Jul 022017
 

Author photo by Jada Lillo

http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

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Introduction to an introduction

In her introduction to the 1989 edition of Best American Short Stories, Margaret Atwood describes her selection process. In this essay, called “Reading Blind,” Atwood talks about the “voice of the story,” an elusive quality she defines as “a speaking voice, like the singing voice in music, that moves not across space, across the page, but through time” (xiv). I’m fascinated by this idea of time as narrative’s medium, like a painter’s oils or a potter’s clay. Of course, the narrative voice doesn’t travel through time with only the writer for company; narrative needs readers. If narrative is “a score for voice” (xiv), as Atwood claims, then the reader’s imagination is the instrument.

However, narrative is not music, and the reader’s task of reading this score for voice is more haphazard than a musician’s experience of reading a musical score and performing a song. A musician performs a song after hours of practice, after absorbing the music as muscle memory. In contrast, the reader imagines a narrative voice at the pace of the words on the page. With novels this pace can span days or weeks. To account for this difference, Atwood shifts metaphors in her essay and describes reading as follows:

[From] these scraps of voice . . . we [the readers] patch together for ourselves an order of events, a plot or plots; these, then, are the things that happen, these are the people they happen to, this is the forbidden knowledge. (xv)

The familiar elements of plot are here, but what is this “forbidden knowledge?” And what might this forbidden knowledge have to do with narrative’s medium, time?

Atwood’s essay does not address these questions. Instead, she concludes her thoughts by finding a unifying factor in all the stories she chose for the anthology. For Atwood, this factor is a “sense of urgency. This is the story I must tell; this is the story you must hear” (xviii).

For a long time these ideas have rattled around in my head: narrative’s medium is time; narrative is a score for voice; stories share forbidden knowledge; narrative must be urgent, compulsive, imperative. If I accept Atwood’s observations then what does that mean for the novel I’m writing? What do these criteria look like on the page? How do writers create this elusive voice of the story, and most importantly, how can I do this myself?

Margaret Atwood Best American Short Stories collage_1

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Character thought: a crash course

At first the answer to my questions appears simple. In the context of a first-person narrative, every word, gesture, image, idea generates from the character. Technically speaking, first-person novels are all character thought. However, as readers of first-person novels, we have felt how this reading experience differs from reading other first-person accounts: letters, journals, interviews. And what does a novel have that these other modes of discourse lack? The answer—character thought—seems simple, which should have been my first clue that I had a lot to learn. In a section called “Novel Thought” in Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders, Glover gives an excellent crash course on the subject, which I’ll quote and paraphrase here, but I recommend a full reading. To begin his discussion Glover describes character thought as “stylized and systematic, unlike real thought” (12); he also says character thought “functions by concentrating on time and motive” (12); finally, character thought occurs within the point-of-view character’s mind (14).

Stylized and systematic language, time and motive from inside the point-of-view character’s head are just the beginnings. For example, Glover continues his analysis by elaborating on how writers use character thought. First, character thought looks back, “remembering where [characters] have been and why they have come to where they are . . . obsessively” (12). Also, characters constantly “[assess] where they are now . . .” (12), even though “they don’t have to be right in their assessments, they just have to be true to themselves in the context of what’s gone before” (12); finally, characters must “[look] ahead” [12] and decide what actions to take based on what’s happened before (13). Here is a partial answer to the question about how writers work with time: characters project into the future, evaluate the present, and reflect on the past.

But what makes these temporal gestures both “stylized” and “systematic?” How does character thought distinguish itself from the other elements of first-person narration? While Glover’s descriptions of character thought provide a significant starting point, I couldn’t answer my questions without returning to the original teachers: books.

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Categories of character thought

I identified four approaches to character thought. As with most things to do with writing, these are broad categories that often overlap and are not intended to be proscriptive. However, throughout the novels I studied this semester, I encountered these patterns again and again, with each author implementing these approaches in idiosyncratic ways. As I read and studied, I noticed that each of these approaches provides some insights or intuitions about my questions related to the first-person voice and character thought. The categories are as follows:

  1. Direct Statement: the author uses signal phrases, such as “I thought,” “I wonder,” “I understand,” etc., to transition into a direct statement of the character’s thoughts.
  2. Indirect Statement: the stylistic use of diction with powerful, personal connotations—often times, indirect statement happens at the adjective, noun, and verb level.
  3. Comparative Language: metaphor, simile, analogy create opportunities for character’s to reveal their thoughts in a dynamic, stylized way; in addition to figurative language, comparative language happens in the syntax (through devices like antithesis) and in the content.
  4. Parenthetical Expression: character thought set off between commas, dashes, parentheses; these expressions interrupt the normal syntactical flow of the sentence and often shift the tone, which of course reveals the character’s attitude toward the subject matter

With these general categories in mind, I’d like to look at the novels I read that formed my ideas about how writers use “systematic and stylized” character thought to create the first-person voice, work with narrative’s temporal medium, and reveal the forbidden knowledge of these stories.

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Discovering Cassandra

Christa Wolf’s 1983 novel Cassandra reimagines the story of Cassandra of Troy, Priam and Hecuba’s daughter who prophesies the downfall of her city, but Apollo’s curse ensures that people do not believe her visions. The frame story for this novel transpires in a matter of hours, beginning with Cassandra’s arrival at Mycenae and ending with her execution. However, the material of the novel ranges through different times in Cassandra’s life—her childhood as a member of the royal family, her adolescence as a priestess, her adulthood as social pariah, prisoner, and fugitive—; the chronology remains loose and is sometimes elusive, but by the ending I have a profound sense of Cassandra’s desires, how her actions and choices have shaped her life, what she believes and why. As a reader, I have gathered the scraps and stitched together the who and the what. I have discovered the forbidden knowledge. But how does Wolf’s writing make possible my reading experience? How does character thought work in this novel?

Cassandra cover image

Early in the text, Wolf makes it plain that forbidden knowledge is one of the overt subjects of this novel. Here is a representative passage, from pages four and five in the Jan van Heurck translation:

The same sky over Mycenae as over Troy, only empty. Shiny like enamel, inaccessible, polished, clean. Something in me matches the emptiness of the sky above the enemy land. So far, everything that has befallen me has struck an answering chord. This is the secret that encircles and holds me together; I have never been able to talk of it with anyone. Only here, at the utter-most rim of my life, can I name it to myself: There is something of everyone in me, so I have belonged completely to no one, and I have even understood their hatred of me. Once “in the past”—yes, that’s the magic word—I tried to talk about it to Myrine, in hints and broken phrases. Not to obtain relief, there was no relief; but because I believed I owed it to her. Troy’s end was in sight, we were lost. Aeneas had pulled out with his people. Myrine despised him. And I tried to tell her—no, not just that I understood Aeneas; that I knew him. As if I were he. As if I were crouching inside him, feeding in thought on his traitorous resolves. “Traitorous,” said Myrine, angrily raining ax blows on the undergrowth in the trench surrounding the citadel, not listening to me, perhaps not even understanding what I said, for since I was imprisoned in the basket I speak softly. It is not my voice that suffered, as they all thought. It is the tone. The tone of annunciation is gone. Happily gone.

This passage begins with comparative language—Mycenae’s sky versus Troy’s sky. This comparative gesture begins with a clear declarative: the skies are the same. However, Wolf quickly moves into a qualification of the similarity. Mycenae’s sky is emptier, shinier, and these qualifications become more precise through another layer of comparison: the simile linking sky to enamel. Through the use of comparative language, Wolf works within narrative’s temporal medium: Mycenae’s sky is now, Troy’s sky was then. The character’s present and past are connected through both similarity and difference, accomplishing one of Glover’s dictums about character thought. The character both assesses the present and reflects on the past in this example.

Next, Wolf continues her stylized construction of character thought through an extension of the previous comparative gesture. However, this extension changes the comparative terms, with Mycenae’s sky now connected to Cassandra’s self—she matches this “sky above the enemy land.” Through this comparative gesture, Wolf characterizes Cassandra, not as others have seen her and portrayed her in art through the millennia, but as Cassandra sees herself. Whether or not she is accurate in this self-assessment does not matter, as Glover asserts, but this self-assessment must show the character as true to herself.

While comparative language demonstrates the “stylized” nature of character thought, the next three sentences develop through direct statement. The “systemized” nature of character thought demands this change because the previous comparatives set up the necessity. For self-assessment to function as character thought, the narrative must show Cassandra’s fidelity to herself. In these sentences, the shift from comparative language to direct statement occurs with the signal phrase, “So far . . .” This signal phrase introduces an idea Wolf develops through a series of sentences, all self-evaluative, all connecting Cassandra’s now to her past. Also in this series, Wolf announces a portion of her subject matter: Cassandra’s “secret.” This secret has to do with Cassandra’s power, not as a prophetess, although that’s part of it, but as a woman, as herself.

Included in the edition I read are four essays Wolf calls, “Conditions of Narrative.”  In the final essay, which is actually a letter, Wolf talks about this thematic concern—what is Cassandra’s power?—not as I would when teaching high school English, but as a writer who is still discovering her story. Wolf describes Cassandra’s power as follows:

This whole earthy-fruitful hodgepodge, this undisciplined tendency to merge and change into each other, this thing which it was hard to put a name to, this throng of women, mothers, and goddesses which it was hard to classify and to count, was brought under control, along with the right of male inheritance and private property, after what appear to have been long, difficult centuries, which now are described as “dark” and have been forgotten. (282)

Cassandra’s treacherous tendency to contain all the others, and to belong to no one but herself, this “undisciplined tendency to merge and change” is Cassandra’s secret, and the exploration of this secret conveys the novel’s forbidden knowledge, knowledge that is both dark and forgotten until a reader gathers the scraps of Cassandra’s voice into a narrative whole.

To return to the original passage, Wolf’s development of character thought continues, although direct statement gives way to what I’d always considered as the grunt work of narrative: there’s a scene, where Myrine the Amazon hacks at overgrowth with her ax, and the plot detail of Aeneas’s departure becomes the subject of dialogue between Myrine and Cassandra, progressing the characterization of Cassandra, Aeneas, and Myrine. This work in scene is important, and Wolf handles the technical difficulties of scene with finesse, but what interests me in this scenic material is Wolf’s continuous insertion of character thought. There’s the parenthetical expression of “yes, that’s the magical word”—and Cassandra’s reflective tone delves into a moment of discovery, revelation, recognition in the present before returning to the work of the scene, which is to describe an event from the past. There’s the comparative language linking Cassandra to Aeneas, signaled by the phrase “as if,” which shows Cassandra’s undisciplined tendency to merge into others, the reason for both her power (as a woman; as a seer) and her punishment (her imprisonment in the basket; the destruction of her people).

In the final sentences Wolf returns to comparative language, a symmetry that has been a hallmark of Wolf’s gestures throughout this passage. With these sentences, Cassandra takes up the subject of her voice, the musicality of it, and this music’s connection to her past experiences, as Atwood suggests any urgent narrative must do. After her imprisonment in the basket, Cassandra’s voice has not “suffered,” as her people believe, but its “tone” has changed. To quote: “The tone of annunciation is gone. Happily gone.” These final two sentences demonstrate the precision of indirect statement, or character thought as connotation, one of the distinguishing characteristics of first-person narrative. The word “annunciation,” with its implications of sacrifice, duty, self-destruction, reveals Cassandra’s assessment of her past. The word “happily” shifts Cassandra’s self-assessment into the present with an ironic lurch. With annunciation “happily gone,” Cassandra is in full possession of her powers. This “happily” can co-exist with her future, her death within hours. These connotations stretch character thought into all three temporal dimensions: past, present, and future. In these examples of indirect statement, this high degree of temporal flexibility, this simultaneity, generates urgency. When taken with what’s come before, the passage’s final gesture is one of highly-structured synthesis. Through different approaches to character thought, Wolf’s narrative shapes time, explores the forbidden knowledge, and tells the story as Cassandra must tell it, and as the readers must hear.

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Absence in The Blind Assassin

In her 2002 essay called, “Descent: Negotiating with the Dead,” Margaret Atwood uses a question as the subheading: “Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?” The main thesis of this essay answers to this question in the following way: writers make the trip because writing, at heart, presents an opportunity to rescue something from the oblivion of time. To quote Atwood: “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead” (156).

As the essay develops, Atwood claims for writing a specialized territory not occupied by other arts. According to Atwood, writing’s relationship with mortality is unique because “it survives its own performance . . . as voice” (158). For Atwood, the novelty of narrative’s artistry is how “the voice moves through time, from one event to another, or from one perception to another, and things change” (158). Much like Christa Wolf, Atwood claims the voice’s mutability as a source of power because, for Atwood, the writer’s “deeply forbidden” journey through the Underworld bears worthy fruit when “life of a sort can be bestowed by writing” (172); Atwood’s metaphors imply that life-bestowed-by-writing derives from the vitality of voice and the searing pain of absence.

Blind Assassin Negotiating with the Dead collage

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin takes absence as one of its overt subjects. The Blind Assassin is a family novel, telling the story of Iris and Laura Chase, sisters who come of age during the Great Depression. This story unwinds through three modes of discourse: first, Iris Chase’s first-person narrative of her family history, childhood, marriage, and the aftermath; second, a novel-within-the-novel, also called The Blind Assassin, which Iris published under her sister’s name, after Laura’s death. This novel-within-the-novel is a third-person limited story of an affair between an unnamed “he” and an unnamed “she” that takes place during the inter-war years and ends during World War II; and third, a series of newspaper and magazine clippings, small announcements, obituaries, political and fashion columns, all mentioning people intimately connected to Iris.

Atwood’s novel is, ultimately, about absence. As Iris’s first-person narrative unfolds, she reveals a history of betrayals. Her marriage to Richard Griffen, an economic arrangement intended to keep open the Chase family business, ends in ruin. Richard closes the Chase factories; he uses Iris as a sexual object and abuses her; later, he transfers his physical and sexual abuse to Laura, but Iris cannot see what is in front of her because she is mired in betrayals of her own. During the years of Laura’s deepest trauma, Iris engages in an affair with Alex Thomas, the man Laura loves, and when Iris reveals this information to her sister, this revelation propels Laura to suicide, the suicide announced in the novel’s opening sentence: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (1). However, through most of Iris’s first-person narrative, Alex is an absent entity, a gap, a hole, in contrast to his presence in the other modes of the novel, for example as the “he” in the novel-within-the-novel. As I read this novel, my questions once again center around the word how? How does Atwood create this tension between absence and presence? How does a character vanish from the narrative while at the same time establish a presence in Iris’s every action?

The answer is through character thought. Throughout the complicated structure of this novel, character thought systematically links the various modes of discourse through association and reflection. For example, in the chapter “The Chestnut Tree,” Atwood begins with a two-paragraph sequence that is entirely character thought:

I look back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted. What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.

You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones. (395)

Just as in the Christa Wolf passage, this example from The Blind Assassin announces its subject: absence. This passage begins with direct statement, signaled by the subject/verb pairs “I look back,” and “I know.” This sentence situates the reader within a triangular relationship between what Iris has written in her first-person narrative, and what she remembers, which is just as must absence as presence. The narrative is “wrong” because of what is missing. This contrast between absence and presence continues as the sentence transitions from direct statement to comparative language, signaled by the “not because . . . but because” correlation. With no full stop between direct statement and comparative language, the second gesture becomes an extension of the first. As Iris reflects on her writing in the present, she recalls but does not express her past. While moving through different modes of character thought, this sentence also moves through time. Now the writing is “wrong” because of what Iris has “omitted” from back then—behind that word “omitted” is a remembered history. There, in those memories, is the forbidden knowledge, and Iris’s voice spirals around it but does not touch it directly . . . yet. As character thought, comparative language makes this spiraling between times possible. The spiral structure lends itself to the discussion of absence: the circular movement around a narrowing gap.

The final sentence of this paragraph confirms this spiral structure. The sentence begins with direct thought—Iris’s commentary on her writing—“What isn’t there has a presence.” Then the simile (“like the absence of light”) moves the sentence into comparative language, echoing the gestures from the previous sentence, but at a quicker pace. The spiral narrows. In this comparison, presence becomes absence, darkness become light. The forbidden knowledge takes on dimension.

The next paragraph changes rhetorical direction with the direct address of “you.” However, rather than functioning as a move away from character thought, this rhetorical shift adds another temporal dimension to the character thought sequence introduced in the previous paragraph. The use of anaphora—“You want . . . You want”—and the simple, declarative syntax indicates character thought through direct statement. In addition, the “you” isn’t another person in the room; instead, the “you” is a projected future reader, Iris’s estranged granddaughter Sabrina. These “you” sentences project Iris’s thoughts into the future, but they remain Iris’s thoughts.

In the paragraph’s last four sentences, Iris responds to the projected “you.” The conjunction “but” and the direct statement, “two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth,” set up this turn and lend a call-and-response structure to this paragraph. Within call-and-response structures reside another implicit reference to time; first the demand then the response, a structure containing both sequence and causality. In this example from Atwood, time unfolds in several ways within the call-and-response; first through the future projection of “you” reading and wanting certain responses; second in Iris’s answers to “you’s” demands because these answers transpire in not only the now of her writing but also the future of her voice talking to “you,” to her granddaughter Sabrina. In this future, Iris will reveal the forbidden knowledge of their family’s history. That this extension of Iris’s voice takes her into a future beyond her death shows another way Atwood uses character thought to explore the nature of absence. Even as Iris writes, the movement of her thoughts through different temporalities generates the presence of her absence.

Finally, the last three sentences return to the gesture of comparative language. All three sentences use metaphor to express Iris’s thoughts about the slippery nature of truth. The first two metaphors announce their relationship to the paragraph’s previous sentences through anaphora: “two and two equals.” Syntactically, this comparative language connects to the previous direct statements, which continues the temporal dimensions of the previous sentences. Iris writes now; her granddaughter will read her voice in the future. In addition to present and future, these metaphors also stretch character thought into the past: “ . . . a voice outside the window” and “ . . . a wind.” Within the context of the overall novel, not to mention this specific chapter, both the voice and the wind connect to memory, to the past, to regret, to absence.

The last sentence makes these connections explicit; the metaphor shifts away from the “two and two” echo to convey Iris’s thoughts about the ambiguity of truth: the “living bird is not its labeled bones,” Iris writes. In this metaphor, time and mortality, presence and absence exist within the single figure. The image of the bird—alive then dead—and the distortions of truth—the living bird is more true than the bird’s bones, but the bones are also true. Presence and absence exist within both of these comparative terms: the bird once lived; one can imagine the living bird by labeling its bones, which exist now, have presence now, but not living presence. This metaphor applies not only to truth in the abstract; this comparative language also applies to Atwood’s entire novel. Each of the modes of discourse—first-person narrative, novel-within-the-novel, and newspaper clippings—also presents a version of truth, but as separate entities these modes are only the bones of a story. Character thought connects the novel’s three modes of discourse; through this connection the novel becomes a living bird.

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Conclusion: The Golden Notebook

In Doris Lessing’s 1993 “Introduction” to her novel The Golden Notebook, she comments on her surprise at the novel’s progress through the decades, surprise at how many people read the novel, surprise at the book’s many lives. In this introduction, Lessing speculates on why The Golden Notebook remains a vital experience for multitudes of people. As she observes, “novels give you the matrix of emotions, give you the flavor of a time in a way formal history cannot” (x), which is why she “[has] to conclude that fiction is better at ‘the truth’ than a factual record” (xi). Emotions and time, fiction and truth—here are the prerequisites for Margaret Atwood’s urgent voice; also in Lessing’s ideas are the necessities for character thought.

Doris Lessing Golden Notebook collage

Throughout The Golden Notebook, the protagonist, Anna Wulf—woman, writer, communist in 1950s London—describes a private, euphoric experience she calls “the game.” In the game, Anna imagines herself in her room, builds the room object by object around her. Once her mind secures the room, she imagines the house, the street, the neighborhood, London, Great Britain, Europe, the world. With each addition, Anna also maintains the image of herself, her room, her house. On good nights, Anna can, for an instant, finish the game—her imagination holds all these places together, what Anna calls “a simultaneous knowledge of vastness and of smallness” (513). A brief vision of spectacular unity before the moment passes: pure “exhilaration” (513).

I think the game makes a good analogy for character thought in fiction. In a technical sense, character thought provides the apparatus for the writer to create an emotional matrix through the medium of time, to create voice. Character thought infuses plot with meaning, and meaning is what grants fiction with its texture of reality, its feeling of truth. Reading a good novel, being caught in the net of character thought, feels a bit like Anna’s game: exhilarating.

—Erin Lillo

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In addition to writing, teaching, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loud. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently she’s losing. Her work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review and The Tishman Review. Her poems appeared in an earlier issue of Numéro Cinq. She has an MFA in poetry and fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Jul 022017
 

John Hampshire photo by Elana GehanJohn Hampshire, photo by Elana Gehan

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Part of the joy of looking at art is getting in sync in some ways with the decision-making process that the artist used and the record that’s
embedded in the work.

— Chuck Close

John Hampshire employs and embodies labyrinths: he cloaks a mathematician inside an introvert, inside a college professor. He is best known for elaborate portrait drawings that disintegrate upon close inspection into paths of abstract lines that never overlap, a seeming chaos of doodles.

It could be argued that some writers, too, internalize within one body such a complex spirit, inquisitive and process-driven, constantly in motion, and their journals become great art, even when they feel like they are “not creating.” Biographer Diane Middlebrook reveals this phenomenon in the work of Sylvia Plath and refers to Plath’s journals as “the hand drawing the hand” (think M.C. Escher), claiming that, “Her writing itself enacts the process by which writing comes to be.”

