pictures of the people here to help, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, entering hospitals and courts and schools. Along with these, pictures of our enterprise, more people moving raw materials from building to building to create finished products and put them in our hands. I saw strings of dollar bills, and of products and other things we made and carried, stretched around the earth or sent to the moon and back to give me some idea of the magnitude of our order. Elsewhere I saw pictures of heaven, a radiance among clouds. On the dollar bill, a pyramid atop which hovered a shining eye.

Somehow all the pictures were of a piece.

Elizabethans looked at a picture of the world as well:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check to good and bad. . . .

Shakespeare.

The Elizabethan picture was based on a cosmic understanding, with earth and us at the center, that located and reassured as well, that established hierarchies of functions and status, a picture that radiated harmony and correspondence throughout, infused with the light of divine inspiration shining upon the royal court.

As I got older I was attracted more by pictures that questioned the pictures of order I saw, scathing parodies, distorted, scattered views. The problem, of course, was with who got to wear which uniforms and go to which buildings, with what we were left holding in our hands. I reacted myself in simmering restlessness against their neatness, their constraint, the narrow roles.

None of the pictures, however, early in my life or later, gave much to charge the heart, or the spirit, or whatever we can think to call the part of us we most want to name, something that might move us separately to warmth and fullness, that might bind us together.

Or put us at ease on sleepless nights

Many of us were upset by the discoveries of Planck, Einstein, and the others, whose theories of nature shook the ground on which we stood and disrupted the harmony of solid balls pushing and pulling and revolving against, toward, and around each other. With the shaking, doubts were raised whether anything worthwhile might be built on top. Everything is relative and indeterminate, life is arbitrary, an unleashing of random forces. I suspect, though, we would have come to the same conclusion without physics. We had the evidence of the collisions on the battlefields of the last century as well as elsewhere to unsettle our beliefs.

In a sense, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, what scientists find at the atomic level depends on what they’re looking for. They can design an experiment that observes the position of a particle, say an electron, or an experiment that observes its momentum, but they cannot observe both because both cannot be known at the same time. The indefiniteness is not a problem of observers and their assumptions or their equipment, but a matter of the essential nature of electrons themselves, dual and indeterminate. Our solid balls are not solid. Yet either experiment can yield precise, meaningful results. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is fundamental to quantum mechanics, which provided the foundation for the atomic theory that followed. Physicists embraced the indefinite to develop an understanding more precise and thorough. The new physics did not disrupt the order of the world but brought us closer to what was beyond our vision, strengthening our grasp after classical physics had reached a dead end.

Then again, the desire for order is not the order of desire. The Elizabethan picture is built on gross cosmological error, though many knew otherwise at the time. Metaphorically, however, it is perfectly valid and has value. Our lives can matter, and putting us and our planet at the center reinforces that desire, its force, its possible extension. A context is provided that helps explain the marriage of our actions and our beliefs when all goes well, or at least contain them, and what is wrong when our lives, our world fracture. It does not matter where the planets are. Science helps us understand the world, but metaphors are where we live.

Now older still I tire of being unsettled and uncontained, yet remain restless. I have also begun asking questions that did not concern me when I was younger. What I realize now is that I did not reject the pictures of order I saw because I did not believe in order but because they did not hold the order in which I wanted to believe.

I do not care about chains of command. Power over others, however large its effects, is a sterile study. Still I read Shakespeare for what might be left after aggrandizement is factored out. I want to feel I have a place where I can move among others and be moved alone, where there is a picture of understanding that explains that motion. Even if Shakespeare’s explanations are incomplete, even wrong, at least the possibility of understanding is constructed, and looking at a picture of order moves us to think of other pictures that might help us help each other, and sustain us, and keep us together.

Or help us, on rough nights, to know the place where we will wake up.

Yet I want to believe that pictures are not made up, that there is some connection between them with what I see when I look out.

But a picture of order is only a picture of order.

After another week Bill’s Volvo was found parked by the Golden Gate Bridge, his eye patch resting on the dash.

.

The reason why the spokes of the wheels of my toy car appeared to go backward when they were rotating forward is because of a stroboscopic effect created by the pulsating fluorescent light that hung overhead in my grandmother’s kitchen. The phenomenon can be observed in continuous light, though here theories vary.

The reason why protons in the nucleus of an atom do not push apart is because they are bound by the strong nuclear force, which is greater than the positive charge of their electromagnetic force. Or more precisely, neutrons and protons are made of quarks that are bound by the strong force, and it is the residuum of that force that keeps the nucleus together.

I do not know what happened to Bill and never will.

If we only knew—is what everyone says at times like this, but no one knew, no one saw it coming, and that is what is often said as well, and it was. Even after the funeral, when we gathered, when talk was freed, almost nothing was revealed. I had a long talk into the night with the third woman that only ended in more questions and exhaustion. I have also since talked to the family with similar results. And I have tried to contact others over the years but only one email has been returned, the silence lately perhaps because some of them may no longer be with us.

It’s not just that no one knew what happened. Not much precise or substantial was said about Bill himself. I don’t think any of us knew who he was.

I would like to examine a world where his life had not ended so soon, and it wouldn’t matter what kind of world it might have been, or would matter less. But I have to look at the world where it did, and now there is a concern not of helping but of understanding, which might help us in our own lives, and of preserving a memory before it decays. I am left, however, only with contexts and their reasons.

There is his work and the context it might provide. I have searched online databases from the labs and physics organizations and found his name among teams of others in some twenty documents describing proposals for experiments, experiments performed, tests on and refinements to the detecting equipment, a computer program to speed analysis of results, those and whatever thought and time and effort and strain they might represent.

Search for strange baryonium states in p-bard interactions at 8.9 GeV/c

For example, this abstract of an experiment, his largest and longest running, that had that title, published by the American Physical Society posthumously:

A search for SU(3) manifestly exotic Q2Q-bar 2 baryonium states in antiproton-deuterium interactions was carried out at the SLAC 40-in. hybrid bubble-chamber facility. The I = (3/2, S = 1 channel, X-, produced in conjunction with a forward produced neutral antikaon was studied. Such X- states would decay into an antihyperon and a baryon. The fast forward K-bar 0 was detected in a three-view segmented calorimeter placed downstream of the bubble chamber and used as part of the trigger. Upper limits of 0.50–1.63 μb are reported for the X-→Lambda-barnπ-, Sigma-bar -n, Lambda-barpπ-π-, Sigma-bar -pπ-, Sigma-bar /sup +- /nπ/sup minus-or-plus/π- exclusive channels based upon ≤13 events per channel.

The abstract refers to the developing body of the standard theory in which his experiment was designed to find a place. Nature, at its core, is vastly more complex than revolving spheres and their order. There are other particles than electrons and the quarks that make up neutrons and protons, a host of them, many flying free in the universe, most of which can only be observed an instant at high levels of energy before they disappear. It is by studying those that physicists hope to understand the universe of all particles and the nature of all forces. The language is impenetrable to anyone who does not know the physics and the words are odd because there are no common words to signify what is not part of our common experience. The term quark was lifted from James Joyce. Physicists, like writers, have to appropriate their words or make them up. Strangeness, though, is not some ambiguous term that hints at mystery and uncertainty but rather refers to a property of particles that has precise meaning and can be stated in a formula that describes their decay in strong and electromagnetic forces.

The only thing I understand from the abstract is that the experiment produced no meaningful results. It only had two citations online, an indication of its influence in the physics community and its contribution to the theory. His other, earlier, experiments had few as well. But science depends as much on failure as success. A failed experiment points to reformulation and another try. Yet a particle physicist only gets so many chances. Bill could only advance in his research by performing experiments, but there were just a handful of accelerators in the world powerful enough and only three in the US. Getting the time needed on them depended on having success and building a reputation, but time was expensive and scarce, and he had to compete with others. A team had to be assembled who might impress. Scientific committees had to be convinced, as well as the US government, specifically the Department of Energy, who provided most of the funding and for whom his work had no practical value, adding the difficulty of all the maneuvering and sidetracks involved in convincing committees and government agencies. Bill talked about another experiment he performed that he thought was not worth running—he said the reasons for its being accepted were political—but he had to take what opportunities presented themselves, and there were few. We see this situation elsewhere, in other pursuits.

Add to those difficulties the demands of the science itself, so involved, so complex, so abstruse, particle physics still hovering over the borders of the unknown, along with the pressure of always having to be exactly right. Factor in the ambition, the desire for final comprehension, total grasp. It is possible for physicists to get stuck in the wrong theory. Some hit the ceiling of their abilities and can’t make the leap to the next level of a theory. But it is possible Bill never had a chance to find out what he could do. Practicing particle physics can leave a physicist stranded.

Then there are the effects of channeling oneself into abstract thought, which might exclude other ways of thinking, and multiply those by the strain of staying there for years. It is a place where it is easy to put too much importance on some details, or not know what others are worth, or let a few slip, where one can get caught in loops.

But I am just guessing and speculate only on possible tensions, not the desire that might have sustained him, nor the parts of him not involved in science. Some of the challenges, instead of taxing, might have driven him and given him a place where he thrived.

No one saw mood swings, though there was talk of withdrawal. But we all pushed ourselves and withdrew from time to time. I did have reservations about what was said by some I met and what wasn’t, about what they knew, how broad, how human their understanding, and not just the scientists. We all had committed ourselves to fields that channeled thought and limited understanding, not that we were self-absorbed but that our selves could become absorbed in what we were doing. And we all had hit ceilings, or were aware of them and knew we might be approaching.

The funeral was a brief, quiet session, a diffident motion towards uplift and comprehension, yet still it brought revelation, but not insight into Bill, but what I saw in us, in our quiet, drawn faces. What was opened up is the impression of Berkeley that still shadows my other impressions, what I had not seen before or was fending off. There would be days when our energy dissipated toward nothing, when we didn’t know ourselves, leaving us separate and alone in broken silence.

Not just Berkeley, but what I began to see after, or had put off seeing, elsewhere, everywhere, and still see no matter how we think or what is thought—how distant, how disconnected we all are, how little we understand.

When his apartment was cleaned out, the only thing discovered out of the ordinary was a file he kept on the UC Davis campus police, who he apparently thought were keeping an eye on him. Likely, in his head, there were other spies.

.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. . . .

They are the words of a man whose connections with the world have been severed, who questions the value of his existence and debates keeping it, a man who talks to himself, and to ghosts.

Perhaps it is his noble father Hamlet has in mind, as well as himself, or what he might have become had it not been for the murder that ripped apart the fabric of Elsinore, where now there is no beauty and nothing is apprehended well. His words create a model to set against his corrupt stepfather and corrupted mother, and against the others, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, sent by his parents as spies and to whom he speaks those words, his suspicions aroused.

Yet his words only create a picture of perfection, impossible in its reach and wholly abstract in conception, a container that does not contain anything. The picture could be the obsessive projection of a man who has become disturbed, one that invites a comparison against which no one will stand up well, not even a noble prince. He has already began to slide, just before, in his talk with Ophelia, where his feigning of madness gets out of hand.

Whatever the case, Hamlet’s options are narrowing to a single exit and there is almost no one he can trust.

There is this context and its reasons, and I have no other to examine. The Earl of Oxford, those books Bill had on his shelf—how could anyone question the identity of the author whose writing has set the standard against which all of literature is measured, unless he identified with one he believed was misunderstood, unvalued and unknown, an interest that could only have grown as his frustrations mounted and fed suspicion as he narrowed his gaze to pictures of subatomic events to find their perfect order, his world shrinking to a nutshell. That interpretation fits the facts and has the most compelling logic, or the most compelling logic we know.

But I have read the books Bill showed me and others more recent and am convinced Oxford wrote the plays. The evidence is large. The plays are filled with correspondence to his life and knowledge. I have more reason to accept his authorship than much else I believe, including the nature of our universe, the existence of quarks, the play of forces. If knowing an author matters, even if Oxford didn’t write the plays he provides a fuller study than the man from Stratford, about whom we know almost nothing. Reading those books has made me wonder about other certainties to which our sanity clings.

Oxford’s family ties to the court went back centuries, but, while intimate with the queen and her entourage, he was alienated from that life and had little room to move. Praised as the man whose countenance shakes a spear, he took that pseudonym because the code of nobility forbade peers staging plays or publishing them under their own names. Nor could the court, unsettled and conflicted, allow the common public to know one of its own was revealing its inner tensions, reflected in his plays. Oxford’s pursuit, writing, like particle physics, like other ambitions, contended with contingencies and risks.

Hamlet especially reads like autobiography both in overall conception and in its details. Oxford’s father had an untimely death, and, like Hamlet, Oxford lost much of his birthright through questionable maneuvers. He had to contend with his meddlesome father-in-law, Lord Burghley, the source for Polonius, and with Burghley’s spies. He was captured and ransomed by pirates; his brother-in-law was sent on a mission by the queen to Elsinore, where he met courtiers with the names Rosenkrantz and Guldenstern.

I don’t know where Oxford takes me, though. Like the passionate and aspiring Hamlet, he could only brood on what might have been, and, like Hamlet, he stumbled in several places. He may have lost himself in writing the play, at least a moment, but also an eternity.

Bill, Oxford—differences aside, I am left with the essential common term: Hamlet. And there’s the rub. The problem with thinking about Hamlet, and wondering who created him and why, and wondering why someone should have wondered who his creator was, and thinking about someone who might have been like Hamlet, is that you become Hamlet yourself, doubting everything and not knowing where to stop.

Maybe the Elizabethan picture of order itself is an obsessive projection of the times, against which Oxford, like Hamlet, strains. Or maybe it is the order they both embrace. Either way, putting us at the center, metaphorically, can be a kind of madness. The play itself asserts and at the same time questions identity in almost every line, while its repressed plot and swelling individuality push against the seams of structure, against any kind of order.

And perhaps physics itself is an obsessive compulsion to grasp, a breeding ground for neurotics.

But such an analysis, however tempting, however compelling, is closed off itself and can lead to more obsession. A picture of madness is only a picture of madness, from which there is no escape. The only thing I am certain of is that if you look for madness you will always find it.

This too I saw in Berkeley, where we learned to doubt and were doubted at every turn, where people talked to themselves or bottled up. There were days when our minds would flare, separately and together, on the streets, in the cafés, in the classrooms, in our gatherings at our apartments, when the air was filled with suspicion, leading to injury or injuries contemplated, to random disruptions, Hamlets all of us pulling or sheathing swords.

And saw elsewhere later.

And everywhere.

The world is filled with spies.

Hamlet, of course, was right about the ghost and much else.

Oxford remains a ghost.

I do not know what else Bill was right about or where it left him in a life where occasions might have informed against him.

I—no one—knew him to be anything but kind and honest.

He must have been in pain.

I will never know who he was.

No letter.

.

It is late, and I have been up staring at a screen where I see these words:

There has been no one else in my life like Bill, little as he was in it. Slender and soft spoken, not withdrawn but not forthcoming, had he found himself in a crowded room. . . .

When I look away to rest my eyes, I see only night black against the window, the glare of a desk lamp, and my glassy reflection, looking back. On my face, lines of weariness and anxiety I didn’t know were there.

We are well, all is well, all is as it should be.

Everything I once thought solid has melted into air.

I grew up looking at pictures of order that located and reassured. Really, they did not explain anything but rather closed off questions and explanations. There are advantages here, however, and at times I miss them. Equality itself was only a bare concept that told us nothing about ourselves, but at least it provided a vanishing point in a perspective that slowed us down, gave pause, and allowed some changes.

Now I look at pictures not of buildings and people moving among them, but of long rooms where men and women sit at long tables and make decisions, and of larger rooms divided into boxes, where more sit and work, though it isn’t clear what any of these people do. And I see pictures of performance and aptitude in lines on graphs that are supposed to rise, and of shifting bars of attitudes and desires, though it isn’t shown where the lines should end or the bars settle. I also see pictures of an outside world where there are pretty trees and pretty skies and people moving in a soft ether, not quite smiling, and at the bottom pastel pills to ease depression, along with words of warning.

I do not know why this world exists.

Our metaphors have slipped.

A proton is made of two up quark particles and one down; a neutron is made of three quarks as well, two down, one up. In both protons and neutrons the quarks are bound by the interaction of gluons between them, particles that carry the strong force, just as photons carry electromagnetic interactions, such as light. Some of that force escapes the binding of quarks into neutrons and protons, and through more particle transformations binds neutrons and protons together to form nuclei. All this interaction occurs in an atom’s infinitesimal heart.

Particles of what? Gluons, like quarks, like all particles, are only bundles of energy with various properties, in various states and motions, or that is all we can know about them. There is nothing to pick up and throw against a wall or hold before your eyes. The process of binding cannot be pictured but only explained by complex formulas that analyze fields, by making calculations and observing how it works. And the process is still more complicated, and much is still debated, still not understood. Gluons may yet be replaced by something else. Yet experiments continue to return consistent results and point to fundamental order. Other evidence is unassailable: the energy from the interactions that bind a nucleus, when released, can be used in nuclear reactors and bombs.

It must be exhilarating to come this close to nature and feel its pulse. It is exhilarating to think about those who have looked and what they have discovered, the complexity and power in the smallest things, their order. And it is exhilarating not to rest with commonplace appearances of anything, not let them pass, but inspect them closely and think about their order. These thoughts, those efforts, their possibilities, charge the part of us that stirs us. It is exhilarating simply not to stand still.

. . . in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Perhaps Hamlet is giving in to his mood, or perhaps he is losing his grip, but quintessence is a term used by the Greeks, the fifth of the five elements, the eternal stuff of the heavens, the spark that inhabits the smallest part, yet from which Hamlet has been divorced by circumstances and whatever else, further in and further out.

The black picture from the bubble chamber I saw in Bill’s office, however, did not show tiny people walking its white lines carrying pieces of paper or sitting at long tables, much less golden men and women on thrones or fantastic animals or winged spirits or tailed demons, not malevolent stirrings or glowing benedictions, not even a mysterious tremor of an unvoiced sign that indicates one thing could or should be another. The order of the world has nothing to do with the order of our world. It has always been that way. Physics just brought the point home. And if we think about it, we realize the order of our world has never been that orderly or good. It is exhilarating, too, and anything else we might want to feel, and we can feel anything we want, to think about all the things we do not see in the black and white picture and what not seeing them might mean.

Ashes to ashes—there are other ways to look at dust.

There was a condition, not named, not diagnosed, not treated, whose cause could have been internal, chemical and/or psychological, or it could have been environmental, or a combination of all those causes. Most likely there was a nexus of causes, accidental to us but which followed a nexus of orders whose complexity cannot be sorted out, though I do not know what sorting them out might explain. There is no name, however, for the condition that makes one wonder and reach. We only have names for conditions when life goes wrong. Nor do I know if the first condition might not be related to the other, whether the two can be separated. I only know it is impossible to think of Bill’s life without the second. I doubt it is anything he would have wanted to consider or could even have imagined.

There is an order to the world and we have a good grip on its process. Ultimately everything at its root is the result of the interactions of particles. It is possible to theorize the process extending to consciousness itself. Yet the complexity from quark to the simplest molecule is vast. The complexity to extend the process out to a mind, to thought, is unthinkable. It would take—and my guess is as good as any—a computer larger than the size of all of our imaginations an eternity to make the calculations. But also such a study would reduce awareness to the terms of the process, self-referring.

In the beginning—

The ultimate goal for particle physicists is to discover the single force that unifies all forces, which, they theorize, was the force that existed at the very beginning of time before it split into the other forces. Yet most concede they will never have test equipment anywhere close to being powerful enough to perform an experiment to find it. There will always be a ceiling.

I did not reject the pictures of order I saw growing up because I did not believe in order but because they did not hold the order in which I wanted to believe. I have not stopped wanting to believe, though I am less sure why. I want to feel I have a place where I can move among others and be moved alone, where there is a picture of understanding that explains this motion. And I still want to believe that pictures of the order of our world are not made up, that there is connection between them with what I see when I look out, even though I know none exists.

We only know the orders of processes that only know themselves and infinite complexity, further in and further out, infinitely beyond our reach, those and our metaphors, and whatever terms we can manage to stick between the terms of tautologies, whatever ambiguities we can suspend.

I have read Hamlet at least a dozen times over the years and still reread it. Every time it is a different play. I do not know what it means. When I reach the final scene I feel a dozen different ways. Sometimes I feel charged, with varying qualifications of thought and mood, because order has been reaffirmed. Its collapse shows its force, the possibilities that remain had it not been corrupted. Sometimes I only see senseless death littered on the stage. A prop has been pulled out that supported nothing. Sometimes I don’t know what I feel but am left with complex moods split in intricate ways, none of them coherent.

Every time I leave the play I am a different person.

Every time I return to my world it is a different world, brighter and darker.

The problem with thinking about Hamlet, and thinking about someone who might have been like Hamlet, is that you become Hamlet yourself, lost, not knowing who you are. I have also seen a half-dozen film productions, and I don’t think any actor gets him right, or even that it is possible to stage him. But it is the actors who think they know Hamlet, who fortify themselves with wrongful injury and brace for just revenge, I most question and least understand. Only the Hamlets who reach and doubt and lose themselves seem close to whole.

It is only by projecting our hearts and minds into the world, and whatever else we can think to project, then looking at what is returned that we have a sense of what the world might be worth. But it is only by testing the world, and ourselves, and doubting both, that we have any sense what we might be worth.

Sometimes in the cracks between the words that create the world of Shakespeare’s—Oxford’s?—plays, those ironies, I find release. Sometimes, even if there is no explanation in the words, or the explanations do not explain, at least I find a container and the possibilities of containers that might provide a context for a fall, that hold our doubts and pain and suffering and give them full expression and allow them, allow us, to exist a little longer. Here I see some light.

We should always extend the net of our humanity and not question why it exists.

But I cannot rest without looking at the complexity and power in all things.

And remembering those who once were moved to understand.

While searching the online documents, I did find one sentence I fully understood. It was from a PhD dissertation by a Berkeley physics student with this dedication:

I gratefully acknowledge the friendship, advice, and encour­agement of Dr. William Michael, whose enthusiastic interest in all areas of physics will always be an inspiration.

Gary Garvin

.

.

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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Aug 122017
 

Takacs

.
Blush

They took the district psychologist for a body search
to the drugstore office thanks only to her professional
myopia, because she couldn’t have imagined
that the substitute security guard with erection
problems could flop so badly as to take her
for a thief, and that he was so hard on her
heels in the empty store minutes before closing
time, solely to catch her in the act. So she was
summoned to return at once the (old) blush
she had sunk into her handbag, while conscientiously
placing an identical one in her shopping cart
so that, after payment, she could powder her cheeks
with it for the award ceremony of the Freud medal
for lifetime achievement, to be handed her
by the minister of education himself. ‘But I’ve seen her
steal it with my own eyes!’, the security guard protested
and in his indignation kicked a cardboard box
full of condoms, making a sizable hole
in it. The therapist’s face had no need for the blush
to burn. But her calling, to ease the guard’s bewilderment,
proved stronger than her shame, and with the battle
cry, the patient is always right, she sprang to the guard’s
defense in front of the manager who, blaming
the heat wave, in his embarrassment
hastily put on his long winter overcoat.

.
Revolt of the Extras

We long to be continued after the last
episode, although the producers opened
the champagne and gave us a small farewell
party. This afternoon even we sit
on the kitchen stools in front of the camera
hoping to see ourselves in the new chapter: we have
played our part for a full year and this recent
indifference to our fate, the plotlines unfolding
without us in the new scenario
hurt us to the quick. No, this is not
what kept us pacing up and down the street,
shivering as usual at winter’s
end. Is it possible that the audience is losing
interest in us? Has our time passed
for good, our story passé, even though we are still
stirring? Coming and going we can hear
the camera’s buzz. As before, we tread with nimble
feet, but a low growl comes from the machine’s
jaws. We fear it might be disapproving.

.
The Other Side of the Coin

To bear the unsayable agony
of the lovers seated on an anthill,
the rhythmic squeaking of bedsprings at the moment
of climax, a rumble of the stomach in the midst
of an ardent declaration of love, to mix up the dear
addressee’s name when reunited at last.
While contemplating suicide by the open
window, to be soaked not in springtime
melancholia but in grenadiermarsch[1] stench.
To suffer the priest’s flu-inflected
staccato prayer over our dead body.
After a night spent awake due to the weather
turning, to drowse off when our life
sentence is announced.
Instead of ours, to enter the hotel room
of the lust killer who is shaving naked
in front of the full-length mirror. To go raspy
when given the right to the last word.
To meet ourselves on the staircase
(she going upstairs, I tumbling down).
Incensed, to shove our manhood
into the bread slicer instead of bread.
To knock on our own door, waiting to be let in.
With our mouth full of spinach to choke
convulsively on some antediluvial joke
on the silken sofa of the newly wed.
To eat gilded-edged caramel custard
while changing diapers. To shake
hands with the disciple who tries
to sell us the dead master’s gold tooth.
To see the light under shadowy circumstances.
To remain standing for good, half-dressed,
in front of the cupboard, or sitting
in the bathtub until icicles grow on the tap
out of a penchant for parallelism.
…………………………………………..And if not, let go!
Then the day will come: the grenadiermarsch
smell in the open window, the killer
with the razor will come to cut off the ice
from our skin. And spring! spring will come!

.

A Royal Day

During his visit now and then the king
stops on a whim, and throws a look
across his realm. Winter has worn out
the city, the fences lean in, the frost drove
new cracks in the pavement.
Snow, black, is blocked in the gutter mouths.
Open lorries carry sand to a nearby
construction site, fine dust
drizzles down. With light fingers he wipes
the grains from his brow. On tram fifty-nine
homeless bums are yelling across to each
other over the passengers’ heads
in a tongue of the realm he barely understands.
He arrives at Déli Station. Descends
into the subway’s draughty inner
halls. The brass band strikes up
a fanfare. He spots the mutilated
Romanian sitting in the same corner,
a babbling would-be greeting on his cardboard sign.
So his faithful subject has come to him,
travelling all night on the blackened train,
or defecting across the green border of hope!
He waves at the man kneeling at his feet, whose
eyes run over with tears. Daily routine.
On a mouth organ a duke plays operetta.
The hailing, the attention directed at him,
the loud calling of his name, the hands grabbing
the hem of his robe wear him out, he feels repulsion.
And yet: he was born for this, when all the bells
spoke of hope, I will be one of them,
he said, but now it is as if he were watching
in a microscope the beings, invisible to the naked
eye, scurrying, worming on the ground.

.

Innocence

I dreamed I gave birth to a child: by him.
But they warned me beforehand: it is stillborn.
The most awful of all was my indifference,

I didn’t care what was happening with me,
I felt not pain but ennui rather. A huge,
waxen newborn was laid out on the table

covered in transparent nylon.
Next to it, under a damask cloth,
props of an unfinished breakfast.

We must behave as if he were alive, the midwife
said and cried out twice: Look,
how cutely he is wobbling!

.

I knew I was to be sentenced

I started eating. On the newborn’s brow
above the bridge of the nose, a wound cut
with a blade appeared, I tried to smooth it out,

fighting my repulsion, but couldn’t. No
blood oozed from it: it was final.
Like the outcome of something long-planned,

done in cold blood, it was: concrete.
I knew I was the one who wounded him, unawares
when slicing the bread. I even recalled how

the knife ran into the still protesting skin.
I felt fear and hazy remorse.
I knew I was to be sentenced.

.

For everything around us is: life

Surely I cannot be the killer of our love?
Surely it was the child of another, a stranger,
not yours, and by no means mine?

It was a strange child laid out on the table,
stillborn, since the wound didn’t bleed:
this should be sufficient evidence.

Most likely it was a wax doll. Someone
must have made a savage joke,
for everything around us is: life.

And inside me too: you surely know me!
Even if leaves are falling on the rails
and the tram turns the corner with long shrieks.

.

The Chain and the Link (A Lánc És a Szem)

(1) The most exquisite movement (A legszebb mozdulat)
It is now clear that the forcefully united
stands out in parts. Needless to resist
anymore: as I have always wanted,

the chain and the link crumble a-part.
(I never managed, as I now realize,
to align, however hard I tried.)

Leaf, how gently you fell on the lake’s
water. Gentler than any lover
on the craved pudenda.

This was the most exquisite movement, thank
you, leaf. You didn’t mingle. You didn’t quiver.
This was the most exquisite movement.

(2) To leave (KIMENNI)
the crowded room at the height
of ovation when the arch-funereal
clowns perform their lightning-fast

jest, not to be duped by their countless
tricks, to break through the elated
row, to reclaim from the mesmerized

cloakroom girl hat, coat and umbrella
for a song, to cross the city when its theatre wings
are being rearranged but the night shift

has not arrived yet, the clocks stand
still, our sole companion the disinfectant
smell on the last pestilential streets.

(3) Going on (FOLYTATÁS)
Not to call anyone (the greenery will
outgrow their pots anyway and, pushing
open the window, lean out),

not to avenge, nor to get over
insult, not to have tooth-ache, inflamed
cornea, leukemia treated,

not to open the door when the house is aflame,
not to cling on when drowning, to turn back
from the loathed door at the moment

of arrival. Not to look forward on the way
but backward only. To stand up to the clash.
Then on the water a leaf may fall.

.

