Jul 152017
 

Henry Miller in Paris by BrassaiHenry Miller in Paris (photo by Brassaï)

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Victoria Best has a theory about creativity and writers in crisis. This stunning essay is one of a series of which she writes: “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.”

By the time 38-year-old Henry Miller left America for Paris in February 1930, he had taken to signing himself as ‘the Failure’. In reality, the ratio of irony to truth in this gesture was uncomfortably low. America had been the scene of repeated humiliation for him; he left behind a bitterly disappointed mother, an ex-wife still pursuing him for unpaid alimony, a dozen poorly paid jobs for which he hadn’t had the stamina or the will, and now the love of his life, June Mansfield.

June had more or less booted him out of the apartment and across the Atlantic. It was a final attempt at forcing him to achieve the artistic genius he so avidly sought; and besides, his prolonged gloom was cramping her style. As he walked away, he was afraid to look up at the window to wave her goodbye, in case she was already engaged in some sort of activity he would rather not know about.

He took with him the sum total of seven years of writing: two manuscripts of dubious merit that no one wanted to publish. When the editor, Bruce Barton, read some of his early work, he returned it with the comment ‘it is quite evident that writing is not your forté’. Miller was taking that remark with him, too, branded on his heart. In his pocket the one useful leaving gift – a $10 note from his friend, Emil Schnellock – wouldn’t last long, but the friendship would prove key to a dramatic upswing in Miller’s fortunes. Not that he had the least premonition of that. As the ship sailed away from the dock, Henry Miller went down to his cabin, thought back over his life and wept.

When he arrived in Paris, the city destined to save him, he sank to a whole new level of poverty. He had nothing, not even a rudimentary grasp of the French language. The days of the famous ‘lost generation’ of compatriot writers were past, luminaries like Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald long gone, leaving Miller, as always, out of synch with his own culture. He had no papers that would help him find work, no family or acquaintances, and no money unless June cabled it to the American Express office, a location he now visited up to three times a day. Mostly, he had to beg, steal or starve. When there was money, he was forced to wonder how she had come by it.

But Paris started to provide him with unexpected resources. He had beauty and degradation all around him, and he had his curiosity, braced by his astute powers of observation. He had the warm and accepting welcome of the French people, and in these hungry times there were café owners willing to extend credit or even feed him for free. In a marked contrast to America, there was compassion for what it was to be a struggling artist. Here, he didn’t have to be making money to call himself a writer. He didn’t even have to be writing something to have his ambition and desire understood. And in this tender absence of pressure, Miller began to settle down to work he didn’t even realise he was doing. He took long walks around his city, absorbing the exotic sights and sounds, and wrote down everything he saw in letters to Emil Schnellock that ran to twenty, thirty pages. It was an eccentric strategy for what would gradually morph into an eccentric, unique, disturbing book.

***

Published in 1934, Tropic of Cancer was the infamous result of Henry Miller’s prolonged struggles, and there would be people who wished he hadn’t bothered. It remains the most grudgingly admired literary bestseller of the twentieth century; a paradigm shifting book that was a sort of Ulysses for the common man. Most of all, it pushed against ingrained puritanism, casually invoking the kind of graphic sexuality that is taken for granted nowadays.

Henry knew he had produced something that was both challenging and insulting. From the moment the book was a finished first draft until its eventual release onto the American market, it was one of his most cherished paranoid fantasies that he would have to go to prison for what he had written. Punishment enough, perhaps, that it was banned beyond the boundaries of France for the next thirty years, and when fame finally arrived, Miller would be too old and too wary to enjoy it.

Tropic of Cancer cover image original edCover of  original edition, 1934

The crimes of Tropic of Cancer alleged over the next eight decades are various, notably formlessness, and the rash of four-letter words that pit the surface of the otherwise eloquent text like a kind of punctuation. Its characters are unashamedly self-absorbed and hopeless, living the lives of scroungers and scoundrels. But the major assault cited remains on the dignity of sexual relations, reduced to sordid and one-sided tussles between horny men and ‘fuckable cunts’.

That Miller’s narrator utters such insults in a tone of amused indifference rather than hostility or aggression seemed only to rile the feminists further. Kate Millett in the early 1960s decried the image of women in the book as worthless objects, used and abused for the man’s pleasure and too stupid even to know it.  Miller, she said, articulated ‘the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically, its masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality.’ And this criticism of the book has never gone away or been satisfactorily answered. ‘Why do men revel in the degradation of women?’ Jeanette Winterson asked, writing about the book in the New York Times Sunday Review in 2012. Why indeed? But when a man makes unprovoked attacks on the image of womanhood, it’s always worth taking a good look at his mother.

‘It’s as though my mother fed me a poison, and though I was weaned young the poison never left my system,’ Miller wrote in Tropic of Capricorn. Louise Miller was a loveless woman, a strict disciplinarian and a tyrant when crossed or thwarted. She came from a puritanical family with a strong work ethic, but this had not meant security. When she was twelve, her mother had been taken away to the asylum, leaving Louise to bring up her sisters (who would also have breakdowns in time). The authority she wielded was still composed of childish strategies – prolonged rages, violence, a complicated system of irrational rules whose smallest infringement she could not tolerate. Having had to grow up too quickly, she had never grown up at all. She would consult Henry over matters he was far too young to understand. Once she asked him what to do about a wart on her hand and he suggested cutting it off with the kitchen scissors. This she did and subsequently contracted blood poisoning. ‘And you told me to do this?’ she raged at Henry, slapping him repeatedly. He was four years old.

When Henry’s sister, Lauretta, was born, it gradually became apparent that there was something wrong with her. She was a sweet, gentle child but her intelligence never developed beyond that of a nine-year-old. This was something Louise could not accept, and Henry grew to loathe the lessons his mother attempted to give her, which always ended in frustration and lengthy beatings. In his early years, Henry overcompensated for Lauretta, showing off his ability to recite dates and facts and tables to entertain and distract his mother, and defuse her wrath. But the effort soon began to seem greater than the reward; whatever he did it was not enough to save his sister. So Henry rebelled. He acted up in school and fought against all kinds of control and discipline. And at home, he discovered a way of hypnotising himself that helped him escape from the ugly scenes. It would prove useful in other problematic relationships, though it looked from the outside like callousness. In time it would become coldness, hardness, the chip of ice in the heart that Graham Greene said all authors needed to keep their minds free from emotion. Henry Miller would come to provide a perfect example of both a life and an oeuvre in which that icy chip proved vital.

Henry Miller with parents and sister Lauretta_1Henry Miller with parents and sister  

Young Henry was attracted to anarchy, but he was sensitive and afraid of fights, qualities he would seek to overcome or hide for the rest of his life. He was growing up in an age that celebrated virile masculinity and sold it as hard as possible, with Teddy Roosevelt as the romanticised poster boy. Henry had a tendency to idolise any man involved in a showily aggressive profession – boxers, soldiers and con men were all high on his list.

Was this because his own father was the embodiment of weakness? Heinrich Miller was a tailor and an alcoholic, of the sodden kind rather than the violent. He avoided home as much as possible, though the rows he had with Louise over the dinner table still gave Henry a nervous reaction that made him gag on his food. Henry was packed off to the Sunday-school sponsored Boys’ Brigade, which promised to drill him in all sorts of soldierly activities. He was delighted with the exercises and the mock battles, but dreaded the moment when members of the group ‘reported for duty’, which involved being taken by the Major into his office and sat on his lap to be fondled. Eventually boys complained and the Major was ousted in disgrace.

This was the crazily gendered world that Henry grew up in, a world in which his mother was the strongest, fiercest and scariest person he knew. It was a world that impressed on men the importance of virility, but the men held up as real role models for Henry were a sad old soak and a paedophile. Being manly was the American imperative and Henry longed to be it, but what did it mean? It couldn’t be about authority or hard graft  – that took him too close to his mother. And so gradually the pattern emerged that for Henry, manliness was about freedom from conventional morality. It was about absolute autonomy. It was about surrounding himself with other hapless male souls and accepting their flaws unconditionally.

But what was he to do about his own gentle, sensitive and weak side? The conflict in his personality would prove deeply problematic when it came to sexual relationships. The writer who would be hailed as the Grand Old Man Of Sex fell in love with his first serious passion at sixteen, a pretty young woman called Cora Seward. Every night for four years he would excuse himself after dinner to walk past her house, never pausing to call at the door. That was the extent of his respectful adoration, and also the extent of his fear. Unable to approach his ‘angel’ he went to the whorehouse instead and got himself a dose of the clap. Henry’s attitude to sex was mired in the 19th century, in that torrid hothouse atmosphere of right and wrong, good and bad. When the cool, sweeping winds of 20th-century freedom rushed up to meet it, something tempestuous was bound to result.

***

It was late summer in 1923 when Henry walked into Wilson’s dance hall near to Times Square. He was 31. He had come for the taxi-dance, a soft form of prostitution where ten cents could buy a man a dance with the girl of his choice, and his own powers of persuasion would have to do the rest. Miller had a wife and a small child, but the relationship was in the final stages of collapse. ‘From the day we hitched up it was a running battle,’ Henry would later write. He had married because he wanted to avoid conscription but his new wife, Beatrice, brought the battle to the domestic front, nagging Henry to get a job and keep it and do the things a husband should. If there was one thing Henry dealt with badly, it was being told what to do. The man he had become in that marriage was no one to be proud of; he was cruel and insulting to Beatrice, self-centred and reckless. He badly wanted an escape route but his congenital passivity prevented him from finding one.

Wilsons Dancing Studio 1920Wilson’s Dancing Studio, 1920 (photo from New York Public Library online archive via Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company blog)

He noticed a woman walking towards him across the dance hall, a tall woman with a full figure, blue-black hair framing her pale face and brilliant eyes. ‘The whole being was concentrated in the face,’ Henry later wrote. ‘I could have taken just the head and walked home with it; I could have put it beside me at night, on a pillow, and made love to it.’ She was ‘America on foot, winged and sexed.’ She was, in fact, Juliet Edith Smerth from Austria-Hungary, an emotionally unbalanced fantasist, earning what living she could with her body and funding a drug habit. She undoubtedly had tremendous allure, but the gap between what she was and what Henry wrote about her shows the extent of the myth-making, the psychodrama and the sheer power with which he would invest her.

June Mansfield (she made the name up for Henry on the spot) longed to be immortalised in art, and Henry longed for a muse to validate his unproven literary talents.  This was what they would ultimately get from each other, although it would cost Henry an acrimonious divorce from Beatrice, and seven years of suffering in this new marriage. ‘She put him through the tortures of hell,’ said Alfred Perlès, one of Henry’s closest friends, ‘but he was masochistic enough to enjoy it.’

From the beginning, June offered Henry the sort of adrenaline- and sex-fuelled excitement he’d thirsted for in his empty life. On their first date in the taxi home, June insisted they were being followed by gangsters, and this set the tone for the drama and the elaborate ruses she loved. She believed in Henry’s ability to write and insisted he stop work to devote himself to art. Henry was keen and June determined, but there was the slight problem of no funds. There followed a long period of odd, short-lived and demeaning jobs, including a speakeasy that eventually foundered. That they were incapable of making money from alcohol during Prohibition says a lot about their business acumen.

What June really liked but Henry didn’t, was what she called ‘golddigging’. This involved June hustling men who were willing to pay cash for any sort of cover scheme that meant they could spend time with her. June often tried to assure Henry that sex was not part of the deal, and Henry did his best to believe this. But biographer Mary Dearborn argued that ‘Jealousy was the glue of their relationship and June made sure to give him ample cause for it. […] She surrounded herself with chaos, and Miller thrived on it. And she kept the relationship, always, at a fevered pitch.’

June Miller June Mansfield 

Inevitably things soured. There was so little money, Henry’s writing was going nowhere and ratcheting up tension caused its own problems. One day June brought home a disturbing puppet with violet hair and a black sombrero. He was called Count Bruga and symbolised trouble. Not long afterwards the woman who had made the puppet arrived too. Jean Kronski was a real genius, June said, with clear implications. She had been admitted to Bellevue for observation, but the doctors had agreed to release her if June would stand as guardian; cheering news to hear about an impending houseguest.

Other men might have fled the camp, or refused to play along, but Henry was too emotionally entangled and too passive. So he was forced to become an unwilling witness to his wife’s infatuation with another woman, and June and Jean were able to crank up the madness in their folie à trois. They lived in squalor, washing dishes in the bath, using dirty clothes for towels, the floor strewn with plaster of Paris, paints, books, rubbish. June airily discarded all suggestions she was a lesbian, but Henry had been ousted from her bed and Jean was now in it. Henry made scenes. He made a half-hearted suicide attempt. He took to his bed for ten days (though he was reading Proust). The more uptight he became, the more bohemian and cruel June acted.

There was a protective split opening up in Henry’s character over this time. He was bitterly humiliated by his wife’s behaviour, not least because her relationship with Jean attacked him right where it hurt, in his tentative sexuality. The lack of money and the failure of his ambitions were desperate blows to his self-esteem and he was beginning to loathe America and all it stood for – the work ethic, the commercialism, the disinterest in art. And yet, that chip of ice in his heart was doing its job. When he wrote begging letters to his friends signed ‘the Failure’, he carefully stored the carbon copies, optimistically hoping that posterity would need them. In Nexus, the autobiographical novel he later wrote of this period in his life, ‘Mona’ (June) tells the narrator:

‘You look for trouble. Now don’t be offended. Maybe you need to suffer. Suffering will never kill you, that I can tell you. No matter what happens you’ll come through, always. You’re like a cork. Push you to the bottom and you’ll rise again. Sometimes it frightens me, the depths to which you can sink. I’m not that way. My buoyancy is physical, yours is… I was going to say spiritual but that isn’t quite it. It’s animalistic.’

He may have been lost in emotional chaos, but Henry was following his lodestar. ‘It knows that all the errors, all the detours, all the failures and frustrations will be turned to account,’ Miller wrote in Nexus. ‘[T]o be born a writer one must learn to like privation, suffering, humiliation. Above all, one must learn to live apart.’ He got to do just that when he returned home one day and found a note on the kitchen table, telling him that June and Jean had sailed for France. Not only had Jean usurped his place in June’s heart, she’d hijacked his cherished dream of escape, too. June would return in a couple of months without her and determined Henry should see Paris, but he could not foresee this. Instead, he broke every piece of furniture in the apartment and alarmed the landlady with his howling. When the initial despair passed, Henry realised that this was something he could write about; in Nexus he describes sitting down and taking notes. He had been following his instincts, but now illumination came to him: the brutality, the humiliation, the intense misery and the deprivation were a story, the best one that had ever been given to him. It would take him many years to put that story into words, but the revelation was important. From now on, Henry knew that his own life would become his art.

***

The transformation that Paris effected on Henry’s writing style was little short of miraculous. In America he’d been trying to shoehorn his anarchic outlook into the sort of 19th-century fictional models favoured by his literary heroes, Knut Hamsun, Theodore Dreiser and Dostoyevsky, and the contrast was awkward and false. Just as his passive personality did not fit the go-getting attitude popular in America, neither did his coarse and chaotic style. ‘There was a retirement about the idea of literature, a sort of salon atmosphere, which Miller feared would never be able to accommodate a rude voice like his,’ writes biographer, Robert Ferguson. Once he left it all behind, Henry realised how suffocated he had been.

In Paris, he was able to give in to his instincts, which Ferguson describes as ‘those of a film producer whose consciousness was actually a machine for assembling a cast, picking the locations and taking notes for the script of a major production.’ Eye-catching Paris offered him visual riches; grubby, valiant, warm-hearted Paris, full of losers and eccentrics, where there was even a place for a prostitute with a wooden leg, as Miller would memorably describe. The literature of France had already embraced the poor, sordid aspects of existence: Zola had described his whores with intense pity, and now Henry could come along and write about them with an ex-pat’s pride, as the kind of landmark that would be extraordinary back home, but which he now took in his stride.

Le Dome Cafe Paris 1930sParis cafe, 1930s

Freed from the mesmerising chaos of June, Henry woke up; he looked and listened carefully. ‘Hearing another language daily sharpens your own language for you, makes you aware of shades and nuances you never expected,’ he would later tell an interviewer for the Paris Review. He had fallen by chance into exactly the right practice exercises. Writing to Emil Schnellock he enthused that ‘In a letter I can breeze along and not bother to be too careful about grammar, etc. I can say Jesus when I like and string the adjective out by the yard.’ His new friend, Michael Fraenkel, read one of the manuscripts he’d brought with him from America and advised him to tear it up. He told Miller to write as he spoke and as he lived.

Henry then found a way to convey the hallucinatory vividness of the life he was living. He had gone to the movies and seen the avant-garde film of the moment, Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvadore Dali. The film made ‘a lasting impression on him’, according to Frederick Turner, author of a study on the genesis of Tropic of Cancer: ‘he was intrigued by its formlessness, its sudden, jolting scenes of cruelty, which felt as if the artists were mysteriously inflicting these on audiences conditioned to regard movies as a passive form of entertainment.’ Paris was high on crazy artworks where there were no limits, where cruelty was all the rage, and suddenly, Henry fit right in; he loved forcing readers to accept unpalatable truths. He began to conceive of a new kind of book, one based on his experiences in France, and he wrote excitedly to Schnellock ‘I start tomorrow on the Paris book: First person, uncensored, formless – fuck everything!’

Paris even helped him find the right mindset to deal with the failures of the past and the uncertainties of the future. It was here that he discovered the Tao Te Ching, whose philosophy of going with the flow and accepting all the confusion and sorrow as essential aspects of existence offered him exactly the even-tempered fatalism that chimed with his heart. That chip of ice was beginning to look like wisdom. For the first time he was given permission not to wallow in failure but to look at it squarely as necessary, unavoidable, and beyond the reach of judgement. When he came to write about it in Tropic of Cancer, he would take it a twist further, producing a book that was a tenderly satirical celebration of the very worst in humanity.

There was of course one more thing Henry would need to write his book, and that was money. One of his survival tactics in the early days was to exchange a bed for the night for housekeeping services, and this he did with Richard Osborn, an American lawyer working for the National City Bank by day and fancying himself a bohemian writer at night. Osborn introduced Henry to his boss’s wife, Anaïs Nin, and the two quickly became infatuated with each other’s minds, bonding over a shared interest in D. H. Lawrence.

Miller knew he was punching above his social weight. Anaïs was properly exotic and genuinely cultured, having been born in Paris and lived in New York and Cuba. She also wanted to write and had a dominantly erotic nature, one fuelled by desire and curiosity and not, like June’s, in order to pay the rent. Instead, she started giving Henry books, then paying his train tickets and slipping him 100 francs in an envelope. June, visiting Henry in Paris, wanted to see this magical mentor, and there was an instant attraction between these two women who both liked to play the alpha female.  Anaïs was alert to all that was alluringly perverse in June’s nature, and once again Henry found himself shunted to one side while two women circled each other in fascination.

Anais NinAnaïs Nin

This time, though, June could not be tempted into a relationship with Nin. ‘Anaïs was just bored with her life, so she took us up,’ she would later claim, and Nin would call it ‘the only ugly thing I have ever heard her say.’ June became, instead, a catalyst between Anaïs and Henry, as they endlessly discussed her and dissected her mystique. The balance of the relationship with June was changing, though, for Henry was falling hard for Nin. He blamed this latest humiliation on June, whilst Anaïs, who had in fact attempted all the seducing, could do no wrong.

Henry wrote breathlessly to Schnellock, ‘Can’t you picture what it is to me to love a woman who is my equal in every way, who nourishes me and sustains me? If we ever tie up there will be a comet let loose in the world.’ This time June fought and made the scenes to no avail. She returned, defeated, to America in a split that would be definitive, and Henry and Anaïs became lovers. Passion was the last alchemical element Henry needed, and once with Nin he found he was writing swiftly and well, producing a bold, innovative, painfully honest, surprisingly funny book.

Miller took all that he’d been through in Paris and transformed it into something coherent and artistically shapely. Later in life he would call himself the ‘most sincere liar’, which is a fine description of any fiction writer. He took the people he’d been living with and gave them fictional names whilst enhancing the worst parts of their personalities; he took the real places that he’d been and described them through the vocabulary of decay and disease. But most of all he used that chip of ice to take an emotional step backwards and infuse his narrator’s voice with tender and amused acceptance of everything he saw. This happy absence of judgement upon a life of squalor lived without dignity made the novel endearing to readers who had suffered intolerable humiliations of their own. Tropic of Cancer offers a powerful affirmation of the strength of the human spirit, even in the most depressing and hopeless of conditions.

But this was in some ways incidental to Henry’s preoccupation with writing an entirely new kind of manliness, which involved surrounding himself with hapless males and regarding their faults with indulgence. ‘I just want to be read by the ordinary guys and liked by them,’ Miller wrote to Schnellock. One of the flaws he portrays honestly and indulgently in his ordinary guys is the way they have sex on the brain but lack the emotional intelligence, the class and the courage to have anything like a real relationship. Take for example his friend, Carl, pondering the ethics of becoming involved with a rich older woman he’s not attracted to:

‘But supposing you married her and then you couldn’t get a hard on any more – that happens sometimes – what would you do then? You’d be at her mercy. You’d have to eat out of her hand like a little poodle dog. You’d like that, would you? Or maybe you don’t think of those things? I think of everything.… No the best thing would be to marry her and then get a disease right away. Only not syphilis. Cholera, let’s say, or yellow fever. So that if a miracle did happen and your life was spared you’d be a cripple for the rest of your days. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about fucking her any more… She’d probably buy you a fine wheelchair with rubber tires and all sorts of levers and whatnot.’

Or the dastardly Van Norden, a man who defiles everything he touches, terrified at being so continually abandoned in the trenches of the erotic:

‘For a few seconds afterwards I have a fine spiritual glow… and maybe it would continue that way indefinitely – how can you tell? – if it weren’t for the fact that there’s a woman beside you and then the douche bag and the water running… and all those little details that make you desperately selfconscious, desperately lonely. And for that one moment of freedom you have to listen to all that love crap… it drives me nuts sometimes…’

Erica Jong, writing in fierce defence of the book, argues that Tropic of Cancer works with the same principles as feminist literature, ‘the same need to destroy romantic illusions and see the violence at the heart of heterosexual love.’ And it’s true that the characters in the book are rigorously stripped of pretension and the dishonest flourishes of ego, vanity and pride. The point of plumbing the depths of the human condition is at least in part to clear away all illusion and delusion, for Miller believed that idealism had damaged the world far more than any acceptance of our base physicality might, and that this idealism affected far more than mere sexuality.

In one of the defining anecdotes of Tropic of Cancer, the narrator escorts a young and inexperienced Hindu man to the local brothel. In nervous confusion he uses the bidet as a toilet, horrifying the Madame and her girls and embarrassing himself. But the narrator, unfazed as ever, sees universal significance in the incident of an uncommon kind. The basic problem of life, he says, is that ‘Everything is endured – disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui – in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable’. Such a belief flies in the face of reality and demands an arresting rebuttal.

‘I think what a miracle it would be if this miracle which man attends eternally should turn out to be nothing more than these two enormous turds which the faithful disciple dropped in the bidet. What if at the last moment, when the banquet table is set and the cymbals clash, there should appear suddenly and wholly without warning, a silver platter on which even the blind could see that there is nothing more, and nothing less, than two enormous lumps of shit.’

The very structure of the joke – the enormous disparity between transcendental miracles and shit – gives away the subtle, underlying structure of the book. It’s the gap between the outspoken dreadfulness of Millers’ characters and our desire to identify with noble, sympathetic figures that is at once so awful and so funny, just as the expletives jar the beauty of the language, and the insulting attitude the male characters assume towards women is a lame stab at covering up their obsessive need for them, a need which rings out in the narrator’s lament for the woman he adored and who has returned to America without him:

‘I couldn’t allow myself to think about her very long; if I had I would have jumped off the bridge. […] When I realize that she is gone, perhaps gone forever, a great void opens up and I feel I am falling, falling, falling into deep, black space. And this is worse than tears, deeper than regret or pain or sorrow; it is the abyss into which Satan was plunged. There is no climbing back, no ray of light, no sound of human voice or human touch of hand.’

It was this familiar existential crisis – the pain of the mismatch between human aspirations and desires and the wholly insufficient reality that has to be accepted in their place – that finally formed the mainspring of Miller’s creativity.

The literary insight of the novel didn’t stop Tropic of Cancer being smuggled out of France by tourists for the next thirty years as the ultimate dirty book; sex sells but it also blinds. The book’s reputation rode far in advance of any reading that took place, and its tendency to stir strong emotions and ridicule with keen precision the most sensitive issues precluded much in the way of critical appraisal. It was a book that readers loved or hated, with their guts.

Nowadays the history of its suppression and the crude portrayal of women win all the headlines, but the real story of the book concerns the dominance of the women who provoked and created it: Henry’s fearsome mother, his sweet, crazy sister, his troublesome muse, June, and the book’s midwife, Anaïs Nin, who put up the money needed for publication. The book is an act of self-assertion that couldn’t help but reveal both the depths of his dependency on women, and the force of his resistance.

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Henry Miller biographies collage
Notes on Sources

I am indebted in this essay to three masterly accounts of Miller’s life: Mary Dearborn’s The Happiest Man Alive (HarperCollins, 1991), Robert Ferguson’s Henry Miller: A Life (Hutchinson, 1991) and Frederick Turner’s brilliant and detailed account of Miller’s creativity, Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer (Yale University Press, 2012). Also unmissable on Henry Miller’s life is Henry Miller. Tropic of Capricorn (1939), Nexus (1960) and Sexus (1949) all contributed to my understanding and remain extraordinary writings on the borderline of fiction and autobiography. Finally, Kate Millett’s essay on Miller in Sexual Politics (Virago, 1977) and Erica Jong’s The Devil at Large (Vintage, 1994) are, respectively, a fine critique and a fine tribute from the other side of the gender divide.

—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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Jul 152017
 

The doorbell rings for the second time today and only the second time since he moved into the condo a month ago. He opens the door to a slender woman in a sleeveless shift of pale color and pattern.

“You got my card,” she says, politely, though with some insistence.

The first time the bell rang was this morning for delivery of a print of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s cenotaph, which he hung in the landing of the stairs he just descended, now hovering above, behind him, a huge dark sphere against a dramatic sky, set on a massive circular base.

It is August and it is hot, pushing a hundred at least. It’s the kind of heat that slows thought and melts reserve and makes you aware only of the present moment, the only apparent truth of which is that it is hot. There is, however, a faint breeze.

“Yes,” he says but doesn’t know what she means though feels he should. Somehow her flat question, like her unexpected appearance, feels related to the heat.

She explains. She is a real estate agent who is looking for sellers so she can find buyers.

Now it makes sense. Actually he has received a dozen cards with the same request but doesn’t tell her. He doesn’t remember hers, however, though her picture must have been on it. He tells her he has just moved in so isn’t interested in selling, but instead of motioning towards parting he rests. He’s not eager to go back upstairs where it is hotter.

She lingers too, listing in the heat with weight on her left foot and head to the other side, creating slight asymmetric angles that show in folds down the looseness of her dress. She is quite young and likely new to real estate, likely indecisive and uncertain, perhaps a bit afraid. Plain, with auburn hair that falls to her shoulders and a long face that does not promote or defend, she has a quiet presence that appeals to him, an unstudied grace.

Actually she’s rather pretty.

But it’s the tattoo that holds him. It runs from her wrist up her right arm, covering it wholly, and disappears into the shoulder of the dress, a complicated design in fresh, bright colors he cannot make out in a single glance. Flowers, at least, but more, and it’s too involved to find attractive. He avoids looking, and it’s the not looking that locks him in its grip. Not that he hasn’t seen tattoos before. They are part of the cultural landscape. But now they are everywhere. This is Portland.

The sky is clear and bright, contradicting the clouds and drizzle he was led to expect. If he was high enough he could see the sharp, snow-streaked peak of Mount Hood starkly rising above flat Oregon. But the sky, like the heat, feels permanent and absolute, as if there never was and never could be any other kind of weather.

A cenotaph is a monument honoring a person whose remains lie elsewhere, in Boullée’s case Sir Isaac Newton.

“Two bedroom?” she asks.

“No, three.”

And he explains the layout of the complex, some twenty independent units, each with six condos, that line one side of a long block, turn at the end, and return down the other side, making a U with an open court and drive in its middle. Two one-bedroom condos on the first floor front the streets, with two two-floor three-bedroom above them. Two two-floor two-bedroom at the back sit above the garages and face each other and the court.

She takes all this in.

The architecture is modern and distinctive, with odd angles and gray and muted orange and blue planes arranged in a varied but subdued design that makes a relaxed yet orderly procession down the street and around the U within. He rather likes it. Landscaping is obviously done on a budget, but it is interesting, with many plants and trees he does not know.

Circling the cenotaph on three levels, cypress trees, symbols of mourning, tightly spaced.

Would she like to see the place?

There can be nothing suspicious in his offer. He has two daughters, older. She must be able to see him for what he is, a man in his early sixties with some refinement, scarcely imposing. He does have a motive, however. He is curious if he got a good deal on his place and wants to know where the neighborhood is headed. Now it occurs to him he wants to help her. She has stiff competition, and he might be able to give her an edge.

Actually he has no idea how he looks. He is sweating down his face and has dark circles in the armpits of his t-shirt. He hasn’t shaved today and must look haggard and maybe something else he cannot see but suspects. Then there is the feeling he does not voice in his thoughts, that the heat has brought out what and who he actually is, which, again, he cannot see.

It is the effect of the heat, that it dissolves illusion and reveals actuality, or seems to.

She would, and she takes off her shoes and he lets her go first and watches her ascend with speed and resolve that surprises him, then follows her up into the rising heat. She stops at the print, pauses and stares without comment, then turns and gives the room the same look, curious, taking in, not judging.

The layout is open, a large room with space for cooking, dining, and living, plus a small recess to the right next to a door that opens onto a small porch. The open plan, he thinks, has become a cliché, whose inspiration has been lost in years of unexamined accommodation. But the space is interesting, with a tall ceiling cut by the visible diagonal ascent of the stairs to the three bedrooms above. He has divided the space with low bookshelves in a loose cubist design. Much is in place, much still has to be resolved. The room should work for the new life he envisions.

But even though the windows are wide open the air is still, and with the blinds drawn the heat has turned dark in the shaded room, making his plan look static and confused. Yet she walks about, studying space, taking mental measurements and reassembling, tentatively but with an easy acceptance that puts him at ease.

The scale of the cenotaph is enormous. The sphere has a diameter of 500 feet and human reference is nearly lost. Broad stairs lead to entry through a round opening, large yet small compared to the sphere, which dwarfs. Then a long tunnel leads to the interior where there is only the vacant sarcophagus, in the center, and vast, empty space.

Holes are cut in the exterior to simulate inside the points of light of stars in the universe, the interior otherwise dark and seemingly without end.

At night a central hanging light illumines.

The cenotaph, however, was never built.

She puts a hand on the closet door beneath the stairs, stops, turns, and gives him a raised-eye look that asks may I, and he replies with a wave that says by all means. She flicks the switch and looks inside, then extends her exploration further, gaining momentum, as she studies the fireplace, the moldings, the windows, the fixtures, the recessed and suspended lights, the appliances, and the many kitchen cabinets, which she tests and opens—most empty. She has an obvious purpose, yet there is a quiet mystery about her look, her movement as she inspects, that is not mysterious.

She reminds him, actually, of Portland. The people are friendly and supportive, and it is easy to talk to strangers. When he steps out on his porch, passersby look up and say hello. If it is morning, they say good morning. They don’t let their guard down because they don’t have one up. Many walk dogs, who also have a friendly face. They accept you for who you are, or don’t make distinctions. There’s a civility, even, in their advertised weirdness. The city itself shows it cares.

He wonders if Portlanders lack drive and sharpness, and feels superior to them, an attitude based on nothing, that he’d better get rid of quickly. Perhaps it is a matter of priorities. Many he’s run into are feeling the pinch, however, especially from housing, which has heated up the last years. Yet they take things in stride and remain upbeat, though he sees hunger when they conduct business, restrained but gently aggressive.

Then there are the tattoos that he sees everywhere, on everyone—skulls, demons, and monsters; crosses and ankhs and stars and circles of yin and yang, and cryptic words and unknown names; mythological figures across time and from around the globe, and gangsters and saints and comic book characters and common faces, also unknown; roses, vines, rocks, trees, waves, and celestial bodies; geometric figures and crude scrawls; chains, barbed wire, and enclosing arabesques; erotic poses and sudden gestures—tattoos that cross the lines of race and gender and class and age, that cover entire bodies, the hidden parts revealed in open blouses, a hiked skirt, a flapping shirt, a pants slip at the waist, a chaotic language spreading like a contagion, or like an efflorescence.

But they wear their tattoos with composure, an apparent not knowing they are there. Do the tattoos reveal a brooding darkness within, the possibility of excess or dissolution, waiting to emerge? Or do Portlanders place those doubts and fears and desires on the surface so they can get on with their lives, maybe even enjoy them?

And there’s still more, catalogs’ worth, more signs and images and patterns that push context and recognition, as if Portland is trying to expand common language and go beyond—or exhaust it?

Is this madness or transcendence?

Or both?

Or neither?

Do tattoos have to mean anything?

Does anything have to mean anything?

But what does he know. He’s only been here three months.

He gives her arm a few quick looks as she circles the room. Eyes among the bright colors, animal he thinks.

She completes her tour and comes to the kitchen counter where he stands. He wipes his brow with a handkerchief. She follows with a hand. Bottled water is offered and accepted. She takes a long draw, and his throat feels the water go down hers.

Again a pause. He doesn’t want to see her go and she isn’t in a rush to leave.

This is not the time or place for life stories. She’s young and he doesn’t want to pry. Nor does he want her be anything other than what she appears to be, a woman finding her way, on her way up. His daughters, one in New York, one in Boulder, both are having problems, two different sets, and there’s nothing he can do. Likely she has just seen all she needs to know about him and can tell by what is missing, that he is an aging man on his own, nice enough, with some interests she may or may not find boring.

As it is there’s not much he wants to say about himself, or can. He is—or was—an architect for a large firm with a reputation in San Jose that has had several scores with the tech industry. He entered work with goals and with passion, but those dissipated over the years in the long hours, the manic schedules, the endless compromises, the suspicions, the not talking among his superiors and colleagues beneath the veneer of the firm’s professed creative community. He wasn’t especially proud of anything he did nor felt he made any dent in the architecture there, construction that looked forward without looking at anything, buildings without identity or architectural distinction. Above, beyond, or somewhere, the invisible spirit of Silicon Valley, its ceaseless wonder.

His marriage followed a similar course, more or less.

Now he doesn’t give either much thought. There is too much that is too tangled, too indistinct, and little that might carry over. Resurrecting those years would only get him lost again. No thought of starting over again in either. He’s too old and doesn’t want to go through the process again.

Boullée was the son of an architect, a brilliant student who went on to teach and become a first-class member of Royal Academy of Architecture in Paris, who had clients among royalty and the wealthy. It is late eighteenth century. Neoclassicism is in full bloom and ideas of the Enlightenment are in the air.

Names have not been exchanged. That moment has passed. He still has questions to ask, however, before she leaves.

What would his condo go for now?

She smiles and gives a number in the ballpark of what he paid.

Does she think that price will hold?

She hesitates, but says it should go up.

What does she think about St. Johns?

She loves it.

St. Johns is a neighborhood north of and out a bit from downtown Portland, once working class but now, as real estate agents say, up-and-coming. When his agent showed him the place he jumped on it, padding his bid.

After the divorce he rented a townhouse in Sunnyvale that he hated. Last September his landlord gave notice so he could sell, plunging him into a housing market that had once again exploded. Rent for comparable space was twice what he was paying or, if on the market, houses like his were going for well over a million. Nothing was in range, nothing looked good, everything was bad fifty miles out. It made no financial sense to stay there. He had no close ties. He might as well leave and retire.

He had no idea where to go.

He didn’t want to return back east, a forty-year-old memory almost lost. Most of his family were gone or had scattered, and he didn’t want to brave the winters again. Some urban areas were depressed, most were difficult and hopelessly out of reach. Small towns lost appeal when he looked closer. Retirement communities depressed him. He spent weeks studying online real estate listings and making virtual tours with satellite maps and street views, and what he most saw was what he already had in the Bay Area but had put out of mind, the sprawl of suburbs, everywhere, further out than he realized and still spreading, all of it the same. There wasn’t a good place to live in this country.

Portland is a great town, his friends said. Go to Portland. Late one night, after a week online wandering its streets, he committed without even flying up. It looked affordable and interesting, with much going on. At least, with its oddness, he wouldn’t feel out of place. Most, he saw no other options. He knew no one there.

The route that took him to Boullée was even less direct. Two weeks ago another online search, whose object he has forgotten, took a wandering path, impossible to trace now, and landed on the image. He recalled seeing it in a history of architecture class, back in school, decades ago, struck then by its boldness, its simplicity. Memories and desires surfaced and filled the huge sphere. It signaled a fresh start and possibilities, a future. He found a print online and ordered on the spot.

St. Johns looks iffy, he says. Many of the shops and bars and cafes are struggling.

They have been here for years.

These prices can’t last, can they? Why isn’t this market another bubble?

Another downturn and he’s lost money and is stuck for years with a place that will not move.

She doesn’t respond.

Real estate in Portland was a trauma from which he is still recovering. When he arrived April inventory was at a historic low. Places he saw last September were going for fifty thousand more and got snapped up in a few days. He had fifteen minutes to look, then had to make a bid the next day against other buyers. He felt he had fallen through a crack.

Where are all these people coming from?

He knows the answer in part—California.

She shifts her weight to her right foot and turns her head to the left, again sending angles down her shift.

None of the options were right, and he looked everywhere, downtown, at all the neighborhoods surrounding. Skinny infill houses, condos too basic, dubious construction in both, studios impossibly small. Locations too rough or too remote or both. The better condos and the Craftsman homes that give Portland its character were too risky for his reserves. Still he considered each, thinking about a possible life and trying to make it fit, but saw it shrink or tear apart as he imagined the sacrifices and compromises. After two months of running up hotel bills he thought he’d have to bail out. Then what?

How are people making it?

The numbers don’t add up. Income is not that high here. Something has to give.

Is Portland going under?

What most got to him were the homeless, and they were everywhere. Their tattoos, the unhealing sores, the embedded dirt, the streaks of vomit on the sidewalk, the bottles, the hidden needles. Their withdrawal, their hermetic possession, their unconscious states—yet they seemed to own the streets. If he caught their eye they returned a black recognition he could not deflect and still cannot shake. Homeless were better hidden in San Jose.

She shifts to the left foot and realigns, her long face twisting with an anxious thought.

He has gotten carried away and sees he is troubling her. His agent couldn’t answer his questions either.

“Portland is a great town,” he says.

She smiles again and straightens. She has a sweet smile that doesn’t melt his heart but glides through it.

“Where is—” she asks.

“Upstairs. Through the front bedroom.” Better upstairs for privacy.

“Feel free to look around.” He thinks his bed is made and clothes are off the floor, but can’t remember.

He watches her rise, seemingly weightless, her bare feet soundless on the carpet, her shift ascending like a spirit.

O Newton! With the range of your intelligence and the sublime nature of your Genius, you have defined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you with your discovery. That is as it were to envelop you in your own self.

Boullée says about his cenotaph in a treatise.

Newtonian physics still works and explains most of our lives day to day. But the cenotaph was never built because the monument was, practically, unfeasible. Boullée was a visionary.

Actually the front bedroom is his office. He has already begun work—quick sketches on the walls of a school, a housing complex, a museum, a community center. On a table, assembled blocks of wood and cardboard scraps and wads of crumpled paper, just to give him a rough sense of texture and form. He wonders what she makes of it.

His projects, of course, will never be built either. He is out of the profession now and lacks the means and clout. Still, they might provide him with a virtual world to replace the one he has left, restoring, creating what it missed, a place where he might feel at home.

The cenotaph didn’t look right the moment he put it up, however, and his impressions, along with his mood, have been pulling away from it all day, and they return now and start to take form—profoundly mysterious, deeply absurd, or downright silly—but these shift to other thoughts and moods that do not settle either but take him to a single thought:

It his hot.

He stares at the room, at the open pattern of the bookshelves, and watches his plan fall apart.

The toilet flushes.

The animals on her arm, he realizes, are dragons.

In Boullee’s time there was a belief in reason and basic truths and the truth of basic forms, in orderly fitting together of parts, the power of architecture to reform.

The French Revolution was around the corner.

Has Boullée taken Neoclassicism to its logical culmination? Or is he trying to look past? Or has he, unknowingly, trapped in its assumptions and contradictions, pushed those into tumescence? Postmodernists took a liking, for a while.

His world is a mess. Beneath all the exuberance the signs on all fronts are bad. In architecture everything built now is glass and steel and grassy planes and white walls, pure abstractions making the same blind projection, covering the the same confusion.

There are other things he sees now, coming into focus.

He has no idea where he has been or where the world is headed. If he hasn’t recognized it before it’s because he has only been busy and distracted the last forty years.

Most of the crumpled papers on the table in his office are rejects. His projects will never get built because he doesn’t know what to do.

What he most realizes is that he is tired. He has been fighting the heat all day and now it has caught up. But not just today’s, but the fatigue that has been building the last year, especially the last three months, but has been displaced by the urgency of of his search, the strain of dislocation, the surge of doubts, his single, anxious desire to finally settle down, the displacement only making the fatigue deeper, longer when it finally springs, only postponing what he knows is coming.

Portland is a mistake. He won’t be rejected but he won’t fit in. Beneath its friendly surface there is only torpor, into which he will eventually sink.

His blood sugar is up and he has occasional chest pains his doctor said were only nerves though he still advised adjustments.

More can crop up that he sees now, once again.

The real estate agent has not returned.

What is she doing? Casing the joint? Going through his things? Secretly defiling them? None of those suspicions can be possible, but he can’t think of anything likely that might dismiss them, and his mind races for other possibilities without stopping. The dragons’ wide eyes widen further, their open mouths show teeth, their coiling bodies prepare to strike from depths unknown.

He waits until he can wait no longer and starts to head upstairs. At the landing he pauses to look at the Boullée, knowing and thinking about but not voicing what lies inside on the floor, at the center.

“Get lost?” he asks loudly up the well to warn her he is coming, then starts his climb. Ascending the stairs is like descending into a pool, where the greater heat, like the denser water, slows motion and sound.

He stops at the top to catch a breath, then turns right.

Not in the office, the bathroom is silent and vacant.

He looks up the hall and sees and hears nothing, then looks down and sees her shift lying limp and loose on the carpet, pointing like an arrow to the back bedroom, his, and he follows.

Then he sees her lying naked on his bed.

Then he is beside her, then he sees the tattoo close now, sees that it stops past her shoulder, that the coiling dragons in the design lead to a softer pattern of faint hair, swirling, rising with her breasts, twin basic shapes too subtle for geometry, each subtly different, and descending down the valley of her stomach to a darker pattern.

She cups his neck, pulls him close, and kisses hard while grasping him firmly with her other hand.

And then it isn’t hot.

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.

He does not feel the post sadness of legend. It is the first time he can remember not feeling complications or having questions return.

“How was—”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “It was however you want it to be.”

She pauses a moment, thinking.

“Don’t tell my boyfriend.”

And pauses a moment more.

“I’ll tell him.”

He does not give a reply because he doesn’t have one. Instead he lies there, next to her, both on top of the sheets, both fully extended, not quite touching, the sweat not quite cooling, both lightly breathing in the shaded light, both quiet, still, and mortal. Not much else, a bed, a nightstand, a light and clock—he still hasn’t figured out what to do with the room. The lines of the walls and floor and ceiling define a simple box that contains them, their lying bodies. But they reach in diminishing perspective to the grid of Portland streets and extend beyond, forever. Or, instead, the lines converge on them, their breath and sweat. It is as easy to imagine cities rising within these lines as falling.

Below them, downstairs, on a wall, a picture of a dark sphere.

The dragons are Asian, he is sure. They have a stylized complexity in their exotic curves that goes beyond their western counterparts’ singleminded malice. There are meanings. He does not know if the dragons are Japanese or Chinese, however, or the meanings of either, or if the meaning of the dragons before him has moved away from those meanings into some other. The curves, their black outlines, cannot be separated from the curves of her arm, nor can foreground be separated from back, or from her flesh, rather all pulse together almost imperceptibly with her each breath. The dragons coil tightly at her wrist and disappear behind her forearm then return and begin to unwind, unevenly, among a dense pattern of flowers, yellow and orange and blue, and of foliage, the leaves the same green as the scales of the dragons, with shapes of exotic plants he doesn’t know either, the dragons part of the pattern of the plants and the pattern part of them, yet they continue their ascent past her elbow and up her arm and separate themselves, still among the pattern, as much preserving as disengaging, and at her shoulder they do not look at each other but outward and up, fierce intelligence in their eyes and passion in the flames of their bright, red tongues.

The tattoo speaks terror, and hope, and he sees both but does not feel one or the other. Instead he continues to rest next to her, a long time, not knowing how long. Time has stopped, the moment can go on forever. An illusion he knows, but what else do we have. But not an illusion, because he isn’t thinking about either, appearances or time.

Gary Garvin

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

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Jul 142017
 

Grant Maierhofer Flamingos

Flamingos
Grant Maierhofer
ITNA Press, December 2016
ISBN: 978-0-9912196-9-8
188pp Paperback, $14.00

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In a recent article published in 3AM Magazine, Grant Maierhofer explains his personal experience of reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. “Reading FW,” he explains, “is a bodily thing, and strangely so. I tend to find I’ll begin with resistance, certain I’m misunderstanding every letter until suddenly a dreamy rhythm overtakes me and I’m able to stomach paragraphs in breaths. I’ll often slow to crawls in turn and view the pages as discrete, visual, concrete passages rendered as micro- and macrocosmos for diligent poring and slackjawed stupor alike. The text seems to work on these levels because Joyce had thought the bulk of his life about what printed text might venture to do.” “I read Finnegans Wake,” he continues, “as an ode to forms, forms explored by Joyce himself and referenced throughout the text; forms shattered and rendered useless to traditional interpretive means by intuitive, heartily experimental—almost spiritually so—pages of linguistic forest fires simultaneously enacting and subverting their own interpretation; and forms Joyce still saw as viable means of depicting, defining, and recording human experience in a language at once the stuff of dreams, Esperanto, and music to which, I’ll agree, all art aspires.”