So it is in the work of John Hampshire: the drawing enacts the process by which drawing comes to be. His drawings and paintings begin with what would seem random mark-making, only to evolve and congeal into recognizable imagery. We are left with the entire record before us, since Hampshire’s work gels at a distance, but dissolves when viewed up close. I’ve asked him a series of questions that led to these writings. We chose to remove the text of the questions, so that in the manner of his labyrinthine work, in the grand design, the hand alone could draw the hand.

— Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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In the mid-1990s I started drawing self-portraits, looking in the mirror, using pen and a language of mark-making and symbols to construct the images. These consisted of things like teardrops, arrows, molecular structures, etc. I wanted these things to remain legible or visible in the finished drawing, and so the idea of not crossing any lines developed out of this concern. Over time, as the drawings became more resolved or detailed, the interest in the symbols fell by the wayside but the structure of not crossing any lines became integral to the drawing process; creating impediments to slow down the process and keep me engaged, a circuitous route to making something. While this process formally started in my work in the mid 90s it is an activity that occurred in my notebooks and doodles in high school.

Self-portrait, acrylic on panel, 11x14, 2013Self-portrait, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2013

It’s natural for me to paint the people around me. Most of my subjects tend to be people I know, some more casually, some more intensely, than others. I do occasionally work from images of people I do not know, but this is rare. My consciousness or awareness of these people, their natures, or my relationship to them may or may not influence the work. I can’t help but think that it does, but it is not something that I think about when I am working. Formal issues of color and mark and abstraction and representation are the things that I tend to think more consciously about when I’m working. That’s not to say that the results do not have qualities beyond these concerns.

Gina, acrylic on panel, 11x14, 2014Gina, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2014

The labyrinth drawings typically are in black and white, as the introduction of color makes them much more complicated. The paintings vacillate between full bombastic colors or subdued earthy colors, or are completely restricted to grays. I usually aim for full color with the portrait paintings, but after doing several of those and needing relief, I resort to black and white.

Lauren, acrylic on panel, 11x14, 2015Lauren, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2015

I started the paintings around the same time as the drawings, in the mid 90s, and the sensibilities that directed the drawings related very much to the sensibilities that directed the paintings. Painting is very much about physicality and layering and those are not things I was very successful at denying, hence the continuing of layering marks of color over one another. The paint marks themselves are more or less responsive to information derived from the subject matter that I’m looking at, whether a person in front of me, my reflection in the mirror, or a photograph. In all cases I am pulling vague and then subsequently more specific information from my interaction with the subject matter. My aim, in the drawings and paintings, is that the language of mark or line remain present and visible and that the process of the making of the drawing or painting is readily apparent or accessible to the viewer. The tension between both mark and image simultaneously asserting themselves is something I like to have in the work. I’m an abstract painter unwilling to let go of the primal desire for representation.

Inherent Strings attached, acrylic and string on panel, 11x14, 2015Inherent Strings attached, acrylic, string on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2015

The painting itself (or in some cases drawing) usually determines the degree of resolution that occurs in the work. I find that the recognizability of the human face allows for an immense amount of abstraction to occur while retaining the visual implication of a face. The degree of resolution that the painted image brings is determined by the painting and whether it’s working or not. I keep painting until I feel the work is resolved; sometimes this requires more and sometimes less resolution in an image.

The paintings more recently have also incorporated clear medium between layers of paint, physically separating the paint strokes from each other, and playing up the three-dimensional quality of painting. In some cases I’ve even incorporated string or other objects in the clear medium. This goes along with the nature of the way I handle paint in these works; less like manipulated liquid material. The marks retain themselves and their individual identities more like the tesserae used to make mosaics.

Labyrinth 308, ink on door, 32x80, 2014Labyrinth 308, ink on door, 32″ x 80″, 2014

Although I have made some very large portraits, most are somewhat conservative in scale, and it is the landscapes that tend to be more monumental. My interest is in the sublime power of nature, but more tangibly, I am interested in the dichotomy between the ephemeral qualities of weather or fire or clouds and the tangible physicality of the language of mark-making or lines that are used to build these images. While the portraits are typically of people I know based on photos I take, the landscape references are an amalgam of my own photos, appropriated imagery and imagined passages. The complexity of landscapes and weather, the deeper sense of space contrasting the surface of the drawing and the greater compositional possibilities are all attractive traits for me with the landscapes.

Labyrinth 338, ink on door, 24x80, 2015Labyrinth 338, ink on door, 24″ x 80″, 2015

Lately, particularly with the landscapes, I’ll start with some long lines that will break up the picture plane, which tends to be on prepared hollow core doors these days, and I’ll have very little, if any, anticipation of what particular image will develop. As I go along I start to select an image and start to build that, and then I’ll add other imagery to the drawing, working from both the photo references as well as imagination to put these disjointed images together. Intuition plays a major role in decision-making, and most thinking is retrospective rather than anticipatory with the work.

Labyrinth 311, ink on door, 32x80, 2015Labyrinth 311, ink on door, 32″ x 80″, 2015

I have always had an interest in math and physics, and I was a math minor in undergraduate school. I see a relationship between these pursuits and interests and those of my current work and working methods. There are simultaneous dichotomies in my work: abstraction versus representation; solid tangible marks describing soft ephemeral transitions of light in an atmosphere or form; abstract expressionist versus Renaissance ideas about pictorial space or depicting form; surface versus image. These dichotomies make me think of some of the juxtapositions or seeming incongruities in physics, such as those between the harmonious Einsteinian relativity and anti-intuition of quantum mechanics; or the duality of light, having qualities of both waves and particles.

The mystery of painting seems more alive than ever with its growing history, and physics is no different. The more we know, the more perplexing the universe seems: the simultaneity of Schrodinger’s cat in a box, being both alive and dead until you open the box. The abstraction of these ideas to a philosophical level seems easily transferred to image-making, color theory and optics. With painting, I’m not exactly sure when the box is open, or if it ever is. Things really remain undefined until the viewer experiences the work; even then ambiguities persist.

—John Hampshire

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John Hampshire is an Associate Professor of Studio Art at SUNY Adirondack and has had numerous solo and group exhibitions nationally. He is the recipient of many honors and awards, including most recently a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creativity, a NYFA fellowship grant, and a Purchase Award from the Hyde Museum. http://johnhampshire.weebly.com

John’s 2015 video interview with AHA! A House for the Arts can be seen on YouTube.

xMary Kathryn Jablonski
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A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist and poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

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Jul 012017
 

Rick Jackson

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THE STORY

We never know where the paths of the sunlight begin
or where they end. The first sundial was called a Gnomon,
meaning one who knows, from the 35th century Mesopotamia,
and still used by African Bushmen.

…………………………………………………This morning I feel I have
come from a place I no longer remember. The light seems
to genuflect on the roadside. There’s a ditch here but it carries
its own stories from somewhere near the top of the ridge.
The darkness won’t abandon its secret places. Sometimes
it seems we are like those characters in math problems
running towards the rear of a train that’s rushing forward.
Where we were is never where we were. Our maps and
stories are made of mist.

………………………………….In one version it must have been
an important place, what those few worn letters
that were left tried to announce on the brick
wall beside the vacant lot. And that scraggly tree that still
shades the old men who gather there by day, and beside
the fire barrel by night, what attracts all those birds
gathering like broken smoke in the branches? Or it is that
their leaves are made of birdsong. They speak in a language
we know before we hear it. But by the time we arrived
the story had come to its natural close.

……………………………………………………..In another version
the dew is still heavy on the grass. For a moment you are
asleep in my heart. What more can I ask for? I am rocking
inside your breaths. I have turned into the words you whisper.
When I speak to you, I clothe my heart with your heart.
When you tighten and tremble into love, these dreams
wander into distant fields and leave no tracks. I have
never been so lost, I have never been so certain of
where I am. Inside you, it seemed as if you were
quivering with the stars that had faded away billions
of years ago to be reborn in another galaxy.

…………………………………………………………….But you have
your own stories, and your own way of saying what
you miss. Sometimes our versions are dim lights
at the far ends of a street or valley.

………………………………………………..How easy it is
that we have not devoured each other the way some lost
galaxies have swallowed each other since the beginning
of time, or the way the mantis devours its mate so lovingly.

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ONE WAY TO DREAM

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an
Old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from
It, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.
—Mark 2:21

A robin dips into a puddle and flutters the water
From its wings. Above him, the fog seems to glow
With a billborard’s neon. He’s in an abandoned lot
Of broken glass that mirrors forgotten images.
There are so many unexplored galaxies behind our
Eyelids. One sailboat capsizes then rights itself
On the river. A city falcon rising into the fog
Must think it has reached heaven. I am on my way
To the airport passing store mannequins that have
Their own dreams. The dreams we have dressed
Ourselves in will need to be patched. Which is
What love is– dreaming ourselves into all new and
Possible forms of love, the way a flame quivers like
A leaf that itself is dreaming it has become a flame.

For Ata and Christina

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JOSEPH’S DREAM

That deep in the pit I could see the hidden dreams
of daylight stars. If I listened carefully, I could hear
the earth’s plates grumbling. I didn’t know why.
Every once in a while a grudging wind might twist
its way down to me. Every once in a while a raindrop
would leave its thumbprint in the mud. I learned, then,
that our real histories lie in wait in the shadows.
My own brothers tried to kill or sell me, you know
the story. Revenge crumbled from the dirt walls.
But it’s true, I was unfair.  I thought to imprison
them. I dreamt the sheaves and stars bowed
down to me. My own words became my chains.
I was ashamed. What I can’t decipher is your own
cavernous dreams. They have no meanings that don’t
spread out like the tracks of a frightened herd towards
wars, rapes, beheadings and the refugees from the everyday
selling of lives. You thought you could put the moon
in a prison. You called arrogance by the name of
practicality. The books you held sacred you refused
to follow. Pretty soon another day is out of reach.
What will you dream when your words are forgotten?
This morning I watched as a stray dog settled into sleep
among the worn headstones. I do not know whether
he was remembering or forgetting. I think we have to
burrow deep into our own dreams, into the pits of
our worst desires. We have to gather every syllable
in search of a truer meaning. Sometimes our dreams
seek sanctuary in what we can’t say. Why can’t we
clothe our hearts in each others’ hearts? My dream
eddies out of the coves and inlets of these words. Here,
a firefly lights, now and then, the ashes of a dead star.

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DAVID’S LOST PSALM

Winter’s net of black branches has begun to haul in
a few buds and leaves. There’s nothing to explain
our desire to embrace all that surrounds us. A sudden
sun has made the statues glisten. I remember my own
age of cries as dreadful as yours. We all desired
a story different than the one we lived. I sang
whatever was true, however painful or torturous,
not to dwell in those valleys but to climb out of them.
No one wanted to remember the wars, the captivity,
the rapes. No one wanted to remember that we too
did unspeakable crimes. Now your own stories are
so light they drift away like milkweed looking for
some better ground. There isn’t any, there never is.
The moon’s scarred face gives us back our souls.
Saul thought I would drift away, then tried to kill me.
I forgave him as I forgave myself. My own faults now
crumble like pages of a forgotten passion. All I know is
that memory is a place that is nowhere, which is why
we can retrieve the lives we never lived. Each song is
a woods where the paths return always to the beginning.
I sang to invent what I could not remember, or to remember
what I could not invent. It was the only way to let my soul
glisten as if it knew.  Here a few deer step out of the woods.
The cornstalk stubble has been burnt away. The cemetery
Stones are telling only a part of the story but that seems
Enough. A sudden wind nudges the statues awake.

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RUTH’S HOPE

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what
judgment you  judge, you will be judged; and with
the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.
—Matthew 7:1, NKJV.

Today it would be Jordan. I would wear a head scarf.
It would be the same sun eating the dirt, making thorns
of the air. I left my people yes, but love them still, while
their lands are bulldozed, the same lands you once
exiled them to, where my husband lay. Because you left
the fallen grain for the poor I went to gather it. It is
that same dust that seasons our food, the same wind
that is sandpaper on the face. You could map my journey
by its tendrils of pain. I was still a foreigner.  I was
ready to pull down the clouds around me. But I knew
that the new belief was tolerance. What has happened?
The birds and snakes have become planes and tanks.
The words you once used to embrace have changed into
words that will strangle you. There is no other ending.
My own road took me to a Bethlehem before yours.
My own road took me to a husband whose words
cloaked me. This morning a sparrow pecking uselessly
for worms would not give up, its wings fluttering like
a heart. It paid no attention to the contrails of jets.
The face of the desert has a look this evening that
I would like to call home, that I would like to call love.

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FRANCIS’ PRAYER

What I never understood was that I never owned
even myself. I used to listen to the river trying to claw
its way back to the hills over the rapids. I used to walk
only in the shadows that seemed to spread like thrown
cloaks in front of me. Everything we own is owned by
something else. In the end we’d fight for the dew
that collects on the fallen, the clouds that seem to shade
an enemy, even the faint tracks the robber would leave
in the alleyway.

…………………….And now? One morning someone blows
himself up or sends a missile down some chimney just
to own the breath he’ll soon exhale. Our words are
vapor as the Preacher says. We have to remember how
the wind blows away the wind. We have to escape
the mind’s broken bridges.  We have to let our hearts
empty themselves in the sea.

………………………………………..One day I could feel
the sun burn into my hands and side. Another day
it seemed the devils leaving Arezzo were shadows
of stars. There are so many things we see that have
no words, so many words written in invisible ink.

We have to learn the language of birds which is prayer.
There is always another heart within the heart, for
what we own is never what we have, what we love
is never what we own

………………………………just as the woman in Nigeria knew
caring for the friends whose body had become pustules
and leaked their own blood, putting on their wounds like
a cloak, like Job, like more than all the love we can own.

—Richard Jackson

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Richard Jackson has published over twenty books including fourteen books of poems, most recently Traversings (Anchor and Plume, 2016) Retrievals (C&R Press, 2014), Out of Place (Ashland, 2014), Resonancia (Barcelona, 2014, a translation of Resonance  from Ashland, 2010), Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004), Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland, 2003), and Heartwall (UMass, Juniper Prize 2000), as well as four chapbook adaptations from Pavese and other Italian poets. The Heart’s Many Doors is a collection of poems by American poets on the artists Metka Krasovec (Wings press, 2017). A new, limited edition book of prose poems, Fifties, is due from Dayton U later this Sprting. He has translated a book of poems by Alexsander Persolja (Potvanje Sonca / Journey of the Sun) (Kulturno Drustvo Vilenica: Slovenia, 2007) as well as Last Voyage, a book of translations of the early-20th-century Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli, (Red Hen, 2010). In addition, he has edited the selected poems of Slovene poet, Iztok Osijnik. He also edited nearly twenty chapobooks of poems from Eastern Europe. His own poems have been translated into seventeen languages including Worlds Apart: Selected Poems in Slovene. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetryand Poetry Miscellany, a journal.. He is the author of Dismantling Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews with Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award). He was awarded the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans by the President of Slovenia for his work with the Slovene-based Peace and Sarajevo Committees of PEN International. He has received Guggenheim, NEA, NEH, and two Witter-Bynner fellowships, a Prairie Schooner Reader’s Choice Award, and the Crazyhorse prize, and he is the winner of five Pushcart Prizes and has appeared in Best American Poems ‘97 as well as many other anthologies. Originator of VCFA’s Slovenia Program, he was a Fulbright Exchange poet to former Yugoslavia and returns to Europe each year with groups of students. He has been teaching at the Iowa Summer Festival, The Prague Summer Workshops, and regularly at UT-Chattanooga (since 1976), where he directs the Meacham Writers’ Conference. He has taught at VCFA since 1987. He has won teaching awards at UT-Chattanooga and VCFA. In 2009 he won the AWP George Garret Award for teaching and writing.

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Jul 012017
 

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I remember sitting outside on my patio around 8 a.m. on June third wrapped in a drab green blanket—late spring mornings in Maine are still too chilly for short sleeves—while steam rose from a neglected mug of coffee and twirled away through the air. I’d just finished my second semester in a master’s degree program in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I’d imagined that when I reached the midway point of my degree program I would feel elated. Instead, I felt lost. Time and again in letters from my advisors and comments from peers in writing workshops my essays had elicited the same questions and prompted the same critiques.  “Maybe you should cut the first three pages?” Or, with inky red arrows pointing to a specific paragraph, “I feel like the essay starts here.” Others would ask: How old are you in the essay? At what time (of the year, month, or day) does this essay occur? How many years passed between the time of the experience and the time of writing about it? In the work I’d received back from my advisor that morning he’d asked the same types of questions. So I sat on my patio with coffee cooling beside me and the ocean fog still thick over the fields, and I felt like I too was under a fog. What was I doing wrong? Chronology in my essays seemed obvious to me—I’d been there after all—but how was I failing to convey the basic sequence of events to readers?

Three weeks after that morning I started my third semester, none the wiser on how to crack my chronology problem. During the third semester at VCFA students write a critical thesis on literary works, themes, or craft. Douglas Glover, my new faculty advisor, said that to tackle the critical thesis I should focus on an area of my own writing that was deficient and rigorously examine the successful deployment of that technique in the writing of others. I described for him the trouble I had coherently moving my essays forward through time, but said I didn’t know what to call this technique. “Time control,” he answered, summoning to my mind images of Time Lords and a TV show I’d watched as a child in the late 80s where a teenage girl—half human, half alien—could stop time by touching her right and left index fingers together. While this would have been a useful trick to learn, narrative time control requires no superhuman abilities and is far more necessary as a writer.

Prepared now with the name for the literary technique I needed to study, I rallied to begin my research, but surprisingly I found nothing on the topic of time control as it pertained to creative nonfiction. Science fiction, yes, just look at H.G. Wells. And there was even literature on narrative time control for fiction writers and memoirists. But when it came to personal essays, the type of creative nonfiction I was working on, I found that the well of craft books had run dry.

Not to worry, Glover intimated in a letter to me, because there are just a few basic techniques through which writers control time flow. These he called time stamps; tenses and tense changes; temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and adverbial phrases; syntactic constructions; and meta-text. Seemed simple enough to me and I was certain I knew what at least half of these listed techniques were, but I wondered if a writer could really use those techniques time and again without bogging essays down with dates, or crafting artificial narrative with tailored auxiliary clauses. In order to truly understand how writers artfully control time with these techniques I decided to examine and compare two personal essays: Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” and E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.”

One Man Meat Slouching Towards Bethlehem collageCollections containing the essays.

In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion tells the story of how she fell in love with New York City as a twenty-year-old woman, and how as a not-so-young woman she suddenly and dramatically fell out of favor with the city. I say “not-so-young” because Didion was twenty-eight when she left New York and returned to her native California, but Didion notes in her essay that New York—bursting with vitality, opportunity, and an endless supply of “new faces”—is “a city for only the very young.” Originally published in 1967, “Goodbye to All That” gained wide recognition in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem and has since inspired generations of writers who have loved and left New York. A reflective, first-person narrative, “Goodbye to All That” is thirteen pages long and is broken into four sections. The essay’s central action spans eight years and was written three years after the main action had ended.

In “Once More to the Lake,” E.B. White tells of his return to an idyllic lake in Maine where he had often vacationed with his father when he was a child. On his return journey, White is accompanied by his young son, and he is provoked by memories into a deep and ultimately unsettling meditation on how time has affected him and that “holy spot” of his youth. White weaves together memories of his boyhood with his father and memories of his week-long vacation with his son and realizes that as he is now the father figure, he is also nearer death than he once was.

A favorite of personal essayists everywhere, “Once More to the Lake” was published in 1941 in Harper’s Magazine. A reflective personal essay with a first-person narrator, “Once More to the Lake” is six pages long and has only one section, which is comprised of thirteen paragraphs. The essay’s basic chronology is based on the writer’s week-long trip with his son.

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Time stamps

The first time control technique I examined was what Glover had termed time stamps, as this seemed like a universally recognizable, and therefore reliable, way to establish time flow. Time stamps are any text that identifies a specific date, such as a year, a day of the week, a month, or a holiday. Other time stamps could include historical references, car models, or objects that are time-related. I began by scouring “Goodbye to All That” for time stamps, expecting to see some time stamps scattered around the first paragraph. To my surprise, I found none until the third page of the essay. Didion uses the word “December” on the third page (227), “Christmas” on the fourth page (228) and twice again on the sixth along with “Easter” and “May” (230). “Saturdays,” and “Saturday” appear on the seventh page (231). On the ninth page Didion refers to “faded nightgowns which were new in 1959 or 1960,” (233). “Saturday-afternoon,” appears on the eleventh page (235), “April” and “January” on the thirteenth (237), and then “January” once again on the final page of the essay (238).

I noticed several scenic descriptions in Didion’s essay that, while they are not time stamps, gave temporal context. For example, she writes “the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes” (227) and “the first snow had just begun to fall” (228). Didion often enhances scenes with what I’ve termed sensory time cues, and as I continued to read I realized these descriptions are generally auxiliary to time stamps, though they can appear before or after them. The foregoing sensory time cue comes just before the time stamp “Christmas”: “I laughed with him, but the first snow had just begun to fall and the big Christmas trees glittered yellow and white. . .” (228). While subtler than time stamps, these still give temporal information. Of a winter evening at 6:30 p.m. Didion writes that it was “already dark and bitter with a wind off the river…” (229). Of an early morning she writes, “the few cruising taxis still had their headlights on and the only color was the red and green of the traffic signals” (234).