Yearning for an ancient cup

To not rebel, even if you possess the necessary
skills, but execute the emperor’s order.
To smuggle my remembrance into the manner of the farewell,
the moral of experience paid with blood, the gift
of clear-sightedness, before my eyesight is
blurred and my pupils hitch upward.
Where does bargaining begin, the withdrawal
of consent, the defensive fidgeting, the living
for the last moment, the hour stolen
for banqueting, or making love? I might
lapse there as well – our emperor left the decision to us,
but Socrates forbids cowardly action.
If I linger on among you for a while, it’s only
to say, I owe a cock to Asclepius.
But since you had promised to pay my debt,
what would hold me here still? The command
summons me, to quote the tragic poet, and it’s high time
to arrange for a bath. I’ll drink the cup right after.
The sand sifting from my eyes will settle on
the borders of Athens. I have never believed in borders,
yet feel no triumph. My legs go heavy,
I lie down on my back, as the man
who brought the hemlock advised.
The world loses its contours, grows cold.

— Zsuzsa Takács, Translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

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Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems and stories have appeared recently in World Literature TodayThe Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature OnlineShe lives in Budapest.

§

Erika

Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Translator’s note: Potatoes and pasta stewed with onions, some sort of meat or bacon, and eventually anything else that could be thrown in – in this respect, a bit like the famous Irish stew. It is very consistent, and became a food of the poor. The smell would have been of onions stewed in pork grease, into which the mixture is then thrown with water. Appropriately bathetic.
Aug 112017
 


Okay, the scoop. Aidos, a short film by our senior editor R. W. Gray, marks Douglas Glover’s first credited film work (at 3:44). (It is not, however, his first onscreen appearance since he had an uncredited role as an extra in Michael Douglas’s 1979 movie Running; check out the start of the marathon. In terms of an acting career, this early success led nowhere — it is a galling fact of dg’s life that many things have led nowhere, though he remains optimistic.)

R. W. Gray has edited NC at the Movies for years, decades even, it seems. In between times, he’s been writing (his story collection Entropic last year won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award) and making films.

He shot Aidos in the winter-spring of 2014 when he and I were both rooming in Mark Jarman’s house in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Some of the scenes were filmed in Mark’s house or nearby (you can see the old railway bridge through the stained glass window in one scene and the cathedral in the background of another).

The film has traveled the world (Tel Aviv, Romania, Lithuania, and all over the U.S. and Canada) and was programmed in twelve festivals. And now that it has finished its festival run, Rob has posted Aidos on Vimeo where we can all see it.

Aidos is, on the surface, about love and mourning. A young gay man has died, the voice over narration tells is that 21 people avowed their love for him before the end. What follows is 21 different actors saying “I love you” with the sound muted, just the faces, eyes, expressions.

When Rob filmed my bit, he told me nothing of the film’s structure or point. Actually, he told me nothing (I got no contract, no star in my door, we are still in litigation about the star on the door thing). He just wanted to film me saying the words “I love you.” This took a long time because he wanted a spiritual depth, a vulnerability, one is not used to performing in public. One, moi, I am so bloody shy. He coached me. He told me to visualize someone I loved and address that person. I thought of my sons. In my bit, I am thinking of my boys. That in the film this thought is translated into a completely different meaning is a revelation to me, a revelation about the nature of acting, which included, yes, an object lesson in the difference between acting and pretending — I was not pretending, though I was summoning up an image to cue myself. I am still mulling over this experience. I think I learned some, though I am not sure what.

That quality of vulnerability is what Rob was after in the film, I think. The word “aidos” bursts with complex implication, which you must think about as you watch the film. It’s a Greek word that means, as a quality, a mix of reverence, modesty, and shame and is meant to be one of those aspects of personality that restrain us from doing evil.

Here it is personified in Hesiod, where she appears as a goddess, a companion to Nemesis.

And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.

The shame aspect is interesting because it involves the consciousness of being visible to others, of being seen, not just as a projection but as an emotional, thus vulnerable, self. The words “I love you,” so easily spoken in private, expose this inner self to ridicule (which, in itself, is an element of acting).

So re-watch Rob’s film and pay special attention to the interior contortions embodied in the faces of the actors (and, of course, they are mostly men, so the shyness/modesty quotient is very high — ah, we are a limping gender!): the effort to be real.

—dg

 

 

 

 

Aug 112017
 

Huck Finn and Jim on the Mississippi drawing

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For Doug Glover

When Doug wrote to me this morning, to announce that he had “decided to cease publication” of Numéro Cinq, and “find a new life,” he added two points. The first was funny, if self-effacingly untrue: “Maybe I’ll try to become a writer.” As we all know, that attempt has long since been an actual and impressive achievement. The second remark was both truthful and encouraging: “I’m not gloomy or regretful.” Considering what he has accomplished over the past half-dozen years—making available a trove of fiction, poetry, art, and critical commentary, and bringing together a community of writers and artists in this warm place on the web—neither Doug nor the rest of us have reason to be gloomy or regretful. Quite the opposite.

I believe that the cliché that “All good things must come to an end,” has its origin in Chaucer’s great 14th-century narrative poem, Troilus and Criseyde. As it happens, that five-book masterpiece is Chaucer’s only complete long poem, and, for all its tragic love-story, it does not end with either its author or the poem’s hero “gloomy or regretful.” In the finale, at last aware of everything, Troilus ascends to the eighth of the heavenly spheres, from which celestial vantage point he looks down upon the world and “laughs” at all that “cannot last.” But Troilus’s laughter is not merely disdainful; from his observation point in eternity, he sees all in amused perspective, and knows that in his mortal ending there is a new beginning.

Numéro Cinq will survive in its own, secular, version of eternity. As Doug said at the end of his announcement, “All the pieces we’ve published will stay up on the internet.” No new issues will be added, but “the site won’t disappear.” The magazine’s temporal ending coincides with a never-ending beginning, its internet afterlife. By way of valediction, I would like to dedicate to Doug, in admiration, affection, and gratitude, this new essay on beginnings and endings. In truncated form, it was presented, on August 4, as a talk at the eighth Mark Twain Quadrennial Conference in Elmira, where Huckleberry Finn was completed in 1885, precisely five centuries after Chaucer published Troilus and Criseyde.

Pat Keane  July 12, 2017

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The beginnings and endings of all human endeavors are untidy…the writing of a novel…and, eminently, the finish of a voyage.

John Galsworthy, Over the River (1933), 9th & final novel in The Forsyte Saga

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1.

In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner introduces T. S. Eliot in what may seem an odd way: “Elegant, shy from great sensitivities and great gifts, the youngest of eight children, he came, by way of several Academies, from a birthplace by Twain’s Mississippi in Twain’s lifetime.” As Kenner goes on to note, Eliot’s was “a family of some local prominence, connected, moreover, with the Massachusetts Eliots.” Of course his family also had deep and distinguished roots in England, in East Coker, in Somerset, and, when young Eliot left Boston and Harvard for the continent and then London in 1914, he rapidly became, in manner, dress, and speech, more English than English, certainly more English than American. Just as Sam Clemons of Missouri had reinvented himself as “Mark Twain,” the world-traveler decked out in that iconic white suit, so Tom Eliot of Missouri, the American who, along with Henry James, most thoroughly reinvented himself as an Englishman, became “T. S. Eliot,” an Anglophile who, in 1928, pronounced himself “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”; affected a disdainful English accent that caused an annoyed Robert Frost, in that same year, to dismiss him as a “mealy-mouthed snob”;  and took to wearing a white rose on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, in memory of Richard III, whom Eliot, Shakespeare notwithstanding, considered the last true English king.[1]

T. S. Eliot in 1923 via Wikimedia CommonsT. S. Eliot in 1923

Equally worth noting, however, once he was established as a major literary figure with a comfortable income, Eliot made trips back to the United States. After a visit in the late autumn of 1950, these trips were to become part of his routine, “a regular event” in the final decade and a half of his life. There was, as Peter Ackroyd observes in his biography of Eliot, “a sense in which he was returning home.”[2] Eliot was returning in 1950, not to his own St. Louis and Twain’s Missouri but to Boston, where he visited, along with relatives, old friends Emily Hale (who had preceded Eliot’s first wife, Vivien, as a romantic interest and hoped to succeed her) and Djuna Barnes (whose lesbian novel Nightwood Eliot had admired and shepherded, delicately edited, through Faber & Faber in 1936). Novelist and translator Willa Muir, who also saw him at this time, reported: “Tom Eliot is much more human here than in England. He was less cautious, smiling more easily, spontaneous in repartee, enjoying the teasing he was getting from Djuna,” in whose “company he seemed to have shed some English drilling and become more American.”[3]

Eliot may have “become more American,” in part, because he had just written an Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.[4] Perhaps like “most of us,” Eliot suggests early in that Introduction, Mark Twain “never became in all respects mature. We might even say that the adult side of him was boyish, and that only the boy in him, that was Huck Finn, was adult” (322). In the transformed Eliot Willa Muir described in 1950, we may have not only a man loosened up by the liberated Barnes, but, as Ackroyd suggests, filled with memories of his own  childhood, “still to be wished for although lost and gone forever” (301-2).

Willa Muir’s observation of the American humanizing of Anglican and priggish Eliot in 1950, her refreshing account of his spontaneity and boyish enjoyment, may indeed remind us of the Huck he had recently been writing about. That relaxed pleasure might also remind us, if we have been rummaging among his unpublished papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library, that Eliot confided to Ezra Pound in 1961 that there had been only two happy periods in his life. The last was during his second marriage, to Valerie. The first, he said, was “during his childhood”: a lost boyhood that may have been glimpsed, in part through the prism of Huck, by the adult and successful Thomas Stearns Eliot (in 1950 almost as world-famous as Mark Twain himself had been), returning to America to lecture and see his sisters.

Young T.S. EliotYoung Tom Eliot

Huck’s impact would have been all the more powerful since, as Eliot tells us in the second paragraph of his Introduction, the novel, deemed “unsuitable” by his strict parents, was kept from him as a boy. Thus it was “only a few years” prior to writing the Introduction that “I read for the first time, and in that order, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn” (321). Eliot perceptively saw Mark Twain as a “composite” of Tom, applause-seeking, and Huck, “indifferent” to fame and conventional success; and he may have had in mind his own situation as a famous public figure in describing Mark Twain as a man who sought success, approval, and reputation, yet simultaneously “resented their violation of his integrity” (322).

But there are two interrelated problems with this 1950 connection between Huck and Eliot’s inner boy. The first is that the one phrase Ackroyd quotes from Eliot’s Introduction (the impossibility of either Huck or the river having “a beginning or end”) may remind us of Eliot’s defense of the much-disputed ending of the novel. Eliot insists that “all great works of art,” among which he numbers Huckleberry Finn, “mean much more than the author could have been aware of meaning….So what seems to be the rightness, of reverting at the end of the book to the mood of Tom Sawyer, was perhaps unconscious art” (326-27).

One can agree with Eliot that for Huck “neither a tragic nor a happy ending would be suitable” (327), and that no “book ever written ends more certainly with the right words: ‘But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before’.” But one resists his repeated insistence on the “rightness” of the novel’s reversion, in the so-called “evasion” chapters, to the mood of Tom Sawyer.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cover image

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2.

Eliot’s final formulation—“it is right that the mood at the end of the book should bring us back to that of the beginning” (326)—seems more appropriate to Eliot, as poet and as man, or to Mark Twain himself, who famously came into the world, and left it, with Halley’s Comet lighting up the sky, than to the conclusion of Twain’s novel. Eliot’s Four Quartets enacts that rondure; and his own ashes rest in the Parish Church of St. Michael’s, East Coker, in Somerset, the place of origin from which, centuries earlier, his ancestors had emigrated to America. Eliot had his memorial tablet circumscribed by the opening and closing lines from “East Coker” (1940), the second of Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end….in my end is my beginning.” But to apply, as Eliot does, a similar circuitous journey to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to rationalize the flaw in Mark Twain’s masterpiece and to endorse, in Huck’s case, a regression that betrays the boy’s instinctive and gradually more articulate commitment to freedom. For most readers, freedom is the principal theme of the book, even if it takes the limited form of “sliding down the river” on the raft, “free and easy”—Huck’s and Jim’s joyous freedom in harmony with nature, in contrast to corrupt civilization: the societal violence, malice, and vulgarity exhibited in the towns along the shore.

Mark Twain 1882Mark Twain in 1882, two years before publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The second, and intimately related, problem is that Eliot, who here privileges rondure above almost all else, seems less interested in “freedom”—embodied in, and symbolized by, Huck and, of course, Jim’s ultimate goal (Eliot does mention, as an illustration of the voyage-controlling power of the River, that “it will not let them land at Cairo, where Jim could have reached freedom” [325])—than in literary form, the supposed coming-full-circle structure of the novel. Though, as a non-specialist, I am unfamiliar with details, I am generally aware that—beginning with James M. Cox as early as 1966, followed by two close readings in 1991, by Victor A. Doyno and Richard Hill—there have been many sophisticated post-Eliot defenses of the sustained ending of Huckleberry Finn.[5] “But”—to quote Huck himself rejecting (at the end of Chapter 3) the early fooleries of Tom Sawyer (as I wish he had rejected his later Gothic grotesqueries at Jim’s expense at the Phelps Farm)—“as for me I think different.”

I’m hardly alone. As early as 1932, in Mark Twain’s America, Bernard DeVoto, the scholar-critic whose professionalism made accessible Twain’s scattered papers, said of the ending of Huckleberry Finn: “In the whole reach of the English novel there is no more abrupt or more chilling descent.”[6] The landmark attack on the ending came in 1953, in the wake of the publication of both Eliot’s and Lionel Trilling’s introductions to popular editions of Huckleberry Finn. In an eloquent and immensely influential essay, Leo Marx took issue with both these major critics and men of letters, arguing persuasively that, while “both critics see the problem as one of form,” it is the content, “the discordant farcical tone and the disintegration of the major characters,” that “makes so many readers uneasy because they rightly sense that it jeopardizes the significance of the entire novel.”

This is no minor matter since, as Marx forces us to remember, the ending “comprises almost one-fifth of the text.” For Marx (as for much of the book’s audience, if not for its author, whose experience of slavery made him more realistic about racial matters), the novel has “little or no formal unity independent of the joint purpose of Huck and Jim.” Those yearning for a more affirmative conclusion to Huck’s and Jim’s “joint purpose” are bound to find the ending—in which Huck is again subservient to Tom Sawyer and Jim is reduced, as a result of Tom’s antics, to a caricature of a slave—particularly egregious. The formalist stress of both Trilling and Eliot, in particular their defense of the ending, comes at a considerable human and ultimately aesthetic cost.[7] We register the pressure of historical realism, but, for Marx and many others, myself included, the movement of the novel, however episodic, into a serious moral world is betrayed by the return at the end to buffoonery and cruel slapstick at Jim’s uncomplaining expense.

Eliot should have known better. In his Introduction, singling out as the best illustration of the relationship between Huck and Jim, he chose the conclusion of the chapter (15) in which, after the two have become separated in the fog, Huck in the canoe and Jim on the raft, Huck, “in his impulse of boyish mischief,” persuades Jim for a time that he had dreamt the whole episode. Heartbroken at the “loss” of Huck, and weeping “thankful” tears to see him back again, Jim realizes what has actually happened, the trick Huck has played: “En all you wuz thinkin‘ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; and trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er de fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.” It was “fifteen minutes,” Huck tells us, “before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards neither.”

Jim asleep on the raftIllustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

Aware that the passage had been often quoted, Eliot quotes it again, not only because of the obvious “pathos and dignity of Jim,” which is “moving enough,” but because of something often “overlooked” and even more profound: the “pathos and dignity of the boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time to a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man” (324). Given that insight, it is all the more painful that Eliot should so glibly accept Huck’s resubmission to Tom Sawyer’s leadership and to the protracted “practical joke” at Jim’s expense in the final chapters, even celebrating those chapters’ “rightness”—all under the aegis of rondure: a reversion at the end to the novel’s beginning, even to the “mood” of Tom Sawyer rather than of Huck’s own book.

 To embrace as “right,” even “inevitable,” the “Evasion” chapters violates the integrity of Huck’s own maturing character, from his instinctive alliance with Jim (“They’re after us”) to his momentous, “awful,” decision, in Chapter 31, to defy the law and contemporary “morality” rather than betray Jim. Having just written a note to Miss Watson, revealing Jim’s capture, Huck, as we all remember, holds the letter in his hand: “I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”

 Whether or not he recalled that Huck had earlier chosen to go to the “bad” rather than the “good” place, providing Tom Sawyer was there, Eliot says not a word about this crucial decision. That seems remarkable since, as epitomized by his reading of the fog episode, Eliot is attuned to the “kinship of mind and the sympathy between the boy outcast and the negro fugitive from the injustice of society.” He even remarks, finely, that Huck would be “incomplete without Jim, who is almost as notable a creation as Huck himself,” and that “they are equal in dignity” (323-24). Earlier, in the context of praising Twain’s pivotal decision to write “in the person of Huck,” Eliot adds that “the style of the book, which is the style of Huck, is what makes it a far more convincing indictment of slavery than the sensationalistic propaganda of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (322-23). But just as he forgets that, unlike Twain’s, Stowe’s novel was written when slavery was still an issue,[8] Eliot is silent about Huck’s defiant willingness to “go to hell” rather than turn Jim in as a runaway slave. One can imagine the conservatively religious Eliot resisting that last assertion as hyperbole, sympathetic or blasphemous, even saying, in a favorite and recurrent formulation of Huck’s (repeated in Chapters 3, 15, and 34): that was one “too many for me.”

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3.

Eliot was of course impressed by Huck’s demotic but rhapsodic descriptions of the Mississippi, its majesty and movement. Eliot stresses its power and thematic unifying force: “It is the River that controls the voyage of Huck and Jim,” the River that “separates…and re-unites them….Recurrently, we are reminded of its presence and its power” (325). Eliot had personal experience of the power of the Mississippi. In evoking that power in his Introduction, Eliot refers to “the great Eads Bridge,” the river-spanning steel structure which, unlike earlier bridges, “could resist the floods” (325). Two decades earlier, Eliot had told an interviewer that, as a boy, “the big river” made a “deep impression on me; and it was a great treat to be taken down to the Eads Bridge”—at the time of its 1874 opening the largest ever built—“in flood time.”  It is a useful reminder of Hugh Kenner’s emphasis on Eliot’s “birthplace by Twain’s Mississippi in Twain’s lifetime.”

Eads Bridge between 1873-1909 courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collection_1Eads Bridge, St. Louis, Missouri, between 1873-1909, courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collection

In a much later interview, referring to the “sources” of his poetry, Eliot said that, “in its emotional springs, it comes from America.”  He was referring less to American literature than to American locale, landscape, and language.[9] In 1953, Eliot noted that in Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

reveals himself to be one of those writers, of whom there are not a great many in any literature, who have discovered a new way of writing, not only for themselves but for others. I should place him in this respect, even with Dryden and Swift, as one of those rare writers who have brought their language up to date, and in so doing, “purified the dialect of the tribe.”[10]

These linguistic observations had been anticipated in the Huckleberry Finn Introduction. “Repeated readings of the book,” says Eliot, “only confirm and deepen one’s admiration of the consistency and perfect adaptation of the writing. This is a style which at the period, whether in America or in England, was an innovation, a new discovery in the English language.” Other novelists had achieved “natural speech” in relation to particular characters, “but no one else had kept it up through the whole of a book,” and flawlessly: “there is no sentence or phrase to destroy the illusion that these are Huck’s own words” (323).

Mark Twain (Clemens) family around the time Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was publishedTwain with his family around the time Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published

That last point is, Huck himself might say, a bit of a “stretcher.” Though the history is wonderfully recast in his own terms, the unschooled Huck knows more than seems plausible about British and French royalty, not to mention Hamlet’s soliloquy, as rendered by the rapscallion “Duke.” It might be added that, in terms of Eliot’s own poetry, despite his linguistic insights here, while he may have purified the dialect of the tribe, he seldom varied from his increasingly British-inflected diction; and even there he could not catch the working-class vernacular required for the pub-scene of The Waste Land without the help of his wife, Vivien, her ear attuned to “lower-class” speech. Eliot never approached the vernacular innovation of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn. A semblance of that achievement was reserved to William Carlos Williams who, while admiring the brilliance of The Waste Land, deplored and feared its impact. In his Autobiography (1951), written three decades after he registered the shock of The Waste Land, Williams described Eliot’s poem as a “great catastrophe” that “returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were at the point of escape to…the essence of a new art form” (164). Though it  took years to come out from the shadow of the Eliotic rock, eventually Williams emerged as the pioneer who, fulfilling Whitman and perhaps Twain, achieved a distinctively American poetry employing colloquial speech, and so became, for future generations of American poets, more influential than Eliot.

To return to Twain’s masterpiece:  Eliot had asserted from the outset that in “the writing of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain had two elements which, when treated with his sensibility and his experience, formed a great book: these two are the Boy and the River” (320). The Boy “is the spirit of the River,” and we “come to understand the River by seeing it through the eyes of the Boy” (325), whose human voice is as much a unifying element as the River. Considerations of style and speech shift attention from the river itself to the life on the raft the river makes possible for that boy and for Jim; and to the language, the dialect, Twain invents for Huck to express his love of the river. The vital center of the novel, early in Chapter 19, precedes the intrusive arrival of the “King” and the “Duke.” The days and nights, Huck tells us, “slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely….you see the mist curl up off the water and the east reddens up, and the river,” and then from across the river, “the nice breeze springs up and comes fanning you, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers,” though “sometimes” there is also the rank smell of dead fish; “and next you’ve got the full day and everything smiling in the sun, and the songbirds just going it!”

Jim and Huck on the raftIllustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

Two paragraphs later, our attention is turned to the night sky and to some seemingly casual but in fact rather significant cosmological/theological speculation: “It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened—Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.” Though far more cheerful than the author of The Mysterious Stranger or Twain’s other late, dark fables, Huck seems as much a skeptic or agnostic as Mark Twain. And he is a loner. His companionship with Jim, however warm, is temporary, ultimately unsustainable. Huck is, as Eliot notes, “alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction” (322). And, as suggested by this passage, stressing chance rather than divine design, Huck—while he believes in providence, heaven and hell—has no god, riverine or celestial. He has, instead, his alert senses and native intelligence, even something of Coleridge’s “shaping spirit of imagination,” made flesh in the incomparable language given to him by Mark Twain.

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4.

To re-focus on the second of Eliot’s two elements: If it is “Huck who gives the book style,” it is “the River” that gives it “form,” and makes it a “great book.”  Eliot contrasts Twain’s Mississippi to the Congo of Conrad, who, in Heart of Darkness, constantly reminds us of “the power and terror of Nature, and the isolation and feebleness of Man.” But unlike Conrad, who remains always “the European observer of the tropics, the white man’s eye contemplating the Congo and its black gods,” Mark Twain “is a native, and the River God is his God. It is as a native that he accepts the River God, and it is the subjection of Man that gives to Man his dignity. For without some kind of God, Man is not even very interesting”

At this point (325-26), agnostic Huck and agnostic Twain have been pushed offstage to make way for theistic T. S. Eliot, a committed Christian believer, who has, nevertheless, more than a few things to say about animistic River Gods. “The Dry Salvages” (1941) famously begins: “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god…” This poem, the third of Four Quartets, is set on the New England Coast, but its opening movement summons up, along with “The River” section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Twain’s river, which becomes, as Eliot notes in his Introduction to the novel, “the Mississippi of this book only after its union with the Big Muddy—the Missouri” (327). The specifically “Southern” muddiness of the river in “The Dry Salvages” becomes uncomfortably clear in lines 117-18:  “Time the destroyer is time the preserver,/ Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops.” “Cargo” casually evokes the commercial heritage of slavery, the antebellum world of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and, like the more notorious “spawned” and squatting “jew” in “Gerontian” (elevated, more than forty years later, in 1963, to the uppercase), the dead “negroes,” tossed in with cows and chicken coops, are, if it is not too politically correct to note, subordinated to lowercase status.

This is hardly the place to relitigate Eliot’s anti-Semitism; but we may legitimately wonder if, despite his expressed admiration for Jim as Huck’s equal in “dignity,” the apparent indifference to Jim’s plight implicit in Eliot’s endorsement of Twain’s final chapters has something to do with vestigial racism. We were alerted to Eliot’s early attitude with the publication, in 1997, of notebook poems written when he was in his twenties, especially the scatological and racist doggeral starring “Bolo,” a sexually well-endowed Negro monarch, attended by a “set of blacks,” a “hardy” and “playful lot/ But most disgusting dirty,” and the poem featuring an imaginary interview with Booker T. Washington alternately titled “Up From Possum Stew!” or “How I Set the Niggers Free!”[11] It is unfair to saddle the mature poet and critic with ribald juvenilia never intended to be published; and, as we have seen, there is nothing offensive or racially insensitive, quite the opposite, in what Eliot has to say of Jim in the Introduction to Huckleberry Finn. But readers hostile to Eliot might wonder if it is possible that, in making the case he does for the final Jim-imprisoning chapters of Twain’s novel, Eliot was, as late as 1950, still less than passionately interested in setting Niggers free.

Huck Finn thinkingIllustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

To return, with relief, to the River: it is always capitalized by Eliot, who personifies and deifies the powerful, all-controlling Mississippi. Like Huck, “the River itself has no beginning or end. In its beginning, it is not yet the River; in its end, it is no longer the River.” Having flowed from many headwaters, it “merely disappears among its deltas.” But, since the people who “live along its shores or who commit themselves to its current” are all subject to its flow, “the River gives the book its form. But for the River, the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending” (327). In the finale, Jim is revealed as free, Pap as dead, and Huck has $6,000 to fund his next adventure, in the Indian Territory. But Eliot had earlier said that it would be “unsuitable” for Huck to have either “a tragic or a happy ending.” And in the worst reading of the latter, Eliot may have decided that the novel’s Evasion chapters, taken as a whole, not only illustrate rondural “rightness,” but constitute a “happy ending.” If so, he would seem to have adopted the attitude of Tom Sawyer, who thought keeping Jim locked up the “best fun he ever had in his life,” and hoped to delay his escape indefinitely (Chapter 36).

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Since Huck, like the River, “has no beginning and no end,” he, too, can “only disappear.” And, Eliot adds, crucially and dubiously, “his disappearance can only be accomplished by bringing forward another performer to obscure the disappearance in a cloud of whimsicalities” (327). But the more-than-whimsical torments inflicted on Jim by Tom, following the “rules” of Romantic escape-literature, include snakes, spiders, and rats, a menagerie that kept the terrified prisoner awake since “they never slept at one time, but took turn about” (Chapter 39).  In all of this, though he occasionally offers practical suggestions to counter the more absurd of his friend’s literary fantasies, Huck defers to Tom’s authority.

The only time he is seriously critical comes at the very beginning, when Tom, yet to work out what will become his ever-more-elaborate “escape” plan, agrees to help save Jim. Huck merely wants him “to keep mum and not let on,” but “Tom’s eye lit up, and he says: I’ll help you steal him!” An outlaw at peace with his own decision, Huck is shocked to discover that Tom, a mischief-maker but a “respectable” member of the law-abiding community, is more than willing to help Jim escape. “It was,” says Huck, “the most astonishing speech I ever heard—and I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!” (Chapter 33). Only when Tom belatedly reveals that Jim has already been freed in Miss Watson’s will does he regain full respectability in Huck’s eyes!

If, despite his development in the course of the novel, Huck is still of the South, so, and even more obviously, is Tom. Whatever we make of Tom’s behavior, we join Huck in admiring his friend’s fertile imagination as well as his “pluck.” The gunshot leg-wound he received during the escape, welcomed by Tom as a badge of honor, might have proved fatal if not for Jim’s help. And yet an inescapable premise of the prolonged ordeal to which Tom subjected Jim is that its victim was somehow subhuman. The real villain is not Tom, but the society that produced him. “All Europe,” Conrad tells us in Heart of Darkness, “contributed to the making of Kurtz”; so all of the American South—though unnoticed by Conrad-admirer and Missourian T. S. Eliot—contributed to the making of the racially-unenlightened if far more appealing Tom Sawyer. Nor is Huck untainted. [12]

Tom Sawyer, Jim, and Huck Tom, Jim, and Huck — Illustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

This recalcitrance of history is often lost in our tendency—not unlike the American love affair with the film Casablanca—to lavish affection on a book which for many, especially in the wake of Ernest Hemingway’s encomium in the mid-1930s, is the “great American novel.” Placing Huckleberry Finn in the context of longstanding American cultural debates, historicist critic Jonathan Arac registered the virtues of the novel while also pronouncing it mean-spirited. Writing in 1997, he warned against that overloading of the book with cultural value that had led to feel-good white liberal complacency regarding race. And what he called the “hypercanonization” and “idolatry” of Huckleberry Finn was a flaw-forgiving development contributed to, Arac claimed, by Eliot’s Introduction to the novel.

Four years later, Ann Ryan examined Arac’s view that the now iconic Huckleberry Finn has an undeserved reputation as a novel that somehow resolved the issue of racism. In Ryan’s concise synopsis of Arac’s argument, critics since the 1940s, “self-consciously engaged” in an interpretive process, “equated Huck with tolerance and love, Twain with Huck, and America with Twain.” Reacting to the “self-serving criticism” of the “white literary establishment,” Arac represents Huckleberry Finn, not as healing or resolving, but “as a novel with a mean spirit and Twain as an author with a hard heart.” Countering Arac, Ryan argues that “it is precisely this raw quality, in both the book and its author,” that makes Huckleberry Finn a valuable asset in contemporary discussions of race, in general and in the classroom. She argues persuasively that, while Twain “evades political entanglements,” he “intentionally represents this evasion”; and that while the novel clearly “operates on racist assumptions and privileges,” it “unflinchingly illustrates how both are expressed and defended.”