Reading and writing are, in fact, bodily things, although not many writers are fully aware of that. I would say that the great experimental and underground literary traditions—what Ronald Sukenick touted “the rival tradition”—are, at least in part, an attempt to re-embody the literary practice. Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper—two of the authors often mentioned by Grant Maierhofer—are recent wonderful examples of this kind of stylistic exploration.

“This work will be a nightmare. You are no detective”—says an anonymous patient in Flamingos. It comes as no surprise that the most accurate words I’ve read about Flamingos thus far were by the Swedish-American poet and translator Johannes Goransson, who has been theorizing about the new “rhetorical punk” styles (using Eloy Fernández Porta’s term) he names “atrocity kitsch.” “This is a noir without the proper detective to piece back together the crime and its narrative”—writes Goransson—“This is self-surveillance under the influence of drugs, art, poetry. Without the narrative cure, the novel becomes sick.” Flamingos’s characters embrace the impossibility of the cure and celebrate the sudden joy of recognizing this impossibility and turning it into art. Art starts when you accept that, as Joyelle McSweeney wrote, “nothing can be undone, but everything can be done again,” because “the Artist cannot remove him or herself from the economy of Violence. Vulnerability to Art is Vulnerability to Violence; that’s what Vulnerability means: the ability to be wounded, to bear the mark of the wound, to suffer malignancy, and to issue malignant substances.” [1]

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Germán Sierra (GS): One of the first things that called my attention in Flamingos—maybe because I have been recently doing some writing on the topic—was its performative structure. Later, I read in your very interesting research notes on Flamingos in Necessary Fiction that you want “an art a bit like life and stripped of tendencies toward understanding, the body and head rendered in text and the text as distillation of body and head — a performative thing.” I believe the idea of performance is very important in your work, and it becomes more evident in Flamingos. In my view, Flamingos could be perfectly imagined as a play—there’s even a Dramatis Personae list at the beginning—in which the characters project themselves on a group therapy-like background. This creates a flexible environment (much like social media environments) where fragments might work as independent monologues but they might also contain dialogues within themselves. You said that the book started with disparate elements and fragments, how did you came up with its final structure?

Grant Maierhofer (GM): This book took very different forms during its editing, and even really composition. I was working with smaller pieces in part because I’ve had an ongoing fascination with the fragment as a potent literary form, especially these days. As a result of this, the larger form would change depending on which fragments in which voice or register were working well. The two big influences early on were Ronald Sukenick and Kathy Acker, with Acker’s Empire of the Senseless and Florida offering an ideal reference point for these shifting, therapy-tinged voices. It wasn’t until I solidified a publisher with this early version, though, that the bigger structure became apparent. My publisher, Christopher Stoddard, offered to have me work with Travis Jeppessen on bringing these disparate parts together and finding coherence, a finished book. What I had were pages and pages of documents, the Flamingo sections written on neon index cards, others written on my phone or saved as separate chunks in Word, and a sense of how it fit to me but little desire to give it what seems a more traditional structural spine, removing this cast of voices and their more aggressive relationship to one another—something about the final text I feel good about, did not want to remove. So Travis, over the course of editing and having conversations, would argue from a reader’s perspective and desire for some coherence to these voices. The result, then, is my attempt to respond to him and any potential reader while hopefully holding onto the performative energy not only of composing, but of the relationships these voices—their passing referenced, syntactic disruption, etc.—have within the text. I think of Samuel Fuller and his Shock Corridor, or Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, or Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces. These are compelling to me because they are overwhelming, and in many ways they’re overwhelming because you have disparate, perhaps opposed, voices or perspectives or even sentences clawing at and over one another for an audience’s time. To me, these seem like somewhat performative concerns. A writer generates something, hopefully to some degree indicative of the hell of being alive these days and making sense of the sea of information. A reader takes this in, and hopefully in that transmission perspective is gained, a quiet amid screams, or even a context for screaming. My favorite writers enact something on this order, I think. As well as musicians, painters, filmmakers. The final form, then, aspired to something like a chorus of escapees from modern life smearing mud on themselves and carving diagnoses on walls. How close anything comes is impossible to know, but this was my hope.

GS: Yes, I understand your process very well, as I usually work with originally separate fragments too. In my last novel, Standards, I spent more time on trying to find the “right order” for the fragments—which, from the beginning I knew it wasn’t the chronological one—than on writing them. The initial references you mention, Ron Sukenick and Kathy Acker, have been also very important to me. I’m especially happy to see Sukenick in this context, as I believe that, unlike Acker, he’s kind of in oblivion now. In my opinion, he deserves more attention. Some of his work is available online, but I’d like to see his books republished. Getting back to Flamingos, I like very much your image of a “context for screaming”—I believe this is a quite good definition of what experimental fiction has been pursuing for a while now, maybe because it’s harder to develop such a context in literature than in the audiovisual arts, where experimentation and risk have been historically much more appreciated. But I agree with you on the idea that we’re at a very special moment for literature, much like it happened from the late 70s to the early 90s when postmodernism mutated into avant-pop. I believe the literary use of language is becoming “counter-spectacular” as a way to provide alternatives to the “reality-as-show” we’re living into, and this is expressed through queerness, radical weirdness, obscurity and, particularly in Flamingos, madness. In my view Flamingos points to the recovery of the de-territorializing power of madness which had been recently re-territorialized by neuropharmacology and neuroscience: the therapy-gone-wrong framework works as a performative representation of our current society as spectacle-gone-wrong. This brings us back to Foucault and Deleuze, of course, but also to Beckett, Ionesco and Jarry. And it seems of particular importance in a moment when “reason” is often presented as “software for the show,” as something quantifiable that could be “traded.”

GM: Absolutely. Your initial comment, too, feeds this larger question of attempting to represent what’s been used as a limiting category, madness, in a (hopefully) more fluid way. I would feel awful if characters, or voices, or moments in Flamingos were easily quantifiable by diagnoses, and I think this is where literature presents unique opportunities that don’t exist as readily in other art forms. Bowie, for example, queered our sense of what the rockstar could be, but it required the extra performative dimension for this to fully resonate—he had to appear. The book is dedicated to Nick Blinko because Rudimentary Peni is one of the best musical iterations of the madness of living I can think of, and yet the feeling of listening to their ‘Inside’ or something, is far different from reading the mania encased in his novel The Primal Screamer, and it’s that difference I hope to pay attention to. I think of pure theoreticians working against heteronormativity versus the experience of reading The Letters of Mina Harker, in one sense a novel that chronicles a marriage between a male and female, but one that queers the institution of marriage far better than pure theory can by leaving in the mess of days, of lived experience. Somewhere, it might be included in James Miller’s biography, Foucault talked about seeing the work he did as closer to fictive, creative work. Sitting in archives and sifting through documents much like Kathy Acker did and assembling reams to counter the force of history. That slippage, that line between pure theorizing and enacting experience, performativity, or even language and experimentation therein, is why I see fiction as increasingly important in our time. It simultaneously offers new ways of reading notoriously dense theorists who worked against our dry, useless institutions, and new applications for reading more akin to experiencing performed art—relentless concerts that tear into the head, witnessing live artworks that ruin the artist like the early Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmission stuff.

There’s been a long tendency of merely aping those who came just before. Duchamp talked about this somewhere, that artists might be better off pulling from random eras and movements—Brion Gysin’s idea of writing being about fifty years behind painting, etc.—and I find that very important. Not all writers or readers are engaging in the established traditions of literature as defined by institutions primarily dominated by heterosexual white men, and I’m of the view that the best work is being done against this. Read whatever you like, of course, but I think it highly important that at least some work attempt to bury any sense of an established canon. For me, that has meant seeking inspiration elsewhere, and the experience has proven the more fulfilling.

I think that what Sukenick did, and those aligned with him and those who followed at FC2, in turn, is probably the most interesting wave in American literature to yet occur, and all of it seems bound up in what I’ve just (poorly) attempting to state. I don’t know or care whether people will read those rather niche texts for fifty, one hundred years, because to me they’ve already reframed my sense of a broader literary culture and shaped my worldview. In some sense, that might make it even more compelling. We can read about the Black Mountain College, for instance, and feel completely lost in what seems like the most important academic/arts experiment in the 20th century, but all the while other students and teachers existed at other colleges in other arts movements never knowing about or at least acknowledging its existence. We’ll always have documentation of this sort of thing, and I believe it’ll always find some audience, but it seems quite alright that they be avid devotees and small movements like punk when compared to arena rock or something in its heyday. Nostalgia will always magnify it in turn, but nostalgia’s a toxic thing. I dunno, I veered off a bit there. These are the things I find compelling and why, maybe.

GS: Yes, I agree with you on the toxicity of nostalgia, this also points to the need to find different ways to think the past, more in the “archaeological” or “genealogical” mode like Foucault did. I find that many contemporary novelists are approaching the past that way, probably also because we’re living in very “aesthetically undefined” times, and we need to borrow aesthetical references from the past—avant-garde, modernity, post-modernity… Returning to your characters in Flamingos (and your previous books), one thing I like a lot is that they’re allowed—they allow themselves—to be wrong. I believe this is a very important feature in our days—when most people are obsessed with dichotomies such as truth/post-truth or facts/alternative facts. Actually, I find that the power of punk (and madness) resides in accepting the likeliness to be wrong but going ahead anyway—the “you-don’t-need-to-know-how-to play” thing, just jump on stage and do your best. In Flamingos everybody seems to admit being wrong—even Simon, the therapist, seems aware of being playing a role: “And I taught them. And I did not.” This is significant because, in my view, the most important thing for keeping a “sustainable” community is not truth, but trust. It’s possible to trust someone even thinking than she or he is wrong, and this is the essence of community and also the cognitive basis for a healthy skepticism. As Fernando Colina—a Spanish psychiatrist—wrote: “Reason is never there, reason is always about to come.” So maybe the punk gesture means that now: allowing yourself to be wrong to be able to catch reason as it arrives.

GM: I’m very interested in all of this, in part because my approach when writing anything has usually been one of immersion. I want to immerse myself in a voice, a worldview, a location, whatever. I don’t necessarily hope to find something close to Truth. I hope to enact something, to offer something, and I think community is a closer notion to it than artistic truth or even coherence. Possibility among individuals. Trust in that possibility. All of this is making me think of Vito Acconci. He started as a writer. Went to the best-known U.S. MFA program and wound up leaving to create situations and performance art, and thereafter to create very community-centric works of architecture and sculpture. He’s indicated that he did this because a growing dissatisfaction with the page as an art space. For me, for all of my dissatisfaction, the page is still my favorite space and words and other materials therein to transmit meaning still pull me more than anything else.

I think characters or even works remaining open to the prospect of wrongness is fundamental. If I didn’t feel this way I might engage in language through poetry alone, or nonfiction alone, but with fiction the assumed relationship to readers is precarious from the beginning, skeptical from the beginning, so there’s a good deal that can be done in terms of empathy, identification, or even anger or outright rejection of characters. I was very interested in this early on, I think, because I started writing while in rehab, and continued as a sort of breather from AA and NA and the like. In there I’d find myself telling stories depending on mood, or circumstance. Say I’m in a room with working-class older alcoholics in rural Minnesota, and I know I need to talk about my anxiety. I might talk about the same situation as I’d discuss in a meeting for addicts under 25, but it’ll be adjusted due to circumstance, and to speak to my anxiety where possible. I’m performing, then. Not dishonest really but calibrated so that I might get the most from a given meeting. Emphasize relationships and trust in therapy if that’s pressing on me. Emphasize relapse if I’m losing my footing and trust people can identify and offer insight. It wasn’t as conscious as it sounds now in retrospect, but it was all unquestionably bound up in how I started writing and came to need literature and art.

I started based on feeling, and need. Elias Tezapsidis talked about The Persistence of Crows and how it didn’t seem written for readers. I think that’s probably true, as most of my early writing was based on an urge to just occupy a mindset for X amount of time and see it transmitted to a measurable form, be it a book, or the early stories from Marcel, whatever. These characters could be wrong, then, or just buried in flaws and even total ignorance. They weren’t created as tools, or at least not pawns, but responses to a loneliness, a desire to open my head up.

After this I discovered writers like Christine Schutt, Brian Evenson, Maggie Nelson and more, so my concerns became more formal and structural. The object became the ideal, I guess, rather than the process and the feelings therein. Being wrong or being flawed is still a priority, as I am a human animal in 2017, but I’m also highly interested in the possibilities offered by fiction, by books, by words presented, not offered by other media.

GS: Your new book GAG is coming out in April from Inside the Castle. Is it possible to know a little about it?

GM: GAG began after my story collection Marcel went out of print. I wanted to destroy that, so I took the very first draft of that book and began cutting it apart. I got rid of huge amounts of that text, and started filling in the gaps with a narrative that’s sort of a nod to Dennis Cooper’s work, among others. Marcel proper is being reissued by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, so making GAG into an entirely new animal grew highly important. My process was similar in this to the composition of the PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual, as indicated in the excerpt “Clog” on Queen Mob’s Teahouse. I would, say, isolate one small section of 100 words or so, inject it with new material, then automatically translate it through Korean translation software or something. Then, piece-by-piece, I’d translate it back so it would be slightly ruined, and rewrite it into a new document. Then I was making collages and adding text or warping it through that. Then the publisher would work with me on visual/typographical elements, and over time this new thing was born to do with suburban violence, ruined language, and distributions of power in America’s very problematic state.

Grant Maierhoff GAG

It’s been a long time in the making, but I feel very good about it overall. GAG and the Manual that’s coming out on Solar Luxuriance are sister texts, so having them released in the same year is a great feeling.

I’ve thought a lot about Dennis Cooper’s work since first discovering it, how he’s basically reshaped the potential of fiction with his GIF novels, and prior to that how The Marbled Swarm reworked how language can manipulate and fuck with readers. I wanted to honor his work and incorporate aspects I’ve loved from all of it in one print book. The GIF stuff, his blog, The Sluts and The Marbled Swarm, GAG was, among many things, an attempt to honor that body of work.

GS: It sounds amazing!  I just went through the first 20 pages or so in the PDF, and I think I got its feeling very well. I am very interested in this kind of composition processes—I experimented myself with the electronic re-translation of texts in some parts of my 2009 novel “Try Using Other Words.” What I’ve read thus far reminds me the destroyed, “dismembered” prose of other contemporary writers—besides Dennis Cooper—I now we both admire, like Leslie Scalapino, Blake Butler, Sean Kilpatrick, or the cyberpunk novels by the japanese artists Kenji Siratori. Cooper, of course, deserves special attention. He’s such a extraordinary figure in contemporary American writing, not just for his own work but also because of his continuous support of the experimental, underground, punk, or whatever literary scene! We all (not just American writers, but also people like myself who particularly enjoy this kind of writing) should be very grateful for his blog and his strong implication with fringe books no matter where they come from.  It would be difficult to understand the American literary environment of the last sixty years without the generosity of writers such as himself, Sukenick, Gordon Lish, Bob Coover…

So you have a lot of books coming out soon! GAG, PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual, and Drain Songs, and I’ve read another three from the madness cycle are on the making: Girnt, Drome and Unacabine… I’m looking forward to all of them!

GM: I think I began writing as a means of leveling out a certain degree of misery I felt at being alive. Going forward, and becoming aware of worldly miseries and the struggles facing everyone, my response has been an odd mixture of wanting solely to champion the work of those who’ve said and done it better than I ever could, and devotion to writing things myself to attempt to process being alive in terms I’ve come to recognize in the works of others—many you’ve mentioned—that seemed, at least sometimes, to call for responses or communion. I read Jan Ramjerdi’s Re.La.Vir and suddenly GAG, a manuscript about fucked-up people in basements and assholes in suits controlling them, had a formal sibling. Sometimes it’s tempting to simply review books and point to Cooper, or Ramjerdi, or Delany, or Vollmann, as brilliant examples of what literature can do, can be in response to hellish situations and experiences. Sometimes, though, that temptation is odder, more deeply felt and sometimes even terrifying, and then my own writing seems to happen. I don’t know. If I’ve been productive it’s been the result of this and a good deal of self-hatred, disgust, and hopelessness. As defined earlier, though, I’m more interested in the extreme fringe-punk approaches of groups like Throbbing Gristle, or artists like Tehching Hsieh, who allow the work to ruin them and accuse them and eat them and harm them in the process, so that the end product looks less like a piece of protest art than Lucifer Rising. I think my writing started more straightforwardly, and I tend to detest my early stuff because of that, but now I’m preoccupied with experience, abstraction, and a kind of deep internal violence that hopefully comes across in these more recent projects.

I was very, very obsessed with Cooper’s George Miles Cycle for several months a few years ago, and even thinking about it now I get caught up in how transformative it was to read those books. As a result, I always dreamt of writing a cycle. It wasn’t until Flamingos was in a second draft that it became fully clear it could be done, so long as it wasn’t just a bad ripoff of Cooper. Madness, or mental illness, and many of the possible and horrific iterations therein, these are ideas I’m more comfortable engaging with as I’ve spent my life on the often ugly side of them. Fiction, in turn, seemed like a reasonable way of not speaking as an authority to anyone else’s experiences  of these things, so the project has persisted.

I think about Elizabeth Young’s close to her introduction to Pandora’s Handbag, which, paraphrased, goes something like: I guess if nobody’s writing the books I want to read then I’ll have to write them. Damn it. That pretty perfectly articulates my state most of the time. I read the work of others I love as much as I can. Sometimes a feeling is too personal or impossible or an idea’s too particular and thus I’ve got to write as well. That’s more or less how it goes.

GS: Your previous book Marcel is now being re-issued by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, which also published your poetry collection Grobbing Thistle. Flamingos was published by ITNA press, and GAG by Inside The Castle.  I love your publisher choices, all of them are small and independent but very well curated, very personal projects. How do you choose your publishers?

GM: In a weird way, although many conversations about the state of publishing are despairing, I feel as if we’re living in one of the most plentiful stretches of time for small presses, for publishers and writers interested in the work and the book as object, as experience, as performance, things are pretty good and compelling. I’ve been lucky to find presses willing to embrace uncertainty and experimentation, and really I’ve found them based on seeking writers and artists publishing through them. Inside the Castle reissued Hour of the Wolf, which, alongside Slow Slidings and Throw Yourself Out and See If It Makes Me Come, is one of my absolute favorite things M. Kitchell has yet written. John Trefry’s work as well, and the aesthetic prompts of the press, were as inspiring as synopses for artworks themselves, and I guess that fed into things in turn. Ditto for Dostoyevsky Wannabe, their approach seemed in line with what my favorite writers do. They’ve also published heroes of mine like Sean Kilpatrick, Gary Shipley and others, so when I wanted to find a press who’d really be on board for something experimental and fucked like Grobbing Thistle, they seemed perfect. Although much of Marcel is more straightforward, I feel it fits well with the cassettes DW puts out, and with the additional stories and whatnot it seemed worth reissuing. Another thing is, I have zero interest in what a lot of–especially U.S.–writers seem interested in as far as fame, or even a massive audience for the work. Presses have inspired me just as much as writers in this regard, with outfits like Cal A Mari Archive consistently publishing incredibly risky, innovative material, doing it with a personal touch that furthers the efforts of its writers, but not speaking to the larger culture of publishing at all, except to push back and whisper fuck you a bit now and again. That interest has led me to write how I’ve come to write, I think, and it’s also led me to the wonderful, strange, queer, outsider publishers I’ve been lucky enough to share work with. Small presses, in turn, are usually run by writers, which might be an ideal model, I’m not sure. Sometimes it can lead to an excess of dreaming that can’t quite materialize, but often it means that the entire experience is performative, engaged, and shot through with the same anger and desire that inspired the writing in the first place.

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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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German Sierra

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Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels—El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido, La Felicidad no da el Dinero, Efectos Secundarios, Intente usar otras palabras, and Standards—and a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje. His essays and stories have appeared in Guernica, Numéro Cinq, Asymptote, The Quarterly Conversation, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Casper Review, The Scofield, and in more than twenty collective books.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. McSweeney, J. The Necropastoral, Poetry, Media, Occults. The University of Michigan Press, 2015. p. 186
Jul 142017
 

Grant Maierhofer

 

My name is Lyle. I’ll leave it at that so far as ID. I’ll go on however to say that, if you’re feeling generous, I may contain multitudes. I may be dense with potential. I’m a failure in so many words. I’m tired of feeling this way and so I’m trying to contain those words myself, to write them out. I want my feelings to be expressed so I might move on from them. I want to put some distance between myself and this place wherein I find myself. Other night I went to the gas station only to find half of my face still caked with black makeup. I live in sorrow. My days are full of thorns, people and bosses. I tend toward the sad, the weary. I’m an avid person though, romantic. I want to contain the world. I am a male but I would like a womb to contain the world. I should be so lucky.

 

I think I’ve slept for most of my life. I don’t mean it literally. I mean that as I graduated high school, as I saw my youth pass, I had these glazed eyes and didn’t care to open them beyond mere ability to see. Sometimes this can happen. Sometimes people aren’t meant to express themselves in any recognizable way. My father was, by and large, this way. He had nasty tendencies, though. He’d hurt my mother loudly. I think this is what happened, anyway. I was sleeping.

Lately I’ve returned. I work now at the high school where I used to hide away. When you’re young everybody’s terrible. When you grow up everything’s terrible. Something changes between these in that things get worse, darker. Mostly, however, they are the same.

Each day I put on gray coveralls that you have seen. I push a cart that was given to me by an old man. This old man, my predecessor, had lost his wife. His kids were away, succeeding. This old man had lived a full life before this work. Then, losing his wife, his children, he found himself wanting. This old man sought work and found the position he’d occupied for seven years before I took it on. He trained me for a few weeks and then supervised, then left entirely. I think he might be dead.

The cart holds a garbage can that I’ll fill three or four times each day, depending. Kitchen staff attend to their cans and I’m grateful for it. Some days, events or come what may, I might focus primarily on trash. The school isn’t large. It would take an event or more to fill my can beyond three or four times each day, I’m saying. I remember when I was younger, going here, and we’d attempt to fill the can from distances with paper cartridges of milk. These were shaped like ships or small homes. We called them cartridges, and lofted them into the janitor’s can as he’d walk by. Looking back he’d never register this, even once maintaining composure when my cartridge of chocolate milk pelted his chest and landed. I’m now more understanding of his intimacy with death and suffering.

 

So anyway, I don’t live in my father’s basement. So anyway, I’ve got my own place. I’m fairly certain the person who lived here previous was a criminal, a felon. He left quickly and so far as I can tell the rent plummeted. My neighbors pay dearly. I pay a pittance because some crook likely opened his scalp where I eat my dinners. Give and take, sure. I spend my days when not working walking around this area. I like to grab a pizza, maybe, or Chinese, and sit with it staring off. I’d like to say I appear as some kind of threat. I hate this town, is all. I don’t think that’s what happens, though. Sometimes people recognize me and laugh. The worst is the high school kids. They’ll get pizza themselves, sure. Chinese, whatever. They’ll be out to eat and talking, talking and building their lives together. They’ll look over and see me, it’s often tough to stomach.

 

Then, after this, then, I’ll often try to make for the city. You understand, I hope. This town where I work is small but aware enough. They talk, you see. They’ll talk, each and all of them. I’m not a fan of talkers. I’m a fan of light. So what do I do?

In my room I go to the closet. There I’ve hung them, and others. Most nights I’ve got these leather pants, sure. I’ve got my T-shirts. I’ve got my boots, they shine a bit. I’ll put these on and sort of air my hair a bit. Somewhere when I was younger I loved KISS. Now they’re just O.K., mostly morons. I think maybe that’s where it started, though. So I’ll put on black lipstick. I’ll put on eye makeup and smear it down. I’ll light some Salems and put on my music. I’ll put on Pentagram. I’ll put on Venom. I’ll put on Saint Vitus and sort of air out. I’m tall, you see. My outfit’s black. My pants are leather. Living when I live, then, it can be tough to feel free. So where to go? I’ve found some places. I like the leather bars on karaoke nights. Mostly people there will want a pickup. It’s fine, sure. I’ve made it with men and women. I’ve dated a bit. I don’t go for this, though. I like the sounds. I like to feel a speaker press my body. Sometimes a burlesque, maybe, but often I’ll worry about teachers on a whim. Bored depressives with throbbers. Have at it, I mean. I’m O.K. with all types. I just want noise.

My favorite kind of blurs the whole bit. These barflies from the ’70s and ’80s had taken it upon themselves to give strange metal bands and such their due. Having no patience, however, for meatheads and fascism, they catered to groups of outsiders who’d play pool and dance, drink and come together, take drugs or write their names on walls. Some performance endeavor rumored to have been Prince’s fallback had his tenure at First Avenue, proved too tame, and these lifers took it upon themselves to keep his assless chapseat warm. Good citizens, all.

I’d like to state, however, a pressing thing: it took me fucking years to find my way. Where I worked, forget it. You find all sorts of lonely gentlemen after handjobs in parking lots. I partook. I’m grateful I partook as I was lonely too, but something always missed. I sat in audiences at drag shows and queer karaoke nights in otherwise square bars with no sense of welcome. I wore out my eyes on the internet until having eventually to masturbate myself to stupor. It took me fucking years.

 

I used to read a lot about New York and want to go there, before AIDS and before David Wojnarowicz had to sew his lips shut and before the murder and definition and language seeped through everything. I wanted bodies in rooms and their voices muffled against what? A shoulder or bathroom divider. It was my way home of seeking peace I think. I was always performing. I don’t know that this is a bad way to live. We have jobs, right? We have accounts and ways of being sought and keys to apartments and homes. We have children and responsibilities and worlds. I feel that we earn performance through this, even brief stints of fucking in cars, bodies blurring. The more I worked the more I drenched myself in black.

 

One day in question I had found myself hiding frequently at work. This happened often. I became tired of the same faces staring at me as I pulled their stuffed plastic bottles of trash from drinking fountains and whatever else. I’d clean the bathrooms thoroughly then. I’d work my way from floor to ceiling with bleach and whatever materials I had in decent supply as all of this was fairly unnecessary. Students were superficially disgusting. Teenagers were superficially disgusting. They’d cake layers of themselves onto the tiles but this was easily removed. What I was doing didn’t matter, but looked appropriate enough. I had let life reach me and get to me and all I wanted to do was curl up someplace institutional and weep. I couldn’t weep, though, so I did as I’ve suggested. I put things off as long as I could to get my work done. I smiled at my boss and I made sure every bathroom looked excessively clean and jotted somewhere that I’d done something of necessity.

 

At night, however, I might be free. I went to the gas station near me on walking home and purchased a tall can of cheap booze. I don’t often drink before arriving in the city but I was feeling rotten. On arriving home I removed all of my clothes from work. I paced around my living room smoking and cursing the day before opening my booze. My bathroom is small and dimly lit. My body looks alright in dim light, I’ve hoped. I looked at myself. I pulled my hair back and made lips at myself there in the dingy mirror. I ran my hands up the sides of my frame and felt my ribs, warmed a bit with pleasure or sex. I put liner on my eyes and smeared it down, kissing the mirror and leaving the day’s worker grease. I put black lipstick on and stood briefly on the tub’s ledge staring, then pulling on my leathers and a too-small shirt from when I played baseball as a boy. The shirt rose up just above my navel and as I hunched over to pull on boots I felt it stick first then rise above my spine, my lower back. The feeling of new fabric against me that smelled like smoke and perfume was enlivening. I wanted more.

 

I think about stories I could tell. My father could tell stories, could lie. I wonder about this. What creates a tendency toward fabrication? Is my split a fabrication? Would I be better off in therapy than writing out my thoughts? Where do I start and end of my need for writing is purely selfish? I do not have answers, but in the car I listened to Whitney Houston. I find what I think of as her transmitted vulnerability empowering. I left town and drove to the city amid lights and drank at my can of booze. I’d ease my arm out the window and let it sway there on wind. I’d smoke with the other as the can cooled my crotch. I felt feral. I felt set free. I felt my body boiling up with all the misery of my days and the stares of the students and I ran it out my hair, stared at myself in the sundown mirror and the running makeup, performing.

 

I wanted to quiet my head further so on arrival I drank several vodka tonics and sat sneering from the bar. I felt the booze warm my gut and my mood began to lift, yipping maybe toward a nice oblivion as the room filled up with nary clothed bodies kissing and sucking at each other. Men running hands over one another or women twirling hair to rhythms. Everyone reaching some fluidity and pushing to the edges of abject fucking on leather and neon fabrics only to be pulled back. I sat and watched until the pulse of it warmed me over.

 

I went into the bathroom after writhing against some fleshy bits and denim and found two gentlemen fucking. They were taller, like myself, so it wasn’t much to see them in the stall pressed to the wall and howling. The music in there was slightly quieter and thus I heard their groans as I stared into the mirror and ran the sink to wet my hands. Eventually I noticed someone crouched in the corner of the space and turned to see.

I haven’t made a point of meeting many people where I work. I don’t care for them nor they I. This is as it is. I am O.K. under these circumstances. This person I’d seen perhaps helping around the office, perhaps guiding buses toward the end of day. I can’t and couldn’t recall, but I knew her and knew her from work. I walked to her and registered a horror peeling the skin of her face back at being alive. Her eyes bugged out. The swelter of the room became heavy and miserable then. The gentlemen the stall over persisted in their fucking. She looked at me and didn’t seem to register a likeness, a fellowship in being human. I went to the sink for water and wetted a paper towel, returning and pressing it to her forehead. Her skin was pale. She was sweating incessantly. She smelled medical. I tried to touch my hand to her cheek to check the temperature there, encourage some level of identification. She grabbed my wrist and began pulling me toward her. I stood and she came with me. We stood together and she seemed barely to note the gentlemen in the stall near us. I don’t know or care much for drugs. I drink and have partaken, little more. This was something horrific. This was all the world pressing at my chest. I felt my fingers. They were dried up. They were shriveled. I couldn’t make sense of it. I’d run them under water awhile. I’d been sweating. I felt my chest heave and wanted to collapse.

The girl wanted to leave. I could see it. She wouldn’t vocalize. She grabbed my wrist again. We walked together through the black and swelter, the light and drink, until the cold night air shocked something into us. I felt myself coming together. I felt myself falling apart. I vomited there, or somewhere, walking toward my car. I vomited and it hit the knee of my leathers and I only know it in retrospect. She pulled my wrist. Next day, maybe, I noticed redness there. She was quiet. Her hair was short, brown but slicked in spots against her skull. Her shirt was white and not ripped but mangled against her chest, small gut and arms. She wore a coat and dressed in pants and shoes as if she’d only just left the school to come here. Her hands were shriveled and I felt them abrade my wrist and slither. I suppose she had a car as mine was only caked with my debris.

 

I don’t remember fucking then. I remember laying back or being fully prone on her backseat, our legs however they needed to be to mash us there. I remember staring up at the back window and feeling calm through its fog, its slightly frozen coat and her hands against my ribs. I do not think that she and I in fact fucked. Both of her cold hands, though, these pressed against the sides of me and held me there and she made no recognizable sounds. She made groans, sure. She perhaps whispered things against me and sweated through her clothes and mine. I felt the sickness of bile at the back of my throat and through to the next day. I can still feel the cold of her seat against my head. I remember knowing something. I remember the sounds of those gentlemen and wishing life could be that simple. I recognized her and felt pulled to her. I don’t know what my sense of responsibility was that night. I might’ve called 911, though I found no evidence the next day. We might’ve fucked, sure. I have experienced memory loss. I have missed days of my life staring off, asleep, not caring. I can piece together fragments only. Fragments of her wrists, say. Fragments of her hair and its slickness against my cheek, my mouth. The whispering and grunting at my chest, the howling even. These are my memories. This was an anomalous moment, a night that doesn’t fit. I found myself in complete lack of control and things seemed to spiral out in front of me. Perhaps she wanted to die. Perhaps she’d found that room to hear people fucking nearby so she might die near them. This makes sense to me. I can appreciate this impulse. Perhaps someone drugged her and she barely escaped. I trust the people there but I have a male body and there are differences, bars and clubs vary in degree of insidiousness or threat, perhaps. I’m uncertain how to piece anything together in retrospect. I only remember the window. I only remember the gloss of night and the armor of our coats around us as we held there against whatever death.

I woke with her stomach’s skin against mine, cold but for the small strip where we touched. I worried she was dead, then my head felt like it was being crushed beneath the sea, then a drunken bubble rose and I smelled vomit. I must have spoken with her but all I remember is her mumbling. I must have sat up and tried to figure things out but all that stands out are the lights on driving home. I think I spoke to her. I think I sat her up and made sure she could function well enough. I would’ve looked for something to straighten her out, a bottle of water maybe or a bit of food. I would’ve tried to do these things. I’m not sure which things I did and didn’t do. I hoped that I did everything. I woke later and hoped that I did everything.

I don’t know how to advocate or speak for another. I couldn’t have made her situation better or worse. She looked like me: her hair was matted in memory, her clothing a messy sprawl of unkempt materials, I remember all of it looking like escape, the both of us seemingly wanting to flee. I don’t remember what we said or whether we touched more on waking. I don’t remember if she was O.K. that night or what. I don’t remember feeling any relief or vomiting in my walk to my car. I only remember the lights as I began to surface driving across a bridge to my town. I remember sitting at a McDonald’s terribly early and drinking cup after cup of water and coffee, slowly putting myself back together only long enough to return to my small home and fall asleep caked in sweat and ugly smells until the afternoon.

 

Later on that week when I saw her outside of school as I walked my can toward the large dumpster I felt nauseous. I doubt if she recognized me. When I woke up from that night and looked in the mirror I might’ve been any anonymous body soaked in strobe and the mud of people. It didn’t matter if she recognized me. I walked by and felt my anonymity. I felt myself return to my youth in that hell and was calm and glazed over by the notion; asleep and it started at the eyes. Bells rang and children abounded. Groups assembled themselves at the doors of classrooms wherein they’d make minor messes throughout the afternoon. That evening two shows were being put on and I was asked to keep things orderly afterward. I’d accepted gratefully as things had felt amiss since waking in that car. I was always fairly close to death, I figure. I had never seen someone OD and this was something to process, maybe. I was feeling my whole world curl in on itself and become ruinous. I tended to ruin. I was a ruiner. I moved the can across the sidewalk having left a numbered door and made my way past the lot of them leading to lives filled with people. That night I might dress myself and lie on the floor naked to feel my limbs sprawl out. That night I might drink myself stupid and feel aligned with planets. I wasn’t sure. I walked by and felt the identifying touch of stomach as I passed her. Everything seemed O.K. Everything would be O.K. for me in turn. This has always been my problem. These have always been my problems. I am always gnashing my teeth against the low guts of life only to rise again to my mediocrity. I await the weekend when I’ll flee.

—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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Jul 132017
 

“The Black Lace Veil” is one of the stories from Fleur Jaeggy’s collection, I Am the Brother of XX. It was translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

— Joseph Schreiber

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My mother had an audience with the Pope. I found this out from a photograph of the Holy Father with her looking at him, wearing a black veil. From that photograph I understood, perceived, in fact clearly saw, that my mother was depressed. Depressed in a definitive way. The smile is sad, the glance, which is trying to be kind, is without hope. Mother was a rather sociable person, elegant, lovely jewelry, a lot of charm, Givenchy, Patou, Lanvin — ​in fact many aesthetic qualities which are not dissimilar to internal ones. In the photograph I noticed for the first time that Mother was all in all a desperate woman — ​or almost desperate. In spite of her little bridge tables. She entertained a great deal, now some of the bridge tables have been left to me and sometimes I hear the calls: sans atout, passe, hearts. Then I ask myself why she went to see the Pope. I am her daughter and would never have thought of going. What made her seek the blessing of the Holy Father? Maybe her despair: she wanted to be blessed. Wearing the dark lace veil, partly obscuring her face that was so sad. There is something frightful in realizing from a photograph that one’s own mother was depressed. Definitively depressed. Or perhaps she only was at that moment. The presence of the Holy Father threw her into such a state of bewilderment that it made her expression unhappy. With no way out. As she desperately tried to smile and the eyes were already in darkness. They are — ​one could say right away — ​extinguished, dead, closed. Yet she was still beautiful. Beauty could not conceal the despair, as the grim veil she wore on her head could not hide her beauty.

Now I’d like to know why she went to see the Holy Father. Did she seek solace? Maybe I was wrong. It was the first impression that made me say that her gaze was desperate. She looked the Holy Father in the eye, with a distant and very direct gaze. She looked him straight in the eye. Even though her gaze was far from cheerful. It was cold and hopeless. She had no hope. Her son was beside her. And he, too, had a sad expression in his eyes. And so her son looked at the Holy Father in the bored manner of a little boy who doesn’t believe in anything. The mother wants to take him to the Pope, an audience for the very few. It is a luxury to be able to see the Holy Father, they say. I don’t know if the word luxury is a suitable one, but it is not common to be received by the Holy Father, so close that one can kiss his ring or bow one’s head or genuflect. Perhaps genuflecting is too much. I don’t know a great deal about ritual behavior toward the Holy Father. But my mother who knows the etiquette and was immediately granted an audience, she must have bowed as she started to bow before destiny. Before a not too favorable destiny that was undermining her life. Her beauty hadn’t altogether faded, there were still flashes of it, which to a careful glance might have been quite fascinating and moving. Her daughter, who does not have the depth of the mother, has always believed in the surface of things. And so in beauty. In appearance. What does she care about what is inside? Inside where? And what is the inside? Anyway the daughter believes more in photographs than in the people portrayed. A photograph might tell more than a person. Perhaps. Naturally perhaps. Always perhaps. No affirmation could lead her to grant total credence to the affirmation itself. So, to return to despair. A theme that is dear to her. What could be better than despair? If one discovers from looking at her in a photograph that a person is desperate, after the first shock a kind of calm sets in. A remission. I had never seen my mother so desperate, I would never have thought she could be desperate. It was we, her daughter and her son, who always thought we were — ​the two of us, he and I — ​desperate. Not Mother. That was our prerogative. Mother does not even know what despair might be, we thought. Well, she deceived us. To put it crudely. The card player, and perhaps a player in life, the woman who for a while protected us, who protected her children — ​and then let them go. Because all that was around her left her. Like a flash of lightning, there is an instant that descends, wounds, and is gone. And leaves an aura of spoliation. All it took was a photograph, the photograph of Mother in the presence of the Holy Father, to convince her daughter that she was desperate. She will continue to repeat that word, because she, the mother, never uttered it. She never uttered a word that concerned her. That concerned any malaise of hers. Any possible malaise of hers.

Even now, though many years have gone by and Mother is no longer here, I’d like to know what made her go to the Pope. Why the audience? And why that look in her eyes. If she felt the desire to see the Pope, and perhaps receive his blessing, why did she have that terribly sad look in her eyes? So much so that her daughter, many years later, was jolted — ​as though her mother were alive at that moment and told her that she’s had enough of life. Sufficit. The daughter was jolted, felt a pang of love for her mother who perhaps had always hidden from her that she was terribly unhappy and let herself be found out in a photograph.

— Fleur Jaeggy, Translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff

Published with permission from New Directions Publishing Company.

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Fleur Jaeggy (1940– ) was born in Zurich, Switzerland and lives in Milano, Italy. In addition to her own work, she has translated the works of Marcel Schwob and Thomas de Quincey into Italian as well as written texts on them and Keats. The London Times Literary Supplement named Jaeggy’s S.S.Proleterka a Best Book of the Year: and her Sweet Days of Discipline won the Premio Bagutta as well as the Premio Speciale Rapallo.

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Gina Alhadeff is the author of The Sun at Midday and Diary of a Djinn. She translated to great acclaim Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World.

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Jul 132017
 

Her new short story collection, I Am the Brother of XX, serves to showcase her exceptional ability to create an atmosphere of brittle, gothic claustrophobia with a contained, simmering intimation of violence that, on occasion, rises to the surface. And the three brief biographical essays that comprise These Possible Lives are a delight. — Joseph Schreiber

I Am the Brother of XX
Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Gini Alhadeff
New Directions
128 pages; $14.95

These Possible Lives
Fleur Jaggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
New Directions
64 pages; $12.95

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One might argue that Fleur Jaeggy does not write so much as channel language, allowing her words to form imaginary spaces that exist on an altered plane of experience. To read her is to inhabit, for a moment, that space—one that exists in the shadows, one that contains, to borrow an expression from one of her earlier stories, a certain “sacred inertia.” [1] You can almost feel it. There is an unmistakable current of brisk, melancholic foreboding that courses beneath the surface of her prose. The chill can make you shudder, the stark beauty of her terse sentences catch your breath. Atmospheric. Disconcerting. And strangely alluring. It is a rare author who manages to sustain an emotionally intense voice that is at once distinct, abstracted, and tightly restrained. However, anyone who has fallen under the spell of Jaeggy’s fiction will know its undefinable appeal.

Of Italian-speaking Swiss heritage, Jaeggy was born in Zurich in 1940. Raised and educated in Switzerland, she moved to Rome when her studies were complete. There she met Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. The latter would become an especially close friend. In 1968, she relocated to Milan to work with the famed publishing house, Adelphi Edizioni. She married writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, and established a reputation as a novelist and translator over the following years. But it was her masterful fourth novel, I beati anni del castigo (1989), translated as Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks, 1991), that introduced her to an English speaking audience. Exquisitely spare, this subtly disturbing tale of obsession set in a boarding school in the Swiss Alps, examines themes that continue to resurface in her work: familial dysfunction, emotional detachment, and a preternatural obsession with sadness or, as her narrator so poignantly puts it, the “pleasure of disappointment.”

Subsequent publications, a collection of dark gothic fable-like stories, La paura del cielo (1994) and the autobiographical novel, Proleterka (2001) found their way into English translation as Last Vanities (Tim Parks, 1998) and SS Proleterka (Alistair McEwen, 2003) respectively, but to date, her earlier works remain untranslated. Consequently, the announcement that two new, relatively recent (2015), releases—I Am the Brother of XX, a collection of short stories, and These Possible Lives, a set of three tightly abbreviated literary biographical essays—would be forthcoming from New Directions was received with anticipation and a revived interest in this notoriously elusive author. For the attentive reader, one of the greatest rewards of this renewed attention, is the publication of a rare English language interview in the Summer 2017 issue of TANK Magazine.

Jaeggy is a reserved and reluctant interviewee, but her modest responses are simultaneously generous and mysterious. She is clearly uncomfortable talking about her craft, unwilling perhaps to even acknowledge her role in the creative process as more than a passive one. She describes her precious manual typewriter—a swamp green Hermes—as the generative source of the letters and words that appear on the page. “I believe you can almost write without me,” she says. “Once I have finished a book, it doesn’t count any more; I don’t want anything to do with it any more.” As to the works she keeps close at hand, she admits to reading little new literature. Beyond a fondness for W.G. Sebald and, of course, her friend Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina, her reading tends to the mystical:

. . .Francis of Assisi and Angela di Foligno, who was born in 1248 in Tuscany and left everything behind. The saints are truly wonderful writers. But more than anyone else I read Meister Eckhart. I almost know him by heart. He is always close to my Hermes. One should read pretty much everything by him. He was for renunciation.

This admission, if surprising given the dark undertones of so much of Jaeggy’s writing, goes a long way towards explaining the eerie, intangible and otherworldly beauty of her work.

Her new short story collection, I Am the Brother of XX, serves to showcase her exceptional ability to create an atmosphere of brittle, gothic claustrophobia with a contained, simmering intimation of violence that, on occasion, rises to the surface. With twenty-one stories in 128 pages, some of the pieces are no more than two or three pages long—exercises in tightly condensed sentiment. There are, however, a number of tales that have a more reflective, nostalgic, and personal tone. Some of these even feature appearances from real-life friends and acquaintances like Ingeborg Bachmann, Joseph Brodsky, Italo Calvino, and Oliver Sacks. The translation by Gini Alhadeff, captures well the crisp poetry of her prose.

The title story, easily one of the stand-out pieces, is a finely executed exploration of a territory Jaeggy visits frequently—the uncanny landscape of dysfunctional family dynamics. The narrator, a melancholic young man, obsesses about the strange nature of his relationship with his older sister, whom he refers to as XX. He is convinced that she has long been spying on him, determined to write his future and ultimately, write him out of his own life. With a pensive, melodramatic spirit, fueled, in part, by his mother’s early regimen of dosing her children with sleeping pills, the narrator’s distrust of his sister’s intent grows, especially after their mother dies and she makes his future her concern:

She, my sister XX, leaves the room. And I am alone with my books, the desk, and I find myself, the brother of the voice that has just spoken, having a great urge to hang myself somewhere. Coming to my own aid, I think again of solitude, of the solitude that surrounds my existence. And that thought, always so lugubrious, distressing, now, after the importance of succeeding in life, becomes almost light. Words have a weight. Importance is weightier than solitude. Though I know that solitude is harsher. But the importance of succeeding in life is a noose. It’s nothing but a noose.

So articulate and careful in his account, it is impossible to tell if his paranoia is justified, or part of a deeply imbedded neurosis, and if his gradual unravelling is allegorical or real. Either way, in this story, as in much of Jaeggy’s fiction, her characters often demonstrate an emotional detachment and indifference to pain, in themselves or others, that makes them strangely tragic and engaging. It is not unlike catching a sideways glimpse of oneself in a darkened mirror.

“The Visitor,” another particularly impressive, beautifully rendered piece, is a fantastical little tale featuring one of her favourite mystics, Angela di Foligno. On an undated day, Angela, patron saint of those afflicted by sexual temptation, makes an appearance at the Archaeological Museum of Naples. As she passes through the halls, the inanimate inhabitants quiver and come to life, slipping off their pedestals and emerging from the surface of the frescoes.