Didion uses time stamps as anchors: they clearly identify a context around which she builds more elaborate descriptions in the form of sensory time cues. However, as time stamps appear less often and later in Didion’s essay than I had anticipated, it was plain they are not her primary method for establishing time at the beginning of her essay. While universal time stamps are sparse, it occurred to me that Didion often gives the reader a sort of time marker that solely pertains to her: her age. Didion often states her age in scenes, which orients readers as Didion leaps forward in time. While not a time stamp per se, it is clear that an age stamp (be it the age of a minor character or of the writer, which I’ll call an authorial age stamp) can be used to establish time flow and sequence events in the same way as time stamps.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser 1968Joan Didion by Julian Wasser 1968

Following this trail, I searched “Goodbye to All That” for authorial age stamps and noticed that most scenes in the essay were sequenced or given temporal context through identification of Didion’s age. For example, the opening paragraph does not have any time stamps but Didion writes that she was twenty when she arrived in New York, and she also makes an observation about how she felt when she was twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-three. The word “twenty” appears three times in “Goodbye to All That,” “twenty-one” appears once, “twenty-two” appears once, “twenty-three” appears three times, and “twenty-eight” appears twice. It is interesting to note that Didion uses the word “time” or “timed” fourteen times in as many pages.

What about “Once More to the Lake,” I wondered; does White use time stamps with the same frequency as Didion? Does he root his sentences with time stamps and build out sensory time cues from that base? Does he use any age stamps for himself, his son, or his father? The first thing I noticed was that most published copies of “Once More to the Lake” (the essay often appears online and in various anthologies, like Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay) retain the original publication date, August 1941, which precedes the text. I then looked at the first paragraph for time stamps:

One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond’s Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summer—always on August 1 for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening makes me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week’s fishing and to revisit old haunts. (533)

In the first sentence, White provides the reader with two time stamps: “1904” and “August.” Then “August 1” appears in the third sentence. While White uses time stamps in the way I had expected Didion would, as an expedient way to establish time at the outset of the essay, only four more time stamps appear throughout the rest of the text. “September,” “June,” and “Sunday” appear on the third page of the essay (535) and “August” appears once more on the fourth page (536). White uses fewer time stamps than Didion in total, but this is predictable as “Once More to the Lake” is less than half the length of “Goodbye to All That,” and the basic chronology is shorter, spanning only one week as opposed to eight years.

Unlike Didion, White never explicitly states what his age is, either at the time of writing or during his boyhood visits. Nor does he mention his father’s age or the age of his son. White references his father’s seemingly “enormous authority” (536), he mentions “what it felt like to think about girls” (537) when he was young, and in the final paragraph White also writes that he felt “the chill of death” (538) when he revisited the lake as an adult. However, White does fill his narrative with temporal context through sensory time cues in the same way as Didion. For example, in the second paragraph White recalls how as a boy he would dress quietly in the early morning “so as not to wake the others” and he’d take a canoe out on the “cool and motionless” lake, keeping near the shore “in the long shadows of the pines” (533). And later, he remembers how the tennis net “sagged” and the court “steamed with midday heat and hunger and emptiness” (535) when he would walk up to one of the farmhouses for lunch. Most of White’s sensory time cues pertain to the time of day or the time of year.

What amazed me was not only that White’s writing is inlaid with sensory time cues, but that even the insistent use of this time control technique reads so beautifully, not at all like a captain’s log or a list of historical dates one might have to memorize for an exam. It is worth noting that the word “time” occurs ten times in six pages, including when it appears in the words “summertime” and “daytime.” It is interesting, also, that there are no time stamps, age stamps, or sensory time cues in the final paragraph of “Once More to the Lake,” that it is the only paragraph in which these do not appear, and that it is the shortest paragraph by several lines:

When the others went swimming by, my son said he was going in, too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy, garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death. (538)

As I read the ending of “Once More to the Lake,” which seemed to comment on the passage of time without any direct references to time itself, it was clear that time stamps and sensory time cues were not the extent of the time control techniques used by White. Some other technique was at work here. I opened my letter from Glover again to see how else White and Didion might be controlling time.

E.B. WhiteElwyn Brooks “E. B.” White

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Tenses and tense changes

The second time control technique that Glover had listed was the use of tenses and tense changes. This refers to a writer’s decision about what tense to use, or how to express the time during which the main action in the essay takes place, and any intentional changes in that tense. I looked again at “Goodbye to All That” to see what tense Didion uses in her narrative. The first paragraph of the essay is twenty-five lines long and is comprised of only five sentences. (Long, complex sentences are typical of Didion’s style, so complete quotations often seem excessive and unnecessary; however, I’ve provided the first paragraph in its entirety here to serve as an example of how Didion controls time through tense and tense changes, and for future reference.) The narrator begins by making a statement in the present tense, and then eases back into a memory in the simple past:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the exact moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be the same again. In fact it never was. Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before. (225-226)

The essay begins in the simple present with the simple present verbs “is,” “see,” “see,” “can remember,” “makes,” and “constrict,” but then the tense dances between simple present and simple past with the verbs “began,” “cannot lay,” “ended,” “can/cut,” “is,” and “was.” This final change to simple past smoothly transitions to the simple past verbs that the following sentence begins with: “saw,” “was,” “was,” and “got off.” However, in the middle of that sentence, Didion changes from simple past to past perfect, with “had seemed” and then switches back to the simple past, “smelled,” “programmed,” and then switches tenses again with the past perfect trio: “had/seen,” “had/sung,” and “had/read,” before using a final modal verb, “would never be.” This complex sentence is followed by the simple past tense declarative statement, “In fact it never was.” In the next sentence Didion changes again to the simple past, “was,” “went,” and then “used to be,” and “used to wonder.”  The next sentence starts in the simple present tense to contrast her present self with her past self (“know,” “wonders,” “is doing,” “being,” and “is”) before ending with the present perfect “has/happened.”

Within this one paragraph Didion moves with startling grace through several tenses and times. She navigates between the time of writing and the time of her experience with stunning grammatical complexity. She begins in the present moment (the time of writing, or what I call the narrative present) with the simple present tense, and then moves to a specific past time (the moment of her arrival in New York) with the simple past tense. She switches briefly to the past perfect to reflect on a decision she made in Sacramento (an event in the slightly more distant past) that she regrets upon arrival in New York (the more recent past) using again the simple past tense. She then uses the past perfect tense to reflect again on her life prior to New York and how she “had been” prepared for her arrival in New York, which spans a period of time from an unspecified point in the past up to a specific past moment. Didion then moves to a more recent past event in which she recalls feelings of nostalgia for a more distant past, using again the simple past tense. Finally, Didion brings the reader back to the narrative present to share her current understanding in the simple present tense, but she ends on a twist with the present perfect tense, which begins at an unspecified time in the past and ends in the present moment.

In total, she uses simple present, simple past, past perfect, present perfect and a modal verb to describe seven different times. This general pattern repeats, with some variation, throughout “Goodbye to All That.” Paragraphs often start with a simple present reflection, leading to a simple past scene, followed by a past perfect reflection, then returning to a simple past scene, and ending with a simple present reflection. The final paragraph of the essay, in which Didion reflects on her last visit to New York, serves as an example of a variation on that general pattern of tense and tense changes:

It was three years ago that he told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since. Many of the people we knew in New York think this a curious aberration, and in fact tell us so. There is no possible, no adequate answer for that, and so we give certain stock answers, the answers everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for us to “afford” to live in New York right now, about how much “space” we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired. Many of the people I used to know there had moved to Dallas or had gone on Antabuse or had bought a farm in New Hampshire. We stayed ten days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles, and on the way home from the airport that night I could see the moon on the Pacific and smell jasmine all around and we both knew that there was no longer any point in keeping the apartment we still kept in New York. There were years when I called Los Angeles “the Coast,” but they seem a long time ago. (238)

Here, Didion begins with the simple past “was” and “told,” and then switches to the present perfect “have lived.” The second sentence moves from simple past “knew,” to simple present “think” and “tell.” Then Didion starts the third sentence with the simple present “is” and continues in the simple present, including one modal “would,” throughout that and the following sentence. Then she transitions from the simple present tense statement “All I mean” to the simple past reflection, “I was very young” back to the simple present “I am not that young anymore.” This moves the reader nicely into her next piece of reflection, her trip back to New York, which occurs in the simple past and her reflection on what had happened to her old friends, whose actions take place in the past perfect tense, “had moved,” “had gone,” and “had bought.” The next sentence starts again with simple past, “stayed” and “took,” then uses the modal “could see,” “smell,” and then the past “knew,” “was,” “keeping,” and “kept.” In the final sentence Didion moves readers from the simple past, “were” and “called” to end in the simple present with “seem.” Here Didion uses simple past, present perfect, simple present, and past perfect to express action occurring at seven distinct times.

Goodbye to All That

I wondered if “Once More to the Lake,” uses tenses and tense changes similarly to “Goodbye to All That.” White’s essay, like Didion’s, is framed by a present-time narrator who reflects on a past time and, like Didion, White’s essay isn’t about a specific event that occurred in the past, but rather it’s about a place where past action occurred over several seasons. I looked again at the first paragraph of “Once More to the Lake” to see what tenses and tense changes White uses.

Unlike Didion’s essay, which begins in the present tense, White’s essay begins in the simple past. In the first three sentences he refers to his childhood adventures on the lake with the verbs “rented,” “took,” “got,” “had,” “rolled,” “was,” “thought,” and “returned.” Then the fourth sentence switches to the present prefect with “have/become,” and then the simple present “are” and “make” as White writes about his current preference for the ocean over lakes. Then in the fifth sentence, the final sentence of the paragraph, White expresses his nostalgia for the placid lake of his youth and the tense returns to the simple past, with the verbs “got,” “bought,” and “returned/to revisit.” There is also one occurrence of “used to” in that fifth sentence, which acts irregularly (much like “would always”) and refers to the repetition of past actions.

As I continued to look through the essay, I realized that most of the action in “Once More to the Lake” occurs during two distinct times in the past: the past of White’s childhood on the lake and the past of his recent visit to the lake. The only exceptions are the brief use of the simple present and present perfect in the opening paragraph when White writes of his preference for saltwater, and a present modal in the second paragraph when White writes of memory: “It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back” (533). When writing about and comparing two past times they can easily become muddled without strong grammatical indicators, but it occurred to me that White likely controls his choice of verb tenses and changes between tenses in order to clearly express these two distinct past times.

I looked for text that describes White’s week-long trip to the lake with his son to see what verb tenses he uses to describe that time and landed on the fifth paragraph, where White and his son go out fishing:

We went fishing the first morning. I felt the same damp moss covering the worms in the bait can, and saw the dragonfly alight on the tip of my rod as it hovered a few inches above the surface of the water. It was the arrival of this fly that convinced me beyond any doubt that everything was the same as it had always been, that the years were a mirage and that there had been no years. The small waves were the same, chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor…We stared silently at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and went. I lowered the top of mine into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted, two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod. There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one—the one that was part of memory. I looked at the boy who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of. (534)

White starts this paragraph in the simple past with the verbs “went” and “felt” and the past continuous “covering.” In fact, all of the following action occurs in the simple past tense (“saw,” “alight,” “hovered,” “convinced,” and so on) until White reflects that the lake and the activities that take place at the lake are unchanged from when he was young. When White harkens further back he writes “everything was as it always had been,” and “there had been no years.” Both statements are in the past perfect tense. Then White returns to the simple past and past continuous as he refocuses on the fishing expedition with the verbs “were,” “chucking,” and so on. This pattern of referring to the recent past trip to the lake with his son in the simple past and past continuous carries forward into the next paragraph when a fish is caught: “We caught two bass, hauling them briskly as though they were mackerel, pulling them over the side of the boat…” (534). And the tense changes again to the past perfect when White iterates for a third time that there “had been no years” (535) between his own boyhood on the lake and his son’s.

I decided then to look at text that primarily describes White’s boyhood experiences on the lake to see what verb tense is dominant there. I selected a paragraph on the fourth page, focusing on the second half of the paragraph where White watches his son learn to use an outboard motor and reflects on how he had used a motor when he was young:

Watching him I would remember the things you could do with the old one cylinder engine with the heavy flywheel, how you could have it eating out of your hand if you got really close to it spiritually. Motorboats in those days didn’t have clutches, and you would make a landing by shutting off the motor at the proper time and coasting in with a dead rudder. But there was a way of reversing them, if you learned the trick, by cutting the switch and putting it on again exactly on the final dying revolution of the flywheel, so that it would kick back against compression and begin reversing…It took a cool nerve because if you threw the switch a twentieth of a second too soon you would catch the flywheel when it still had speed enough to go up past center and the boat would leap ahead, charging bull fashion at the dock. (536-537)

I found here that instead of using the past perfect tense to express actions that occurred or conditions that were present during his boyhood, White predominantly uses modal verbs and conditionals to express repeated actions in the past. The foregoing excerpt begins with the past continuous “watching” and then the modal “would remember,” and “could do,” where the modal verb “would” expresses repeated past action and “could” expresses a past ability. This is followed by the conditional “could have/if,” which expresses a possibility. In the next sentence, White uses a modal “would” again, then an “if/would” conditional in sentence after that, and he finishes the paragraph with an “if/would/would” conditional.

White’s use of modal verbs continues into the next paragraph when he recalls the trip with his son as a completed past event: “We had a good week at camp…We would be tired at night and lie down in the accumulated heat of the little bedrooms after the long hot day and the breeze would stir almost imperceptibly outside…Sleep would come easily and in the morning the red squirrel would be on the roof, tapping out his gay routine.” In these cases, the modal “would” is used to express past actions and conditions repeated over several nights of the week-long stay.

While nearly all of “Once More to the Lake” occurs in the past, White uses different verb tenses to express different types of past action. To describe an active scene, such as fishing with his son, White uses simple past and past continuous, but to describe patterns of action that happened when he was younger, or patterns of action completed in the more recent past, he uses modal verbs. When reflecting on the ways in which the lake was unchanged from the time of his boyhood to the time of his visit with his son, White uses the past perfect tense. These clearly delineate for the reader what type of past action is occurring: White’s own distant past, his recent past with his son, or the lake’s past.

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Time clauses: temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositional and adverbial phrases

However, there was more to White’s and Didion’s time control than time stamps and verb tenses. As I searched for tenses and tense changes, I noticed that time-related information was often offset in a separate clause, which I learned is called a subordinate clause of time. Clauses of time are always subordinate, or auxiliary, and contain information about when the action in the main clause occurs. In “Goodbye to All That,” for example, Didion writes: “It was three years ago that he told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since.” The sentence begins in the past tense with a subordinate clause of time which tells when an action occurs (in this case an action revealed in the previous paragraph of the essay) and then switches to the present tense in the main clause which refers to a present condition, i.e. her living in Los Angeles.

I noticed a key word in the main clause that Glover had flagged as another time control technique: the word, “since.” In his letter, Glover said to look for conjunctions of time, adverbs of time, and adverbial phrases of time. Temporal conjunctions tell when an action happens. The most common temporal conjunctions are: when, whenever, after, before, until, since, while, once, and as. Temporal adverbs are more varied and can be broken into four main groups. The first type of temporal adverb expresses the definite time of an action, for example: now, today, tonight, then, tomorrow, yesterday. The second type expresses the definite frequency of an action, for example: daily, nightly, weekly, monthly, yearly, annually, and so on. The third type expresses the indefinite frequency of an action: always, ever, constantly, generally, frequently, often, sometimes, occasionally, rarely, seldom. The fourth type of temporal adverb expresses time relationships between actions: already, before, first, finally, just, since, last, late, later, soon, still, yet. There is some overlap between temporal adverbs of this type and temporal conjunctions. Temporal adverbial phrases are two or more words that serve as an adverb, such as: in a minute, any time, as soon as, after the movie, and so on.

I looked to see how Didion uses temporal conjunctions, adverbs and adverbial phrases in “Goodbye to All That.” I started again with the first paragraph, where Didion uses the time conjunctions “when,” “once,” and “before.” Temporal adverbs are more common. In the first paragraph, “never” appears three times, “ever” appears four times, and “first,” “already,” “late,” and “now” each appear once. Didion also uses two temporal adverbial phrases: “some time later” and “sooner or later.” As I kept reading, I was surprised to see  how abundantly Didion had scattered temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and adverbial phrases throughout “Goodbye to All That.”

An excellent example of Didion’s frequent use of temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and adverbial phrases (as well as her complex sentence style) comes a couple pages into the essay when she foreshadows the end of her time in New York in a scene where she is still enjoying her early days there:

I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there— but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month. (228-229)

Still attuned to Didion’s use of age stamps, sensory time cues, verb tense and tense changes in essays, I noticed that in these two sentences Didion uses the authorial age stamp “twenty-two or twenty-three,” she hints at summertime with the sensory time cues “peach” and “soft air blowing,” and she begins with the modal verb “could” and continues in the simple past, “smell,” “knew,” before switching to the modal “would,” and simple future, “will,” “pay.” The second sentence starts in the simple past “believed” and “had” and uses the modal verb “would.” Now that I was looking beyond those time control techniques I could also see that she uses the temporal conjunction “when,” and the temporal adverbs “later” and “then,” and “still” twice. In addition to those, she uses the temporal adverbial phrase, “sooner or later,” and a string of three phrases, “any minute, any day, any month.”

After reading through “Goodbye to All That” with an eye trained to this new time control technique, I noticed that Didion often uses temporal adverbs of indefinite frequency to express ultimate conditions. For example, it isn’t Didion’s style to write that the majority of the songs and stories she heard about New York led her to believe that living there would change her life. Instead she writes “all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me it would never be quite the same again” (226). In fact, the word “ever” appears seven times, “never” appears thirteen times, and “always” appears five times in the essay. “First” is used seven times and “last” is used three times. The most common temporal adverbs pertaining to action that occurred while she lived in New York express relationships in time, such as “already,” “often,” “still,” and “later.” There is not a single paragraph in all of “Goodbye to All That” that does not contain temporal conjunctions, adverbs, or adverbial phrases.

I noticed something else, too. Throughout her essay Didion writes the time of day during which scenes take place. These she often writes as temporal prepositional phrases, which act like adverbial phrases but contain a preposition and a noun. For example, her use of “at night” in the first paragraph: “Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went ‘but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,’ and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that” (226). Didion uses several temporal prepositional phrases throughout “Goodbye to All That,” including “in the spring” (227), “on nights like those” (229), “in the morning” (233), “in the early morning” (234), “in the night” (234), “at dawn,” (234) and many more.

I wondered if White uses temporal subordinate clauses in the same way as Didion or if the two writers’ methods of time control  differ on the level of conjunctions, adverbs and adverbial phrases. The first thing I noticed looking at “Once More to the Lake” was that White uses far more temporal adverbial phrases than Didion, starting with the phrase contained in his essay’s title, “once more.” I read again the opening paragraph of the essay and found that nearly every sentence contained temporal adverbial phrases and saw that White had used temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositional phrases as well:

One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond’s Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summeralways on August 1 for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening makes me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week’s fishing and to revisit old haunts. (533)

White uses three temporal adverbial phrases in the first sentence: “one summer” and “along about 1904,” both of which are offset in temporal subordinate clauses, and “for the month of August.” I noted that two of these adverbial phrases also contained the time stamps “1904” and “August.” In the second sentence, White uses two adverbial phrases: “night and morning” and “from then on.”  The third sentence contains the temporal adverbial phrases “summer after summer,” and “for one month,” the temporal adverb “always,” and the prepositional phrase “on August 1.” The fourth sentence is the only sentence without an adverbial phrase, but it does contain the temporal adverbs “since” and “sometimes,” the temporal prepositional phrases “in the summer,” “across the afternoon,” and “into the evening,” and the temporal conjunction “when.” The fifth sentence contains two temporal adverbial phrases: “A few weeks ago” and “for a week’s fishing.”

As I continued to look through “Once More to the Lake,” I noticed that, as in Didion’s essay, every single paragraph contains at least one temporal conjunction or adverb, or temporal prepositional or adverbial phrase. Most of them contained many more than one. I also noticed that he uses the temporal adverb “first” often, seven times in the essay with two of those times occurring in the adverbial phrase “first morning.” But unlike Didion, White never uses the word “last.” I noticed that White also routinely uses temporal prepositional phrases, such as “in the daytime” or “at night” (536), and in these he often inserts an adjective, for example “in the still evening” (536) and “in the shining night” (537).

It was then that I realized what time control technique White uses in the final paragraph of “Once More to the Lake” to elicit a sense of time passing without making use of time stamps, age stamps, or dramatically shifting verb tenses. I read that paragraph again, this time looking for temporal conjunctions, adverbs and prepositions. I found four, one in each sentence:

When the others went swimming by, my son said he was going in, too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy, garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death. (538)

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Then/now constructions

By this time, I was beginning to feel like I had a solid grasp on time control techniques. I’d read “Goodbye to All That” and “Once More to the Lake” at least a dozen times each. I’d learned about time stamps like “Christmas” and “1904.” I’d scoured both essays for verb tenses and tense changes and observed how each writer uses them differently to express time changes. I’d looked as temporal conjunctions and adverbs, and temporal adverbial and prepositional phrases. Surely this was sufficient for a writer to move a story through time, to establish the chronology of events and deftly move from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. However, when I looked back to my letter from Glover I saw that my exploration of time control was not yet over. In his letter he wrote that the use of syntactic then/now constructions allows writers “to quickly juxtapose a past event with the present.” When I began to explore then/now constructions I saw that time control is more than just establishing a coherent baseline for a story, a beginning that leads to a middle and then to an end; time control is the key to showing how the writer is affected by and changes in response to the events within a text. Then/now constructions carry this trick off with aplomb.