Finally, there is the matter, troubling to so many critics, of Twain’s sense of humor and penchant for practical jokes. Registering Huck’s empathy even for rascals, Ryan reminds us that, sickened by the final tar-and-feathered plight of the King and Duke, Huck concludes, “It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel sometimes” (Chapter 33). Ryan then notes the final ironic twist: that “Twain ends his novel with a grotesque practical joke at the expense of Jim, the most ‘human’ being in the narrative.”  Regarding Twain’s employment of humor as a possible “imaginative response to our racist history,” Ryan concludes: “If Twain imagines that race is a joke, he does not necessarily mean that we should not take it seriously.”[13]

We can appreciate this multilayered irony. And, whether “serious” as opposed to common readers like it or not, there are genuinely funny moments in the final chapters; Twain himself certainly enjoyed trotting out Tom’s shenanigans in his stage performances, and drew the laughter he always sought. Still, it hurts to see Huck subordinate himself to Tom, whose extravagant, ever-proliferating machinations simply go on too long (as virtually every critic, even Eliot and Lionel Trilling acknowledged), sometimes becoming as tedious as they are otiose and cruel. If Jim, reduced to a minstrel character, even emasculated, rigged out in Aunt Sally’s calico dress, doesn’t mind, we do, or should, especially since Tom withholds, even from Huck, the fact that Jim has already been legally freed.

Mark Twain may have been “cheating” at the end, as Hemingway famously charged in nevertheless celebrating the novel as “the source of all modern American literature.”[14] Or Twain may have reverted to his customary cap and bells simply because he remained confused, troubled as he had been from the beginning of his work on the book in 1876, as to how to bring the journey of Jim and Huck to a successful conclusion. Or he may just not have been able to resist a practical joke, even one as strung out and seemingly anticlimactic as Tom’s Great Escape, especially not if, as Ann Ryan suggests, it constitutes a racial joke that Twain “does not necessarily mean we should not take seriously.”

One can understand how, psychologically, back in the shore-world and under the sway of a self-confident leader like Tom Sawyer, an adolescent boy, even one as experienced and practical-minded as Huck, might regress, and the mores of Southern society reassert themselves. But, all joking aside, realism needn’t require farce, sporadically funny but finally dehumanizing. Eliot insists that the chapters detailing Tom’s protracted buffoonery at Jim’s expense (with the painful complicity of Huck, who hasn’t a malicious bone in his body) have the “rightness” of “art,” whether conscious or “unconscious.” I remain unpersuaded.

Like the issue of racism itself, the debate over the final section of Huckleberry Finn—a debate as protracted as Tom’s evolving escape plans—may be ultimately irresolvable. But those on my side of that debate can only regret that T. S. Eliot—given his immense authority circa 1950, as world-famous poet-critic and Nobel laureate—should have put his imprimatur on what seems to us an error. As Eliot had announced in 1928, re-invented, now more English than American, he was not only royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion; he was a “classicist in literature,” and so, though a modernist poet, still wedded to what he called (in the subtitle of the book in which he made that triple announcement) “style and order.” In the case of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in mounting so eloquent a rondural defense, evoking the venerable symbol of the ouroboros, Eliot in effect validated Mark Twain’s original sin against his own (or Huck’s) book—a book which is not only, as Eliot himself asserted by emphasizing the unifying power of the River, a series of picaresque adventures, but something of a bildungsroman. In defending what many readers continue to find indefensible, the formalist Eliot himself paid too high a critical price in order to have Mark Twain’s novel, to quote one of Eliot’s favorite poets, “end where it begunne.”[15]

Huck striking for the back country_1Illustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

—Patrick J. Keane

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

American Literature and the American Language. Washington U Studies, New Series Language and Literature, No. 22. St. Louis, 1953.

Arac, Jonathan. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (1966); excerpt as reprinted in Graff and Phelan, 305-12.

DeVoto, Bernard. Mark Twain’s America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1932.

Doyno, Victor A. Writing “Huck Finn”: Mark Twain’s Creative Process. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Eliot, T. S. For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order. London: Faber & Faber, 1928.

________. Four Quartets, in T. S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952.

________. Inventions of the March Hare, ed. Christopher Ricks. London: Faber, 1997.

________. Introduction to Huckleberry Finn (1950), in Twain, 320-27.

_______. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, 7 vols. to date. London: Faber & Faber, 2008-2017.

Epstein, Joseph. Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

Graff, Gerald, and James Phelan, Eds. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Boston and New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Hemingway, Ernest. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Scribner, 1935.

Hill, Richard. “Overreaching: Critical Agenda and the Ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Winter 1991); cited as reprinted in Graff and Phelan, 312-34.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1971.

Marx, Leo. “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn.” The American Scholar 22 (1953), 423-40; cited as reprinted in Twain, 328-41.

Moody, David A., ed. The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1994.

Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work. New York: Penguin, 1977, 2nd series.

Ryan, Ann. “Black Genes and White Lies: The Romance of Race,” in Trombley and Kiskis, 167-91.

Sigg, Eric. “Eliot as a Product of America,” in Moody, 14-30.

Trombley, Laura E. Skandera, and Michael J. Kiskis, ed. Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship. Columbia and London: U of Missouri Press, 2001.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Norton Critical Edition, ed. Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom  Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: Norton, 1962.

Williams, W. C. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1951.

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics(1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2008).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. On Eliot’s wearing of the white rose, see Joseph Epstein, “Anglophilia, American Style,” in his Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 241. For Frost’s comment, see The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 4:286, n.1. Eliot’s own famous pronouncement about his stance in literature, politics, and religion—a cause of much consternation among modernist literati—occurs in the Preface to his For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order.
  2. Kenner, The Pound Era, 274-75. Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot: A Life, 300-01.
  3. Muir, Belonging: A Memoir (London: Hogarth Press, 1968); as quoted in Ackroyd, 301.
  4. The edition Eliot introduced was published in 1950, by The Cresset Press in London, and Chanticleer Press in New York. It is reprinted in The Norton Critical Edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain, 320-27. I quote parenthetically from this edition.
  5. In Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, Cox insists that, since Huck’s journey has never been a “quest,” but an “escape,” a flight “from tyranny, not a flight toward freedom,” his behavior in the final chapters is in character; and that, while we “become uncomfortable when he submits to Tom’s role,” Mark Twain knew what he was doing: “The entire burlesque ending is a revenge upon the moral sentiment which, though it shielded the humor, ultimately threatened Huck’s identity” (312). Two adroit defenses of the ending appeared in 1991, the first by Victor A. Doyno, whose extensive study of the manuscripts of Huckleberry Finn informs his Writing “Huck Finn”: Mark Twain’s Creative Process. In his 10th and final chapter, “Repetition, Cycles, and Structure,” Doyno defends the novel’s unity, including the ending. In arguing that, “in a complex way the ending is aesthetically and thematically appropriate,” he questions both the social and genre-assumptions of those who want a bildungsroman rather than a series of “adventures.” In establishing a strong contrary case against those critics put off by the novel’s final chapters, he notes that, however “severely criticized” it has been, the ending “does resolve several problems,” not least the issue of Jim, who is “decriminalized” (223-27). In his informed and acerbic essay on critical “overreaching” in assaults on the ending of the novel, Richard Hill attacks Leo Marx and the critics who followed his lead. Hill, too, finds Huck in character in the final chapters. “To expect Huck to give up instantly both his ongoing personality and Tom Sawyer is to push the epiphany aspect of his decision to tear up the letter to Miss Watson into the excesses of modern social-agenda fiction.” Nor, he argues, is Jim reduced to a caricature. (320, 323-27)
  6. DeVoto, Mark Twain’s America, 92.
  7. Trilling’s Introduction to the 1948 Rinehart edition was reprinted in 1950 in his The Liberal Imagination. Marx, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn,” 329.
  8. What Jonathan Arac has called the “hypercanonization” of Huckleberry Finn  at the specific expense of Uncle Tom’s Cabin began in the 1920s and has continued—despite praise of Stowe’s novel by Edmund Wilson (Patriotic Gore, 1962), Ellen Moer (Literary Women, 1976), and Arac himself (1997). That Twain’s novel, a “work of art” written well after the Civil War, has been judged a more powerful attack on slavery than Stowe’s novel, which appeared as a book in 1852,  galvanized Arac into writing his reassessment and partial debunking of Twain’s novel. One catalyst was Eliot’s Introduction, which put the prestige of the “mid-century’s leading man of letters” and recent Nobel Prize winner on the side of Twain’s novel rather than the “propagandistic” Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the “far more convincing indictment of slavery.”  This “mythicization of history,” Arac continues, “by which Huckleberry Finn gained the prestige of abolitionism despite its having been written at a time when slavery did not exist and was defended by no one, helped provoke me to this book.” Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time, 92-93.
  9. Both interviews mentioned in these paragraphs are cited by Eric Sigg, “Eliot as a Product of America,” in Moody, ed., 24, 28. In the first, Eliot is quoted by M. W. Childs, “From a Distinguished Former St. Louisan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (15 October 1930), 3B. For the second, see Writers at Work, ed. George Plimpton, 110.
  10. American Literature and the American Language, 16-17. Stéphane Mallarmé’s imperative “to purify the dialect of the tribe” occurs frequently in Eliot, most notably in the nocturnal encounter with the “familiar compound ghost” (mostly Yeats) in Part II of “Little Gidding,” the finest section of the last and best of Four Quartets.
  11. Eliot, Inventions of the March Hare, edited with scholarly thoroughness and annotated, copiously, brilliantly, and protectively, by Christopher Ricks.
  12. We recall the opening exchange (Chapter 32) between Aunt Sally and Huck (pretending to be Tom, and to have experienced an accident on the boat): “Good gracious! Anybody hurt?” “No’m. Killed a nigger.” “Well, it’s lucky,” replies this affectionate woman; “because sometimes people do get hurt.” Though admirers of Huck would rather repress the memory, there is that two-chapter stretch between the running over the raft by a steamboat, with the apparent loss of Jim (toward the end of Chapter 16), and the moment, in Chapter 18, when he is rediscovered by Huck (less emotionally than we would expect, even though Jim weeps with joy). In the interim, Huck, engaged in onshore adventures, has had not one thought of a friend he doesn’t know is dead or alive. This is troubling, whether we attribute the thoughtlessness to a Southern-inflected flaw in Huck’s character; or to Mark Twain, guilty of episodic and careless plotting or to a short memory regarding offstage characters.
  13. Ryan, “Black Genes and White Lies: Twain and the Romance of Race,” 169, 170. For Arac, see  n.8, above.
  14. Hemingway’s hyperbolic but endlessly repeated praise/ criticism of Huckleberry Finn occurs in that half-memoir, half-fictional account of a safari, Green Hills of Africa, 22. H. L Mencken was no less effusive in his celebration of Huckleberry Finn (a book he read annually) as “Himalayan,” a masterpiece that soared in solitary splendor above all other American novels.
  15. John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” concludes with his brilliant compass-image—lines addressed to his wife, who remained at home while he was compelled to roam abroad:  “Thy firmnes makes my circle just,/ And makes me end, where I begunne.”
Aug 112017
 

Josh DormanJosh Dorman in his NYC studio

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I have placed there a little door opening on to the mysterious.
I have made stories.

—Odilon Redon

I  read Josh Dorman’s works like a Mary Ruefle essay. See how she writes about a revelation she had and the connections it revealed for her in her essay “Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World:”  “I was reading the dictionary, where I came upon the meaning of the word speculum: 1) an instrument inserted into a body passage for inspection; 2) an ancient mirror; 3) a medieval compendium of all knowledge; 4) a drawing showing the relative position of all the planets; and 5) a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds.” Ruefle asserts, “there can be discoveries, connections… that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment.”

Just so, artist Josh Dorman discovers a scrap, a tidbit, a piece of tinder, something recognizable (or not) and turns and turns it in his hand or mind appropriating it in his collage/multi-medium works, intuitively painting, drawing, layering, until it becomes more, becomes Other. The connections in his mind are revealed to him and/or us — or not; the lush, deep labyrinths open to some Home, or swallow us entirely blissfully lost.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski (MKJ): I’m very interested in how a piece begins for you. Do images you find suggest a narrative? Do you collect some images for use in collage based on the intrigue or beauty they hold for you alone? Do some images, which to the outsider might seem to have nothing in common, beg to be grouped with other images? I’m picturing files upon files named for various subjects in your studio, not unlike in collage artist Michael Oatman’s vast studio space! Tell us some of your sources. I’m most familiar with your paintings on antique maps, but you seem to be moving away from these a bit.

Camel CliffsCamel Cliffs – ink, acrylic, antique paper on panel, 12 x 14 inches, 2009

Josh Dorman (JD): I’m first struck by your mention of Oatman’s vast studio space. Picture my studio as more of a small cave packed with collections and piles of moldering detritus. Overflowing shelves filled with hundreds of antique books and yellowing paper: catalogs, diagrams, ledger books, topographical maps, player piano scrolls, but mostly textbooks. I use only printed materials from the pre-photography era: 1820s-1950s. They’re categorized by subject: Engineering, Biology, Botany, Architecture, Ornamentation, Cellular Structure, Human Anatomy, Geology, Geography, etc. It’s an obsession.

I still can’t resist when I stumble across a crusty tome at a yard sale. It’s not that the items are valuable, but that they contain images made by hand and knowledge that is outdated. Last summer I found a hardware catalog that’s eight inches thick, bound with rusty metal shackles. I’ve been mining images from it all year. It moves me that each hammer, hinge and screw was rendered and printed so carefully and beautifully by an artist whose name we’ll never know. I see it as part of my mission to give these drawings a new life.

Only once did I hire an assistant for a month to cut out collage bits from my books. Though those categorized clippings served me well, my process now is more organic, and I usually cut out images as I go. I have no set system for creating a painting (to be honest, I’m skeptical of art that arises out of preconception).

A piece for me can take several paths. As you mentioned, sometimes the beauty of an image can call out to me and I’ll build a painting around it. A good example of this is “A Knight Errant,” where the hardware bits I mentioned were the inspiration. In a clear case of pareidolia, I formed bodies around the faces I saw in the hardware. These then interacted with pieces cut from a 1790s Italian architecture book, and finally, reminding me of a childlike fantasy/delusion, I inserted a quixotic mounted rider.

Knight ErrantKnight Errant – ink, acrylic, antique paper on panel,
16 x 16 inches, 2014

I work in a subconscious state. A narrative may assert itself, but more often, multiple narratives and connections emerge. You guessed right when you asked about images that beg to be grouped together. It’s almost as if they’re whispering when the pages turn. It may come from my formalist training or it may be much deeper rooted, but I feel the need to connect forms from different areas of existence. A birdcage and a rib cage. A radiolarian and a diagram of a galaxy. Flower petals and fish scales. Tree branches, nerves, and an aerial map of a river. It’s obviously about shifting scale wildly from inch to inch within the painting. I think the reason I’m a visual artist is because it sounds absurdly simplistic to say in words that all things are connected.

As I write this, it occurs to me that most of my closest friends are poets and novelists, who can do this with words. I recently did a large commissioned version of “The Tower of Babel” for the writer Michael Chabon. He’s a “maximalist” novelist who takes dozens of tangent paths and generates stories within stories. I’m often inspired by writers: Italo Calvino, Richard Brautigan, and Li-Young Lee. I’m drawn to work that suggests rather than prescribes. I’d say the same about my art heroes: Klee, Redon, Turner, Pinkham Ryder, Brueghel.

BabelTower of Babel (for Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman) – ink, acrylic, antique paper on panel, 48 x 38 inches, 2016

MKJ: Oh, make no mistake, your studio still sounds a lot like Oatman’s in many ways, believe it or not, as does your sensibility regarding preserving the past. Although I cannot speak for him, I don’t think he’d mind me saying that. And his studio may have been vast, but that does not mean it was not also cave-like and jam-packed, sorted obsessively, floor to ceiling. I love what you’ve just said about these artists and writers, especially since you’ve included one of my favorite poets. I do see what you mean about generating stories within stories. Like Mary Ruefle, Li-Young Lee is a wonderful example of one who makes remarkable, unique associations. You’ve mentioned to me that you titled a solo exhibition of your work in London The Missing Pages of the Sea, a phrase found in the first few lines of his poem “Pillow,” which has superb examples of just such associations.

Li-Young Lee is also a perfect example of a poet for us to compare with you because often, like Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s, his poems circle back on themselves over and over as they are woven, or as they unravel in deep meditation, just as I feel your artwork does in some way. And his poems at times are inexorably linked. Labyrinthine, they form an intricate network of passages that could lead only to the next poem or story, with no other possible exit. Take a look at “Words for Worry” and “Little Father,” printed consecutively in Book of My Nights. I feel this sensation too in some of your works, both within them, and when seeing them together. Lee also judiciously and poignantly uses the Question in his poems, as I feel you do in your works, Josh, addressing both yourself and the viewer.

I imagine that once a work starts going for you it takes on a force of its own. Do you find this to be true — that what you had in mind for a piece or a group of images can end up being far from the direction in which the piece eventually leads you? Tell us about some of the detours your work has taken you on. In this way, what has the act of making art taught you or revealed to you? What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?

JD: In the 90s, I would begin a painting by gluing down topographic maps and letting the swirling lines guide my drawing and collaging. More often now, my works (especially the larger panels) begin with a compositional sketch, and maps are only used tangentially. In fact, many recent panels begin with a base layer of player piano scroll paper. This provides a tone, a history, and beautiful perforations that generate a rhythmic structure. I then sketch forms quickly and lightly in charcoal and begin the layering of paint and collage. I work on five to 10 paintings simultaneously. Some emerge in a matter of days; others can take a year or more.

If any element of a painting happens too easily, I’m skeptical, and I usually destroy it. Part of the reason I use collage is to remove my hand from the process. For the same reason, you’ll see areas in most of my paintings where I’ve rested living plants or metal gears and wires, poured ink and allowed it to evaporate. These “stain/stencils” for me, feel like a natural phenomenon, outside of my self. I’m not saying that I give over to Dadaist chance in my work. I need composition and structure. But within that initial framework, it’s about endless improvisation.

Night ApparitionsNight Apparitions – ink, acrylic, antique paper on panel,
38 x 48 inches, 2017

Looking at one recent piece called “Night Apparitions” might illuminate a bit about my process. This might sound laughable, but I consider this a minimalist work for me, since I managed to pare it down to a reduced palette and space. It began with a ream of rice paper I purchased on a trip to Taiwan. In this case, I broke my own “rule” by using non-antique paper. Since the paper was lightly gridded or lined for calligraphy practice, I cut it into varying sized rectangles and soaked them in India ink of different densities. My initial sketch had two essential structures: the central mountain form and the halo surrounded by a dark border. I expected multiple mountainscapes and horizon lines to emerge, but in this case, the gradation of light to dark from the center kept insisting itself until the end. As soon as I’d add a new landscape element, I’d wipe it out with the light or dark. In recent years, I’ve been trying to avoid imagery (animal, vegetable, machine) that identifies as only one thing. So, each hovering entity is a conglomeration – a hybrid form. Only one (located at 11 o’clock) contains human-made forms, and there’s only a hint of architecture in the contour of the mountain. I’m always aware of the disconnection we humans imagine and reinforce between ourselves and other living things.

Here, I could go off on a lengthy tangent about the election, and the fear, anger and ultimate despair I felt while making this piece. That’s all in there, and that may be why the painting is so dark. But again, I’m not interested in artwork that illustrates or prescribes meaning. I’m interested in what each viewer will bring to the piece.

There are creatures that are buried under the pink haze or in the dark black. Things that aren’t visible to the viewer are still crucial to the evolution of a piece. Some detours and quirks — I can say that the seashell mountaintop came late to eliminate a silhouette effect. The “whole” birds also remained at the bottom, to ground the piece and further call the reality into question (birds should fly). In the end, as with most of my work, I suppose my goal is to generate a feeling of joyful apocalypse. My dreams do influence my work deeply, but I shy away from association with Surrealism, most of which I view as too pat and literal.

It’s a never-ending cycle, trying to understand the world, art, my own process. In the same way that I don’t like to interpret dreams, I also shun too much breakdown of my work. I need to know just enough to guide me, but not too much to remove the mystery. As Georges Braque said, “The only thing of value in art is that which cannot be explained.” As for your question about what I’d be doing if not this, I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology and I began college as a psychology major, but I quickly realized that it was not for me. Frankly, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

MKJ: I appreciate that you say you’ve been trying to avoid imagery that identifies as only one thing. I’ve always admired this quality in the written word as well: poetry whose lines slant in both directions, tying them to the previous or following line, which can happen with well-thought-out enjambment and punctuation (or lack thereof). And when you say you value things that aren’t visible to the viewer, which are still crucial to the evolution of a piece, I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps these are the most important aspects of a creative work.

Most viewers expect your collage pieces to be two-dimensional surfaces, yet in your new works you are exploring depth as well, carving pockets into panels and pouring in resin, at times in pools up to two inches deep with a watery shine difficult to reproduce in photographs. What inspired this sculptural necessity? Do you see it going further?

Welcome MachineWelcome to the Machine II – ink, acrylic, antique paper on panel, with resin, 12 x 12 inches, 2017

JD: The poured resin layering is yet another manifestation of my own rule-breaking. While I have never been drawn to making sculpture, I’m intrigued by creating illusions of depth, and in this case, tricking the viewer with a bit of tangible depth.

I’ve found in my artistic life that a medium or subject will present itself, and only years later will it find it’s proper home in the work. It was this way with the topographical maps, which lingered in my studio for five years before I dared draw on them, and it was this way with the clear resin, which I tried out twenty years ago and failed. I’ll admit that Fred Tomaselli, with his resin-embedded pills and leaves left me daunted. I admire his work, but I’m after something different. In fact, just as with collaging gorgeously rendered engravings, one runs the risk of gimmickry with resin. Pour this glossy stuff on a child’s drawing or a newspaper page and suddenly it looks luscious. I’m still experimenting with it, but it’s incredibly exciting. I’d fallen into a rut for a year or so, and creating these space pockets is reinvigorating me. It has reminded me that play is crucial. Ha! Perhaps, I can also credit Trump with causing me to seek new territory. I suspect many artists right now are on fire, making protest statements or constructing even richer worlds to escape to.

MKJ: Yes, at a time when we could all use, as Mary Ruefle says, some Sign of Order in the World, we’ll leave that struggle in the category of more things that aren’t visible to the viewer.

Your paintings are really multi-medium works that include collage, painting and drawing (and as we’ve said, now sculptural processes as well). How do these pieces differ in your mind from the black and white drawings that you make, which to me seem very fluid and in some mystical way reminiscent of William Blake.

WheelsWheels – graphite with antique collage elements, 10 x 20 inches, 2017

JD: The graphite drawings are almost a form of meditation for me. In making them, I eliminate all questions of medium, color, size, and layering. Even composition and subject matter disappear. I’d never encourage a drawing student to do this, but these horizontally oriented works emerge from the lower left and move eastward, with no sketch or outline. I love the traveling journey aspect of Chinese and Japanese scrolls. For me, it’s a mysterious process and not unlike a physical journey. I rub the pencil until shapes and images start to reveal themselves. They are not sketches for the paintings. They exist on their own.

MKJ: I am delighted to learn about this drawing process! And now I see them as even more riveting. I hope you do not find this in any way a diminishment of your collages/paintings, but the drawings may be your works I favor most. They are magical to me and unfold or reveal themselves, to this viewer at least, in perhaps the same mysterious ways in which they were created, which I find marvelous and complex.

Although it took place awhile ago now, I do want to mention that I also found your project for the Memory Bridge Foundation, which “maps” the internal geographies and memories of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, moving and inspirational. Describe how this project has changed you. Tell us how memory plays a role in your work, if in fact you find that it does.

JD: The Memory Bridge project influenced me in ways I didn’t understand at the time. The obvious answer is that the old paper I use has it’s own memory: it’s physically from another time and place. The images I use were created in a world without the ubiquitous photograph, let alone computers and the thousands of images we’re barraged with daily. I’d like my work to feel like it’s not of this time and place.

When I was commissioned to create the Memory Bridge portraits, I listened and sketched as six people with dementia were interviewed. I could see bits of memory coming and going, interweaving with the present, imagination, and chaos. Later, back in my studio with my notes, while making a “portrait” of one particularly unreachable woman, I found myself in a mental state not unlike hers. It was disturbing and liberating. I sat on the floor with my canvas and piles of books and papers. I began reaching for images in a frenzy of free association, pasting them down and drawing on top. This state of unknowing is where I try to be now when I work.

Thelma Memory BridgeThelma, Memory Bridge portrait – ink, acrylic, antique paper on panel, 34 x 42 inches, 2006

We can never be certain that we are communicating on a common wavelength with anyone else. I trust in that lack of tangibility and certainty. If people ask me what my paintings are about, I stumble. I know they are not about nothing… I know, in fact, that they are utterly specific. But some people will embrace the ambiguity within the specificity, and others will reject the work, needing a concrete meaning and resolution I can’t provide.

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Josh Dorman was born in Baltimore, MD and lives and works in New York, NY. He received his MFA from Queens College, Flushing, NY and his BA from Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY. Josh has been the recipient of numerous residencies and fellowships including Yaddo, Art Omi, and the Millay Colony. He has been a visiting artist and lecturer at numerous institutions including most recently Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY and Mass Art Graduate MFA Program, Boston, MA. His work is held in numerous collections across the country and he has exhibited nationally and internationally. In 2014, a collaboration of seven animations he made with composer Anna Clyne, titled “The Violin,” was released on DVD. Currently, Josh is represented by Ryan Lee Gallery in New York City, Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Seattle, and John Martin Gallery in London.
http://www.joshdorman.net

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

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Aug 112017
 

Kinga Fabo black and white

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Vibrato

I. Hidden in distortion

Back into the body; may commotion reach her no more. Busy people had disturbed her relentlessly. Bad memories—noises—had showered her, even amid the strain of—inner—tunes. All rhythm, sheer sound. Tension ever at the ready—ready for rhythm: attuning to the other, conjuring up any of her own rhythms, indeed, any sound she’d ever heard. That which it didn’t conjure up, that, she composed. No one knew of her rare ability; she kept the secret well. The concealed sounds now began storming within her—all of them, at once. (Making their word heard?) A fine orgy flooded through her. Perhaps her overblown need for a personality, her oversize ability to attune, was linked to her singular sensitivity to sounds. Effortlessly she assumed the—rhythm of the—other. Only when turning directly its way. She is in sound and she is so as long as she is—as long as she might be. Yet another orgy flooded through her. She would have broken through her own sounds, but a complete commotion?! May nothing happen! “VIRGINITY  IS  LUXURY, MY  VIRGINITY  LOOSE  HELP ME,” T-shirts once proclaimed. This (grammatically unsound) call to action, which back then was found also on pins, now came to mind. An aftershock of the beat generation. And yet this—still—isn’t why she vibrated. Back then, everyone wore tight T-shirts and jeans. T-shirts emblazoned with words, wrapped snugly around breasts. She should have bulged on the outside—now too. Campaigns bent on conquering—those, she didn’t undertake, after all. Beautifying operations—she was weary of those. No ambition, no action; no action going forward, either. Because externals were all sucked into her at once, they were stuck in her—hiding her. No aligning of perspectives. She’d become mired in authoritarianism. Under a one-way communications blackout she’d been forced into a singular pleasure—a self-pleasuring (art). The vibrations within her were too many. Sound or prosthesis? No longer did it matter. If only she could be done with them. Her whipped-up body knew that an unanticipated stimuli would one day cause its explosure. Her perpetual doubt about whether she lived up to her body’s demands, satisfying it, had now seen dubious proof. Her unique sensitivity to sounds had heightened to the extremes. At every sound she shrank all the more. Now she herself—putting into practice the performative act of naming—dubbed her unprecedented illness, which she was the first to suffer from, “ego-atrophy.” (In the absence of use, personality fades away. Through sound—it comes, and so too it goes. In the meantime: totally tied up.) And, indeed, as her body slowly gobbled up her shrinking self, the exertion bent it out of shape. Having formed a parentheses, it was charged with covering its once (already, then) perfect shape; depriving her of her womanhood before it would deprive her of everything. Until now her shape and form had not overlapped, and so the gaps, where they did occur—there had always been some, and they remained—are for voyeurs to peep through. She tolerated no eyes upon her. For being watched neither on the outside nor the inside; nor for peeping upon her through the gaps. She wore a cuirass. No one could see—in—there. Her onetime desire, slow with the body, was realized in here in distorted form and late (in delay is the pleasure—but whose?). In a distorted mirror, she seemed tinier. Her full, sensual mouth—in parentheses; lying fallow (in reserve, words squelched). Doors and windows elsewhere: she had to fear in two directions. As far as goings-on were concerned, mornings were more radical even now. The house made a big hoopla over her. It screwed her down—one turn, every sound. He abounds at my expense, she thought, my thyroid minds. Can the soul be seen, or only if its stain is? Not wanting to injure an ear, she all but thought this only. My body—a smoothly turning screw; my soul—a metabolic disorder. This, she really did think, but—still not injuring an ear. A great advocate of silent bouts of being left alone, that she was. But, bewitched by the degree of her exploitation (the screw is turning), still driven by the centrifugal force (away from the centre!),[1] words came to the mouth: “I will not share in your degree of noise.” This, she didn’t even think. The late declaration of her stifled demand for her ego—extruding from the mouth—derailed at once: lost in the general commotion. Thus she was compelled to keep sharing. It was to her that every ringing noise pulled in. There was always noise—at the ready. Continual reinforcements: lines waiting. Her anachronistic organs cramped; as with heart and soul. Her love organs could not interlock, her working organ went kaput. If a glance could kill! Alas, it couldn’t. By now her hearing had turned cocky: she differentiated between people based on sound alone. The difference was not too big—only a matter of who happened to fling off which portion of his/her own sound back upon her. Of a certain ringing she claimed to know: surely is to be continued. (It was.) She didn’t want to hear it. She switched to her own volume. She opened all her sources of noise and leapt into their dizzying waves.