The Nymphs step out of their representations, step down from the painted garden decorating the wall. The wall closes in on itself like a sepulchre. They are nearly all minute, damp, rapacious. They are still cloaked—Angela knows this—in a somber voluptuousness and a wild inebriation with which she identifies. The Nymphs give the impression that they listen to dreams. Not entirely awake, like those returning from an apparent death, they blindly contemplated the halls of the museum, without daring to move. The light wounded them. A pallid terror flutters across their eyelids. There is silence. Only the sound of shards falling was heard, colored shards, as they have left their mooring. A silence of dust.

Released, the Nymphs panic, desperate to return to the security of mindless existence in painted terra-cotta. The drama of their brief taste of freedom and desired renunciation returns them to a state of dark happiness as the museum resumes its formerly static existence.

Short story collections can present particular challenges. It can be difficult to maintain a consistent level of quality while avoiding a sameness that blurs the distinction between the stories. The twenty-one pieces here cover a range of styles, and although definite themes recur, Jaeggy’s inimitable style is such that there are bound to be passages that redeem even the weakest offerings. But it must be said that a few of the pieces do feel more like writing exercises than finished works, even for a writer who is well known for her suspended imagery and willingness to leave much unsaid. By contrast, the few more conventional gothic horror stories—“Agnes,” “The Heir,” and “The Aviary”—also seem slightly less satisfying because they are a little too neat, the protagonists too obviously sociopathological. The language and mood is still classic Jaeggy (“A modest gray afternoon. Vitreous.”), but it could be argued that there is something more unsettling when her characters’ neuroses are less clearly defined, more ambivalent, a little closer to home.

Entirely different in scale and intent, the three brief biographical essays that comprise These Possible Lives are a delight. Here she enters into the worlds of three writers she has either translated or written about—Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob—to create ultra-compressed, finely detailed portraits that capture the essentials of their lives, and the details of their deaths, from her own unique vantage point. Her prose, translated here by Minna Zallman Proctor, is precise and poetic, but with a hyper-focused, intentional quality that is less apparent in her fictional works. Like hand-painted miniatures, she pays attention to the appearance and style of each of her subjects, while filling in the background with curious diversions that allow for an intensely personal, unforgettable encounter.

With each of her subjects, Jaeggy’s concern is with choice elements of life experience—background, education, inspiration, adventure—as forces driving their creative energy, rather than with the works they produced. One might say that she imagines each writer as a character in his own life and death, to craft an essay that assumes a space somewhere between biography and literary folk legend. Her intention is to glance into their hearts. With Thomas De Quincey she introduces him as an imaginative, visionary child, follows him through his early experiments with laudanum, diverting her attention briefly to catalogue his literary contemporaries’ obsessions with the quality of their dreams, and then proceeds to chronicle his growing eccentricity and eventual descent (or ascent?) to a state of madness:

He was sometimes overcome with sleepiness in his studio and dropped, pulling the candles down with him. Ash reliefs adorned his manuscripts. When the flames got too high he’d run to block the door, afraid someone would burst in and throw water on his papers. He put out fires with his robe, or the rug—a thin cleric wrapped words in smoke, chains, links, captivity, bondage. When invited to dinner, he promised attendance, holding forth on the subject of the enchantments of punctuality. At the appointed time, however, he was elsewhere. Perhaps he was studying pages piled up like bales of hay in one of the many shelters that he never remembered having rented. Paper storage, fragments of delirium eaten away by dust.

The John Keats essay begins with a reflection on the barbaric nature of the children’s toys popular in the early years of the nineteenth century and ends with an extended account of the young poet’s tragically romantic death. This is the longest piece, while the shortest is a brilliant, dizzying distillation of the impressive lineage, unconventional life and exotic adventures of Marcel Schwob. Remarkably, each one of these perfect little portraits leaves one eager to explore further the writer’s life and work. And that is quite an accomplishment for a book that is only 64 pages long. But then, this is the meticulous magic one comes to expect from Fleur Jaeggy.

— Joseph Schreiber

N5

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

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Fleur Jaeggy, “The Wife,” in Last Vanities, trans. Tim Parks (New York: New Directions, 1998), 24
Jul 122017
 

McCarthy’s MC Hammer-Conrad connection speaks to the collection’s willingness to not only grant credence to the highbrow and the lowbrow in equal measure, but is also a call to ignore brow-ness altogether. As a consequence, the more disparate the subject matter McCarthy chooses to splice, the more surprising, and, yes, whimsical, the results end up. — Andrew MacDonald 

Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish
Tom McCarthy
New York Review Books, 2017
$16.95, 288 pages

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Before he made the avant garde novel cool again, Tom McCarthy was having trouble getting his first book, Remainder, past the marketing departments of big publishers. It was too weird, the plot too circuitous and repetitive. Eventually Metronome, a small art house publisher, took the novel on. It became a word-of-mouth success, the buzz culminating in a Zadie Smith review, ranking it among the greatest works of the last ten years. The rest, as they say, is history, though McCarthy himself would likely object to such a fraught, limiting term. Since Remainder, McCarthy has produced a book-length critical work on TinTin, the Booker shortlisted C, described by Jennifer Egan as “Pynchonesque revelry in signs and codes with the lush psychedelics of William Burroughs,” and another Booker-shortlisted novel, Satin Island, about someone named “U” who works for “the Company.” Given the success of his novels, it’s easy to overlook the dozen plus short critical pieces McCarthy has written about literature, art, technology and culture. With the publication of Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, a collection of fifteen of those brilliant, challenging, and at times frustrating essays, readers have the chance to appreciate the intellect behind McCarthy’s longer fictional work.

The essays in Jellyfish cover broad terrain, from the films of David Lynch to the novels of Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Some of the pieces, like “Why Ulysses Matters,” started as invited talks or lectures; others found their way into places like Artforum or, as is the case with “18 Semiconnected Thoughts on Michel de Certeau, On Kawara, Fly fishing, and Various Other Things,” museum catalogues accompanying exhibits at the Guggenheim. Others tread more conventional paths, becoming introductions to critical works (like Kafka’s Letter to his Father) and critical essays The Guardian. They are a potpourri of critical thought that the author likens to masses of the eponymous seafaring invertebrates that often reach “a critical mass of goo in circulation . . . coming back, lodging, sticking.”

The obsession with discursive circulation, of coming back in loops to stick, lodge, and accrete, is among the collection’s chief interests. In “From Feedback to Reflux: Kafka’s Cybernetics of Revolt,” McCarthy contends that “no other writer…has presented a more fundamentally cybernetic aesthetic than Kafka.” Lest one confuse the term “cybernetics” with computational technology, McCarthy defines the term, coined by Norbert Wiener, as “a networked mechanism formed of and driven by a set of circuits, relays and, most importantly, feedback loops.” From K, the surveyor of Kafka’s The Castle‘s endless attempts to gain access, to the mise en abyme of judicial infrastructure Josef K must face in The Trial, McCarthy sees Kafka presaging the NSA and Google – institutional structures that contain loop after loop of information within themselves.

While the feedback loops of cybernetics are “corrective,” McCarthy dubs those in Kafka’s writings as “fuckuptive” – that is, the response pattern the loops engender is self-defeating. Put another way: “the circuitry or system-architecture here is configured in such a way as to render unworkable any operation that the user (Kafka) might actually want to use it to perform.”

Among the system-architecture of which McCarthy, a champion of the avant garde, is particularly distrustful is the ism – positivism, moralism, psychologism. In “Get Real, or What Jellyfish Have to Tell Us About Literature,” he presents us with a lengthy excerpt from Ford Maddox Ford to show how conventional realism, with its compulsive urge to reshape in accordance with post-facto logic, is at odds with “how both events and memory of them proceed: associatively, digressing, sliding, jolting, looping.” By creating fertile ground for the associative, the 20th century avant-garde, McCarthy argues, gets “the real” more than their 19th century counterparts, who, to their credit (and in opposition to those writing today who take up the ‘realist’ banner) nonetheless “fully appreciate the scaffolding of artifice holding their carefully wrought edifices up.”

Scaffolding, artifices, edifices – readers will detect in McCarthy’s lexicon more than trace amounts of the post-modernist’s distrust of tautologies. In an interview with The Guardian, McCarthy tells us that “the avant garde can’t be ignored, so to ignore it – as most humanist British novelists do – is the equivalent of ignoring Darwin.” Those who do are, in McCarthy’s eyes, “just a creationist” with “ostrich-like” tendencies.

When it comes to understanding McCarthy’s modus operandi, his role as “general secretary” of the International Necronautical Society is as good a place to start as any. Together with philosopher Simon Critchley, McCarthy founded the INS, a semi-parodic, semi-serious, maybe-performance-art-but-that’s-missing-the-point organization “devoted to mind-bending projects that would do for death what the Surrealists had done for sex.” Among the INS’s more public hijinks are cryptic radio broadcasts, the hacking of the BBC website, exhibits that may be called art and hearings with committees that may, or may not, host officials and organization members with such lofty (and possibly made-up) titles as INS Chief Obituary Reviewer, and INS Chief or Propaganda (Archiving and Epistemological Critique).

Maybe.

And maybe, a reviewer of the critical work of McCarthy might be inclined to say, the blurring between the factual and the fictional is perhaps the point. Or, possibly more accurately, that the point is to reject the ism of easy dichotomies altogether, in favor of more freewheeling signification, where meanings are swapped, integrated and ousted.

Take, for example, the weather. An early essay in the collection, “Meteomedia,” draws richly from sources as diverse as Seneca and close to home as McCarthy’s own apartment to arrive at a thesis possessing unmistakable echoes of McLuhan: not only is the meteorological a medium, it also constitutes media. “Like all media,” writes McCarthy of the weather, “it bears a plethora of messages – perhaps even the message – while simultaneously supplying no more than conversational, neutral, white noise.” Moreover, like a tree falling in the woods without its audience, so too is weather as media devoid of signal without an audience to receive it.

“Stabbing the Olive,” an essay on Jean-Philippe Toussaint, poses another mind-cruncher that nobody in history, apart from McCarthy, has likely asked: do Toussaint’s novels engage in “deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” For McCarthy, and, eventually, his readers too, the distinction is everything. McCarthy sees in much of the work of Toussaint a refiguring of structure, a gesture away from the ism of realism: “we don’t want plot, depth, or content,” he notes, “we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content; geometry is everything.” He goes deeper: “We exist and assume subjectivity to the extent that we occupy a plot in or traverse a grid: an implicit philosophical assert that’s part Descartes, part Deleuze.”

Passages like that, theory-rich and many-claused, will likely alienate some readers and entice others. However, a strength of the collection, and of McCarthy-as-Teacher (separate from McCarthy-as-Critical-Theorist), is his instinct for strategic simplification; he seems to know just how far to push his reader out to sea before throwing out a floatation device. He corks the above meditation on grids and subjectivity plotted thereupon by asking if there is a “retro-move going on [in later Toussaint]? A crypto-reactionary step backwards towards humanism, sentimentalism, positivism, and the whole gamut of bad isms that the vanguard twentieth-century novel has expended so much effort overcoming.” His answer: hard to say. Challenged to the point of breathlessness, we likely feel the same way and are, at the very least, enlivened at being privy to the discussion.

Devotees to art and film will also find much to love in the collection, since many of McCarthy’s finest essays focus on art and film. His piece on the painter Gerhard Richter, for example, expertly knits complex visual theory to practical visual analysis. For McCarthy, Richter’s work resists easy categorization, “reducing these binaries” – concept vs. craft-based, abstract vs. figurative – “to rubble.” Richter’s trademark is the blur, “a corruption of an image, an assault upon its clarity, one that turns transparent lenses into opaque shower curtains, gauzy veils.” Corruption becomes clarity, the transparent becomes gauzy – McCarthy’s critical skillset allows him to reconcile inverse values, creating, as all great paradoxes (and artistic works) do, a new species of idea.

McCarthy’s finest creation might be his essay on “The Prosthetic Imagination” of David Lynch. Casual viewers may have missed the proliferation of prosthetics in Lynch; not so with McCarthy, who notes that “the continual, almost systematic replacement in [Lynch’s] films of body parts and faculties by instruments…produces is a whole prosthetic order, a world of which prosthesis is not just a feature but a fundamental term, an ontological condition.” McCarthy sees the first of Lynch’s problem films (so-called) as “the outsourcing of the self and of reality to their prostheses.” Ditto Mulholland Drive, where “technology is no longer an appendage to the human; rather, humans have become technology’s prosthesis.” In the end, the prosthete serves those very bodily additions: prosthesis becomes puppetry, the prosthete a marionette.

Big ideas are at play here, but it would be a mistake to ignore the undercurrent of whimsy, wit, irony, and playfulness that flows beneath the surface of most essays in Jellyfish.

Exhibit A: first published in an anthology of fiction inspired by Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing” bears the provocative subtitle “Why I want to Fuck Patty Hearst.” McCarthy catalogues a panoply of Hearsts, dating to when he first heard the Sonic Youth song “Kool Thing,” featuring Hearst as lead singer. We get Marxist Patty Hearsts calling her parents bourgeois pigs, Patty Hearst as pulp novel-heroine, Patty Hearst as Che’s lover, then Patty Hearst as gaming heroine Lara Croft – Patty Hearst “multiplying into a thousand different women” before attaining one of the most addictive metonyms out there – the Patty Hearst McCarthy wants to fuck as America, “all of it, sitting in a motel bedroom, watching the apocalypse on television.”

For Exhibit B (Whimsy, McCarthy’s Use Thereof), see, “Recessional, or the Time of the Hammer,” a study of fictional time, from Conrad to Pynchon. The essay features a curious aside in which McCarthy describes listening to MC Hammer during the essay’s creation and finding, on some associative level, a niggling link between Hammer’s hit, “U Can’t Touch This,” and the writing of Conrad. The collision is no accident, for, as McCarthy laconically, notes, “for doesn’t [Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This”], like Conrad’s novella, feature a black man who tells us to wait?”

Cue guffaw.

McCarthy’s MC Hammer-Conrad connection speaks to the collection’s willingness to not only grant credence to the highbrow and the lowbrow in equal measure, but is also a call to ignore brow-ness altogether. As a consequence, the more disparate the subject matter McCarthy chooses to splice, the more surprising, and, yes, whimsical, the results end up.

The intrusion of MC Hammer highlights another of McCarthy’s habits – a willingness to use meta-textual asides where the author, in mid-writing, pauses to comment on the text he is in the middle of generating.

More Exhibits for the Court to consider:

While exploring the connection between jellyfish and literature, McCarthy writes: “As I wrote this essay I couldn’t remember what it was that Van has brought Mrs. Tapirov”;

Contending with the warp-speed productivity of the French novelist Toussaint, McCarthy informs us that “in the time’s taken me to write this piece, it seems [Toussaint]’s managed to knock out yet another novel”;

Finally, another essay with fixes itself at the time of its own creation: “Alain Robbe-Grillet died while I was writing this essay”.

McCarthy the funster, meet McCarthy the astute critic and thinker.

The production of text, wherein McCarthy has, for example, forgotten a detail and makes the choice to record that forgetting, and the reanimation of the forgetting, for the reader who now takes part, however ephemerally, in the construction of the very text he or she is reading, all of which could have been avoided had McCarthy, in the editing room, simply inserted the information forgotten in the first place.

Which is, given what we’ve covered so far, a lot to wrap one’s head around.

But you don’t need to dig this deep to enjoy the collection. Eating breakfast cereal with a spoon once used by a famous person can still be used effectively to eat breakfast cereal, whether or not it possesses that extra Benjamin-ian aura that comes with close contact with celebrity or fame[1].

In his essay on Richter, McCarthy introduces us to the term ansehnlich, “or ‘considerable,’ to describe the effect of rescuing an image from the endless rush of media and paying it the attention – the devotion, we could say – of crafting it into a unique work of art.” This is, in the end, what McCarthy seems to be after when he takes on his disparate subjects; his essays are devotionals in their own right, not fawning or strict in the sense of worship, but rather in the compulsive attention paid to each of them.

— Andrew MacDonald

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Andrew MacDonald won a Western Magazine Award for Fiction, has been shortlisted for two Canadian National Magazine Awards for Fiction, and is a four-time finalist for the Journey Prize. He has an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and lives in New England and Toronto, where he’s finishing a novel.

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Immersion in McCarthy’s critical works will also have the pleasantly deleterious effect of making its readers search for complicated metaphors to explain the world.
Jul 122017
 

Adam Daily

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Everything is expressed through relationship. Colour can exist only through other colours, dimension through other dimensions, position through other positions that oppose them. That is why I regard relationship as the principal thing.
— Piet Mondrian

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Artist Adam Daily works in photography, digital graphics, collage, printmaking and painting. You would not know this to look at his works, however, as much of the process of his creation goes on behind the scenes. Adam defies tradition with computer techniques that are painterly, playful and organic, and painting techniques that hide the human hand via mechanized perfection. This lends a great deal of mystery and intrigue to the finished works. His methodology is rigorous, his performance, exacting.

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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April ink on synthetic paper 44 x 60in 2008April – ink on synthetic paper, 44×60 inches, 2008

Mary Kathryn Jablonski (MKJ): There is a series of your older works that I just can’t get out of my head. I am in love with these black and white invented “landscapes” that I consider monotypes, which may in fact not be prints at all, since I recall the surfaces as so mysterious, I couldn’t pin them down at the time. And what I’m really interested to know is how these works relate to your current boldly colored large-scale paintings, which seem quite different.

Adam Daily (AD): I think first of all that the relationship between this body of work that I’m making now and my older body of work is about organized systems. My current work begins as a drawing of a library of shapes, and it all happens digitally. Everything happens inside Adobe Illustrator. I will build, say, 10 different shapes, and every shape will be in the same isometric perspective and structure, and every shape fits on the same grid. I then take each shape and produce it in four to eight different colors. So that gives me a grid of shapes to work with. I will have say, five different shapes in five different colors. That grid I then use to begin finding both spatial and color relationships between individual forms.

Some of the shapes I use are simple; some are complex. Because they generally all follow the same structure, what I do, through changes in layering and height and location on the x/y axis, is explore the possibilities of these individual units, linking them to create larger units, and I find that space occasionally flattens or opens depending upon the way colors or shapes relate to one another.

M4 acrylic on pvc 48 x 48 in 2013M4 – acrylic on PVC, 48×48 inches, 2013

I’ve made a system for developing an image, so for my current paintings, it can be an intense process of drawing, editing, revising and producing different versions of these works. That process is very similar to the process of the black and white images I was making earlier. With them, I was building a library of photographs. So instead of an abstract shape, I would take my original photographs of many objects and manipulate them; sometimes to the point where the object turned into something completely different and unrecognizable; sometimes I would simply adjust the contrast or scale. I would then take these photographic pieces, cut them up and reassemble them – also digitally – to create a composite image out of the original images. Through that process I was trying to think of a place I hadn’t been, and I didn’t have a reference image of that place. So I was trying to build, to imagine, an unknown place from images sourced from my actual surroundings. In this way, both processes utilize this idea of building a library, then manipulating those images to form a composition.

MKJ: Clearly in both cases it’s a collage process and a digital process, but it’s also painterly and printmakerly in some ways as well, right? The black and white works are treated eventually like monotypes, and in the paintings, you’re transferring your image onto the painting surface, and then you almost approach silkscreen or multi-block woodcut techniques, with the application of one color at a time, true?

M5 acrylic on pvc 48 x 48in 2013M5 – acrylic on PVC, 48×48 inches, 2013

AD: Right. So after I’ve digitally produced the drawing for my painting, I work on a sheet of Sintra® PVC Foam Board, which is bright white plastic that has a very consistent smooth finish. It doesn’t need to be primed and it’s a very bright white. I then transfer my drawing onto the plastic simply using a ruler and very sharp pencil to define the edges of the form, and then I do work applying one color at a time. What I do is say, “Okay, let me find all of the areas that will be magenta,” and map those out. One of the most interesting ways that these paintings work, for me, is when there’s a really high degree of precision, so that you get a very interesting color interaction where colors are coming together.

I tape off the areas to be painted, and then I use a small automotive spray gun with translucent or transparent acrylic paints. In order to get the color to be as brilliant as possible, I have to apply a consistent thickness across the painting, so that it appears to be an opaque, solid color, when in reality it’s just a consistent film over a sheet of white. What this means is that the light will travel through the paint, bounce off the white, come back and be intensely luminous.

In this way, it’s not like a traditional painting process at all. There’s no brush involved, no mixing of paint colors on the surface of the painting. I specifically avoid overlapping any color with another color to prevent interference. The colors can touch each other, but not overlap, so there’s no color mixing, which would reduce the brilliance of some of the pigments.

Each shape, as I design it, will have three or more tonalities on it. This idea of isometric perspective and the light falling on the shape gives me these three different tones, and those are generally tints of the original pigment.

M6 acrylic on pvc 48 x 48in 2013M6 – acrylic on PVC, 48×48 inches, 2013

One of the things I discovered over time is that for me, making compositional decisions during the painting process hinders my outcome, and making all my compositional decisions beforehand in the digital space allows me to then focus on the manufacturing process, so that the image comes out the way I want it to.

MKJ: What if there’s an error during the manufacture of an 8′ x 8′ painting? Are there any changes during the painting process, or would this be cause to discard a piece and start over?

AD: Sometimes, obviously, when you make something you have a mistake, and I have ways of fixing things. When I make an error, it doesn’t change the course of the image. I am not making spur-of-the-moment decisions. Decisions made during the painting process are entirely color decisions, not compositional. When I make the drawing there are general ideas about color; what color is going to go where. Generally. But specific color is not decided until I mix the pigment. I have systems that I use in order to make this work. An order of events has to be followed.

MKJ: You’ve called it “methodical, intentional, mechanical.”

AD: And frequently when people see the paintings, they think that the paint is actually pieces of vinyl (or some other material) that have been cut out with a knife and put down. Although taping off a shape and painting it a color is not a new idea and in many ways is not a very interesting idea, these particular materials and this particular way of applying it does leave some doubt as to the manufacturing process.

MKJ: Yes, doubt… or intrigue!

AD: Right. And in all of my works, in the black and white works as well, I’m interested in a piece that is ambiguous as to its manufacture. In many ways, this is not a painting process. I’ve found that one of the hardest things as a painter, and one of the things that painters do most is make decisions during the painting process. I find that having to make technical, material, compositional and color decisions all at the same time is problematic for me. And that I always inevitably end up building systems for myself.

MKJ: It’s almost mathematical or musical in its devices.

AD: Yes, right. It is. And the compositional process, because I do it on the computer, is so fluid, playful and free, there’s never a material consequence for a mistake. You don’t have to wipe anything off or clean your hands or anything. You can just play for hours upon hours with shapes, and start to find harmonies in shapes and little interactions between forms that spark your imagination, and that gets very exciting. That ability to separate composition from production allows for more complex compositions and a much more refined production process.

MKJ: Let’s go back to the black and white works vis-à-vis this compositional process and production process. There is some manipulation after the printing, just as with a monotype plate.

May ink on synthetic paper 44 x 60in 2008May – ink on synthetic paper, 44×60 inches, 2008

AD: Exactly. This is one of the major differences between the black and white and the color work. Those pieces begin, as I said, with photographs that I manipulate, and I build a composition in Photoshop in this case. And with these, the digital version is very crude; the intersection between objects and the lighting is crude. It does not appear as though I’m building a seamless imaginary land. It’s very rough. I make a print on synthetic paper, basically a sheet of plastic, using an ink jet printer. The paper is very smooth, and again bright white. The print comes out wet. The image can be washed off. It can be scraped, blotted, added to with more ink. And I use a variety of tools — eraser, Q-tip, makeup sponges — to manipulate an image that was crude in the digital and refine it in the physical.

One of the other things that happens is that when an ink jet printer puts down droplets, they typically absorb into the paper with a bit of dot-gain, which means the dots get bigger. In the case of the synthetic paper, because the ink doesn’t absorb, if you get the dots too close together, they form a puddle that’s very, very dark. So what is 80 percent black in the digital version is 100 percent black in the physical version. This results in a higher contrast image, because you’re taking the blacks and you’re darkening them. But then, additionally, you get interesting photographic effects in the lighter gray tonalities. You can see subtle tonal changes, something that an ink jet printer can produce extremely effectively, again, without evidence of a human interaction.

So the same questions arise: What would happen if you produced this in graphite? If you made it as a litho, what would happen? How do those different processes reveal themselves in the finished product, and what is the effect of seeing that process on your interpretation of the image? I like to build a process that is elusive in a way to allow the work to be just about the image.

October ink on synthetic paper 44 x 60in 2008October – ink on synthetic paper, 44×60 inches, 2008

The black and white images and the large colorful paintings are not only similar in process; they are both about landscape. In the large color paintings, you are not looking into the landscape. In these pictures, they don’t give the illusion of depth, because of the isometric perspective. They actually tilt inward into the space of the viewer, especially the larger paintings, where the scale of the objects can be as big or bigger than you are, so they interject themselves into the landscape. The smaller pictures become almost their own internal space because they are smaller than you, but also because of the layering of the shapes. You can travel in the picture – not to a horizon line, not to a vanishing point, but sort of in and out of the forms in the picture. So in that way it is “landscape.” They become a place, but that place sometimes becomes less recognizable than the place could be in the black and white works. The black and white work is “our” world; the place in the geometric works is a mathematical world, an imagined color space.

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Adam Daily is a New York-based artist, designer, and printmaker. He combines digital and handmade processes to create a variety of work. His current body of work explores systems and organizational structures through geometric spatial interactions and dynamic color relationships. His paintings have been exhibited widely in both group and solo exhibitions. In 2011, he was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship in Digital/Electronic Arts. He has had solo exhibitions at Salem Art Works in Salem, NY; Schafer Landing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and The Foundry for Art and Design in Cohoes, NY. He recently designed and installed a new large-scale mural for the City of New Rochelle, NY.  www.adam-daily.com

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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 JournalBluelineHome Planet NewsSalmagundi, 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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Jul 112017
 

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…For the stoic, open, the passage from  the local to the global is always certain; for the garden, closed, the inference from the local to the global always problematic…  —Serres

The concept arrives like a revelation, there is not thinking and rethinking, it is chosen, we will live life to the fullest extent possible. We have a bath whenever we want to, we turn on the heating on a cold summer evening without considering anything but the sudden chill, we take a bottle of cherry vodka from the cupboard and start to sip it, even though its late in the evening. In the café in the morning after we have spent a long evening drinking with friends we treat ourselves to an extravagant breakfast. As the-the-the bacon passes our lips for the first time we feel triumphant, the polymorphous joy of breaking all the repetitive lines of everyday life, breaking the chains of causality, exploding through us and out into the local space with such resolution that it opens the world up around us. Such things never last and after a few mouthfuls joy transforms into mere food, the pleasure we began eating with vanishes in the face of time and the day. We can barely speak across the table until the coffee stimulates our brains. There is nothing left to be done but continuing as the pleasure burnt itself out, extinguished in the face of the day.

Then on another day we are drinking wine with a woman, or simply alone on a sofa thinking of going to bed, trying to imagine that we are truly happy. We have scarcely imagined the phrase  before the sense fades because happiness can only be touched for the slightest instant. Perhaps true pleasure can only exist in the past as it is when you say after a meal with friends “that was fun wasn’t it ?” The rhetorical question intended to convince yourself that the acts were pleasurable. Then years later you look in an old notebook that is in a clear plastic storage box under the desk, reading an entry we can see we must have been happy then – in comparison to our current alienation and misery. In this moment though we are trapped in the moment and we hope it continues, we might be falling in love, perhaps even be cross and angry with something someone has said, be falling asleep on the sofa because we are unable to concentrate on reading the book, perhaps entering the warm house from the cold November evening feeling the heat caress us, we feel almost wholly well but know this sense will pass. The feeling floods us, beneath this though another layer of pleasure and happiness is emerging from the wells of desire, though we cannot reach it until it surfaces. Here is a feeling we cannot  touch, trapped somewhere in some unknown otherness like a painting that is hidden beneath another painting which can only be seen using x-rays, surfacing in the radioactive traces which threaten to harm the viewer, translated into the drumming and punctuation of the piano players fingers. In this we can recognize that we are happy, happy. It is instead true that we know we could be happier.

The abrupt English woman has a sister, who she makes sure you don’t meet until after you are committed. Sleeping on the second floor suppresses a way of being asleep which is deeper and ultimately more refreshing, just as when we are sitting somewhere, perhaps a library or on a train travelling south on which we are reading a book even as we are constantly tempted by the pleasure of closing the book and talking to people on some social media platform or other, not so much a distraction as a desire to breathe freely. Beyond this moment of distraction, perhaps, perhaps we, beyond this warm space and the lives (always multiple) that we share with those who are closest to us, are beginning to hanker after some difference that is being proposed by the book that has just fallen to the floor from our hands. Either way we think as we pick the book up from the floor that we’d like to be with strangers in a cafe in the south somewhere, in Nice or Caton or the Point de Serres. There was that time with Clive in the wedding reception in Sicily, or was it Corsica? The ex-girlfriend in her small hotel near Peignoir in the foothills who is always imagined in her old house in Amsterdam for some reason, or MS who is only ever spoken to hurriedly in the lobbies of hotels that he is pausing in during his endless transiting from conference to conference, the Romanian guy with the unspellable name met in the dark hotel bar, the middle aged American woman whom I met one night in the hotel in Plano, explaining she was in a training conference in the industrial building across the dry field, perhaps we might have looked like characters in a discursive movie…

(Usually, these hidden moments are just the other side of the truth, a thin glass wall separating us from a fidelity to the other who we can hear and see through the wall. Their space looks warm and restful compared to the cold and bleak space we are sitting in, though they may be thinking the same of us as we sit idly typing words and phrases into the keyboard. Either way we know that at some point the warmth will cause the frames to warp and the cold wind will cause them to freeze.)

There are moments which our therapists would identify as the explanation of why we cannot enjoy ourselves, in the way that our culture fulfils its role as censor, advising its children to end the relationship immediately. Relationships it always says are unworkable across difference. That the difference is not like the fall of atoms, the clinamen, but more like the steady state of gravity as the moon slowly escapes the attraction of the earth. And you acknowledge that perhaps they are right, we are even tempted to understand them, accepting the terrible violence of cultures and communities as they insist there is something more to be had in waiting, that we will find something better in waiting, just around the corner it waits for us. But what is this thing that we are supposed to wait for and will it really find us…

Perhaps we are sitting in our car in a traffic jam caused by a depressive worker in a white van committing suicide on the E1, and we look to the right at a beautiful person sitting looking across the lane at us, is this what they tell us to wait for. A smile, a shrug. Has she also been told to wait, to seek out this thing, searching, feeling our way across the concrete to speak, touch, love, indifference. And then perhaps this culture which wants you to belong, founded in sacrifice, the falling of atoms, perhaps it is merely thinking of hindsight what is it that hides behind the most perfect loves? What is it that hides behind even the most stupid eyes that look up at the photo on the wall? Is that monochrome image from childhood something else as the woman from the car lies asleep in the bed in the Sofitel hotel in Dijon whilst my car lies abandoned on the E1. Or is it the smile she gave us in the moment before speech?

—Stephen Brockbank

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Stephen Brockbank is a philosopher and was once an engineer who lives on a remote island in the middle of England.

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Jul 112017
 

Kate Hall

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THIS PRIMORDIAL SHAPE IS A GENERALIZATION OF THE SHAPE

A figure is contained by the shape of only one.
Only is the extremity. For example a beast.
And if only is added to a beast then it stands small and unbefriended.
And if only is subtracted from a beast then its shadow may loom and
terrify.
Other things being equal, in both ways, a beast suffers.

I is a figure contained by the shape of only one.
Only is the extremity.
And if only a beast is added to I then I will be forgotten.
And if only a beast is subtracted from I then, truthfully, something is overlooked.
Hence, I am contained in the beast or the beast is contained in I.
Other things being equal, both ways, I suffers.

Somewhere there is less shame.
But we know only so far.
Hence, somewhere there is disappearance.
And there is a precise only-sized hole in the cage.

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AND THEN THE GENERALIZATION ERROR WAS CALCULATED

(1) I am learning to suffer in your language and (2) it ends differently depending on who does it. Also, (3) I’ve learned how suffering can be minimized with elastics. (4) The necessity of error. (5) The dog came home with a snout full of porcupine quills. Here, (6) I’ve outlined the distance between the ideal arrangement and the tangible crystal, which has to bear its irregularities. Even though, (7) I am the one explaining the meaning of heading down the wrong track and despite the fact that (8) the weighing and balancing of certain limits is hard to understand, (1) I am learning to suffer in your language and (2) it ends differently depending on who does it.

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LET US FIRST CONSIDER THE ROLE OF ERROR

Captured in journeys through water.

In aquariums.

In jars of tap water.

As in, a little pond water has been added.

And of course there is blame.

Which no one can answer.

That the light passes through.

That widespread devastation.

That in great abundance.

A single red eye.

Then many.

That colored the sea for miles.

Ephemeral puddles.

As habitat.

Transparency.

As in, a fact not found.

Despite The Field Book of Natural History.

Predators.

To sink into deeper water by day.

To feed by night.

For being the less common.
For being fresh-run from the sea.

A container for the impossible.

That fell 9 days from heaven.

That and then 9 more.

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A TOY SYSTEM CLOSE TO THE REAL WORLD

Moments of communion had consequences;
each one made a baby.
And the world was forced down the throat of this tiny I
which caused it indigestion.
It’s true that the baby is only the idea of a baby
but still it cried for a long time,
until the words blocked off the place where the world was lodged
like the body creates the abscess
and thus, the I grew and became enormous and parentless.

This is a story of creation.
Our separate same stories
we construct and reconstruct in a dark,
enclosed as the I is in its dark room,
adrift in its systems—
organs, tissues and cells—
so full of world lodged somewhere unlocatable within or without.
Our words surround the world;
when we find them, we cling to them.
Yet, we never understand what each other is saying;
our languages are so different.

And in the end what actually saved us was not the names of things,
not the capsule of words that held the world back,
it was the gesture.

The elegant arc of these fragile manipulative hands as they
coaxed each O into existence, each I into existence.
And this was the moment of communion,
the moment of creation,
the slow tango,
the pounding of the fists against the wall of the self:
the gesture of my O and yours so separate and sudden and strange.
How two Is can bump into one another:
one I rub against the boundary of the other I,
so that eventually one I was taken into the other
and the other I was taken into the other.

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And in the end we were not for what we thought.
We were for the gesture,
as the night for the lift of the moon and not the morning,
as the plant for the breaking of the soil and not the flower,
as the grapes for the feet and not the wine.

The words are just practice;
they are misunderstandings.
And the misunderstandings are practice
for the inevitable loss of one I or the other
and the world sequestered there.
The loss that comes when we stop,
when the sun streams through the window
and morning breaks in.

—Kate Hall

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Kate Hall lives in Montreal. Her first book of poems, The Certainty Dream, was published by Coach House Books (2009).

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Jul 112017
 

 

Old Goris

Goris fills with fog in the winter. It comes down from the mountains to the north, through the village of Verishen above, along the Goris River, here no larger than a creek. The leading edge of the fog bank huddles close to the loose skin of the water, sending out tentative tendrils, until it hits the city and rapidly expands and you are blinded with white in every direction. In the mornings, the fog freezes on the streets, leaving a slick trail behind it and people shuffle along the asphalt, walking beside the buckled and pitted sidewalks.

I cross the river into Old Goris, at a low bridge built where the height of the bank of the newer city, built in 1876 on the broad plain to the west of the river, begins to diverge from that of the lower bank of the older one, built among the hills and valleys to the east. I come here often, to leave behind our dark Soviet-era apartment with its celadon green bedroom with white moldings applied at haphazard to the joins between walls and ceiling and its dirty pale slate blue living room. To reach the bridge, I walk past the dark grey-burgundy stone church of Grigor Lusavoritch, Gregory the Illuminator, with its tall spired cupola on a square drum, to where the street ends in a T. I walk left, along a tall wall that looks like an irregular jumble of stones pierced with barred glassless windows that look in on a small roofless, grassy field. I follow this road, paved with worn dirt, its gravel foundation beginning to show through, and take the first right, a trail that leads down three switchbacks to the floodplain of the river, where the vegetation is different, taller and more abundant, in a lighter shade of green.

The trail to the bridge is dry, founded on packed soil, and I stop to watch the quick water flowing beneath it among the silt and marsh grasses. In the spring, I might see someone standing here in tall boots gathering herbs in the alluvial mud by the rushing water, swelled with snowmelt. After the bridge, there is a wide, leveled dirt road that leads around the base of the hills of Old Goris to the abandoned church of Saint Hripsime, whose interior is rectangular and whose exterior is in the process of being swallowed by the eroding mud of the hills in their largo motion down to the river, which is bearing them away a handful of dirt at a time. You can walk out on the grassy roof of the church from the hill above without realizing where you are until you notice the small roof lantern there in the middle of what looks like flat earth. Inside Saint Hripsime, I sit to rest on one of the two long rectangular slabs that are placed at the head of the nave in the shape of a V pointed at the chancel, on the bare floor where a fine, chalky powder rises up in clouds at every step. You breathe dry dust and wax in this long room. In the shallow alcoves, people have placed photos of holy women torn from magazines, bibles, and candles, whose orange wax runs down the walls to the floor.

There is another chapel above, with an old cemetery running up the hill to it like stairs. It has no door, there is no glass in its one small window, and one of its ornate carved flagstones has been cast out on the grass by thieves looking for a secret compartment in the floor. Armenians of another time decorated this stone with a relief procession of figures ringing its perimeter and carved Armenian text in its center that is faded into illegibility with age. The headstones of the graves scattered around appear to date from the same period as this stone, or at least they share the same pattern of worn reliefs and carved writing. But down the hill, nestled in a small valley in among high ground, there is a more modern cemetery, with some headstones like obelisks bearing medallions holding yellow photographs of the graves’ occupants and others carved out of black marble with portraits of the occupants laser etched on them; on some of these the means of death is also depicted: a car heading off a cliff on one, a military uniform and an assault rifle on another.

Old Goris is filled with caves. There are rounded holes visible in the tall basalt formations that come out of the hills like irregular teeth out of a green jaw; these open up within to what once were at first dwelling places and then became storage areas for houses built with their backs up against the rock. But in the seventies, the Soviets brought gas, electricity, and running water to the west side of the river, the newer part of the city, where the administrative buildings are and which is laid out in a gridlike pattern of streets and the people moved, some moving their houses stone by stone across the river.

In Old Goris there are wild-growing herbs such as a local minty- or marjoram-flavored thyme and nettles, which are gathered up at the base of the hills in spring, summer, and fall and brewed into an herbal tea or baked into small, flat loaves of doughy bread.

 

The Tigranyans

In Goris proper, I walk uphill to the north end of town on a long, straight street to visit the Tigranyans. My wife and I lived with this family for a year and maintain close ties. They are six in the house, two grandparents, two parents, and two children: Valentina the nurturing gossip, who seems to know everyone in town and to know everything about the ones she doesn’t know and who takes care of us and ensures we have everything we need; Vladik the patriarch, who greets us by raising his hands, putting them together over his head, and giving them a two-fisted shake, like a world champion in some unknown event; Edik, their son, who is disappointed in life and is not running the auto repair shop that his father founded but who is trying his hand at selling washers and spark plugs in a storefront downtown; Lilo, his wife, who seems never-endingly harassed with work around the home and who has a habit of walking into a room where you are watching the television, changing the channel, and walking out; Ani, their younger child, who has graduated from high school and had put old posters of Eminem and Justin Timberlake covering the door of what was our room when we lived here, after and before it was hers; and Tigran, older than her, always impeccably dressed in all black with pointed shoes, and who runs a game center in the family’s disused garage, charging his friends and neighbors by the minute to play his video games.

I come in and am greeted, the women are standing, apart from Ani, who sits embracing her father on the couch. Valentina and Lilo keep a slight distance from me, standing to the side as I enter, and I grasp the hands of the men one by one, in descending order of age, Vladik and Edo on the couch and Tigo in the orangish overstuffed chair at the head of the room. The women bring out a table and food, you must feed guests or at least give them coffee and homemade cakes or other sweets, and I receive a thin soup made with tomato paste and vegetable ghee with a leg of chicken and potatoes that are boiled to the point where they are beginning to dissolve into their constituent starch. There is a plate of pickled cabbage and another of pickled beet stalks. There are greens on the table: parsley, dill, tarragon, and these can be put in the soup or eaten as is wrapped in bread. The bread, lavash, is a foldable flat bread baked on a long form like a padded ironing board and is a requirement for any meal. I talk with Edo about recent geopolitics and he asserts that the United States and Georgia are friends, rubbing his extended index fingers together lengthwise to illustrate his meaning. Vladik has reached that stage in life where he only wants things to be well, and he says lav, lav, it is good. The business he built in his youth came on hard times with the fall of the Soviet Union, because cars ceased to be affordable for most people, and now, under his son-in-law, it does a fraction of the work it used to. In the house he built, the pipes of the steam heating system he installed throughout sit cold because the gas to operate it is no longer within the family’s budget and in winter they sit all together in the living room around a tin wood stove with the doors off the living room shut. After coffee, after people have gotten up from the table, Valentina sits next to me on the couch and asks me about my work, dropping small morsels of information about people I work with and relating to places I have gone.

 

The Streets

Outside, as I walk back south down the street a little, a group of older men in cloth caps with shallow brims are sitting on a bench against the exterior stone wall of a house, with their sticks between their legs. They turn their heads to watch me as I got past, eyes firmly in the center of their sockets, with eyes slightly widened, focused directly on me, with no indication given that they are aware that I am seeing them as well as they are seeing me. They exchange muttered remarks, which I cannot quite catch, on my dirty, unpolished shoes, on the backpack I am carrying, on the fact that I am walking down the hill instead of taking a taxi.

I feel as though I am on stage before these men now and every time I go out to go anywhere. The strange foreigner with his odd habits, with his unkempt hair and mismatched clothing, with his goofy stride and odd grin. But I have come to realize, after long enough here, that I am not an exception, that these men watch everyone walking by as if they were on television, as if their gaze means nothing for the world they are watching, and they exchange observations about everyone, the ones they know and the ones they do not, where they have come from and where they are going to, what they are carrying, how they are dressed.

They bench they are sitting on is two boards painted blue-green, suspended on two pieces of granite, and there are a dozen benches like it on both sides of this street running downhill nearly the length of the city. The men lean forward, there are no backs to the benches, away from the stone walls, made of rounded stone mortared together in a distinctive way. Instead of the stones being carved and shaped to fit one another, they keep their original, lopsided shape, and the mortar is thickly laid on to fill in the large gaps and present an even, ordered surface of visible stone. The walls made in this way connect from house to house, all along the street, with the effect of a long running fortification, over the tops of which the residents can look down from their raised patios.

 

Lasti Khut

Dominating my view to the south as I walk, and dominating all southward views no matter where I am in the city, is a tall green hill shaped in a nearly perfect pyramid, with a squared-off, flat top. You can ascend this hill, Lasti Khut, on its back side, where the slope is less steep and there is a sandy depression like an incipient ravine that you can ascend by zigging and zagging your way to the top along it; or you can follow one of the network of narrow cow trails that make wide lazy arcs to the top.

Once you reach it, Goris is laid out before you like a carpet, gently running up toward the northern mountains, with its straight streets lying there like a network of parallel and perpendicular pipes. Up at the top here there are six or eight large rusting metal tubes, about three times the height of a person, lying on the upper plateau, the relic of some intended construction project. There is also a shallow pit here used to grill khorovats, pork on skewers with potatoes and onions. Old cold ashes remain in the pit together with congealed meat drippings. Behind the hill is the garbage dump, where there is always a fire smoldering and where the wind has taken trash and scattered it around in a quarter-mile radius on either side of the long, winding south road to Iran.

You can watch the snow fall on the city, in its pulses over weeks in the late fall. It descends first on the mountains in the distance, extending the white of their tips halfway down their length; then it recedes up again, then down; then it dusts the hills surrounding the town, whitening the trees on the west and the high fields in the east, the snowline coming down and rising again as if it was on an elastic string, and then it falls in town and Goris becomes even quieter, as smoke rises from its thousand chimneys in the east and in the west and the air begins to perpetually smell of warmth and burning.

 

Old Goris

The cowherds and shepherds come through the city in the morning to collect the animals of the residents who pay them in flocks or herds and, walking them through the streets, take them to the bare pastures above Old Goris. Following the cow trails, which form a tan spiderweb mesh thrown over the green hills, up to the flat tablelands, I surprise them and they, the cows, sheep, and goats, rear and leap away from me in a reflexive twitchy motion and then return to grazing on the dew-moistened grass. The noise of a herd, unseen, ascending under the brow of a hill, is like an advancing army on the march, with their hundreds of chewing mouths making a uniform ongoing crunching noise like a thousand boots in the distance walking on hard ground.

There are certain places where a trail leads to a small grassy flatland at a cliff edge and there is a sudden expansive view, Goris is ringed with views, of the entire city, the dark brownish-stone buildings of Goris State University to the northeast, houses up the steep slopes to the west, the ribbon of road leading south to Kapan, and the long slope of the valley, punctuated by short homes and taller apartment buildings surfaced in pink tufa stone, to the northern mountains.

—Patrick Findler

 

Patrick Findler is an academic editor now living in Portland, Oregon. He spent seven years working as an English teacher and teacher trainer in post-Soviet countries. He was born in Arlington, Virginia. His work has been published by Catapult and is forthcoming from upstreet magazine.