Didion’s first use of a then/now construction occurs in the first paragraph of “Goodbye to All That.” Didion recalls hearing a popular song after she’d lived in New York for some time, she relates how the lyrics of the song affected her when she heard it and what she thinks about them in the narrative present: “…there was a song on all the jukeboxes that went ‘but where is the school girl who used to be me,’ and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later…” (226). Here, “then” is expressed in the “used to be me” of the lyrics and echoed in “I used to wonder.” This is followed by “I know now,” which concisely juxtaposes, as Glover had said, the way Didion thought at the time of the experience and the way she thinks at the time of writing.

In the second paragraph of “Goodbye to All That” Didion uses a then/now construction when she reflects on how she had been sick in bed for three days after her arrival in New York, laid up in a hotel room with a broken air conditioner. She writes that she never called the front desk to have the air turned off because she wasn’t sure how much to tip the person who would come to fix it. She reflects, “was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was” (227). When using then/now constructions, Didion tends to vary her word choice. That is, she doesn’t exactly say “Then I was young, but now I am old,” but she repeats this sentiment throughout her essay using different phrases and constructions. Often she expresses “then” through the past tense, and will follow that implicit “then” with an explicit “now.”  For example, close to the end of the essay, as Didion’s time in New York is nearing its end, she contrasts two “thens” and a “now”: “I had never before understood what ‘despair’ meant, and I am not sure I understand now, but I understood that year” (237). Here, “before” and “that year” express two previous times with a “now” in between. By juxtaposing a happier “before,” a despairing “that year,” and a happier “now,” Didion book-ends a particular time, thereby showcasing how she was affected by staying too long in New York.

In the final paragraph Didion is more direct in using the then/now construct than elsewhere. She writes: “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more” (238). Here Didion expresses “then” through “I was” and expresses “now” through “am not/any more.” This passage also reveals how crucial the then/now construct is in conveying the central thought of Didion’s essay, and exemplifies how then/now constructs are a key component of the personal essay as a form, which often explores a past experience through a present-time lens.

As I was looking for then/now constructions I noticed another time control technique that Didion often employs. When transitioning from a scene in the narrative present to a past scene or when contrasting present and past, Didion often uses a phrase to fade into the past. For example, in the first paragraph she begins the first sentence in the “now” but transitions to the past with the phrase “I can remember”: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now…when New York began for me…” (225). Didion starts the second section in a similar way: “In retrospect, it seems to me that those days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later” (227). And again at the start of the second paragraph of the second section: “I remember once, one cold bright December evening…” (227). By using what I came to think of as reflective fades, Didion transitions the reader smoothly into another time. “I remember” is used most often and appears in various iterations: “I can remember now” is used once, “I remember once” is used once, and “I remember” is used three times. Additionally, “in retrospect” and “I recall” are both used once in the essay.

It occurred to me that White’s approach to the then/now construct would likely differ from Didion’s because most of his essay is set between one distinct past time and one habitual past time with very little “now.” And whereas Didion’s essay focuses on contrasting the relatively distant “then” of her youth in New York and the more recent “then” of her aging out of New York with the “now” of the narrative present, White’s essay is about how the lake of his youth and the patterns of life are unchanging, how “then” is just like “now”; at moments it almost is “now.” However, I recalled that there are some incidents of contrast in “Once More to the Lake,” times where White notices a few small changes around the lake and in society and also notices how he has changed. I wondered if he uses then/now constructions to show these contrasts.

Essays of E.B. White cover image

I didn’t have to look far for an answer, and I found that White’s then/now constructions do appear differently than Didion’s. In the first paragraph White recalls how after his family’s first vacation “none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine.” After a brief sentence about how the family returned to the lake, he contrasts “then” when he preferred the lake to all other places with: “I have since become a salt-water man…” (533). This is White’s clearest use of the then/now construct to show how he changed over time, however White does use similar constructs to describe the few ways in which the lake had changed. For example, White recalls that when he was a child and his family visited the lake, arriving “had been so big a business in itself.” A farm wagon would pick them up at the train station, and they’d load all of their trunks and head for the lake where they were greeted by other campers with “shouts and cries” (536). White writes, in a parenthetical sentence, “(Arriving was less exciting nowadays, when you sneaked up in your car…and in five minutes it was all over, no fuss, no loud wonderful fuss about trunks)” (536). Here, White uses the past perfect tense “had been” to indicate “then” and juxtaposes it with “nowadays.”

In the next paragraph White contrasts another difference at the lake with a then/now construct as he talks about how outboard motor technology had advanced:

The only thing that was wrong now, really, was the sound of the place, an unfamiliar nervous sound of the outboard motors. That was the note that jarred, the one thing that would sometimes break the illusion and set the years moving. In those other summertimes all motors were inboard; and when they were at a little distance the noise they made was a sedative, an ingredient of summer sleep. (536)

The word “now” is contrasted with the temporal prepositional phrase “in those other summertimes,” which are “then.” As in the example from the essay’s first paragraph, White spreads his now/then construction over three sentences, with a descriptive sentence between the times he’s contrasting. I noticed as I was looking for now/then constructions that White also uses reflective fades but in a slightly different way from Didion because he only uses the narrative present in the first two paragraphs. In the second paragraph, White writes, “I guess I remembered,” and then again, “I remembered” (533), and then later, “I kept remembering all this,” “I would remember,” and “I kept remembering everything” (536-537).

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Meta-text

Syntax certainly added some fireworks to time control and began to connect the chronology of a story to the meaning of a story. However, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is time control really just about grammar? Is it all parts of speech, word choice and order, and juxtaposing then with now? I referred again to Glover’s letter and saw one final time control technique on his list, something he called “meta-text.” Meta-text, Glover said, “comments on memory or time and tells the reader how the text is organized in terms of time.” So meta-text tells the reader how time functions within the essay and how it functions for the narrator or characters within the essay. It seemed too good to be true, this claim that a writer would explicitly tell readers how to read their essay. And surely, I thought, I would have noticed the first ten or so times I read White’s and Didion’s essays if they had. Yet back I went for another reading of “Goodbye to All That.”

To my chagrin I saw Didion’s meta-text had been there the whole time, plain as print in the first two sentences of the first paragraph of “Goodbye to All That”:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves on the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. (225)

This passage illustrates how meta-text can either comment directly on how time flows within the narrative or refer to how memory functions for the writer. For example, when Didion writes, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends” and that she can “never cut through the ambiguities…to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer” optimistic, this informs the reader that Didion’s essay has a clear beginning, but otherwise it lacks a linear chronology. There is no decisive climax, but rather a series of events that move forward and backward in time, and are “ambiguous” but somehow lead to the end. And when Didion writes that she can “remember now with a clarity that makes the nerves on the back of my neck constrict,” this tells the reader how memory functions for Didion, and sets up an expectation for scenes to be written with detailed precision.

In fact, this is how “Goodbye to All That” reads. The essay starts with this reflective, self-referential text and shifts to the scene where the essay’s action clearly begins, her arrival in New York. She describes her arrival with clarity, as predicted, noting that it was her first time in New York, what age she was then, what model plane she arrived in, what terminal she landed at, what she was wearing, how she’d felt about what she was wearing at two separate times (“…a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already…” [225-226]), how the air felt and how it smelled, and how she felt internally about her arrival all in the third sentence of the essay. In the fourth sentence she jumps ahead in time (using the temporal adverbial phrase “some time later”) to when she listened to a popular song playing on jukeboxes on the upper East Side and felt nostalgic for her younger self, and then jumps to the narrative present (using a now/then construction previously examined) to comment on her past feelings. This non-linear time flow, which shifts from the present to a distant past, to a more recent past, and back to the present, is coherent for the reader because Didion explains at the outset of the essay that this is what the reader should expect.

Didion uses meta-text to illustrate both time-flow and the workings of memory twice more in “Goodbye to All That,” at the beginning of the second section and at the beginning of the third. In the second sentence of the second section Didion writes:

Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick-shots—the Seagram Building fountains dissolve in snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street. (227)

Didion begins again with meta-text, explaining that the essay flows through eight years and passes from year to year and scene to scene with the “ease of a film dissolve.” She then refers to her own memory, stating that the eight years she was in New York are like a montage of “sentimental” fades. The next paragraph begins with Didion bringing a friend to a party one December evening to see new faces (227). The next paragraph is about how Didion “was in love with New York,” and she recalls walking around one twilight in spring eating a peach, and she recalls getting her first job in the big city, and peering into the windows of brownstones in the winter (228-229). Sentimental scenes dissolve into each other that are seemingly uncorrelated and decidedly unchronological.

At the beginning of the third section Didion writes from the narrative present that when she remembers New York, “it comes in hallucinatory flashes, so clinically detailed that I sometimes wish that memory would affect the distortion with which it is commonly credited” (233). As with the two previous examples of meta-text, Didion restates that the sequence of events is non-linear and instead of being driven by chronology, her essay pops with “hallucinatory flashes.” Didion also reiterates that her memory is precise and scenes, however hallucinatory, are “clinically detailed.”

As promised in the essay’s initial meta-text, Didion is unable to identify at what point she was “no longer as optimistic” as she had been, and the third section ends with Didion still enjoying parties. She lists various sorts of parties she enjoyed and says it was a very long time before she “began to understand…that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair” (236). Then the fourth section begins: “I could not tell you when I began to understand that. All I know is it was very bad when I was twenty-eight” (236). In the first paragraph, Didion describes how time flows in her essay, says that the basic chronology is non-linear, and that scenes, though perhaps ambiguous or appearing in a broken sequence, are written with vibrant sensory details. Additionally, she predicts that there will not be an “exact place on the page” where her transformation from young and optimistic to older and less optimistic would take place, and so readers are prepared when Didion jumps from enjoying being young in New York to suddenly feeling “very bad” at twenty-eight.

Is White as explicit as Didion about how time flows in “Once More to the Lake”? And does he also tell the reader how time and memory function for him as the narrator? Again, I didn’t have to look far for an answer. White’s first use of meta-text appears in the second paragraph. He writes:

I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot—the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and paths behind camps. I was sure the tarred road would have found it out, and I wondered in what other ways it would be desolated. It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. (533)

White uses meta-text to inform readers that he will be comparing the lake of his childhood with how the lake is in the narrative present, and will thereby judge if time is a force that only and always mars and desolates. Like Didion he comments on how memory functions for him, saying one memory sparks another memory. However, unlike Didion he is not only interested in how time has affected him, but in how time has affected the lake. In this respect the lake itself becomes a character in his essay and so White entwines how time affects both himself and the lake.

White uses meta-text again in the fourth paragraph, where he writes that as soon as he and his son settled into camp he could tell “that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before” (534). The sameness of the lake and the smell of the camp and the presence of his young son warp time for White. Of his son he writes:

I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation. (534)

This “simple transposition” sets up the conflation of past and present time that occurs in the following scene when White takes his son fishing. While the two are on a boat with their rods in the water, a dragonfly lands on the tip of White’s rod, just as he recalled had happened when he went fishing as a boy. This occurrence confirms for White that “there had been no years” between the trips of his childhood and the trip with his son, a sentiment which he expresses two more times before they pack up and quit fishing. Then when White and his son go up to dinner that evening at a farmhouse he notes that “the waitresses were the same country girls” as had served him as a child, “there having been no passage of time.” This is followed by perhaps the best remembered passage in “Once More to the Lake,” which also is a piece of meta-text and could serve as the essay’s treatise on time:

Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottagers with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky…This was the American family at play… (535)

This reflection, which comes about halfway through the essay, also cues the reader that White’s twining of himself and his son begins to unravel. Summertime, the woods, the lake: these provide the unchanging background. But the design does change somewhat over time: the waitresses have clean hair, the boat motors are different, the roads are tarred, the paths are for cars rather than horse-drawn carts, and White has grown older. The “simple transposition” which carries White back to his boyhood also places him in the role of the father, and in this role he can feel himself falling away from the vivacious current of life. When White’s son and several other campers decide to go for a swim after a thunderstorm, White remains on shore. He watches as his son pulls on wet swimming trunks and the essay ends: “As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death”(538).

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Conclusion

That was it, I’d gone through Glover’s entire list of time control techniques and found that both Didion and White use every single one to manage, manipulate, and comment on the flow of time in their essays. Some techniques they use similarly and some techniques they use to produce different effects, but they both use all of them. I was not surprised to see that both writers use time stamps, or that Didion uses more than White as her essay is longer. Nor was I surprised that both writers change between verb tenses to show different sorts of action occurring across different times. I was surprised, however, to see how Didion expresses past scenes primarily in the simple past with frequent jumps to the narrative present, and how White remains almost entirely in the spheres of two past times, which he expresses using distinct forms of the past tense and modal verbs. That both writers use temporal conjunctions and adverbs and temporal prepositional and adverbial phrases was similarly not a surprise, but I was astounded by how often they use them and how often they repeat particular words and phrases; for example, Didion’s tendency to talk about the “first” and “last” time events occurred and White’s frequent use of temporal prepositional phrases, like “in the morning.”

I was somewhat familiar with then/now constructions before writing this paper, but had previously thought of them as a tool of narrative voice, not of time flow. Yet when I considered then/now constructions as a time control technique it became clear that the desire to look at their past experience through the lens of their present self is the defining paradigm and driving force of both White’s and Didion’s essays, and perhaps of personal essays in general.

What was most surprising was that both writers use meta-text to guide readers by describing how time flows in their essays, how scenes are sequenced, and what to expect of the essays’ basic chronologies and conclusions. For example, Didion explains that she is examining a period of eight years, and so her essay is predictably longer than White’s, who is recollecting a week-long trip and comparing it with the month-long trips of his childhood; Didion writes that her essay flows like a series of film dissolves and writes her scenes accordingly; White writes of how one memory sparks another memory, and so he describes a fishing scene with his son that reminds him of fishing when he was a boy.

It was early in June when I’d started wrangling with time control, unsure then of what the technique was even called, and it was late September when I finished my study. I reached for the same drab, fleece blanket that I had wrapped myself in that chilly morning a few months ago as I headed out to my patio, hot coffee in hand, to marvel at all I’d learned from two little essays by White and Didion. Time control techniques pervade “Goodbye to All That” and “Once More to the Lake.” Didion and White use time flow not only to clearly and cleanly move between scenes and events in their essays, but also to convey how time affected them as children, spouses, parents, and as writers, and to share the lessons they learned from memory. Time control in the personal essay is much more than a technique for establishing chronology; it is a vehicle for theme, an expression of mental and emotional evolution, and when properly managed, it makes writing soar. For readers the effect of masterful time control is not too far off from a ride in H.G. Wells’s time machine.

—Rosanna Gargiulo

Works Cited

Didion, Joan. “Goodbye to All That.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Simon and Schuster, 1979, 225-238.

Glover, Douglas. “Packet response.” Received by Rosanna Gargiulo, 8 August, 2016.

White, E.B. “Once More to the Lake.” The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate, Anchor Books, 1995, 533-538.

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Rosanna Gargiulo graduated from UMass Amherst with a B.A. in Journalism in 2013. She lived in the Balkans, southern Africa, Mexico, and beyond, before returning to her home state, Maine, to work at her local newspaper. She currently lives in Bath with her husband and is a student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. She likes to go for long, muddy walks along the coast with her three rescue mutts.

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Jul 012017
 

At the Top of the Page this month, we’re presenting a retrospective series of touchstone posts, pieces that help define the magazine’s aesthetic, which has always functioned as an ideal, potential if not always actual. The pieces include essay by me (“The Novel is a Poem”), Andrew Gallix (on literary bondage), Jason Lucarelli (on Gordon Lish’s concept of consecution), Bruce Stone (on Viktor Shklovsky and Russian Formalism), and Victoria Best’s epic interview with Gabriel Josipovici. Also a selection of my audio interviews with Robert Coover, Gordon Lish, William Gass, and John Hawkes.

—dg

 

Jun 162017
 

Cynthia Huntington

 

This is the book of the night. Night goes down on the hill, into the body of the world; my eyes close. The light of consciousness dims and glows, held in the body of the soul. Returned, sunk down in the heart, sunk and rested in the heart, sink down to nest there. Inner chambers are lit.

Turn around. The oval mirror, that black-backed glass, holds a doorway made small. Objects are reversed and reduced—yet the image is real to us. Go through the door behind you by gazing ahead into the glass. Yes. Gazing forward, I travel back. If space is time. Here space I enter is condensed to a miniature narrative: how does the mountain range fit into my eye? Distance is also mystery, how if you move toward the image in the mirror behind you, it recedes…

These are introductory remarks. I do not know what this book of the night will tell me. It is taking shape in liquid, the pen leaving marks on the page.

It is motion leaving a trace. Guide my hand. I know I am writing this on Samhain, on the brink of midnight, the night of the dead. Bless them, the ancestors and forebears. The lost and forgotten. In the eye of night we are one. Bless us. Today the sky was bright, and colors on the hills flared and subsided. And there was green in the fields still, this last October day.

***

In dream I fled the burning hotel; the fire was fast and high, I felt it on me, the heat coming ahead of the flames, and I fled in a boat with several others, all strangers. We floated upstream, I think for days, and I was troubled in mind, wondering that we had no food, that we rowed on and did not stop to sleep, though it seemed many days had passed. I wanted to make a call to tell my family I had escaped, but when we stopped at last, at some way station that must have been a house, with many rooms, and food set out on a table, I had no coins for the phone. We did not eat. All was delay, the murky delay of dream, but there was waiting for me a packet of air letters on pink and blue and yellow tissue. I opened the letters and saw your handwriting but could not recognize any words. That is when I realized I was dead, that I had died in the fire and could no longer call or send a message or read a letter. That I would not anymore know hunger or need to sleep, that I existed in a permanent now, and the boat was not taking me away, I had only invented the boat so as not to see myself perish in the awful fire.

And still, where did the fire begin? What lit that old hotel in the mountains, that quiet home in memory, what made it blaze? And destroy all that came before…

***

God exploded into souls, or, as the Zohar says, a lamp was shattered, and broken shards of light flew outward sharp as razor points, slicing up the dark. Light bled. Perhaps a black hole turned itself inside out and scattered all the energies of the universe abroad.

In any of these renderings creation does not begin with building—it isn’t a construction, not a matter of piling up bricks ,or fitting pieces together. Neither is it vegetal. Something breaks. And that something is all that is, so it has to break or all being would be confined in one light or object, or a mass of atoms self-held like a fist, all the energy locked up and nothing moving.

First something moves. God-force at play, then the beautiful loneliness of being may begin.

***

Detail subsides to pattern. Which opens to the possibility of metaphor, or magick.

Because new understanding changes reality; this is proven. Before the heart was known it did not beat, it was as a tide slowly rising and falling, and gave out rays to feed the blood.

Strange things are becoming clear.

***

“We have the body.” This is how Edgar Cayce would begin his trance readings for the sick, who came to him most often after all other help tried and failed. First the initiatory illness. The person is broken and remade. I may be cooked to soup, pupa dissolved digested and made again in dark. Quick notes on a guitar light the journey, an unseen person playing.

The organism is fragmented, here on the cusp of dark, looking first to day, then night. To emerge, come forward, or be absorbed? A parlous voyage. The illness decided for me, a disease that was, in itself, all daimon, that could not be predicted, called up or banned, never gainsaid. After thirty years I realize at last the gift of that initiation, always liminal, striking and going away. Leaving shards of broken light.

I am told to repeat that the organism is fragmented, here at the twilight hour. Quick notes on a guitar upstairs. I would lie at the feet of the singer and be healed.

Aristotle believed that the unconscious mind dwelt on the moon. I read that and can’t promise it is true.

***

Dust, and the broken bone heals, stronger at the break. The scars’ adhesions ache, bone thickens there while words shine, glancing off. Done. A man sighs, stepping through a doorway as if giving up were the cost of going forward. An ending is a door, a way of disappearing—to go away is to go on—we disappear into something––another room, a gap in stone leading to a world reversed, a space of dream light. An empty place, a wasteland of sorts: we sift through evidence, objects, shoes scuff on tile, rhyme our passing. The world has passed away, what remains is incidental, a handful of dust tells the story of the past. The break disappears into the healing. In my dream a priest, a kind of sacred butcher, is slicing between each joint, so clean my body falls apart in discrete units. There goes an arm; it is piled neatly with other arms. I must give myself up to this; it is understood. This defeat pictured as a rending. I am all skeleton and flesh clump, still he keeps on carving. I feel no pain but a sharp sense of loss, an unbearable sadness as my body is dissected, rent. Now all is lost. How will I go forward with no body? This must not be how it ends. The dream is a dismembering—breaking down and de-creating world. What follows? We are ghosts, we are fish and birds. We are old children believing our bogeymen. The law that what is taken must return. So moon-dance shadow up from the ground wakes the sleeping daimon and we rise.

***

Then it is morning, and down the road from my house a great hole has opened in the earth. Yellow machines at rest. It is the hole in the earth that interests me. As if I could see in, but of course you don’t see in, it’s earth all the way down. Remove surface to reveal new surface. What, finally, is not surface?

Some things hide, others are hidden, but some things are by nature invisible. The hole in the earth covers the past as quick as it is revealed.

Things that hide or are hidden. My cat (not Schroedinger’s cat.) A secret. The mountain at night.

Hidden but not invisible. Here is the realm of mystery. The organs of our bodies are not invisible but they are not meant to be seen under normal circumstance. Blood may cause a strong man to faint. Blood is secret, personal, familiar. The primitive fear of a menstruating woman–a woman who bleeds without being wounded, who bleeds from the place where life comes, a terrible power that must be shunned. Put her away lest she curse you. I don’t mean primitive in time but in our deepest selves, that power in the blood.