(Optional musical closure, cadence)

A singular life—she chose: for it a singular—death. Always she drew on her own source, and so on her own she would have—run out. And yet she didn’t wait it out.

“Shall I regard you as absence?”

“Feel free.”

Never had—the scene and in it, her: simultaneously—become a fact, given that she really had gone away, by homeopathic means: with noises. She couldn’t stand them, so with them she killed herself. Her neighbor, who was not at all rhythmically attuned—helped her unwittingly in this. Or too attuned? With noises he murdered his unknown partner into—into—suicide.

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II. Bestial rutting; the tension degenerates

Out of the body; ready for noise at once. Bad memories didn’t bother him; his were that too.

(He was quite willing to forget anything.) Not even busy people; he too was one. Most of all he liked to make noise (bent on it, he was, hissing from the mouth), but he irritated (tormented, molested) other organs too. His act hit home patient at once. He screwed onto her with every noise. He kept screwing onto himself, too, until—he became erect and stayed that way. His body, prancing as a sheer exclamation mark (a priapism?) but feeling no desire (a priapism indeed) covered everyone: to swarm and to occur! Out and in all directions; dispersed and every which way. And in fact: he was constantly flickering and buzzing. At first he scattered—compliments—properly. His tool gradually took over—on him. His glance—blocked—an operational territory. Storms of communication got stuck there—all of them. He knew no—joke—when it came to noise level. His hyperactivity—mounting to the max—as much as could be. He partook of—singular pleasure. Because his attention could not be riveted, he always adhered to other loose ends. (Perfect cementing.) As a signal of his recognition, at such times he gave forth all sorts of clicking and knapping sounds. He always pulled another to his constantly subservient threads—rotating them often. They were a tool; a silent partner. When he managed to tie himself down, he had pleasure—lots of it. With them—totally tied up. Thus it was he turned cocky (became free). Time having passed, his mood having been satiated, his public disturbances became routine. He organized splendid little mornings (orgies) for himself. He could cause a ruckus as he wished on the house. Spirits set ablaze—the screw turned higher and higher. (Squeezed, pressed, screwed.) Passions set ablaze awaited their turn in subservience (in bonds). His whip was frayed, while he was marching on his own. The chronic, pleasureless swelling of his male organ (the aforementioned priapism)—has entered into a chronic ego-hypertrophy. His onetime desire, May a woman never deflate me, has now reversed, distorted, late: Someone deflate me already! He moved an entire crowd. His great big ego ensured a spewing of pleasure to behold. So much spewing that it almost emptied out, cut to shreds. The tool, the object, the method changed along the way, but—not the aim: to cleave the ear with noise, for he is a homeopathic—murderer. The mass of naked torsos didn’t bother him. Everyone gathered, links in the chain; a public in line (canon fodder). But then one day (malfunction? rigor mortis?), silence fell. His singular mercilessness (exquisite dispassion) toward noises intensified to no end. He rang the doorbell of a random neighbor. A door can’t stand in the way, he thought, indeed—and, intoxicated by this repository of burgeoning opportunities—he flung himself on all potential sources of noise, among them his neighbor, who was just starting to give an overdose of sound,

(Optional musical closure, cadence)

and who, in the end, died multiple deaths. Opening the sources of noise (like turning on the gas on a stove), she overdosed on the noise (as on medication); jumped (as from the fourth floor); and—drowned—in the waves. Finally, she exploded (like a gas tank) due to the simultaneous inner and outer pressure.

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I. and II. Homeopathic murderer and suicide up and away for good . . .

The bodies, and those who take pleasure in them (both of their own), could get mixed up and away even when exploding (much energy in a tight space) but no later than when plummeting. And in the foams! The organs and events are similar, after all, as is, indeed, the method—homeopathy—though in their lives they could have done so. Now—not by chance—they were preparing to plop into a black hole. Explosions yielded many of them everywhere. Nearing the event-horizon, its current immediately sucked everything in. No goal was kicked. And had one been, the black hole would have gobbled it up, too. Neither she who (would have) received it nor he who (would have) kicked it—felt it. Enormous anesthesia, as if after orgasm.

—Kinga Fabó, translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry

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

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Paul Olchvary

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Paul Olchváry, a native of Amherst, New York, spent much of his adult life in Hungary and has translated numerous Hungarian novels into English for such publishers as Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Hougton Mifflin, Northwestern, and Steerforth. He has received translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Hungary’s Milán Füst Foundation. The founder and publisher of New Europe Books, he lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Desire, never yet so fast; maybe—because it is—already it is away from there.
Aug 102017
 

Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
by Megan Marshall
365 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $30

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Elizabeth Bishop is a poet whose work during her own lifetime failed to reach as wide a readership as her more celebrated contemporaries. She published relatively few poems – approximately one hundred poems constitute her entire body of work. Since her death in 1979, however, Bishop’s reputation and readership have grown exponentially; she is now considered by many critics to be one the best American poets of the 20th century.

Many of her poems were considered masterpieces by her contemporaries. They are full of formal intelligence, clear and elegant language and charm. But they exhibit a complicated emotional distance and reserve; her work stood in direct contrast to the more popular work of confessional poets like Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich who dominated American poetry in the last two decades of Bishop’s life.  A famously private individual, she held information about her life and emotions close to the chest, even with good friends. Her books were few and far between. And living  abroad for many years, she kept herself apart from the turbulent cultural shifts of the mid-1960’s. Readers heard little from or about her.

The renewed interest and celebration of Bishop’s work might be partially due to the discovery of letters made public in 2015, written by the poet to her psychiatrist and friend, Ruth Foster. In them, we learn much more about her early traumas and frustrations, her sense of abandonment, her experience with incest and physical abuse, her long struggle with alcoholism, and her consistent belief that poetry provided the one stabilizing force in her life. The satisfaction poetry gave her was more reliable, even, than love. Near the end of her life, she had this to say about her work:

“What one seems to want in art is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. (In this sense it is always ‘escape,’ don’t you think?)”

Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, Megan Marshall’s much-anticipated new biography of Bishop, limns not only the poet’s work for insights about what made her tick but also the more confessional mode with her psychiatrist. Those letters, quoted from extensively by Marshall, help readers understand Bishop’s sense that she was an “outsider” among the privileged class of people who surrounded her. The biographer, who studied briefly with Bishop at Harvard, also uses her training in poetry to unpack many of the allusions in the poet’s work. With both of those perspectives – confessional and professional –  the emotional core of Bishop’s poetry becomes even more powerful and accessible.

A father dead when she was eight months old; a mother institutionalized for mental illness when Bishop was just five; removal from a well-loved home in Nova Scotia; incest involving a paternal uncle; life among a privileged class of people with whom Bishop felt ill at ease: Is it any wonder the poet kept some of these insecurities and traumas hidden? Is it any surprise she searched for a “life preserver” that could help her survive her addictions as well as the string of broken relationships she had with her lovers?

Bishop began to write poetry after an exclusive prep-school upbringing and entrance to Vassar. She was very much influenced by Marianne Moore, to whom she was introduced by a Vassar librarian. Bishop admired Moore’s technical mastery and ability to write directly from experience without sentimentality. In “Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore,” Bishop said that Moore’s book Observations was “the self portrait of a mind…not as a model, and not as beauty, but as experience.” Moore urged Bishop not to submit poetry for publication until it was absolutely ready to send in, or “not at all.” Bishop followed that advice throughout her life, leaving many fine, unpublished poems among her papers. Her desire for perfection comes across in the biography as almost pathological.

As important as Moore was to Bishop, it was the poet Robert Lowell who played one of the most important roles in Bishop’s life. They became fast friends after being introduced by the another poet, Randall Jarrell; Lowell was “well-positioned” to connect her with other influential poets, many of whom offered lovely places to stay and sometimes funds to go with them. It was Lowell who named Bishop to succeed him as Poet Laureate (at the time called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) when she was only thirty-eight years old and had published only one book. It was Lowell who “nudged” people at Harvard to hire her when she finally did need a job, and it was Lowell who “wangled” grant money for her from a series of organizations including the Rockefeller Foundation. He also brought her to the attention of another well-connected person, Howard Moss, poetry editor of the New Yorker, to whom Bishop sent most of her poems as she finished them.

Elizabeth Bishop with Robert Lowell on the beach in Brazil, 1962

Lowell was authentic in his admiration; he carried a copy of Bishop’s poem “The Armadillo” in his wallet for years. Granted, Bishop’s work was excellent, but what might have become of her without these Good-Old-Boy connections? The list of them is long. A small trust fund from the Bishop estate to “cover rent and necessities” helped her survive for years as a non-teaching poet. But, truth be told, she depended on the loving, patient, and sometimes indulgent support (economic as well as emotional) of many friends and long-term lovers.

Marshall does a fine job of explaining Bishop’s desire not to go public with her sexual orientation. The atmosphere of tension and persecution in the United States during McCarthyism – attacking communists and “perverts” during the straight-laced 1950’s – was intense; Bishop felt no need to have her homosexuality be a factor for people reading her work. Perhaps she avoided teaching in the 50’s and 60’s because she knew what kind of price would be paid if her sexual preferences became public.

Her long-term relationship with a Brazilian landscape designer and architect named Lota Macedo de Soares (described by Wikipedia as “well connected” – a phrase which comes to mind so often in the reading of this biography) began to fail in the late 60’s. But Bishop still preferred not to align herself with “women poets,” believing the phrase to be demeaning. She refused to let her poems be published in anthologies which contained only work by women. She did not admit her lesbianism even when social tensions dissipated and persecution was becoming a thing of the past.

In a letter to her psychiatrist Bishop once wrote that when she was young, “I got to thinking that they [men] were all selfish and inconsiderate and would hurt you if you gave them a chance.” But she never went public with that feeling, and she was no feminist. In fact, she was apolitical, describing the Watergate hearings on the “god damn TV” during the summer of 1973 by saying, “If this is witnessing history – I’d rather not.”

Bishop’s 16-year relationship with Macedo de Soares was the longest sexual relationship of her life, a life sprinkled with love affairs before, during and after that time period. Most of those sixteen years, minus a few periods of time spent at friends’ homes in New England, Bishop lived in Brazil. Possibly because of her long absence from the United States, her reputation suffered.

If so, she didn’t seem to care. She believed in working hard on both poetry and her love life, less so on her reputation. She took on domestic life with a passion, fantasizing about it with some humor: “I can set myself up with a little shop in Rio, an impoverished gentlewoman, selling doughnuts and brownies.”

Impoverishment, though, was never a real threat to her in Brazil. Macedo de Soares was very wealthy, and she supported Bishop during their years together. When she and Bishop returned from New York to Brazil after a short separation, they traveled with “twenty-six pieces of luggage, as well as three barrels, four large crates, and seven trunks, packed in the ocean liner’s hold.” Hardly an impoverished poet’s baggage.

Eventually, the relationship ended (with Bishop beginning another affair before the break-up – “How could finding love again when she needed it be a sin?” Marshall asks, imagining what Bishop herself might have been thinking.) Bishop came back to the United States in need of distraction, and she began reluctantly to teach. She was the first woman to teach a creative writing course at Harvard, and the first woman to be listed in the Harvard course catalog.

Her drinking, a problem throughout her life, grew worse. She fell several times over the next few years, breaking bones and making rumors fly about her alcoholism. As Marshall says, “…poetry and alcohol had become organizing principles” in Bishop’s life. A long list of pharmaceuticals were added on – pills to wake up, pills to go to sleep.

Eventually, another new lover, a young woman more than thirty years her junior named Alice Methfessel, proved to be a loyal partner, tolerant of Bishop’s alcohol and pills. Marshall takes advantage of a collection of letters to Methfessel unavailable to biographers until after the woman’s death. There was a short period when the two separated, but once Methfessel returned to Bishop, the couple stayed together until the end of Bishop’s life. Still, they did not express affection in public – they referred to each other as friends, and they behaved as the same, never embracing, never holding hands. In fact, they seldom touched, even around close friends.

Marshall, who studied for a brief time with Bishop at Harvard, justifies a unique approach to the book’s structure by quoting this passage from The Confessions of a Biographer by Gamaliel Bradford:

Every living human being is a biographer from childhood, in that he perpetually studies the souls of those about him, detects with keen and curious thought the resemblances and differences between those souls and that still more present and puzzling entity, his own, and weighs with the most anxious care the bearing and effect of others’ thought and actions upon his own life.

The book opens with Marshall’s recollections of the Harvard memorial service for Bishop. She  then adds, in its entirety, a Bishop sestina titled “A Miracle for Breakfast,” from which the subtitle of the book is taken. The sestina – a particularly difficult and rule-heavy form involving lines with a series of six end-words repeated in a ornately strict order in six stanzas, followed by an envoy containing all six words – ends in a melancholy mood, suggesting that the “miracle” of happiness was happening just out of reach, on “the wrong balcony” – not Bishop’s.

Like the sestina, the book is organized into six chapters, using the same end-words Bishop chose for her poem (Balcony, Crumb, Coffee, River, Miracle and Sun.) Those chapters are interspersed with sketches which jump forward in time and involve Marshall’s interactions with Bishop. And like the sestina, the biography ends with an envoy.

Unlike some reviewers, I found the occasional chapters about Marshall’s first-hand experiences with Bishop to be intriguing, not disruptive. We see the poet through a different lens altogether, focused specifically on how she performed (or, sometimes, failed to perform) as a teacher. We also see the future biographer at work as a poet; we’re able to consider why poetry, for her, comes up short (and why she comes up short for poetry.)  And, as the epigraph suggests, we are given a theme: How do we read biography as a way to understand the resemblances and differences between someone else’s life and our own?

Should a biography end by focusing on the biographer rather than the biographer’s subject, as this one does? It’s unusual, but the approach stays true to the opening epigraph. Marshall clearly wanted to explore, sestina-like, the “resemblances and differences” between her choices and Bishop’s, measuring the effect Bishop might have had upon her own life. She does know how to look at Bishop’s poems intelligently and understands how to describe their word-choices and intricate rhythms. Her early training in poetry, her understanding of the poetic toolbox, makes her well-qualified to take poems apart to see how they work.

I found myself wishing occasionally that more of Bishop’s poetry had been quoted at length rather than given to us in short bits and pieces. Taken out of context, a line of poetry – especially one by Elizabeth Bishop, whose control of tone and sound was unique – can lose its author’s idiosyncratic voice, its musical qualities and its mystery. Prose from Bishop’s journals and letters also suffers too often from being taken out and quoted in phrases and small snatches.

But Marshall does do a good job of letting her readers know what early versions of Bishop’s poems sounded like. The revision process – essential to Bishop, who sometimes kept her poems “in process” for years before publishing them – is underscored, and we see how perfect the final version is.

Much of the last section of the book (“Sun”) describes the writing and revising of a villanelle that is Bishop’s most famous. Titled “One Art,” it is everything a poem should be: restrained, wise, clever, technically perfect, and (in combination with these, and most important) heart-felt. Facts gleaned from Marshall’s biography (places Bishop meant to travel, names she forgot, homes she left behind, people she loved and lost) are evident. This is a poem written from Bishop’s own experiences, less emotionally distant than many previous poems. The sorrow in it increases with each interpretation of the word “losing”:

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it might look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The book ends with 44 pages of notes – interesting if you want to follow-up on some of the sources from which the author compiled her account of Bishop’s life.

Marshall’s research skills cannot be faulted, and this new biography makes for a revealing, if oddly structured, examination of Bishop’s complicated life and work. A fine follow-up book would be Colm Toibin’s examination of Bishop’s poetry (including biographical details) in his 2015 book On Elizabeth Bishop, part of the Writers on Writers series. You can also read a wonderful response by Toibin to the 92nd St. Y’s recording of Bishop reading her work in 1977, just two years before her death.

—Julie Larios

Julie Larios has written several reviews and essays for Numéro Cinq. You can find them archived here. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. She recently retired from the faculty of The Vermont College of Fine Art and currently lives in Bellingham, Washington, about ninety miles north of Seattle and forty-seven miles south of Vancouver, B.C. For approximately the next three and one-half years, until the election of 2020, she will be fantasizing about becoming a Canadian.

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Aug 102017
 

Alexander Tinyakov

http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

x
The poems below are the work of Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934), a Russian poète maudit who ended his days as a professional beggar on the streets of Leningrad. They are, to my mind, every bit as vibrant and prickly as they were when they first appeared a century ago. Tinyakov was a difficult man: a combative alcoholic, resentful of his fellow poets’ success and perfectly willing to compromise his own principles (that is, if he had any to begin with) for a good meal. And yet, his verse remains compelling – not in spite of his flawed character, but precisely because of it; he is completely and electrifyingly honest about his baseness, his desperation, his animalistic drive to survive at any cost. For a number of reasons – many of them quite legitimate – Tinyakov’s fellow poets began to lose patience with their colleague in the 1910s, and most broke all ties with him in the 1920s. In the third poem below, “Joie de vivre,” Tinyakov predicts the death of Nikolay Gumilyov (1886-1921), one of the era’s major poets. Gumilyov would be arrested by the Soviet secret police (Cheka) on August 3, 1921, for alleged participation in a monarchist conspiracy, and executed on August 24. The poem appeared after Gumilyov’s death, and was interpreted as a celebration of his demise. This may have been the final straw. For the rest of his life, Tinyakov was a pariah.

—Boris Dralyuk

*

How blessed to be a gob of spit
racing down a dirty gutter –
I can hug a stubbed-out cig,
find a piece of fluff to cuddle.

Say they spat me out in fury,
in a moment of despair –
skies are clear, I’ve got no worries,
breezes fill me with good cheer.

I may hunger for the freedom
of the river’s blue expanse,
but for now I’ve got the pleasure
of this dirty gutter dance.

1907

 

Belated Rook

Bitter cold – the puddles slumber
under frosted panes.
An old rook, all stiff and lumbering,
flaps a heavy wing.

He lingered here despite the chill –
it’s almost blizzard time.
Now he can’t escape the pull
of warmer southern climes.

He scrapes his beak with icy foot:
Must he really fly?
While fallen leaves circle about,
rustling their goodbye.

December 1909

 

Joie de vivre

Lovely new coffins are headed my way,
full of the finest young men.
Pleasure to see them, simply a joy –
pretty as birches in spring!

You’ve kicked the bucket, you pitiful dogs.
Me? Well, I’m doing just fine!
They’ve sealed you tight under big heavy lids.
I can look up at the sky!

Say every coffin holds some kind of genius,
say that one there’s Gumilyov. . .
But I, who am hated and spat on by everyone,
am fit as a fiddle, you know!

Sure, soon enough I’ll be one of them – carrion,
nothing but worm-eaten filth.
For now, I’m still here and rejoice at the sight of them –
people that I have outlived.

July 28, 1921

 

A Prayer for Food

Fate, I beg you, I implore you,
give me food that’s good and sweet –
promise me a single morsel,
I’ll commit the vilest deed.

I would curl up like a ram’s horn
and go crawling on my knees.
I’d blaspheme the Lord in heaven
and defile even my tears.

I’d befoul the purest soul,
trim the wings of lofty thought.
I would burgle, I would steal –
lick my enemy’s bare feet.

I’d go down to hell, plod barefoot
through the Russian frost and mud –
for a piece of bread and horseflesh,
for a pound of rotten cod.

Put a yoke around my neck,
just as long as I can eat.
Life is sweet for well-fed lackeys –
honor’s bitter without meat.

November 1921

—Alexander Tinyakov translated by Boris Dralyuk

x

Boris Dralyuk is an award-winning translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature for a number of years. He is a co-editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and has translated Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, both of which are published by Pushkin Press.

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Aug 102017
 

Photo by Roelof Bakker

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1.

A couple lived on a farm far away from the rest of the world. They had land to grow vegetables, chickens that gave eggs, and a well for water. Nearby, there was a stream jumping with fish and, right at the edge of their land, a wood with trees to chop for the fire.

The couple had everything they needed except for one small thing.

On their wedding day, to mark the occasion, the couple had planted an apple tree at the entrance to the wood and, exactly five years later, it bore fruit for the first time, as though celebrating their anniversary.

“Surely, it’s a sign,” the wife said.

The husband patted her stomach and smiled.

The years passed and the woman’s belly showed no swell, and though deep love slept within them, the couple stopped lying with each other.

The man took to going to the edge of the wood at the end of his working day to sit underneath the apple tree. At times, when he hadn’t come home for supper, the woman would go looking for her husband only to find him sleeping against its trunk.

“See what you’ve done,” she said, one evening, while helping her husband to his feet. “You’ve worn a dent in the tree with your back.”

She smiled through a sting of jealousy. Being of a sensible nature she shook her head and laughed at herself, returning to the calm she knew.

One day, when the man was tired from his work and felt the cool of the setting sun in his bones, he went to the wood and sat, leaning in the nook he had worn in the trunk of the tree. This groove his body had made over the years seemed to welcome him. Before long he drifted off to sleep.

In his dream, he was exactly where he’d sat to rest but the heat was unbearable. He took off his shirt, then the rest of his clothes, and lay naked at the foot of the tree. Despite the heat, a blanket of cool damp leaves covered the earth beneath the shade.

I wish there was a breeze, he thought, and closed his eyes.

What felt like a cool breath, ran over him, making the fine, blonde hair of his stomach stand and his skin bump and tingle. When he opened his eyes, the five-flowered blossoms on the apple tree waved. The branches swayed. He knew it wasn’t the wind but the tree itself fanning him. The branches came toward him, wrapping around his body and pulling him up and in until he was pressed against the trunk of the tree.

He placed his hands on the bark and looked up at the dance of the branches above.

“How beautiful you are,” he said, then kissed the tree tenderly. “How I’ve ignored you all this time. Have I been blind?”

The groove he had made with his back was now hip-height as he stood, and it yielded as he pressed against the tree. Leaves whispered in his ear and the smell of apple blossom filled his head and he became aroused. He made love to the tree in way that dreams allow. As he came, the tree caved, and he sank deep inside the damp, darkness of the hollow.

When he woke, he found he was lying naked on the earth. He tried to piece together what had happened, grasping at images from his dream, but, like snowflakes, they disappeared the instant he touched them. All that remained was a feeling of deep shame. He was cold and became self-conscious. Dressing quickly, he hurried home, his head thick with fog and full of fear and the sense of something very important lost.

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2.

The tree waited for the man to return. Every day, as the sun rose, the tree unfurled its leaves to the cottage in the distance. Every afternoon, the tree waited, hoping to see the man appear walking towards her through the long grass. But he was never again to rest himself on her bark.

As the days grew hotter, apples burst from its branches, tiny and sore. One, sprouting from the tip of the highest branch, caused the most pain. Within a week it had grown ten times the size of the others. It weighed down the branch until it rested on the earth. As the summer had its way, while the other apples matured and fell, the huge fruit stayed and did not stop growing.

One morning, as the tree opened for the sun, something was different. The large apple had disappeared. The branch that had held it now led inside the hollow that had been made the last time she saw the farmer. The tree pulled to bring the fruit out, bark cracking from the strain. The tree called upon its deep roots to help. And with the strength of the earth itself, it strained until there was a cry. A human cry. Now the branch came easily. It rustled out from the hollow and with it a baby boy, the tip of the branch attached to the boy’s belly.

The tree slid some branches under the baby and lifted it off the ground. The tree wept leaves and blossoms of joy at the sight of the boy. The boy screamed and cried. The tree curled a branch around a rock and bashed its trunk until its bark split. It brought the boy to the bark and he drank the sap.

The tree was devoted to the boy. It shaded him under its branches when he was hot and sheltered him in the hollow when he was cold. It let him drink his fill of its sap, held and rocked him till he slept. And the boy was content, playing among the roots. The farmer never returned.

When the boy had been with the tree for seven years, and the autumn had painted them both brown and orange, a tiny figure appeared in the horizon and came towards them. The tree became frightened for the boy, ushering him into the hollow and concealing it with its branches.

A little girl emerged from the grass swinging a small basket. She sat on the ground and picked the apples, throwing away the bruised and wrinkled but keeping the golden and shiny for herself. The girl began to sing. Clear, high and pure, her voice hung in the air like a sweet smell.

The tree resisted as the boy pushed at the branches to escape the hollow. The boy growled, a sound he’d never made before. The little girl jumped. The growling became a whimper. The girl looked at the tree, glanced back at the cottage in the distance, then stood. Flattening down her skirt, she tip-toed towards the tree trunk.

“Hello,” she said, tugging at the branches that covered the hollow. The boy struggled on his side, too, and soon the two of them were standing face to face.

“Who are you?” she said.

The boy reached out and touched her hair then touched his own. The girl spat on the hem of her skirt then wiped the earth from his face. The tree shivered at this, its leaves whispered a warning.

“That’s better,” the girl said.

The boy glanced back at the tree and then at the girl.

“I’m not supposed to come here,” she said. “It’ll be our secret.”

She held her finger to her lips.

“I have to go, but I will come back.” The girl smiled, picked up her basket, and off she skipped.

The boy run after the girl until the branch that led from his belly to the tree snapped him back. He pulled at the branch. The tree felt those tugs deep in its sap. As the girl disappeared over the horizon, the boy dropped to the earth with a thump.

The boy didn’t return to the tree straight away but sat watching the sun grow tired and heavy until it sank from the sky to rest. When the chill of the dark came to rouse him, the boy stood and, with his foot, made a circle of turned-up soil around the tree, mapping his boundary.

As the autumn darkened, the girl came to the tree every afternoon. She brought books with drawings inside and taught the boy about the world beyond the field. Even after he understood her talk, he would not speak back. He was ashamed of the rustling whispers that came out of his mouth when he practiced alone. The girl didn’t seem to mind that he was always silent – except when he laughed. He couldn’t keep the wet, sticky clacking sound inside.

The next summer, while the tree was busy bearing fruit, energy low, busy with so much life, the girl came all day, every day. The children started whispering. They were keeping secrets. When they did this, the tree would tickle them with leaves or drop apples on their heads. They’d laugh then move further away.

One sticky, late summer’s day, under the pale blue sky, the boy ran to greet the girl. This time they lingered at the very limit that his branch allowed. The summer had been a hot one, and the apples on the tree had grown heavy and begun to drop before their time.

When it happened, it was like an explosion. Every branch shook, every apple fell. When the surge passed, the tree saw the girl and the boy running across the field, hand in hand. In the girl’s other hand, shears glinted in the dying sun.

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3.

The boy’s hand felt crushed by the girl’s, but he didn’t mind. He ran through the field, down and then up the hill. He breathed deeper than before. Running in a straight line, knowing he could go on, running until he dropped, amazed him. But soon he grew tired and felt sharp, stabbing pains in his chest. He’d never felt so frightened. He stopped, trying desperately to breathe. The girl didn’t seem to notice. She pulled, dragging him on.

Ahead he saw a cottage, just like the pictures the girl had shown him. It was where people lived. People like him.

At the door, the girl said, “Wait here,” and kissed him on the cheek. He nodded and watched her go in. The door clicked but didn’t catch and remained slightly open. The boy was glad for a moment to breathe and rest but, left alone for the first time in his life, he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. He watched through the gap in the door.

“Daddy! I’ve brought my friend home,” the girl cried.

“A friend? Where?” The father squinted at his daughter. “Don’t leave the child outside.”

“It’s the boy I’ve been telling you about,” she said, “the boy from the tree.”

“The apple tree, in the far field?” her mother asked. “That’s your father’s tree.”

“I’ve told you to stay away from that tree,” her father scolded. “And it’s not my tree!” He glared at his wife. “No wonder her head is full of nonsense.”

The girl ran out the door and grabbed the boy by the hand. He was scared and reluctant to come, but she dragged him in and helped him onto a chair.

“See,” she said, pointing at the boy.

“Oh yes, he’s a lovely boy, isn’t he?” the mother said. “He looks a little familiar.” She winked at her husband.

“Can we get him some clothes?” asked the girl.

“You’re not dressing a piece of wood,” her father snapped.

“When I start school, he can come too,” said the girl. “We can say he’s my little brother.”

The father slammed his hand on the dinner table.

The mother laughed. “He does have his father’s eyes.”

At that, the girl’s father jumped up, lifted the boy from his chair, snapped him in half over his knee, and threw him on the fire.

As he burned, the boy saw the little girl cry on her mother’s lap while the father picked up an axe and walked out to the field.

—Paul McVeigh

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Paul McVeigh began his career as a playwright in Belfast before moving to London where he wrote comedy shows, which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in London’s West End. After turning to writing prose, Paul’s short stories were published in literary journals and anthologies, and were read on BBC Radio 3, 4 & 5. He is co-founder of London Short Story Festival.