 

 

Jul 102017
 

The Death of the Perfect Sentence Book Cover

x

At the moment when the telephone rings, Raim is sitting having lunch with his parents. There is a tablecloth on the table, not because it is some sort of special occasion, but because that had always been the custom in Raim’s mother’s home, even if it meant they had to wash their tablecloths more often; they had a washing machine for that very purpose. Not one of those front-loading Vyatka automatics with a window in the door – she wasn’t sure whether she could really trust one of those – but the far simpler Aurika, where you had to lift your washing from one compartment to another so that the drier could do its work. But anyway, Raim’s mother has made meatballs today. And at this very moment Raim’s father has just lifted up a meatball on the end of his fork, and it is halfway to his open mouth. We don’t realise straight away that they are meatballs, because they are swamped in sauce. Raim’s mother is in the habit of simmering her meatballs in sauce for a few minutes before serving them, again because this was the custom in her family – even though Raim and his father preferred the meatballs dry and crunchy. But the meatball on the end of Raim’s father’s fork hasn’t come to a standstill halfway to his mouth because he’s fighting an aversion to the food. No, Raim’s father’s mouth is open because he is preparing to say something. And he knows exactly what that will be, even if he hasn’t fully formulated the sentence yet. Clearly it will be something to do with politics. Raim’s father wants to say that in the current situation only a crazy person, someone who is totally ignorant, who has taken complete leave of their senses, an idiot in fact, would say anything to rock the boat, which is sailing steadily towards a better and freer life. It’s never a good idea to poke a sleeping bear. The finest minds in the West have said that too, experts in their field, Sovietologists in academic institutes, each with a budget bigger than the whole Estonian economy. Moscow holds the keys. It isn’t a good idea to be hasty now that the straitjacket is starting to come apart at the seams. They should just keep moving cautiously towards the destination and be happy with what they have. For him personally it’s more important that he can go on a trip to Finland without having to apply for permission from the relevant departments (and that he is allowed to exchange more than thirty-five roubles), not whether the blue, white and black flag of Estonian independence flutters on the Tall Hermann tower of Toompea Castle. And he is convinced that the majority of the Estonian people, or at least those who are capable of thinking rationally, are of exactly the same opinion. Raim’s father knows that once he has formulated and stated his sentence it will lead to an argument. That Raimond, his only son, this blond-haired, broad-shouldered boy with his wilfully jutting chin, who can become all those things which he was not, will disagree with him again. That’s how it normally goes. He doesn’t like it, and who would, but he has resigned himself. At least that way he has some sort of relationship with his son. It was the same way with his own father when he was young. And so he is annoyed when the phone call interrupts his chain of thought. But Raim is not, because for him those arguments with his father have long since lost any purpose. He doesn’t yet know who is calling, or if the call is even for him, but he has already decided that if someone is looking for him, then he will use it as an excuse to flee this scene of domestic bliss. So what if he is still hungry. If the meatballs weren’t covered in sauce, he would pick one up as he ran out of the room. But this is the way things are.

*

Things weren’t exactly how the authorities thought they were back then: that a multitude of isolated, downtrodden people were embracing a vision of happiness and a historical mission which required them to speak a foreign language and to celebrate a foreigner’s victories – a vision which promised to unite them, to restore them, to make them greater. Neither were things as some people like to remember them today: cinders glowing valiantly in every hearth, ready to blaze up into a tall, proud flame as soon as the first bugle call was heard. There was a quiet war being waged for sure, but it was so quiet that even the sharpest ears might not pick up the rumble of its cannons, and the clever chaps abroad had concluded that peoples’ backs were so bowed that they would never stand upright again. That is until the newspapers told them quite how wrong they had been, leaving them unable to explain exactly what had happened. There was a quiet war being fought, but without a frontline moving backwards and forwards on demarcated territory. In the place of trenches there was something more like the circulation of blood, or mushroom spores: thousands, hundreds of thousands of little frontlines, passing through meeting rooms, wedding parties, family photographs, through individual people, who could be upstanding Soviet functionaries from nine to five and then turn into fervent idealists watching Finnish television in the evenings. But there is no point in asking if things could have been otherwise, only why those people’s descendants are the same to this day, even if they have changed their colours. The printed money wasn’t worth much back then, even if there were plenty of sweaty-palmed people with no scruples about handling it. There was however another important currency in circulation – trust. Some may use simpler terms such as acquaintances, contacts, but nothing would have counted without trust. Because in the end it was impossible to trust anyone if you had not gone to school together, shared the same sauna, gone scrumping with them, studied together, worked in the same office, done military service together, stolen something, eaten and drunk with them, slept with them. If you trusted someone, you could share your books, your telephone numbers, your smoked sausage, your summer house, anything you had, even trust itself – names, places, times. You didn’t use a dentist whom you didn’t trust, you didn’t ask someone to pass a letter to your Swedish relatives if you didn’t trust them. If you could help it you had nothing to do with people you did not trust – they might very well be working for the other side.

Trust was the only valid currency.

It was just so exhausting.

And so we used that trust to pay for our freedom, and we’re still collecting the change to this day.

*

There were two of them walking along, one of them taller, with broad shoulders and a chin which jutted determinedly forward, he was walking a bit slower. The other was older, shorter, but more edgy and animated, evidently his companion’s mentor, the one who was in charge. They walked back and forth along the road between the Victory Square underpass and St Charles’ Church, making sure that no one was watching in front or behind. Raim was speaking while Valev listened with a worried expression on his face.

“It’s a real drag, that’s for sure,” Valev said, casting a quick glance over his shoulder, “and I hope that Karl bears up. It’s going to be really tough for him. I’m afraid that if they don’t let him go after a couple of days that means that they’re getting properly stuck into him. They’re particularly brutal at the moment.”

A passer-by looked in their direction and Valev fell silent for a moment.

“Because we’ve actually won already, you know,” he said. “I found out – don’t ask how – that an order was sent from Moscow, from the head of the KGB himself, telling them to work out a plan for going underground. Including cover stories for their own people and contact points for transferring funds in the future. And of course a network for blackmail operations.”

“Aha,” said Raim.

“That means two things,” Valev said. His voice almost became a whisper, and his cheeks started to flush. “Firstly, that we’ll get our country back, sooner or later. That’s certain. No doubt about it any more. But secondly, because there is a secondly as well … if their plan succeeds, we might end up with a maggoty apple. You understand what I mean, an apple full of maggots.” Raim thought he could see Valev trying to trace the shape of an apple in the air. “A maggoty apple.” Then his arms fell limply on either side of him, he cleared his throat and recovered his voice: “That is if we don’t do anything to stop it.”

“So what can we do?” Raim asked.

Valev started to explain. He looked around again and then took an object wrapped in yesterday’s paper from inside his coat.

It was a miniature camera, originally invented by one Walter Zapp, an engineer of Baltic German extraction who had lived in Tallinn’s Nõmme district in 1936 before moving to Riga. Now known as the Minox EC, it had been significantly improved in the intervening years, was being manufactured in Germany, and had earned renown as the world’s smallest photographic device, capable nevertheless of producing very high-resolution pictures.

And he also had a name to give Raim. Someone who had been stirred from the silence of the shadows: Gromova.

*

Clearly Raim did not ask where Valev had got hold of the information about Lidia Petrovna Gromova, but in the interests of clarity let it be explained. As it happened the source of that information was the same woman from the block where Lidia Petrovna lived, the one who had helped her find work in the security organs. Which had also come about by chance. A certain very handsome man used to visit this woman to comfort her during her husband’s long drinking binges and other absences. He didn’t wear a uniform, but he carried a work-issue gun with him at all times. And this woman was happy to be helpful in other ways too. One time the man told her about a well-paid vacancy, obviously hoping that she would apply; unfortunately she couldn’t type, but she knew that Lidia could turn her hand to that kind of work. Later, when it turned out that this man was only interested in getting information about her husband’s colleagues, they fell out badly. After that another man started to come round and console her. He was no less handsome, but he had completely different views, he was one of the leading figures among the local Russian nationalists. Lidia’s former neighbour was happy to be helpful to him in every way possible too. And this nationalist really liked those plump women with pale skin and a slightly motherly appearance, so they were well suited to each other. You might not believe it but back in those days the Estonian and Russian nationalists got on marvellously, united as they were by a common hatred for the Bolshevik regime – although the Estonians believed that the Soviet occupation which started in 1940 was a much worse crime than the execution of the last Russian tsar and his family, as ugly as that might have been. At the necessary moments they had helped each other out of trouble before. Moreover, the Russian nationalists thought that if copies of KGB files made it through to the West, then it would be a great help for their cause too.

In addition to Lidia Petrovna’s name, two other names reached Valev’s organisation in the same way, but it proved impossible to make an approach to them. And the fact that Lidia Petrovna had once worked at Raim’s school was certainly going to be useful.

Valev knew nothing more about her. And that was for the best.

*

At the precise moment that Lidia opened the door of her apartment – dressed in her dressing gown and feeling some trepidation, since her doorbell rarely rang – Raim had still not thought up the words with which to address his former Russian teacher after all those years.

But when he saw the immediate, complete and unambiguous look of recognition in her eyes, he realised that sometimes it was not necessary to think – only to be.

He closed the door behind him, put the cake and flowers on top of the cupboard in the corridor, took hold of Lidia’s shoulders, pulled her gently towards him, slid his hands under her dressing gown, across her naked back, and pressed his lips on to hers.

In other words, he did exactly what he had always wanted to do every single time he had seen Lidia Petrovna in his life.

*

Who cares about cake when there are fingers, hair, a nose, lips, a hollow in the back, shoulder blades, buttocks, and breasts? Who cares about flowers when a warm, moist welcome beckons from between the legs, and trousers can no longer contain the urge which has been suppressed for all those long years. Fortunately Lidia managed to edge slowly backwards, guiding them into the bedroom, so that they could become one for the first time on her quilt rather than on the corridor floor. But could anyone rightfully demand greater self-restraint when every square centimetre of their flesh yearned to be pressed against the long-awaited other, pressed so firmly that it could never be prised loose? Can you ask why someone who is parched after weeks in the desert drinks so greedily that the water sloshes out from either side of the jug?

If only he had thought to come here before, and not for the reason which had eventually brought him.

*

In the town which Lidia Petrovna originally came from, wherever it was (Voronezh, Suzdal, Irkutsk, some other Russian town, Raim couldn’t remember exactly), they believed that the vocation of Russian teacher was well suited to a pretty, decent girl who had the good sense and motivation to take seriously her studies at the local pedagogical institute. All the more so that with her looks there was slim chance she would be one of those long-serving teachers who end up as shrewish old maids. They taught her how she was supposed to understand those obscure poems, and she even got to stand in front of a class a bit before getting herself fixed up with a man and leaving. Naturally, her love and respect for the great language of Pushkin, Turgenev and Mayakovsky did not go anywhere. And wherever she lived they would beckon her out from the four walls of domesticity to go and follow her vocation. After all, there were schools everywhere, and a shortage of good Russian teachers – here in Estonia too. How could she have known that by choosing to come and live in this country she was getting herself caught up in someone’s grand project, a project which aimed to deprive all those clumsy, lanky boys and precocious plaited-hair girls, together with their parents, uncles, aunts, neighbours, relatives and their colleagues of that strange, incomprehensible language which they spoke amongst themselves? But gradually she started to realise that something was not quite right. It was evident from the way some of them started looking at her in the classroom or corridor, as if she were a guest who had outstayed her welcome. It was evident from the way in which the other teachers suddenly stopped talking when she entered the staffroom. Why didn’t they realise that she was not the problem? She wanted to explain, but somehow she couldn’t get her mouth round that strange and incomprehensible language; it was as if it just didn’t want to give up the sounds it was used to. So she preferred to stick to her wonderful mother tongue, which she spoke beautifully, and she knew that they understood, so it was easier for everyone that way. But some things remained unsaid of course. Over time she got used to the situation, just like everyone else. She comforted herself with the thought that Pushkin, Turgenev and Mayakovsky would stay who they were regardless of what was said in their beautiful language in sepulchral tones on the nine o’clock news on television every night. She didn’t know that not a single one of those lanky boys or plaited-hair girls, nor the women who fell silent when she entered the staffroom, ever watched those news programmes. She took pride when one of her students occasionally saw themselves reflected in the heroes and heroines of Russian literature and she saw a spark of comprehension in their eyes which spanned the gap between two worlds. The chance of that happening made her life worth living. And at home she had her books. She went to the ballet, and sometimes the opera. And to concerts. Occasionally the cinema. There wasn’t much else. And the situation remained the same when she left her position at the school. She used to shrug off any doubts about the nature of her new work; she didn’t have anything to hide. Anyway, the salary was nearly two times bigger, the hours significantly shorter, and she didn’t have to wear a uniform. She quickly got used to leaving gaps in the right places, and she was quite happy that she was not authorised to know what the papers were about. It was other peoples’ business to fill them in.

*

But sometimes things take many years to reach their culmination, and if the outcome is a good one, then why not be happy?

Raim was in the eleventh grade back then. He was standing in front of the class, and Lidia Petrovna was saying nothing. Strictly speaking, Raim had been caught out, but there was something about him which resembled a budding exhibitionist who was savouring being completely naked for the first time.

Raim was good at drawing, especially pictures of things which were important to him. He had gone to art class for six years before his father decided that it was better to be good at one thing than mediocre at many, and so Raim had chosen volleyball – there was no other way, he was already captain of the team by then. But of course he kept on doodling away for his own pleasure. And the picture which he had accidently left in between the pages of his Russian exercise book was a really good one. An Art Institute lecturer wouldn’t have expected anything better from one of their student’s life model sketches – except this picture was not drawn from real life but from imagination, from desire, from adoration.

Lidia Petrovna was lost for words. She raised her eyes and looked at this boy – to be honest he was virtually a man already – who had seen her like that in his mind’s eye. It was clear that the picture had been drawn from the purest and truest of motivations. Of course she knew where to draw the line of propriety, but she couldn’t restrain a fleeting thought which sent a shudder right through to the tips of her toes.

She knew very well that she would have to handle the situation like a normal person. Not like a teacher. If she wanted to remain a normal person, that is. Because she would still be a teacher whatever she did.

“Sit down,” she said with a slightly hoarse voice, and gave the exercise book back to Raim. That was it. She kept the picture, and never raised the subject again.

But Raim would have been happy to know that the very same evening Lidia Petrovna stood naked in front of her mirror for a while, looking at herself. And for the first time in ages she liked what she saw.

In fact Raim had come to Lidia Petrovna’s block two days earlier, but without going in. He remembered the address from his school days; one evening he had followed her all the way to her front door, without her even knowing. It was strange, but after all those years he still mentally referred to her by her first name and patronymic, Russian style. He had just got used to it. Of course the other students had called her Lidia Petrovna too, because that was required as a sign of respect, but when her back was turned everyone knew her simply as Gromova, and that was who she remained, since not a single nickname stuck. Everyone apart from Raim that is, who knew her as Lidia Petrovna, even in his thoughts.

Raim wasn’t sure that his former teacher would still be living there, but Lidia Petrovna was very happy in her small Pelgulinna flat. She had moved there after separating from her husband, part-exchanging it for her three-room Mustamäe apartment, which had left her with enough money to decorate properly and even to buy herself the occasional dress to go to the opera in – so that the men who saw her wouldn’t think she was one of those culture widows. Maybe her new place wasn’t as comfortable as the old one, but she couldn’t stand the sympathetic looks of her husband’s former colleagues who lived in her old block. And she had got used to the new place by now.

And now, it should be added, she certainly didn’t want to move anywhere else.

Raim had stood on the other side of the street, trying as hard as he could to think up what he would say on the off chance that Lidia Petrovna’s flat was not occupied by new inhabitants who might have her forwarding address. But when Lidia Petrovna appeared at the front door he recognised her straight away. Fortunately she didn’t glance in Raim’s direction but headed straight off towards town. Beautiful, majestic and completely her own woman, just as if all those years had never passed.

“I’ve been living here for ages,” said Lidia Petrovna, “and you only just found me.”

It was actually a question, but Raim didn’t yet know how to answer.

“I still have that drawing of yours somewhere,” Lidia Petrovna said with a grin.

*

“What a total bastard you are!” said Lidia Petrovna, trying to hide the tremor in her voice.

She was sitting up in bed and smoking, with her satin pyjama jacket open. Raim had just placed the Minox EC camera on the bedside cupboard and explained to Lidia Petrovna how to use it, and what kinds of pictures she should take with it.

For Raim the moment which followed seemed to last much longer than it actually did, because he had little experience of such situations.

But Lidia Petrovna now had two options.

Her employers would assume that she would inform them about the conversation which had just taken place, and as a consequence Raim would then be arrested, most probably followed by several of his friends and acquaintances, especially the acquaintance who had given Raim that wonderful piece of equipment invented by the Baltic German engineer. In other words, her employers would have assumed that she would betray her lover.

Her lover, however, assumed that she would put her liberty and maybe even her life on the line to join a struggle that she didn’t necessarily identify with in order to enable something to pass across the border between two worlds, something which might eventually determine the fate of many people, most of whom she didn’t even know. In other words, that she would betray her employers.

The question was which of those scenarios would result in Lidia Petrovna betraying herself.

In other words, there was no question.

—Rein Raud translated by Matthew Hyde

Published with permission from Vagabond Voices. Click here for more information.

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Rein Raud was born in Estonia in 1961. Since 1974, he has published numerous poetry collections, short stories, novels, and plays. For his works he has received both the Estonian Cultural Endowment Annual Prize and the Vilde Prize. Having earned his PhD in Literary Theory from the University of Helsinki in 1994, Raud is also a widely published scholar of cultural theory as well as the literature and philosophy of both modern and pre-modern Japan.x

Matthew Hyde is a literary translator from Russian and Estonian to English. He has had translations published by Pushkin Press, Dalkey Archive Press (including the Best European Fiction anthology for the last three years running), Words Without Borders, and Asymptote. Prior to becoming a translator, Matthew worked for ten years for the British Foreign Office as an analyst, policy officer, and diplomat, serving at the British Embassies in Moscow, and Tallinn, where he was Deputy Head of Mission. After that last posting Matthew chose to remain in Tallinn with his partner and baby son, where he translates and plays the double bass.

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Jul 102017
 

Sydney Lea

.
The Great War
…….International Writers Conference Excursion

A moment ago we passed the Italian charnel house,
we writers from a handful of nations,
who this morning passed a declaration for peace.

Of course. Who’d be against it?
Some, it would seem. We keep on going
as fast as we can on roads that twist through high passes.

One Turk is a skeptic:
he notes how some tribes pray that rain will fall
as we do that peace will.

If either one comes… His voice flickers out;
he ends with a shrug.
A century gone, and more, the Great War.

And I’m just an American,
struck more by beauty than history.
I recognize as much in myself, ashamed.

We see photos of faces,
or what had been faces, in the museum
at Kobirad, or Caporetto.

Shards of headstones hang on a wall:
caduto in guerra, some of them tell us,
and I know that language: fallen in war.

I can’t read the Slovene inscriptions.
Marble is marmore in Italian,
which I use with my seat-mate Giulio.

I don’t know a Slavic word for the stone–
for much at all.
Hemingway’s portrait shows on another wall.

There’s Goran, a Serb. Zvonko’s a Croat,
both from Sarajevo.
They’re friends, and solemn. My own dear friend Marjan,

the Slovene who translates my poems,
knows better than I
what those two men have been through.

He says, “I’m honored to count you as friends.”
Back on the bus we’re all full
of high spirits and laughter.

We imagine we’re one big family.
Through the window, arcing in wind,
I see airplanes and hawks

high over the valley, which is gorgeous and green.
There are bears and wolves in these mountains,
the Julian Alps that enclose us.

Artillery blared here for months,
although as many died from cold as gunfire.
The Soca River below us holds a monster fish

called salmo marmoratus,
which can grow to forty pounds and more.
To catch one would make for a lengthy battle.

Marjan buys me a favorite local fly
for the marble salmon.
Later I’ll see it, he says, and want to return.

Soon we’ll all break bread.
Soon we’ll toast each other–
here in the landscape of A Farewell to Arms.

—Sydney Lea

.
Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.

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Jul 102017
 

.

.Sounds with the Wind

This April rain
sounds with the wind
It could be Inverness
in the brown hills
with mounds of green
The rain sounds smooth
in the trees
in the fresh dark
sky the thunder
sounds low and far,
gurgle and swill
soft in the still.

Suddenly I feel life
pass out through my lips
As though there were no song left to sing
And a wind rasps, “Enkidu,” “Enkidu”
What I most loved about you.
And a crimson rainbow like a Valentine bow
Cries out “weep no more my lady”
And the simple rain continues
To sound smooth here just like crickets.

.

Being out West When Time Stood Still

Once she had a seamless mind.
Clouds rolled into her thinking
like opposites attracting. And hitching.
There was that openness of beginning.
Those crisp little white cockle shells. And then
that low fog.  Spreading around
like when once you could touch time without rules or referees,
like when you used to dance alone with your eyes closed
serenading crazy in your room late, doors shut, the music on fire,
and you moved around in there, bumping the walls
like salmon swarming and flopping up the ladder.

Just that. Somehow just
to be seamless that way. Fiercely in the free.

Clouding in open fog.

.

In the Light of Dreaming Rinny

She was a lens in the sun
in a corner fitting into herself
settling in like batter. Smooth and easy.

And music. Oh, the music everywhere.

Romantic Russian anguish
splaying loud—
like hearing your dreams
turned up loud for all to read.

At night in a quiet room
she sank into a light of dreaming

her dreams she now thinks
were black and white
photographs of a stilled history.
Of the wars–D-Day, Dachau, Hiroshima
All that drama frozen in those faces looking.

Like she is
Her coffee eyes staring out
into the flat-screens of time.

And now– closed doors and the whispers,
Horrible hush of  home movies happening.
Large photos of Jews pressing against each other gasping for space,
Joe Stalin looming terrible and gritty in his large wool clothes.
And her mother hiding alone by herself
For hours here in the afternoon. Kooklah Fran and Ollie.

Pain prick-points. Where she is
in a corner.  Not knowing how to.
Her thick braids itching against this quiet.

Holding on to the sun. Which she can taste fading on her lips.
Sometimes in those pictures, some times,
dark women with bright bandanas.
She thinks she sees the sister she never knew, fitting into herself.

Guessing into all this past, her paprika eyes mazing
about how to know the bold darkness of this light.
and the tremulous force driving all the flowers of all her feeling.

.

When I think of yesterday today

Light on water. Moon in the air.
A time to change
everything in a high sky.

Somehow when
I think of yesterday
today changes and
the sea  erupts
there, then,

at night
under a full moon
in Conil,
the smells of honeysuckle
everywhere.
Our sweet tobacco lips.

You said in Spain
the world was real.
You liked that.
The sky could fall and touch us
there.

.

Before, When the Sun

On this gray night of robin winter
a time of birds and sudden change

swan nests and gopher songs about
dream lovers without memory linger in a barn

before the sun fell into a new kind of longing
for it was totally gray at night in this robin winter

when I opened my heart out in my pocket
and fell hard with the sun into the white of morning

.

On the other side of language
…………I speak only one language, and that is not my own. —Jacques Derrida

That way too white tree
may not be natural.  It was
sure to be a penance, too much of itself,
like some kind of permanent stand out.
A piece of sharp metal grating
on a dark hill sparse with weeds,
which were pale to a curious
buckskin-man who fingered them
as he felt. Among the bare weeds. Discontent.
Somehow he had learned that disgust for outcasts.
A contempt for cripples.  For all those who do not fit.
all the unmatched, born-to-be-groping-souls
like we are, stranded on the other side of language,
bleached in that daily clumsiness of trying to say our own.
To find a way to speak sure.
To fasten the sun once and for all.

So that unsymbolic white tree there
in the silence without branching to bear any leaves or shade
reminded him of a childless woman drying in hard light.
Hard to bear her white aging.
Hard to detoxify such solitude
speaking in the sun without taking off
To him she was like a bird spinning inchoate,
trapped as she seemed to him to be
in such naked speech without any saying,
words without sounds, all-day-long Latin monologues
swirled, speaking themselves silent, he thought.

But she was burrowing and drew her language in from
the blue sky she slept in and came out to plant and sow
what she had to say for herself in the clear darkness
of muses and mystery. In her whitest way, she raged over the edges
of what she was to be.  Of all that could be said to say. In her quiet white,
she burned a hole in the dark to go beyond men and women, words and children and
time, and whatever is lonely, to well herself up accidentally in the air
a free-to-be white beyond owners and words and withering,
white in the ways of dreamers and whales and misfits,
white to hold on and white to let be. White to burn a saying,
white as a language she could sleep with as her own, gone lucid in the fog.

—Linda E. Chown

.
Linda E. Chown has published three books of poems, Buildings and Ways, Inside In, and All the Way up The Sky, also a critical book, Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Works of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. She spent 18 years living, writing, and teaching in southern Spain where she was betimes a Fullbright professor of America lit, one year at the University of Deusto, one year at the University of Salamanca. Subsequently, she taught for many hears at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She has published a multitude of talks and papers on the likes of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, Oliver Sacks, Albert Camus, Susan Glaspell, and many others. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from from the University of Washington. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, did creative writing at San Francisco State University, and worked in the fabled Poetry Center. She now lives in Michigan. Her newest poems were recently published in Poethead.

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Jul 092017
 

Heather Ramsay on Elk Mountain

.

The view

A man with a chainsaw climbs through the branches and razes a giant cedar tree in 12-foot sections so your husband can make split rails to match the old fence. The thump from the too-large log ripples through your house in Ryder Lake, a hamlet of forest and cows in a hanging valley a few kilometres above the Bible Belt city of Chilliwack. After he’s done, piles of debris lay in the lower part of the yard. The neighbour’s dog crawls into the hollow of the stump and sniffs around. An artist friend drops by and dreams of slicing the rounds. She wants to make tables, resin the tops, sell them on Kijiji.

The View

With the tree down, the sun crackles through the large windows on the east face of your 1970s-built cabin home. You gaze through a gap still cradled by conifers, birches and big leaf maple, toward the mountains: Elk, Thornton and Cheam. You get the binoculars and look for hikers along the ridges. You might get there too, but not until after you’ve cleaned up the yard.

The View_2

Stick after stick goes into the flames. You remember the first time you drove around Ryder Lake, before the real estate agent was even involved, and discovered the lake was just a slough on somebody’s farm. You learned that the Women’s Institute, which has been around for 80 years, manages the community hall. Although you moved from an island in northern BC that only got cell coverage five years ago, you discovered that service is even worse here.

Mid Century Modern

You call your house mid-century modern and think of Frank Lloyd Wright. It has a low-sloping roof with beams that run across the uninsulated ceiling to the outside. In the winter it gets cold, in the summer cooking hot. The outside is painted conifer green and knotty red cedar covers the interior walls. Painted bricks line the back of the platform for the old wood stove. You had to pull the dead weight of it out the side sliding door when you first arrived, because the insurance company said so. You haven’t replaced it, even though the furnace is 40 years old and rumbles like an earthquake when it comes on.

A thick column of smoke rises from the burn pile and you worry about carbon, but the sapling-thin logger tells you he’d release more greenhouse gases with his truck if he’d had to drag his chipper up the hill. “Besides,” he adds, “it’s your God-given right to burn.”

.

Getting to know the neighbours

In the mornings, a jazz band of birds call through the fog. You turn right out the driveway and jog down Briteside to Sherlaw.

Briteside

You can’t see the monster at the first corner, but he runs, growling and crashing through brush along the fence line. You say “Hi Buddy, good dog” and hope there’s no break in the chainlink. You wave at the pussy willows above the deep water ditches. You nod at the red and black cows farther up the road. Just past them, the goats bounce in their pen. You saw that one baby went missing on the community Facebook page. No one mentioned finding her. The border collies used to run out of the gate and snap, but you’ve learned to yell back and the dogs slink away. Still, they bit somebody’s housesitter. Now when you pass, you hear muffled yapping as if they’ve been locked into a shelter underground.  You keep running to Extrom and then up Forester where fresh eggs for $4 are left in a cooler at the end of a driveway along with a can for the coins. The yellow school bus goes by.

You come through the short trail that links back to Briteside and peer at the big snag in the ravine at the top of the street. You had wondered about the grey in the hollow: it looked like an old sweatshirt. With binoculars, you see that an owl is spread sideways on her nest, like a chicken. Who cooks for you, she calls. Later you see her fuzzy chicks.

The Owls

Gunshots sound from miles away — way down the forest service road that runs along the flank of the mountains. The track eventually leads down the south side of the slopes to the hurtling white water of the Chilliwack River. You drive past the clear cuts left after dozens of years of logging shows and find men wearing neon shorts and camouflage shirts. They are stocked with coolers of beer and boxes of bulk ammunition in the old landings and gravel pits. They set up targets and leave their colourful spent shells two inches deep on the ground.

.
Back channels into town

Within eight minutes of winding down steep road on the north side of the hills, you reach the green back-lit Save-On Foods sign. The split-tail of the mermaid at Starbucks. The Shoppers Drug Mart that stays open until midnight.

SaveOn

Down on these flats, towards the wide, mud-coloured Fraser River, modern houses have sprung up on what was once farmland. Long before the dykes and the corn maze, forests and lakes sustained 10,000 years of Sto:lo lives. Now, strata-run gated communities with roofs that all peaked the same way multiply. Quickly built condos pop up like peony stalks on old hop-growing ground. Shopping malls and chain restaurants choke out the hay fields. There are 46 churches and 83,000 people. It’s lovely and sunny down there, but it is prone to floods.

Gated Communities

Historic downtown Chilliwack is 15 minutes farther along another meandering road. You prefer these back channels. The ones that bypass the bustle of condos and cul-de-sacs. You learn that the winding road, where the black cherry trees snapped in the last winter’s big wind storm, was named after a section of the Chilliwack River that no longer flows. You  find a website lauding the pioneers who first came to this valley. Some farmers got sick of the spring melt that flooded their fields and one felled several large trees to block the riverbed. Later others got together and drained an entire lake.

This winding road passes through two Stó:lō villages. One is called Tzeachten, which means fish weir in Halq’eméylem, but with no river, the weirs are no longer there either. Next is Skowkale, which means “going around a turn.” You went to an event in their log cabin hall to celebrate a recording of ancient Sto:lo songs. You learn that Billy Sepass, a chief in the 1920s, thought it would be hard to pass on these epic stories since disease, residential schools and the assault on his language had come. He wanted them all written down but the recording, transcription, translation and printing of the book took more than 40 years. With this new CD you realize it took another 40 for it all to become oral again. You meet members of the Sepass family and eat the smoked salmon, bannock and other food they prepared. As you drive away the clouds darken over the broad valley and you listen to the songs of Xa:ls, the creator, who made Earth grow out of the mists.

Skow Kale Hall

.
Downtown Chilliwack

You continue into the town which incorporated less than 150 years ago — one of the first white settlements in this part of BC. On Wellington, the main street, you can buy used books, new shoes and shrink-wrapped vinyl in the high fidelity record shop. You had no idea that records sell for $40 now. You look at the vintage Kenwoods but do not ask if they have Chilliwack, the 1980s rock band that sang “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone).”

Wellington St ChilliwackWellington Street,  downtown Chilliwack

Hi Fidelity Shop

You find the town museum housed in the old city hall. The out-of-place Roman column look was conceived by Thomas Hooper in 1912. He also designed the Coqualeezta Indian Residential School, built upon the same land where newcomers plowed up adze blades and carved stone bowls. The best coffee is at Harvest Cafe, and the best doughnuts too. There’s a place to buy crusty Swiss bread and restaurant where you slurp Vietnamese bone broth pho. You hear that the butcher on Yale moved to the suburbs of Sardis, citing a better retail space, but most people think he was tired of the drug addicts at the door. The city is growing, but the homeless population is too.

Chilliwack Museum

You had thought of living downtown, but the real estate agent warned of crime. Really you didn’t like the highway noise and the constant stream of trains. You head back towards the suburbs and get stuck behind a tractor going 20 km/hour on Evans Road. You pull off at the roadside stall for local blueberries and then up to a drive-thru for corn. You buy 12 Golden Jubilee, not Peaches and Cream, and get 13 cobs. They hand a paper sack through the window and you hand them your frequent buyer card. After ten dozen, you get another dozen for free.

.
Summer heat

When it gets really hot, like 30 degrees, you join the hundreds of others at Cultus Lake. They crowd together at sand beaches and grassy picnic grounds but you find a small pebble beach in the shade. You dive into jewel-like blue water. It would be perfect if there weren’t so many water skiiers around. You try to ignore them, but you leave just the same, when the partiers pull up and idle offshore.

Cultus Lake from Ryder LakeCultus Lake, seen from Ryder Lake

Not far from the lake, you find a spot on the river where the ice water pools in a rock wall tub. It is deep and no one else has discovered it yet. You dog paddle against the current and find that that you are swimming in place. A guy in an inflatable armchair floats by and raises his frosted can to you.

When you get back to Ryder Lake, a giant black truck with oversized tires and a broken muffler roars up the road. You hear a crack and a black blob falls out of the yellow plum tree. The startled mama bear runs across the road, but her three cubs stay and scramble up a nearby fir. The neighbour’s dog barks and the cubs clamber higher. You telephone the neighbours and ask them to put their dog inside so the little ones can get away. Later you try to pick the plums, but most are too high, so your husband gets out the chainsaw and cuts the unreachable part of the tree down. You make pint after pint of ginger and vanilla plum jam.

In fall, the osiers will turn red and the rusty old tin can on the top of the fence post will pop in the low seasonal light. In winter, you take a picture of your reflection in the super-sized glass bulbs hanging in a roadside Christmas tree.

The Red Ball

.
The warning

You force your bike up the winding hill from the flatlands, standing up from the seat with each crank. A big white pick-up coming down the road slows. The driver sticks her elbow out the window and tells you to be careful.

You are panting as you pull your shoes out of their clips and try not to topple. “Pardon me?”

“There’s a cougar running around up here,” she says. Her truck chugs fumes into the air. “I’m just saying. You might not want to ride your bike here.”

You say thanks for the warning, but what can you do? You live up here. So you continue on up the hill, past the llamas and the trailer homes right beside the road. Past the churn of a waterfall that makes you wonder where the water comes from. There is no lake in Ryder Lake. You think about the guy down your street who told you that his dog once put a cougar up a tree. Another neighbour said he found a dead deer in the forested part of his 10-acre yard. Its belly had been torn out by a giant cat. You want to see one of these creatures, but hopefully it won’t be while you are slowly churning your bicycle up the road.

Back at home, a boom echoes through your walls and you picture airplanes coming down. You’ve heard people jokingly call the back road Little Beirut. You think of the jail out there by the Chilliwack River. There’s an army artillery training centre too and some kind of drug rehab place. After a deep blast and then a rumble, you check the Facebook page. “What the hell was that?” said a woman you don’t know.  Her house might be far across the rolling hills or it might be two doors down. “It shook the magnets off my fridge,” said another. “Bruce dynamiting his stumps again?”

You look out the window and see the stump on the lower part of your property, the one that allowed you the view. The only way for developers to go is up the sides of the mountains. You heard a Sto:lo elder shake his head about that the other day. He pointed towards the hills that you occupy. “If it continues in this way, where will the animals live?” he said.

—Heather Ramsay

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Heather Ramsay

x
Heather Ramsay has lived in many places. Born in Edmonton, raised in Calgary. One idyllic year in the south of France, Vancouver at 18 for university. Whitehorse, Australia (on the prowl). But it wasn’t until she moved to Smithers, BC that she really let a location take hold of her. She wrote for the newspaper there and told a lot of stories. Then on to Haida Gwaii (more newspapers, magazines, books) and now Ryder Lake. She is an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing at UBC and is attempting to write a novel for her thesis. Her non-fiction has appeared in Maisonneuve, Room, subterrain, Raspberry Magazine, Canadian Geographic, Canada’s History, The Tyee, Northword and more.

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Jul 092017
 

.

Herewith, a fragment of Ricardo Cázares’s long poem entitled . Cázares began writing the poem in 2008 and has, to date, published two volumes of the work (around 500 pages) in Mexico.  is constructed on various strata (personal, historical, mythological, scientific, etc.) with long prose passages, compressed word segments, graphics pushing towards what the poet describes as “an uncertain archaeological and mythological consciousness” that slowly reveals itself. Cázares composes in Spanish and does the English translation himself. He says, “I have been translating poetry into Spanish for 17 years and think of myself not only as a poet but as a translator. However, translating one’s work is a different thing. I don’t think one can ever feel satisfied with the end result, simply because one is perhaps too attached to a certain syntax and rhythm that underscores the original mental and verbal impulse of the writing. There are very few passages that I’ve felt capable of working out in English.  For the present fragment I purposely avoided a literal translation, as I felt that some of the sounds and nuances that one finds in these ‘clusters’ only develop at a very basic, syllable-oriented level. I consider it a sort of ‘writing over’ the surface of the Spanish originals, which obviously breathe differently.”

— Dylan Brennan

.
a fragment from 

PLEASE INSERT COIN

if you wish to continue
insert coin
please
take a coin out of your pocket and
insert on
forehead or
nose

insert on eyelid
slowly til you reach
what touches us
now touch the matter
insert your hand
the coin now in the lobe
proceed with care now
stroke
the left
parietal
lobe

count to 14
thousand million years
insert your hand in
the rock for
a preliminary probe
and touch—that is if
you want it
if you really do want
it
it is possible to score to
scratch the surface of
the source
please insert
a hand
a coin
turn on your drill re-
move the overlying residue
from stratum scrap
outline an excavation plan
the tunnel dam the pass
a pathway will be ready in
5 years

if you wish to continue
insert
if you desire
if desire moves you to
burrow through the bulk
insert
enter now
if you desire you are
certain push
move onward to the
tertiary stratum
5          -7 thousand
million years
now open up
your mouth and
sing
you heard me right
yes sing just
open up your mouth
clear throat line
out just
bring your own mouth closer
to the mouth around the cave
listen for
the undertone inside
your voice your dead
tongue muttering
to matter you presume
at least for
23                    25
thousand years

if you would like to continue
please bore
bury your hand in your skull now
insert
an awl
trepan I tell you
don’t panic
puncture clear
inside the rock
5-6-10 blows
will do don’t
fear
the grinding purr the pain
is temporary it is not
the time yet see
the light
I tell you do
make progress as you can
that it be that it is done
say now
speak now
the road
by force

open up now say aaahhh
say it be done
the light
the form flooding
the tunnel palpate ah
the cavity you
now detect
a feeling
of well-being envelops
your hand envelops
the patina uncovers
the rough surface
of the rock you
let yourself be overrun
by light the memory
divides
your body mens your
mind now
opens up says
voice the voice now
guides you to
your body your lungs whistle
kindly calmly telling you to
breathe            hear here
the vulva opens up the
mater matrix
mother opens up her womb
not earth don’t
let her listen no
no one has any right to
refuse you now
stay calm
breathe in again don’t
get all worked up she don’t have to
that bitch hear me out you
are the keeper
lord and master no
no one
hear now
the way the grinding
of the mechanism brings you
a breath
a breath away
from the realm

— § —

INSERTE una moneda por favor

si desea continuar
inserte una moneda

por favor
saque una moneda del bolsillo
e introdúzcala en su frente
o su nariz
insértela en su párpado
despacio hasta alcanzar
lo que nos toca
toque ahora la materia
introduzca su mano
la moneda en el lóbulo
avance con cuidado roce
ahora el lóbulo parietal izquierdo

cuente hasta 14
mil millones de años
inserte su mano en la piedra
para una exploración preliminar
y toque—bien
si desea
si usted lo desea
de veras
es posible rozar el principio
sólo inserte una mano
una moneda
encienda su taladro ex-
pulse los sobrantes
del estrato trace
ahora un plan de excavación
el paso túnel presa
la vía estará lista en
5 años

si desea continuar inserte
si desea
si el deseo lo mueve
a explorar el cuerpo de la piedra
inserte
entre ahora
si desea está seguro
usted avance al estrato terciario
5          -7 mil
millones de años
ahora escuche abra
su boca
cante
sí le digo
escuchó bien
cante
abra la boca
aclare su garganta cante
acerque su boca
a la boca de la cueva
escuche oiga su voz
hacer eco
oiga su voz su lengua
muerta escuche la materia
usted desde hace al menos
23                                25
miles de años

si desea continuar perfore
hunda la mano
en su cráneo inserte ahora
un punzón
trepane le digo
no tenga miedo
perfore la piedra
dele 5-6-10 golpes
no tema
no le tema al crujido
el dolor es temporal
no es momento vea la luz
le digo
avance como pueda
hágase se haga
diga usted
camino a empujones

abra ahora
diga aaahhh
diga hágase
la luz
la forma inunda
el túnel palpe ah
la cavidad ahora
usted percibe
una sensación
de bienestar recorre
su mano recorre
la pátina descubre
la superficie rugosa
de la piedra usted
se deja invadir
por la luz la memoria
divide su cuerpo
mens su mente ahora
abre dice voz
la voz lo conduce
hacia su cuerpo
su pulmón izquierdo silba
le dice respire con
tranquilidad aquí
se abre la vulva
mater la matriz
la madre abre su seno
no la tierra no
se lo permita escuche
nadie tiene por qué rechazarlo
tranquilo respire otra vez no
se agite no tiene por qué
esa perra oiga usted
es dueño el amo
y señor no nadie escuche
cómo rompe la herramienta
lo acerca a sólo un aliento
del reino

 —Ricardo Cázares

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Ricardo Cázares (Mexico City, 1978) is the author of several collections of poetry including Drivethru, Es un decir, and the long poem simply titled . His work as a translator includes the first complete Spanish translation of Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems, Maleza de luz, Selected Poems of Ronald Johnson, Robert Creeley’s Pieces, John Taggart’s Peace On Earth, Truong Tran’s dust and conscience, James Laughlin’s Remembering William Carlos Williams, and a comprehensive anthology of the British Poetry Revival. He is an editor and founding member of Mangos de Hacha Press, and the editor for the poetry and arts journal Mula Blanca.

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Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

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Jul 082017
 

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Two years after the last time we spoke, an old friend of mine was convicted of having committed a terrible crime. The news came to me from a mutual friend with whom I’d also largely lost contact. The three of us once shared a flat on the Meadows until a hike in rent and rates pushed us onto separate paths. Now by herself in a bedsit in Leith, somewhere close to the water’s edge, Lindsay told me what she had heard of the things that Noah was said to have done. She set it all down in a long email and sent it to me with links to the verdict and the proceedings and a dozen reliable news reports written at various points in the process. In a photograph embedded in the text of one report, Noah sat despondent in the dock. He bowed his head with eyes askance and a tension to his pallored lips. A shadow curled in a sunken cheek as he turned to avoid the camera’s flash. The crime had occurred while the last of autumn was darkening into a savage winter. With ten days of police enquiries followed by fourteen in court, Christmas was only a fortnight away and the polar winds were howling. The court was preparing to recess, according to what Lindsay wrote, while Noah still sat behind bars awaiting delivery of his sentence.

When I think back now on my response to that shocking news of Noah, I’m sure I left Lindsay unsettled by what must have seemed like a failure to care. I’d just returned home exhausted after back-to-back shifts at both of my jobs when I found her message waiting in my inbox. I bent towards the computer and read the things she wrote about Noah and in an instant I felt numbed, robbed of all action, unable to piece together even a disjointed reply with questions or denials or crude and blunt expressions of revulsion and disgust. Noah’s crime had muted me before I could find any words to address it, and so, with no notion of what to write back, I never wrote back to Lindsay at all. I offered her only a silence, enigmatic and resolute, which I know I would have despised, would have denounced as unforgivable, if somehow our places had been reversed and she had offered that silence to me. In my thoughts I envisioned her baffled, pacing between her bed and her laptop while waiting for my outrage to burst across her screen. But what Lindsay couldn’t see was the chaos thriving beneath my inertia. Just the first few words of her message unleashed in my mind a rampage of memories, replays of all my exchanges with Noah back when we three shared that flat.

Noah and I had bonded as strangers who happened to share an accent and learned we shared a hometown as well. We met as far-flung expatriates in a pub on the Bruntsfield Links and quickly realised we were already connected by degrees. I had friends who had friends who lived near his parents in Oxley. He had a cousin who’d gone to my school and finished a year ahead of me. Bit by bit we exchanged anecdotes from our lives back home in Brisbane. Day by day we shared observations on how to survive being new to Britain. Had he said anything to me then that held no meaning the first time I heard it but might, in hindsight, have hinted that he was capable of doing the things he’d recently done? How much of the monster he’d go on to become was already there when we forged a friendship? Had that monster shared my house, had it shared my company, nestled somewhere deep inside Noah, hidden away from the wider world, like a parasite slowly gorging itself into the fullness of its being? He’d once returned home from work with the news that he’d been abruptly reassigned, transferred from customer service to a new desk that denied him contact with the public. He’d once said he had an uncle he loathed for reasons he didn’t divulge, and in passing he’d once mentioned to me that he no longer spoke to his younger sister. He’d once admitted, too, that what led him to move abroad, to start afresh in Scotland, was an urge to put himself at a distance from some disturbance in Queensland and, with luck, to find himself a wife and settle down.

Only briefly did I meet the woman to whom he’d been engaged. Dour, demure, and nine years his junior, Iliya came from Russia but longed to live in the west and she once stayed with us for a weekend to see if Scotland could meet her hopes. I remember distinctly the way the tears welled in her eyes as she prepared to fly home and endure the wait for her residence permit. Beyond that, though, I recall nothing more than the night the four of us shared a meal and Noah told the story of how he and she had found one another. Candlelight bathed his face as he spoke and wine brought life to his words. Chance had drawn them together, he said, one night in a lodge in Tralee. He’d been close to the end of the year he’d spent skirting the coastlands of Europe. She was scouting out new attractions for the travel agents she worked for in Omsk. She sat alone beside a fire when he asked if he might join her, and with those words he sparked a discussion that didn’t end until daybreak. When I heard this, I remember, I felt myself swept up in the romance of their union. Could it really have been as simple and almost predestined as he suggested? Could two total strangers fall so suddenly in love that marriage plans would be in place before they’d known each other a week? Only when Noah’s story returned to me much later did I start to think of the sorts of things it probably elided. Iliya’s longing to live in the west must have enticed her to accept whatever lifeline he might throw her. A young wife made submissive by the threat of deportation must have seemed to Noah to be worth a considerable cost. As melodramatic as I know it sounds, and perhaps this was one more symptom of my shock, my view of Noah underwent radical revision and as I looked back he became, for me, a spider exactingly snaring a fly. I saw how he’d spun bonds around a person’s vulnerabilities, selecting his victims from those too trusting to anticipate his moves, and then I felt my thoughts swerve towards the victim he’d most recently seized. I surprised myself when I saw that they hadn’t earlier taken this turn. I suppose that the crime and my knowledge of the criminal had sharpened my focus on his web and blurred my view of those he caught in it.