There is power, power wonder-working power, in the glorious Blood of the Lamb. The Hebrews smeared the blood of the Egyptian’s god Khnum, their ram god, on their lintels to warn off the Angel of Death who was God himself in his purifying wrath, gone out to kill the first-born of the unsaved.

Blood is secret and must be kept in the body for it to live. Blood can poison.

Lady Macbeth convicting herself in her madness, unable to stop seeing the blood.

If you put a needle in your vein the currents are joined, the substance, the distilled essence of the flower, becomes you and you are changed. It’s in your blood as we say. Its molecules are part of you, a new signature.

I was speaking of things that are hidden by their nature, internal processes and entities. Other things are invisible by nature. Air. Mind. The fear of dying.

***

The words appear in the night. I click on the message and it opens, blue light in the dark room. He is speaking to me over thousands of miles, out of darkness, my secret friend with no address, somewhere in the west, where the sun goes when it leaves me. Is it any wonder the words go deep, toward my hidden dream self? The dark deep confidences of the soul. I can tell him anything. I cannot see him; I don’t know where he goes when he is not writing to me and I wait. I wait and words appear. He clicks off and I wait.

He must be a monster who can’t show himself, will not be seen. He must be a spirit or daimon. He must live in thrall to whatever goddess he serves, who will not release him willingly.

The words appear in the night: where is their source? Not content to be visited at will, only to wait and receive, I want to know. Nothing could speak to me in the night out of nothing, with sure aim at the mysteries that hold me, unless it is part of me. I go looking for my hidden self who speaks in promise and doubt. Uncovering shame: he is/ I am a monster, maimed, misborn. The heart begins its howling here; the voice comes from the wound, the blood jet. Uncanny. Beyond ken. What is its secret? The prisoner in every tower, we are all the prisoner in the tower.

A message from a prisoner to a prisoner, tapped on the wall in code. I am hungry for touch. I said I would stop this night-flying to whisper in your sleeping ear. You twitch and turn. I leave a white stone on your pillow, you swallow it and waking remember nothing, but a heaviness lies in your gut. The white stone glows like a moon in the dark, why don’t you keep it? Inside you it is a weight: you swallowed all that light.

You will not be commanded. They have left you no way out and so you stand.

***

“You are not obligated to complete the work
but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Talmud

 

The baby was taken at the hospital, the mother sent to detox then rehab. When God exploded into souls, some of us fell on hard ground. The moon’s mirror gazes back, yesterday in its face. What we remember is changed, aftershade of light. No pity for what cannot change.

How the day was torn, bloodied in the low sky, out of the resting body of the hills, the winter trees reaching and then the light was blue, a veil benign, gentling a face, outlines of a face, deep eyes, the Virgin’s head-bent gaze.

When God exploded into souls the primordial essense was too hot, a burning that was not fire such as the sun endures today (our sun a third generation star, reincarnated from two galaxies that died before). The sun does not shrink; it is not fire. It consumes and radiates, creating particles out of energy.

All night facing the dark of space. We are always facing space however we turn, but when the sun, our sponsoring star, heaves into view, things become local again. It makes the atmosphere of dust and water glow, enfolding us in our own reflections.

The infant, the firstborn, cursed. The mark on the lintel. When a child is born addicted, or “exposed” to heroin (it’s always heroin here these last few years) the baby goes into state care, to a foster family. The “state” is officially as well as practically, the baby’s parent until custody is returned or the child adopted out. The sacred terror of this, an infant sent out to strangers. Born to the state.

The women fought, I don’t know over what, they fought like junkies, it is possible they don’t even remember. Their baby, J’s baby has been in foster care six months, straight from the hospital. J’s visitation had been cut back and tensions were high. J ended up in the emergency room and immediately started walking back her story. WE didn’t fight; K didn’t do it. I fell, I tripped, I hit my head.

K already had a warrant, and now a No Contact order, and after J bailed her out she took the pills and ended up in the state hospital. Meanwhile the baby begins life elsewhere, placed with strangers. That the beginning of life offered so little safety these means must be found. The loneliness of the infant then, forever. Yet it must be done. Things have gone this far. What are we doing, how can things have gone so far, and so often, so regularly, that there are routines and offices set up to respond, there are forms already printed to be filled out, and protocols, and court hearings. Imagine that we have to keep carrying infants out of hospitals into new, temporary homes.

Bodies too are carried away. We are so used to knowing this we do not realize how little we grasp it, the dire, heartbroken, violent, repeating of disaster and protocol.The infant knows. He does not understand, but in every fiber he knows. There is a vacancy and a severing of safety. Already a sole voyager.

***

When the dream says weep, I weep. Because we are spun from star matter, debris, and in everything a hidden, immeasurable fire. The alchemists were right: fire is an event, verb not noun, by which matter changes itself. It is an action. It is impermanence, the mortality of matter, that transforms. What we have made with our hands – and our machines are extensions of our hands – is the same stuff of rock and tree. Objects are made of what made us… the table, the lamp, the metal rooster by the fireplace, painted red and yellow… all star stuff. Not of us, not us of them, but all of same… This is philosophizing, making meaning before events have fully appeared, but what will appear? The objects’ motion too slow for the eye to discern, the night blanketed and deep, my restless mind turning change in its gears.

The dog regards the old cat with sorrowful distrust. His woeful countenance. The cat a small blot on his contentment here.

“What about my peace of mind?” S said plaintively to his wife, arguing a minor point, a tedium.

“Dad, no one cares about your goddamn peace of mind!” his daughter, from another room, exasperated and annoyed with hearing him.

It’s true: who cares about your goddamn peace of mind? How deeply I love my shifting consciousness, follow it, trace details, subtlety of mood. The hell with yours.

We are, often, hilarious. Needing that audience from the next room to burst out and correct our self-importance.

Catch the shimmer. Maybe shimmer back at it.

—Cynthia Huntington

 

Cynthia Huntington’s fifth book of poetry, Terra Nova, was published in January 2017 by the Crab Orchard Poetry Series, Southern Illinois University Press. Huntington’s book Heavenly Bodies was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in Poetry. Currently a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry, she teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program and at Dartmouth College, where she holds the Frederick Sessions Beebe Chair in Writing.

 

Jun 162017
 

Photo by César Cid

Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part is a wild ride of a novel that takes on many different forms. The following excerpt comes from early in the book, and concerns two young documentary filmmakers who are working to put together a project on the novel’s nameless protagonist, a writer who recently threw himself into the Hadron Collider and merged with the God Particle.

As they piece together footage at the writer’s home, they also gather quotes and passages said by the writer in various interviews throughout his career. These are frequently hilarious and insightful, and they stretch over many pages. Presented here are just a few of the quotes collected by the filmmakers, which give the reader a sense of author Fresán’s playful approach to storytelling. Note: all bracketed ellipses are part of the novel’s text.

The Invented Part is translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden.

— Benjamin Woodard

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*A recommendation of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Glen Gould (his second version, almost a farewell) as “an ideal soundtrack for sitting down and remaining seated and writing. [. . .] Perfect music for trying to attain that thing Fitzgerald said, that thing about how ‘all good writing is like swimming under water and holding your breath.’” And “Big Sky” by The Kinks as “the best way to kick-start every workday. [. . .] A kind of supplication. An Our Father who is, indeed, in heaven because he is the heavens. And also a way to remember that, while a good part of the writers of my generation wanted to be U2, it’s not bad at all, better in fact, to want to be The Kinks. True, the tours would be more uncomfortable and less spectacular. And the loneliness of the backstage hallway before the instant glory of those hundred meters. But better to be like Harry Nilsson than like Bono. Do any of you have even the slightest idea who Harry Nilsson was or is? Or Warren Zevon? And, just to be clear, I’m not talking about their dissonant and clever self-destructive epics but about their constructive intimacy in the moment of composing subtle and perfect songs. The exquisite way they assemble and disassemble verses and choruses and bridges so their poetry can cross over to the other side where you’re waiting for it. So, that’s how I think about the writing of stories and novels. A particular balance of feelings and sound and phrasings and word games. And the Greek Choir holding hands and singing ‘He goes around saying he’d rather be a rocker than writer, doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do, do doo do doo, doo do, doo do . . .’ In the end . . . Where was I? Ah, yes, I’ll find an easy example: better to be like Ray Davies than like Bono, I think. And I’m repeating myself. I insist. The Kinks. The ones of ‘You Really Got Me,’ Right? But I think more about a song like ‘Big Sky.’ In ‘Big Sky’—like Harry Nilsson in ‘Good Old Desk’ singing to his divine desk; or Warren Zevon in ‘Desperados Under the Eaves,’ feeling down and listening to the sound of the air conditioner, which suddenly inspires a final and majestic crescendo—Ray Davies invokes, without getting too anxious, a sort of unknown deity who doesn’t care much about us. Bono, on the other hand, time and again desperately kneels down in intense prayer to someone he knows well—to himself [. . .]. Staying on topic—and band—I can’t think of a better song than ‘Days,’ also by The Kinks, as background music for lowering the blinds at the end of a workday. But it might be better to listen to Elvis Costello’s crepuscular version and not The Kinks’ original . . . Ray Davies. Thank you . . . All of a sudden I remember that once, a long time ago, Ray Davies rescued me from a University lost among the Iowa cornfields and made it possible for me to go to New York, to hear him sing ‘Days.’ I was there, as a sort of guest writer in an academic B-movie. And I couldn’t leave that place. I was held captive by the bureaucratic spell of a special visa that didn’t allow you to travel around the United States unless someone took responsibility for you. So I found out that Ray Davies was going to play in Manhattan. And I’d never heard or seen him live and in person. And I needed to see him and to hear him. So I tracked down the number of the hotel where he was staying, I was able to get them to put me through to his room and he answered and I explained the situation. He had to talk to the Dean so they would let me leave, so I could go to his concert. Of course at first Ray Davies thought it was a prank being played by some malicious friend, and then, to verify that I was an authentic fan, he made me sing several of his songs over the telephone. Not the easiest ones. No hits. Songs like ‘Polly’ or ‘Too Much on My Mind’ (one of my all-time favorites) or ‘People Take Pictures of Each Other’ or ‘Art Lover’ or ‘Scattered.’ And I knew all of them. But pretty soon he got tired and hung up. A few days later, thanks to a message he sent to the Dean, I left heading east. Ray Davies invited me to have tea with him; he gave me a ticket, and said, ‘This is as far as we go and we’re never going to see each other again, right?’ A true gentleman, yes. An artist who merely raised an eyebrow above the Darjeeling-perfumed steam that rose from his cup and smiled somewhere between amused and sad when I mentioned, indignant, the gall with which, at that time, Blur and Oasis and Pulp stole and falsified his style and songs, reveling in money and fame and barely acknowledging his genius and tutelage and mastery. There are no writers, no writers of books like that. And if there are, I’m not aware of them. There are no fans of writers like that either. Fans of musicians are happy to know their songs and to howl them at concerts or inside rooms with doors shut tight. Fans of writers, on the other hand, are more dangerous: fans of writers want to write, to write something of their own and, with their own writing, to rewrite the other and what the other has written.”

* Something that John Banville said to him once, as they walked around the outside of Martello Tower in Sandycove, about how “style goes on ahead giving triumphal leaps while the plot follows along behind dragging its feet.” Later he wondered whether it might not be possible for the style to go back a few steps and lovingly lift the plot up in its arms, as if it were a brilliant and complicated child, and turn it into something new, different: into a stylized plot, into the most well-plotted of styles. It was Nabokov, and he almost always agreed with Nabokov, who postulated that the best part of a writer’s biography didn’t pass through the record of his adventures, but through the history of his style. Style as an adventure and adventure as style, yes.

* Something he once told someone, while they walked around the outside of who knows where: “The gods of one religion frequently become the devils of the religion that follows it. Something similar happens with writers, with the writers of a prior generation when they are evaluated by the writers of the generation that follows them.”

* Answer: “What would I like as an epitaph on my gravestone? Easy: my name, the word ‘Reader,’ and the years 1963-1,000,000,000 and increasing. And it’s not that I want to live that long; but, warning, the code for the impossible second number passes through the word ‘Reader.’ Which is to say: more time, all time, to be able not to continue writing but to continue reading . . . When I was very young and still concerned with things like my photo on the jacket flap of my books, I once posed wearing a black T-shirt where, written in white letters, it read ‘So many books . . . so little time!’ . . . I bought it in a New York bookstore that no longer exists. The T-shirt no longer exists in my closet either. It disappeared along with those other T-shirts: one with the legend ‘Likes Like/Like Likes’ and another with a reproduction of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, where a friend who designed album covers had inserted my face next to that of William S. Burroughs. But the thing from the first T-shirt—I still think that. It’s extremely unfair that, clearly, neither I, nor anyone else, has the time, all-the-time-in-the-world, to read everything you need to read first in order to write later. To write the best that anyone can write . . . Faulkner, without going any further. I have him here, all the Library of America tomes, waiting. I read him a little and poorly in my adolescence, in deficient translations (which, also, might bring me to all the time I lack to reread, which is like a glorified version of reading) and there he remains, waiting for me. To read? Or not to read? Now? In summer or winter? Is it better that the climate and temperature of the external landscape correspond to Faulkner’s South? Or just the opposite? Next year? Is my writer DNA ready to receive such an explosion and, maybe, find itself changed forever? Who knows? Faulkner is there and there Faulkner stays, howling, like one of those dangerous wolves with one foot tied to a chain whose exact length is unknown. So how close can you safely get without him jumping on you and eating your face? Or, unbeknownst to you, chewing through his own foot and lying there, waiting for you? A lone wolf. Never forget how Faulkner responded to Hemingway suggesting that writers unite and make themselves strong, like doctors and lawyers and wolves. Faulkner mistrusted writers who came together and formed groups and generations, saying they were doomed to disappear, like wolves who are only wolves in packs, but are nothing but docile and harmless dogs on their own, dogs that are all bark and no bite.”

— Rodrigo Fresán, Translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden

Published with permission from Open Letter Books

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Rodrigo Fresán is the author of nine novels, including Kensington GardensMantra, and The Bottom of the Sky. His works incorporate many elements from science-fiction (Philip K. Dick in particular) alongside pop culture and literary references.

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Will Vanderhyden received an MA in Literary Translation from the University of Rochester. He has translated fiction from Carlos Labbé, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Juan Marsé, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Rodrigo Fresán, and Elvio Gandolfo.

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Jun 162017
 

Rodrigo Fresán elegantly balances the strange with the common.
— Benjamin Woodard

The Invented Part
Rodrigo Fresán
Translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
Open Letter, 2017
$18.95, 552 pages

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The opening of Rodrigo Fresán’s ingenious, postmodern page-turner, The Invented Part, feels something like a soft focused cinematic dream that gradually sharpens. Movie buffs, of which Fresán is a longstanding ally, may conjure an early scene from Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life here: Joseph tells fellow guardian angel Clarence to examine the town of Bedford Falls, but because Clarence hasn’t received his angel’s wings, everything he sees is a blur. It’s only after Joseph assists (“Oh, I forgot. You haven’t got your wings yet”) that shapes emerge, lines taper. Now, imagine that same visual, only textually: a haze of words, a series of threads—on the ideas of beginnings, punctuation marks, and novel construction—that feel unconnected, but which slowly tie together with extraordinary verbal dexterity, seducing the reader into Fresán’s world. Passages like:

To breathe like this: the way they breathed back then, opening and stepping inside one of those books that have the scent of book and not, as noted, the scent of machine and electric engine, of speed and lightness and short sentences, not for the wise power of synthesis but on the crass basis of abbreviation. To breathe differently, slowly and deep down inside. To breathe in books that readers, with any luck if they’re lucky, will come to enjoy like the pure oxygen of a green forest after a long time lost in the black depths of a carbon mine.

create not only a bewitching rhythm via word repetition, but also relay narrative intention: Fresán is interested in stepping both in and out of what we consider linear fiction, of jostling expectations while tunneling deep within scientific and emotional philosophies. And as these intentions comingle, Fresán reveals a scene on a beach, where a young boy (referred to as The Boy) frolics in the water while his parents bicker and read separate copies of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. This boy, “a restless child,” who nearly drowns at that beach, is Fresán’s protagonist, and he grows up to become a respected author—in addition to being The Boy, he is also credited as The Writer, The Lonely Man, and X in various chapters—who, now in his fifties, decides to throw his body into the Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, and become one with the God particle, existing in everything, throughout history, at all time, space, and place.

Why does The Writer/The Boy/X/The Lonely Man decide to do this? He’s depressed. Specifically, he’s fed up with the technological world, of 140 character missives, of seeking answers online rather than asking questions:

“But everything I’m telling you, if you’re so intrigued, you could’ve found out in a matter of seconds via Google…Why didn’t you just do that?”

And the Lonely Man doesn’t have the strength to tell him that, if that’d been the case, they’d never have had that conversation.

He does not feel at home in the world, and so he figures that becoming omnipresent may allow him to adjust history to his liking. Not that The Invented Part doles this information out in a remotely traditionally narrative style. Broken into three sections and seven chapters, the novel spends as much time with its protagonist as it does without, leaping—like a being at one with the universe, perhaps—throughout time and from characters to explain itself in a piecemeal fashion. For example, after the long setup and scene on the beach, Fresán shifts to the present, introducing two young filmmakers (credited as The Young Man and The Young Woman, naturally) constructing a documentary on The Writer, who has recently gone missing. From here, Fresán transitions into a nearly unbroken 100-plus-page block of text that recounts the story of The Writer’s sister’s strange marriage to a man from a clandestine secret society, before again returning to The Young Man and The Young Woman. Such fractures continue until the novel’s final page, and it’s enough to make one think that, due to its pell-mell construction, the book can be consumed in any order. After all, for another chunk of the book, Fresán’s hero discusses Chinese bijis, a genre of literature that roughly translates to “notebook.” Filled with lists, anecdotes, and other curiosities:

… it’s possible to read them not according to any order, opening a path for ourselves, starting at any point and jumping back and forth or up and down or side to side. Beginning at the end and ending at the beginning. The idea is that, one way or another, each reader ends up discovering a story as unique as her reading.

Yet as The Invented Part continues, Fresán’s seemingly scattershot unveiling of detail, while often fulfilling a biji’s requirement of inventories and anecdotes, reveals itself to be extremely controlled, filled with image patterns and references that make the novel impossible to read in any other configuration. This arrangement also lends itself to hours of flipping back through the text, hunting for scenes that overlap, or objects that provide key emotional transformations further down the road, like the wind-up tin toy first found by The Young Man in The Writer’s home, which reappears later (and, in the timeline, earlier) in the hands of a boy at a hospital. The tin man shows up a third time when it is spied in a shop window by a friend of The Writer, Tom, who is told by his young son that the toy should be placed on the cover of his next novel. When Tom reminds his son he’s not a writer, but a musician, his son replies, “That’s here, Papi; but in another of the many space-time wrinkles, you’re a writer.” (It should be noted that both the English and the original Spanish edition of the novel do, in fact, feature renditions of the tin man on their covers.) The toy returns even later, too, but to reveal its significance in these final scenes would be like explaining the prestige of a magic trick. Mentioning that the toy carries a suitcase, however, may be enough of a hint.

In addition to the wind-up traveler, multiple appearances from William S. Burroughs, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Kinks’ Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and his novel, Tender Is the Night, pockmark the text. This last object not only serves as the favorite book of The Writer’s parents, but also is subject to a lengthy dissection, linking the novel to the parents—famous models who die in a politically-charged hostage situation—through the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy, Fitzgerald’s real-life inspirations, while simultaneously provoking potential critics of Fresán’s novel-in-progress by noting that initial reviews of Tender Is the Night “question[ed] its structure with the long central flashback. And they consider[ed] the decadence and fall of Dick Diver as excessively melodramatic and implausible.” Coincidentally, by this point in the novel, The Invented Part has featured several long diversions (including the analysis of Tender Is the Night), and has done little to explain the “fall” of The Writer. Though these similarities are hardly faults (I’d argue that they make for a more compelling read), Fresán’s self-awareness in these passages is witty and daring, practically taunting potential criticism of his style by beating it to the punch.

This kind of self-awareness materializes many times in The Invented Part, but it never feels precious or hokey. If anything, it merges reader and author, and Fresán’s metacommentary keeps everyone moving toward the same goal. Perhaps this is best achieved when The Writer speaks about his definition of “irrealism,” saying, “If magical realism is realism with irreal retails, then logical irrealism is its twin opposite: irreality with realistic details…And yet, is there anything as irreal as so-called realism?” This idea ties into what the protagonist also sees as “the invented part” of life, described as:

…the part that actually makes something that merely happened into something that should have happened. Something (everything to come, the rest of his life, will spring from that there and then, from that exact moment) more authentic and valuable and pure than the simple and banal and often unsubtle and sloppy truth.

The Invented Part thrives on its ability to construct something out of nothing, making a day at the beach a life-changing event, or placing The Writer/Lonely Man in a hospital, waiting to hear lab results, and letting his mind wander to construct a series of story sketches for a new collection. Rodrigo Fresán elegantly balances the strange with the common, the experimental with the traditional, and the result is one of the most satisfying postmodern novels in recent memory.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

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

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Jun 152017
 

 

The excerpts reproduced here are the opening and ending of a decade-long correspondence between a man and a woman, the award-winning literary translator Bernard Hœpffner and a certain “Sarah M.,” then a graduate student and hidden behind a pseudonym. The exchange had been preserved and assembled by Hœpffner into a sprawling epistolary work, a romance. Its interest lies primarily in the lovers involved–bi-and tri-lingual workers-in-language already well into their lives, separated less by geography than by their choices and responsibilities–who in the course of time fashion a common heteroclite idiom of emotions as these ebb and flow, are first born and, years later, die a natural death.