The Good Son, Paul’s first novel, won The Polari First Novel Prize, The McCrea Literary Award, was Brighton’s City Reads 2016 and chosen for the UK’s World Book Night 2017. It was also shortlisted for The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, a finalist for The People’s Book Prize and is currently shortlisted for the Prix du Roman Cezam in France. His work has been translated into seven languages.

After living in London for 20 years Paul has returned home to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

McVeigh will be in the U.S. in October to promote his novel. Catch him at Litquake in San Francisco or the Los Gatos Irish Writers Festival.

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Aug 092017
 

Ralph Angel

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1.

When I think of art I think of an uncluttered state of mind, which doesn’t last, of course, and so call it inspiration.

And inspiration, well, it comes and goes, doesn’t it.

Little sister, arranging
bottle caps. Little brother, back

and forth you run
from one side of the pier

to the other.

Oh young mother
pulling your thin dress

to yourself
tighter

and tighter.

When I think of the artist I think of an attentive state of mind. There is no criteria. No possibility for criticism.

It’s risky business. There’s no help anywhere. The intellect is useless. Whether looking outward or in, what one discovers can be neither predicted nor controlled.

Paying attention is making oneself present, no matter what’s happening.

Immediacy is inspired. Presence is inspired.

Children, without having to think about it, make immediacy and presence possible all the time. Children pay attention.

Children and artists see with their minds.

Thinking is a secondary experience. The critic’s pince-nez glasses is the greatest symbol of secondary experience.

For the artist, giving up thinking is called discipline. Giving up hope, giving up certainty, comparison and judgment is called discipline.

For the artist, wasting time, which the French perfected, is called discipline.

“Those who depend upon the intellect are the many,” wrote the minimalist painter, Agnes Martin. “Those who depend upon perception alone are the few.”

Agnes

Here comes perfection. xWhen I think of art I think of beauty. xI put
xxxxxxxmy arm around it. Around my mind, I mean.

You may as well give up judging what you’ve done. xThe day is
xxxxxxyoung, the grey sun stayed that way.

Here comes an iron shade, partly down. xTheir heads are gone.

Please don’t print the negative. xI love their shoes. xIt’s where the
xxxxxxlight is.

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2.

I am taking a walk in the city. I am enjoying a meal. Someone is running a bath. I have just spilled my cup of tea. The cat steps into a flower pot. A pencil rolls off the desk. I’m working! I’m working!

Two thousand five-hundred years ago, on her birth island of Lesbos, or in Sicily, the island of her exile, Sappho sang a lonely lyric:

for I would not be like these
toys

but may it happen to me
all

Artwork is not similar to something else. Artwork exists within itself, as tone, as mood, as state of being. All inspired artwork exists within itself. The insistence on art as reality when you’re doing art, or experiencing art.

messenger of spring
xxxxxxxxxxxxxnightingale with a voice of longing

sang Sappho,

and gold chickpeas are growing on the banks

xxxxxxxxxxxxxspangled is
the earth with her crowns

In response to an interviewer’s question, Sir Lawrence Olivier said: “I always thought that my job was to make people believe that the play was actually taking place.” Exactly. The insistence on art as reality when you’re doing art.

And is it not the same when you’re experiencing art? When Charles Simic experiences one of artist Joseph Cornell’s luminous, inexplicable boxes, the reality is clear.

Postage Stamp with a Pyramid

The lonely boy must play quietly because his parents are sleeping after lunch. He kneels on the floor between their beds pushing a matchbox, inside which he imagines himself sitting. The day is hot. In her sleep his mother has uncovered her breasts like the Sphinx. The car, for that’s what it is, is moving very slowly because its wheels are sinking in the deep sand. Ahead, nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.
xxxxxxxx“Shush,” says the father sternly to the desert wind.

In Cornell’s world, Charles Simic could see with his mind an essence of himself. Visceral, palpable, the whole narrative of a moment of a child driving a matchbox, of a child as voyeur among adults, of a child at home in a desert with “nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.”

Children and artists are happiest when they experience things in which they seem to be identified.

In solitude, children and artists can be happy for hours. And if they don’t recognize themselves in the artwork of others, they don’t return to it, they don’t remember it, it will never become part of them.

“An inspiration,” wrote Agnes Martin, “is a happy moment that takes us by surprise.”

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3.

It would take an epic psychological study to explain why we gravitate toward any given poem or story, or film, or painting, or song. Or why we make the kind of art objects we make. And that study, of course–like human history, so drenched in blood–would be flawed.

The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock investigated the possibility of having his belly button removed because he found it annoying and especially unattractive.

He was a neighbor and frequent dinner guest at the home of a friend of mine when she was a young girl in London. And one night in particular, when Mr. Hitchcock arrived with a sack of bones, he scarred her to this very day. Different kinds of bones, actually, which he passed around the table. And he took note of each one, as each one was snapped, until he heard the sound of a human bone breaking in his mind’s eye for the scene he would shoot the next day.

Alfred Hitchcock feared above all, by his own admission, arrest.

I don’t know why or how some of Hitchcock’s films have so become a part of me.

A lovably shallow Cary Grant being subdued by feelings.

A quietly intimate and refined Tippi Hedren’s emotional insecurity exploding into outrageous catastrophe.

An aristocratic Ingrid Bergman shunned by society for love.

Or the voyeuristic James Stewart and me sitting in the dark spying on the lives of neighbors.

Or James Stewart and me following the otherworldly Kim Novak around, and falling in love with her, and with her descent into madness, and killing it.

I watched a recently restored copy of Vertigo, and, as I am prone to do after such way-cool experience, I got up the next morning and watched it again. And I carried it around with me for some time, I suppose. It was already inside me, like an homage. And so I stole the title.

Vertigo

Only one is a wanderer.
And when she was sad she’d go into the street to be with people.
Two together are always going somewhere. xThey lie down beneath
xxxxxxcypress,
next to a bird. xI imagine the sky. xIt fans her mountains
and waves. xShe’d left some small town
where they used to make tires.
Stories are made out of stairwells
and rope. xI’d been interrupting for years and didn’t
know it. xThis old park. xThe dark hatchery. xWorkers in jumpsuits
throw down their poison at dawn.
Not everyone can be described. xIt’s perfectly
natural. xIf she’s thinking about love
does she break down

the door of the bedroom. xOf course not. xNot publicly
speaking. xTo the left there’s a sofa. xWe all lived in rented rooms.
That’s how it goes with subject matter.
Nude figures in profile
floating among palm trees. xThe idea was touristy,
like a postcard. xI was given a small auditorium. xI watched over
rush hour. xI write down everything as I forget it,
especially at night.
I lock the door from the inside.

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4.

My studio is a mess:

Piles of papers. Piles of books, and open books, everywhere. Flowers, rocks, a toothpick dispenser in the shape of a crow. A turtle shell. Incense ash. An apple core alongside a stained demitasse. Flash drives and hand cream, pens and ink brushes, a gyroscope. Free weights of 10, 15, and 20 pounds. Boxes of discontinued Polaroid film. Eyeglasses, and glass tumblers, and blood-orange toffee. Cobwebs. Snorkeling gear.

And I like it, just writing it down. It serves no purpose, but keeps me real.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” a young Ernest Hemingway wrote one afternoon in a café in Paris trying to become a writer.

A thousand years ago, Sei Shōnagon, an empress of the 10th century court in Heian-kyo Japan, was given a pile of paper which she called “pillow.” A thousand years ago one of the first recorded journals, Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, was listed by subtitle:

In spring, the dawn,” as in “when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky.”

Markets –”

Peaks –”

River pools –”

Things people despise –” as in “A crumbling earth wall. People who have a reputation for being exceptionally good-natured.”

Infuriating things –” as in “A guest arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages.” Or “to witness men getting noisy and boisterous in their cups, groping round inside their mouth with a finger or wiping their whiskers if they have them, and forcing the sake cup on others. ‘Go on, have another!’”

Rare things –” as in “A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.” “A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.” “A person who is without a single quirk.”

Refined and elegant things –”

Insects –”

I encountered Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book while researching a seminar, “The Art of the Journal,” that I thought to offer because I had yet to forgive myself for never journaling. But there they were, in many rooms, in the garage, even the Moleskines on this very desk, tens of notebooks of various sizes comprised almost entirely of what other people had said or written.

“You can always come back,” sang Bob Dylan, “but you can’t come back all the way.”

“Your shadow is—how should I put it? Faint.” wrote Haruki Murakami.

“Everything terribly,” wrote Guillame Apollinaire.

“In poker, it’s better to tell the truth. The others think you’re bluffing,” spoke Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless.

“Doing almost nothing,” Marina Abramovic said, “is the hardest performance, because your story’s gone.”

“I’m not going to get my Coca-Cola,” yelled Louise Bourgeois. “My make-up is wrong. I am afraid to be interrupted. I am afraid not to remember what I intended to do.”

“Let us take down the old notebooks,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “which we all have…and find…beautiful things.”

Among the pages of Joseph Cornell’s journals, tens of lists:

January 4, 1943

Into town late – bank – down to Lexington and 24th. Goldsmith’s – assortment, Mexican midgets, dancing bear, Hungarian cards, Bay of Naples litho. colored. Over to Madison Square for bus. A brief swirl of snow suddenly came covering everything with a fine coat and then letting up before the short bus ride to Twelfth Street. Unexpected illumination and evocation of the past in these circumstances with feeling about Madison Square, etc. Lunch with Pajarito and Matta. 2 hours. At Reading Room then to Motherwell’s. Penn Station 1:42. Interest in Savarin Restaurant seen through glass windows in waiting room, etc.

And the poet, James Schuyler, made the list into art:

Things to Do

Balance checkbook.
Rid lawn of onion grass.
“this patented device”
“this herbicide”
“Sir, We find none of these
killers truly satisfactory. Hand weed
for onion grass.” Give
old clothes away, “such as you
yourself would willingly wear.”
Impasses. Walk three miles
A day beginning tomorrow.
Alphabetize.
Purchase nose-hair shears.
Answer letters.
Elicit others.
Write Maxine.
Move to Maine.
Give up NoCal.
See more movies.
Practice long-distance dialing.
Ditto gymnastics:
The Beast with Two Bucks
and, The Fan.
Complain to laundry
Any laundry. Ask for borrowed books back.
Return
junk mail to sender
marked, Return to Sender.
Condole. Congratulate.
“…this sudden shock…”
“…this swift surprise…”
Send. Keep. Give. Destroy.
Brush rub polish burn
mend scratch foil evert
emulate surpass. Remember
“to write three-act play”
and lead “a full and active life.”

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5.

And music.

Always music in the other room.

And the songbirds there, too. The Beeptones, Slick and Trina, from Nicaragua, and Ella and Louie, from South Africa. And the gran canario, Cesar, a jazz-cat god, the Caruso of the household, belting out one aria after another.

Like waking up in the morning in a pensive, sour mood. “Lighten up, King Baby,” they’re singing, ever since the light came.

Today it’s Coltrane, A Love Supreme, replaying itself over and over and over again long into the afternoon. Long into evening.

Part I: Acknowledgment
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfor John Coltrane

We spin
and we deny it.
We speed through space and
hold our ground. xWe stand firm.
We sprawl out
in the shadows of cobwebs
and swim to the surface
and toast again the staggering
stars and the planets
and our getting away from it all.
We’re nobody’s business—
and the truth,
the truth’s wooden-clock voice
actually lives here.

When the night sky
for example is spattered with paint
and the forest is reduced
to a few glowing windows
and a curlicue of smoke
above a train,
I was at once inside
our cabin after all, and frankly
sick of friends, though
not the close ones,
of people, maybe,
not you.

Like something in the body
reflecting streets and chance interiors
and yelling Silence,
Camera,
your heart, your
family, inappropriately,
your clothes
against my idiocy,
not you.

.
6.

Upon a mountain top in China, sculptor and performance artist Zhang Huan piled five naked bodies, his own included.

He recalled the ancient idiom: “There are always higher mountains behind a high mountain.”

“When we left the mountain,” he said, “it was still the same mountain. Without change. Life is full of limitations and failed attempts. We tried to make the mountain higher but our attempt was futile.”

In Canberra, Australia, Zhang Huan gathered a hundred sheep and a large number of naked volunteers.

In New York City, a few months after 9/11, Zhang dressed his naked body in a hundred-pound suit of beef. “In New York I see many bodybuilders who, for long periods of time, do training exercises beyond their bodies’ capabilities. They have every kind of vitamin or supplement imaginable…, oftentimes it’s more than their hearts can bear.”

Zhang Huan invited three calligraphers to write the story and the spirit of his family on his face. By evening his face was ink-black. Its features had disappeared entirely, and nobody could tell the color of his skin. He disappeared. As if he no longer had an identity.

The calligraphy told a well-known story, and its moral is that as long as a person is determined, there’s nothing that he or she cannot achieve. Other characters included predictions of one’s fate. For example, the symbolic meaning of the shape of a cheek bone and the location of a mole.

Zhang Haun hung on to the roots of a tree rubbed with dog food and flour, which the dogs devoured greedily.

*

The Belgrade-born performance artist, Marina Abramovic, said she “wanted attention to my work, but much of the attention I got was negative.”

“The photographs of me naked in Galleria Diagramma were especially scandalous.”

“What if instead of doing something to myself, I let the public decide what to do with me?”

“In black trousers and a black t-shirt, behind a table of many objects: a hammer, a saw, a feather, a fork, a bottle of perfume, a hat, an axe, a rose, a bell, scissors, needles, a pen, honey, a lamb bone, a carving knife, a mirror, a newspaper, a shawl, pins, lipstick, sugar, a Polaroid camera. Various other things. And a pistol, and one bullet lying next to it.”

“For the first three hours, not much happened…someone would hand me the rose, or drape the shawl over my shoulders, or kiss me.”

“Then, slowly at first, and then quickly…the women in the gallery would tell the men what to do to me, rather than do it themselves (although later on, when someone stuck a pin into me, one woman wiped the tears from my eyes).”

“After three hours, one man cut my shirt apart with the scissors and took it off. People manipulated me into various poses.”

“A guy took Polaroids of me and stuck them in my hand.”

“A couple people picked me up and carried me around. They put me on a table, spread my legs, stuck the knife in the table close to my crotch.”

“Someone stuck pins into me. Someone else slowly poured a glass of water over my head. Someone cut my neck with the knife and sucked the blood.”

“There was one man—a very small man—who just stood very close to me, breathing heavily.”

“After a while, he put the bullet in the pistol and put the pistol in my right hand.”

*

Holding You Sober Close to Me

The city’s
behind us. The water’s calm. There are many heads
above the water.

Show me a victim and I’ll show you
a bathroom–a man slathered
in honey, a carpet

of flies.

Orange blossoms
and salt. Even the creepy doorman
tastes the salt

in the air.

If a child’s brought in, well, that’s something
different. We don’t want
our animals

to suffer.
You’re the last person on earth
prepared for the death

of your parents.

.
7.

When I think of art I think of beauty.

It’s where the eye goes, autonomously, on its merry way. For children and artists the message is about happiness—all across the sand.

Beauty is writing itself, and I’m always one step behind. Where the throat is. And the tear.

“And to speak again of solitude,” wrote the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, “it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something that we can choose or reject. We are solitary. How much better it is to realize that we are thus, to start directly from that very point….”

“For all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is intimately far….”

“A [person] who was taken from his study, almost without preparation and transition, and placed upon the height of a great mountain range, would be bound to feel something similar: an uncertainty without parallel, an abandonment to the unutterable would almost annihilate him.”

Immediacy is inspired. Presence is inspired.

Being this close is everything. It’s a discipline, like a child at play.

You’re the Rub

Murmured in loneliness, round and round.
Let’s not go inside. The cliffs drop off, and the ocean’s
a friend–on the boardwalk
enough people alone
have died.
So relax, take your feet
off–nobody’s
missing. There are many parts
of the mind. On that old
open day we let out our long green grass. A night’s passed
and you expected it
to be there.
You’re the rub–the love
that loves the loves. I like especially the puddles
and your wire. I like your mud.
I like your part
of it.

—Ralph Angel

x
Ralph Angel’s latest collection, Your Moon, was awarded the Green Rose Poetry Prize. Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 received the PEN USA Poetry Award, and his Neither World won the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets. In addition to five books of poetry, he also has published an award-winning translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song.

x
x

Aug 092017
 

 

Oath

I made a vow to love whoever I encountered.
It wasn’t true yet, but came to me in the bathroom
looking at the purple tufted rug that boys’ shoes had trucked on.
There was a salt jar there too. And all these abstract paintings
I was entering and leaving. I stepped out
of the bathroom and saw the host’s white bedspread,
a corner of it, and some fabulous pillows.
I pictured a slew of children and mythological characters
sleeping together in front of the television. It was cozy there
in the silence, words floating up from below.
And it made me want to try harder.

 

Salve

In Italy, the buildings are for beauty,
and beauty, says Joseph Brodsky, is the enemy
of a hostile world. “Salve,” says the customs man
when he stamps my passport.
Which means, “Hello.” With the ve
jutting out its lower lip. Salve, at the bar.
And in the chapel built by plague survivors,
salve, says the cupola. Salve, says the floor.
In the Giovanni and Paolo hospital
the old wing opens out like fields and windows
in a Van Gogh painting, light penetrating halls
and making space in silence. No one’s there at all,
but—salve, salve, salve, salve.
When I return to my more brutal realms
the word comes with me. I don’t declare it.
How light in my suitcase it is, how old-fashioned
and almost ethereal, but in some lights
real, and close enough—to salvage.

 

Appointment in Samarra

30 people in chemo today multiplied by
x hospitals in y countries and z universes.

Back here, H smiles through 4 syringes of chemicals, 2 bags of saline,
and a flush of life-giving killer liquid.

Twin sisters in their 70’s share clippings of their modeling days
with shirtless men in big cars, take selfies holding up their matching drips.

A woman in the corner looks exactly like what is happening to her.
Pale and bald like coal after a fire.

Slap me good and hard with mortality while I’m strong.
My body wants to run as though it’s seen a ghost.

 

My Sisters’ Sisters

I am one of my sisters.
The one who refuses, goes inside
and draws her knees to her heart in a small ball
turns toward the wall waiting for someone to come
and for no one to come.
I am one of my sisters: I do not cross
the threshold where danger lies, its flank
on a couch of cossacked hopes
roaring its helplessness through the malice
of tongue and hands.
That one who closes the door
who remembers only enough
of what was inside to stiffen at its name.
I am one of my sister’s sisters who pounds
more than a thousand nails,
one for each name of her missing sisters, into dead wood.
I can feel her shiny hammer on my shiny head.
One sister raises her sisters
on her hands in an auditorium of her sisters.
I am the cancelled and begun again sister, reinsistered,
the one who goes back into the room
to tear the air from the walls.

 

A Blessing for the Waning

Here’s to the last suck before the birth of separation, before gums have teeth.
To skin that’s soft, brown, rough, cracked, bruised, itching, callused,
folding over, touched. To the body held, whole unto itself.

Here’s to what the body was before anything changed, which was never.
To the original flat chest of everyone.

Here’s to the growths, hoped for and maligned.
The deletions, depilations, bargains and beseechments.

Here’s to loss of consciousness remembered waking up in the morning, in recovery,
bewildered, with toast in your mouth.

To the sleep that was good but is now interrupted and induced.
To pain that lodges and travels.

Desire breathes like a tide, goes a long way out
and surprises when it comes back in a swell.
The way grief does.

Here’s to falling and to falling, and to falling falling.

To the curse of forgetting and its gift, forgetting.
To the gift of remembering and its curse, memory.

To having had a life. Us creatures and our smells.

Here’s goodbye to clothes that fit another body.
To the last embrace you didn’t know was last until there were no more. Here’s to
kissing the last mouth on yours. Pucker up. Pucker up now and go.

 

Back Pain

Then the light on the television went out.
I turned over on the heating pad trying
for a comfortable position on the floor. I got
to the section of the 400 page book called epilogue
and did not want to go on.
I went for my notebook, but the pen
was just too far on the dark field of the carpet.
Maybe the radio.
Instead I lay quietly listening
to the subway, feeling it under me
like an animal rubbing itself
along my personal earth
and beginning to enjoy it.

—Ronna Bloom

 

Ronna Bloom has published five books of poetry, most recently Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement (Pedlar Press, 2012). She is Poet in Community at the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital. Pedlar Press will publish her new book, The More, in October 2017. Her website is www.ronnabloom.com.

 

 

Aug 092017
 

.

On the other side she’s there with me too. But not in this way, amongst these salts, with this compact touch. We come to the same room of the same house at the same hour, to inhabit the same translucence…

Was there any doubt? Of course I would come back to this seaside town. Lucky I got here when I did, two days after the storm that made waves lash the shore, ripped precarious habitations from the sides of the hill, filled hallways with water, swept away kiosks, dragged the mayor before bobbing cameras to speak the expected set phrases in his low voice, changing nothing. We watched the scenes of destruction on television, and this formed part of our romance.

Now, cracking open shells and forking out the rubbery flesh, rolling our tongues over these fruits of the sea and washing them down with the cherries, blackberries and spice of a good Carménère, I ask myself: Is life sensuality, and death silence?

Visible from the window of our home, two dogs, one black and one beige, lie with their noses poking over a sand cliff. At home on the beach, oriented by instinct toward the sea, they don’t even open their eyes at a stranger’s approach, just turn over with complete trust for a scratch of the belly. Matilde covers my hand with hers, and we watch as an intrepid young man and a young woman in raincoats ruffle the canines’ fur with affection, before continuing on their way.

The two of us used to have a chow-chow named Panda. A ridiculous ball of fur, that creature. He went straight to heaven, not even stopping briefly in this half-here, half-not-here place where Matilde and I spend our days, apart, together, waiting for a storm.

Matilde is there in the other life too, of course, but it’s not the same. There we are together as minds, not as bodies. When we move toward each another, it is as if we are in a dream. But the rains allow us to move in a different way, one that is capable of grasping, one in which our glistening opacities, our half shells with their lustrous insides revealed, enter into irresistible contact with the pearl of life between us.

For me, the relationship between life and non-life is something like the relationship between the ear and the sense of hearing. In non-life, the flesh is guided by reason; in life, it is guided by instinct. In non-life, the self becomes pure abstraction, while in life the whole body is receptive, an ear. An oyster still alive and in the sea, capable of movement and thrashing fury.

A pigeon lands on the beach, and from far off I can see the gleaming waves come in, the colored blocks of the Hamburg Sud storage containers. It’s the hour to make scratches on paper, to stretch out, to listen for the barks of the sea lions taking shelter. On a sunny day I might hop the bank and go down to the beach to pile sand into a mound. Or perhaps I’d choose not to descend, and just stay here, where I want to be.

Our forks scrape the plates. I remember just how I felt when I wrote my poem ‘The disinterred’, with its line about the ‘furious oyster’. At that time I was quite taken by the Count of Villamediana, a Spanish poet born in the 16th century. I was living in Rangoon, and in despair because for the first time in my life, I could not understand what I was living for, in such loneliness, in a place so far from where I was born, spending my days sunk in alcohol, filing piles of paperwork that mattered to no one, grappling with a local woman who was violently and jealously in love with me.

The Count of Villamediana did not suffer from these doubts. He knew how to live well; he wrote satire and carried on the business he liked at the theater, at court, at dinner parties, at the brothel, not caring for social norms. He was murdered under suspicious circumstances by those jealous of his relationship with the queen, and was buried a knight. I couldn’t help but think about him and the contrast between his brilliant life and the quiet of his existence afterward, under the earth. My poem imagines his restoration to life amidst ‘brimstone and turquoise and red waves and whirlwinds of silent coal’, a clanking return to sensuality.

I want to see a flesh waken its bones
​howling flames,​
​and a special smell run in search of something,
​and a sight blinded by earth
​run after two dark eyes,
​and an ear, suddenly, like a furious oyster,
​rabid, boundless,​
​rise toward the thunder,
and a pure touch, lost among salts,
come out suddenly, touching chests and lilies.*

It can only be obvious that I wrote this poem with a sense of anticipation for my own end and what follows. In the poem, the Count rises up on the Day of the Dead, a fanciful holiday that I have always liked. I didn’t know then about the other life and its in-between way of being, incorporeal but capable of returning on certain days, when in the heavy rain and wind, the flat expanse of the Pacific surges up to push great masses of water onshore.

When the count is resurrected, he is also given back the ‘furious oyster’, his sense of hearing. All at once the flesh of the ear opens up, and unblocked of dirt, it is enraged and delighted by the rich variety of sounds available to it after so long in silence. Something similar happens when the power is cut and one’s hearing begins to sharpen, one sense replacing another in a forced transition to a different way of understanding. The oyster is unhinged to reveal the nacre, the waiting treasure, the ability to pursue sound as well as other senses…

Matilde and I move into the other room. Three times during the night, her face turns to mine. It’s always the face first, or is it the hands, so subtle they make the drawing near of all else both possible and necessary. One body pressed to one body, subtle axis spin, angular momentum of composite particles. Beneath my hand her hair is wire fluff; beneath my other hand, her belly firm elastic. Metatarsal joints, cuneiforms, fibulae, all the parts of her feet meet with mine in the search for heat.

Her legs are pure cold bone, torque and scissor. Like that, yes, it does take a few moments to ease the way in. Slight fatigue after travel sharpens every sensation; warm and soft in my hands, all at once she is tense: what is living is both delicate and firm, hard exoskeleton and tender inner mussel. My salt flesh gives out a substance of pearl capable of vanishing with no trace, dissolving within to form a part of her essence. Outside the window, a soft gray smears into white, an oil of flowers, an anointing that lulls us into sleep.

Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time? It never happened just this way, yet it is always happening. This is our collective dream, the dream I share with Matilde. A dream into and not away from life; a vivid picture drawn in aquarelle crayon, so intense that when made possible by the rains, it brightens into reality.

She rustles in her sleep, waking when she feels my presence. Her kisses alternate soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know. I know, I know. And with a swift change of the tide, we are back in the other life.

—Jessica Sequeira

.

* ‘The disinterred’, an homage​ to the Count of Villamediana by Pablo Neruda, appears in Residence on Earth, translated by Donald Walsh

.
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French, currently in Santiago de Chile. @jess_sequeira

.
.

Aug 082017
 

Tabucchi himself said of For Isabel, “it’s a wacky novel, a strange creature, like an unknown beetle frozen on a rock.” — Natalia Sarkissian

For Isabel: A Mandala
Antonio Tabucchi
Translation by Elizabeth Harris
Archipelago Books, 2017
144 pages; $16.00

.
Private obsessions; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.” So states Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012) in the opening note to his posthumous novel, For Isabel: A Mandala. Recently translated from the original Italian into English by Elizabeth Harris, For Isabel revisits a theme that is dear to its author: that of the journey during which truths are revealed.

Thus, the one hundred luminous pages of For Isabel follow the narrator, Tadeus, as he travels from Lisbon to Macao to Switzerland to the Italian Riviera, looking for Isabel, the love he lost during the dark days of Salazar’s Portugal. A leftist, Isabel seems to have been arrested while a university student. Rumored to have been pregnant, not only did Isabel disappear, but so did any trace of a child. Proceeding from eyewitness to eyewitness, Tadeus assembles the pieces of the puzzle. As he progresses, not only does he learn of Isabel’s fate, but he also arrives at a clearer understanding of photography, of writing, of the impermanence of life itself while meeting wild and zany figures, some of mythic proportions, from the past.

Divided into nine sections, here called circles, the novel’s structure evokes the mandala of the subtitle. Indeed, the word mandala refers to a circular figure that in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism represents the universe. As a spiritual tool, the mandala serves to focus attention and aid meditation. Tadeus is conscious of the power of the mandala. As he states: I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the center, and I’m trying to reach that center…. It’s simple to reach consciousness, you photograph reality.”

The story begins with the First Circle, the circle of Evocation, which is set in modern day Lisbon. Tadeus states he is from The Greater Dog, or the Canis Major constellation. According to myth, Canis Major guarded Europa, but failed to prevent her abduction by Jupiter. Likewise, Tadeus failed to protect Isabel from Salazar’s thugs. It is therefore his fault she is gone: “You might say I’ve lost track of her and I’ve come from the Great Dog just to look for her, I’d like to know more about her.”

He meets her childhood friend, Mónica, who recounts how she and Isabel would catch frogs, slice their heads off and then turn their legs into a sumptuous dish à la Provençal; it was while chopping off the frogs’ heads that Isabel tells Mónica how she might commit suicide: “Listen, Isabel would say, someday if I kill myself, I think I’ll go just like this, with a few kicks, because if you can’t cut off your own head, you can always hang yourself, which is something similar, four kicks into empty air, and goodnight everybody.”

But at university, Mónica too, loses track of her friend when she joins the Communist party. Not able to give up-to-date news, Mónica directs Tadeus to Isabel’s old nanny, Bi, in the Second Circle, who also doesn’t know what has happened to her. Tadeus proceeds onward. In the Third Circle, the circle of Absorption, set in a Lisbon nightclub, nostalgia reigns. Not only does Tadeus drink absinthe straight up, because in so doing it’s a serious drink, like in the past, but he meets Tecs who plays tributes on her saxophone to Sonny Rollins, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time. Tecs sadly informs Tadeus that long ago Isabel was arrested and taken to Caxais prison:

“… we heard news of her from a prison guard who risked coming to the university and giving us a note, he was a prison guard in the opposition, who aided political prisoners … I went off … and when I returned, they told me Isabel had died, that she committed suicide in prison and they showed me her death notice in the paper … But they told me that she killed herself in prison … that she swallowed glass.”