The real name of the girl involved was never released to the public. I now know what it is but I’m not able to disclose it. As soon as she tumbled into my mind, I returned to the reports in search of clues to her condition. What few clues appeared in print afforded only hints of her existence. I leapt from one report to the next, printed them out until they covered the carpet around me, sat on the floor and read and reread them and then I read through them again. Drawn in by dissatisfaction, sensing some vital lack, I felt my curiosity fuelled by the absence of the very disclosures I’d hoped would feed it. Estimated periods of recovery, ranging from ten days to more than two weeks, were circumscribed by subtle redactions of all other details of the girl’s wellbeing. Of course the nature of the crime made her situation sensitive. Only so much could be said before the limits of what could be said would be breached. Although she’d clearly been looked upon as a subject of urgent discussion, the girl was also somehow taboo and not to be discussed directly. From page to page, report to report, a fog of unsaying occluded her. Reading on, reading again, reading between the lines as closely as I could, I fought to retrieve the girl from this fog and I forced myself to feel for her at least some scraps of sympathy until, spent, I stopped. I stopped because I had to. The whole thing left me exhausted. Time and again I’d lunged after a shade that vanished upon the slightest approach.

What came next was anger, anger that simmered into a rage, as I saw how the words that evoked the girl turned against her to conceal her, treating her like a plaything waved about to pique the public interest. It was then, in the heat of this rage, that I thought back over all those reports and felt my floundering sympathies drift towards someone else, some other person in her story. Each report made passing mention of the victim’s father. He was, I learned, an influential member of his local community, widely respected for deeds that remained undefined. Despite the lack of further details, I allowed my thoughts to dwell on him and I saw that the two of us shared a strange yet subtle sort of kinship. In my mind’s eye he took form as a man of discomposure. Long limbs and ungainly height, and a restless, nervous energy. Tufts of thinning hair and a face creased with frown lines and crow’s feet. I fancied that this man, whoever he was, was out there somewhere engaged in business much like mine. Perhaps bent over an oldtimer’s bar and nursing a bottle of whisky, perhaps alone and sober at home in a room of dim light and shadows, he too must have been led by rage to scour all his memories of Noah in search of any strangeness he should’ve questioned when he had the chance. My own behaviour struck me as the resonance of his, and so I supposed I might know the troubles that plagued his mind. Shame burns through my body, of course, upwards from heart to head, when I put these thoughts into words and see them here in black and white. They strike me now as audacious at best and, at worst, unforgivably arrogant. Even so, in the moment, they were the thoughts I entertained and the thoughts I acted on. Despite the distance between us, despite our having never met, I felt close to the father of that nameless girl and I felt as well a powerful need to feel closer still. I tamped down whatever faint flickers of shame might have sprung up inside me and I threw myself headlong into the thoughts I’d thought would be his.

If I was that girl’s father, I thought, I could not now direct my thoughts to Noah without awakening a craving for violence. I envisioned myself as that man, that father, beating the blood from Noah’s face, capillaries bursting around his eyes, crimson snot slung over my knuckles, using the very same hands that had earlier stroked the hair of the girl in her hospital bed. I imagined that all my love for that child would simply dissolve into fury at Noah, I suffered the inexpressible fury that just the sight of him would provoke, and then I withdrew from the other man’s mind to imagine the two of us as friends so that I might stand beside him, rest a hand on his shoulder, and quietly offer support for whatever vengeance he planned to pursue. But I mention these details only to show how my own turmoil distorted the things I thought I could know of him. It clouded my vision with misapprehensions that real life quickly corrected. I later learned that what made this man so prominent in his community was his service as fulltime rector of his family’s parish church. He delivered sermons and provided counsel and conducted various ceremonies, and his reputation for doing these things upended what I’d assumed of the way he’d likely respond to Noah. Violence suddenly seemed to me beyond his capabilities. Vengeance contravened the dictates of his moral code. His heart might have beaten with rage at the monster, but I became suddenly certain that it would never compel him to beat at the face of the monster himself. The hands with which he might have punched and pummelled Noah would only ever be clasped and wrung together anxiously, or otherwise offered to other people in dutiful gestures of comfort.

The first time those hands touched the girl in the wake of her ordeal was when he embraced her outside their home in the keen air of a wintry dusk. He stood in the garden awaiting her while her mother parked the car in the driveway. He stepped forth and opened the passenger door, moved aside while she climbed out, and then with a weak but welcoming smile he put his arms around her, kissed her on the cheek, and whispered some words about feeling better now that she was home again. But how must it have really felt to embrace her there, at home, beside the neighbouring terrace? Only a month or so beforehand, he and she had watched their new neighbours haul an entire household indoors under the threat of a downpour. Stormclouds had blackened the sky and raindrops pecked at the pavement. Overhead thunder promised a deluge and distant lightning, drawing near, demanded faster movements. The fridge and the sofa, rushed inside, were followed by bookshelves, a dozen or more, and then came all the books crammed into fifty or sixty cartons. When I try now to picture Noah’s face as the girl and her father would have first seen it, eyes alert but nose and mouth obscured by the boxes he held in his arms, I see that he must have appeared to them much as he appears to me these days. Every so often when I go out, and more so since I actually saw him, I glimpse certain details of passing faces that for a moment convince me I have seen him in the flesh. Those faces are never actually his, just a fringe and brow and a sharp gaze over the top of a book or a ledge, but when they catch my eye at an angle I can’t avoid extrapolating the rest of his features from them. All I need to be certain that I have seen him again are those few attributes glimpsed by the girl and her father when he entered their lives.

What I learned, eventually, was that the man whose thoughts I hoped to know had stood and awaited his daughter’s return after having made no visit to her bed on the hospital ward. I can’t imagine he took his absence lightly, especially for a man with his daily occupations, and I sense it came less from an empty place in his heart than from the trauma of his failure to protect her. I couldn’t do it, I hear him murmur to his wife on the night of his daughter’s discharge. He sits opposite her without looking at her, a man shrunken down to a wraith in an armchair too rigid for him to relax. The listlessness in his tone shows his wife the distance that divides him now from the man he used to be. She has just spent twelve days at the bedside of the wounded girl, the girl safe again in her own bed on the other side of the wall behind her, and she listens to her husband confess the pain that lances his tortured soul. I pulled myself together, he says, I got ready to visit, I showered and dressed and I walked out the door every day and I—

He cuts his words and draws a deep breath before his defences devolve into babbles and stutters and whines.

The shock of what Noah did to his daughter had shackled him to the seat of his car. I sat there, he says when he manages to calm himself once again, I sat and I turned the engine over and over, and then I got out of the car and I came back inside and I sat right here in this chair. I knew what I had to do. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to go and see her, hold her, say something to comfort her, but to actually stand and leave this house to do those things—

He drops his gaze to the ground and rakes his fingers back through strands of grey.

I didn’t have the will, he says, and so I didn’t, couldn’t, go.

He’d been the one, after all, to reach out and welcome the new neighbours into his home. He was on his way to work when he saw her, Noah’s wife, standing outside on her stoop the morning after moving in. During their light conversation, as I have long imagined it, he noticed her rest a gentle hand on a belly beginning to bulge with new life, and I’m sure this was why he asked if she and her husband would join his family for dinner. They arrived near dark with a knock at the door. The girl in her bedroom heard her father entreat them to step inside. Refuge from the chill. Fire in the hearth. Faint amber light danced across the walls of the living room and exuded a warmth that confined the cold to the corners.

While wine flowed freely around the table, as I know it did, I suppose the girl sat down in silence and watched the adults laugh and drink, and I’m told that her awkwardness there among them was what led Noah to catch her eye.

Flickering flames wavered atop the last few stubs of wax. Crumbs scattered doglegging paths across a tablecloth stained with drink. Clinks of spoons against bowls of strawberries filled a lull in the conversation and then, to break the silent spell and cast a spell of his own, Noah leant across to the girl and, in a mock aside, in a loud theatrical whisper, he posed an unpredictable question for her alone to answer but for everyone to hear.

Is there any chance, he asked her, that you have a fondness for poetry?

Although he arched an eyebrow as if he expected an instant reply, his words refused to wait for the girl to make a response. He leapt to his feet, drunk on high spirits, and with a smile he launched into spectacular recitation. Nonsense verse that no-one could place. Something obscure from his graduate years. The vibrant energy of his performance overwhelmed all other chatter. He rose from his chair and ambled around with sing-song rhyme rolling off his tongue and brought smiles to the faces of all who sat at the table. I’m told that the girl was especially beaming. I’m told that he had her entranced, enchanted. I’m told that with this performance put on for her pleasure, he shone a spotlight in her direction and saved her from being lost in the thick of the adult world. Now, though, I hear her father lament, she’s just one of those kids they tell you about each night on the news. I see the man sitting at home with his silent wife. He scratches his scalp, behind his ear, and shifts his weight to one side of his chair. He runs his tongue over trembling lips and stares into vacant space. I used to have a daughter, he admits to his wife with a sigh, but now I feel I have only some girl who someone made a victim.

The girl’s mother sped her to hospital as soon as she stumbled across her. At first, I’ve been told, the victim awoke to find the woman at her bedside. A friendly face amidst the glowing graphs that monitored her vitals on the screens nearby. Warm hands on her hands, a voice of calm and comfort, and with them both a fledgling sense of reassurance. Then the victim suffered a horde of doctors and counsellors and policemen asking questions, endless questions, investigating this and that. The victim refused every meal she was offered and had to be force-fed through tubes that gagged her. The victim could not even see her own face until three days had passed and the swelling had subsided a little. She raised the mirror someone gave her and winced and felt the wincing hurt. A face beyond recognition snarled and squinted with blackened eyes. Smashed and crooked rows of teeth robbed her of any reason to smile. A bandage held fast to her broken wrist and padding encased her aching bones, and somewhere she felt the tingling heat of stitches clasping together a wound still rough and raw.

All she’d wanted to do, as far as I can tell, was return a borrowed book to the man who’d loaned it to her. When Noah’s performance had come to an end he’d told her she could read it and he’d darted home to the neighbouring terrace to find it and retrieve it. A book of poems, he’d whispered as he handed it to her, and later that night, before he went home, she’d been lying on her bed, wholly immersed in the volume, when he approached her to say farewell. I see him in the doorway as a shadowed form backlit by light from elsewhere in the house. I hear him shift with a sound that captures her attention, and I see her whip her head around to fix her eyes upon him. Assuming he must have come to ask her to return his book, she rises from bed and approaches him with the book held in her hand. I see her shrouded in coy pyjamas, only minutes away from lights-out, with balloons of blue and gold coasting across her stomach and chest and up and down her arms and legs. Did she catch his gaze sweeping over her, rising from bare feet on carpet to take in her ankles, her thighs and her waist, her hips just beginning to widen and the barest hint of breasts? Her collarbone protruded beneath taut white skin. Her pale pink lips drew down in a pout. Her auburn hair cascaded over the nape of her neck and dangled in front of her brow in strands whose shadows hid her eyes.

The girl offered Noah the book and offered awkward thanks for it.

Keep it as long as you’d like to, he said. He forced a smile at her and added, Return it whenever you’re done.

She was done by the following Friday and set out to return it that morning. She left the house before she even got ready to leave for school. The transcripts of the trial reveal that she stepped outside barefoot and wearing the same ballooned pyjamas she wore to bed each night. Apparently when she glanced out her window she’d seen Noah’s car exhausting smoke with its engine idling in the driveway. Apparently Noah had set it running to fend off the biting cold of the snow that fell overnight. On a moment’s impulse, then, the girl had deduced that he was still home and dashed across to the neighbouring terrace to find the door wide open. From someplace she wasn’t able to see, through the hallway bisecting the house, the airflow carried the kick of burnt toast. A tentative knock at the threshold. No immediate response. The girl wiped her feet on a welcoming mat and took a step inside. She paused a moment to call out a greeting and then a muted voice gave way to footsteps and Noah drifted into sight. He held a cup of steaming coffee. The girl extended the book for him to take with his free hand.

All done? he asked as he claimed it. Would you like to borrow another?

He turned and gestured for her to follow. She found herself trailing him down the hallway and into an open-plan kitchen. On the countertops and on a table and on the floor around her feet, books lay strewn about and stacked together and thrown haphazard into boxes. I remember the mayhem of all those books. I remember how they’d very nearly owned the flat I shared with Noah. I remember, too, how just a hint of interest in them would elicit generosity. Feel free to read whatever you like. That’s what he’d say whenever he noticed anyone browsing the covers and spines. I’m sure that’s what he said to the girl when he saw her gawping at them. Feel free to read whatever you like, just let me know what catches your fancy. He retreated down the hallway and disappeared from sight as she thanked him and set about examining his trove. But I’m told that over the following days, struggling to answer the questions put to her in hospital, she never was able to say exactly how Noah came to constrain her by the wrist.

Confusion must have flourished between them in the house. Perhaps she tried to find him to thank him once more for the loan or to show him which new titles she’d selected. Perhaps he had vanished into the hidden spaces of his home or darted outside to turn over his engine for better defence against the cold. Apparently, as she searched for him, she’d found the door to the bathroom open and glimpsed herself reflected in the head-and-shoulders mirror within. Apparently, acting on impulses that escape my understanding, she’d entered the bathroom and drawn close to the mirror to peer at the image it cast and that was when Noah came to her. He confessed at trial that he’d spent some moments at the door to linger and watch her watching herself. She’d opened her mouth to bare her teeth and even to poke out her tongue, he said, and then she’d stood on tiptoes and turned side-on to see her reflection from the waist up. She drew a deep breath and puffed out her chest, sucked in her stomach, puckered her cheeks, and then with some sense of human presence she startled and spun to find Noah behind her. At that stage, as I understand it, there was something amiss with her hair. Faint strands became trapped in a breath of wind that ghosted in through the open front door. For just a moment she turned back to the mirror and gathered her hair in a ponytail. Someone at school had told her she’d look better if she wore it that way. He told the court she’d told him this and that he’d agreed. Then he’d rested one hand on her shoulder and raised the other to hold the ponytail for her. How she felt when he did this, tense or ill at ease or something else entirely, I’m not able to say because I can’t even guess. She must have let her hair drop then, to let her hand fall to her side, but as she released it she must also have felt it brush over her shoulders and neck. Her hand remained behind her head where his hand held it fast. He tightened his grip around her wrist with fingers tensed against her veins. She found she could move her own fingers but could not move her arm. She must have tried to speak, must have stammered some protest, but must have done so without effect because at that point something snapped.

How would it have unfolded from there? Before she could have known what had happened she likely felt hot tears down her cheeks and perhaps even heard someone shriek. Fabric ripped, cast aside, threw coloured balloons across the tiles. Cold air clutched at her toes and thighs and pawed at the small of her back. Her hand, I imagine, slipped into the bathtub and blasted out a trombone blare. She said she tried to grab something steady, felt herself falling, struggled to stand, fell at last. She said she saw tiles, a drain, the ceiling and the light and then tangled pipes beneath the sink, until she felt herself overturned and felt her face against the floor. Her hair blazed like fire in front of her eyes. Her lungs swelled up as if to burst and her heart pounded blood so hard it threatened to blow a hole through her chest. Inside her there was movement as he moved against her and then her teeth moved back and moved around in her mouth. She split her lips when her face smashed the sink. The porcelain grinding into her gums gave her her tortured grimace. Her left eye pulsed with pain as well, blackening into a bruise as tears began to pool in the socket. Finally, when the ordeal was over, she collapsed with a slap on the floor. All she could hear, she later said, was heavy breathing not her own. All she could smell was sweat, she said, and all she could feel was the pain that would afflict her for days to come.

Those were the days during which her father did not bring her comfort. I wonder if she overheard his excuses the night of the day she went home again. I wonder if she lay in bed, awake and alert in the dark, and heard him unburden himself to his wife on the other side of the wall. I couldn’t, he says, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t leave this house, I couldn’t. The girl, I imagine, goes rigid when her father’s confession reaches her ears. I couldn’t do it, she hears him murmur, I couldn’t go, and she hears him trying hard to hold himself together simply by repeating those words over and over until he can’t say anything else. His words fragment and fall apart into senseless heaves of air, the jagged breaths of a man who can no longer contain the anguish that scalds his insides like acid.

He had good reason to feel that anguish and he has it even now. He could not have known, would not have dared suspect, that the trial would end with such a whimper. I learned about it when I read the reports I received from Lindsay, tracing the course of the courtroom arguments until they reached their grim conclusion. The prosecutors appealed to the humanity of the jury. They played with emotions and pulled at heartstrings and pressured the jurors to imagine themselves in the place of the traumatised girl. But the defence team did not counter the charges in hopes of winning Noah’s freedom. Noah’s lawyers vied only for leniency in the sentencing. They dodged the question of accountability and asked instead for respect to be paid to Noah’s established character. They dismissed the morality of the charges against him to speak of a submission to awful impulses. They attributed his crime to a fleeting lapse of rational thought from a man who had strived for years to accrue a reputation for integrity. After he and I parted ways, all those years ago, he’d patched together a career as a fledgling intellectual, a tutor and casual lecturer at half a dozen colleges scattered across the county. His lawyers defined him as a scholar in the making, a dedicated teacher, a loving husband who would soon become a proud and devoted father, tragically born with a flaw in his soul and upstanding enough to not deny it. What they meant by what they said was that his crime was not his fault. What they did was portray him as a man so enslaved to his passions that he was, in a sense, imprisoned already. The man was of course summoned at trial to speak in his own defence. Yet when the time came to account for his actions, he not only made no denials but made no attempt to even explain. He offered only a meagre apology, a token show of remorse, in what one report described as a choking voice through which the slightest glint of humanity tempered the inhumanity of his crime. He was sentenced to nine years in prison before he’d be eligible for parole. He wouldn’t be free at least until the girl had grown into a woman, but he could be released at almost the very moment her girlhood was over.

I’ve often wondered what a sentence so weak did to the girl and her parents when they heard the judge deliver it. I imagine her father and mother alone, together in darkness sometime after dinner, staring intensely at empty plates as the verdict gnaws away at them. I imagine mumbled complaints about the processes of the court. I imagine fleeting vows that they’ll have their lawyers launch an appeal. But I imagine, too, conflicted feelings about the prospect of further legal pursuits. Although the girl’s father must have craved some harsher retribution, he must have also felt averse to the torment of a second trial, and all the more so because the torments of the first had afflicted him least of all. His wife had been there when the injured girl was found, and for that reason she, too, had been summoned to the stand. She testified, trembling, through tears that flowed without relent. She wiped at her tears with the back of her hand and smeared them across her scarlet cheeks. When she raised her voice to speak directly into the microphone, her words went suddenly weak and she had to speak in a rasp.

She spoke of how she had woken that morning to find her daughter not in bed, not inside the house at all. She’d taken a glance outside, noticed footprints in the snow, followed them where they led her to the neighbouring terrace with its door still open wide. She spoke of her rising concern and then she spoke of explosive panic. She called out for Iliya, she called out for Noah, she strained as hard as she could to listen for a response, and that was when she caught the shudders of someone, somewhere, weeping. When she came to the bathroom, she said, she found blood across the ground and found her daughter covered in it. The girl’s hands were stained the colour of rust. She curled into herself like an injured animal helpless beneath the sink. At that sight the woman felt a plummet in her heart. The girl tried to pull her torn pyjamas down over her naked thighs, down to her knees or even her toes, but then a voice struggled for something to say and the woman became aware of someone else in the room.

Iliya sat on the edge of the bathtub. Tears streaked down her face and enflamed the rims of her eyes.

The other woman stood at the door with a stillness that urged Iliya to speak.

She wouldn’t let me touch her, Iliya said without releasing her gaze from the injured girl. But, she went on, she’s hurt so bad, I couldn’t leave her here alone.

Iliya said the same thing to the jurors when she was called to testify, and she said it again to me when we spoke just before she departed. She told me much more than that as well. She told me about the trial and about its aftermath, and she gave me the details I’d sought in the reports that left so much unsaid. Of the girl or her mother she knew almost nothing, but she said she’d heard that the sentence brought the girl’s father to breaking point. Lost his faith, lost his job, left his wife, lost his mind. She told me this in a torrent of words that belonged to a woman very different from the waif I’d encountered years before. She told me the story as best she remembered the way she’d originally heard it, she said, when she sat down to confront the man with whom she’d hoped to share a life.

At first, she revealed, Noah flat-out refused to receive any visitors. Only after the authorities prevailed upon him did he finally relent. One fine day in his first year behind bars, he sat down behind a glass barricade while the girl’s father stood and waited for him on the other side. The glass captured and mirrored the ruined man’s features and overlaid them on the face of the monster he sought to confront. He’d fled his church that morning with resentment throbbing so powerfully through him that he couldn’t care any longer if the building stood abandoned. His wife had always sworn she would divorce him if he quit. I’m told that that was the first thing he decided to share with Noah. His job, he said, had been the reason he’d uprooted his family to move to Scotland in the first place. What would it mean for his family if he were to give up his work? As he spoke he refused to let his gaze to settle on the prisoner. Then he stood and ruminated on all the things he might yet say before he resolved to speak at greater length.

I was the only one who wanted to leave Kent, he said. But I was blessed to have married a woman who’d sacrifice her wants to help me achieve my dream. But it’s a pathetic dream now, anyway, isn’t it? To rise every Sunday and address my own congregation and have people come to me as their friend and confidant and unburden themselves on me and place in me their, their faith, and to have them trust me to be there for them in times of need and to promise them that all will be well and God forgives them for whatever they’ve done, and on and on, on and on—

He threw his hands in the air and banished the emptiness from his eyes and he glared down at the man sitting silent behind the glass.

The glare was a defence, of course, as he sought to conceal from Noah the confusion he can’t conceal from me here in my thoughts. Questions harrowed his brow. Why even bother with this life? Why go on with it at this juncture? Why preach hope when you lose your own faith in the very thing on which you have founded your being? Why advance the word of a God who won’t protect the family of so devout and devoted a servant?

I wonder if Noah could sense the outrage rising in the other man. I wonder if he saw the agony in the squint, the flare of nostrils, the clench of fist and flex of fingers. Perhaps a flicker of fury did indeed colour the other man’s expression, or perhaps its being written here has less to do with reality than with my reading of him. Nevertheless, some signal of his inner state must have shone through clearly enough to move Noah to speak in turn.

I’m told that he offered a simple apology and that this was what triggered the tirade. You don’t need to say you’re sorry! That’s what the other man spat at him. You feel regret for your actions, I know. Some days you’re consumed by it. This doesn’t come as news to me. It’s what I expect of a man behind bars. But what sort of regret do you feel? I don’t think it’s anything even close to true remorse. It’s severe enough to compel you to beg my forgiveness, I’m sure, but not out of deep regret for having broken a moral limit. Only out of frustration with the consequences you’ve had to incur. So, of course, when I hear you mutter your worthless little apology I can’t help but wonder. Do you apologise because you are genuinely sorry for what you have done to the people I love, for having torn our lives to pieces? Or do you apologise out of fear that if you and I were alone together I might try to harm you, hurt you, so that your most urgent desire right now would be to say or do something drastic to push me out the door?

Noah had no chance to speak before the other man pressed on. I used to have a daughter, he said, but she’s dead to me now because you killed her. She’s lost, an enigma, tangled up in the mess you scribbled over her life. He raised both hands in front of himself, palms up in a gesture of hopelessness, and then he let flow a stream of furious accusations, infection and corruption and pollution and perversion and worse words that vanished into the air only when his tongue tripped and he tumbled into speechlessness. He chewed at his lip and stared at Noah, and stared at Noah, until the sudden slam of a hand rattled the glass in its pane. What followed was a stillness in which he disappeared into depths of thought. What musings came to him in that room? I wonder if he wondered, then or at some other stage, what might have happened, what he might have done, if his daughter’s ordeal had hurtled towards its most intractable conclusion. I wonder if he’d wondered which horror would have been worse, a newborn being brought into the world or otherwise denied the chance, and whether he would have been strong enough to help his daughter cope with either trauma. He must have wondered, he couldn’t have helped it, and I’m sure that all his wondering went with everything else inside him into the slap at the glass that left the blur of his handprint trapped, suspended, between him and his adversary.

What troubles me most right now, however, as I dwell on what I know of this scene, is a question that began to trouble me when I first learned of their encounter. It can only have troubled Noah as well from the instant he sat and peered through the glass and watched the girl’s father lingering, lost, on the other side. Why exactly had he come? What could possibly be his agenda? What did he hope to achieve with his presence? The heartache that drew the man into the room could have been no mystery, but mystery shrouded whatever he thought he might take away with him. The mystery hovered somewhere around him, able to be sensed but not to be perceived, until once again the girl’s father drew breath and set forth to say something more.

Speak, he commanded. Speak to me now. He didn’t glare at Noah, didn’t even glance at him, but let his eyes wander over the glass without exactly gazing through it. Speak, he said. Speak to me, will you? Open your mouth and say her name. Say her name, Noah, he said, and with those words he said the name he’d promised himself he’d never say. Say her name, he said, say her name to yourself and make her a human being.

Only after he said this much did his eyes meet Noah’s. Then he whispered a question that I know he asked although I cannot say exactly how he meant to pose it.

Make her a human being, he said. Can you begin to do that?

Perhaps he meant it as an honest request, perhaps he laced it with spite. Perhaps he intended to put to Noah a challenge that would haunt him with uncertainties about his innermost nature. But a consequence of its being asked is that it haunts me here as well and leaves me to wonder, to really wonder, if Noah was at all able to do what that man asked of him. How could he begin to humanise that girl? How could he have been capable of it? How could he make himself see a human being, a true and living human soul, where before he’d seen only a body lacking every human quality more immanent than flesh?

Whether Noah, when he spoke, demanded to know the point of this exercise or only bluntly registered his visitor’s distress, I can’t say for certain. I never thought to question Iliya on the outcome of the other man’s approach. It’s possible, if I’m to be honest, that I just didn’t want to know any details beyond the ones she volunteered. In my version of events, in my speculations on how things unfolded, Noah did not speak aloud the name of the girl because he wasn’t able to force himself to the task. On some level I guess I must have wanted him to not be able to speak and, as I write these words now, I suppose I still want him to be unable, to be unable forever and always. As I see it, he simply sat there and watched the other man flee, abandoning him to solitude in the emptiness of that room. There, I hope, Noah heard in his head the name he’d elected to not utter, heard it echo inside him, and tensed up as it lodged itself deep in the conscience he thought he could fortify against it.

 

 

A little bit more than a decade went by between the events I have detailed so far and the first time I felt the need to coerce them into words. After Noah received his sentence I spent eight more years in Scotland, then I grew restless and got the idea that a better life could be mine if I flew back home to Brisbane. Instead, a long spell of illness there upended all my plans. Something inside me went haywire just a few weeks after I’d touched down, and I struggled on for more than a year before I’d regained enough strength to start rebuilding who I was. The fallout sent me back to the last place I’d felt like someone real. I wanted to try to reclaim a sense of selfhood I worried I’d lost forever.

That’s how I returned to Edinburgh, two years after leaving, feeling more or less as adrift as the first time I saw the city. Despite the onset of winter, the place seemed to me like a refuge. I set aside some time to properly rest and recover, to do whatever I had to do to keep a relapse at bay. But because my limited means left me with nowhere to live for long, I ended up on the sofa of someone I used to sleep with, and because her limited means didn’t allow her to heat her flat, I took to rising early each day and wandering the streets in search of cheap coffee and respite from the cold. Then one morning in late November, as an icy gale assaulted the city, I strayed into the St. James Centre, up the stairs from the ground floor and into the food court above, and there I caught an unmistakable glimpse of the features I thought I glimpsed all the time.

A decade’s difference had thinned his hair and worked worrylines into his brow. His lips had drawn and his shoulders rounded, and he wore a shade of stubble across his cheeks and chin. Even so, there was no denying that those features belonged to the person I knew and not to some stranger with similar looks. He stood behind a countertop that shimmered with shocking luminosity. He braced himself with both hands gripping onto the service bench. He wore an apron uncomfortably over a uniform starched bright white, and pinned to his lapel was a red plastic tag that broadcast his name in big bold letters for all the world to see.

Without a pause I sat at a table and watched him from afar. He spent a long time idling there and drifting off into thought. He straightened piles of serviettes, he refilled a box of straws. Occasionally, sporadically, customers appeared and spurred him to act. A herd of teenage boys pressed him for a round of milkshakes. An old lady out on the town ordered a boxful of donuts. As I watched him I found myself flexing my fists, pressing my palms against the yellow matte of the tabletop. I didn’t know at all what to think of seeing him in front of me. Should I rise and speak to him? Should I stay seated, hold back and observe? Until I found my thoughts in a jumble, I hadn’t realised I’d made assumptions about how he’d be living now that he was free. I’d assumed he wouldn’t have stayed in Scotland after he’d been released. In fact I’d assumed he’d be ordered to leave the country for good. I thought he’d run home to Queensland, like me, to hide away and lick his wounds. I even remembered convincing myself that we’d crossed paths in Fortitude Valley a month or so before I fell ill. Standing in the doorway of a café on Brunswick Street, I could’ve sworn I saw his face through the window of a bus in traffic. But here I was and there he was, each of us still on the far side of the world, and now, despite my assumptions about him, we’d both been brought together again on the far side of a decade as well.

All morning I sat at the table, unmoving, and watched him perform his work. At lunchtime he made a hot dog and ate it in two bites. Then he whipped up a smoothie and slurped it down in less than a minute. He swept the floor of the service area and swiftly cleaned the coffee machine, and neatened a basket of croissants and pastries gone stale throughout the day. I went on watching, on towards dusk, until he reached the end of his shift. Approached at five by a thin young woman no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, he was relieved of his duty and he readied himself to leave. He gathered up a beanie and wrapped a scarf around his neck. As he walked off he slipped into a coat whose hem fell past his knees.

What I did next was in no way something I had planned to do, but as soon as he started to leave I knew I couldn’t let him leave alone. I felt no desire to follow him or to know where he was living. I felt no compulsion to find out where he went after work or what sort of life he’d made for himself. I felt not the slightest need to fill in the gaps in his story and learn his reasons for staying in town instead of starting again elsewhere. And yet, though I can’t account for it, some outward pressure made me set off after him. I suppose I felt moved by some vague sense of duty, some responsibility to his fate, issuing straight from the shock of having been there in his presence. I felt obliged to follow him much as I might feel the need to seek the source of a strange noise in my house. I felt as if the world had cast him back onto my path for a purpose, binding me to tease out the roots of his return before I could be free to continue on my way.

Downstairs, outside, into the wet of an early dusk. I walked behind him at a distance of about a city block. We headed towards the Haymarket as the last of the sun pierced the clouds overhead. I crossed the sheen on the wet cement and felt the wind behind the rain scorching into my cheeks. As dark set in I followed Noah briskly along Dalry Road. The tyres of passing traffic swished spray onto the pavement. The downpour strobed through the beams of rushing cars, and puddles in gutters soaked commuters stepping out to hail buses. Finally rounding a corner and then edging around another, where streetlights laid glowing arches across the stones of a cobbled road, I came to a block of terraces with a bus shelter next to the footpath. I paused and let Noah walk on a little. I watched him swipe at the latch on a gate outside one of the houses. When he swung the gate open I dashed through the rain to slip inside the shelter. Noah halted at the gate to unlock a postbox beside it. He reached into the box and removed a paper that ruffled in the rain and stuck to the back of his hand. He peeled it from his skin and stood to read it in the dim light, and he fell into a sudden stillness that set my mind to wandering. Whatever that paper might have said, it kept him standing still for far too long in the cold.

I suppose I should say I’m ashamed to admit that I saw it as vigilante propaganda. The truth is that I wasn’t ashamed to see it that way at the time. I wanted Noah to hesitate because he’d been immobilised, because with a spotlight shone upon him he’d been frozen by the fear of having his ugliness exposed. I pictured a pamphlet that named him and gave a name to his crime in enormous print. Beneath the tabloid headline lurked a grotesque caricature. Two beady eyes, slanted and evil, peered through a gap in a hedge where bony clawed fingers parted the leaves beside a white picket fence. The new address of the criminal sat beside details of his crime and his sentence. What followed from there was a declaration that the people have a right to know, to be informed when a man like that attempts to settle where parents are raising their children. Summed up in only three sentence fragments, sketched out in the broadest of brushstrokes, his life became something larger than life and made public for all to condemn.

He shuffled towards his door, unlocked it, clicked it closed behind him. His absence robbed me of anything to focus on except the shadows that washed across the front of his terrace. In one sense, that’s where this story ends. There were, there are, no further events for me to record or report. In another sense, though, it was exactly the threat of that ending that led me to refuse it. Despite his departure, I couldn’t leave. I continued to stand where I’d sought refuge in the shelter. I continued to keep my eyes on his house. I felt a more disquieting fantasy enter the edges of my vision, and as I stood there I allowed myself to focus on its unfolding.

The ease of the afternoon’s escapade had thrown me into a trance. The ease of slipping into it, of noticing him out there by chance and then, without betraying my presence, returning with him to where he’d resettled. Why should that be so easy for me and not just as easy for anyone else? If I could do what I’d done, I thought, then surely the girl who would now be a woman could follow in my footsteps. If she ever saw him out there, if she ever chanced upon him in public, if she ever managed to trail him through the city streets as well, then what? How painfully would her going there rupture whatever life she was living? What might her life even look like at this moment?

As these questions and others like them started to plague me, alone in the dark, I watched her walk into view beside me and stand nearby like a stranger awaiting the 6.26 to the city centre. She moved with a stiffened gait and with her face fixed against expression. Far too thin with thin red hair and freckled cheeks flecked with rain, she made no sound, no sound whatsoever, ensconcing herself in a shroud of silence, and she stood and stared at Noah’s house with a gaze that gave no hint of feeling. Then with that image of her by my side, summoned into existence by me, I led my thoughts towards more realistic questions. If she ever saw Noah in public and felt inclined to follow him, could she actually do it, one foot in front of the other, or would she not be able? And if she could, then could she do what I could not and make her way through the dark to the front door of his house? And even if she could do that, forcing her feet up those steps, could she bring herself to knock, to announce her presence to him, and then await his answer no matter what form it might take?

I don’t know this girl, this woman, whoever and wherever she may be today. Intellectually, of course, I know I have no right to subject her to speculations, nor any real justification for having done so then or after the fact. All the same, I can’t deny the wanderings of my mind. I conjured her up from thin air and projected her onto my world. Those are facts I can’t write around. My suspicion is that she would have fallen into fantasy, too, if it ever came to actually knocking on that door. The knock would have drawn out her sense of passing time. It would have stretched the space between the lowering of her hand and the turning of the handle on the other side. In that brief eternity her mind would have spun with all the things she thought he might say when he stood there looking out to the street and saw her once again in front of him. He’d wrench open the door and tell her she didn’t need to knock because he heard her heavy breathing as she gambolled up the path. He’d glare into her eyes and command her to leave straight away because the restraining order prohibited him from being anywhere close to her. He’d stare at his feet or at her feet, or at an empty spot on the ground, and he’d find that he wouldn’t be able to say anything to her at all.

But no, none of these things would happen because really it would unfold nothing like the way she might imagine it. First a tired shuffle from somewhere deep inside the house. Then the squeak of metal on metal, a peephole cover pulled aside, the paralysed pause of a man standing only inches away from her and sweltering in thoughts he cannot calm and order. Nothing would happen for some time until the creak of the door and complaint of a hinge would open up clear air between them. The first thing the woman would see, however, wouldn’t be his face. He’d steady himself at the threshold where the cold would grip his bare arms and there she’d watch a whiteness pinch at the flush of his skin.

What next? What then? What’s truly unknowable is not whether she might arrive at his door but whether she might step through it at his invitation. I can’t believe she’d ever really put herself inside his house, but standing with her in the shadows I felt I needed her to do it and so, obediently, she did. Noah held open the door and asked if she’d like to come out of the cold. Some reflexive sense of courtesy? Some drive towards self-flagellation? I watched him turn and retreat down a hallway while, once again, she trailed him at a distance. Then he moved aside, stepped into his living room, and waited for her to follow his lead. When she entered he gestured towards a lonely armchair in the corner. She folded her arms across her chest and turned a little away from him. She rejected the only offer he was capable of making. He blushed from throat to temples and pressed the heel of a hand to his forehead. He tried to suppress his humiliation, and with a slump of resignation he let himself drop into the seat.

He sat precisely where I placed him, where I wanted him to sit, and felt his further humiliations alive in the surrounding space. How dark and dank the hovel he had taken as his home. Kitchen and laundry both in one room. A sink stacked full of dirty dishes and cupboards stocked with readymade meals. Boxes of books atop one another, lined against walls bereft of shelves. His name tag remained fastened in place on his lurid white lapel, boldly announcing to her who he was as if she wouldn’t know him by his face. He must have felt these humiliations because I wanted him to feel them, and why, after all, shouldn’t I want him to feel them and try my best to make him feel? Think on what he did to that woman. He did more than break her body with his brutal force. He broke her capacity to be seen by others for who she was, to be seen as herself. He reduced her, for me, to a means to an end, an instrument to be snatched up and used to strike at him. He flayed her into a crude abstraction lacking form and force, a legion of weightless words with which I might hope to torment him for everything he inflicted on her, even though I know those torments will not leave a scar. She was once a human being, a living, breathing, thinking person, but he stripped her of her humanity in more eyes than his own. Now I find I’m not able to see it. I can’t know enough of her thoughts and feelings to bring her to life on the page. Worst of all, I can’t shake the feeling that I am finally just like him because I too can’t do anything other than use her for my purposes.

So it is that her wandering eyes alight on the first thing to light up my mind. A picture, framed, atop a table. A pale boy with black hair and a heartwarming smile. Probably no picture like that ever occupied any such place, but certainly the boy in it occupies my thoughts. At first, as I see it, Noah says nothing of what the young woman has noticed. He simply hopes that her eyes roam past it, until they have lingered there so long that he feels compelled to explain.

My son, he mutters, and he mutters a name before choking his words with a cough.

The last time they ever saw one another was the very first time they’d met. Watching the boy through the glass he must have wanted nothing so much as to reach across and touch him and know, at last, the feel of him and the scent and to hold him in his arms. The glass made his whole body ache to be on the other side. The ache pinched his face into a cringe he had to strain to ease away. For Noah the meeting ended five years of only imagining the boy, five years of knowing no more than the facts of his name and date of birth and physical features conveyed in others’ words. What he couldn’t have known at the time was that the meeting would also usher in still more years of isolation. He gave the boy a book for his birthday but he chose a title he should’ve suspected would be too demanding for someone still so young. Call it a stark reminder of his displacement from the world. Then his efforts to lighten the mood with friendly conversation only heightened the dislocation the boy already clearly felt. What grade are you going into at school? What’s your favourite subject to study? What do you like to do on weekends? These were the sorts of questions he posed, bewildered and superficial, and in return the boy offered only bewildered and superficial replies.

When Noah found he could probe no further, he let his questions fill the air until, in a move to dispel a silence, he asked the boy where he and his mother were living now. He didn’t need the name of a street or a suburb or even a city. In the hills. By the sea. Simple descriptions would be enough. But the boy turned around in his seat to face his mother where she sat behind him. With a shake of her head she killed all hope of a bond between father and son. The rest of their conversation dragged on to the ticking of the clock and came to an end, at the top of the hour, as the boy and his mother switched places. She told me all this herself when I met with her later on, not long before she left for home and not long before I moved on as well. I have taken care to record it here as faithfully as I can recall it, not least because what she said then, what she went on to do to Noah with words, feels to me like an echo of the impulse that drives me to say all of this.

She stood before him with poise and command, her hair drawn back severely and her posture tense. Then she took her seat and made herself the centre of the room.

Noah thanked her, respectfully, for bringing his son to visit him.

A flick of her hand told him she wouldn’t waste time on petty pleasantries.

Honestly, he whispered with a wince, I’ve said I’m sorry, haven’t I? I’m so sorry for all of this, for everything I’ve done. I’m sorry and I’m sorry and I’ve said it a thousand times but I’ll say it once more if that’s what you need me to do. I’m sorry. How many apologies do you want me to give you? What more can I possibly say?

No, she told me she said. She remembered clearly how she laid bare her nerves by answering his questions with such a blunt non sequitur. Don’t, she went on. I’m done with apologies. I’m here with you now only because I want something else from you.

Really, she said when I spoke to her later, I wanted to see him again for one reason. I wanted to see him so I could say something to hurt him. At the police station where he’d initially been held, before he’d been questioned with his lawyer in the room, she’d ridiculed him by playing dumb and pleading with him to insist on his innocence. They sat together, he in handcuffs, in a room with concrete walls and a radiator that struggled to combat the cold. She leaned back in the seat that a constable had provided and she waited for the constable to leave. Her rounded belly had started to show in the fifth month of her pregnancy. The constable closed the door behind him. She turned her eyes to Noah.

Tell me you didn’t do it, she said. Tell me they made a mistake.

He did as she’d asked and held himself together to prove the truth of the words he’d utter. I’ll be out in no time, he said. All it is is they got the wrong guy.

So she told him she’d been in the bathroom to see for herself the damage he’d caused. Yet in spite of her admission, he wouldn’t drop the façade she’d asked him to assume.

It’s no mistake, she told me she told him as he grew more insistent. I know what I saw and I know what you did, so please just come clean and tell me the truth. I know what it is but I know I can’t rest until I hear you speak it.

Still he pressed on with rote denials and without any waver in his voice. All it is is a mix-up, he said. I told you before, they’ve got the wrong guy. Whatever it was they were saying he’d done, she said he said he didn’t do it. Even as she turned aside and left him to sit by himself behind bars, he didn’t seem able to force any more truthful words from his mouth.

He must have known, he must have known, how false his words would sound to her. In the bathroom of the house he knew she’d have to return to, a stockpile of forensic equipment would put the lie to his claims. And when she’d seen the girl’s mother break down at the sight of the child on the floor, she’d had to summon the strength to call the police and point them in Noah’s direction. Even if she couldn’t be certain that he was responsible for the carnage, she also couldn’t have seen many other possibilities. Only half an hour had passed since she’d run to the shops to feed a craving. Noah had been there when she left the house and he was gone when she returned. His hasty departure all but announced his guilt. What must it have cost her then to alert the police to his crime? What effort to take the phone in hand and speak the words that would ruin her? And what price did she continue to pay? She would feel her husband’s deeds returning vividly to life whenever she entered that room again to brush her teeth or wash her hair or draw herself a bath, and her nights would be lost to sleeplessness in a bed left cold by his absence. Even so, when she spoke to him afterwards, he still would not speak to what she knew of his deeds. He talked and talked and talked, she said, but what he said was nothing.

She told me she’d had to brace herself before she could say what she said to hurt him. She had to brace herself even for me when I asked her to repeat it. Creases at the corners of her mouth were not quite concealed by the hair she let hang to her jawline. Her weathered face went blank and her eyes, exhausted, went empty. After the birth of their son, she said, she’d succumbed to postnatal depression. Her days started bleeding together, dissolving into a haze of numbness with no escape in sight, and having admitted this to Noah she lashed him with revelations. Every time she was pulled out of sleep by the bawling of that newborn, every time she blew her budget on new clothes and food and toys, every time she lost hours at work because the boy required care at home, she felt the urge to just leave her child behind and abandon the life her husband had thrust upon her. Her immigrant status denied her any substantive support from her family, and Noah’s defence costs had robbed her of all her meagre savings. She said she’d often wondered what value there was in living her life. Suicide beckoned, she admitted, it beckoned more than once, until she somehow tapped a new reserve of fortitude. She said she couldn’t say exactly how the changes came about, but gradually she came to feel that she, of all people, might make amends for the things her husband had done to that girl.

I confess I don’t understand her logic, even after long reflection. I concede that’s likely because her logic isn’t explicable so much as it is emotional. It had to do with justice, she said, with striking a moral balance. If Noah had ruined the life of a child, she might make recompense for him by doing her best to struggle on and raise one. But to find the resolve for that to happen, her son, their son, could have no hope of ever being close to his father. She’d whispered all this to her husband in jail with the boy sitting there at her back, and she’d asked if Noah could see the sense in what she was trying to say. If you weren’t locked up in here, she said, I would never have felt so strongly about the need to not fail our son and I would’ve followed that downward spiral to disaster. I’m alive and I’m here beside him only because you went away, because I felt for him a sense of total responsibility that could not have been mine to feel if you had not been absent. What makes this boy so perfect now is the care I have given him to compensate for your crime and your captivity. But take a good, long look at him here, she said as she sat before Noah, because when I take him out of this room I will take him forever out of your life.

Of course he protested that she and the boy could visit whenever they wanted.

She cut him off and told him they couldn’t because she intended to move away.

Those words threw weight on his shoulders and sank him where he sat. Moving? he said. How far? To where?

Abroad, she said. It’s paid for. We’ll be gone in less than a week.

He’d protested again, she told me later, until she stressed that she held exclusive custody over the boy. At that he began to beg, to entreat, blathering to her about his visit from the father of the girl, the grief he’d seen in the other man’s eyes, the deep consideration he’d given to all the things that were said to him, but she told me she spoke up over his pleading and said she hadn’t finished with what she had come to say. He shut himself up with a pained expression and watched her raise her hand and flash her wedding band at him.