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•    Hello Mon, 24 May 2004

Hello Sara, It was very nice meeting you, and then bumping into you at all times (odd times) and I hope we’ll bump into each other again soon.

I came back with a heavy cold.

I forgot to wish you a merry and happy wedding on Saturday.

Je t’embrasse,

Bernard

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∞    Tue, 25 May 2004

Still spellbound. Morbidly glad about your barefoot farewell.

Correcting papers as therapy. Time keeps on its petty pace… How would you translate “froggy dew”?

Best regards to your salad (roquette?) S

P.S. Won’t be back here till Thursday noon.

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•    Frogs Tue, 25 May 2004

Sara, “Rosée de grenouilles” ou “rosée grenouillère”, mais mieux encore, puisqu’il s’agit de grenouilles minuscules, pour donner l’effet de rosée, “rosée grenouillette”.

Good luck for paper correcting; I’m trying to imagine you in your little ol’ factory: “[…] and if you ever could see her the way I saw her/well you’d never go back to the ol’ factory/no I’m never going back to the ol’ factory dreams of a little clothes shop on the lower east side […]”

Vôtre, Bernard

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∞    Frogs    Thu, 27 May 2004

Merci pour la rosée aux grenouilles. J’ai enfin rendu les copies. En attendant la nouvelle fournée mercredi prochain, je retourne à “ma petite entreprise” domestique. My little ol’ factory has a pretty sunny terrace with fragrant purple roses (a word for “mauve”?). But some old scents are still hanging around.

Best S

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•     FROGer de Coverley    Thu, 27 May 2004

Sara, Odd to write it like that (without an h)!

Six and a half hours yesterday with a Libé journalist who came all the way here for “a few questions about Ulysses” left me exhausted, today, only the old banger to go through control test and a bit of FRoger Coover, a bit of watering the old strawberries and some rereading of Gilbert Sorrentino (maybe I’m correcting my own papers).

Not knowing much about correcting papers, I have difficulties imagining you doing it: do you scratch your head, or chew your pen, do you screatch your had for all you have, or do you shine your pew, is this a cue?

Do you know, I don’t like admitting it (of course) but I’m missing you.

Still and again, all the best on Saturday (who’s handing you over?)

Bernard

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∞     FROGer de Coverley     Fri, 04 Jun 2004

Saturday’s done gone, as Bigger would say (reading Wright, sounds like an oximoron, or Davenport). I’m a big girl so I handed myself out. My sons helped: Max (12) sang the nuptial march, Leo (6) checked the signatures, so nobody could cheat. I guess now I’m a “married woman”, but that doesn’t feel any different, except for the cold I caught. And my newly acquired husband’s absence (he went for a few days to (Ivory?) Tours, and returns tomorrow). Maybe it’s some kind of rite of passage or initiation to married life.

So I’m left alone with Your Anatomy & your Melancholy: I’m very much impressed indeed with so much erudition, thank you. It will take me about a century only to read, but at least, you’ve solved my problem of choice as to what book to take to the US in order to keep up my French. It certainly unfurled again your words into my brain, before I came back to University to read your email (there are no more classes, so I come seldom: I’ll be back on the 10th).

In case it’s urgent (and not really compromising) you can write to my home mail, (at least the email is free). But it is not really private. So the tone of my response will certainly be more official.

Good luck with (F)Roger (Rabbit?) de Coverley.

Sara

P.S. I bite my nails heavily and often nibble all sorts of things (raisins, almonds, pens). And I’ve just picked up the new load of papers (about a hundered).

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•     Where and When    Wed, 09 Jun 2004

Sara, So short a time — two days — and now regretting not having made more of it. But what’s a regret if not an aigrette (a puff on a cigarette) for a cheap novelette? I do not know much about you but I would like to see you again. This email is nuisome as, contrary to the normal use of it, you only rarely have access to it (the 10th, you wrote) and it would seem that what I write here would brobably be considered too compromising to appear on your family screen, yet, so far, only compromising words, it appears.

It’s hot, it’s dry, I went down to Avignon to meet an American writer whom I wish to translate here, we had a lovely time. Yesterday was the transit of Venus and my cumpleaños; not having proper welder’s goggles, I couldn’t observe the transit, but one year’s transit was duly recognized without glasses. Yesterday, sowing of beans, watering the almond and apricot trees planted last autumn, this morning sickling the long grass along the electric fence meant to stop roe deer and wild boar from eating and destroying everything as they did a few years ago. Writing to Sorrentino and Davenport, translating Coover, getting ready for a workshop on Bartleby, getting ready for the Joyce celebrations, translating more Coover, forgetting my hat and getting a headache (“A giddy Megrim wheel’d about my head”), picking and eating strawberries by the bushel under which I hide my light, going down to the village to buy tobacco, taking my wife to the bus so she could go to work in Lyon, translating some more Coover… and having a quick browse through the Sorrentino I will soon be starting to translate.

Oh, but I blubber, I blubber… I’d like to see you again, I’d like to hear you, you can phone me; the number’s here below. I don’t even know how long you’re staying in Paris (Montreuil) before leaving for Prince-town.

I did say it before, I miss you, Sara.

Vôtre, Bernard

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∞     Where and When     Thu, 10 Jun 2004

Here I am. No regrets. More of it? How much less would then be left to fantasy… And I’ll not comment on Venus, though I did try to see it without googles. It is well known it burns your retinas, so I didn’t insist (les aigrettes pour les mirettes?). But a glimpse from time to time spices up the day.

So you’re a Gemini, right? Intellectually and artistically versatile, but what’s the dark side? My birthday is July 25th (almost like Juliet), and the next one is a “jubilee”: 40 (no longer a Lolita), though I may hide the cards, and stay 36 for a while (like Oscar Wilde’s ladies).

My timetable is quite more prosaic than yours: papers, accounts and telephone calls for the visits of the apartment on sale. But I have some very pleasant rituals: singing with Leo (6) on his way to school in the morning so he wouldn’t be sad, splashes with the kids in the small plastic swimming-pool on the terrace under the parasol when it’s hot (and it IS HOT now), cool lemonade, annual rock-concerts of a friend, who was a rock star in the 80ies in ex-Yugoslavia (I went there yesterday on my own and met about 20 or more acquaintances and friends: it’s like going to a high-school party).

Actually, June is rather pleasant in Paris: just before la Fête de la Musique, there are also translators’ meetings at the Cité U, and some quite versatile people coming up from down South. I may not be there in the morning as I have a “Kermesse de l’école” (?), but I’ll come in the afternoon (no double bind), and some might find it quite compromising (Mafreuxville, guess who). He’s a scandalmonger (?), but I’ll be leaving soon so who cares.

I’ll certainly feel quite inadequate among great translators so unlike me.

I’ll be in Paris for a while longer, as I’m not leaving for Princeton before August 15th. And I should go to Aix sometime by the end of June or mid-July for a few days to listen to some Bambara tapes at Regards Croisées. And then I’ll go to the seaside from mid-July to mid-August (Croatia). Now I must run home. I’ll be back here on the 15th.

It always thrills me to open the mail, though I must admit I’m a bit afraid of meeting you.

no-x

P.S. Why do you hide a light under a strawberry bushel?

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•     The Joke’s on me     Thu, 10 Jun 2004

“P.S. Why do you hide a light under a strawberry bushel?”

For I’m a Bible thumper, for I’m a Bible reader, for I’m (right now) listening to Big Bill Bronzy: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick” — this might be the dark side of geminis, they won’t hide it and will put it on a candlestick; and, maybe more seriously, cos’ some of my greatest pleasures are growing vegetables and fruits and that day I did pick a bushel of the pink stuff. That’s how the cookie crumbles… Do you know, for Geminis are supposed to have a sense of humor, I was bubbling up with laughter in Pau, I mean on Saturday, for I was working on Mulligan Stew in the early morning in my hotel room, and as I want (wanted) to share the joke with you since you were fulsomely and unwittingly part of it, I will now send you the passage in question, now in a more acceptable French so you’ve got the succedaneum. I hope you also find the joke funny.

Thursday evening and a subtle sunset rolling out in layers horizonwards, bands of the purest Virgin blue (no, no, not royal!) overlaid with a kind of sumptuous (come on, no holds barred, luscious) strawberry pukey gauzy stuff (Willy May, don’t ya hear me callin’ ye? [funny, “I’m going down the line” pronounced “I’m going dandelion”]); zen the puke burnin’ an’ boilin’ o’er the hill.

I enjoyed you description of your activities, singing your kid (6) to school, lemonade and swimming pool. (Now it’s Lou-iiiii-se, you’re the sweetest gal I know. And the sky’s turning dove grey.) You did strike me, struck my fancy, your compleat being seems to be made of the flimsiest humor (there’s a word, a better one, but I can’t find it, maybe I will before I’m done with this). From the first day when I saw you standing for hours — it seemed — at the café in Pau. Don’t you worry your pretty smiling eyes, I’m not talking about love at first sight and all that. I enjoyed cropping against you (bunking into you: Brooklyn slang of the 40’s says Sorrentino in his last letter, meaning bumping into [“The pacific bunking into North Carolina”]), with almost no conscious will to do so. So I’m talking friendly relations, though sex does rear its not so ugly head sometime (Vid. attached document). I simply mean seeing you again, having enjoyed so much these two “bunking” days.

And I’ll be happy to see you on Saturday 19 if you manage to come, and screw the ol’ scandalmonger. At any rate, I believe my wife will be there, what scandal can there be? And we did conduct us all proper and shipshape before, didn’t we now? And zen I’ll be busy with me workshop, I would prefer not to, Deleuze’s crap, dead letters and all that. Nevertheless, you sure will be a welcome sight for sore eyes.

Then sure we’ll have some time and surely a few occasions in some near future, won’t we?

I’m gone four days in Majorca first days in July to see me favourite daughter (27) on a one-year cruise over the Mediterranean billows, but I sure will find occasion to go up to Paris, if somehow this might prove feasible for you. Let me know how things stand yourwards (You see, there’s now a definite Prussian green on the horizon, despite everything the French say to the contrary). Maybe there’ll also be a pissobolity while you’re in Aix; like meeting in Avignon or something.

Hey, why should you be afraid of meeting me? We met before, you know! I’m the rubber man.

I won’t be able to read any email from you before the 19, as you won’t have this before the 15 and I’ll be in Paris on the 15th for Gallimard’s big Ulysse do, then all next day with the “team” and the evening at France Cul for some live performances (they say Jeanne Moreau will come to read, but I’ll believe that when I see her); then 2 days in Lille before coming down again on the 19. But this of course is not to stop you from sending me an email for when I’m back in ol’ Dieulefit. (“I will buy you a frigidaire when you mooooove!”)

Some-x, Bernard

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•     Esprit d’escalier     Fri, 11 Jun 2004

Sara, Sprightly and lithe were the words I was looking for yesterday: or sprlithely.

Bernard

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•     Dimanche    Mon, 14 Jun 2004

Sara, I finally have to remain in Paris for an urgent CA on Monday morning. Maybe we can also see each other, even if briefly, on Sunday or Monday a.m. We’ll see if you can make it on Saturday, otherwise, maybe I could give you a tinkle (oh, ever so British, that!)? At any rate, I do trust our good star… we’re bound to meet, aren’t we? Bertie

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∞     Dimanche     Tue, 15 Jun 2004

Bertie suddenly sounds so familiar. And though I don’t like cooking, I don’t despise good stew, and I definitely love cookies and strawberry crumble (I still didn’t get the candle though). And jokes. And sunsets (my doorway is turned westward, quite above the city, and the evening sometimes bowls you off your feet with loud orange-pink and soft bluish green). And Hopkins (that was about sprightly lithe sprlithely Poe, sorry Pau). I’m drowning in your words.

Soft sift in an hourglass… (that much about the Deutschland) until Saturday.

Of course I’m afraid, look what you’ve sent me! How am I to keep the distance under all the gazing eyes? I’m afraid I’ll be meeting my diary, but I’ll have to pretend I cannot read or write at all. And speak convincingly of things that will probably not be on my mind.

But no regrets.

Bye S

P.S. Would be great if you had a cell(o)phone.

P.P.S. Oh, “pissobolity” sounds tickling.

PPPS Will be back here next Tuesday or Wednesday (the 23rd) after you get home to Dieu-sait-où…

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•     Monday Evening    Mon, 21 Jun 2004

Sara, This won’t be long; I just got back here and, afore getting a salad and a few strawberries for dinner and then to bed (I’m exhausted, the CA was a tough one), I wanted to send you a little word — there’ll be more tomorrow.

In the train (I mean in the toilet of the train), found a beautiful long blond hair coiled round my cock… where did it come from?

You can phone me any time between the time you receive this (or before) and Friday morning. I don’t dare phone you — I mean I don’t want to get shot.

Sorry if I’m gluing you in words, but you do twist me round your little finger.

Love, and kisses.

Will write again tomorrow.

It was so nice you managed to come today, even (and especially) for so short a time, your eyes and smile remain (not like the Cheshire cat’s). Bertie

[…]

*******

•    Us   9/11/13

Are we sure?

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∞    Us   9/11/13

Is anything ?

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•     The end    18/11/13

In other words, starts with a bang, ends in a whimper… B

—Sarah M. & Bernard Hœpffner

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Bernard Hœpffner, after working as a restorer in London and as a farmer in the Canary Islands, has been writing and translating for the last thirty years. He has translated, among others, the works of Gilbert Sorrentino, Robert Coover, Thomas Browne, James Joyce, Mark Twain, Robert Burton, William Shakespeare, Philip Sidney, Jacques Roubaud, Pierre Senges, Elizabeth Bishop, Will Self and Gabriel Josipovici; he has written a number of short stories and essays, as well as a book, Guy Davenport: L’Utopie localisée. He is one of the rare bilingual literary translators working today.

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Sarah M. prefers not to divulge too much of herself.

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Jun 152017
 

A little Ken Kesey, a little Kurt Vonnegut, a little Richard Brautigan, Scott McClanahan would probably scoff at the literary label. His books are mostly easy reads. His clipped sentences breeze right by. The intimacy of his voice is a lullaby. —Jason Lucarelli

The Sarah Book
Scott McClanahan
New York Tyrant, 2017
150 pages; $15.00

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Scott McClanahan’s latest novel The Sarah Book has been forthcoming since as early as 2011. It’s been called “the Chinese Democracy of indie lit,” and the cover is ripped straight from Guns N’ Roses’s Use Your Illusion II, while lyrics from Use Your Illusion I’s “November Rain” appear in the book. The final product is a “continuation of the semi-autobiographical portrait he’s been writing over the years about his life in West Virginia.” This portrait spans McClanahan’s previous books: Stories (2008, Six Gallery Press), Stories II (2009, Six Gallery Press), Stories V! (2011, Holler Presents), The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 (2012, Lazy Fascist Press), Crapalachia (2013, Two Dollar Radio), and Hill William (2013, Tyrant Books). Many of these books were dedicated to his real-life wife Sarah. Now, The Sarah Book explores the breakup of his marriage to Sarah in the fiction-blends-fact format of his previous literary efforts.

A little Ken Kesey, a little Kurt Vonnegut, a little Richard Brautigan, Scott McClanahan would probably scoff at the literary label. His books are mostly easy reads. His clipped sentences breeze right by. The intimacy of his voice is a lullaby. (Listen to him read.) There’s no shaking his charming blend of comedy and tragedy. His simplicity is a spell. “I’m looking for little surprises,” he says in an interview at Oxford American. “I’m much more interested in amateurism than professionalism. Prose needs to get sloppy again and then maybe we can find something useful.”

Oxford American has called Scott McClanahan “one of the most unrestrained writers of our time.” Author Sam Pink says, “He writes in a way that is conscious of both his own absurdity and that of others, without overdoing either.” To corroborate these claims, here’s a passage from The Sarah Book:

The first time I met Sarah Johnson she told me I was going to shrink my penis.

She was wearing a black turtleneck and tights with a black skirt and black boots that came up to her knees. She looked like a cartoon character and she had big-big, big-big, big brown eyes. Her nose was small and her mouth was tiny like a dot. The dot turned down in the corner like a frown, but fuck descriptions.

I drank my Mountain Dew and she said, “You know that has yellow 5 in it? It’s been known to shrink penises.”

I took a chug from a big bottle and said, “That’s why I’m drinking it. Need to take a few inches off.”

She laughed like this: Say, O my god. O my god. Then say it for a million times.

It’s slightly sophomoric, but this seemingly careless flow of comedy is tinged with a poetic sensibility that perfectly captures Scott McClanahan’s prose style.

The Sarah Book is full of passages like this one, and it’s also full of a sense of loss that’s traceable through—what else?—word patterns. The dominant pattern begins in the isolated opening paragraph:

There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself.

This passage foretells the entire novel, and repeated references to the pattern reinforce this feeling of losing, having lost, being gone.

The novel opens on narrator Scott grappling with anger, alcoholism, and depression in the manner of narrators from other of McClanahan’s fictions. There’s little indication for why this particular narrator is the way he is, and because the novel is told through the first person perspective, we’re left with the limited awareness of a narrator whose bad behavior precedes his marital woes. He drives drunk with his kids in the car, burns a Bible, energetically calls up 6.66 with Taco Bell orders, and destroys his porn-browsing history by sledge-hammering his computer and destroying his wife’s archive of baby photos in the process. After Sarah demands a divorce, he moves into the Walmart parking lot, tries killing himself with Tylenol and Pepto Bismol, sells his wedding ring for 250 dollars, and visits a strip club where he pays for a lap dance from a former student. The entire novel is a series of missteps that lead only to more missteps.

Inside the story of how Scott lost Sarah is how Scott met Sarah. Between all of the debauchery (narrator Scott even celebrates a “Day of Debauchery”) and self-inflicted wounding are continuations of the “lost” pattern from the novel’s opening:

As I drove through the mountains, I wonder if I knew I would marry Sarah ten years later and we’d raise children together in the house I just left. I wonder if I knew that one day I’d be writing about how we met and how we only love what we lose.

The reminiscent narrator bridges the past and the present through memories at the level of the paragraph and word associations at the level of the sentence. Here’s a variation of the pattern in a scene after Scott and Sarah attend a co-parenting class in preparation of their divorce:

I saw Sarah’s black Honda CRV. I saw Sarah inside. She had her hands to her face. And she was just sitting in her car and she was weeping. She was wiping away the tears from her face with a wadded up handkerchief and she was trying to stop crying, but still she sobbed. I saw that she wasn’t a rock. She was just a person who I had loved and now she was gone. I was gone too.

In another scene, after moving into an apartment with his friend Chris who is also going through a divorce, Scott discovers baby kittens beside the parking lot dumpster. Scott heads to the grocery store for food to feed the hungry baby kittens, but on the way home Scott accidentally runs over one of the kittens. He vows to bury the kitten when he returns home from work, but he returns to find that the garbage truck has run over the kitten again:

I made it a new monument that evening. A true one. When I came home again the next evening I whipped the wheel wide and I ran over the kitten lump. The next morning I backed up and watched the dumpster grow larger. I ran over this death. The morning after that I came back home and ran it over again. Then the next day I ran over it once more and I knew if I ran over it enough then maybe one day it would all be gone.

You could say there’s some symbolism here for the loss of his wife, his marriage, his family, even himself, or you could lay every instance of the pattern out in front of you, follow the connections, and feel that sense of loss for yourself. The pattern balances the tragic and the comedic, and when McClanahan’s writing is at its best, either emotion is never far behind the other.

The novel is mostly a series of memories from before, during, and after Scott’s his divorce to Sarah. At the end of the novel, during a dinner with Sarah, his kids, his new girlfriend Julia, and Sarah’s new boyfriend, the narrator has a sense of looking back, as if he’s beyond this moment in the life of his strange new family, as if all of life’s emotions are only a series of moments. The Sarah Book is the often-told story of a man who lost it all and finally loses himself on his way to becoming someone else.

In the same interview from Oxford American, McClanahan says, “This writing stuff has actually helped me to lose everything I ever cared about. I lost a family over the amount of time I’ve spent on it. It’s some weird graphomania I can’t stop. I wish a doctor could cure me. My books are my demons and I want to be rid of them.” If his books are our demons, in our hands his books are a reflection of how cruel we can be to each other and ourselves. But sometimes it takes a little cruelty to get away.

—Jason Lucarelli

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

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Jun 142017
 

Photo credit: Javier Oliaga

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“Caps” (originally “Chavales con gorra” or “Boys with Caps”) by Fernando Aramburu, evokes the unease and uncertainty still present, sometimes prevalent, in Spanish society more than 40 years after the transition to democracy. Despite massive tourism, new infrastructure, the allure of Madrid and Seville, the prosperity of Barcelona, and the fame of Basque gastronomy, there is an undercurrent of malaise, not only from deep economic depression in rural Spain, especially Andalucia, but from the fact that political tensions both intraregional, and more obviously between left and right, are never far from the surface. Spain is restive in part because of the tacit agreement in recent decades that in order to move forward the past must be silenced; but other voices, other people, some who survived the Civil War (now mostly their descendants) and the hard subsequent years, demand that those times not be buried, and call for a literal exhumation of what’s been covered over—bodies, records, archives, and the need to confront the grim truths of political tragedy. “Caps” dramatizes the shadowy tension of a supremely capable nation at odds with its national identity, and the quiet menace one can sometimes feel in the poor back streets and quiet plazas of Spanish, Basque, and Catalan cities, the old stones pocked and pitted from bullets and bombs.