Not convinced by this version of events, Tadeus prods Tecs who finally remembers the prison guard’s name, Mr. Almeida.

In Circle Four, the circle of Restoration, Mr. Almeida relates what happened in prison to students protesting the Salazar regime. They arrived beaten to a pulp and then were beaten some more. While Isabel suffered this fate too, Tadeus also learns that not only was Isabel not pregnant, but that she did not commit suicide. Rather, Mr. Almeida and ‘The Organization,’ helped her escape. Her contact in The Organization, according to Mr. Almeida: “It was Mr. Tiago, he said, enunciating each word. … He had a photography studio in Praça das Flores.”

In the Fifth Circle—Image—Tadeus rings the bell at World & Photo photography studio, where he meets with Tiago, a foppish, elegant sort, in a linen jacket with an Indian foulard around his neck and a cigarette in a long ivory holder. The two reflect on the nature of photography; Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is alluded to, in particular to Barthes’ idea that the photograph attests to death, to what has been.

When Tiago gives Isabel’s photograph to Tadeus he says: “I’m reminded that someone said the photograph is death, because it fixes the unrepeatable moment.”

But unlike Barthes, Tiago wonders if the photograph, if indeed, art as a whole, can also be life:

…but I still ask myself: and what if [the photograph] were life instead? –immanent, peremptory life that lets itself be caught in an instant, that regards us with sarcasm, because it’s there, fixed, unchanging, while we instead live in variation, and then I think the photograph, like music, catches the instant we fail to catch, what we were, what we could have been, and there’s no way you can counter this instant, because it’s righter than we are …. life against life, life in life, life on life?

In the Sixth Circle, the circle of Communication, a dreamlike, hallucinatory chapter, Tadeus visits the Grotto of Camões in Macao. For a time, this was the home of Portugal’s greatest poet, Luis Vaz de Camões (1524/5-1580), the author of the epic poem, The Lusiades. While in the grotto, next to a bronze bust of the dead poet, Tadeus converses with a bat possessed by a woman named Magda, an old comrade of Isabel’s, who directs him to speak with a priest. Tadeus then confesses to the priest that he is an author who has sinned: I wrote books, I whispered, that is my sin…. There was nothing dirty, just a sort of arrogance toward reality…. I got it into my head that the stories I imagined could recur in reality … I’ve steered events, this is my pride.”

In the Seventh Circle—Worldliness—Tadeus, still in Macao, meets The Ghost Who Walks. A poet, European in origin and always dressed in white, The Ghost Who Walks is Tadeus’s guiding light:

“… you, in your infinite wisdom, might be able to tell me where to find [Isabel]…. I’m looking for Isabel … I’m making concentric circles, like the concentric circles squeezing my brain at this very moment.”

“The Ghost Who Walks took a long pull from his pipe. Isabel, he said, there might be an Isabel in my poetry, or in my thoughts, they’re one and the same, but whether she’s in my poetry or in my thoughts, she’s a shadow who belongs to literature, why are you looking for a shadow who belongs to literature?”

“Perhaps to make her real, I answered weakly, to give some meaning to her life, and to my rest.”

“You have to look in the country of William Tell, he murmured. And then he was quiet again.”

In the final two circles, Expansion and Realization, Tadeus journeys to Switzerland and then to the Italian Riviera. In Switzerland, he learns that the universe has no boundaries, that cardinal points can be infinite or nonexistent, and that a man who has lost his way “needs to symbolize the universe with an integrative art form,” such as the mandala. On the Riviera, from the Mad Fiddler, Tadeus discovers that he has finally arrived: “We’ve reached the center, he whispered, give me Isabel’s photo. I gave him the photo, and he laid it at the center of the circle. Then he stood up, raised his violin to his shoulder, and quietly began to play Beethoven’s Farewell Sonata.

And while the Mad Fiddler plays, Isabel appears, as if from thin air. She tells him:

“… you think your search for me is over, but you were only searching for yourself…. you wanted to free yourself from your remorse, it wasn’t so much that you were searching for me as yourself, to pardon yourself, a pardon and an answer, and I’m giving you that answer tonight, the night we said goodbye… you’re released from all your guilt, you’re not guilty of anything, Tadeus, there’s no little bastard child of yours in the world, you can go in peace, your mandala’s complete…. If you walk up the narrow road leading from the Riviera station where you arrived, she said, halfway up the hill, you’ll find a very small cemetery, and down the central path, in among the plainest graves, there’s one that no one visits, with a few wrought-iron flowers and a simple headstone that has no dates, no photograph, just an epitaph….”

Tadeus opens his eyes and the Mad Fiddler erases the circle he has drawn in the sand. “Because your search is through, he said, and it takes a puff of wind to lead everything back to the wisdom of nothing.” Because impermanence is the way of the world.

Antonio Tabucchi (1943-March 2012) began writing For Isabel long before it was finally published. His wife, Maria José de Lancastre, a Portuguese translator and critic, together with Carlo Feltrinelli, the Italian publisher, explained in a note to the first edition—in Italian (2012):

He had written it over the course of many years and spoke about it enthusiastically in interviews…. In the meantime, he wrote other things, going in other directions; he traveled, went to different countries; he gave the manuscript to a dear friend for safekeeping; in the end he asked her to give it back so he could reread it, possibly publish it. But it was the summer of 2011, and that autumn he became ill.

Tabucchi himself said of For Isabel, “it’s a wacky novel, a strange creature, like an unknown beetle frozen on a rock.” Be that as it may, it shares elements with other works by the author. Its mixture of reality and hallucination recalls Indian Nocturne, Tabucchi’s 1984 novel, where the protagonist embarks on a metaphysical search in India for a mysterious friend, all the while looking for his own identity. For Isabel also shares elements with Requiem: A Hallucination (1991). In this latter novel, Tabucchi centers his narrative on an Italian author who meets the spirit of a dead Portuguese poet.

An academic as well as a writer, Tabucchi divided his time between Siena, Italy, where he taught Portuguese language and literature, and Portugal, where he was director of the Italian Cultural Institute. During his lifetime he won numerous prestigious international prizes including the Campiello Prize and the Prix Médicis. He was also named a Chevalier des Arts et des Letters. After his death, the Portuguese cultural minister declared Tabucchi’s work was the most Portuguese of all Italians. His novels and stories have been translated in over forty languages.

After the publication of Salman Rushdie’s publication of the Satanic Verses, and the controversy that ensued, Tabucchi helped to establish the International Parliament of Writers, an organization that highlights censorship and the loss of writer’s freedoms around the world.

Translated elegantly and seamlessly by Elizabeth Harris who wrote an MFA thesis in translation and who teaches creative writing, For Isabel brings, as she says, “good, complicated fiction to American audiences.”

Like Tadeus, Tabucchi’s mandala is now complete. If we listen, perhaps we can hear the Mad Fiddler playing, softly, very sweetly. And if we look up, we might see Isabel as Tabucchi describes her in the last line of his book. “Waving a white scarf, and saying goodbye.”

 

— Natalia Sarkissian

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

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Aug 082017
 

The she-wolf of Roman legend from William Kentridge’s reverse graffiti frieze along the Tiber Ricer in Rome. All photos by the author.

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Rome is burning. Every day it catches fire somewhere. On the edges a spark blazes up in the vibrating air, in its place a blue ghost-flame quivers and burns a hole into the map. In the pine forests of Villa Ada, Castel Fusano, along the Flaminia and Casilina the fallen pine-needles rustle softly, start glowing and burn through like the finest cigarette paper. The flames pile ever higher, the angle of their crests is that of the summer’s temperature curve. Smoke brims the holes, thick and black: in the unstirring heat-wave it spreads, flat on the ground, like the riverside mist on humid winter nights, is soaked up into the house walls of Prati, Monte Mario, Monteverde, rolls its cottonwool waves relentlessly along the Orbital.

The pine-tree needle catches fire with a tiny snap, like a thread of hair, one needle is one snap, but the needles snapping in at the same time flare up with a hollow boom. In the explosion of flames the black needle glares up white and falls to ashes in an instant, but black flies from it, becoming smoke, colour-ash, which flakes down on the burnt soil, it rains down, black, in the air, on the travertino facades, on the granite cobblestones, moves into the sky, into the blue: fossilized scent, resin becomes the colour of time, black. In Ostia’s pine forest, where in August people gather cones to pick the pineseeds, tall orange-red grass is undulating around the tree-trunks. The pine-trees do not catch fire from below though, but from above, as if they needed the sun to harry the last heat through them to be filled with fieriness. They stand the firestorm the way they stand tempests: not bending but stretching taut like a veil, as if the sky pushed down on them with all its weight, their needle foliage undulating in all directions at the same time, like bird-swarms in the evening. The papers report arson. Roghi, stakes send up their smoke everywhere, places of execution; fires are general all over the country. In northern Rome, in Torrevecchia, on the street named after Cesare Lombroso, the tent camp of the Roma goes up in flames, the makeshift lodgings and covers burn with greasy smoke. Every hour the ululation of a siren breaks into the hardened noise of traffic.

In Palazzo Sacchetti, close to the river, an inward-curving hairlock, on which the photographic light had lit up with such blond reflexes, and the neck’s soft skin above the high blouse neck, where it is the whitest, flare up – the picture burns into its negative, its contours blaze white-hot, showing up the face for one more instant. Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt. Its edges curl inward like ferns, the wide stretch of the forehead resists yet, its place now fire-torn; the smile born on the teeth’s mineral white turns into a ghost flame, then smoke-black. Time sediment. White and light, consumed, Verlorne, in the flame-shelter, bearing still the shining and the pain in the descending evening light, between the wind-sheltered walls of Palazzo Sacchetti, where her name is not written. The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it.

*

On the street climbing up the Celio, under one of the drooping little trees that hem in the Ospedale Militare’s parking lot, a thin African boy sleeps on the asphalt, face upwards. He looks barely twenty. Abandon of sleep that makes the arms fall open and the head roll sideways in the syncopated noise of cars speeding upwards across the speech noises; trust that the feet stepping over will not kick him in the face. Or a tiredness beyond circumspection. He is lying on the asphalt cracked up by the inveterately trespassing cypress roots that will not accept the status quo of street maps. As if a gently rippling sea had washed him up here, quietly depositing him on an asphalt dune, for some awed grown-up to clumsily hoist him up in his arms. The sea sends its voice up here: beyond the wall, in the gardens of Villa Celimontana the wind pendulating cypress and pine, oleander and myrtle scent is the radial ripple of sea-waves in the air. On their surf the ancient marble paper ship, the Navicella had once sailed up, to be shipwrecked on the crest of this wave-shaped hill, in the vineyards overgrowing the debris. Across the street, among blackish-green foliage, the 5th-century monolithic bulk of Santo Stefano Rotondo; in its external ambulatory thirty-four scenes of martyrdom, variations on a theme: how gracefully the beturbaned centurio moving on mannerist dancer legs gathers momentum, to chop off the hand of the girl standing in counterpose. According to the script, during Hadrian’s reign Eustachius was burnt together with his Christian mates inside a bronze bull. The brown animal stands with head thrust up and feet planted wide apart, in an opening in its side several praying men huddle together, smoke is already rising under its belly. Tuning-in of a giant tuba in an orchestra; cleft-hoofed ancient death truck. A funerary monument removed from the mosaic floor stands alone beneath the splendid spoglio columns, a compact hooded effigy. Only the cut of the majuscules and the Latin diction signals that, although born in a faraway, frosty land, he belongs here: Roma est patria omnium. The deceased, Johannes Lazo, was the commissioner of the first Renaissance chapel on the edge of the known world, Transylvania: frail Italian souvenir, the filigree monument, carved with urns, fruit wreaths and sea-shell niches, of the homesickness for Rome. Entering the park of the Celimontana, on the pebble path that coats the sandals with white powder, an improvised sign bids those who have come to the birthday party of the little Francesco follow the butterflies. Pink, orange, violet, green plastic butterflies are hung on the greenery, jolly Christmas decoration in June: in the tangible half-shadow of pines, magnolias and oleanders, minute buoys signalling the haven of parents giving out generous helpings of ice cream from thermal bags. At the park’s further end space is hollowed out into a bay around a fontanella’s babble. The name on the signpost is new: Largo delle Vittime di Tutte le Migrazioni. In memory of the dead of the 2013 shipwreck at the shores of Lampedusa. A reminder that the sea-mill grinds pneumatic boats and bodies. In early July five thousand refugees are brought ashore in one single day by the rescue ships. Eight hundred land in Brindisi. One woman sings when she steps on dry land. On the boat a child is born, they baptize him Cristo. Below in the news a report of a Bangali refugee savagely beaten up by a group of teenagers because he obtained social housing.

The name of the street descending from the Lateran to the slopes of the Celio, along the walled-in complex of Ospedale San Giovanni, is Amba Aradam. It has an outlandish ring. One evening I stray there, spotting no sight-buoy that could lead me back to one of the known places. As it turns out, I have ended up behind the Celio: I climb back to the Navicella and to the parking lot where the African boy had been sleeping with his head on the asphalt. There are people sleeping here at all hours in the shallow niches of Severus’s walls on cardboard sheets, staffage figures in the Roman landscape, like the vedutists’ shepherds, signs that the place is populated. Amba Aradam, Celio: names. That of the celestial-sounding hill is the name of an Etruscan king, Caelius Vibenna, Rome’s first conqueror. That of the street at the feet of the hill is the name of a giant mountain in Ethiopia. In February 1936 General Badoglio’s troops, complete with fighter-bombers and several blackshirt and alpine divisions besieged the mountain and the mountain pass leading to the capital, Addis Ababa. In a few days the battle is won: the Ethiopian defence entrenched high on the mountain is caught in the enemy’s clench, and for four days on the remains of Mulugeta’s fleeing army the Italian aircraft drop forty tons of mustard gas. Mulugeta’s son is killed by members of the Galla tribe, allied with the Italians, his corpse mutilated; the father, who returns to recover his son’s body, is killed by an Italian bomber. Beneath the name of the mountain covered in contorted bodies suffocated in the poison gas a tunnel is dug, the third subway line will cross sedimented time in this direction from the Colosseum. During the excavations a spectacular discovery is made, a frescoed villa from the imperial age, a rare wooden structure destroyed in a fire; among the remains the skeleton of a dog comes to light, together with what is believed to have been a puppy, probably trapped in the building on fire.

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The refugees have been cemented into the structure of this city made of images in the form of other imaginings. The Trojan refugee who was to found Rome, Aeneas, stumbles toward Rome clad in heroic nudity, in the body’s beauty, with his father astride him. Anchises, who saddles his son’s shoulder, bears aloft the statue of the house-gods with his thinning but still vigorous arm, while Aeneas’s young son holds on to his father’s knee: petrified dance movement, the allegory of the three ages of man, of the three human times. The young body spiralling inward with the energy compressed under high pressure, like a pillar, the promise of history.

Refugee human times are not always as muscular as on Bernini’s statue. On undergrowth and under foliage that are at once a Renaissance cliché and could be a grove in Villa Celimontana or Villa Ada, in the half-shade two exhausted adults and a baby receive a guest on their flight: a messenger with tempestuous drapery blown here from non-natural light, an angelos who – for what language could he indeed use with them – makes music. Embarrassingly bare-assed, on a tangible fiddle and from a score that Joseph holds for him – the one who has not given in to sleep like Mary, whose bun and hand embracing her child have come loose. Joseph holds the score and hides one bare foot with the other with the same old man’s clumsiness as his lookalike Matthew, whose lumpy hand is folded on the pen by the patient teen angel boy. The only one to look both at the angel and out, at us, is the half-hidden animal: one difficult non-human eye, its expression more unreadable than the angel’s backside. We see the music: although it can be played from the score, the fiddle’s voice is the fluid light itself, coming from an unlocalizable source, making everything freeze and setting everything aquiver at the same time. It doesn’t draw the contours of the body but wraps them up in aural shining. Magnetic storm, in which only the angel’s hairlock, unfolding loincloth and fluffy plumes of the lower wing stir, because he has two pairs of wings: one that looks like a chicken’s wing at most, and one leaden-heavy, folded into a strict vertical, perhaps a raven’s wing, in any case one that can by no account be supported by the malleable puberal shoulder. Teen cherub. Across the painting’s plane, the donkey’s dark shoulder echoes it. Mary, the chosen one does not see, does not hear the angel, but her red robe’s hem dropping to the ground starts glowing, as if shot through with radioactive rays, and is lifted from the ground in the same way in which the leaves curl back, their edge turned phosphorescent. Useless, gratuitous, almost inappropriate gift: it doesn’t feed or quench the thirst, it doesn’t even soothe the poor blistered feet, doesn’t offer directions or background info; no help or compassion, only an instant out of joint in the time of those whose lives have come out of joint. To receive it, to connect to it is only possible in the way in which the unpracticed hand does as it holds up the score, or the quietly radiating stone between the angel’s and Joseph’s feet, on which it is not the angel but Joseph who casts light. Perhaps in fact it is all about an angel descending to practice his instrument and do field research who, finding himself a live stand for the score, with his newfangled knowledge composes a mellifluous ciaccona on what it is like to give birth in a manger.

Self-abandon, the body’s surrender starts on the edges: the ankles and knees give way, the hands hang dumb and senseless, the neck is broken into an impossible angle by the dropping head. One of the most bewildering statues to be copied in Rome captures the stages of the body’s resistance and self-surrender: the Gaul killing himself and his wife erects a memorial to the vanquished that puts all triumphal symbols between inverted commas. In the pyramid-shaped composition everything is in movement, before the collapse everything fills up with life like a wound filling up instantly with blood: the warrior’s stretched thigh, stepping forward, the acute angle inscribed by the underarm that thrusts the blade into the neck, with the outward-turning head and the blade, and the other acute angle to echo it, that of the Gaul’s left hand holding up the collapsing woman’s left to keep her from falling to the ground. The direction of the step forward is also the direction of falling; the line of the supporting right leg, about to kick itself away from the ground, is repeated with stormy flutter by the cloak which, for one sole moment evicted from the passage of time and even from itself, resists gravity. In the spot-light streaming down from the museum ceiling the marble sends out into the room the taut skin’s mortal beauty: do not go gentle. The upward-spiralling movement is escape artistry. It starts from the helplessly toppling two feet of the stabbed woman, who is now only supported by the still living arm.

The childlike, soft soles turn outward, giving up balancing, they tumble the way the hem of the dress falls: living flesh and lifeless matter fold onto one another, unresisting, the clothes still preserve the warmth of the breathing-out body, but they fall upon one another with the great, meaningless co-belonging of organic matter that starts decomposing that very instant, while above them life rages in an acute angle against the dying of the light.

To look up at it are the fallen barbarian horses on the lowest layer of the giant sarcophagus placed to one side, trampled by four layers of victors and vanquished. The figures of the uppermost layer are too busy slaying the last enemy in trousers, lifting the eagle banner, or blowing with puffed-up face into the trumpet that winds round their head like a halo. In the museum rooms quietly sizzling light splashes against the plinths and pedestals and, breaking on them, splatters shiny drops up the marble feet.

In the afternoon the sky moves closer and pours down its liquid light down the bodies, the walls, covers the skin and the windows’ volute consoles in shining. With its overflowing waves it washes off all the dull, leaving a wet sheen on the stones, windows, faces, the bare legs of tourists pushed onwards by the systole-diastole of Via dei Fori Imperiali. Every single gull crossing the blue, every travertino facade, cornice blotting up the light radiates into the blue that stretches like a dome and opens with a lantern: oblique light cascades upwards and downwards at the same time.

*

On the crest of the Celio the two courtyards of Santi Quattro Coronati are sluices that let the noises of the outer world trickle into the acquarium of silence inside in a thin stream only. In the shade a man and a woman stand talking. The woman must be fiftyish, slender legs on tall sandal platforms, slender neck tilted slightly toward her interlocutor. Trespassing beauty: for how long does form hold its contours together in the face of time. The cloister is soundproofed by light-striated air walls, the background noise is caught up on the small twin columns’ grid of shadows.

It was built in the early 13th century out of the Roman debris of the Celio: the toy-size plinths grow water lily capitals from the rich soil of inscribed marble slabs, frieze fragments; the fraying-edged majuscules are larger than the blunt stone leaves curling upwards on the plinth corners. Under a filigree arch, a densely engraved marble slab: the squares, x-es, triangles of ancient draughts, fossilized friendliness in a convent.

The corridor’s stones, which can be read like a library, are deep black, only their worn-off, polished edges are bone-white; every engraving, inscription seems to add yet another layer of deep black. On the sunlit side the columns modulate from sun-bleached brownish-white to deep black: the  most light-worn white trickles down in thin lines on the inner, shady side, then from the parapet down to the stone floor, white light-inundation areas on the corridor. Restoration started a few years ago: the nearly thousand-year-old dirt, pollution is cleared away, erased from the stones with laser, with dentist’s instruments. The restored patches are almost ostentatiously white – small-scale transfiguration. Black: the colour of time, its material: dirt, stain, pollution, smog. The miniaturist’s painstaking back-erasure leaves sharp black-and-white contrasts. In only a few years the difference between the two ends of the cleared cloister corridor becomes visible: time starts silting immediately.

Into the stones faces are inscribed, face-stones. The statues of the historical collection of Palazzo Altemps did not only dilapidate but also shot new limbs. The collectors had the unearthed marble bodies restored, that is, the famous sculptors of the day, Algardi, Bernini supplied the missing arms and legs, sometimes even placed heads from other statues on the torsos: marble prostheses, transposed ancient heads. In the collection there is a monumental bust of Antinous: of the portrait of emperor Hadrian’s lover made into a god on account of his beauty only the nape with the thick locks, the neck and the shoulders was found. The face had been consumed by erosion, smashed in by iconoclasts or lime burners perhaps, its inward-turned gaze long soaked up into walls that had themselves crumbled since, adding to the debris.

To recognize among hundreds of torsos, from the angle of the nape, the arc of the shoulders, the tilt of the faceless head, the peerless loved one: to see back the face and the gaze, the shining, the pain and the name. Face transplant bridging one and a half thousand years.

In Rome the stones are more brittle. They had been tenderized by the incessant touchings, fallings, by the procession of wheels, sandals, hooves. Their species are as known, tended and pruned as fruit trees in other lands. A pulvinum, cushion receives the weight of the architrave before passing it onto the capital, a mediator between two kinds of hardnesses: there exists an imaginary that would carve even a pillow out of stone. Working in soft matter is out of the question here.

In the Ghetto, in the courtyard of Palazzo Mattei, paved with ancient reliefs, there is a stone seat for the weary: a stone cushion carved to measure onto a small sarcophagus, complete with tassels, mattress-like dimples, seams and bumps. Stone upholsterer, a Roman craft by excellence: to upholster the brittle lid of stones, sooner or later put to practical use, with stone layers against the engraving of human bodies; to wrap into stone. The fraying and thinning of the stone-down-filled marble brocade is in fact acquired burnish.

*

On the Trastevere side of the river, the stretch of embankment between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini is populated with a spectral procession that is barely visible at first sight. Its figures are too large and too tangible to be truly visible and identifiable; the joints of the embankment wall and the weeds growing in them keep pushing themselves into the foreground.

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The images themselves seem to have been deposited here by the river, to belong together with the driftwood and plastic bottles stuck on the pillar, cemented into a compact cream by algae. Seen from the other side, however, they lose their tangible materiality, becoming merely visible. The place they ought to be looked at from, their true audience is the river itself. The pageant of triumphs and losses is headed toward Ponte Sisto, the Tiber’s triumphal arch on William Kentridge’s giant frieze, engraved into the material of Rome. The images are negatives: they are not painted on the stones, it is their background that has been carved out, the patina has been cleared away, so the drawings stand out in sharp black-on-white contrast. Their material is the stuff of time: dirt, silt, pollution, smog. The ceaseless procession performed to the river doesn’t remove itself from time: in time, the contrast will fade and eventually vanish, together with the images, as smog is deposited, thick and black. The parade of the triumphal symbols of history and of Rome is literally in decay, and of decay.

 

The silhouette of Marcus Aurelius’s equestrian statue is still complete, only the white patches of light on the shin and the horse’s rump foretell the coming erasure of edges and distinctions, but the horse and chariot arriving after him are themselves ruins: the horse appears to be a ghost animal patched together from spars and barbed wire, body posture without a body; the chariot’s wheel and gearbox stick out, lean silhouettes, as the vehicle rolls unmanned into the void.

The flesh of the Capitoline she-wolf seems to be melting downwards, two jugs placed under her dugs; a skeleton-wolf lopes along after her against an empty horizon where only a tree stump grows.

In a black square rolling on four wheels, the white-on-black shadow-puppet silhouettes of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, a vehicle or a blown-up ad on the vehicle’s side, which pulls a barrow with a gigantic statue head, perhaps Constantine’s head, the pendant of the Capitoline gigantic foot. In the easily recognizable composition of the Rape of the Sabine Women, the man brandishes an oversize machine gun.

Everywhere the images freeze on the threshold of recognition, with their transpositions, re-orchestrations and bewildering contingencies slide into foreignness, displace and evict that which we believe to be our common visual heritage, our common fatherland of images.

Agallop on his shady horse, a long-maned skeleton with drawn sword: perhaps one of the mutant horsemen of Dürer’s Apocalypse, perhaps death flogging the blood-curdling blind horse of the Palermo Trionfo della Morte – but the debris which it tramples is indistinguishable: the body of an infant blown out of proportions? a shapeless heap of corpses?

The two figures pushing a wheelbarrow are perhaps transporting a body with a bishop’s mitre, the scene is that of the translation of relics, the de rigueur element of a saint’s legendry, but perhaps they are depositing a plague corpse. In the procession they are followed by a group picture with execution: stooping men with hands tied behind are pushed before a man who stands with sword raised high, and will most probably cut off their heads; at their feet, an almost amorphous trunk – the transfiguration, disquietingly stripped of context, of what scene of martyrdom, by what painter? Who are the ones to be executed, where, when does the slaughter happen? Rome’s archive of images is here the collection not of knowledge but of the imprints of unsettling gaps and lacunae, of non-knowing: everything looks vaguely familiar, but is dislocated to the point of unrecognizability. A Goyaesque figure with a goat’s (or wolf’s?) head and hooves bows down to a piously kneeling, headscarved heap of clothes, giving a gift or offering communion, an oversize espresso coffee pot in his hands. On a forward-pushing horse with head thrust up and one foreleg lifted into an improbable height, a faceless figure in frenzied, cambered Napoleon posture; the horse pulls a Fiat Cinquecento weighed down by a pile of bodies, which distantly evokes the pyramidal composition of the Florence Pietà. On top of the pile, Bernini’s Saint Theresa collapsing in ecstasy, beneath her the murdered Aldo Moro. The horse’s lifted and supporting forelegs are in pieces, the hooves hang in thin air, there is nothing to prop up the body, which is itself an image-ruin, the sole thing that rests of it is the blind forward thrust. Left behind, a monolithic figure in diagonal foreshortening, one of the corpses; it lies face downward, its shirt slid up to the shoulder-blades. What is the blackness smeared around the upper body: a pool of blood? the arm, twisted back? torn clothes? Four men leaning forward in Roman tunics carry indistinguishable objects on their shoulders, among them a menorah. The image is the imprint of the relief inside Titus’s arch – but only here does it become conspicuous how porous the image is, how full of gaps: the first man in the row has no legs whatsoever, he propels himself forward into the void on what appears to be a single crutch, according to the impossible physics of drawing; the others all lack a limb, part of a face. What the eye fills in readily on the arch’s worn-off relief, now suddenly appears uncannily holed, perished, fallen to pieces – we see what is, not what we know. The moment the historical context does not shroud the image into reassuring loftiness, patina, it is revealed that what we believe to know is a mere ruin, and to what extent the material of our images and stories, taken for granted, is filled in with the mortar of imagination-supplement.

About halfway in the procession in a black square it is written in brackets, QUELLO CHE NON RICORDO. But the image-less field is not blank, it is not erased, cancelled, scraped away, on the contrary: it is black deposit, unstirred time. The archive can also be empty, useless, if all silted layers are at our disposal. Here where black is the colour of saturation, of time, and white, that of emptiness, of non-time, the colour of erasures, damnatio memoriae and tabula rasa, the saturated black archive becomes the place of non-knowing. Perhaps it is no accident that in this very place someone scribbled a graffiti over the black – time takes back and inscribes these non-knowing images without delay. Below, a portion of the path is cordoned off with yellow tape where in a storm branches from the plane-trees of the Lungotevere broke and fell a few days before: the mound of debris started growing instantly, it is only a question of time when it will reach the bracketed words.