By that stage she’d had the divorce papers with her for more than a year, she said, but when she’d first received them she found she’d lost the will to sign. He didn’t understand, she told me, and he’d stared at her, dumbfounded, until she made her intentions explicit. Even if I find love again, or if you find it when you walk free, I will never in this lifetime sign my name on the dotted line. I will never sign, she said, because I will never divorce you. Our marriage will live as long as we do because, she added as she stood and saw realisation sweeping over his face, because I want a splinter stuck beneath your skin.

He shook his head in hopelessness. Just to hurt me? he said. That’s your reason?

Just so, she told me. She wanted to hurt him, that was all, so she’d done what she could to cause him pain. His crime had hollowed out their marriage. She would keep him encased in its husk to prevent him ever recovering from his own betrayal of their bond. She farewelled him with only a nod of the head which opened a flood of grovelling. She guided their son away in silence, exacting and patient in all of her movements, and quietly revelled in her revenge for what he’d inflicted on the future he had promised her and forfeited.

What turns through the years must he have taken to move from that seat behind the glass to the armchair in that house in Dalry? Swerves along a narrow path with no space for deviation. Good behaviour most of the time. Parole and release as foreordained. The dole and a place in the jobseeker’s queue. The drudgery of a pointless job and regular contact with the authorities who’d promised to monitor him to his grave. What I’d seen in the food court was an aching and decrepit wretch, a transient thing so wearied by the world that he seemed to want to fade away and forsake it altogether. But as I lingered outside his home and thought of him as he actually was, and as I imagined that young woman standing and watching him take his seat, the powers that coerced the two of them into this confrontation faltered and froze the scene.

It seemed improbable, impossible, that those two people could ever come together to converse in peace. The sort of silence that would beg forth words from others yielded nothing, as I envisioned it, between the man and woman in that room. There were no courtesies or curiosities or casual updates on personal progress that either of them could coax from their tongues. And as I prolonged the time I imagined them spending together, I recognised, inside myself, a burning irritation, a vexation, born from my awareness that their exchange must remain unresolved. It grew in me as I thought on their lives without hope of ever knowing any fixed or certain thing about them, and as soon as I felt it and knew what it was, I felt that Noah would feel it as well when he looked across at his visitor. It was what he’d received from the father of the girl, from the irresolute words with which that man had taken his leave. Make her a human being, he’d commanded. Can you begin to do that? The question, the unanswered question. It opened a vacuum never to be filled. It called out for an answer that lay beyond it. And when the woman at the heart of it came forward to confront him like this, how could the question fail to prompt further words from Noah?

I know you wonder, he whispered to her despite being fuelled by a failure of knowing. I know you must wonder, he said anyway, if it will ever be possible for you to say, perhaps, that you forgive me. He kept his eyes fixed on a point, a stain, on the armrest of his chair. You must wonder about that, he mumbled, right? You must wonder because I wonder. I wonder about it often. I can’t help it, really. It’s the people, other people, that set me off, set me thinking. People on the streets, for instance, gathered in cafés or pubs, a park, perhaps a food court.

Although he had to have suspected that she followed him home from some public place, these last words did not draw from her the response he surely hoped for.

These people set me off, he said, I guess because they seem so free. They’re not like us, you and me. They’re not like us at all. Here we are, caught up in this thing, this history, that even now orchestrates every second of my life, and yet when I walk out the door and see all those people I can’t walk past a single one who has the slightest awareness of it. Something like this, this thing between us, is everything to me, but it’s nothing, it’s trivial, it’s nothing at all, to everyone else out there.

He sighed and closed his eyes.

The woman, as I saw her, turned aside to look away from the beast. Actually, then, she also turned herself away from me. Who was she, exactly? How could I possibly say? I had, I have, no proximity to her, no access, no way of getting close. Certainly not directly, and not obliquely through other people. Noah’s actions obstruct my view. Her father remains too distant, too far removed from her private turmoil. Iliya told me only the things she had heard secondhand, and the newspapers effectively excised the girl from the story of her own life. I’m left to look at her strictly from the periphery of events, and yet what I want is to see her so clearly that she might look back and see me as well. Shouldn’t she have a chance to see that someone out there looks upon her not as prey, not as a victim, not as a locus for outpourings of grief, but just as a person deserving of sympathy and understanding? Instead she grows blurry, becomes opaque, recedes into her own space, encased in the history of all the things that have been done to her.

She stands almost frozen in Noah’s presence. What she sees is frost in the corners of windows facing the street, and passing headlights lighting up the sprinkle of rain on the glass. At last, after some minutes slip by, Noah’s voice returns to him and sends a shock through the silent room. I guess his story remains the only one that can really be told.

Maybe five minutes, he murmurs with no further movement.

As the woman turns back to him, I force her and I force myself to focus on his face and watch him quiver while he speaks.

Five minutes, he says again with eyes shut tight and a voice that flinches in frustration. He nods gently until he is satisfied that she knows what he means to relive.

He’d fled his house in a stupor and left the front door open. He’d slipped inside his idling car and felt an inferno engulf him. He’d thrust out a hand to turn off the heater and only then noticed blood on his skin. The car lurched ahead. It lunged to a halt. The grass nearby was brown where melting snow had slushed. Thin mist whitened the Meadows and blurred the public toilets across the way. Harsh light glared across the dull steel walls inside. A tap banged on with force. Icy water turned his fingers a bruising shade and shrinkwrapped skin around veins and knuckles. He massaged first one hand and then the other and finding no soap he scrubbed so hard he broke the flesh. Blood flowed then and mixed with the blood he’d gone there to wash away. It waltzed together with the water and swivelled down the drain.

When he returned to the outside world he still mimed the washing of hands. One hand moving over the other, squeezing and tensing to pressure the wound he’d opened at the base of his ring finger. He moved through the slush to his car. He reached forward to open the door. He stopped himself at the sight of his reflection in the rearview. He peered at himself, as closely as he could, but the glass was so fogged that he couldn’t see his eyes. His exhalations steamed across the surface. Until he saw that, he hadn’t realised he’d been breathing so hard. That’s one of the things he said when the time came for him to take the stand.

Now, he went on, all he held on to were vague recollections of clambering up to the podium and spreading out a jumble of papers and notes on the lectern. Students later approached by police said he’d launched into his lesson midway through a sentence and shut up when he’d seen detectives at the door. He said he could feel his shirt stick to his skin where sweat had soaked the fabric. When asked to step aside, he said, he’d heard his own protests booming around him. The microphone pinned to his collar gave them volume for his audience. Finally he’d relented and did as commanded and swallowed the impulse to speak out and defend himself. He’d hunkered into his jacket and cast his eyes to the ground. The murmur that flowed through the crowd crescendoed when firm hands gripped his shoulders to lead him out of the lecture hall and he’d crumbled under the weight of his shame.

Maybe just five minutes, he mumbled to her again while I stood outside and watched. That’s all it took for things to change. Five minutes and maybe not even that. How easy it is to reduce an entire life to ruins. How suddenly the whole thing can be blasted into rubble. With one hand raised he shielded his eyes to hide from her his welling tears. It was nothing, he said to her softly, nothing, it was nothing. A quick fix, an instant release, that’s all. It was impulse, that’s all, that’s really all. That’s all it was, and look, just look, at what it did to us.

She looked down at him sitting beneath her, trying his best not to tremble, but the trembling only quickened until he could not stop himself from breaking.

His composure cracked with his voice. As he slouched in his chair his hair fell forward over his eyes and then his mouth contorted and ran ridges down his face. When he wept his bottom lip quivered and splotches of red spread over his cheeks. Strings of saliva dangled from his chin until he brushed them away and they clung to the back of his hand. He let out a jabbering cry that was something close to a howl. Perhaps, of course, this is too perverse, this zeroing in on the details of a pain that is only speculative anyway, just to prolong it and deepen it for my own satisfaction. But I can’t deny that it captured me as I stood beneath that shelter, as rain cast static over the city and I listened to his stammering. Please, I imagined he said, I’m sorry. Please, he said, if I say I’m sorry will you say you accept my apology? Will you just say something now? I don’t care what it is. Talk to me please. Just speak. Even if you’ve got nothing to say, it doesn’t matter anymore. Even if your words are empty, please just say them anyway and I can believe they’re not empty at all. And so he went on speaking like this, not to convey any meaning but only to make a noise, and begging that woman to make a noise as meaningless as his.

She didn’t because she couldn’t because I would not allow it. She stood and watched him wordlessly, her face adamant and gaunted by shadows, while Noah sputtered on towards total incoherence. Please, he muttered, please just, please, and choked out whatever words I gave him and fought off the silence that might have allowed her to do what he implored. That was when I realised just how much I despised him, and I realised, too, that my hatred arose from exactly what he did to me then. I hadn’t seen him for more than a decade and yet I still felt a duty to use my thoughts to torture him, an image of him. Not only for what he did to that girl, not even mostly for what he had done, but simply for having done something so beyond my comprehension that I couldn’t help but fixate on it and strive to understand it, even to internalise it, in a way that made me resent him and made me spite him even more.

My narcissism is clear, I know, because of course his victim’s distress belittles whatever discomfort I feel. But my own sufferings, no matter how facile, are what I have to live and contend with, and they are the only ones of which I’m truly able to speak. I hated him for having stolen so much of my time, for having exhausted my emotional resources, for having caused me to waste my energies on him and for not being able to banish him from his lodging in my mind. I hated him for the fact that I possessed no greater means of wounding him than some illusory version of the girl he ruined, simplified beyond all plausibility. Worst of all is that I still saw her so firmly in the terms he cast her in, I couldn’t even envision for her an exit from that room. She flickered out of my sight like a picture on a television unplugged without warning. Her disappearance from his house forced me to exit the scene as well and cast me into the cold again. I hated him even more for that, for denying me any chance of offering her a resolution, and so I went on helplessly tending to my hatred.

I lifted my eyes from the gutters to watch the rain streak through the night air. I backed up against the bus shelter wall to avoid the spatter at my feet. I felt in the hurried beat of my heart an urgent need to leave at once and spring through the rain and leap towards Noah’s door and thump on it or kick it in. I wanted to confront him for his deeds and for all he’d done to the people around him. I wanted to berate him, to brutalise him, for everything, for all of it, for concealing his secret self from me when I shared a house with him, for having emerged as a different person to the one I thought I knew. I wanted to beat him, to break him, and to do it all for my own pleasure as well as on behalf of those who I knew would dream of it but would be too timid to take it upon themselves. But of course I too suppressed my wants, forced myself to suppress my rancour, and closing my eyes I listened awhile to the rhythmic gushes of distant wheels slicing through water on asphalt.

The dark, the rain, the senses sparked by standing there alone. So much inertia, even now, and so much embroidery on my stasis. I watched Noah enter his house and then I stood outside in the shadows. That’s what happened and that’s all that happened. That’s how the story ends. When it comes to what truly matters, the rest of what’s written here is only decorative stuff. At the time, I told myself I stood so still because I thought it wise to behave as a respectable, responsible citizen. Leave justice to the system in place. Enough lives had already been thrown into turmoil. There was no way for me to untrouble them and nothing to gain in troubling them further. I thought of myself as a man of restraint, and with that thought I stepped out of the shelter and set off into the night. But I’d hardly reached the end of the street before I saw that my restraint was really only a retreat into my habitual state of doing nothing at all.

I stopped at the corner of Noah’s street. I didn’t care that the rain fell on me in a torrent. I felt a groundswell of disgust, disgust from deep in my bones, for having so long lived like such a coward, for having swallowed my words instead of spitting them in his face. It wasn’t true that I’d had no words with which to address Noah’s crime. They came to me more than a decade ago, as soon as I received the news from Lindsay. I’d had them all the while, I knew, and now perhaps they were all I had. But they were raving, disordered, inchoate, thrashing senselessly in my head, and rather than trying to master them and shepherd them into the world, the truth was that I kept them caged because that was a simpler way of keeping my anger at bay.

Now here they are, and my anger as well, a slew of words gushing out from the blackest, most craven part of myself. Gushing into a safe haven of stillness and silence, flooding across the desert of the empty page. I turned the corner and, looking back, I watched Noah’s house disappear from sight. The rain lashed my face and soaked through my clothes as I pressed on for the city. Lives I might have changed forever continued to unfold as if I didn’t even exist. I took my punishment in the cold, with rising gorge and the scalding of bile on my tongue, and as I set off I searched for words to cleanse me of all the things I couldn’t contain anymore.

— Daniel Davis Wood

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Daniel Davis Wood is a writer and editor based in the United Kingdom. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and was followed last year by the monograph Frontier Justice. He regularly publishes literary criticism online at Infinite Patience and is currently working on a new novel entitled Winter Fugue.

Jul 082017
 

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In the summer of 1962 my father was transferred to Atlanta when the small oil company he worked for was bought out by a rising giant, Tenneco. After only two years in the New York suburb of Mamaroneck, our stuccoed Tudor house, with its arched interior doorways, shag carpet, and library adjoining the living room, proved just another stage set, ready to be replaced. So much for the promised security and stability.

There was no question of my choice in the matter. In fact I welcomed the reprieve from a full-year sentence under sixth grade’s glowering disciplinarian, Mrs. Cohen, and looked forward to my first plane ride, the jet to Atlanta. By now I was becoming accustomed to the constant moves, revolving schools, goodbyes to friends.

The New South was bustling with economic expansion and widespread Civil Rights activism. Atlanta was not a prime focus of the racial unrest, though it did serve as a magnet for new money. Housing developments and shopping centers sprouted like kudzu out of the impoverished countryside. My parents bought an antique-brick, colonial-style house in Sandy Springs, an expanding suburb north of the city. The house was barely finished, with no grass yet on the lawn—just hardscrabble red clay that clashed with the bright white columns of the façade.

Behind the house, dense pine woods stretched eastward, more or less undisturbed, all the way to Stone Mountain. Exploring the surroundings, I hiked up a ridge from where I could see the monolith in the distance, looming over the treetops—beckoning, I thought, like an ancient god, or shrugging like a gigantic gray Civil War monument. (The mountain face became precisely that a decade later when the Confederate Memorial Carving was completed, billed as the largest bas-relief in the world). A faint gray line traced the middle distance, a gravel road through the trees, with glimpses of black tarpaper roofs, snatches of radio music in the dusty breeze.

I turned back down the trail home, reflecting on how tenacious was the Civil War legacy, a full century after the fact. In my first week, I had visited the famous Cyclorama, a panoramic museum tribute to the Battle of Atlanta. Around the city, Confederate flags and memorial plaques kept the past alive. Meanwhile the Negroes, as we still called them, had not yet claimed their fair share of the American pie.

In the freshly constructed subdivision in Atlanta’s northern outskirts, I found a ready-made gang. I spent hours on the telephone flirting with Phyllis, Sandy, and Denise, or playing kickball with them and the boys, Mark and Gene and Jimmy, on a vacant lot. One day a bunch of us rode the bus downtown to wait six hours in line for a Beach Boys concert, where the girls screamed like all the other teenyboppers in the era of Beatlemania. We gathered on summer days at the neighborhood pool to swim, play water polo, plug the soft drink machine, and conquer the world at Risk. We learned to dance together, spinning records at Phyllis’s house, and on the slow songs, experienced that first thrill of two bodies pressed close. My new friends told me I talked like a Yankee.

Two new friends.

Mark was a chunky, solid character, in the latter stages of puberty. He and I competed for the most authentic Beatle haircut. He taught me how to bowl. Together we would go on splurges, spending our lawn-mowing money on model kits for classic cars, James Bond or Tarzan books, and the latest hit singles. The cult of Davy Crockett was long gone; and “playing army” was no longer in vogue.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was still two years away, and I was too young, or too preoccupied, to take seriously the threat to world survival when Kennedy outbluffed Khrushchev in that game of nuclear chicken called the Cuban Missile Crisis. No, my battles were fought with fist-sized classroom spitballs or in pickup baseball games on suburban lawns.

Younger sister Randall.

There were always two worlds represented in that housing development at the edge of the woods. My world faced front: the opulent, white-columned verandah of the ersatz mansion, the country club my parents joined, the lawns I mowed, the shiny new schools I attended, the neighborhood pool parties and ball games. The other view, out back, began in the shadowed glade with its bed of soft pine needles where my sister Randall and I would pitch a tent or play football one-on-one. The clearing faded into dreamy forest, where I stumbled one day upon a decaying and overgrown plantation house, a shaded pond (where I would later bring my father to fish for bass), and a little farther on, Barfield Road.

I had only once set foot on this long straight gravel road, peeking out from the woods. It was lined with a string of shanties, hardly visible but for half-hidden tarpaper roofs issuing thin columns of smoke, and clotheslines hung with bright patches of laundry. This was the Negroes’ road—the Negroes who never appeared on the front side of our nouveau-colonial house. Lying awake late on a Saturday night, I heard the roar of their drag races, muffled by the thick Georgia woods that stood between us. Theirs was a world apart—full of dark mystery, which in my ignorance I perceived as a kind of vague menace.

In sixth grade, I was introduced to “current events.” The savvy young teacher had us study newspaper reprints about Civil Rights actions all over the South. The South was rising again—this time in blackface. Atlanta was spared the more dramatic shootings and bombings, which would claim the lives of blacks and Northern sympathizers alike in Alabama and Mississippi. In 1964, Lester Maddox, a restaurant owner who later became state governor, would stand on an Atlanta street selling axe-handles to symbolize, and to enforce, his supposed right to bar blacks from his restaurant.

My father, long a sports and horse racing fan, respected black stars like Baltimore Colt halfback Lenny Moore and mingled with the integrated racetrack crowd as a matter of course. My mother in my early years had hired a black maid, as my grandmother still did. Dora, my mother told me years later, quit the day I asked her why her skin was black. Both my parents subscribed to the cliché: “They’re fine as individuals. It’s just as a race…” I listened curiously to James Brown on the kitchen radio, until one of my parents would complain about “those screaming n—s.” Even then, hearing them use that word, I found it offensive, but in my preadolescence so free of adult responsibilities, I could find no moral ground from which to offer a critique.

But one autumn day Mark and I were tramping around, kicking up piles of dead leaves in the woods beyond the subdivision. We heard voices—different voices. We looked up and saw dark figures darting along the ridge. Something whizzed and struck with a plupf into the leaves at Mark’s feet.

A calling card from the boys of Barfield Road.

“Hey, come on,” Mark said, his hackles up and voice cracking. “They’re throwing rocks. Let’s get ’em.”

Our naïve hearts beat war drums laced with fear. The boys we glimpsed through the trees appeared younger than we were. Did they have reinforcements?

Our first throws fell short. But this return fire piqued the interest of the fleeing strangers. They doubled back behind the ridge and lobbed a volley of stones over our heads. We couldn’t see them but could hear them shouting. More boys approached from the direction of Barfield Road: big brothers, little brothers. Mark and I retreated to within earshot of our paved road. We saw Jimmy Moore on his bike.

“Hey Jimmy!” I yelled. “We’ve got a rockfight in here, colored guys from Barfield Road. We need some help, there’s a bunch of ’em. See who you can round up, quick!”

A rock skimmed the pavement behind Jimmy’s rear wheel. He pedaled away, fast, shouting, “Okay, you got it!”

Mark and I stole back into the woods, using trees for cover and forcing back the more adventurous snipers. When our own reinforcements arrived, we engaged in an all-out fracas, with a gang of a dozen on the white side, and half again as many on the black—counting the little ones. We aimed for the bigger boys. Yelps and nervous laughs rang through the air.

Though the battle was drawn along the color line, the boys on my side displayed no vicious intent, racial or otherwise. Nor did I sense hatred from Barfield Road boys. The tenor of the fight was more like a spirited crosstown baseball match on a common sandlot. Except the opponents were utter strangers to each other.

We didn’t know where our black counterparts went to school, where they shopped, or where their parents worked. We avoided eye contact, recognized no faces and never learned their names. Meanwhile we knew the larger dimensions of social confrontation arrayed in the nation. This was a proxy war, a living cyclorama, fought for symbolic equality.

Never having experienced a rock fight before, I didn’t know how seriously to take it. Were they trying to hurt us? Unsure of any rules of engagement, I floated my rocks wide of any human victim and targeted smaller stones to sting an arm or leg. The trees themselves stood guard, protecting both sides.

After half an hour, our pitching arms grew too weary to carry on. The black boys melted back into the trees, their voices fading. The adrenaline of mock battle gave way to exhaustion, and we took stock, wondering how this all began and where it might have ended. There were no serious injuries on either side, as far as we could tell, and no ground gained or lost. The two stone-wielding armies drifted back to their separate worlds, never to meet again.

Except, that is, for the hair-raising encounter I dreamed that night. In those same, deep woods, on crackling dry leaves, suddenly a boot appeared, and higher up, big black hands holding an axe. That was enough—I awoke, heart pounding. Was he grim-faced, or smiling? I never saw his face.

Which more or less explains, with the benefit of hindsight, the larger problem of fear, hostility, misunderstanding, projection. In our dreams as in our lives, we act out the stereotypes we are given.

My mother the housewife, in suburban kitchen.

In three more years, my family would be gone from this place, too, back to hometown Baltimore, which straddled that contested middle ground between South and North. The landmark Civil Rights Act signed into law; Malcom X gunned down; the urban riots in Watts and Detroit; and the assassination of Martin Luther King. As a white family we remained buffered from racial violence and oppression, yet we were not immune to economic turbulence as my father toppled from his executive position to the ranks of the unemployed.

The reasons for his fall from grace were never entirely clear. Was it a corporate reshuffle, or, as my mother insisted with bitterness, the fault of his drinking? My older sister and brother already having fled the nest, Randall and I were left to go along for the ride, in our old ’58 Pontiac station wagon loaded like a dust-bowl jalopy. This time, bound for no upscale Tudor stucco, but a brick wilderness of row houses, all the same.

I took consolation in the opportunity to root close-up for my old baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles. By the time school let out for the summer of 1966, I had a new hero, black superstar Frank Robinson, who teamed up with established white star Brooks Robinson to lead the run for the team’s first championship. The bad news was, I turned sixteen, and my parents said I had to find a summer job.

My father had found work for another oil company, and my mother had re-entered the workforce as a secretary for an old family friend. I was attending a private Quaker school on a scholarship to make up for an academic history scrambled by too many moves. So getting a summer job wasn’t about the money. It was an obligation of manhood.

I fumed and despaired, argued and cried, wondered what in the world I would do. How could I find a job in a still unfamiliar city with no connections, no experience, no skills? So far I had only mowed lawns, raked leaves. My parents—they were together on this raw new deal—suggested I try the day job agencies where middle-aged black men lined up in the morning to be sent out on temporary work crews, doing manual labor in the oppressive heat and humidity for minimum wage.

So I walked the streets of the seedy Hampden district knocking on doors. It didn’t look like any business there could operate with margin for a new salary, even at a bargain rate. After a few dozen grizzled shopkeepers had scowled at my peach-fuzzed face, told me to speak up, and then sent me on my way, I lost all hope. Did I have too much of a Southern accent now?

Nor did my parents offer much sympathy. That night, talking it over with them in our basement den, I chose to voice my frustration by diverting attention to my father’s drinking, still a sore topic though he was working again. My mother did not take the bait; she saw through my stratagem. My father launched an angry tirade, only empty bluster, it seemed to me.

Six feet tall, he still had three inches on me, and fifty pounds; a barrel chest, broad back, and long thick arms. Imposing as any brute axe-man, his face I knew all too well. He was the old man, and I was bristling with adolescent self-righteousness—so I pushed him in the chest. He staggered a half step, glowered at me, and cocked his fist. My mother caught his arm. He huffed and puffed, a harnessed beast, as she shrieked at me to go to my room. I slipped away, still shaking. But my parents’ united stance carried a bitter justice: I would indeed have to make my own way in the world.

Next day I tried again to find work, knocking on more doors. Finally, a little humpbacked man with a weasel smile hired me to stock shelves and clean cages at a pet store a block from home. I would make a dollar twenty-five an hour, and feel grateful for it.

—Nowick Gray

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Nowick Gray is a writer and editor based in Victoria, BC. The present text is an excerpt from a memoir of his nomadic youth in the Baby Boom generation, a quest for new roots. Educated at Dartmouth College and the University of Victoria, Nowick taught in Inuit villages in Northern Quebec, and later carved out a homestead in the British Columbia mountains, before finding the “simple life” in writing, travel, and playing African drums. Visit his website at nowickgray.com or Facebook page at http://facebook.com/nowickg

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Jul 082017
 

one of us is wave one of us is shore
Geneva Chao
Otis Books, Seismicity Editions, 2016
67 pages; $12.95

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Maybe we dive past one another without seeing, as in Geneva Chao’s investigative book-length poem one of us is wave one of us is shore. I started to wonder, however, while catching her successive waves of language in English and French, whether a poetry might succeed in drying language off of one’s dancing body.

plié, relevé. to fold and to lift
the mirror’s figure makes
errors

The book’s table of contents itself suggests a structured rhetorical inquiry, which Chao follows more through mood than logic. The sections are named this way: thèse, antithèse, synthèse, doute, hypothèse. Such an organization won my rapt attention, especially with its promise to leave the ending as open as any question, open for further dancing.

Chao, when asked by interviewer Rob McLennan about her practice of writing poetry, answered, “[p]oetry for me is a work of attacking problems, of analysis. This is the place where I live… I like the exploration of a theme through the length of a book — though I write very short books so I can get back to bumping Nicki Minaj or making smoothies or whatever. I have a hard time with the stand-alone poem; I’m not interested in it. I’ve never liked the poems in the New Yorker or those ‘intelligent’ magazines that interrupt their socially pertinent reportage to bring you a poem so you can feel cultured on your way to the tennis club. Not that they are uniformly bad (just most of them), but I dislike this presentation. I suppose I am greedy for more. I want each poem to be the ice cream in the ice cream sandwich in a whole box of ice cream sandwiches, not one stingy truffle all dolled up on a plate.”

In one of us is wave one of us is shore, the sequence feels heavy-handed at the start, as any thesis must, but builds a slow trust through the particularities of voice. The visceral experience of language must be individually peculiar, and Chao succeeds in letting us in on its varying sharpness and tenderness.

a litany in absence. un discours fragmenté. all
the pieces falling en miettes.
we have this language of precision. we refine our precision in
this: not bits but shards, thin, lacerating.

ma mie. when you break me i shatter
still a voice murmurs, a breath hovers just
above the white surface of a sheet

a miette is a bit of that soft center. an acquiescent
crumb. la tremper dans ton liquid. to make
uniform again. vanquished in any rain.

Her images color the nuance of pain along with a sense of bruised moisture. However, in contrast, the sounds of consonants in this fragment of Chao’s investigation heighten between so much alveolar “t” and fricative “s,” which alternate to produce a raw energy current that then flows into the rest of the text. Also note in this first line the way that Chao alternates her languages and zap-evaporates all questions with the word “all” at the line’s end.

Beyond the book’s “thesis” of language versus body, the poem illuminates the many ways that the observer, with nothing more than voice, wrestles and pins down aloneness. In French and English phrases that sometimes translate each other, and sometimes lift each other off the ground, Chao pursues her vision.

non par devoir mais not by
obligation
non par amour mais we don’t jump
our fences
non par noblesse car whether
reputation
ni politesse si one cannot refuse

in this            out of this     is inevitable
if this                         in which         or i elect

the songs speak to ineluctable.
the books give false maps

we wait for weather le temps qu’on attend
in the moment of lightning a silhouette
des répères

If the phrases, prepositions, and conjunctions in the first part of this selection were alternately waving gestures, the reader could envision the movements of the lone, almost-dry dancer. The next section, titled “antithèse,” turns around and plunges straight into the deep water of relationship.

in the silence of waiting there is expression. not of the self, the
self doît se taire should shut up, remember the adage about
valor and discretion, but

in the silence of waiting there are a dozen moments where a
tiny light burns

si je te signale que suis là c’est pas pour if i let you see that i am
awake it’s not to comfort you

a thousand times a day lamps cross. on s’obstine à ne rien faire
we pretend we don’t see. a thousand moments a day a voice is
stilled in

the éloquence du néant, of absence

how could i the long du jour long for other than
this you?

I am fascinated by the bilingual syntax here, the way it creates propulsion. Chao earned her undergraduate degree in French Translation and Literature from Barnard College. She has translated Gérard Cartier’s Tristran and Nicolas Tardy’s (with François Luong) Encrusted on the Living. Her cultural heritage (British-, French- and Chinese-American) inflects her poetic inquiry: “As a bilingual and bicultural person, one of the enduring mysteries/puzzles of my life is the different ways feelings are expressed depending on the language, especially when I am interacting with someone who speaks one of my languages but not the other. The heart grasps at translations, none of which is adequate — as is the point of my deliberately faulty auto-translations in the book — or starts to dwell in a place of foreignness, which is a place I’m quite familiar with.”

In the quote above, the phrase “not of the self, the / self” followed by the reflexive verb in French delighted me, anyway. And again, in the line “a thousand times a day lamps cross. on s’obstine à ne rien faire” Chao abuts the movement of the English, present-tense verb “cross” with the reflexive verb in the French phrase meaning “we persist in doing nothing.” At high speed, the wave motion of Chao’s page of text crashes upon “this you.”

Chao takes up grammar as metaphor more explicitly in a few places, but somehow I didn’t love these as much as her subtle play with the riggings of the languages. The following selection gives a sense of the mode of inquiry:

tense and
mood; how already on edge this english

let us say that strictly speaking tense is for chronology
and mood doesn’t give a fig for it

or then; you prefer to indicate
and i cannot help subjunction; this

is cultural. everything i am aware of
including many invisible things

has a mood. it is not my choice
to acknowledge it; whereas (or,…)

tu constates (this verb does not exist
in english; it must lack mood; but the closest
is take note of)

Here, while dealing so directly with the opportunity of the two languages dancing, the poem loses a little bit of momentum in its self-reflexive gloss. Chao doesn’t dwell too long in those lulls, however, and the poem revives in sensory and grammatical swan dives. A stunning example of this use of language, dualistic motion and sensory effect arrives just past the midpoint of the book:

What is translated or not, or lined up or not, between the columns of the poem create a pretty wind-tunnel effect. At the ends of the columns, Chao places meaning on the one side and the body/senses on the other, both glazed with joy.

One page treats the quiet difference of “connaitre” and “savoir” in the peculiar vocabulary of lovers. And another follows the poet’s visceral experience of language as it shifts from pain to a full-on dancing ecstasy:

and the air is
like a song

in the head echoes of
ce qu’on a vécu
what has been lived
that is each moment
a light that sweeps the beach

to turn, turn on
an axis, a pin; to whirl
the needle slice a slight
cry; each time placed

a notch to pass another
note of force, of volume
and yet breath lost only to
whisper plus fort, plus fort

This book keeps its promises by ending with generous and lovingly melancholy gestures: “that the boat goes / before any wind; / tout vent; that’s / physics.” Waving the hands, waving the voice, Chao gives us the body-surfing lesson as dance form, as wild poem. Between languages, lovers, or just mind/body, we can take her advice: “take this / collusion or only risk.”

—A. Anupama
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A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including Drunken Boat, Waxwing, Monkeybicycle, and Fourteen Hills. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org), and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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Jul 072017
 

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36 Eddy Street

This is my former backyard at 36 Eddy Street in Waltham, Massachusetts, where we moved to that summer from 33 Weston Street, two blocks away. It was a four-family house painted light gray with slatted wood siding and we lived in the second floor apartment above our heads.

My uniform’s clean so I know it’s before a game. I always felt an obligation to get it dirty, to prove that not only did I want to win but that I’d slide head first into a base to do it.

To my left, glove hand, affecting his best “I got a million of ‘em” pose, is Uncle Dave, my Great Uncle. A good guy, generous, loud and gregarious, a corona was always squeezed between his fingers. He lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and made his living as an auto mechanic. At one point, before he retired and sold the building, he operated a two bay garage without gas pumps, repairs only. My father insisted I was in it several times, that I’d enjoyed playing with the tools and poking my fingers in the tubs of grease, but I have no recollection of being there. I do remember Uncle Dave drove a 1950s model Hudson, one of those gangster-type cars that was all slopes and silver detail. On the weekends he and my Aunt Grace visited us, my brother and I would insist he take us for a ride, which he always did, out to the quiet back roads of Lexington and Lincoln and Wayland. We’d usually be settled in the spacious back seat all ready to go before Uncle Dave and my father got in and Uncle Dave released the emergency brake.

It was always exciting to see Uncle Dave, though when I was small, probably up until the age I was in the photo, he had a penchant for tickling me and keeping at it until tears streamed down my cheeks to the point I wasn’t sure if I was laughing or crying. Then, from my middle teens on, he was always telling me, “You’re doing good things, Paul, not like some of these other kids today.” I was never sure what I’d done or said to merit that comment since my main activities were playing sports, getting into trouble at home and in school and trying to talk girls into going here and there with me. Maybe those weren’t such bad things to do after all?

The last time I saw Uncle Dave I was a college freshman on Christmas break. My parents made it a point to take me up to Portsmouth to see him even though I didn’t want to go and made a big fuss about it. We argued, but their explanation of matters finally won out. A lot had changed since I’d last seen him. Uncle Dave had been having health problems for a few years, but now he was in a wheelchair, no longer the big, outgoing personality, but a quieter, sad presence. Diabetes had progressed to the point where both of his legs had to be amputated, cut off just above the knee. His face and torso were thin, as if hollowed out. Up at his place, we spent the afternoon watching a college basketball game. Uncle Dave smoked a cigar as we talked. Talking about me, our family, everything but him and how he was feeling. Before we left that evening I shook his hand and I think we both knew we were saying goodbye for the final time.

That’s my father to my right. He was a machinist and tool designer, and as you see he smoked cigars too, a habit he might have picked up from Uncle Dave, one of his favorite people.

“Stogies,” my father called them. “Why I think I’ll have a stogie. No, you can’t have one so get away from there.”

El Producto was his brand in those years when they were made by hand. He bought them by the box and I collected the empty ones, which, with the Spanish language name and trademark design, always started a reel of images rolling in my head of an exotic country with palm trees, white beaches, girls in bikinis, thatched roof huts… A place far away from Waltham, which in those years was a struggling city of small stores and too many bars and not enough money and the factories my parents and my friends’ parents worked in and couldn’t wait for the end of the week to be out of for a few days. I filled those boxes with my most precious objects: baseball cards, small vintage toy cars, a ring, a wristwatch, anything that had meaning to me. I labeled each with a black marker and stacked them on my bookshelf. Then, as the collection grew, my father puffing away at the rate of about two a day in between a couple of packs of Lucky Strikes, I stood them in a column in a corner of my room like a file cabinet that could only be opened from the top.

One evening that summer (or the one after it?) I challenged my father to a race down the driveway you see by the white picket fence, about a hundred feet to the sidewalk. I beat him, pulling away and bursting into the street. I knew he hadn’t let me win, like he’d let me take a game of Eight Ball to keep up my interest on those occasions he took me to Vern’s Billiards over on Felton Street. My easy victory was a surprise to both of us, I think, and I knew another race would end with the same result so I never asked him again.

My father seems happy in the photo. It’s one of the few pictures I have where he’s smiling for the camera, showing the viewer the moment was pleasant, his number one uncle was visiting, his son had a ballgame they were going to take him to after a picture was taken (by my brother?) to fix the three of us in time. In many of the other photos I have he appears so uncomfortable I wonder why he ever agreed to let the other person take it, or if there had been a tremendous struggle for the camera afterward to try to get at the film to destroy it? Not that he was always unhappy, or incapable of finding pleasure in an activity. But there was some deep problem bothering him he never talked about or sought help for, that kept him brooding and on edge.

Was it from the war? His physical wounds from that brutal conflict were obvious. An Army Sergeant assigned to an artillery unit in WWII, he was in Italy when his knee and shin were ripped open by shrapnel. The scars were wide and deep. More painful to look at than live with, he assured me.

I knew the story. The flashing, deafening explosion, him blacking out, awoken the next day in a pain so excruciating he fainted in bed, a vein removed from the thigh on his right leg fused with others in the damaged one, six months recuperating in an army hospital…

But what of his wounds that couldn’t be seen? I wouldn’t find out until after he died that he was taking a tranquilizer every day. It had been a surprise to my mother too. “He didn’t tell me anything about it,” I recall her saying at the time my brother found the small container of pills under the front seat of his car.

I suppose my father was one of the storied silent soldiers who came back from Europe after World War II and never talked about it except to say it was a bastard, a hell, whatever, and he’d never wish an experience like it on his worst enemy. I’ve no doubt he had what was called “shellshock” then but is now referred to as PTSD, a condition out of the closet and taken seriously.

This is the period of my childhood I look back on with the fondest recollections. The rest after that seemed an extraordinary struggle, filled with my father’s anger and arguing between him and my mother, enormous frustrations expressed by two people who didn’t know how to, or didn’t want to try to make their life together better. It continued until my father died in 1993, long after I’d left home. I’m not sure what had happened that turned them on each other like that. Maybe it was something that was brought forward from a period of their lives before I was born? Or did it start right after the explosion that tore into my father’s leg and shocked his psyche?

This picture softens those memories. I’m glad I found it a few years ago in an envelope in the back of a cabinet in my mother’s apartment to remind me of my father during that time, of my Uncle Dave, and 36 Eddy Street.

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Susan

This is my cousin Susan with my father in the living room of our apartment at 36 Eddy Street in Waltham, Massachusetts, with the trophy shelf and rocking chair and organ in the background. Susan was three years younger than me, my Aunt Kathryn’s only child and my father’s favorite niece.

The picture was taken a few years after Aunt Kathryn (she was called Kitty) died of liver cancer. Her doctors never came to any conclusions as to exactly what had caused it. My father was sure it was due to the toxic chemicals she worked with at a company that, among other things, made weapons for the Department of Defense. Aunt Kitty and her husband Gus had divorced when Susan was seven and my grandmother, who was living with them, assumed legal custody. They had a first floor apartment on the street behind ours and from our back porch, between two other houses, we could see their front door and windows.

Aunt Kitty, Mother, Grandmother, Grandfather, Uncle Dave (seated) and my Aunt Grace also seated.

After Aunt Kitty died my father became Susan’s favorite adult, and though his expression in the photo might not show it (he was a moody and oftentimes harsh and depressed man), a softness came over him whenever Susan was around. “Sue Sue” he called her, his voice going high, a smile forming on his lips whenever his eyes settled on her. “Sue Sue, how you doing?” he’d ask.

As the photo shows, Susan would return those feelings. She was a gentle, high-spirited girl, and when freed from my grandmother’s overbearing supervision and the object of my father’s attention she became excited, talkative and happy. Though “overbearing” might be too soft an adjective to use when it comes to describing my grandmother’s supervision of her. The fact was, my grandmother was a stern, domineering woman. Her temper was sharp. Her language could be humiliating. Her prickly tone of voice would visibly alter the expression on Susan’s face and when I saw it happen I wanted to rise up and defend her. I wanted to tell my grandmother it wasn’t right to talk to her like that. But I never did. And far as I’m aware no one else ever did that either.

That was what we saw at Sunday dinners and family events and casual get-togethers. What went on in that apartment on Everett Street no doubt continued. I know Susan did much of the cleaning and cooking, and though there was an extra bedroom my grandmother made her sleep in the same one she did. An immigrant from a poor southern Italian village, my grandmother may have been continuing an old world way. And that wasn’t all of it. On nights and weekends Susan rarely, if ever, went out to hang with friends. A boyfriend, even a secret one, would have been almost impossible for her to have.

And yet, my grandmother’s domination over her might have been worse than that. I’d thought it. My mother and father had too. But as far as I know there was nothing we, they, could do. I recall their conversations about contesting custody and taking Susan in with us. But it likely would have been impossible to get her away from my grandmother and so it was never attempted.

Knowing all that, I worried a lot about Susan. The summer before I started college I recall running into her at Brigham’s, a popular local ice cream franchise at the time. She was with our cousin Dorothy drinking a soda at the counter. She seemed thinner than ever, fragile, as if she hadn’t been eating. In the photo you can tell she’s quite slim, her clothes loose (it in fact might have been taken near the time of that Brigham’s meeting). But that afternoon I noticed her blouse hung from her shoulders as if from a wire hanger and her pants were baggy around her hips and legs. I feared something awful might happen if she got sick. Later that day, I told my mother what I saw and how I felt, how living with my grandmother wasn’t any good for her. My mother agreed. After all, she’d said it long before I had and she responded to that conversation as she always did in stressful moments, by reaching for the rosary beads she kept in a pocket.

I suppose living with my grandmother had a tremendous, and perhaps dire, psychological impact on Susan. I say this as a way of leaping ahead to the call I received in my dorm room when I was a college sophomore. The calming voice of the Jesuit brother, who presided over spiritual matters for undergraduates, informed me he was at the security desk downstairs and needed to see me right away. He greeted me with a smile and at the same time a look of concern. He led me to a small side office, shut the door, and when we were seated he spoke in a quiet voice. My cousin Susan had passed away and I should call home right away. While the news rattled me, I wasn’t shocked. The Jesuit brother and I talked about Susan for a few more minutes and at the end he asked if I had any questions or if there was anything he could do for me? No, I shook my head, not crying, but saddened I wouldn’t see Susan again.

Up in my room I made a collect call home. My father answered in a broken voice and repeated what I’d been told. Susan had died of an unknown brain disorder and I understood disorder might mean a lot of things. Just as with my Aunt Kitty, the doctors didn’t know exactly what it was. And then something happened I’d never heard before and would never hear again. My father started crying. Balling uncontrollably might be a better way to put it. And that shook me up as much as the news about Susan.

What went on after she was rushed to the hospital was never explained to me. I’m not sure if my father ever found out, or if he’d ever pursued the details. Had there been an autopsy? I don’t know. If so, had my father kept the results to himself so he didn’t have to talk about them? It isn’t a long stretch to think that. It was sudden. Did it matter how and why? Did Susan have a tumor that sent her into a coma she never came out of? That would be the expected diagnosis and one I’m sure would have been discussed. There was talk she’d gotten hold of a bottle of my grandmother’s pills and overdosed on them. It might have been that. It might have been several other things. Who knows? I don’t. For me, now, I’m still curious even if it’s too late to matter. But back then, Susan’s death had a tremendous impact on all of us. She had just turned seventeen and was the first person I was close to to die.

I have another recollection of Susan. When I was in the sixth or seventh grade and the weather was too cold or too bad to hang outside with my friends, I’d go to my grandmother’s after school and wait until my mother got home from work (she’d stopped trusting me with a key since I’d almost set fire to our apartment trying to make parchment paper over the flame of our gas stove). One afternoon, soaked in a heavy downpour, my grandmother thinking I might catch pneumonia, she was adamant I take off my wet clothes and put on one of her bathrobes. She gave me a heavy green flannel one and I went into the bathroom to change. In the full-length mirror I looked like a waif out of a Dickens’ novel, wearing an ugly green overcoat I’d pulled from the bottom of a closet. I was so embarrassed I intended to stay in there until my mother was home and could bring me a dry change of clothes. But my grandmother insisted I come out. When she started beating on the door I gave in. Seeing me, Susan laughed and didn’t stop laughing. She spent the next hour, unsuccessfully I must say, trying to pull the cloth belt off, the only thing keeping the robe closed and me from exposure. Over the next months we joked about that quite a bit.

I continue to wonder what Susan would have become? There’s no way to know, of course, but I feel sure if she were alive her home would be a place I’d look forward to stopping at whenever I was back in Waltham.

 

The Work You Must Do

My father and grandfather when my father was back from WWII and still on crutches.

My paternal grandfather, “the well-known auto repair man” as a Portsmouth, New Hampshire newspaper had referred to him, was an inventor who’d obtained at least six patents for mechanical devices and processes.[1] As far as I know the last of these was titled “Apparatus for Treating Box Blanks,” which, if I read the specification correctly, improved the production of cardboard boxes with a more efficient way of scoring, gluing and folding them into completed receptacles.[2] The prototype was designed and constructed with my father’s help in the machine shop my grandfather started and ran in Waltham, Massachusetts.[3] My grandfather would die a year after the patent was granted by the U.S. Commissioner of Patents (in 1952) when a blood vessel hemorrhaged in his brain, and not much longer after that the shop went bust. Why my father wasn’t able to keep it going, he never explained to me, though by the time I was old enough to surmise a world where appearances were the topics of the day and the realities behind them never discussed, I understood its failure as one of the troublesome subtexts behind the many problems he and my mother had.

The box blank machine.

The shop on Charles Street Ave. was a thousand square feet of clutter, of lathes, milling machines, drill presses, small motors, cans of oil, gears, greasy tools, and hundreds of other gadgets and parts needed for whatever was being worked on at the time.[4] It prospered by providing welding, custom design, metal stamping and other machine tool services. At least five other machinists worked in it. The exact number was iffy in my father’s recollection. But while business was going well, and they had skilled help, time was freed up for he and my grandfather to work on the projects they’d hoped would bring them riches. And that was, even more than providing a livable income, vital as that hard fact of life was and remains, the shop’s intention all along; to be a venue where they could employ their talents and express their ideas to invent and design and develop.

They must have felt certain, or at least hopeful, that at some point one or more of their creations such as “Apparatus for Treating Box Blanks” would bring large sales or a sizable lump-sum payment from a company that would go on to produce many thousands of them. But my grandfather’s abrupt illness, and my father’s failure to keep the business going, put an end to those expectations.

“He was a great man. If that hadn’t happened to him we would have been rich,” my mother never hesitated to tell me when the topic came up. Then inevitably, she’d add, “Your father’s talented, but he doesn’t know anything about running a business. He’s not practical-minded like your grandfather was. And he never learned how to toot his own horn.”

My father explained the shop’s demise from an entirely different viewpoint. “No luck,” he replied with an inward gaze the few times I’d asked him what happened. “I swear to you the name has a curse on it. You’ll find that out someday.”