— Brendan Riley

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The morning light comes flooding into the room where he’s just thrown back the curtain. Motionless in the bed, the woman doesn’t notice a thing because, according to her habit, she’s sleeping with a mask over her eyes. They arrived last night, late. The town (eighteen thousand inhabitants, according to the pamphlet on the night table) is not such a popular tourist destination as the other cities scattered along the same coastline. That’s exactly why they picked it out on the map when they decided to get out of Malaga as fast as possible.

“If we can’t hide out here, Josemari,” the woman said as they rode up in the elevator, “then tell me some better place, unless you want to leave the country.”

The view from the hotel window embraces a landscape of white facades, rooftop terraces, television antennas, and the occasional silhouette of a palm tree. Save for a thin sliver of the sea glimmering in the distance, the houses block any view of the beach. Directly across the street is a funeral home. Two hearses sit outside, parked alongside a row of oleander bushes.

An hour earlier, he’d gone downstairs by himself to have breakfast. As he was giving his room number to the girl in the business suit in charge of writing down the guests who arrived to eat, he’d heard young voices and laughter coming from the dining room. With poorly disguised uneasiness he’d suddenly told her that he had to make an urgent telephone call and that he’d be right back, but he didn’t return.

He sits for a long time waiting for his wife’s sleeping pill to wear off. Among other things, the room’s minibar contains two small tablets of chocolate and a bag of salted almonds. These suffice for breakfast, and he washes them down with a few gulps of mineral water, not chilled quite enough by the little refrigerator. Then he drinks an airplane bottle of brandy, taking little sips; he usually doesn’t touch alcohol in the morning.

The bottle empty, he writes in the small Moleskine notebook that his son once brought back as a gift from London: My father, may he rest in peace, would be spinning in his grave if he knew that Im planning to sell the family machine shop. Its the end of an era, but I know full and well that at sixty-three Im far too young to be dead and buried. But I also want someone to know all this just in case those people find me.

The day they left Alicante to try their luck in Malaga, she’d suddenly had a different idea, that they move to London for a while instead.

“Until they forget about us.”

“Those guys? Forget? I really doubt it. Besides, I don’t think our daughter-in-law would be too thrilled to have to put us up again.”

“Put us up, that’s ridiculous, Josemari. We’ve helped them out so much. They’ve had no shortage of financial benefits. And we don’t have to move in with them if they could just help us find a flat to rent.”

“Alright. But let’s first have a look at Malaga while we’re at it. It’s a big city. We might have some luck there.”

The funeral home abuts a small plaza whose surface, from the fifth floor window, seems to be hard-packed sand. In the plaza he sees an old brown-skinned man seated on a bench. Across him stretches the shadow of a palm tree whose crown is thick with bunches of dates. Near the old man, three little girls jump rope. On another bench two young women are talking, each one with her baby stroller.

He jots down in the Moleskine: Peace and quiet, for the moment.

A few minutes later, the woman wakes up. As she claws off her sleeping mask, she becomes aware of her husband sitting by the window. Smiling, she asks him:

“What do you see, another boy in a cap?”

“This place is alright. It’s got plenty of light. The seaside and palm trees. I was thinking about maybe opening some little luxury hotel like you were talking about the other day. That would keep us busy. Just twenty beds, no more. And to hell with everything else. We could put it in your name just in case. And then about half a dozen employees to look after it, only from Andalucia, and we’ll just keep out of sight, all right?”

The woman slips out of her bedclothes before stepping into the bathroom. She has a scar where she once had a breast. The worst part of her treatment is over. During her last consultation Doctor Arbulu assured her that save for some unlikely new complication she was, essentially, cured. Her husband suspects that they must have spotted her on the way home from the clinic; and that made it easy to follow them to Alicante.

Even though it’s Sunday, white smoke drifts up from the funeral home chimney.

He writes: Well have to do what Maite suggests. If theres no way to settle down here then well go abroad.

A boy with gypsy features comes walking along in front of the funeral home. His long hair hangs down to his shoulders, and his hands are sunk deep in his trouser pockets. He walks with long rapid steps, and never turns his gaze towards the hotel. A good sign. Also, he’s wearing leather boots. Only the locals would wear boots like that in such hot weather. The kid waves to the old man on the bench without stopping. The old man replies by gently shaking his cane.

He hears the shower running in the bathroom. He writes: All this would make Dad so very sad. Youve got to hang on, son. Youve got to hold on, like I did during the war and the hard years after that. Its what he always said. But the old man lived through different times. I cant keep the business going from six hundred miles away. If youre not right there keeping an eye on things theyll just ruin you. The trucks, well, Ill sell those, and if I have to get back into shipping then Ill buy some more and reopen the company in Seville. With a new name, of course. Well maybe its because of Dad that Ive still not gone abroad. I have to write this down so someone at least will know.

An hour later they go downstairs, out into the street. She wears a special bra, with a foam rubber insert that allows her to disguise the fact she’s missing a breast. They both hide their eyes behind new sunglasses.

“Whenever we see a church,” she says, “let’s stop to see if there’s a schedule of masses.”

No sooner do they step out onto the street than he thrusts his chin towards the funeral home.

“They burn them on Sundays.”

“How do you know?”

“Shit, don’t you see the smoke?”

“Fine, Josemari, let’s change the subject. Left or right? Which way are we going?”

“The water has to be that way.”

They cross the street arm in arm. It’s a habit from when they first started going out, many years ago. Lately, they don’t do it so much anymore, not since that evening when they had to abandon their house and leave everything behind. Maybe they’re doing it now from the need to feel united in a new place filled with strange faces.

At first, Maite was convinced that her husband’s fear caused him to see a ghost on every corner. They’d be walking down the street in Alicante or Malaga, and suddenly he’d say to her:

“Turn but pretend you’re not looking. You’ll see two boys next to the stoplight. See them?”

“I see a lot of people, Josemari.”

“The ones wearing caps. I don’t know about you but they’re giving me a bad vibe.”

Maite didn’t really pay much attention to her husband’s jitters until that day in the rented flat in Alicante, when the telephone rang at three-thirty in the morning and a garbled, half-whispering voice mumbled some weird things about a dog and some shotgun shells and something about going hunting. Maite had arrived by train that afternoon. She’d showed up in a good mood because of everything that Doctor Arbulu had told her, but they must have been following her. Who else, if not one of them, would call at that time of the night with the excuse of asking about a dog?

He didn’t have the slightest doubt.

“They’ve found us.”

“C’mon, Josemari! How could they know we’re here?”

“What do you mean how could they know? I’ve got no idea. But obviously the way they pronounce their s’s is not the way people from Alicante talk. That guy on the phone was one of them. First thing tomorrow I’m saying that I’m not signing the lease. I’ll think of some excuse. We’re getting out of town as soon as possible.”

They make their way through a neighborhood of narrow streets, low houses with white walls, windows with wrought iron bars and balconies flush with geraniums. Here and there, locals sit just outside their front doors gossiping, lowering their voices as the couple strolls past. Also the children stop playing to stare at the strange pair. As they turn a corner, Josemari whispers to Maite that all these brown-skinned people must take them for aliens from outer space. Walking by, they nod their heads timidly, because they feel peculiar to be the object of so much curiosity. After all, they’ve got to do something because they surely don’t want to make anyone suspicious. Some people respond to them with customary greetings that sound strange to their ears:

Vayan ustedes con Dios, and other such expressions.

Fifteen minutes later, after following a steep, narrow street thick with the smell of frying calamari, they reach the avenue along the bay. From the open window of a high-ceilinged flat comes a woman’s musical voice. They see a grungy cat perched in a window gnawing on a fish head.

Coming in sight of the sea, Josemari suddenly feels his spirit sink again, like in Alicante, like in Malaga.

“It’s just not the same.”

“Water and waves, Josemari.”

“I don’t want to argue, but the Mediterranean is not what I call a sea. The Cantabrian has its different seasons, enormous tides and cliffs, now that’s a proper sea. Our sea. There’s no comparison.”

“So, then, what do you call this?”

“I don’t know. It’s something different. A big lake.”

And while Maite heads off to the bathrooms in the café where they’ve stopped for a drink, he writes in his Moleskine: I can get used to anything, but Ill always miss the sea from my native land. The sea, my sea where I grew up, is fundamental in my life. I realize this now.

He chews another olive stuffed with anchovies and adds: What matters is that I dont think like a fish.

Then he starts to carefully, slowly observe the passersby strolling past the café terrace, feeling a stab of apprehension each time some young man enters his field of vision. He thinks about how a few days ago, in Malaga, he was followed by a young couple, a boy and a girl, both of them wearing caps with visors. It might have just been a coincidence, given that when he turned up a street and slipped into a pharmacy to hide, they just walked by without a glance. Afterwards he followed them from a distance. And he really didn’t find anything strange. The next day, going for a stroll with Maite along the harbor, turning back after buying the newspaper at a kiosk, he recognized them. Or he thought that he recognized them.

“Josemari, are you sure it’s the same ones?”

“I’m not exactly sure of their faces, but it’s the same hats and I’m sure they were a boy and a girl like those two there. Maybe they work in shifts, because these kinds of people, if there’s one thing they know how to do, apart from fucking up your life, is to be organized.”

The waitress who’s served them their snacks now explains, in a strong Andalusian accent, the simplest way to get to a church situated just a few blocks away. When she understands Maite’s plan, the girl is kind enough to call her mother on her cell phone.

“No, really, it’s no trouble at all.”

So, it seems they celebrate Mass in the church at one o’clock. Now it’s just past twelve-thirty. Maite and Josemari express their thanks by leaving the girl a generous tip. Then, arm in arm again, they walk unhurriedly to the church. Five minutes later, they glimpse the church tower rising above the roofline. The bells are already ringing.

Josemari sits on a bench in the street, under a spreading lemon tree that gives him plenty of shade. Maite tries to persuade him to accompany her to Mass, saying how it will be nice and cool inside the church.

“You’ll roast out here.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Mass lasts about forty-five minutes. A little more than two dozen worshippers sit scattered throughout the pews. Maite sits down in the last row, occasionally glancing towards the door, hoping to see Josemari come inside. The priest is an old man with a raspy voice who speaks in a halting monotone. The church’s poor acoustics make it hard for her to hear his sermon. But, finally, the Mass is ended and Maite has fulfilled her obligation, which is what matters to her.

Coming out of the church she’s startled half to death to find her husband nowhere in sight. The bench where Josemari had promised to wait for her is empty. She looks all around but sees no one whom she can ask about a man in a white shirt, almost bald, who was sitting here just a short while before. In the center of her chest she feels a painful knot that makes it hard for her to breathe and makes her think about her past sufferings from her illness. The faithful who attended Mass walk off, disappearing in different directions. Soon the street is deserted. At this moment, Maite discovers Josemari’s notebook lying on the ground. She opens it and reads the last words her husband has written, and a terrible presentiment fills her with anguish: The same caps as in Malaga. She feels like she’s about to start screaming. Maite walks towards the nearest door hoping they’ll help her call the police. Then she sees Josemari come walking around the corner. Shaking with fright she runs to him and demands:

“Do you mind telling me where the hell you went?”

— Fernando Aramburu, Translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley

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Fernando Aramburu was born in San Sebastián in 1959. He has a degree in Spanish Language, Literature and Linguistics from Zaragoza University. He currently lives in Germany, where he has worked as a Spanish teacher since 1985. His work has been granted, among others, the Ramón Gómez de la Serna Prize 1997, the Euskadi Prize 2001, and for his short stories Lospeces de la amargura (The Fish of Sorrow), the XI Mario Vargas Llosa NH Prize, the Dulce Chacón Prize, and the Prize of the Spanish Language Academy. The movie Bajo las estrellas (Under the Stars) based on Aramburu’s novel El trompetista del utopía (The trumpet player of the Utopia) was awarded a Goya Prize in 2008 for best adapted screenplay by the Spanish Cinematographic Academy.

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Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

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Jun 132017
 

Jane Clarke

 

Promise

After the talk with the palliative nurse
over cups of tea in the kitchen, my mother
tells me she’s already asked my father

to promise he’ll make it through the winter –
it’ll be sixty years in April, Charlie.
Sixty years since she walked down the aisle

in her dress of pristine lace, beaded bodice
and tiny satin-covered buttons at the nape,
a full skirt of tulle falling from her waist

to red and black tiles. Ballymoe Church
is tumbling now, stone by stone,
beneath the weight of brambles, ivy, ash.

I was eager and silly as a suck calf, she laughs,
as she readies his tablets, a whiff of silage
rising from the coats drying by the stove.

 

When he falls asleep

at the kitchen table and drops
another cup, my mother bends
without a word, sweeps up

the broken pieces in her hands,
looking out for shards in case
he wanders bare foot in the night.

 

Planting Trees

Dad taught us that paper
comes from trees and the word for book

comes from beech. He showed us
the olive-grey bark, smooth as river rocks,

how to tell the light hues of young wood
from the gloom of the old

and how to count the rings – starting
at the centre, working out towards the edge.

He’s unable to move from his bed,
but when we ask about the row of beech

beside the bridge, he’s clear as a bell,
my father’s father’s father planted them,

a shelter-belt for a nursery, when the British
were giving grants for planting trees.

Tomorrow, I’ll get dressed,
we’ll go down to see them again.

 

I’ve got you

Through days of morphine,
tidbits to tempt his appetite,
there’s nowhere else to be,

I hold his teacup to his lips,
wash his face and the hands
I rarely touched.

During the night old hurts
and worries surface
like stones in a well-tilled field.

What time is it now? he asks
on the hour. He sings to himself
and murmurs lines he learned

as a child, ‘All we, like sheep
have gone astray, we have turned
everyone to his own way’.

When he asks to get up,
I hold his wrists,
brace my weight against his.

For a moment he’s confused –
it’s ok Janey, I’ve got you,
go on now, you can stand.

 

Respects

From Roosky, Creemully, Louglyn,
Kiltoom, Kilbegnet, Moyliss,
Brideswell, Lecarrow, Creggs,
Athleague, Ballinleg, Carrowkeel,
they came to pay their respects.

They shook hands with us,
stood by his body and bowed
their heads. Cattle men,
sheep men, carpenters, teachers,
foresters, nurses,

mart managers, vets;
they said prayers, laid their hands
on his chest and blessed
themselves, then filled the kitchen
with the man they knew,

a grand man altogether,
always out early, a hardy hoor,
a good judge of a bullock,
fierce man to work, a man of his word,
he had woeful hands.

I slipped out for a while to see
the flawless orange globe
hung low over the Common
and a flock of whooper swans
feasting on the last of the winter grass.

 

Dunamon

i.m. Charlie Clarke

They dig slower as they go deeper,
taking turns to heave shovels of clay,

throwing bigger stones and rocks
up into the tractor box.

Son, grandson, nephew, neighbours,
they’ve already gone down five feet,

when they lay their tools aside,
drink tea, light up for a smoke

and agree they couldn’t have
a better day for digging a grave –

not a cloud to be seen,
sunshine melting last night’s frost,

and, from the woods behind them,
a chaffinch singing his heart out.

—Jane Clarke

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Jane Clarke’s first collection, The River, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2015. Originally from a farm in Roscommon, Jane now lives near Glenmalure, County Wicklow. In 2016 she won the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Poem of the Year Award and the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry. She was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature 2016 Ondaatje Literary Award. www.janeclarkepoetry.ie

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Jun 132017
 

Keilson the pioneer, surviving through pluck, fortitude, nerve, and extreme good fortune, is also Keilson the orphan, the homeless person, lost and abandoned. His very language in the diary entry confirms that sense of a split self. —Dorian Stuber

1944 Diary
Hans Keilson
Translated by Damion Searls
MacMillian, 2017
256 pages; $25.00

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In 1944, the writer and psychotherapist Hans Keilson was in hiding from the Nazis in Delft, Holland. Unlike many Jews in Holland who had gone to ground—including the teenaged Anne Frank only forty miles away in Amsterdam—Keilson was able to live openly, under the name of Johannes Gerrit van der Linden. He was fortunate to have fallen in with a resistance group that specialized in forging documents. One of its members, Leo Rietsma, agreed to house Keilson, and for almost a year Keilson lived with Rietsma and his wife Suus, ostensibly as tutor to their children.

For most of that time, from March through December 1944 Keilson kept a diary. After the war he forgot all about it. Many years later, towards the end of his long life—Keilson died in 2011 at the age of 101—it resurfaced and appears now in an excellent English translation by Damion Searls under the title 1944 Diary.

Keilson lived an extraordinary life. Born in 1909 in a small town in eastern Germany near the Polish border, Keilson moved to Berlin in the late 1920s to study medicine but was unable to complete his degree once the Nazis came to power. Instead, he trained as a gymnastics and swimming instructor and worked on his first novel, Life Goes On, published in 1933 but banned the following year, like all books by Jewish writers. Most importantly, he met a divorcee named Gertrud Manz, whom he later described as “an adult woman I could talk to as an adult man and who treated me as such.” It was Manz who persuaded Keilson to leave Germany for Holland in 1936.

In some ways, Keilson flourished in Holland, quickly mastering Dutch and gaining a residency card. He continued to write, publishing under various pseudonyms, and worked a series of jobs. But even though more successfully integrated than most émigrés, Keilson did not have it easy. He had to live apart from Manz—the couple had not been allowed to marry in Germany because of laws against intermarriage and they couldn’t in Holland either because they weren’t Dutch—even when their daughter was born in 1941.

From May 1940, when the Nazis conquered Holland, Keilson went into hiding. But his parents—he had managed to get them out of Germany in 1938—felt themselves too old for such subterfuge. They were deported to the transit camp at Westerbork and later murdered at Auschwitz. When he was writing the diary Keilson did not yet know their fate, but he suspected it; he regularly refers to the heartbreak of losing them (”Intense longing… for my parents. I talk to them sometimes. Oh, much too late!”; “If only I knew whether they were still alive”). This intuition of having himself been orphaned, together with his medical training, enabled his resistance work: he counseled children and teenagers in circumstances similar to his own, helping them ”get through the problems that erupted due to their long periods in hiding.”

Hans Keilson c. 1940

He pursued similar therapeutic work after the war, as a psychiatrist in an organization dedicated to helping child survivors of the Holocaust. In 1979, he finally earned the doctorate the Nazis had denied him years earlier with a monograph on traumatized children that remains influential today. Keilson didn’t stop writing altogether—he published two more novels and a memoir—but medicine replaced literature as his life’s work.

In 1944, however, this outcome was far from certain. Over and over again in the diary Keilson wonders what will become of him. Not whether he will survive the war—although that anxiety thrums in the background—but what he will do with himself once it’s over. At one point, he unleashes a flurry of questions: “Which nationality? Be a doctor? Go back to school? Exams? Surely not that. Will they give us citizenship in Palestine? And then what? Plant orange trees? A chicken farm? Not me.” He zigzags between thinking of himself as a writer and as a doctor, worries how he will support his family, and dreams of security, precisely the quality he lacks in his current life, where everything is at once static and transitory.

For these reasons, 1944 Diary is as much an investigation of its author’s psychology as a document of its period. Keilson has surprisingly little to say about his daily activities, and even less about the war as a whole. (Even the most dramatic section—detailing a Nazi razzia or roundup in the streets around his hiding place—while he narrates in real time in interrupted by a bizarre and unsettling dream sequence.) In part, this reticence stems from the need to keep his resistance work secret should the diary ever fall into enemy hands. But mostly it’s a function of his conviction that what matters most in life is the inward struggle to represent experience. In an entry from September 23rd, after referencing the Battle of Arnheim, Keilson comments: “These events, however much they grip me, are no longer my real life.” What matters is “the other, main life—the human being, the poem, people together.”

Above all, Keilson values the idea of humanity, of being able to see another person “in their full humanity” rather than “in terms of a specific function.” But what did that mean for him? From what position should he strive to encounter that humanity? Keilson feels split: he is at once an artist and a family man, a poet and an “upstanding citizen and doctor.” The citizen, he sometimes laments, will be the death of the artist. Then he recalls his father’s last words to him—“Don’t forget: You are a doctor!”—and resolves to keep pursuing medicine. But he fears that won’t fulfill him. For months, he swings between the two positions, “always undecided, now being one and seeking the other, now being the second and seeking the first.”

Compounding this uncertainty is his love life. Shortly before beginning the diary, Keilson met a young woman named Hanna Sanders, who was in hiding at the home of two other members of the resistance cell, a ten-minute walk from his lodgings with the Rietsmas. Keilson and Hanna enter into an intense affair that lasts until Keilson returns to Gertrud and left his hiding place in Delft for one closer to her. Not coincidentally, the diary breaks off with this decision, as if to confirm that its function was to help Keilson work through the affair. In one of the first entries—unusually it is given a title, “No fear”—Keilson writes:

No more whitewashing. I’m saying what I say to myself in secret. The blank sheet of paper’s power to inhibit the writing and thinking process has been overcome. I will write down my thoughts and experiences. My conscience is not turned off, but it is no longer afraid of expressing itself.

Keilson doesn’t offer excuses for the affair (his separation from Gertrud, the uncertainty of life during war); he knows what he is doing is wrong. Yet he is inescapably drawn to Hanna. The relationship is as intense as it is truncated: Hanna’s movements are more restricted than his, the pressures they face are immense, and she knows about Keilson’s family life. In some dim way, Gertrud seems to have known about the affair, too: on one of the few occasions they are able to see each other, Gertrud begs Keilson, “’Please, no problems, not now.’”