On a plank two men are crossing over water into a boat’s bow, one bends double under the weight of a chair: what are they loading in, where is it they are bound, where they can make use of a chair? The image doesn’t continue in a shore, as logic would demand, but in the prow of a boat full to the brim with people staring at some horizon: from the visual echo of the group propped up above the dying and looking up at their frantically waving mates on the Raft of the Medusa, it is impossible not to think of the cockleshells setting out every day across the Mediterranean. The boat itself is unaccountably strange, metamorphic. What seems to be drawn-in veils or an improvised awning that can hardly give any shade, looks disconcertingly like a horizontal gallows. Beneath, the water surface morphs into something that is at the same time a row of beam-thick oars (who are these men, galley-slaves?) and a makeshift raft’s cross-beams, half submerged – another echo of the Raft of the Medusa. Yet, in front of the raft of hope or hopelessness no rescue ship comes in sight on the horizon: in an empty wasteland the ghostly skeleton of the Capitoline she-wolf slogs, all that remains of her is the bones and the hanging dugs. In front of her, uncannily unlocalizable images, a group of faceless men carrying heavy bundles on their shoulders: history as ceaseless lugging, coming-and-going, eviction, removal with the dead, house gods, shapeless bags, lives. In front of a general’s prancing horse, the advance guard is a hussar-shakoed dummy saddling a vaulting-horse, the legs of his mount are gun barrels and crutches, its head a flag – unforgettable summing-up of the nauseatingly repetitive iconography of nationalisms. A big-maned silhouette dashes ahead with an oversize machine gun, like Ronan the barbarian, the foldover flaps of his combat boots flutter after him like Hermes wings. A horse skeleton drops to its knees in front of him, its clutch-legs put together from gunbarrels. Behind him, a quixotic vehicle rolls in: a bathtub in which Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg kiss as water (or gas?) pours down on them from a showerhead hanging from a pole that is fastened to the tub. The imprints of the images of culture are hauled hither and thither among the other bundled goods, becoming ever more brittle, their edges break off, their fate is that of classical or early Christian iconography: they can be deciphered only fragmentarily, painstakingly, and with gaping lacunae. Our culture as ruin. Overlooking the procession that sets out in the direction of the two bridges from the black square of non-knowing and non-remembering, under Ponte Mazzini, two meters above the driftwood island, humanity in ruins: the gaudy plastic tents and shapeless piled-up bundles of refugees and of the homeless.

*

Pizza bianca, focaccia al rosmarino. Salt, rosemary and oil: taste of friendliness. L., stranger, unknown friend. Flashing blue eyes, flashing white teeth. She talks about the flavor of the soil in pizza dough and in vegetables. At the shaky small table our plates touch, we taste one another’s food. It is only steamed leaves – my favourites, bietola, cicoria – she refuses, for their substance, she says. On the first evening, a group of cheerful half-strangers, we walk up the Palatine hill after closing hour, when the gulls and songbirds take it back from the crowds. All through she talks about the poetic justice in the fact that the erstwhile triumphal arches, the columns of the forums are taken apart, the emblems of one-time victory become lintels, construction stones, the symbols of power do not survive the demise of power but as objects of daily use, shedding their former meanings. The triumphal arch is turned into a gate in the shrunken walls of the shrunken city, lime-burning stoves spring up inside what used to be a theatre, weavers spread their starched linen, goat herds graze beneath the columns of Fortuna Virilis, on the ruins a little, scarce life sprouts. She speaks in Italian, fast and with gusto, mixing in some Spanish turns-of-phrase every now and then: mongrel Romance, she says. We toast to mongrelizing. Every day early in the morning she walks up the Aventino hill to the Giardino degli Aranci, when there are no people there yet, only the birds, the trees and the sky. Thirty-five kilos of animation. She is first and foremost interested in the way the language of science frames the body. Before becoming a freelance she was an engineer and designed attack helicopters for the US army. It is from there she took to the world, lived on orange and oil farms, started speaking in other languages. At one of the lectures, about the biopolitics of the early 20th century, there is a lengthy quote from a letter reporting with wry humour the death of one of the imprisoned participants of the Easter Rising. To demand prisoner-of-war status, he goes on hunger strike, the authorities try force-feeding on him, but in the course of the operation the bougie is jammed into the larynx instead of the aesophagus. It couldn’t have escaped her that they share a surname. At dinner she relates how she got ill with a sombre autoimmune disease, and was hospitalized for a long time; she was declared an anorexic, so she was excluded not only from the numbers of the healthy but also from those of the anorexic, who sensed she wasn’t one of them. One morning she faints on the Gianicolo hill – having walked up all the way in the merciless sun, crossing half of Rome; the physician who consults her is of the opinion that she is critically undernourished and prescribes infusion, but she rejects the idea of hospitalization. It’s only the level of her blood sugar that tends to drop, she says. She is walking away on the immense, treeless square, Giacometti woman, fluff-haired bare life, her thigh the width of a child’s wrist, sore skin and bones in the moving boots, away into the glaring light. The university doesn’t take responsibility for the costs of eventual treatment, the doctor’s diagnosis is anorexia, so they would send her home halfway through the program, with the recommendation to heal; she turns down the offer of a flight the next day and will not accept the diagnosis, prefers to travel on southward, seaward; in a farewell message she invites me to a good meal somewhere, sometime.

*

On the right side of Termini the Via Giolitti’s row of palaces is a breakwater, against which the relentless waves of tourists smash, to be drained into the Piazza della Repubblica, or along Via Gioberti and Corso Cavour into the communicating pools of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Forum. Only the spumes are splashed into the parallel streets; they, too, mostly seek out the cheap little souvenir shops and street vendors, and the kebab and pizza-a-taglio shops pouring out their burnt oil smell day and night. Tourists grown into strange centaur forms with their backpacks count their coins in the sqeezed-in little places where with sparing movements, Filipinos eat their supper at the end of a day’s cleaning, or Africans who spend most of the day in the blade-wide shade on the deserted end of Via Giolitti, between the De Chirico tower with its winding stairs and the shell of the Tempio di Minerva, hoping for some daywork. In the district mornings start very early: the mercatini move out on the streets, the always too narrow pavements brim over not with passers-by but with hurriers-to and luggers. The intonation of Filipino and Romanian blends readily into that of Italian, while the various Chinese, Indian and African languages stand out distinctly with their vowels hollowed out by different configurations of the throat, tongue and palate. On the instantly heated asphalt, amidst the general busy-ness there are a few islands of slowness, unwashed-looking shopwindows, unopened-looking doors. On a corner, the once modern art deco masks of Cinema Moderno watch over a few parking motorini and the rear entrance to a deposit. Above an exchange office, an antiquated font from the ’60s proclaims in a husky voice, CAMBIO; in its shop window rows of commemorative medals and 19th century coins, a whole numismatic collection – as if sullenly drawing aside, outside of time; the day’s exchange rate is posted almost apologetically sideways. With calligraphic letters, as though in the hand of some award-winning primary-school pupil, a painted sign above a shop window in which dust gathers on military orders and decorations: Ma Mi – La Sartoria del Militare. Ma mi: Giorgio Strehler’s song about the hardened thug of the Milan malavita who, past his years in the resistance and facing a long term in prison for some unspecified criminal act, when the captain offers to set him free in exchange for the names of his mates, refuses to chirp, standing the clouts in San Vittur prison quaranta dì quaranta nott, as he once had at the hands of the todesch de la Wehrmacht. Ornella Vanoni removes her earrings and with head thrown back sings out in her untamed throaty voice in the sixties, sbattuu de su sbattuu de giò, like a real duro. Up-yours spite, the tomcat stink of the ballad of the malnati growing up on the streets like feral kittens sprays the uniforms that step over the threshold; the words of the explosive hit of the antifascist generation are sewn into the military finery of retired army officers. Two outlandish words in a faraway dialect, remnants of the republic’s sun-bleached spirit, blend in with the Chinese names on shop windows.

The largest island of the archipelago of stillness is the improbably silent little park in front of the Acquario Romano, meant to be a monument to water. Under the two flights of stairs leading to the entrance, safely out of reach at the bottom of a minute fake grotto, a toy fountain sends out its tantalizing gurgle to the thirsty. There is no fontanella on the surrounding streets, only throat-parching exhaustion gas, heat that massacres the feet; in the shops mineral water bottles are everywhere placed well in sight. In the prolonged draught not only Rome but the whole province is suffocating: with the level of Lake Bracciano, where most of Rome’s water comes from, at a historical low, and environmental disaster pending, the city administration decided to switch off the water of the fontanelle, free for all in all parts of the city. A sentry box guards the entrance; a uniformed policeman watches over the few Africans who sit in loose groups on the benches of the shady side, immersed in their cellphones  or merely trying to get a few hours’ comfortable sit instead of sleep. In a corner of the park, a group of singular objects: a haphazard structure, a shaky assemblage of a few elements, and two chairs put together from a few metal sheets and circles.

 

Two examples of Yona Friedman’s communal, utopian, improvised shelters, variable at will and designed for those in need. Friedman obviously knew quite a bit about scarce, improvised dislocated life – himself a survivor of fascism in Hungary, who first moved to Israel after the war, then to Paris in 1957. His oeuvre is a collection of shelters, homes, spaces that anyone can join together according to their needs out of ‟crumpled sheets” and supports chosen at will – the polar opposite of postwar International Style subordinating life to the structures born on the drafting table; one of his insights is that a sheet, if crumpled, gains in solidity and resistance. The chairs are here as part of a Friedman show at MAXXI. There, in Zaha Hadid’s sculptural, ostentatious space, in the histrionic museum light Friedman’s mobile mock-ups sit awkwardly, like blistered feet in a posh shoe shop; the project of the street museum – bearing the motto, it is the exhibits that make a museum – is especially ironic here, where the building is the main spectacle, pushing all the exhibits into the background.

Inside and in front of it museum death is general, not even Mario Merz’s glass igloo and Piero Gilardi’s carnivalesque, anarchic set of demonstration masks and still lifes cut out of psychedelic-coloured polystyrene can resist its pull. The two chairs stand in the park corner like two exhibits with attached labels – extensions of the architecture centre inside the Acquario. None of the Africans occupied either of them, although they were made for them, even if not placed here for them. I sit down in one, it’s surprisingly comfortable and roomy: radical design for the middle-class flâneur. Inside, beyond the cafè  an exhibition of the works of the visionary architects of the ’60s, Mario Ridolfi and Mario Fiorentino, among the first to sense that modernity’s faith in reason cannot hold. In the bookshop on a stand, designer’s items, bookmarks with catchy mottos and maxims from Confucius to Bob Dylan, you must change your life, one euro apiece, the price of three bottles of mineral water in a neighbourhood grocery.

*

A fresh globe of horse-turd is smoking, gleeful find on the Via Appia. On a cypress trunk a sign with picture missing Titù, friendly medium-size black female dog, lost on the stretch around San Sebastiano. Waif on the petrified luggage conveyor silted in sand, from which the soutward-bound carts, litters, odd-toed or cleft hooves, the entering and exiting troops, those destined to promotion or execution have long tumbled off, only the funeral monuments, steles rest with a petitioning look on their portraits, unreclaimed luggage. The feet get used to the passage from the uniform basalt cobblestones to the broad, flat lava-stone slabs with their humps and hollows, with their notches impressed by cart wheels: unfinished lithography, its technique long forgotten, its forms can be only intuited. Functional roads leading somewhere are the most nondescript buildings, non-places. The Appia Antica, too, leads, but not somewhere: pure procession without goal,end, terminus, and without a route – it became Antica when it ceased to be a roadway. Wayward road, only proceeding wayward, into itself. Space evicted from journeying, space become time: its face stopped aging, like the effigies on the funerary steles. It ran out of time.

This is probably the world’s most refined grand orchestra of cicadas: it does not concentrate on the beauty of sound, it treats rhythm as a sound architect, and doesn’t fidget too much about the odd mislaid tone. Of Rome’s many skies this is the widest and of its many lights, this is the most caressing even at its brightest. Among the bitter little cotton-tufted herbs a propped-up marble statue, with a hole where the head should sit: perhaps a standard half-figure with custom-made head, available in right- or lefthanded version. In the hollow in place of the neck a handful of pine needles, cypress cones, seeds gathers: humus that will germinate with the first autumn rain, unrepeatable vegetal life in the mass produce antiquated into uniqueness. Below their multi-storey flowerings, preposterous drawings, the bone-hard agave leaves twist and coil like octopus arms seeking to free themselves. To the right side, a forward-looking little arboretum, its saplings barely rise above the wilted grass.

From San Sebastiano bus 118 drives to the Ardeatina among walls and clouds of greenery, then on to trafficky Appia Nuova. The landscape spreads out wide. On a tall hillcrest against the sky, in counterlight the washed-up backbone of a prehistoric whale, the Villa dei Quintili. In the late imperial age the largest of Rome’s suburban villas stood here; to lay his hands on it, emperor Commodus, who loved posing as Hercules, ordered the killing of the two Quintilianus brothers, the most cultivated patrician heirs of the day. Slow light- and sunward ascent in the descending afternoon brightness. A seamless inverted v-shaped board fence, undulating matte eel’s spine establishes the directions; in the dried-up soil cracks go in all directions, lines of flight.

Fourten years: at the two ends of rising and falling light, the elongated shadows cast on the pathway, their contours do not overlap precisely. Perhaps not even the skeleton building’s contours overlap precisely. In that other time there was wild origano to gather here, and dried-up wild figs whose astringent sweetness lingered in the mouth for days. Perhaps they fell victims to systematization. The unauthorized little farm, too, disappeared from among the ruins, with its sad-faced, drooping-eared sheep and goats that obdurately practiced land occupation with their stench: now crows sit aligned in geometric order on the fence, uniformed uni-squatters, trickling musical notes on a splintered score. But at the entrance from the Appia Nuova a hoopoe bird is hopping, gleeful anarchist, light-discharges at the ends of its orange crest.

The caldarium’s gigantic window is practicing how to capture the most of the sky. How to turn entirely into sky, and the walls, into openings. First it shed its alabaster windowpanes, the ceiling mosaic, then its sills and in the end it stripped down to the brick layering. Its edges are now drawn by the blade-sharp shadows. Lidless eye gone blind in the incessant procession, into which things swim, so it responds to them with its substance. In the early Middle Ages a lime-burner set up shop among the ruins, marble excavated from here had the reputation of yielding prime lime, after it had been broken and matured in deposits for years like wine. Giant stone tuning-fork: to sound it one doesn’t need the wind, the touch of the gaze is enough. Its A is the purest, distilled Rome-homesickness, Rome-sickness. It can only be heard in silence, for otherwise the other, more mixed Rome-sicknesses outvoice it: the street noises, the gull noises, the fluttering of the tree-crowns, the wind-shielded shade, the grass scent, the pine scent stocked away for years in a cone, the undulating tread of sandalled feet, the laughing together.

—Erika Mihálycsa

§

Source of quotations and paraphrases in the text:

…summer’s temperature curve: Zsuzsa Takács, The Pillar of Salt [A sóbálvány] (2016)

harry the last heat through them: ‟harry the last few drops of sweetness through the wine”, Rainer Maria Rilke: Herbsttag, trans. Mary Kinzie

Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen]

White and lightVerlorne wind-shade: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen], trans. Michael Murray

sea-mill: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

do not go gentle… rage against the dying of the light: Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

…the shining, the pain and the name: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

…humanity in ruins: Samuel Beckett, The Capital of the Ruins (1945)

quaranta dì quaranta nott…todesch de la Wehrmacht…sbatuu de su sbattuu de giò: Giorgio Strehler, Fiorenzo Carpi, Ma Mi (1959)

you must change your life: Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo, trans. Stephen Mitchell

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Erika Mihalycsa
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Aug 072017
 

 

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They were known principally for the clarity of their communication, having abolished speech, leaving them only writing. This happened in the reign of Graphus I.

The technology of speech was first banned from public use on grounds of its fallibility in conveying the intended meaning and its restrictiveness in access. Recording media, until then ubiquitous, had failed to convey all of the complex nonverbal visual cues that not just accompany but are integral to oral communication and modulate its sense. At the end of decades of crippling unrest, a time known as “the Troubles” and sparked by a series of miscommunications of this kind, writing emerged as the only viable solution. All communication of political importance would be instantly disseminated in the written language used by all—“taught until learned” in every school in the realm. The program (“Taught until Learned,” or TUL) was instrumental in the enormous advances in clarity and transparency that came with implementing the resolution.

Of course, much nuance was lost in the process, but it was not mourned for long; the baby, orality, was thrown out with the bathwater of facial expressiveness. Gradually and naturally, even private communication was being conducted exclusively in writing. Writers seen in the act of writing adhered strictly to the no-expression rule, which diverted attention from their face to the text committed on the transparent scroll interposed between interlocutors. Emotional concepts and terms, after a period of proliferation (when they were desperately needed to substitute for previously unconstrained nonverbal expressions), all but vanished as the suppression of expressiveness became normalized. The gestures, habits and practices that underpinned and imbued words like “love” with meaning were gradually lost. The reduction of conflict which this unforeseen consequence brought about was hardly to be believed.

While speech did become obsolete, it never disappeared completely. The long reign of Codus II saw periodic mass protests against the hegemony of writing. The latter, once so elementary, had evolved a number of distinct symbolic systems, such that it was ever less likely for any one individual to be fluent in all of them. In effect, while most speakers could communicate in one or another system, the occasional cases where no common “language” could be found became a source of social upheaval. Predictably, the development of further specialized government-sanctioned “languages” to handle increasingly complex defense and security operations made such incidents, where communication between groups was impossible, more frequent. With the erosion of trust entailed by this state of affairs, many accused the government of fostering divisions among the people. The government in turn charged the protesters with conspiratorial activity and with undermining the legitimacy of the state. The regime of Cryptus I, under whom most of these de-universalizing changes took place, became known as cryptogarchy.

Then ambiguity began to creep into the practice of writing, much of which was again being done by hand in a broad movement to re-personalize communication. It started with the attribution of significance to any number of previously “invisible” features of the writing act: the urgency and speed of typing, the angle of the hand, and of course the formation of the symbols themselves, whose decoding exceeded the skill of our most competent graphologists. This attention eventually resulted in the development of a secondary system, whose significance took a long time to become known but whose meanings were notoriously ungraspable and uncommunicable in any language, detracting from the clarity of the written word. Over time, this delicate emotional dimension and the potential for “equivocation” with which it corrupted all writing became the main invisible threat to state power. As the art of reading by insinuation spread so the conscious use of this new communicative channel became more pronounced and its connection to the written message more legible. Arrests followed of those seen as responsible for its promotion; tremendous amounts of funding were funneled into the effort to decipher “chirographics.”

The threat, however exaggerated, was real. It soon became clear that things would not stop at communicating by hand, and that this “supplementary” system would claim the whole body, and finally, despite all counter-measures, also the face. And from there it was but a short route to the vocal chords. By such slippery-slope arguments radical changes could be justified that would otherwise seem irrational, lending support to the government’s repressive policies. Once the inept Cryptus II succeeded his uncle, the paroliements rallied popular support to outlaw writing altogether. Everyone agreed it was the best thing. And then they fell silent.

—S. D. Chrostowska

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S. D. Chrostowska is the author of Literature on Trial (2012), Permission(2013),  and Matches: A Light Book (2015).  She teaches at York University in Toronto.

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Aug 072017
 

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When I was recently invited to deliver a talk at the institution where I have worked for the past thirty years, it was suggested to me that while I was free to speak about anything at all, my hosts would be pleased if I spoke about something that interests me deeply. So, after long and extremely contentious negotiations with myself, I decided to speak about literature. And more particularly still, about fiction. And still more particularly still, about the kinds of spaces that fiction defines. For we are creatures of space, after all. We dwell in many different kinds of space, often simultaneously. We think about space in a variety of ways, some of them fairly straightforward, others more than passingly vexed. It is legitimate to say that as much as we inhabit space, space inhabits us, significantly shaping the way we imagine ourselves and the way we come to be in the world.

Granted that, it seems to me that the notion of space is far more intriguing when it is conceived as a cultural topos than when we think of it as a natural phenomenon. Rather than something merely given, something that simply is, it is productive to think of space as something constructed, something forged both in and through culture. That sort of perspective provides more room for maneuver, more room for speculation, more room for play—in short more room for us.

Observations such as those may seem to be perfectly patent when it is a question of literary space, rather than of the space defined by the Grand Canyon, the Kalahari Desert, or the Mariana Trench. Yet I would like to suggest that there is no compelling reason for us to read those latter spaces more literally than we do the spaces we encounter in the books we read. And conversely (but in that very same light), it is from time to time both useful and tonic, I think, to imagine literary space in a very literal manner indeed—a relatively easy task for those literalists among us. I count myself as one of that breed, as a person consistently delighted by letters, and by the spaces that they limn.

Among the many pleasures that fiction puts on offer, the opportunity to lose oneself in mild abstraction is by no means the least; and I imagine that all of us have availed ourselves of that opportunity, whether sparingly or in a more insouciant manner. For my part, I am intrigued by the different shapes that state of abstraction assumes, and by its conditions of possibility. I would propose to parse it closely and methodically here, were it not for the fact its dimensions are so mutable, as mutable in fact as individual readerly experience can be. Instead, I shall focus on a few textual passages that seem to me to incorporate clear invitations to the kind of abstracted state that interests me, hoping thereby better to understand that phenomenon.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint

The first passage I would like to visit occurs when the narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom is gazing out of his window into a rainswept Parisian street:

It was raining. The street was wet, the sidewalks dark. Cars were parking. Other cars, already parked, were covered with rain. People were crossing the street quickly, going in and out of the post office in the modern building across from me. A little vapor began to cover my windowpane. Behind the thin coat of mist, I observed the passersby sending their letters. The rain gave them a conspiratorial air: stopping in front of the mailbox, they would draw an envelope from their coat and thrust it through the slot very quickly so as not to get it wet, meanwhile pulling up their collars against the rain. I put my face close to the window and, eyes against the glass, suddenly had the impression that all these people were inside an aquarium. Perhaps they were afraid? The aquarium was slowly filling. (20)

Many things could be said about this textual moment. I am chiefly interested, however, in the way that the narrator imagines his own situation with regard to the world around him. On the one hand, he is clearly inside his apartment, looking out at the street and at the people hurrying along it. On the other hand, as soon as he imagines that those people are in an aquarium, his position shifts to that of someone on the outside looking in. That inside-outness is more than passingly uncanny; and yet it seems to me perfectly exemplary of the kind of site that we inhabit when we read fiction.

For clearly, reading is a real-world activity. By that I mean that it takes place in the world of phenomena, a behavior that is conditioned (and sometimes constrained) by real-world considerations. We sit upright in our favorite chair or sprawl flat out on our sofa; the dogs are barking or they are silent; the telephone rings or it does not; our gimpy right knee is bothering us or it feels okay; we have paid our taxes on time or we are badly in arrears. Yet when we read fiction, we also dwell in the fictional world. Therein, we partake of the heady fruit of the lotus and lose ourselves. We gaze aghast upon the tortured souls in the eighth circle of Hell; we listen as a peer of the realm sounds his horn too late; we test the keen edge of a harpoon honed by a tattooed Kokovokoan; we detect the very particular aromas emanating from the kitchen as a middle-aged Irishman prepares to dine on the inner organs of beasts and fowls; we taste a perfectly prepared martini cocktail, shaken, not stirred.

In other terms, we are always divided when we read fiction. We are here, but we are also there—and vice versa, as it were. And in that light, we are very unlike the fictional characters who fascinate us. In her novel Western, Christine Montalbetti remarks that “only fictional characters are completely wrapped up in what they are doing” (Western 53). She is undoubtedly correct, insofar as fictional characters remain within the boundaries of their fictional worlds. For one imagines that if Emma Bovary or Stephen Dedalus were to set foot in the phenomenal world, they might find themselves just as divided as you or me. On the face of it, that latter eventuality seems absurd; yet we readers emigrate quite blithely from one world to another. We step into a fictional world, and thrash about therein in an effort to make it our own, suspending certain ways of thinking about the world, and heightening others, depending upon local circumstances.

One can be more literalist about this matter, or more coolly figuralist. Either way, one is obliged to realize that our readerly self is significantly divided. Ross Chambers has argued that certain kinds of literature promote that kind of divided attention far more than others. Pointing toward works that play upon the dilatory, upon apparent idleness and diversion, Chambers coins the term loiterature to designate them. “Critical as it may well be behind its entertaining façade,” he argues, “loiterly writing disarms criticism of itself by presenting a moving target, shifting as its own divided attention constantly shifts” (Loiterature 9). That kind of literature wagers squarely, I believe, upon our own willingness to be divided. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, in the passage that I quoted, invites us to read in that divided manner through the mediation of his protagonist, whose attention is so patently divided. Now, it is reasonable to imagine that the extent of that division (or the proportion of our attention devoted to the real or the fictional world at any given moment) will depend upon a variety of factors: the excellence of the text; the suggestibility and general humor of the individual reader; the local circumstances in which the act of reading takes place; and other considerations still more imponderable. Yet it is legitimate to say that any reading will entail a division of the subject’s attention, to a greater or a lesser degree—or, in other terms, an abstraction.

Seen in long focus, what is surprising about our behavior as readers is how easily we migrate from the phenomenal world to the fictional world, and back again. Indeed, that migration is so fluid and so constant that it may be more useful to imagine the reader as inhabiting both worlds simultaneously. In his study of the mise-en-abyme, Lucien Dällenbach suggests that that figure can assume three broad shapes. First, the simple emblazonment of like within like: a play within a play, a novel within a novel. Second, a structure of infinite emblazonment: the Quaker on a box of Quaker Oats holding in his hand a box of Quaker Oats upon which a smaller Quaker holds a box of Quaker Oats, and so forth. Finally, an aporetic emblazonment in which the relations between container and contained are shifting and unclear (Le Récit spéculaire 37-38, 51). That latter structure is a good way to conceive of our situation as readers of fiction, I think, because it accounts for the difficulty we experience as we try to analyze the relations between our divided readerly selves, and it allows us to imagine the real world and the fictional world in an isotopical and mutually implicative fashion, rather than in a hierarchical manner where one is always subordinated to the other. That perspective provides us in turn with a more lucid vision of our behavior as readers, a set of gestures that is sharpened, intensified, and refined by the immersive power of fiction.

Fiction constantly reminds us that the real and the imaginary are both mobile constructs rather than static ones, that they can be conceived only in their reciprocal mobility, and that we, too, are constantly in motion. We cannot survey either world, thus, from a fixed and stable vantage point; rather, we must apprehend things in their proper flow while we ourselves are in a state of flux. Such a process can be extremely arduous, and sometimes our mind rebels. Sometimes our need for stability is so imperious that we persuade ourselves of our stillness, against the evidence of our senses. Chris Scott constructs a scene like that in To Catch a Spy: “The train’s hydraulics hissed and the station moved backwards as if jolted by an unseen hand” (310). The sensation that his character experiences is familiar to most of us (though these days it is more likely to occur when a plane we’re in pulls back from the jetway). The very brief moment that it takes for us to recalibrate and realize that it is in fact we who are moving never fails to produce an uncanny feeling, one that hinges largely on a jarring shift from subject to object. We prefer to occupy the former site if we can, until incidence or coincidence evicts us, for it is a place of privilege with regard to everything that surrounds it. It enables us to survey things as if we were not part of them, nor subject to the laws that govern them. It allows us to think that we are central. It indulges our wish to believe that things are about us.

Hélène Lenoir

Upon rare occasion, one may experience a sensation that plays out in a fashion contrary to the one I have just described, that is, where one has the impression of moving, though one is in fact remaining still. Consider for example this scene from Hélène Lenoir’s Le Répit, where a man seated in a train at rest in a station gazes out the window at another train: “The train slowly pulling out on the other side of the platform made him think for a few seconds that he himself was leaving” (122; my translation). The impression that this event produces in the man is no less uncanny than the one that Chris Scott’s character experiences, even though the circumstances appear so different. In both instances, it is a question of misinterpretation, of course; yet that misinterpretation is itself brimming with meaning, a meaning that focuses most fundamentally upon how we conceive the world and our place in it.

The Red Queen and the Red King in “Through the Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There” (1871).

I wonder if we may have been struck by the sensation that Scott and Lenoir invoke in yet another context. I wonder if we may have had a very similar feeling from time to time when reading fiction. When some event in the phenomenal world jolts us out of our immersion in the fictional world, for instance, and we shake our heads for a moment while we recalibrate, not quite knowing which world trumps the other. Much like Alice, waking from her dream, when she wonders if the Red King was a figure in her dream or if she was a figure in his dream (344). I am encouraged in this line of thinking by another passage in Toussaint’s novel. Once again, it takes place in a train, traveling between Paris and Venice:

I had spent the night in a train compartment, alone, with the lights out, immobile. Aware of motion, only motion; of the outward perceptible motion that was transporting me despite my immobility, but also of the inner motion of my body that was destroying itself, an imperceptible motion that began to occupy my attention to the exclusion of all else, a motion I desperately wanted to seize hold of. But how to grasp it? (39)

How indeed? The narrator’s situation is a peculiar one, for he feels himself to be immobile contrary to all evidence. Immobile both with regard to the world outside, as the train speeds across the landscape, and with regard to the world inside, as his own bodily processes push him toward death. Belonging thus neither to the outside nor to the inside, where in the world can he be? Once more, it seems to me that the sites toward which Toussaint is pointing are spaces that fiction constructs; and his text invites us again and again, in a variety of manners, to inhabit those spaces. It is not simply a matter of suspension of disbelief, nor of a deliberate forgetting. It is more like an invitation to multiply ourselves, to imagine our selves as dwelling in different places simultaneously, and acting productively in each. Toussaint’s invitation involves thus a choice taken deliberately and lucidly; it puts on offer a significant franchise in the production of meaning; and it inevitably prompts us to reflect upon literature and its uses—an activity that is almost always advantageous, in my experience, and very unlikely to cause permanent damage.