Apparently, that was a persuasive enough argument to keep him from taking a stab at starting another company. His father’s success,[5] and his failure to keep the shop going, must have always been right there with him, and after a while he rarely (and I mean almost never) mentioned either. It was obvious he’d convinced himself he wasn’t equipped to sell an idea and get financial backing and manage people. And there was his family to think about, a burden on his conscience and wallet. A steady income was needed, and so from then on he worked as a machinist and tool designer.

And that was how I knew him, as a discontented forty-hours-plus a week laborer who brown-bagged his lunch to the places that employed him, a variety of companies that included military contractors, research outfits and universities he’d stay at for one or two or three years before moving on for whatever reason there was to leave: a layoff, the expectation of more uninspired assignments he wanted to liberate himself from, a personality conflict with his boss; there had been plenty of those.

Aside from his hourly wage earner role, my father never lost the urge to create. It was a desire he satisfied by filling spiral drawing pads with diagrams of machines, electrical devices and toys. Some were easily recognizable: a mechanical soldier in ceremonial dress would be depicted in a series of Muybridge-like frames marching forward and backward while blowing steam out its ears. But others were true imaginings. Only he knew what they were, how they operated, and what practical function, if any, they might have. Asked to describe one of the more obscure, for example, a machine on four wheels that would roll sideways and had a single long arm with a roller at the end shown moving vertically, he’d smile, lift his eyebrows and say, “It’s just an oddball idea right now. But maybe it’ll paint a wall while you stand around and watch it.”

Just where some of those oddities came from is impossible to pinpoint. They might have been leftover from conversations he’d had with his father in that disarrayed shop on Waltham’s west end. Or maybe they’d sparked up while he was reading one of the books or magazines he’d browse on the couch after dinner and on weekends, that included issues of “Popular Mechanics,” science fiction paperbacks (he had more than twenty by Asimov), early computer manuals, and volumes with titles such as Science of Billiards, Modern College Physics, Chemical Magic and Z80 Instruction Handbook.

It was the latter that intrigued me most when I came upon it after he died in 1993. Computers, in fact, fascinated him. Had he been born in the era I’d grown up in he might have gone on to study them formally, no doubt tinkered with their electronics, and maybe, if all fell into place (the curse on the family name be damned!), even invented something he might have been granted a patent for and got him the attention he’d wanted.

I know his first PC was the Radio Shack TRS-80 he’d ordered from the back of “Popular Mechanics.” Introduced in 1977, it featured the Z80 processor he had the handbook for, with 4 kilobytes of RAM, a small keyboard, a black-and-white video display and a tape drive. With a brief Internet search I was able to find out it sold for around $600, a sum, I’m certain, he’d lowered by a few dozen percentage points when my mother asked him what the thing cost.

The only other PC he ever had was the used, Korean-made IBM-clone I’d replaced and given to him in the late 1980s. A more advanced machine than the TRS-80, he took it apart and put it back together, fascinated with its sophisticated components, and at the same time, I imagine, thinking in his own self-confident way that with the right knowledge base and enough time and money he might have built something from scratch just like it, or maybe better.

But while the computer’s hardware was easy enough for my father to figure out, he had difficulty understanding the applications it was designed to run. I still remember the phone call he’d made to me one night complaining about a popular word processing program, and the conversation about it going something like this:

“Hey Paul, can you help me? I’m having trouble with this damn software.”

“What is it you can’t figure out?”

“Everything, that’s what. How do you people get anything done on it? I sure as hell don’t know. And to tell you the truth, I’m starting not to want to.”

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Except for when he was ill those last years of his life (“No ambition,” he’d answer when I suggested he try to do some work) my father never stopped drawing in those spiral pads he bought at Nickerson & Hills on Main Street. There was always the need to be involved in something besides what he did during the day and being with his family at night. He never had a shortage of ideas to flesh out. He penciled lines and shapes and descriptive fragments no matter who was around or what other activity was in progress. Even when he was sitting at his favorite end of the couch (where no one else, not even guests, would settle) he seemed to be working out a problem, undistracted by the chatter or blink of colors flashing on the t.v.

He filled those pads with the intention of doing more than setting them aside to gather dust. Some of the drawings became the guidelines used to bear something into the 3-D world. To my delight, he constructed the above-mentioned mechanical soldier, though when idea met reality he had to make one important modification. Instead of steam coming out its ears, a function that would obviously prove to be problematic in an independent mechanism built on a small budget, its hat moved up and down in time to the taps of the drum strapped to its waist.

“Silly isn’t it,” he said about it. “You can have it if you want.”

He did that work in the basements of the buildings we rented apartments in. A few weeknights after dinner and most weekend afternoons, he put on the stained gray work smock and stood, never sat, at the heavy wood bench that was covered with tools, spools of wire, dozens of glass jars with nuts and bolts, coffee cans filled with oil and solvents, a selection of plugs, coils, capacitors, transistors, springs, small motors and whatever else might be useful. The chestnut-stained toolbox with multiple levels of drawers he’d owned since before I was born was kept within arm’s reach. It was the size of a small trunk, incredibly heavy, and held many of the tools he needed: wrenches, gauges, screwdrivers, drills, files, calipers, wire cutters and others. I was fascinated with its slick, polished exterior and the fine quality of its contents even if he warned me not to get too familiar with any of it. He feared, I knew because he’d told me, that I might be lured into making a living doing what he did.[6]

I recall those hours in the basement being some of his most serene, when he was at ease with himself, clear of vision, and fully involved in the moment; the same lighted satisfaction he must have seen on his own father’s face when an idea bloomed then obsessed him. He enjoyed being alone with his thoughts and materials, his skills employed for purposes that didn’t have to do with the bottom lines of large companies or for the military to destroy things and people with.

The dream of commercial success long over, he nevertheless approached his projects methodically, as if someone or some enterprise was waiting for them: the concept imagined and re-imagined, conveyed to paper, the parts gathered on his workbench then assembled meticulously, soldering, grinding, tightening, fitting and refitting with the most fastidious workmanship. He wasn’t bothered or burdened by failure. If something wasn’t working out as he’d wanted it to he’d move on to whatever was next in the imaginary queue he must have kept in his head; after all, there was more to build than there was time for.

Some of his larger constructions included a lathe he designed and made all the parts for and a telescope with lenses he ground by hand. (One evening, as I was watching him sand down one of them, he implied the glass had cost quite a bit. When I asked how much, he responded, “More than five hundred bucks, Paul, but don’t tell your mother, she’ll have my head if she hears that.” And then he let out a long, low whistle. It was a secret I was able to keep for as long as he was alive.)

Other constructions included an oscilloscope he had no real use for and a can opener that could open four cans at once (though only in theory, it turned out) and that looked oddly similar to the parachute jump amusement ride at Coney Island he might have been aware of. There was also a giant remote control airplane made of balsa wood that I watched him fly a few times at Brandies University’s athletic field.[7] Whatever their purpose, or lack of one, he felt compelled to build them, or he wanted to prove to himself he could make them, or he wanted to get a chuckle out of seeing them function, which may have been satisfying enough. The days spent in earsplitting machine shops that paid rent and bought food were time-consuming distractions when he was fully involved in something “down there,” as my mother, brother and I would say, sometimes humorously, sometimes sarcastically. The only events that could deter him more than a day or two were a major family crisis (which were recurrent enough) or a Bruins playoff hockey series. He derived great pleasure from working, but just on the things that interested him.[8]

.

As generous and inoffensive as my father was, he wasn’t a social man. At times he could be gruff and distrustful, difficult to get close to and figure out. I know when he was at his jobs he stayed by his machines during his breaks instead of spending the hour or so connecting with his co-workers. Instead, he used that time to make something for his projects out of whatever scrap material might be leftover around the shop. It was a self-absorbed activity that I’m certain made him seem distant and might have even instigated more than a few stressful moments of the kind that can develop between people who are uncomfortable with each other but still have to work in the same physical space five days a week. I’ve no doubt that was another reason he changed jobs often as he did (only rarely did he mention how his day had gone, and when he did his descriptions made me aware they’d not been easy or enjoyable).

When he was done with a project, and my brother and I were still living at home, my father would emerge victoriously from the basement to get our attention. We were his only regular audience. Rarely would my mother be interested, and never when he was between jobs. (All that tension between them was also a battle between the practical and impractical worlds.) After the demonstration, wanting to find out if his effort was successful, he’d assume his usual, skeptical air and ask us, “So what do you think about that? Any good?”

If it were a toy, or something we could play with, it might entertain us for a day or a week until we abandoned it like a cheap Christmas present. Eventually, it would find its way back to the basement where my father would clear out a spot for it on a dusty shelf, or put it to rest in a cardboard box he’d stack on top of other boxes that had works of his in.[9] By then, anyway, he’d be deep into something else. The process from idea to drawing pad to building the object provided the creative satisfaction he needed. Beyond that, the finished piece would have little more value than to mention to visiting relatives or neighbors with a grin that would imply he’d made something with his hands that was pretty impressive even if they might not know how impressive or think much about it at all.

No matter what the reaction, or lack of one, he continued doing the work he wanted to do even if it had no sensible or profitable place in the world (that was all going to hell anyway, according to him).

He did make one attempt I know of to sell an idea. After he died I discovered a paste-up board in a brown envelope for a product called MAGCHEK, an electronic sight for bows he’d advertised in the back of a national archery magazine. “Tomorrow’s sight today” stated the catchy sales pitch. I’m not sure how many months the magazine carried it. I don’t remember him mentioning a word about it. I’m also not sure if he had any buyers. But from the price he was asking, $19.50 ($12.50 for replacement parts), he was obviously planning to keep his day job.

Only a few objects remain, one MAGCHEK, the tube and tripod stand for the telescope (but not the expensive lenses), a loose-limbed wood puppet that looks like it might have been a maquette for something more ambitious. It’s all that’s left besides memory to remind me that was what he chose to do with some of the precious free hours he had. And in saying that it’s taken me this long to see the similarities in what I do as a writer, in my own creative urges and struggles, and in the tremendous frustrations and surprising hidden joys of it as well.

—Paul Perilli

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Paul Perilli

Paul Perilli‘s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The European, Baltimore Magazine, New Observations Magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail and others. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in bioStories, Hektoen International, The Transnational, The Satirist, Coldnoon, Litro, Intima, Numéro Cinq and Thema.


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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I say at least because much of the documentation from 1924 to 1951 is missing. Whatever was developed and formally submitted to the U.S. Commissioner of Patents in those intervening years, and what might have happened to it, remains unknown to me at this time.
  2. If my information is accurate, the first patent issued to him in 1928 was titled “Propelling Mechanism for Vehicles,” which, put simply, was a “walking automobile.”
  3. The shop was on Charles Street Ave., a side street in Waltham’s west end and my father began working in it after he was back from WWII. As of 2015 the building is still intact and in use, though it’s much smaller than I remembered or imagined it being.
  4. It’s likely I was in it, perhaps many times, but, as I would have been less than a year old, I have no memory of being there.
  5. The manifest from the Citta di Napoli that brought my grandfather to Ellis Island listed him being twenty years old (he would actually be twenty four months later), single, a peasant, illiterate, and having $16 on him, thus making his activities after that fairly impressive. I’ll speculate some here, and say they might have been too much for my father to try to match or exceed,
  6. My father was so adamant about keeping me away from the skilled trades that my wife, a visual artist familiar with tools and materials, is often amazed at how inept I am repairing things around our house.
  7. He eventually crashed it into the stands and the damage was so extensive he never repaired it.
  8. My father had other diversions. Actually, he had a lot of them. He was also a fine figure skater, archer, bowler, pool player, woodworker, landscape and portrait painter (and self-proclaimed as someone who could “do anything well but make money”). He approached each with the same ferocious dedication he’d built that telescope and lathe with and also was, in a way, his own equipment manufacturer. A bowling ball, for example, would have to be sanded down so the weight was to the smallest fraction of comfort; the forefinger and thumb holes cut into it had to fit just right or be filled in, re-measured and re-cut until they were. The top brand of bow purchased new would transform from a finished product to raw material after he brought it home. Taken to the basement, he’d strip it down to its basic components and rebuild it, tinkering with the string and pulleys to get the right feel in the draw, honing the stabilizers so the arrows released with the absolute minimum vibration. Arrows were treated the same, new tips would be added, any decorative paint scraped off.
  9. As an artist, my wife requires even more room, equipment and storage space than my father needed (or could afford). Whereas I, when looking for a creative outlet, saw writing was the cheapest, least physically intrusive and most mobile of all.
Jul 072017
 

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Magnolias

Another trick spring, another month of mothering
the neighbor’s dumb magnolias from my window.

Another March spent warning, willing their velvet purses
shut with only my mind, because I don’t speak

their language, and because they are not mine
to mother. I have no trees, not even a houseplant,

of my own. The first thing I kept alive was a child.
Talk about a high-stakes dry run. Today that child

is at school, and I am chiding the neighbor’s twin
magnolias with my eyes—don’t open, remember, this spring

isn’t spring at all. But every year their pink tongues
lap snow, lick the thin, cold air. These trees

have seen my son, head back, mouth open,
doing just that. The sun is shining, its warmth

through glass a kind of lie, and I am practicing
telepathy with trees who can’t hear me, again,
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or they can, but I’m too late: a handful of soft gray
clutches are unclasped on the lawn, empty.

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I’m a Monster

in the lake’s murky mirror,
skin wavering green,

wrinkled by wind.
My eyes, blurring

in their sockets,
are still my father’s.

My mouth, my mother’s.
What parts of me are not

borrowed, pieced together
from other bodies?

Even this poor reflection
is proof I was cut

from a body, born
an animal. Proof I am

never without the ones
who made me.

I dip a stick in the lake
and stir my face away.

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After the Second Miscarriage, My Daughter Teaches Me about Eggs

Ladybug, lemon yellow,
the size of the period
at the end of this sentence.

Moth, lime jellybeans.

Butterfly, pearls inlaid
on a leaf’s veiny back.

Spider, silk purses
slung under the basement stairs.

Flying fish, drops of blood.

Wood frog, blue eyes,
pupils dilated in the dark.

Turtle, white leather.

Black pine snake, marbled
white stones, the kind
you pocket and rub.

Ostrich, thick as a nickel.

Emu, fifty-carat emeralds
buffed smooth, facetless.

Duck, palest green,
as if white had tinted itself
with the faint memory of a lake.

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A Cloud in Each Field

I found my daughter at the table, cutting square clouds
from a shirt box, gluing them in a neat white grid
to scribbled-blue paper. A day had never looked so
orderly. She colored the sun a quarter each yellow,
orange, red, black. Later I caught her inspecting
the scene for flaws, using a dollar-bin kaleidoscope
as a jeweler’s eye. When she finished, she handed me
the paper, called it her sky contraption. My daughter
invented it herself, or as she says, guessed it up.
And I—or my body in its genius—guessed her up,
the girl whose sun is a quarter black, whose sky
is a kind of spreadsheet, a cloud in each field, value
undetermined. She autosums the clouds until
the formula should fall apart, but it doesn’t.

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Study

I’m beginning to suspect this life
is a study for another one,

research for a larger project
still taking shape. I don’t mean

heaven, no. If these days
are notes that will serve me later,

I’m taking copious notes.
If this world is not the real world—

I mean, not the final version—
will the real world at least

resemble this draft? I’m beginning
to suspect this life is practice,

and what of these practice
children—are they mine

to keep? What can I carry
forward except these reminders?

Each day is a note I jot down
under the day before.

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I’m Reconsidering Burial

because if I were lying
in that narrow twin bed

under the sod, you might be
tempted to lie down there

at night, the stone a cold
headboard, and look up

at the sky—moon, stars,
wisps of cloud, etcetera—

and feel you are falling
asleep on the top bunk

and I am still tucked in
below you, telling you

my secrets in the dark.
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—Maggie Smith

 

Maggie Smith is the author of Weep Up (Tupelo Press, September 2017); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison; Lamp of the Body; and three prizewinning chapbooks. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Best American Poetry 2017, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere. In 2016 her poem “Good Bones” went viral internationally and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Smith is a freelance writer and editor.

 

 

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Jul 062017
 

 

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Umberto Saba is an Italian novelist who wrote this classic novel of gay adolescence in the 1950s when he himself was in his seventies. It’s just been published by New York Review Books in a translation by Estelle Gilson, and we are excited to be able to offer this tantalizing excerpt. In this scene the boy Ernesto takes the first step toward the sexual relationship with an older fellow worker.

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The man put his hand on the boy’s, which lay palm down on the sack. He looked nervous. “It’s really too bad,” he said, surprised and pleased that the boy hadn’t withdrawn his own.

“What’s too bad?”

“What I said before. That we can’t be friends, and go walking together.”

“Because of the difference in our ages?”

“Not that.”

“Because you’re not dressed well enough? I already told you, things like that don’t make a bit of difference to me. So. . . .”

The man was silent for a long time. He seemed to be uncertain of himself, as though he wanted to say something and yet not say it. Ernesto felt the hand resting on his own trembling. Then the man stared directly into the boy’s eyes, and as though taking a desperate risk, suddenly blurted in a strange voice, “Do you know what it means for a boy like you to be friends with a man like me? Because if you don’t know yet, I’m not going to be the one to tell you.” He was silent again for a moment. Then realizing that the boy was blushing and had lowered his head, but had not withdrawn his hand, he added almost belligerently, “Do you know?”

Ernesto withdrew his now damp and sweaty hand from the grasp, which had become tighter, and placed it timidly on the man’s leg. He moved it slowly up his leg until, as though by accident, it brushed lightly against his genitals. Then he raised his head, and smiling brilliantly, stared boldly into the man’s face.

The man was consternated. His saliva dried in his mouth, his heart beat so quickly that he felt sick. All he could manage to say was “You understood?” which seemed more addressed to himself than to the boy.

There was a long silence that Ernesto was the first to break. “I understood,” he said, “but where?”

“What do you mean, where?” the man answered as though in a fog. Ernesto appeared more at ease than he.

“To do that stuff that you shouldn’t be doing, don’t we have to be alone?” he asked.

“Yeah,” the man replied.

“So where do you want us to be alone?” whispered Ernesto, though his daring had begun to fade.

“Tonight, out in the country. I know a place.”

“I can’t,” said the boy.

“Why, you go to bed early?”

“I wish! I’m practically asleep on my feet by the time I get home, but I’ve got to go to night school.”

“You can’t skip once?”

“I can’t, my mother walks me there.”

“She’s afraid you won’t go?”

“Not that. She knows I don’t lie to her. It’s an excuse for her to get out and get some exercise. She wants me to take stenography and German. She’s always saying you can’t go far in the world if you don’t know German. Anyway, I’d be a little scared to be out in the country.”

“Scared of me?”

“No, not you.”

“Then what? My clothes? If you’d be ashamed I could wear my Sunday stuff.”

“Someone could come by and see us.”

“No way in the place I know.”

“Well, I’d be scared anyway. Why not here in the warehouse?”

“There’s always people around. It won’t work,” he said (though he knew that Ernesto had keys to the warehouse). “If the two of us came out of here together after closing, it would look real suspicious. Worse, the boss lives right across the street. And you know that wife of his is worse than him. She’s always looking out the window.”

“Can’t we fake an excuse? Make believe we forgot something? When I’ve got a lot of work to do, I come back in at two, right after lunch. I don’t wait for the boss to come in at three. That’s why he gave me the key. Sometimes I’m alone for more than an hour. And you can always say— Hey, here comes the cart!”

First the heads, then the bodies of two sturdy draft horses appeared in the open doorway. The cart followed, then the carter standing up with the reins and whip in his hands. But even before the horses obeyed his order to stop, a large, heavy man who was to help with the unloading leaped down from the sacks upon which he had been seated cross-legged like a Turk and called out drunkenly to Ernesto’s friend.

“We’ll talk later,” the man said hurriedly and gruffly. Replacing the kerchief he had removed from his head while talking to Ernesto, he headed toward the exhausting task awaiting him. His legs trembled slightly as he walked.

§

After the two men had unloaded the sacks (not without the fat man’s curses and insults), and after Ernesto had completed the work of listing and marking every one of them, Cesco (the fat one), who with all his beggary and bitching must have drunk more than usual that day, started a furious argument with the boss. Ernesto’s friend, however, wasn’t in the mood to argue with anyone. There was only one thing he wanted to do: get to a fry house, gulp down everything they put on his plate, then go home, get into bed, and think. What had happened, or, rather, what was going to happen with Ernesto, was something he’d been dreaming of for months (from the first moment he’d seen him) and he was (if one can ever make such a claim) happy. But his happiness was not untinged by fear—that the boy might have regrets beforehand, feel insulted afterward, or be dumb enough to go around talking about it. But he always accepted whatever payment the boss offered without batting an eye when Ernesto had come looking for him in the piazza. In fact, to his mind, that little bit of money had become much more, because it was Ernesto who was relaying (not setting) the amount. But the fat man didn’t have any such reason not to gripe about money. Moreover he was drunk. The boss, a Hungarian Jew—much enamored of Germany, where he said he had studied and lived for a number of years—was defending himself in dreadful Italian, which gave away his foreign birth. It was an Italian that didn’t merely offend Ernesto, who in addition to being a Socialist was staunchly pro-Italian; it downright pained him. As a child he had read biographies of Garibaldi and of Victor Emmanuel II, the only books in his home, forgotten there by his uncle. What irritated Ernesto most was the word “Germany,” which the boss mispronounced as “Chermany” and which he used frequently (in fact, as often as possible) in order to praise the (unique) virtues of its people. However, Cesco’s violent threats, which the man, as co-worker, was obligated to support, finally prevailed over the boss’s miserliness, which I can’t say had violated any law (there were no laws in those days to protect workers, much less day laborers), although it did violate the accepted practices of the piazza. Grudgingly, he agreed to an increase. That day and from then on, instead of being paid three florins, the two men would be paid four florins to be divided equally between them. It was the amount Ernesto’s friend had wanted, and he immediately turned to leave when the boss called him back to tell him that he needed him to work the next day. He hired him for the entire afternoon. In fact, because it wasn’t possible to deliver the sacks to their destination before three o’clock and many were leaking and required repair, he told him to come in an hour before opening time. He would pay him, he added (though through clenched teeth), for the extra time. Then the very distrustful Signor Wilder, who never assigned a laborer to work in the warehouse without Ernesto’s supervision, turned to the boy to tell him that he too would have to be at work earlier the following day. It was fate speaking (in Signor Wilder’s voice) in a way that was as unexpected as it was peremptory. The man and boy turned away immediately, not daring to look at each other. But something flashed in the man’s eyes and one could see him swallow softly. He left quickly, barely saying goodbye. The boy turned back to his correspondence. But his thoughts too were elsewhere.

— Umberto Saba, translated from the Italian by Estelle Gilson

“Copyright © 1975, 1978, 1995, 2015 by Giulio Einauldi editore s.p.a., Turin; Translation copyright @ 2017 by Estelle Gilson”

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Umberto Saba (1883–1957) was born Umberto Poli in the city of Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and continued to live in Trieste for the greater part of his life. The child of a broken family—his father, who had converted to Judaism to marry, soon abandoned his wife—Saba attended the Imperial Academy of Commerce and Navigation in Trieste, and then moved for some years to Pisa, where he studied classical languages and archaeology. In 1909 he married Carolina Wölfler, also Jewish, and the subsequent year she gave birth to a daughter; a first book of poems, published under the name of Umberto Saba, also appeared that year. Saba’s marriage was at first troubled—his wife’s affair with a painter led to a brief separation—and the couple was poor, and for a few years they moved around Italy in the hopes of improving their fortunes. After the end of World War I, however, Saba bought a secondhand bookshop in Trieste—he called it La Libreria Antica e Moderna—and in the next decades he made a comfortable living as a bookdealer while working on Il Canzoniere, the book of poems he published in 1921 and would go on adding to for the rest of his life. During World War II, Saba and his family were forced to flee Trieste and go into hiding in Florence to avoid deportation by the Nazis. Though the postwar years brought him many prizes and widespread recognition as one of modern Italy’s greatest poets, Saba suffered from depression, which had plagued him all his life, and opium addiction and was repeatedly institutionalized. He died at seventy-four, within a year of his wife.

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Estelle Gilson is a writer, translator, and poet. Among her translations are works by Stendhal, Gabriel Preil, Natalia Ginzburg, Massimo Bontempelli, and Giacomo Debenedetti. Her translation of Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba was awarded the MLA’s first Scaglione Prize for the best literary translation of the previous two years.

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Jul 062017
 

Even though Saba’s text is incomplete, he gives us enough of a glimpse into pivotal events in the life of Ernesto to make his novella an important, historical piece of gay and bisexual literature.  — Melissa Beck

Ernesto
Umberto Saba
Translation by Estelle Gilson
New York Review of Books, 2017
160 pages; $14.95

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Umberto Saba’s unfinished novella Ernesto, published this year for the first time in English translation by The New York Review of Books, is part of an ever-growing body of recent literature that explores the idea that human sexuality is more pliable and fluid than the rigid labels to which we assign it. The recent novels by Bae Suah (Reciation), Andre Aciman (Enigma Variations), and Anne Garreta (Not One Day) have also opened up important conversations about experimentation with sexuality. But what sets Ernesto apart and makes it stand out among the works of these other authors is that it was written in 1953, a time in which many considered homosexuality scandalous, or often illegal.

Born in 1883, in the Mediterranean port of Trieste, Italy, Umberto Saba is best known for his deeply personal and honest poetry. Ernesto is, in fact, his only work of fiction. Written at the age of seventy when, after suffering one of his many nervous breakdowns, and confined to a sanatorium in Rome, Ernesto tells a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a boy’s burgeoning sexuality. Estelle Gilson, the translator, writes in her introduction to the NYRB edition, “What he was writing was for himself alone—his adolescent experiences in Trieste as they suddenly welled up within him and demanded release.”

Like his teenage protagonist in Ernesto, Saba was abandoned by his father, raised in Trieste by an aunt and a single mother, worked in a flour factory at the age of sixteen, and had serious questions about his sexuality. Because of the autobiographical and sexual content of Ernesto, Saba showed his drafts to a few carefully chosen confidants. In addition to his doctor at the sanatorium, one of the only other people to read Ernesto was Saba’s daughter, Linuccia, to whom he would send parts of the manuscript with very strict instructions about keeping his writings secret. In his letters to Linuccia, Saba requests that his daughter keep his drafts in a locked container and that she send his writing back to him immediately after reading it. Linuccia took her father’s instructions seriously and didn’t publish Saba’s novella until 1975, nearly twenty years after the author’s death.

Composed in five “Episodes” with an additional section entitled “Almost a Conclusion,” the strength of Saba’s writing lies in the bold and, at times, brutally honest language that he employs throughout his text. Set in Trieste, in the last few years of the nineteenth century, the sixteen-year-old protagonist is raised by his single mother and his elderly aunt. Ernesto’s world reflects the diversity of Trieste which, because of its location in northeastern Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia, was influenced by Italian, Slavic and German cultures. During this period of time, Trieste is an Imperial Free City within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had been under Hapsburg rule since the fourteenth century. Although most of its citizens were Italian and loyal to an Italian Republic, Germans controlled the bustling business and commerce of the city and held positions of power.

Ernesto works as an apprentice in a German flour factory where he meets a laborer, a lower-class Triestine, identified as “the man” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. Ernesto’s erotic exploits with the man leave him bewildered, ashamed and confused not only because of the illicit nature of his experiences, but also because he is still sexually attracted to women.

Ernesto’s sexual encounters with the man take place in the first Episode but the emotional consequences linger with Ernesto throughout the narrative. The language of Saba’s Ernesto is candid, especially when describing the titillating and erotic first sexual encounter between Ernesto and the man. The two negotiate the intimate details of what the sex will be like as Ernesto is both excited and scared about this new experience:

“There’s a lot of things you can do in an hour,” the man said urgently.

“And what do you want to do?”

“Don’t you remember what we were talking about yesterday? That you almost promised to do. Don’t you know what I’d like to do with you?”

“Yeah, put it up my ass,” Ernesto replied with quiet innocence.

In an essay entitled “What Remains for Poets to do,” Saba argues that “It remains for poets to write honest poetry.” Saba applies this pursuit of literary honesty to his prose as well when he inserts his own commentary into the text to explain and justify Ernesto’s explicit language. Saba’s interjection of his own voice into the narrative are some of the most beautiful and enlightening pieces of writing in the novella:

With that brief, precise utterance, the boy unwittingly revealed what many years later, after many experiences and much suffering would become his “style;” his going to the heart of things; to the red-hot center of life, overriding resistance and inhibitions, foregoing circumlocutions and useless word twistings. He dealt with matters considered coarse, vulgar (even forbidden) and those considered “exalted” just as Nature does—placing them all on the same level. Of course, he wasn’t thinking of any of that now. He had blurted the sentence (which practically had a laborer blushing) because the circumstance warranted it.

The episode ends with an act that deftly mixes emotions of both tenderness and shame: the man kindly turns over the stained sack of flour at Ernesto’s request so that no one will be suspicious of what happened between them.

Shame is a theme that Saba returns to repeatedly in his narrative as Ernesto attempts to find fulfillment, pleasure and love with a man and a woman. The fact that the man is never given a name is perhaps significant because Saba, likely through his own sense of shame at recalling these events, can’t bring himself to give Ernesto’s seducer a true identity. After two months, Ernesto decides that he can no longer keep having these sexual encounters with the man because they make him feel dirty and keeping such a secret from his mother feels shameful and wrong. After his trysts with the man, Ernesto has the overwhelming desire to prove himself a man and is impatient to have sex, for the first time, with a woman. He is ashamed because all of his friends have bragged about sleeping with women and the only sex he has had is with a man. Shame is what motivates him to seek out sex with a prostitute which erotic scene in the book is equally as tender and explicit as the one with the man. This time, however, he gives the prostitute a name because sex with a woman, even though it is a prostitute, is not as shameful as having sex with a man.   Once Tanda undresses Ernesto, she finds the best position that will give Ernesto the most pleasure for his first time. And after he climaxes she washes him with a disinfectant and his sense of shame and embarrassment cause him to excessively overpay her and leave suddenly.

Themes of loneliness, alienation and sadness—demons with which Saba himself wrestled throughout his life—also pervade Saba’s coming-of-age narrative. Ernesto is initially drawn to the man who propositions him with sex because the man loves the boy. Because of the absence of a father in his life, Ernesto wants to please the man who shows him affection and adoration. He likes the prostitute because she is warm and tender with him and this causes him to eagerly anticipate his next visit with her. Ernesto’s mother is stern with him and shows him little affection although affection is something he craves more than anything. Like many young people inexperienced with matters of intimacy and sex he mistakenly equates physical attention with emotional connection and love.

Some of Ernesto’s sadness, alienation and even shame is relieved by the unlikeliest of characters, his dour mother, who is the third point in the novella’s triangular structure—the man, the prostitute and Ernesto’s mother. His mother is a presence that lingers throughout the entire story and even when the man is trying to seduce him, Ernesto mentions his mother and the guilt he feels over keeping a secret from her. The woman, who was abandoned by Ernesto’s father before the boy was born, is overbearing and overprotective of her only child. Yet, she believes that she must be harsh in her rearing of the boy and must not show him very much affection. When Ernesto no longer wants sex with the man, he gets himself fired from the factory so he never has to see him again. The loss of his job devastates Ernesto’s mother and he feels compelled to confess his true reasons for not wanting to return to the factory. When Ernesto tells his mother in great detail about the whole affair with the man, the full force of the emotional connection between mother and son is fully revealed. Saba writes a touching scene that is sympathetic to both the character of Ernesto and his mother:

With his mother’s kiss and the sense that he would be forgiven, Ernesto felt himself reborn. It was one of the few kisses she had ever given him. (The poor woman wanted so much to be, and even more to be seen as, a “Spartan mother.”)

We can’t help but wonder if Saba’s own sense of shame and loneliness haunted him for the rest of his life and was the reason, at least partially, for his many depressive and nervous episodes for which he was hospitalized. He was married for many years, and although they remained married, the couple’s relationship was troubled and they spent quite a bit of time living apart. It is fitting that Saba writes Ernesto in the last few years in his life as part of his therapy in the sanatorium. But it appears that so many years of shame and hiding who he truly was became too exhausting for the author because he can’t gather enough strength to finish writing Ernesto. Saba writes about his decision to leave his novella unfinished: “Add to those pages Ernesto’s breakthrough to his true calling, and you would, in fact, have the complete story of his adolescence. Unfortunately, the author is too old, too weary and embittered to summon the strength to write all that.”

Even though Saba’s text is incomplete, he gives us enough of a glimpse into pivotal events in the life of Ernesto to make his novella an important, historical piece of gay and bisexual literature. It also helps us better understand Saba’s poetry which writing is equally as personal and intense as Ernesto. To this end, I include a particularly apt final poem of Saba’s called “To the Reader” filled with all the conflict and terror that Saba perhaps felt in composing Ernesto:

This book, Good Reader, though a balm to you,
shames its creator and should go unread.
Although he spoke as a living man, he was
(or should have been, for decency’s sake) dead.

— Melissa Beck

N5

Melissa Beck has a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She also completed most of a Ph.D. in Classics for which her specialty was Seneca, Stoicism and Roman Tragedy. But she stopped writing her dissertation after the first chapter so she could live the life of wealth and prestige by teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to students at Woodstock Academy in Northeastern Connecticut. She now uses the copious amounts of money that she has earned as a teacher over the course of the past eighteen years to buy books for which she writes reviews on her website The Book Binder’s Daughter. Her reviews have also appeared in World Literature Today and The Portland Book Review. She has an essay on the nature of the soul forthcoming in the 2017 Seagull Books catalog and has contributed an essay about Epicureanism to the anthology Rush and Philosophy.

N5

Jul 062017
 

 

My Old Pal Venus

Oh yes, my old pal Venus —
there she is — or ought to be.
One moment, and that brilliant light
will have sunk below the hospital,
that rims the hilltop of our street.
(The lesser lights, that seem to spire
away from her, subsided too.)

I went outdoors to search
pin prickles in a flannel sky —
no waiting here for the Perseids,
our heavens scummed by street lamps,
cars — as if to keep us local, fixed.

Now, as I drag the trash can out,
not even the North Star still beams through.
The moon, a little cockeyed, glints.
I’m grateful for the company,
such as it is.

 

May Rocks

Spring. The May rocks butt and push;
the soft lawn’s jagged with dragon’s teeth.
new stones rise up, while last year’s stones
sink under moss
as if the mud were pulling back
what it so strongly had put forth
(the mud inconstant, fidgety.)

The house, too, teeters on its slab,
perched as it is on deciduous rock.
The water that melts down our hill,
erodes the city underground,
silts up the gravel river-plain.
The planet itself is no sure thing,
though, mornings, I’d want to bet on it.

 

Do You Remember?

Do you remember the alder woods
where we used to camp?
Overgrown now, with aspen, larch
and hackmatack.

I slept there once in a hammock,
roofed tarpaulin
whose net sides let in saline air.
Small creatures thumping over me,
their tiny feet
dinted its roof.

Dew in the morning; we lit a fire.
Rememberx tea inx plastic mugs,
the wetness of green raspberries?

Remember those summers, when xxblueberry hills
were patch-worked xmagenta, xcrimson, orange,
and those grey sand xshores xwhere swirling birds
opened and closed the evening skies?

I remember trying to photograph
what was mostly air.

And the long drive home,
together, xdusk,

and fields of broken cornstalks
turning brown.

 

The Lid

It seems a lid on final things,
that sea edge, sliver of bright steel
that rims the slowly darkening marsh.
The muddy hammocks seem to catch
and drag the slowly sliding sun
across their shell heap middens,
scarfy with groundsel and dusty reeds.
The water turns to silver as we watch.

 

Live in HD

The smell of rancid butter, slightly scorched,
drenches the crowded atrium.

Outside, snow falls on the parking lot,
a trifle dreary but mystical
in the softened neon of afternoon.

The mall is crowded, sleazy,
warm. A prototype for Paradise?
Almost. Friendly, comfortable.

But that semi-forest across the street
seems nearer to a paradise
I could imagine, beautiful–

but I can’t stroll
among those winter-blistered trees,
the candled tufts of withered weeds
skimming the thin-iced pond.

Here I can wait for the opera,
warm, friendly, safe–

the video games still audible,
and the smell of rancid butter, slightly scorched.

 

“Deep Listening”

I first heard of Janet Thom Hammock’s essays on “deep listening” when she read from two of them at Fredericton’s “Odd Sundays” poetry readings.

I think I have always gone in for “deep listening”—but especially as, now, my hearing decreases. Had I as a child ever heard silence? So many of my memories of childhood seem connected with sounds. Water and weather of course. The aches and creaks of a house—and the groans, ticks, and murmurs of the machines within it. The thumps and scurrying of cats, the roof thuds of squirrels, and, scraping about in the walls, my unpaying tenants who leave their tiny turds along the top of the basement bookcases.

Then there’s the street with its cars, the bus, the buzzing street lights, its chatty or (late night) drunken students—and the highway, not all that close, but constantly in roar. No matter how late at night it is, I can hear the highway.

And all those beasts: the hunting owl, the courting raccoons—someone downtown has bought fireworks—and there is the ambulance, once again!

And if I go out to the forest, aren’t the trees noisy? Cracking or whining or rattling their branches. And brooks do babble! Even the pond taps gently at its spongy rim.

I no longer hear bats, some birds. Mumbling, whispering poets and academics have merged for me into the sounds of water on stone or wind on trees.

I remember in Costa Rica, lying still in a slightly creaking hammock under more stars than I had ever imagined, with the waves patting the seacoast, and distant thunder lighting, occasionally, the horizon’s rim. The candle on the table next to me uttered a tiny, somewhat prickling, sigh.

—M. Travis Lane

 

 

M. Travis Lane lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and has published seventeen books of poetry. She has won numerous awards, including the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts in 2016, and was short-listed in 2015 for the Governor General’s Award for her book Crossover. Her most recent publications are The Witch of the Inner Wood: Collected Long Poems and Heart on Fist: Selected Prose.

 

 

Jul 052017
 

 

The 5th Race

I forgot to tell you this, but it’s incredibly important. Her grandfather was Joseph Malta, one of the two hangmen for the Nuremberg executions. She would take me to his house for dinner when we were working doubles, and we’d watch him bumble around the kitchen, serving cucumber sandwiches with Earl Grey, the razor blade cucumbers forgotten on the cutting board. I never asked about his past, but it seemed to dangle in the air, straining with its own weight.

After the hangings, he moved to Tallahassee, where he returned to work as a floor sander and lived in a bungalow with no hot water. He didn’t care about my parents or my career prospects or my intentions with his granddaughter, who—even from across the table—I could hear grinding her teeth. He only cared about the dogs. Again and again, I would tell him that I didn’t know, had never actually seen a race since that was the easiest time to muck the kennels. But his granddaughter, I said, was allowed into the track’s inner circle and watched the hounds wheel the corner for their final sprint home.

He ignored her and leaned towards me. “This world,” he whispered, “is not fit for man nor beast.”

At seventeen, I could hardly be called a man—could hardly be called much of anything. But since his granddaughter was in her early twenties, perhaps he assumed I was too. Or perhaps he had seen such horrors by the time he turned seventeen that there wasn’t much growing up for him left. Or perhaps I wasn’t the man in that saying at all.

After wishing him goodbye, we biked to the Presbyterian parking lot and blew tendrils of pale smoke into each other’s hair. Across the lot, three girls sang the ghostly singsong of double-dutch.

“I want to see fireworks,” she said, pausing for a coughing fit. “I need to see something explode.”

I held my breath. “We could put a pear in the microwave,” I replied on the exhale. Behind her, the girls accelerated their tempo until the rope snapped with speed.

 

By the time we returned to the track, the veterinarian was waiting. “You know,” he told her, tapping his watch, “vet techs are a dime a dozen. Six months and they churn you out like butter.”

“A bit of a mixed metaphor,” I said, to which he told me to go fulfill myself sexually.

I watched her follow him to the kennels. She had all the trappings of beauty but was actually quite ugly. Yes, she was thin, had distinguished features, with skin so soft and pale you’d paint your bathroom that shade. But she was also anemic, had a brutal bone structure, and skin so white it was as if light no longer touched her.

I checked in with my own boss, who was dipping each of his rings into a paper cup filled with vinegar. At this time, he’d either just gotten parole or was just about to break it—I forget which. But I don’t forget the small seam of kindness running through him, a seam that the world was bent on exploiting.

“Did you talk about the trials?” he asked, rubbing each ring with a rag until the gold burned. He asked me this after every dinner, and after every dinner I’d respond with the negative.

He torqued each ring onto its finger—including his thumb—and then pointed at his computer. On his screen were grey-scale photos of dead men on wooden planks, rose petals of blood strewn over their faces.

“It says here the trapdoors were too small. Each man dropped and fell face-first into the wooden sides.” He brought one of his scarred and shined hands to his face and lightly slapped his cheekbone.

“Do you have a pear I could borrow?”

 

I was scouring the bathrooms, buffing the hand dryers so slick there wasn’t any need for me to polish the mirrors, when my walkie-talkie beckoned me to the operating room. The OR doubled as where the vet inspected each dog before a race, checking heart rate, joint movement, and for any signs of doping. The check was state law but never taken seriously. More often than not, he’d get his tech to fit each dog for a wire muzzle and forge his signature on the government form.

The operating room was empty, save her. She was washing her hands in the sink. “I didn’t find a pear,” I said, “but I got—”

She turned and revealed her smock to be covered by vomit. She smiled.

Earlier that summer, she’d adopted some eastern religion, one with uncountable gods with uncountable arms. “The scriptures say,” she’d informed me, “that the moment this world achieves perfection, we will no longer need heaven. And heaven will cease to exist.”

“And what?” I’d asked. “The End of Times?”

She’d seemed bemused as she shook her head. “Much worse.” But then her smile backtracked into a frown. “Much, much worse.”

In the operating room, she shimmied out of her smock, dripping vomit onto the tile.

“What’d you give him?” I asked.

“Three tablespoons of laxative.” She dragged a finger through the brown-green puddle on the stainless-steel table. “This isn’t even the start of it.”

A white greyhound named God Speed started racing a couple years prior, and since he was only sixty pounds he was expected to caboose every race. But instead, he won them all. Nine races a year, one every other week in summer, for two full seasons. This was his last year, and he’d won four races already. There were only five left.

I opened a fresh package of rags. “Don’t you think you’ve gone a bit far?”

She shook her head. “The perfect season, the perfect career. The perfect dog. It cannot happen.”

God Speed was racing in the evening’s nine o’clock slot. A track is 565 yards long, and a quick hound can lap that inside thirty seconds.

As we scrubbed the operating room spotless, the overhead speakers popped on. The announcer (a man who was currently headlining in Tallahassee Theater’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar!) began his colour commentary. I couldn’t understand any of it, just the rising crescendo of his voice until he was screaming into the microphone and the crowd turned feverish with love.

“God Speed!” he yelled. “God Speed!”

The operating room smelled like bleach, like the very end of time. She buried her face into her latex gloves, and I peeled my boss’s hard boiled egg. “All I want,” she whispered, “is to save the world.”

 

That night, our heartbeats turned into ticker tape as we biked to the wolf sanctuary in Tallahassee’s northern hills. As usual, we never saw any wolves, but in the stretch of her flashlight, we caught their eyes, orbiting like planets before blinking to black. We slept spooned up on the human side of the fence and awoke beside a coiled imprint in the dewed grass.

***

The 6th Race

The week of the sixth race was the week I urged her to phone in sick, but she said destiny was depending on her.

As I hosed down the kennels, I heard the click of nails on concrete. I turned around but didn’t see anything. I had unplugged the overhead speakers to give us some quiet, and the only noise was the distant crowd and water trickling into the drain. I dipped my face into the hose’s metally flow.

I heard the nails once more and spun around—again, then again, then again. On a dry patch of concrete, the flowers of paw prints.

“Do you see these too?” I asked, but the kennels responded by saying nothing. Through the slit of the above window, a wind picked up. I closed my eyes and let the breeze whisk the water off my face.

“Why are you crying?”

The vet was standing in front of me.

“It’s the hose,” I said, kinking its flow.

“Do you know where she is?”

I shook my head.

“Well, when was the last time you saw her?” His voice was so slow that I felt the seconds thicken.

“I don’t remember.”

“Well, tell her,” he said, “that God Speed had peanut butter smeared all over his gums—” he pulled back his lip with one hand and pointed to his gum line with the other “—and he could not stop licking.”

I ran my tongue over my own teeth and found them all solid.

“It is a miracle,” he continued, “that he still won. Tell her—”

“Do you see these?” I asked, pointing at the paw prints.

He looked down. “See what?” I pointed harder. “See what? Your footprints?”

My eyes widened with otherworldly wonder. “May the saints save us,” I said, but he just checked his watch, spat on the concrete, and left.

She was curled in the back kennel. “Wake up,” I told her. “The dogs are coming.” Her tongue had slugged out her mouth. I rolled her head upright, her face checkered from the chainlink. “They’re almost here. Wake up.” How many times does our world end? “Wake up, wake up.”

And she did.

***

The 7th Race

The sore on her jaw had opened again, and the weeping red now caught the chandelier light like a ruby. Her foot was jittery on my chair as her fingers thrummed her thighs, her whole body squirming out from under itself.

But Joseph Malta didn’t notice. He was dangling a tea bag above his Earl Grey. He fidgeted with the paper tag, and the bag slowly rotated on its string, rusty water dripping from its face.

“He made the drop too short,” my boss told me. “The fall’s supposed to snap your neck, but they didn’t fall far enough. So they dangled. Strangling.” He tapped his screen with his pinky ring. “One guy, Jerlitz Fruster, took thirty minutes—thirty minutes!—before he finally passed out so they could just shoot him.”

I sat on the chair beside him and saw he was watching a grainy video of the trial’s final moments. I rested my head on his shoulder and breathed in his lilac cologne. And as the British judge read the verdicts—the pronouncement of the coming plunges—I confided to him that history was too cruel for my liking.