My brief for an abstracted, inside-out mode of reading is a simple one, and undoubtedly naive. Though it may seem utopian to some, it is chiefly founded in pragmatics, for to my way of thinking it describes the way we actually behave when we read fiction. It suffices to realize that we are far more supple, more tolerant, more agile, more playful when we approach a fictional world than we typically are when we grapple with the phenomenal world. It also helps to recognize that we can immerse ourselves up to our necks in fiction, while never abdicating our critical faculties, that the one gesture does not debilitate the other. To the contrary, immersion actuates our critical sense, and our critical sense stokes our desire to inhabit the fictional world. If such were not the case, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s protagonist would see nothing more than a rainy street when he gazes out the window. And gazing upon him, we would see no more than random scribblings on a page. Odysseus, Panurge, Eugénie Grandet, Gregor Samsa, Humbert Humbert, Oskar Matzerath, all of them from Ahab to Zeno, mere constructs! And their worlds pure figments: no more flying carpets, no more hansom cabs, no more magic lamps, no more tartar steppes! Such a perspective does not bear contemplation for long. Its very bleakness urges us toward another position, I think. One that we can occupy at our leisure, and wherein we are no longer obliged to choose between subject and object, self and other, inside and out.

—Warren Motte

§

Works Consulted

Carroll, Lewis.  Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  In Martin Gardner,     ed.  The Annotated Alice.  Seaton: Bramhall House, 1960.  167-345.

Chambers, Ross.  Loiterature.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Dällenbach, Lucien.  Le Récit spéculaire: Essai sur la mise en abyme.  Paris: Le Seuil, 1977.

Lenoir, Hélène.  Le Répit.  Paris: Minuit, 2003.

Montalbetti, Christine.  Western.  2005.  Trans. Betsy Wing.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press,    2009.

Scott, Chris.  To Catch a Spy.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe.  The Bathroom.  1985.  Trans. Nancy Amphoux and Paul De Angelis.              Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008.

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Warren Motte is College Professor of Distinction at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary French literature, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), Mirror Gazing (2014), and French Fiction Today (2017).

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Aug 062017
 

Helena Kelly

Lucy Worsley

“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” for example, “that every biographer of Jane Austen, in possession of the exact same sources, must find an entirely different character, one most suited to their own inclinations.” —Laura Michele Diener

 

Jane Austen, The Secret Radical
Helena Kelly
Knopf, 2017
336 pages, $28.95

Jane Austen At Home
Lucy Worsley
St. Martins Press, 2017
400 pages, $29.99

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Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, c. 1810. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When writing a review of two recent biographies of Jane Austen, it is difficult to resist the temptation to begin with a pithy line that parodies her most well-known openings. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” for example, “that every biographer of Jane Austen, in possession of the exact same sources, must find an entirely different character, one most suited to their own inclinations.” Or perhaps, “No one who had ever seen Jane Austen in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine of literature honored by one and all on July 18, 2017, the two hundredth anniversary of her death.” But then I would be veering into the ridiculous, not to mention the overdone. So I channeled some Elinor Dashwood-style self-control and forced myself to focus on the project at hand, which was more a pleasure than a task, as both Helena Kelly and Lucy Worsley write with the lively spirit of true Austen devotees.

For the youngest daughter of a rural clergyman, an unmarried woman of no fortune who died two hundred years ago, Jane Austen bequeathed a surprising amount of source material for her biographers. In addition to her six completed novels (four published in her lifetime and two posthumously), her unfinished novels and her childhood writings, there are over a hundred and fifty letters to friends and relatives detailing her failed courtships, her hopes for publication, and her increasing poverty, as well as her jewelry, her writing desk, a few pages of a corrected draft of Persuasion, a lock of her hair, and the still–standing Chawton Cottage, her last home, now the Jane Austen Museum.

Well, forget them all, Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, tells us. If you want to understand what Austen truly intended in her novels, forget the beloved canonical facts of Austen’s life—her broken engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither, her flirtation with Tom Lefoy. Ignore the turquoise ring and the topaz cross on display at Chawton Cottage; in fact, don’t bother with the Cottage–“if any trace of Jane remains, then the thousands of tourists who trudge through the rooms each year will have driven it away.” If you must make the pilgrimage, step to the windows, look outwards, and imagine the changing landscape of the late-eighteenth-century British countryside, envision the seaside bustling with sailors and soldiers preparing to meet Napoleon’s armies, with civilians gearing up for a French invasion. Stretch your eyes across the Channel to the revolutionary ideas overturning the existing order, and even further, across the oceans to the wider world of Britain’s colonial holdings in the West Indies.

Most importantly, look to the novels, which, Kelly argues, “are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote.” Austen lived during extreme times in a Britain that was “an essentially totalitarian” state, where such revolutionary ideas could land you in prison. Thus she wrote in a type of code, so that only the truly insightful readers could tease out her arguments, “just as readers in Communist states learned how to read what writers had to learn how to write.”

This Jane Austen is a severe lady, more akin to earnest young Mary Bennett than her witty sister Elizabeth. Kelly’s Jane doesn’t have time to smile at a dashing young clergyman—she’s too busy crafting a subtle critique of the church’s stance on slavery to spare a thought for who will partner her in a quadrille.

She intended for readers to read her books slowly and deliberately, perhaps aloud in the evening, accompanied by discussion. In each chapter, Kelly deciphers a novel, explaining how to read beyond and around the narratives of courtship for the radical social critiques on issues from class to inheritance law to human trafficking.

Northanger Abby, she argues, parodies popular gothic novels by suggesting the real horrors that await women in marriage, where birth control was nonexistent and childbirth was a Russian roulette. Austen herself lost two sisters-in-law to childbirth, and watched a healthy niece wear herself out with perennial labors.

Marrying might kill women in Northanger Abbey, but not marrying will most certainly destroy them in Sense and Sensibility, where the inequities of primogeniture could leave women impoverished and homeless. Sense and Sensibility, in Kelly’s retelling, reads as downright creepy, full of secrets, untrustworthy men, and dangerously sharp objects lurking in parlors. If you put out of your mind, as she cautions, the broodingly sexy Alan Rickman and the loveably clumsy Hugh Grant of the popular 1995 film adaptation, Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars suddenly look decidedly dodgy, and just two more of the men who betray the women whom the law prevents from protecting themselves.

Mr. Darcy still retains his romantic sheen, as he embarks on the most radical relationship of an Austen novel. Kelly declares Pride and Prejudice to be “a revolutionary novel,” even “a revolutionary fairy tale,” in which Austen permits her heroine Elizabeth Bennet to mock aristocrats and eschew conventional courting rituals, and rewards her for it with a happy marriage and wealth. In doing so, Austen critiques the more reactionary writings of Edmund Burke, who defended the established order after witnessing the excesses of the French Revolution.

Kelly’s chapter on Emma, is undoubtedly her strongest, and is based on her earlier dissertation on enclosure (the closing off of common or unclaimed lands by private owners) in English literature. Emma, she argues, directly addresses the effects of enclosure on the laboring class. Between 1795-1815, England witnessed dramatic increase of Enclosure Acts, with Surrey county (where Emma takes place) undergoing thirty new enclosures in twenty years. Emma herself may live comfortably, but the novel chronicles her encounters with poverty in its many shades, from struggling cottagers, to begging gypsies, to the genteel but penniless Bates women.

In Mansfield Park, which Kelly considers Austen’s most flagrantly radical novel, Austen attacks no less a mainstay of establishment values than the Church of England itself, which she condemns for its tacit support of slavery. The lack of reviews on its publication indicates that the public comprehended Mansfield Park not only as “an inescapably political novel,” but also “a deeply troubling,” one full of lecherous fathers, neglectful mothers, and hypocritical clergy harassing the heroine on the homefront while the sinister shadows of sugar plantations and slave trading lurked abroad.

Persuasion, in contrast, may be Austen least revolutionary but perhaps most philosophical of novels. Alone among her works, it possesses a concrete context, set specifically in the coastal town of Lyme Regis during the year of peace when Napoleon languished in restless imprisonment on Elba. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth marry during the exact week he escaped, plunging Britain into war again. But rather than merely a diatribe on the hazards of war, Persuasion fixates on the progress of time, the inevitability of change, and the ephemerality of all certainties. Nothing under heaven escapes—family names, national identities, happy marriages–even the limestone cliffs of the British seaside must succumb to ruin.

How radical is Kelly’s argument? After all, few readers will have missed that Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice decry the practice of primogeniture, not to mention the careless fathers and callous brothers who failed to ensure against the legal inequities barring women from receiving inheritances. And even the most cursory reading of her novels suggests a critique of women’s place in society, the boredom of the social whirl, and the merits of character over title.

Certainly Kelly isn’t the first to address these issues critically, either. Perhaps to appeal to a popular audience, she rarely references other scholars, many of whom have made similar arguments regarding the political nature of Austen’s works. Which is a shame, because Kelly provides a lively counterpoint to many of them, particularly Marilyn Butler’s 1975 Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Butler famously argued that Jane Austen wrote in a political vein, but a conservative one, actively opposed to the revolutionary stirrings around her. Kelly, who holds degrees in Classics and English and lectures at Oxford, is clearly well-versed in Austen criticism, and could easily have included a few attributions.

The book contains a few other frustrating tendencies. Kelly can throw out a game-changing point and then move on in the next paragraph– if Harriet Smith really is Miss Bates’ illegitimate daughter, then the theory deserves more than a tantalizing paragraph at the end of a chapter. Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, is Kelly’s first book; in her subsequent publications she will no doubt gain polish without losing her passion.

Most Austen readers will find something about which to quibble in Kelly’s work. But those issues are precisely why reading the book is such a genuinely pleasurable experience. Like your favorite high school literature teacher, Kelly stirs you up about your favorite characters and forces you to join the conversation with sails up and guns blazing. Don’t just read Jane Austen, Kelly demands, read her wisely, read her openly, and then read her again.

Lucy Worsley, the author of Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, resembles none other than Austen’s charmed heroine Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich,” who “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence.” With her closet full of Boden dresses, her dream job as the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and her endearing speech impediment, Worsley is a familiar figure to the British public through her BBC presentations on some of the plumiest of historical topics, including the Romanov Tsars, the Tudor Queens, British murders, and most recently, Austen herself, in the program Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors.

A historian by training (she earned a DPhil from the University of Sussex), she plunks Jane firmly in the middle of the Georgian period, reminding us that even a Georgian woman of aspiring gentry had to get her hands dirty, digging potatoes, making jam, and repairing shirts. While some of Austen’s characters may idle about in drawing rooms, the authoress herself spent as much time in garden, cellar, and kitchen. Thus, in addition to the works of Paine and Burke, Worsley has consulted Georgian cookery books, household manuals, and medical treatises. Yes, she agrees with Kelly, you need to consider the revolutionary ideas in sweeping across the Channel and the debates raging in Parliament in order to comprehend Austen’s world, but also the daily grind of chores considered the rightful sphere of a dutiful daughter and spinster aunt, the “grimy, unexciting, quotidian domestic.”

Worsley, who has written the book If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, in which she delights in splendid tidbits about bed linen and water closets, not surprisingly finds an obsession with homes to be one of the driving forces of Austen’s fiction—“homes loved, lost, lusted after.” And homes to escape, fitting for a woman who spent “a lifetime of being passed around between relatives like a parcel.” Especially after Austen’s father retired in 1800, giving the family home to his eldest son, and leaving her and her sister effectively homeless and forced to sell their beds, the piano, the music collection, and their books. “The whole world is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expense of another,” Austen wrote after the family’s move to Bath.

So Worsley leads her readers on a tour of Austen’s homes, the modest Steventon Rectory, where George and Cassandra Austen raised their seven children and ran a boarding school for boys, the splendid Godmersham Park, where her older brother Edward lived grandly after inheriting a fortune from genteel relatives, the drafty apartments in Bath where Jane and her sister Cassandra settled into spinsterhood, the various vacation quarters along the seaside where her parents sought out therapeutic waters and cheap living, and finally, Chawton Cottage, where by her brother’s grace Austen lived with her mother and sister until she died. These homes illustrate Jane’s “downwardly mobile” status, as she moved from a marriageable young woman of prospects to the every-helpful Aunt Jane with no life or room of her own.

Worsley doesn’t eschew the world of ideas, but she exhorts us to look squarely at the material objects of Austen’s life—the cast-off shoes of her pet donkey, her bad pens, her bonnet ribbons, because, she argues, those material things shaped her life as much as the ideas she absorbed. In this approach, she draws inspiration from Paula Byrne’s remarkable 2013 The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, a biography told through a catalog of her possessions.

For all their different approaches, Kelly and Worsley agree on a number of revisions to the classic narratives of Austen’s life and work. Both proffer extreme skepticism about the memoirs of Austen family members, who softened the political acumen of Aunt Jane through a romantic Victorian haze. Both writers are cognizant of Austen’s awareness of the wide world beyond Britain. Even the domestic ties of home bound her to other lands and peoples; she herself may never have left England, but she possessed close relationships with two brothers in the navy, with an aunt who traveled to the West Indies for marriage and became the mistress of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India, and the offspring of their union, and with her colorful cousin Eliza, whose life was filled with the kinds of gothic escapades in which Catherine Morland delighted. With such a cast in her immediate beloved circle, Austen in her novels could hardly be “resisting or avoiding that other setting,” namely Britain’s colonial holdings or any other setting, as Edward Said claimed in his chapter on Mansfield Park in his 1993 Culture and Imperialism. Like Fanny Price, she asked questions about the slave trade, she read Thomas Clarkson’s abolitionist writings, and she knew exactly where her sugar came from.

In recent years, Jane Austen has received the dubious title of the great-grandmother or fairy godmother of chick-lit, and both Kelly and Worsley caution against the general tendency to read Austen’s novel as romantic escapism. Yes, courtship and marriage are at the center of her plots, but these are hardly lighthearted tales of romance. “Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband—her money, her body, her very existence, as a legal adult,” Kelly reminds us, and as Worsley points out, most marriages in Austen’s novels are unhappy, tragically or comically so.

And for all their well-done scholarship, neither Kelly and Worsley can help succumbing to genuine fan-girl love for Jane Austen. Worsley admits to being “a devotee and a worshipper,” who wrote every word of her biography with love. And Kelly maintains a Twitter identity as @MsAshtonDennis, the pseudonym Austen used (acronym MAD) when corresponding with the publisher who had bought the rights to her first novel but refused to bring it to press.

Kelly and Worsley have given us a politically and socially aware woman who attacked the established order with irony and ingenuity, an Austen for the global age whose desire to remake society from the ground up extended into the servant’s quarters and across the oceans to the outskirts of empire. Worsley has suggested that, “every generation gets the ‘Jane Austen’ it deserves.” I don’t know what we have done to deserve this Austen, but perhaps she is the one most suited to 2017. Two hundred years after her death, she appeals more than ever. As an artist and intellectual, she refused to be complacent in a stultifying society, and she used the limitations of her own life as a springboard for clever critique. Worsley and Kelly, two extraordinarily clever authoresses in their own right, urge us to find new meanings in her classic works. Women may no longer lust after the sizable fortunes of baronets, but truths can still be universally acknowledged, and Jane Austen, in her novels, her letters, and her life, can certainly teach us quite a few of them. Who knows what the next two hundred years shall yield?

— Laura Michele Diener

N5

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.

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Aug 062017
 

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The Tin Palace was a seminal place for jazz in the 70s and many well known figures today came up from the grass roots of that space. Paul Blackburn was a core figure in the poetry world of that time. The essay doesn’t belabor those points, but is focused on the mystery behind the history.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx—Paul Pines

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1. Intimations

Along with Dick Tracey’s two-way wrist radio watch, and Captain Midnight’s decoder ring, invisible ink highlighted the mysteries of my Brooklyn boyhood. The idea that unseen writing might surface with the heat of a flame held under the page was irresistible. I experimented with different solutions, like milk and vinegar, in an attempt to duplicate the process. Unhappily, little more came of these experiments beyond the flaming napkins in my hand.

My fascination was ignited again during hormonal teenage summers cruising the beach that ran along the southern hem of Brooklyn from the elevated BMT subway stop on Brighton Beach Avenue, all the way to Sea Gate. My crew roamed between the parachute-jump, rising like an Egyptian obelisk from Luna Park, to the fourteen story Half-Moon Hotel. Both loomed like thresholds at the edge of the known world. The haunting quality of the place was especially palpable in the shadow of the Half-Moon Hotel, where Abe Reles, as FBI informant guarded by six detectives, jumped or was pushed out the window on the sixth floor. Reles had already brought down numerous members of Murder Incorporated. His defenestration occurred in 1941, the day before he was scheduled to testify against Albert Anastasia. The hotel’s name echoed that of Henry Hudson’s ship, which had anchored briefly off nearby Gravesend Bay, hoping to find a short cut to Asia. Folded into the sight and smell of warm oiled bodies on the beach and under the boardwalk, past and future pressed hard against the flesh of the present.

Luna Park by Mark ShankerLuna Park by Marc Shanker

Nowhere more so than at Brighton Private, a pay-to-play beach club bordering Bay #1, one of fifteen numbered sandy plots along the Coney Island peninsula. Brighton Private aspired to the kind of exclusivity prized by the elite in Long Island or Atlantic City, but on the more modest basis of a daily entrance fee, as well as by subscription for those who rented lockers by the season. It offered a pool, steam room, cushioned lounge chairs and a superior cruising ground for boys in heat. Those inside could come and go to the ocean through a beach-side where the gate-keeper stamped the hands of members with a waterproof mark visible under a black light.

My crew from lower Flatbush devised a strategy for entering from the beach. We put together enough money for one person to get in, change into a bathing suit, and exit on the beach, his hand freshly stamped to validate re-entry. His mission was to reach the rest of us waiting out of sight, under the boardwalk, in time to impress the still wet stamp on our hands. This was not without an element of risk. Just as often, the mark got smeared or devolved into a smudge. At one time or another, we all had experienced the humiliation of being unmasked by the black light, and fleeing the consequences if caught.

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2. The Call

Before I opened the doors of my jazz club, the Tin Palace, the situation rang a bell that raised the memory of Brighton Private. I realized that there had to be a way of marking the threshold between that interior space built so lovingly and the war zone outside. Bowery and Second Street had been a no-man’s-land inhabited by winos, fleabag hotels, and those who spilled out of the Men’s Shelter on 3rd Street every morning. Then there were the predators who preyed on them, jackrollers from Alphabet City drawn by the monthly mailing of welfare checks, as well as junkies looking to score. It was also a deep underground network of creative energy. Artists’ lofts lined Bowery all the way to Chinatown, poets occupied the tenement hives and storefronts on the Lower East Side, and jazz lofts seeded by musicians sprang up like wildflowers on the side streets. My partner and I staked out our territory for the Tin Palace on the corner of Bowery and 2nd, transforming the burned-out husk of a bar into an oasis. Our interior featured walls taken down to the brick under a pressed tin ceiling, an art deco mahogany and rosewood bar, cocktail tables and a small stage for musicians. In the years that followed, I heard nightly improvisations that transported the entire room into another dimension, unfolding at the outer boundary of the cultural mainstream where survival is often “writ in tooth and claw.” From the start, I understood that such a space as we had made required its own rules and rituals, a way to make the mystery of its existence palpable to those who entered it. I settled on the idea of a rubber seal dipped in invisible ink made visible under a black light.

Tin Palace entrance by Ray RossTin Palace entrance by Ray Ross

In August, 1972 there was only one listing in the Manhattan Yellow Pages for Invisible Ink. I traveled up to 23rd Street and walked that long stretch between Third Avenue and the tenement facing Madison Park in the shadow of the Flatiron Building. An elderly male voice responded to my signal on the buzzer asking what I wanted.

I answered, “Invisible Ink.”

The face that greeted me at the door at the top of six flights of stairs filled out the picture.

 

The Invisible Ink Man had been taller in his youth, his back now bent at an angle that reduced him by a couple of inches. A cloud of white hair circled his head, and frown lines framed a kind but expressionless face, as though hinting at the unseen interior. He wore a white shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows and brown pants. The room I entered was dimly lit, flanked by long tables cluttered with newspapers and magazines. There was a living space at far end, a round table circled by folding chairs, a couch behind it. He apologized for the appearance of his digs, letting me know the obvious, that he didn’t receive many visitors these days. His face brightened, and he seemed to straighten out when I told him why I’d come.

“I can customize the stamp to your design,” he told me. “Do you have something in mind?”

I emphasized that this stamp would operate at the gateway of two worlds, and wondered if something Egyptian, The Eye of Horus, or maybe Hermes’s winged sandals that allowed him to move between worlds. The Invisible Ink Man nodded, thoughtfully, before saying he had books of designs if I wanted to look through them. He then went on to reminisce, letting me know that his had once been a burgeoning business. The call for his product had kept him busy with orders from all over the world. He had been a craftsman, reaching for a high bar with the quality and power of his designs. Now, he was the last of his breed.

Apollo pouring a libation to a blackbirdApollo pouring a libation to a blackbird

“Let me think about what I want,” I hesitated.

The Invisible Ink Man replied that would be fine. When I asked if there was a bathroom I could use before I left, he pointed to a door behind one of the long tables. It was a small room with a pull chain bulb that illuminated a veined marble sink and a vintage toilet crowned by a wooden thunder box. Tucked behind the pipe leading up to the box, a poster with the Day-Glo figure of a man half-way into a toilet, his hand on the pull chord of a chain such as I held, spoke through the inscription, “Goodbye cruel world.” I pulled my chain to the thunderous applause of water from the tank above the toilet. The Day-Glo figure remained. I wondered if he expressed something unseen in the Invisible Ink Man, what would emerge from my host’s interior under the appropriate x-ray.

The Invisible Ink Man walked me to the stairs. He assured me that if I got back to him in time, he would make me a stamp for the ages and provide me with a generous supply of ink in the invisible color of my choice.

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3. Collapsing time

Walking on 23rd towards 5th Avenue, I stopped at an empty parking lot. On another mission, a few years earlier, I had seen the poet Paul Blackburn standing in that lot, head tilted, looking at something that had caught his eye.

“There was a building in front of this one.” Paul said when I joined him. “Sarah and I lived in it.”

“And now it’s gone.”

“I can still see the room where we made love, the view from the window.”

Cornelia Street 1922 by John SloanCornelia Street 1922 by John Sloan

He stared intently, as though what he described was still going on in that space, time out of mind. There were few poets more alive to the sights, sounds and feelings rising from a unseen source, images becoming clear under the ultraviolet glow of his imagination. Paul moved between visible and invisible worlds, like Hermes, but wearing a cowboy hat instead of a winged helmet. Through him I became aware of poetry not only as art but as physics—or in the words of Ervin Laszlow, a place where field precedes from. His poems formed themselves on the page like the incarnate nervous system of the experience he brought to light, a design specific to it, but inevitable. Paul’s fields invited oracular, synchronistic, spooky action at a distance, while cleaving to the physical details. As he wrote in his poem “The Net of Place,” The act defines me even if it is not my act / The hawk circles over the sea / My act

When I encountered Paul in the parking lot gazing at the invisible space which once contained the apartment where he and his second wife, Sarah, had made love, I was reminded of the mystery that sustained him and his work, to which I aspired in mine: to capture in that net the energy patterns that are so immediately present to the senses, but exist outside of time as well. The net of place contains both visible and invisible worlds. Or, as Paul put it at the conclusion of his poem: When mind dies of its time / It is not the place goes away.

Angel, New Orleans by Paul PinesAngel: New Orleans by Paul Pines

Clearly, Paul, who died in 1971, had also been my Invisible Ink Man.

My desire to realize the forms inherent in the field of my own experience, moved me to ask him if he would write an introduction to my first collection, Onion, forthcoming from Mulch Press. I’d already encountered resistance from the literary gatekeepers. They would not stamp my hand. I felt so much rode on Paul’s blessing.

He wrote three introductions, which I rejected. Each one fell short of what I had hoped for, something worthy of what I reached for. I had counted on a certain gravitas that was not there. One of his introductions described me as a small man walking a large dog down Second Avenue, reveling in his world. It was full of an affection I didn’t get at that time. The image of me as presented was accurate, even vivid. I may have glimpsed as much, but couldn’t bear it.

Onion came out the year Paul died, 1971, with no introduction.

Twenty years later, preparing to read at a tribute to Paul in St. Mark’s Church, I searched his Collected Poems for a poem I loved, “Cabras,” about goats in the next field hobbled because they are otherwise difficult to catch, but remain “so quick, stubborn / and full of fun.” It reminded me of Mallorca, where we had both lived at different times. And about ourselves, in the respective fields of our callings. As I leafed through the thick volume of Paul’s collected works I stumbled on lines from his Journals that sent a shock through my system, and then left me in shaken. They had been sent silently years earlier, but heard first in that instant. Paul’s final message to me once again collapsed time.

xxxxxxxxHow can we
offer it all, Paul? How
ignore the earth movers . will
take it all down?

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4. On the threshold

I never saw the Invisible Ink Man again. I did manage to get a stamp, invisible ink pad and a black light stationed at the entrance to my Bowery jazz club. There was nothing designed to order, and after a while the process became too slow and unreliable. But I did come away from my journey to 23rd street that day with a greater appreciation for the mystery I felt on the threshold of that door separating the interior of the Tin Palace from the world outside of it, what I thought of as my Camelot, a moment of light in the dark. The fact that that my light burned brightly for the decade, then went out, gave me a deeper understanding of the field from which such forms arise and dissolve.

Outside the Tin Palace, 1976 by Amos RiceOutside the Tin Palace, 1976 (courtesy Patricia Spears Jones) clockwise: Stanley Crouch, Alice Norris, David Murray, Carlos Figueroa, Patricia Spears Jones, Phillip Wilson, Victor Rosa and Charles “Bobo” Shaw

Invisible Ink is a metaphor for a narrative already written that in the heat of time will emerge to be read as destiny, history, or memory. I track this in my own experience to the Invisible Ink Man and his thunder box toilet, Paul Blackburn reliving his intimacy with Sarah in the empty parking lot, and my moment beside him wondering at the invisibility of it all. The Greeks thought of their underworld as a place where hidden treasures were stored, and it is easy to conflate those with memories that are eternal and continuous.

What I contemplate still at the entrance to my own underworld.

All thresholds are essentially boundaries between the known and the unknown. One enters a jazz club from the street to call forth invisibles not available elsewhere to the eye and ear, the audible changes that disclose hidden places. Often these are places known and forgotten, and now known again in a way that changes everything.

Paul Blackburn by R.B. KitajPaul Blackburn by R.B. Kitaj

I am certain that there is a connection between the moments in my life when someone stamped my hand with invisible ink that can be seen under a black light, and the initiation into a mystery as old as Eleusis—the veils of Persephone, and Isis. I consider what took place at the Tin Palace, beyond the big oak doors on the Bowery, and why Paul Blackburn haunted The Five Spot, followed the improvisations he heard, and reproduced them on the page. I remain fascinated in a childlike way; I wanted to possess Captain Midnight’s decoder, the latent, undisclosed landscape of potentials, things in their nascent state on the way to being realized. In this pursuit, earlier guides like Toth, Hermes, and Telesphoros, now have names like Monk, Mingus, and Coltrane. Paul Blackburn died before I opened the doors to my club, but I’d like to think he would have been at home there. We shared a desire to hold the heat of our attention to the page of a given moment and watch what had been written there unseen, emerge into plain sight. It draws me still. And Paul, as I imagine him, tuned to what emerges from the implicate order on the other side of that threshold. He was, after all, no stranger to the kiss of invisible ink.

—Paul Pines

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Paul Pines grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early ’60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August ’65 to February ’66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published eleven books of poetry: OnionHotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, Breath, Adrift on Blinding LightTaxidancingLast Call at the Tin Palace, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, Divine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros and Fishing on the Pole Star. The last collection won the Adirondack Center for Writing Award as the best book of poetry in 2013. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia appear on the Summit label. He is the editor of the Juan Gelman’s selected poems translated by Hardie St. Martin, Dark Times/ Filled with Light (Open Letters Press, 2012). Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend.

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Aug 062017
 

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Three days after the fortuitous capture of Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man for four months, the BBC published a profile of his lawyer, Sven Mary. The title of the piece was deliberately incendiary and utterly telling of the sentiment prevalent in Paris, in London, in Brussels, in Europe: “Sven Mary: The Scumbag’s Lawyer.”

Despite his notoriety in Belgium as a high-profile defense attorney, I had never before seen a photograph of Sven Mary – indeed, I hadn’t even heard the name until I clicked on the aforementioned piece. Hence, it’s fair to say that I had never really had much of a chance to build a balanced image of the lawyer in question, my judgment necessarily skewed by the tone of the very first notice I had of the existence of this man. This circumstance immediately made me think of Atticus Finch, the hero in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Sven Mary

The connection, I must confess, was neither fortuitous nor particularly inspired. I had already been working on a tribute to Lee, and the parallels are, of course, immediately obvious: set in 1935, in the archetypal small town of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in endearing terms the tense situation that unfolds when Tom Robinson, a black man, is unfairly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a disenfranchised young white woman. Entitled by law to a defense lawyer, Robinson is paired up with Atticus Finch, the unofficial standard-bearer of integrity and fairness in a town where prejudice is rife – though no more so, I would suspect, than in any real-life small town of the South at the time.