“We need to be reminded,” he said, restarting the video, “reminded of the sixty million dollars lost.”

I sat upright. “That’s it? Seems low.”

He clicked around on his computer. “Maybe it was lives. Sixty million lives.”

My head back on his shoulder: “That seems better.”

 

Constellations of cigarette butts were scattered around the parking lot ashtray, and I swept them towards the storm drain. She crept behind me and put her hands over my eyes.

“What the fuck’s on your fingers?” I said. I couldn’t pry open my eyelids, and when I did, the parking lot’s lights had been smudged with celluloid.

“Vaseline,” she said. “I’m testing it.”

As I rubbed the thick light out of my eyes, she left for the operating room. When sight returned to me, I looked down to my pile of cigarettes and saw she’d nicked the best ones.

After God Speed raced blind to his seventh win of the season, she decided to not get sad but get happy.

Behind the kennels, not a human soul around, the floodlight tapping with insects. On the other side of the corrugated steel, the dogs smelled us and started to whine.

We stared into one another’s eyes and, giggling uncontrollably, took turns slapping each other in the face. Gradually, our limbs dropped to black like banks of lights in a warehouse. When we could no longer lift our arms, we started swinging from the loose socket.

The whines turned into barks which turned into yelps. She hit me with a dead-fish fist, and my right eye swelled shut. In response, I corkscrewed my body, torquing it as far as my spine allowed, and let my arm soar through the air and land hard across her mouth. A tetherball of red arced in the lamplight, and the kennels screamed as the dogs threw themselves against the wire.

Her face uprighted. Her eyes wild with happiness. Her teeth and lips clown-faced with blood.

***

The 8th Race

I had been mopping the concession all afternoon before my boss pointed out there wasn’t any water in my bucket. I was shocked by how dry and smooth the yellow plastic was. “It’s like the skin on her heel,” I told him as I stroked the basin. He nodded slowly, his face full of pity.

I collected my “Caution: Wet Floor” signs and wheeled the bucket towards the tap in the bathroom. In the women’s washroom, she jabbed her fingers into my ribs.

“Don’t do that!” I said, spinning around. “You’ll pop my lungs.”

From her breast pocket, she produced two white pills.

“They’re not pills,” she corrected. “They’re Q-tip tops.” She took the cotton swabs and, holding my chin, slid them into my nostrils.

“Is this supposed to be fun?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “it’s supposed to be hard to breathe.” She smiled. “Hard to race.”

“But I can use, like, my mouth.” In the bathroom’s interrogating light, her face crumpled. The speakers crackled on for the nine o’clock showing.

You know, I still don’t understand the thrill of the race, perhaps because I’ve still never watched one. But I know that the dogs keep chasing the lure well beyond the finish, and there’s a perfect pain in that.

The announcer was the voice of Christ. And he told us that we were special and that it was a wonderful time to be alive. Because he told us that God Speed had shattered the track record by a full quarter second.

***

The 9th Race

We pedalled past the city’s cage of light pollution. My mind was full of wolves, but hers was someplace else.

Earlier that evening, my boss told me about the elementary school gymnasium. “I mean, they did it right there. Where kids had played badminton, had eaten lunch, learned to dance. Afterwards, they burned the building to the ground.” He noticed the clock and left to get an early seat for God Speed’s career-closing race. “I’ll empty the garbages for you on my way,” he said, leaving me alone in his office. And as I emptied his wallet, I believed I would never see him again. I also believed the garbages would be the last nice thing he’d ever do for somebody. But when I ran into him decades later in a bar in Saskatoon, I was incorrect on both counts. He introduced me to his wife, a bottle-blonde who had pen-palled him letters, and when I asked them for money he gave me one of his rings. “My finger’s too fat for it anyways,” he said to his wife’s scowling objection.

When I entered the OR, a scalpel was on the table, the blade shining in the middle of a dark puddle, the bright centre of a blossom.

She didn’t make me ask. “I cut his hind paws. Right across the pad.” Her red velvet hands held my cheeks. In the corners of my mouth, I could taste the iron of the dog’s heart. “Why are you crying?”

 

Halfway to the wolf sanctuary, she skidded her bike onto the shoulder by a roadside payphone. The small screen blinked 8:59, and we held hands until the digits switched to 9:00. In thirty seconds, destiny would be decided.

Out beneath us in shimmering Tallahassee, I could almost see the race unfold. The slips swinging open, the lure throttling along the rail, the cameras flashing, and then the sightline of the final turn, lips brandished white, tongues hung through wire muzzles, eyes so desperate with desire it is all they know. And while they do not realize it, the finish line approaches.

9:01.

That was also the day Joseph Malta had spilled boiling water on himself. I’d thrust his hands into the sink and opened both taps to cascade cold water. And as I stroked an ice cube along each of his tender fingers that once held a rope which held the world, I looked over my shoulder.

If I told you that in that moment I loved her, would you believe me? At the kitchen table, eyes shut, letting the evening light cut between the venetians and fall straight through her.

“This world is not fit for man nor beast.”

9:02.

She was shaking with relief. “I’ll call the track,” she said, “to see what he placed. Maybe third, or even last.” But picking up the phone, her face sunk to shadow. “The line’s dead.”

I turned to Tallahassee. The uncountable streetlights above the uncountable lives beneath them glowed like all of heaven’s haloes.

My hand back in hers: “Look.”

We watched the lights of our city, street by street, flicker to black.

—Richard Kelly Kemick

 

Richard Kelly Kemick is an award-winning Canadian writer. His debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run (2016, Goose Lane Editions), was included as one of CBC’s fifteen must-read poetry collections. His poetry, prose, and criticism have been published in literary magazines and journals across Canada and the United States, most recently in The WalrusMaisonneuve, The Fiddlehead, and Tin House. His work has won national awards, including a National Magazine gold medal, and has been accepted into Best Canadian Essays 2016, among other Canadian and British anthologies. Richard lives in Calgary. His website is www.richardkemick.com.

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Jul 052017
 

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Elegy

Illegible November of smoke and ash
Here is the trigger
Guard against the hours
& on the tag tied around a metal ring
Brother tag smeared red with thumbprint
Our name misspells us
Where someone killed the swollen bottle fly
Dear cages over the reliquary
The line reads on and on dear cages
Over the naked man
Cages to shelter racing dogs
Who race no more
Weariness of the grey muzzle
Weariness so thin it might be paraffin
Or rough fur or a hundred dollar bill curled by flame
Not knowing what it’s doing
Money burns inside its own gutted clock
On a weedy lot
Of scattered pills
O my wineskin o my shekinah
Look inside my greyhound’s mottled ear
To see its tattooed number
The animal won’t lift its head
Heat opens like a vault
Dispatching currents of sunlight and shade
Across the body of a naked god on his feverish cupola
Thresholds dappled with fill-in-the-blank
Having pulled the iv’s from his body
My brother climbs from his metal crib
To escape the ICU
Picc line catheter this is a good story
A god’s story my brother’s story
And I’m sticking to it read the entrails
Follow the pills they will tell you where he is
As they tell you the one story
His and mine
He walks the road until I find him

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Nocturne

The broken guitar made desert feel nothing
Like night on earth you kept asking broken
Questions can I stay here are you
Alone are you sure you
Want to die alone will you please
Answer me I screamed no until my answer woke me
Was there always one lit house
In the grey circuitry of the master-
Planned but never finished community?
As if draws & ranges were a reflection
Of a desert I couldn’t see
Your hand held out a cup of water
Houses floated in the smeared chrome
Of office furniture left in the street
Old music played think glow line over hills &
Nightfall smoothing edges
No lights to greet us back think of me
& a child across the cul-de-sac waiting for his mother
To come home from the dollar tree on her bicycle
Cobalt sifted through missing frets
Tension wires & ditches across chaparral
Penumbral & half-charred
Harmonics rang out from the little boy on his front step
& the tinny echo of Duane Eddy crackled
From speakers on a timer in a model home
Were we really living in the capsule of dead astronauts?
Each night it happened poorly improvised as a tragic dream
Your appearance at my bedside & the expansion
& contraction of the quiet before chain finds its gear
As if crossing conductive traces
My voice still lashing out at your angry wake

.

Reservoir

From bleached bone, sandstone bank before dawn,
Steep where drought had dropped the water level to
Canyon depths, someone hiding up there
Looking down might see us — two bathers
Wading out into the reservoir — first me,
Then you. Was there a shadow loose on the hinge of the wind?
Maybe a windmill, rust that heat
Warps back into place, a voice to call me back,
A gloved hand to seize me?
There was a time in my life when I could
Hope for a grackle trapped in ductwork and little more
Where sharp wings wheeled behind window screens
As something larger pursued me, a lash
Of falcon from ornamental gray
Lung-work in a fenced-in garden a lifetime ago,
In a garden my tired father kept where our bad dog
Burrowed and ruined row after row
Radishes and bean tendrils, lattices and poles
Upended. Consider the axe handle — crude tool
Ancillary to memory’s hot metal, a sharp wedge
That slips away from wizened pine.
It could kill us both. In a rage my father grabbed the nearest
Thing to beat the dog. His rage I bear
As my own, my ratchet, my talk radio.
How to leave the air drills of rage and talk?
Used tire centers mistook for heartbeat
And blood where the father’s headless torso and legs
Take long strides across the landscape
In my bedroom window, how he keeps searching for me.
And the dog barks and snaps
Where I bleed as I try to save its life.
So I wade out and wait for a hand
To press upon me, to push me beneath the surface,
For a faint guttering at the end of dirt roads,
For the mind’s clenched fist, an animal fist
To loosen, fingertips spread.
For your hand, my hand’s companion, to form
A muzzle of fire to reach into a cry’s fissure,
Water’s skin, horizon, sky, spreading inside us.
As I look away you touch my shoulder
And not a father’s voice says wait for me —
Green water around our thighs
Brimming with a stranger’s weight —
Hold your breath. Open your eyes.

.

Sanctuary

Can you hear the hammers?
Blood still warm
Stirred with warmer forearms
Let thicker and darker cursive
Encircle and enclose
Obedient to its wheel the axe is a tremor
And the hammer a tiny bell
But not the kestrel you thought
Stigmatism against white field
Falco tinnunculus
Macula against a policeman’s winter
Windshield
Gone as you look right at it
No second thought
Who doesn’t want to protect a child?
You’re holding it wrong
Where is your body
To mantle his body from the gunman?
No second thought
Let the axe be river the river’s half-built bridge
Or a stalled train or a mirror
See the snow falling on the old Amtrak observation cars?
You are on the wrong side of it
Stop screaming
Where is the angel against anything?
The hand to stay the blade
Think of it like a sharp hammer do you know
How to hammer a nail?
No one wants this
Your one verb broken
Over the back of your throat
Not your mother not the officer behind bulletproof glass
Driving you through the frozen rain
Let’s let the verb go on
Screaming a place inside
The animal assigned to you
After it’s all over
You can bathe by candle and bucket
And listen to the workers as they free jezebel and her dogs
From limestone
There she is there’s the sound
Of your heart
As for the angel’s hand and the father’s axe —
Can one ever exist without the other? — the stone
Is still blind and uncut
But they’re close
Can you hear the hammers
Your heart beating?

—Miles Waggener

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Miles Waggener is the author of three poetry collections: Phoenix Suites (The Word Works, 2003), winner of the Washington Prize; Sky Harbor (Pinyon Publishing, 2011); and Desert Center (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2016); as well as the chapbooks Portents Aside (Two Dogs Press, 2008) and Afterlives (Finishing Line, 2013). Since 2006, he has been a faculty member of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Writer’s Workshop.

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Jul 042017
 

Mary, the summer before the big talk.

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T

he day my mother taught me about sex, she sat me on the end of her bed and explained that within the next couple of years, I’d hit this thing called puberty. I was a very undeveloped ten-year-old, and earlier that day had asked why, since the six of us kids had all been potty trained for years, my mother still had diapers sitting on top of her dresser. Now, I could not take my eyes off those diapers, which I was learning were not diapers at all but my own mother’s panty liners, and they loomed in front of me, a dark foreshadowing of my own impending puberty.

I should have known, when she called my name from the top of the stairs and asked me to join her in her bedroom, that the news wouldn’t be good. In past years, being summoned thus had meant that Santa wasn’t real, or our pet rabbit Cadbury had died of heat stroke, or she’d found out that I’d stolen my younger sister’s money to buy a Trapper Keeper from the school store. But nothing could prepare me for this latest revelation.

“You will start to see some changes,” she said. She pulled out a yellowing booklet titled What’s Happening to My Body? A Girl’s Guide to Puberty (a book, I was starting to realize, that must have once belonged to one or both of my older sisters) and took me through a smiling cartoon girl’s journey to womanhood.

It all seemed terrible: the sprouting hairs, the budding breasts, the blood that one day would just start gushing out of a hole I didn’t even know was there. And then there were the things you couldn’t see: eggs dropping, menstruals cramping, hormones pulsing through my body like an incurable illness. My life as I had known it for the past ten years was over. Once the process started there was no turning back. And all for what?

“So you can experience the gift of children,” my mother said. To this point, she had been all it’s-just-as-natural-as-waking-up-in-the-morning, and now she tried to make it sound pleasant, special, exciting even.

“It goes where?” I asked in horrified disbelief when she got to the part about penises. “But how does it get in there through your pants?” You would think I’d have seen at least one sex scene in a PG-13 movie, or at the very least, heard rumors about sex from my peers. But my parents had a gift for making me believe that if it wasn’t Disney, it wasn’t worth my time, which meant sex as a concept was completely off my radar and playground whisperings about it fell on deaf ears. So, I couldn’t imagine how, in Jesus’ name, two perfectly grown adults (my parents among them) would find themselves naked at the same exact time, and long enough for him to put a baby inside of her.

I knew my parents slept in the same bed, this bed, in fact. But by my calculation, even when they were changing from day clothes to bed clothes, there was about a ten second window between taking a dirty pair of underwear off and putting on a fresh pair to get the whole thing over with. The way my mother described the process, ten seconds would barely get him in. It must happen, I reasoned, on mornings when the man can’t find his jeans, and the woman realizes her skirt is wrinkled and has to pause mid-change to iron it. This would give them at least two minutes without pants. I’ll always have my clothes pressed in advance, I promised myself. To my mother I said, “I don’t think I want kids.”

“You will,” she replied. “That’s what happens when you get married.”

Once the mystery of life was out there for me to dread, my mother sought out further teaching moments, usually centered on the idea that having a baby was a miracle, a God-given gift. To prove her point, she led me out to the doghouse one hot summer day where my cat, Waffles, was giving birth.

Waffles had come to me in a laundry basket as a gift from my parents for my eleventh birthday. She was all fluff and gray eyes and tiny little raspy meows. We’d had cats before, but not one of them had belonged to me, and all of them had died in various tragic ways: an owl, a shovel, a speeding car. Waffles was mine and I, like my own parents had done, would shelter and protect her from the evils of the world.

I spent my birthday weekend with Waffles, teasing her with balls of yarn, carrying her around in the pocket of my overalls dressed in doll clothes, and subsequently coaxing her out from under my bed. Then Monday rolled around and the birthday fun was over. Time for Waffles to move outside with the dog. “What if it gets cold?” I protested.

“That’s why pets have fur,” my parents explained.

It did not take long for Waffles to become street-wise and pregnant. The first summer, she gave birth to three kittens, then four more the following spring. This was her third litter, and my mother thought this would be a fun mother-daughter-cat bonding moment. We knelt in the grass, braced our hands against the frame of the doorway, and pushed our heads into the doghouse to get a good look. “Isn’t it beautiful?” my mother asked as the cat tensed, emitting a strange, guttural moan. Her legs parted and a slimy, matted, rat-like baby forced its way out and fell into the widening pool of stickiness beneath her.

We watched five more born this way, my mother marveling at the wonder of nature, me trying not to vomit into the cat’s placenta. The last kitten that had come out was stillborn, and the cat pulled it gently from the group of newborns nuzzling into her belly, and licked it clean. “Incredible,” my mother whispered, just before Waffles widened her jaw and sank her teeth into its neck.

I didn’t feel the same love for Waffles after that. Not because she had devoured one of her own kittens, as cats will do, but more because she was the very vivid answer to my speculations about what birth was like, the final nail in the coffin of my innocence. In truth, we’d been growing apart for a while. Her life outside had turned her somewhat feral, and we saw her only when she stopped by to drop off another litter of kittens (some litters striped, others, calico) before disappearing again.

§

Now, when my classmates talked about sex, I tuned in. “Do you know what Ian said on the bus?” Courtney asked me at an overnight birthday party. “He said you have to have sex twice for every kid you have, and that your parents have had sex at least twelve times.” Ian had a knack for turning anything into a sexual innuendo I didn’t understand. Bragging about being the ball girl at your older brother’s soccer game, or asking a classmate to borrow his pencil, or saying your favorite character from Toy Story was Woody—it was all fair game, and I had to watch what I said around him. I hated him for always targeting me, and now, for targeting my parents.

“That’s not true,” I replied to the group of giggling girls. “My mom said you’re only supposed to have sex when you know it’s going to make a baby. So, they’ve only done it six times.” It seemed better, somehow, to think that my parents had conception down to a science, that their little bedroom game of looking for jeans and ironing skirts had happened only once in my lifetime before my younger sister was born. Still, I feared Ian might be right, and started to wonder about Waffles. If humans had to have sex twice for each kid, what about cats? By this time, she’d given birth to a total of eighteen kittens and was likely to have another litter before my fourteenth birthday. I began to suspect that Waffles had another life beyond our front yard—an indecent one.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, a girl in my older brother’s high school class got pregnant. Until now, I had assumed it was impossible to get pregnant unless you had a husband or were the Blessed Virgin Mary, an axiom both my parents gladly reinforced. It coincided nicely with my theory about how sex worked: if they weren’t married, why would a man and woman possibly be getting dressed in the exact same bedroom at the exact same time? It had seemed I was safe from sex until I was married.

But when I heard about the pregnant girl, I burst into my mother’s bedroom, where she was getting dressed, and threw myself down on the bed in despair. I had not seen this latest pubertal hazard coming. There was something she wasn’t telling me about how it all worked.

“I’m going to get pregnant when I’m seventeen!” I wailed.

“No you won’t,” she replied calmly, the same way she had when I said I was probably going to contract pinworms after I heard about an outbreak in a family of cousins I hadn’t seen in months.

“But how do you know?” I cried. “If it can happen to Shannon, it can happen to anybody!”

“Because,” she said, attaching fake pearls to her earlobes. “We’re not those types of people.” I assumed she meant people who watched R-rated movies and skipped church on Sundays.

Despite her confidence in me, I felt the best way to protect myself from an early pregnancy was to avoid puberty altogether, and I spent the next two years doing what I could to fight it. I traded in my dresses for tee shirts and wind pants, played soccer with the boys at recess instead of standing off to the side giggling at them, and I ignored the existence of deodorant until my mother came home with a stick one day, all pink and flowery and smelling like powder, and told me I could just put it on my dresser until I was ready to use it. When I started to get some tenderness in my chest, I worked up the courage to ask my mother for a bra. “But I only want sports bras!” I shouted. It was, after all, her fault I even needed one.

As I approached high school, I felt the dark pubescent forces making their advance. I noticed some small changes, but nothing that couldn’t be concealed behind loose-fitting athletic wear. And sure, I thought some of the boys in my class were funny, but I didn’t like them like that. Just to prove it, I avoided all middle school dances, because dances were for people who wanted to flirt. Those were the types of people, I bet, that got pregnant at seventeen.

I got through junior high with little more than a pair of small, flattened breasts and shaved armpits. But the worst, I knew, was yet to come. I woke up every morning in a panic, rushing into the bathroom to check for blood, relieved each time I saw I had yet another day to live without a panty liner.

Of course, puberty did come, sometime between eighth grade and high school, and I sat my mother on the end of her bed and told her I would need to borrow some of those diaper things, and I guessed I should get one of those bras with the hooks in the back. She was less devastated than I thought she would be. She didn’t put on black and mourn the loss of yet another child to adolescence. Instead, she stood up and said matter-of-factly, “Well, that’s what happens when you turn fourteen,” and handed me the pack on her dresser. I shoved it under my sweatshirt, pressing hard to hide the bulge.

“Don’t tell Dad!” I yelled before slamming the door on my way out.

Dad, I knew, would mourn the loss of his little girl. Maybe he found out, or maybe he’d just assumed it had happened, but suddenly, the bedside chats with my mother turned into passenger seat chats with my father when he picked me up at 11:58pm from Molly Stanton’s adult-supervised, co-ed, alcohol-free, cross-country team sleepovers. I wondered what he thought went on after midnight.

“It’s just not appropriate,” he tried to reason with me when I whined that everybody else’s parents let them stay overnight. “We’re not everybody else’s parents!” He was right about that. Nobody else’s father was the coach of the cross country team. Nobody else’s father knew better than everybody else’s father that the nerdy boys on the team were the least of the threats to my girlhood. I glared at his reflection in the passenger side window so that he’d know just how cruel he was. When I felt I’d made my point, I whipped my head around and said, “You’re so unfair!” then turned again to watch the guardrail whiz by.

“That’s what happens when you have a daughter,” he replied.

Despite hating him for making me the only kid who had to leave the co-ed sleepovers early, I worried he might be right about other boys. They were all out to get me pregnant, or at least to second base—whatever that was—and it was best not to date at all.

I completed Freshman year without so much as a group date to the movies. My father seemed content with my apparent aversion to boys, so had no reservations about me taking my first job at an all-boys summer camp. I would work in the dining hall as a sort of sous-chef: emptying vats of peanut butter into smaller vats of peanut butter and vats of mayonnaise into smaller vats of mayonnaise, and serving English muffin pizzas and Jell-O to boys half my age. The camp was across the lake from our summerhouse, a rustic getaway just a few miles from our real house, so my father could easily patrol the waters until I boated home.

But what he didn’t know, and neither did I, was that a boy named Tim Fox would be there. Tim was the bronzed sailing instructor from New Jersey, and I caught him looking at me from his dinner table while I served sloppy joes one evening. Another night he lingered a few seconds after I unloaded a scoop of macaroni and cheese onto his plate to ask me how my day was. The morning he came into the kitchen where I was emptying a vat of blueberry yogurt into a smaller vat of blueberry yogurt was the morning I decided he’d be my first kiss, my prom date, and probably, my husband.

He inhaled deeply as he walked in, paused at my workstation, and whispered breathily, “That smells good.”

“The yogurt?” I asked.

“No, you,” he replied, even breathier than before.

I began spending the hour before my shift in our bathroom applying mascara and sparkly eye shadow, doing and redoing the bun on the top of my head until I had achieved the right balance of tight and messy, then walking out in a spaghetti strap tank top and swirl of “Simply White” GAP body spray. Between shifts, I stretched out my two-piece like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model as the sailing class floated by, peeking out from behind an outdated copy of Cosmo I’d borrowed from a friend to see if Tim had noticed me. One day, during a lunch shift following a morning on the dock, he asked me from across a tray of chicken patties, “Did you enjoy the sun?”

I handed him a sesame-spotted bun and replied softly, “I did. How was sailing today?”

“Beautiful,” he said, pausing just long enough to let me know he wasn’t talking about the lake. “I’d like to take you some time.”

Unfortunately, my father had noticed too: the hair, the makeup, the hours spent sunning on the dock. “I’m not letting you go sailing with some guy I don’t even know,” he said. The discussion ended there, but the romance did not.

It was a drawn-out affair—four summers—that ended each August when Tim went back to New Jersey and I went into my bedroom to cry, and began awkwardly again the following June when he strolled into the camp kitchen, already tanned. Those first two summers we stole glances in the dining hall and passed whispered words of disguised flirtation across the serving counter. I was sure that if I was ever going to kiss anyone, it was going to be Tim. I’d earned a reputation at school as an un-dateable non-partier, but at camp, where no one knew me, I played up the mystery of my off-season life. I didn’t lie about the fact I’d never had a beer or a boyfriend, but when other counselors asked me (on Tim’s behalf) to party with them in the evenings, I said I had other plans. “Too cool for us,” they teased. I smiled and shrugged, and let them believe that I was.

In truth, I was still too scared, and too mystified about what happens or what’s expected when you kiss someone. The camp counselors, Tim among them, were not like the cross country kids I hung out with at school. They smoked cigarettes, drank beer after the campers went to bed, and had probably been around a couple of bases, the actual details of which I had never worked out. Besides, Tim and I were rarely alone. He was surrounded by campers during the day, and I was forbidden from hanging out with the camp guys in the evenings.

Twice, though, I had my chance at that first kiss. The first time came late one night under the deck in the rain, three summers into our suppressed romance. After the kids were in bed and my parents asleep, Tim canoed across the lake to my house. We sat together exchanging hesitant touches and few words (we preferred basking in our true love to speaking.) When it started to downpour, we tiptoed under the house where my parents lay sleeping upstairs. Rain dripped between the cracks of the deck above us, and we huddled together, Tim occasionally commenting on how nice I smelled while I held my breath so I wouldn’t choke on the scent of a thousand stale cigarettes. When the rain slowed, the quiet highlighting the silence between us, he leaned in, and I panicked.

“How’s that crack you patched in the sailboat holding up?” I improvised. Something told me that kissing under a deck in the rain while your father slept upstairs—that’s what got you pregnant at seventeen, and at seventeen, I couldn’t risk it.

The second chance came the following summer. My parents agreed to let my cousin Hannah and me spend the night on the lake alone while they stayed at home. Hannah was my age, a good girl like me, and together we decided to break that habit, just this once. We invited Tim and another counselor, Evan, to come by. They arrived by canoe again, this time with a backpack of beer. I sat on the deck railing as Tim leaned his rock-hard abs against my bent knees. He pulled a PBR from the backpack and offered it to me. I took it from him, casually, I hoped, and cracked it open. If they could see me now, I thought, “they” being my classmates and “now” being me drinking alcohol and hanging out with the hottest guy at camp. I took a long sip of beer and forced back a gag reflex.

“What do you normally drink?” Tim asked.

“This, mostly,” I said. It was true, of course. That one sip was the most I’d ever had in my life. When I was halfway through, he asked if I was ready for another. “Yeah!” I said, and set the half-empty can aside.

Meanwhile, Hannah had disappeared inside with Evan and the backpack. Tim sat beside me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders, which were tightening with that feeling I was in too deep. His voice was soft again, his head bending to reach mine.

Suddenly, I was tired. More tired, in fact, than I thought I had ever been before. I yawned and stretched my arms up, loosening his grasp, and declared I should go to bed. He called to Evan who emerged from the house with a giggling Hannah. Tim grabbed my hand and promised to see me tomorrow, and the two boys canoed off into the night.

That was the last summer I saw Tim, a summer that ended with a mysterious girlfriend from New Jersey coming for a visit, a shattered heart, and my father finding out about the beer-drinking and the almost-kiss and summoning me to the end of the dock for a chat.

“I don’t even know who you are anymore!” he grieved. My tears splashed into the water below as I tried to explain everything to him, from the two half-drunk PBRs to the shoulder hug, but he held his hand up and said accusingly, “I don’t want to know what happened that night.” I begged him to tell me how he knew what he thought he knew, but he refused. I hid my diary between mattresses after that.

My mother was away at the time, and I met her at home two days later, prepared for a second blowup. Instead, she called me into her room where she sat up in bed reading her morning prayers, her back against the headboard, and gently patted the spot next to her, the spot where my father slept each night, and reached out to stroke my hair. “I know how it is,” she said sympathetically, and I burst into tears.

I didn’t really blame my father for his overreaction. Who knows what might have happened that night had I taken my first kiss? I certainly didn’t. Despite legally being an adult, I was still my father’s little girl, still more clueless about kissing and dating and sex than the rest of my peers. But I was no longer the little girl with the fluffy kitten who was afraid of puberty. I’d practically kissed a boy. As for Waffles, she had gone missing that first summer I worked at the boys’ camp, only to be found months later, alone and flattened in the middle of the road.

I didn’t cry when my mother broke the news to me from the foot of her bed. I suppose I’d been dealing with the loss for years. And while I knew Waffles wasn’t held to the same standards as I was, I couldn’t help but feel there was some larger moral lesson in her fate. “You see,” I sensed my mother saying, concealed by words of comfort “that’s what happens when you have sex before you’re married.”

— Mary Brindley

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Mary Brindley grew up in Orwell, Vermont, spent her twenties in Boston, and recently moved to San Francisco where she works as a freelance copywriter. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in creative nonfiction, and is indebted to her large family for providing her with the fodder for most of her essays.

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Jul 042017
 

S E Venart

X

Epiphany

The tenth month an unlikely location
for it, or this morning or this afternoon when

you are a mother who used to be a poet.
You sit at the desk and have one hour to find it.

It’s here somewhere in the mind’s tiny grey flags
in the millions of scraps piling up.

Or maybe you left it in the dark bleeding gums
of the dog you love, watching her clench another

rock from the tide twelve years ago. What was she
looking for? What if she stopped looking?

Metaphors were easy then, not only the sky,
but migrating everywhere. And now everyone is arrow

arrow, arrows. Everyone harpoons. And
I am the big heart, aren’t I?

When the black dog is being put down, in her last
second I whisper, Squirrel.

X

Attenborough

First month of kindergarten, out of the blue
slabs appear at the bottom of her artwork.
Ocean, she says to inform you. A second wedge

appears, light blue, crowning her paper with
a sky in which a two-inch Kea soars downward
for his lunch: red stripe of fish on a box

with wheels and windows. I am the smartest animal
on earth, she chants. I am the smartest animal.
Okay, you concede. And not to debate the thesis

so much as to develop divergent thought
you press play on YouTube. On the screen
birds of paradise do the work of pop-up pomp

firework faces appearing on the black stage
of their wings. They’re puppets, she bluffs.
But! The strongest muscle in my body is my tongue!

Just like that, she flutters off to the mirror down the hall
where she watches her reflection flip
a glittering headband back and forth between its palms.

It’s best if you stay hidden, quiet behind the laundry basket.
Bower bird! she’s singing with a hunch
in her shoulders— Giraffes can clean

their ears with their tongue, this infant human
says to her reflection before she shapes her fingers
into a heart using twenty-nine hand bones.

X

The Standstill

We fought in the folded hours after the children
were in bed. We fought while scraping plates

gathering glasses after the guests had gone. Sometimes
the fight was vapour, vanishing in the living room

air when we came down for breakfast. Like you,
I believed there was a series of words, or a single

word that would solve things. We searched for it.
I walked the football field, the dog straining against

its lead. You walked the dog where you walked it.
Before bedtime we cleaned our children’s bodies

carefully. We brushed their teeth quickly, leaving
the rest up to fate. I wanted to find that word, but

sometimes I come into the kitchen
as you leave it and just like that, fault fills

every jar in the fridge. On these nights I wait in bed
and breathe in the dark. Maybe tonight a child

will come in here and out of her oblivious
spread-eagle sleep will seep into this space

where we sometimes meet
a simple explanation, a pure reason.

X

Origami / Cat’s-Cradle Digression

Sometimes at night I don’t try to get up
and get it down, one poem folds into
the crease of another connection, they

point their corners into other
corners: the word daughter almost certainly
contains the word duty when you fold it so— xxxxxxxxxThere is a Kenyan

tribe, they take dust in their mouths, make paper from it
send it to Japan where eleven-year-old Siberian
girls wait in tiny pleated apartments

to be models. Is it not true that watching
a thing become another thing— xxxxxwatching string for that matter
turn into the Eiffel tower with only three fingers

and a mouth pulling at its peak— is also art?
I don’t always write them down. xxxxI watch
this girl on YouTube demonstrate

Jacob’s Ladder, witch’s broom, cradle for a tiny cat,
with hands so small the connections are effortless
in front of me in real time, being made and vanishing.

X

Albert County Breeder

It was years before I could walk back
to that doorway, figuratively hold

the post of your fallen porch
with its thousand green Mason jars

staring out towards the weathered barn.
On each window your dust held the shapes

of the cobwebs underneath.
Your father comes out the kicked door.

Inside I’ve seen the hard-packed dirt
on your kitchen floor, ketchup caked

to the spoons, the bucket in the corner
for the winter toilet. Outside we have more

in common: bus shelter for the wait at the end
of the lane, a broken look to our crab

apple too, blue spruce, red pines, rows
of crows on the electric wires and

the same wild square eyes in our animal
we brought to be breed with your animal.

X

When Life Widens Wider

In I suppose a pinprick of hope, I look out his windshield
wanting it to be true: northern lights or meteor showers
or something to be there above the valley so his hand
on my thigh has an explanation, a need to point out
exhilaration instead of the trope of furniture-maker/rig driver
driving his babysitter home and stopping the car in the ditch.
At two in the morning there’s so much I think has answers—
the black map of pinpoints above can be joined to form
bears and containers of milk, archers with arrows pointing
to North, to Hercules. But this all dissolves where his hand rests
casually on my thigh, same hand that I think leaves porn magazines
for me between the couch cushions, leaves cereal and sour milk, leaves
the nails of his children dirty and grasping for their one shared
tooth brush. I squint into the distance above the hills
to clear the chatter inside myself. If I want someone
to be grateful for me, I don’t know it yet. If I want
a man’s hand on my jeans, I don’t know it yet. He decides
to point to a series of dots above us. And among the voices in my head
I hear him saying, See? This is a kind of map. And I don’t hate him
for showing me that because yes, I see it too, it’s a mess.

—S. E. Venart

x
S. E. Venart’s writing has been published in New Quarterly, Malahat Review, Fiddlehead, Maisonneuve, This Magazine, Prism International, and CBC Radio. She is the author of a chapbook, Neither Apple Nor Pear, Weder Apfel Noch Birne (Junction Books 2003) and Woodshedding (Brick 2007). She lives in Montreal and teaches at John Abbott College.

x
x

Jul 032017
 

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The narrow windows had black-leaded panes, you could see the tombstones of the cemetery through them. The sky lowered, and greyed, and the houses huddled with their small chimney pots, crooked; all covered, it seemed to me, in soot, in centuries of old black soot.

It was 1978, and I was a new immigrant with my family in London. I was eighteen years old. Instead of life speeding up and becoming more exciting though, as I had thought and imagined it would, it seemed to be slowing down. Things around me slowed, and seemed to have darkened and closed in, while I felt myself with a centre that grew more and more still.

I felt my perceptions to have altered, so that I saw everything through a grey veil, that nothing, no tossing of my head, no long sleep, could lift or shake. I thought I would go on a tropical holiday to Kenya, to feel better: I leafed through travel brochures about Kenya. Why Kenya? Because it wasn’t South Africa, that deeply loved place we had left: my home, which we had left behind.

Our left-behind home.

So, Kenya. Kenya didn’t have apartheid. Kenya wasn’t my deeply loved, deeply anguished home. I could go to Kenya.

Meanwhile, I lived, perched precariously it seemed to me, with my parents and brothers in a house in a suburb of London. The house overlooked Golders Green cemetery, the white and grey tombstones were visible from our windows, our narrow, old-English windows with leaded glass.

.

A friend I made was working as an usher at the Young Vic theatre. He said he wanted to be a director, a theatre director, a distant category of person in my mind: an unimaginable ambition to me, at eighteen years old (although he was eighteen years old too). He got me a job ushering at the Young Vic with him. I was happy to have a job: to have something to do I might like, to earn a few pounds for something, I couldn’t imagine for what.

My studies had been proceeding on Frognal Avenue in Hampstead, we waded through Homer’s The Odyssey–such a long, long journey, with no end. Later those studies would falter too. The Odyssey, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, and all the other books I was reading, became too much, too much to read, by far.

My job as a theatre usher began. Each evening my mother drove me to Golders Green tube station, near the end of the black Northern line. There was a wait, always a wait, then I’d get on a train, which travelled, through tunnels and tunnels, south, past stations I soon knew and could anticipate by heart. Hampstead; Belsize Park; Chalk Farm; Camden Town; Mornington Crescent; Euston; Warren Street; Tottenham Court Road; Leicester Square; Charing Cross; Embankment. Waterloo.

That was my stop. Waterloo, grey and gloomy, and tunnels to walk through, twenty minutes of walking, to the theatre, in its unassuming home on the South Bank, dark also and gloomy in my memory.

There was a black-coal overpass, I remember it.

The Young Vic was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s second home (Stratford-on-Avon was its first). That season, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen were starring in Macbeth, with Trevor Nunn directing. I was an usher for the season.

My job was to stand at the doors, take tickets, and direct people to their seats. Then I could stand inside and watch the play, or stand just outside, in the lobby, and talk with the other ushers. When I left each evening, I was paid a few pounds, in cash. I would talk with Michael, my usher friend, for a few minutes, about nothing I now remember, we probably discussed the play, or some gossip about the other ushers. Michael lived in south London, in Dulwich, where I’d never been. I tried to imagine it. There must be an expanse of low chimney pots in Dulwich, narrow houses, windows with leaded panes too. Michael had longish, dark hair, and a pale English skin. I thought he might be gay. Perhaps he suggested having a drink sometime, but I don’t remember.

I’d start on my journey home.

There was the twenty-minute walk again through tunnels: the black turnstyles; the odd people about; the concrete and echoes in the tunnels; sometimes happy theatre-goers going home; other people, even crazy, or homeless ones; and sometimes, in my memory, no-one about at all. Just me, and my thoughts, which seemed very slow, and slowing, then. And then the long train ride home, through all the stations. This time, in reverse, like a familiar song, with its chords rearranged. Embankment; Charing Cross; Leicester Square; Tottenham Court Road; Warren Street; Euston; Mornington Crescent; and onwards, north.

The black Northern line split in two, so sometimes I took the wrong train, and passing through Bank, Moorgate and Angel stations, I’d know it was wrong. I’d imagine the City at those stations, the financial centre of London, deserted now, at night. I’d have to get out and wait again, for the right train, the right Northern line, the one that ended at High Barnet, with Golders Green, my stop, on its way.

The tube stations had machines dispensing Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut bars, and Bounty bars, and I’d buy one, the twenty-five-pence coins in my palm, so vividly remembered, now. The sweetness of the dense-white coconut in the Bounty bars was a counterweight to the grime and lateness and solitude of the night train.

There would still be the dim night bus from the station, or my mother picking me up, to get home, to our house of the leaded panes, its chimney pot like all the thousands over London: distinctive London chimney pots, dark and small and old.

.

Nowadays if you Google the 1978 Young Vic production of Macbeth where I worked as an usher, and in which a young Ian McKellen and Judi Dench played the leads, you will read that it was a defining production of the play: a glittering and historic theatrical milestone. There was no scenery, the backdrop just a black curtain, and the set just a few black boxes which were moved around when needed, as chairs, or steps. There were no costumes: the actors wore black, and nothing else, no adornment. There was no time or place reference, so the story of the play could be occurring anywhere, at any time. The only prop was a dagger–the crucial dagger.

Come, let me clutch thee.

.

The Young Vic was a small, in-the-round theatre. The effect of this and the sparse set was that you felt as though you were in personal communion with Ian McKellen as Macbeth, or Judi Dench, as Lady Macbeth. Just a spotlight on their faces as they spoke. The words the most important thing: Shakespeare’s words, alone.

There were perhaps sixteen performances of that play. As the lights went down each evening and my work was done taking tickets and directing people to their seats, I didn’t go out into the lobby to talk to Michael, or do nothing, as I was free to do. I stood inside at the back, and watched the entire play of Macbeth, from beginning to end. Sixteen times, as I said.

I knew Macbeth as I had studied it in high school. I also knew, in my dim awareness–so many things not clear–how rare it was, to watch these actors, this play, in such proximity. So I watched, in darkness. Sixteen times. Ian McKellen’s spotlit face, night after night.

By the end of the run, I knew every breath of every single word that Ian McKellen spoke, every gesture he made, every nuance or quaver in his voice. I could predict in exactly what tenor or tone he would say something, and detect tiny changes he might make. I spent daylight hours, at home, repeating lines to myself, as the music of them gave me so much pleasure. I seem to think my sleeping hours must have been filled with that music, those cadences, too. And I’d repeat words, simple words, as Judi Dench’s voice, her black-garbed figure, carried through my days.

Will all the oceans of Arabia sweeten this little hand?

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There was nothing in the dark play of Macbeth that related in an obvious way to the life experience I had had, and my life experiences at that moment were full of other concerns: concerns about being alien and alone in a new and foreign place. My home–as I said–left behind.

No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green, one red

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Many years later I understood that the darkness I experienced was not only London in winter, a northern European winter that was so alien to me, a South African. It was also a paralysis in myself that had started quite suddenly, then seeped further, and further, almost into my body.

My clearest memory of that time might be the black tale of Macbeth. Standing in a darkened room and hearing Shakespeare’s words was a profound solace to a young person floundering: it was an assurance, I now recognize, that art can offer, an assurance of beauty in darkness, of beauty that might transcend things, of a beauty that might last.

I had lost family and friends, a sense of connection and belonging, and a landscape—strange and wide and sun-drenched— that was mine. There was the injustice in South Africa, and the possibility of doing something about it: the moral clarity of something I could do, even a sense of duty about what I must do. I had lost that, as well.

.

It was a long time before I took full measure of that loss. It was a long time before the grey veil began to lift, before I found and made a new home, before I found the beginnings of clarity.

I live in a new city now, not an old one. I love leaded glass windows. I also like stained glass, but only old—especially antique—stained glass. Alongside the blackness of the veins, there are the colours: blood-red, or ruby-red, and grass-green, and blue, like the sky. But which sky? Not an African sky, and not a faded English or European one. It is some other sky: a sky that exists only in the window, and is a deeper blue than all the other skies.

Macbeth keeps its hold. I have an idea that its words and music exist in me, like bones. Ineradicable. I have an idea they made me a writer.

Blackness exists and lives alongside colour and beauty–and truth. I intuited that in that long-ago theatre, although I only dimly understood it, then.

—Dawn Promislow

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Dawn Promislow is the author of the short story collection Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), which was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada). Her poem “lemon” was short-listed for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. She lives in Toronto.

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Jul 032017
 

Mark Sampson Photo by Mark Raynes RobertsAuthor photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

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Singles Bar for Zombies

Sure, the blonde sitting there at the bar
is hot in a conventional way: coffin-ready
curve to her dress, the way she cups her wine
like a chalice of blood. But tell me this:
Does she have brains?
You could talk to her till you’re green in the face.
She’ll just look through you with a deadened gaze.
Down here’s still better than up there
where the cars all burn till the sky is smoke.
This bar’s subterranean.
A waitress with no eyes asks: “Wanna
see a food menu?” With your worm-brown mouth,
you answer, “No thanks. I’ve already eaten.”

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Je, Zeus

My name means
nothing. Mark my
words. I will smite you
with my thunder-
bolts just as easily
as heal your blindness
or turn water into wine.

What is it with you,
storyteller, that you insist
our names speak
to some higher or more
subtle calling?
What chance did Joyce’s
Dedalus have?
What are we to make
of Margaret Atwood’s all-
seeing narrator named
Iris?
And explain to me how
the one morbidly
obese star pilot
in the squad that
confronted the Death Star
just happened to be named
Porkins?

We may be fictional characters
but we still have rights!

Some very unwise men
brought gifts to my birthday—
a party moved from Mount
Olympus to some shit-
soaked barn about a two-hour
drive from Tel Aviv—and
told everyone that I
was the son of God,
the sun that shone
out their asses.

I can’t handle this kind of pressure.

To spite my mother (raped
by an angel, but that’s
a whole other story)
and her exorbitant expectations
of me, I enrolled
in a carpentry class
at the local community college.
Forget it, boys! I said.
Pay no attention to the
deitous (yes, it’s a word!)
reference in my name.
This particle-board cabinet
isn’t going to assemble itself.

Surely I’m allowed
to pick and play
the life I want.
Surely I can choose
which cross to bear.
Fate’s not everything.
I’ve a real lock
on this tabula rasa.
Doesn’t everyone?

Lou Gehrig
died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Go figure.

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Open Ground Coke

A dented smile on the
sidewalk, a gap-toothed
tab-pulled Titan of sticky
sybaritic joy. I knew the can
was half full when I took
a kick at it.
I mean, you’ve really got to believe
in optimism if you’re going to leave
a partially drunk Coke on the ground.
Whoever she was, and she was, at least
to my mind, a she – the indifference of lip gloss
smeared across the can’s silvery rooftop,
indentation along its side
the result of a woman’s thin, thoughtful
finger (I mean, a dude would’ve just
drained it dry and then
crushed that sucker flat) –
she must have had faith in the
wealth of the world,
dreamt of the fecund pampas, farm fields
that promise an abundance of sugar cane;
a princess asleep in the certainty
that our polar ice caps are going nowhere.
Here’s the thing about a positive attitude:
You’re still here whether you have one or not.
If you spend too long thinking just how filthy
these sidewalks are,
you’ll stroll yourself straight into madness.
You’ll miss the open ground Coke
taunting us with its air of waste.
It’s a harbinger of something,
though I’ll be damned if—

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The Mattress We Chose

The salesman said, You’ll probably get
eight good years out of this baby.

With that, a future as soft and firm as flesh
flourished before our eyes, a spell cast deep
in the unstained wellsprings of fabric.
This was a bed for aging on,
flopping cruciform on, tired,
a bit overweight on, at the end of our days.

Where will we be in eight years?
A raft of arguments, no doubt. Sweaty
summer sheets that need washing. A
breast cancer scare? The Sunday mornings
ruined by unconscionable cats screaming
for their breakfast? More grey hair found
in the thatches of my chest.

Yet, what I murmured under my breath was:
That’s a lot of sex – a thousand and forty
(at our present rate) steamy acts
of coupling. The wife laughed.
Yeah, right!

But I held my ground.
Could this bed, this marathon sack,
this Let’s grow old together mattress
handle all that?

The salesman blanched when I asked him.
He was no prophet of variable lust.
He was merely selling a place to lay
our burdens down.

—Mark Sampson

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Mark Sampson has published three novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007), Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), and The Slip (Dundurn Press, 2017) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, published by Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

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