But Keilson makes problems, vacillating between Gertrud’s “deep maturity, understanding, empathy” and Hanna’s “loving affection and devotion,” as well as her forcefulness (this is as much physical as emotional: he “can’t stop thinking about the strong, uninterrupted stream I heard when she was sitting on the toilet “). The conflict torments him but it’s also productive. Poems pour out of him. He writes a novella in just a few weeks (it would be published after the war as Comedy in a Minor Key). At his most self-serving, Keilson justifies his infidelity as necessary for his art—suggesting that his productivity “depend[s] on living out a perpetual split”—but in general, as befits a therapist, he is clear-eyed and unsparing in his self-reflection. He never shies from presenting the darker aspects of his personality, noting more than once his “own sadistic tendencies,” which he calls a “deep bitter wound, almost like pleasure, at making another person suffer.”

Because Keilson is so open about his failings, we almost always sympathize with him. Keilson rarely compares Gertrud and Hanna, and never plays them off each other. Our interest in these women is a function of his own rather than something we arrive at by reading against him. Each is smart and talented; we understand why Keilson loves them both. Gertrud was a graphologist—in later years Keilson frequently told the story of the first time she saw Hitler’s handwriting: “’This man is going to engulf the world in flames’”—and Hanna was a translator, bringing Katherine Mansfield, among other writers, into Dutch.

The evenhanded self-scrutiny Keilson brings to his self-portrait is even more fully evident in his interactions with others. He counsels Leo and Suus’s nine-year-old daughter Hannie when she breaks into fits of terror at the idea of God (Keilson finds her response entirely reasonable). He intervenes in a tense situation between Suus and the other Jewish member of the household, a woman named Corrie Groenteman who worked as their maid. Corrie takes to her bed in tears at Suus’s disparagement and class resentment; Keilson reminds Suus that the “woman crying upstairs” had “her children in Poland, her home life torn apart, he family destroyed.” He is calm, judges as little as possible, diffuses hostility as best he can, concluding “My attitude was: They just have to be taught the understanding they lack.”

His work as a therapist surely helped him imagine points of view different from his own. This tendency comes out most strongly in an extraordinary entry describing Keilson’s encounter with J. C. A. Fetter, a pastor and psychoanalyst whose parish helped Jews. Keilson visits Fetter at his church in The Hague to ask him to pass some money on to Gertrud. He catches Fetter at the end of his rope; before long Fetter lashes out at Keilson: “Always these Jews… they rejected Christ, they excommunicated Spinoza—over and over again, they’ve provoked extraordinary responses from other peoples…It’s too much, it’s too much! Jews all the time, we can’t take it any more.”

Fetter’s outburst is classic anti-Semitism. But while we might be horrified, Keilson is not. He doesn’t accept Fetter’s rant, but he doesn’t reflexively reject it, either. Rather than screaming at him or turning away, he reaches out. First, Keilson points out, referring to Fetter’s own psychoanalytic experience, that people don’t ask for help unless they are desperate. He reminds Fetter that he, Fetter, had once supported the Nazis but had broken with them on “their solution to the Jewish question.” Rather than accusing him, he soothes him: “As a result of my open admissions… Fetter slowly came back to his senses.” It’s a remarkable piece of large-spiritedness and humanity in a situation where these responses were in short supply even among those who were mostly doing the right thing

Of course, Keilson isn’t always enlightened. He admits frankly to “deep satisfaction” at the destruction the Allies are meting on German civilians: “I’m filled with overpowering rage a lot of the time: Wipe ‘em out!” He dreams of revenge and even fantasizes about returning to Germany after the war as a kind of psychological spy, a person “to whom [the Germans] were mercilessly, unguardedly revealing their deepest secrets. That would be the greatest pleasure imaginable.”

More complicated still are his ambivalent feelings about his hosts, people he lives in such proximity to and to whom he is indebted—they have risked their lives for him—yet for whom he exists in the role as a subordinate, even underling. When in the midst of the Hongerwinter, the Hunger Winter, the famine of 1944-45, Leo miraculously comes home one day with a goose, the mood in the house improves dramatically, yet Keilson confesses “I felt terrible, violent envy over how it was divided up.” Later, on his 35th birthday, he broods over Leo and Suus’s indifference: “an utter lack of warmth and spontaneous kindness.”

Even though Keilson was free to move around the country—though he always risked having his papers found out as false or, more likely, being press-ganged as an able-bodied young man to serve the German war effort—he was still trapped. One day he runs into the author Marianne Phillips on the street—she too was living under a false identity—and the mutually admiring writers make plans to see each other. But when Phillips suggests visiting him at home, Keilson falls silent:

“I have to ask my people if that’s okay,” I said, a bit sheepishly.

“Me too,” she said,

Something snaps between us. The happy anticipation is gone.

My people. As if Keilson and Phillips are pets. Keilson has already reflected on why he reacts with shame when his poems are praised: “I realized that I have been living like an animal, a dumb beast, for a long time now, for years, almost.”

The diary is filled with similar expressions of anxiety and despair. Hearing a reference to “mass murders in Polish concentration camps” on a radio report from England, Keilson, atypically bitter, imagines a grim future:

We should take Jewish children when they’re still young and build up their immunity with small doses of gas, the Jewish state should, for the next pogrom! But who knows, the goyim will probably just use electricity then.

In what might be the darkest moment in the book, he is suddenly overcome by a vision of “a book full of gas, killing everyone who reads it.”

§

Damion Searls has done a great service in bringing this fascinating and gripping book to English-language readers. In addition to his vivid and powerful translation, Searls provides clear and helpful notes, along with a thoughtful introduction and afterword. My only criticism is that Searls misrepresents Keilson by downplaying his anger, fear, and shame. These emotions are almost as prevalent as his broadmindedness and enlightenment, but they don’t fit with Searls’s conclusions. For Searls, Keilson’s diary embodies the triumph of the individual over history, offering “a testament to finding one’s way amid horrors and conflicts of all kinds. Human struggles can outweigh even the Holocaust, world war, the Dutch Hunger Winter.”

But Keilson is anything but triumphant. Indeed, his experience allows us to think about the limits of even relatively lucky individual victims of Nazi persecution. In an entry from March 1944, Keilson remembers reading Kafka’s story “The Great Wall of China” and being moved to tears by the line “We sit dreaming at the window and wait for that message.” Despite his good fortune, despite his active resistance to fascism, Keilson is aware that events have made him an onlooker on his own life, a man who dreams at a window, waiting for a message. And when the message comes it might be too late, might not even be for him.

In the diary’s last entry, Keilson admits that “for six months now I’ve known that the war won’t simply end for us, with me coming back unscathed to an unscathed family in an unscathed home.” Yes, humans must struggle as best they can, as Searls puts it, but that struggle might not outweigh historical trauma. In one of his first entries, Keilson had already offered an extended meditation on what his diary—and by extension, he himself—can and cannot do:

The times when I write in this diary are my true moments of contemplation. It is a wellspring, my only chance to escape the lies. Yet still so far from the truth of my nature. All the unlived possibilities too, which haven’t been able to form my nature. Is longing enough? For me, it’s just a sign that I’m not yet totally a lost cause. I’m often in such uncharted territory, and then feel like a pioneer, far from my homeland. With courage, strength, endurance, venturesomeness, otherwise he wouldn’t be a pioneer. And then at night, by the campfire, a feeling of abandonment, homesickness, alienation steals over him. He gets used to it slowly, or never. Someday his children will be locals. I’ve had more than enough of this feeling already.

I once heard Jeremy Adler, the son of the writer and scholar H. G. Adler, who survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald, say that unlike most of the writers we associate with the Holocaust, his father was a grown man when he was deported at age thirty-one. (Elie Wiesel, by contrast, was only fourteen, and Primo Levi twenty-four.) He had lived longer, stored up more experience, and been able to complete an education in a way many survivors, mere teenagers or young adults when their lives were uprooted and their worlds destroyed, had not.

Hans Keilson, thirty-four years old when he began his diary, was in a similar position. His life experience led him to see complexity everywhere. Keilson the pioneer, surviving through pluck, fortitude, nerve, and extreme good fortune, is also Keilson the orphan, the homeless person, lost and abandoned. His very language in the diary entry confirms that sense of a split self—as he moves deeper into his metaphor, Keilson’s pronouns shift from first to third person. But Keilson’s “I” was always also a “he”—he was always self-divided, not just from personal predilection or constitutional uncertainty, not just from intellectual commitment to Freud’s understanding of the unconscious, but more powerfully from his historical position as one who seems on the face of it not to have been a victim but was all the more wounded because his fate was so much better than so many others, even the rest of his immediate family.

“To see the other person in their whole humanity”—this ability, amply on display in this remarkable document, was Keilson’s great gift, not least when the other person was himself. Thankfully, 1944 Diary is not a book of gas, killing everyone who reads it. But neither is it a book of life, affirming individual resistance to terror and oppression. The odour of gas always threatens to waft from the page.

—Dorian Stuber

N5

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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Jun 122017
 

Herein is the chapter “She Is Like Me” from Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children.  Ally Moberly Cavendish, recent qualified as one of a very few women doctors in late nineteenth-century England, is working at an asylum in Cornwall while her husband travels in Japan. Ally is determined to change the treatment of female patients with “hysteria.” When her innovative approach is thwarted by the entrenched assumption that these women need discipline, not care or understanding, Ally reaches a breaking point herself. — Rohan Maitzen

 

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The fields lie bare to the plough now, and in the hedges the berries shrivel and drop, mouldering under the rotting fingers of hawthorn leaves and dead grass. Rain drifts around the peninsula. It is not cold, not cold enough to light a fire for one person, but the nights lengthen and the rain drips day by day. It is a preparation for the spring, Ally reminds herself. There will be wild flowers, violets and bluebells, that she will take to the asylum whatever the nurses say, and the white cottage will be bright in the sun, but meanwhile there is water seeping from the earth and running down the wall in the kitchen, and a musty smell in the cupboard in the other bedroom led her to find her blue wedding gown spotted with mildew. She can smell mould in the way the house exhales when she opens the door. It’s important to keep the windows open, Tom said, even when the fire’s lit, but for some days it has been no drier out- side than in. One winter, she thinks, Cornwall will simply dissolve and slide back into the sea, perhaps leaving the jagged cliffs of the north coast as a memorial and a hazard to shipping. Probably Atlantis did exist until the north Atlantic rains washed it away. She will write to Annie, who enjoys such whimsy and has been fretting that Ally is falling prey to low spirits and nervous strain at the asylum.

The stationmaster at Perranwell has somehow managed to keep his roses blooming, although each flower hangs heavy with rain and the soil in the flowerbed glistens wet. There is no nightfall these days, only a gradual dimming. Ally gets off the train and feels the saturated sky press low over her head. She thinks of Aunt Mary in London and Annie further along the south coast. Somewhere out there, somewhere upcountry, there will be room to move and breathe between the earth and sky, perhaps even a line of sight to the stars and sun. The solar system is still there, beyond the clouds.

She hurries home, her skirts gathered in her hand away from puddles and mud. Up the hill to the main road, from which she can see the estuary and the boats rocking at anchor, and then down past the taverns of Killigrew Street, brightly lit and leaking music and talk. A door opens and a man comes out with a woman clinging to his arm. A ship must have come in. She turns along Dunstanville, past the captains’ houses, where lamplight and firelight glow like beacons in the great bay windows. The curtains have not yet been drawn, and she sees a family gathered around a table where a maid in a white apron brings food, and two doors down a woman stitching at an embroidery frame by the fire. They would not sit so cheerfully, she thinks, if they had seen the back wards. If they knew that tomorrow, Mary Vincent who is not stupid and understands perfectly well what is happening to her, is to be moved to a place where she will spend her days sitting with deranged and incontinent women whose only advantage is that most of them are – probably – too mad to know that they will be there until they die.

When she wakes, her linen pillowcase is soft with moisture and the outside sheet is clammy to the touch. She rests her hand in the dry hollow where she has lain all night and then on Tom’s side, chill and damp. She pushes back the covers and stands up, knowing even before drawing the curtains that Falmouth is still swathed in rain. Some drops bead the window and some roll slowly down the glass, drawing trails thin as the finest etching. She watches a droplet roll into another droplet and gather speed, finds herself tracing their progress with her finger on the glass. Come now, Ally tells herself. She makes the bed, entombing the warmth and dryness under heavy blankets, and puts on layers of clothes. Her stockings cling and wrinkle on her legs as if she had just had a bath. This evening, it may be time to light a fire, for the house and for Tom’s possessions if not for herself. She remembers the verse on the bedroom wall in Manchester: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt. Even so, even Mamma might agree that the balance between the wastefulness of lighting a fire for one person and the carelessness of allowing cloth to rot and books to moulder is beginning to tip. Or perhaps the books and clothes are merely a specious excuse for self-indulgence, perhaps she imagines their peril worse than it is because she wants a fire. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. There is no health in us. I do not believe, she thinks. I do not believe.

And at the top of the hill, the rain clears, and she can see that there is white sky raised high over the north coast. Ally pushes back her hood, her vision unblinkered for the first time in days, and feels the wind on her ears and neck. The asylum stands before her on the hill’s apex, looking like Janus in two directions. To the south, Truro disappears into the mizzle, the spire of the new cathedral haunting the cloud like pencil under watercolour.

She has spent most of her time on the back wards and not been to Ward Four for a few days. Dr. Crosswyn, summoned for a consultation at the hospital, has left a message saying that Mrs. Elsfield seems to be failing and Ally should examine her. A medical problem, at least. The kind of call any doctor would make. She makes her way slowly up the stairs, noticing how washed sunlight floods through the high window over the landing and down the wooden stairs. There is dust on the ends of each tread and inside the spindles, and she can see where a patch on the wall has been repainted a slightly different colour. Perhaps it will be a different nurse on duty, someone who hasn’t already concluded that Ally is incompetent.

‘She is still with you,’ says Mrs. Ashton. ‘Stronger day by day.’

Ally straightens her skirt. ‘Good morning, Mrs. Ashton. Still sleeping well, I hope?’

‘She won’t leave, you know. Not until you hear her. Did anyone listen to her while she was among us, I wonder? Was she carrying secrets too heavy for her?’

Aubrey, she thinks. But what May did with Aubrey, with Papa’s friend, is on the wall of the Manchester Art Gallery for all to see. Not secret at all. Ally takes a breath. One can see how it would be so effective, the suggestion that the dead had terrible secrets. One would need to pick over the past, reimagine and re-examine the actions of dead hands and the words of a dead tongue, and then, presumably, one would pay a woman who claimed to be able to finish the story.

‘Oh, we all have our secrets,’ she says. The living and the dead.

The red-haired nurse backs out of the linen closet. ‘Oh. Good afternoon, Mrs. Cavendish. Sorry, Doctor. Come to see Mrs. Elsfield, have you? She’s on her bed. Not much a firm hand wouldn’t cure, in my view.’

Mrs. Ashton looks up. ‘She tried that. A firm hand. Didn’t you, Nurse?’

The nurse puts down her armful of sheets. ‘Now then. We don’t like liars on this ward, Mrs. Ashton. And you wouldn’t want to go upstairs, would you?’

If there are no bruises, Ally thinks, I can do nothing. And one has to pretend to trust the nurses more than the patients or the whole system will collapse.

Mrs. Elsfield looks oddly small lying on her bed with the swathes of a dress fallen over her body like a shroud. She lies on her right, facing the wall, and has turned her face into the crook of her arm. Apart from the blackberries, Ally has never seen any sign that Mrs. Elsfield is in any way disordered.

‘Good morning, Mrs. Elsfield. You’re not feeling well?’

Mrs. Elsfield turns her head, puts her hands over her face and opens her fingers to peek at Ally.

‘Mrs. Elsfield?’

Mrs. Elsfield turns her face back into the mattress. Ally looks around to find Mrs. Middleton gazing over her shoulder.

‘Poor old dear,’ says Mrs. Middleton. ‘She shouldn’t be here, not at this last. And it’s the vicar she’s needing, not the doctor.’ Ally meets Mrs. Middleton’s eyes, perhaps for the first time.

The first part of her statement is true. ‘I’d like to examine her and find out about that,’ Ally says.

She glances around. There are no screens here, and it seems unlikely that Mrs. Elsfield will rise from her bed and accompany Ally to an office or to the sick ward. ‘Nurse, would you help me to undress her? Gently.’

Watched by Mrs. Middleton, the nurse takes hold of Mrs. Elsfield’s hand screening her face and tugs. ‘Come along now. Don’t make this difficult, Maria Soon be over and done with if you help us.’

Mrs. Elsfield curls herself smaller, tighter. Her thin grey plait, sewn at the end, moves on the pillow. The nurse yanks her hand and Mrs. Elsfield whimpers and tries to burrow away.

‘Leave it,’ says Ally. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘They have to do as they’re told or we’ll have no order. Last chance, Maria, or I’m sending for another nurse. Do you want her stripped, doctor, or is it just her chest?’

Mrs. Elsfield shrinks again. ‘Neither. Please, nurse, stop this.’ ‘Right. Excuse me.’ The nurse pushes in front of Ally and seizes both of Mrs. Elsfield’s hands, hauls on them. Mrs. Elsfield spits and the nurse slaps her.

‘Stop it,’ says Ally. ‘Nurse, stop it.’

She remembers the housekeeper Jenny slapping May, holding her down and slapping her while May fought and shouted and Ally stood, hands behind her back, waiting her turn.

‘Now you see what we have to put up with.’ The nurse drops Mrs. Elsfield, who curls up again like a released spring. She’ll never get out now, Ally thinks, but she was never going to get out anyway. ‘I’ll call another nurse and we’ll soon have her ready for you. Not that I couldn’t deal with her myself, but we have to keep the rules, don’t we?’

‘No,’ says Ally. ‘Leave it. It doesn’t matter.’

‘It’s no trouble. We do this kind of thing all the time. Have to, in this line of work. Stop that now, Maria, you’re only making things worse for yourself.’

The others watch while two nurses hold Mrs. Elsfield down and open her dress so that Ally, with trembling hands, can listen to her chest. NAD, Ally writes. Nothing abnormal diagnosed.

She’s on her way down the stairs to Ward Two when there are running feet along the corridor. The nurse from the sick ward.

She sees Ally. ‘Where’s Dr. Crosswyn?’ ‘Out,’ says Ally. ‘At the hospital.’ ‘You’d better come.’ The nurse opens the door of the sick ward and stands back.

There is shouting. Mary Vincent, with blood running down her face and a contusion on her forehead with the white gleam of bone behind it, is struggling with two nurses. Her closed dress is torn at the shoulder. Leave me alone, she shouts, get off me. Stop that, say the nurses, stop that at once. The nurse who came to find Dr. Crosswyn goes to their assistance and uses Mary’s hair to pull her to the bed. They put her facedown and fasten a strap around her bare white ankles. Mary arches her bound body and tries to fling herself off the bed but they seize her again.

‘You don’t get out of going upstairs like this, Mary. Thought you could get some more time down here, didn’t you? Stop that now.’

‘Always been sly, haven’t you? Rather be lounging in bed here than on the ward.’

‘She’s hurt,’ says Ally. ‘Her head is hurt.’

The corridor nurse looks up. ‘Some of them’ll try anything. She thinks if she hurts herself she can stay here. Ran herself into the wall.’

Mary howls. The sound makes Ally’s scalp crinkle. Stop, she thinks, stop, I can’t bear it. The doctor can’t bear it.

The other nurse puts her hands on Mary’s head, stubby fingers over her eyeballs. Silence. The nurse looks up. ‘Often works,’ she says to Ally. ‘Don’t have to press very hard, see, on the eyes.’

Ally bites her lip, closes her own eyes. Fingers pressing on the darkness, and one’s arms tied.

‘We’ll take her up, shall we?’ asks the first nurse. ‘You’ll probably find her more docile after a few hours on her own.’ They are going to put Mary ‘in seclusion’, in a windowless room on the top corridor where Dr. Crosswyn himself has authorised the use of restraints on patients experiencing episodes of unmanageable behaviour. It is therapeutic, he says, for those who have lost all control and find themselves quite at the mercy of destructive mania, to remove all sensory stimulus and all means of destruction. It is not unknown for patients entering such a phase of illness to ask for seclusion.

Mary drags her face around. There may be some traumatic deformity of the frontal bone and her eyes are already blackening. ‘No, please. I’ll stop, I promise. Please don’t send me up there.’

‘Pity she didn’t think of that earlier, isn’t it, doctor? Get the chair, Nurse Crawford. We won’t chance any tricks on the stairs.’

They are going to tie her to a chair and carry her up those stairs.

Mary’s eyes meet Ally’s. ‘Please, doctor.’ ‘Trying to put one over the doctor now, are we?’ So which are you, Alethea? A madwoman or a doctor? Did I not know, did I not warn you from childhood of your nervous weakness, of your propensity to hysteria and unreason? You chose the asylum, Alethea, because you indulge yourself in feeble-mindedness. Because despite all your training and all your socalled qualifications, you are still crazed.

‘No,’ says Ally. ‘No. Nurse, stop this. You are unkind.’ Her voice is too loud. All of them, even Mary, fall silent. ‘Tell me, nurse, how would you have to feel, to do as Mary does? How bad would it be, in your head, for you to run against the wall until your skull cracks, or to force a knife through your own flesh to the very bone? What would it take, Nurse?’

There are tears on her face. She swallows.

‘That is how it is for Mary. That is it. She is like you, and like me. Like all of us. Only more sad.’

She cries, there on the ward. She has not cried for years.

They do not let her go. They take her down to Dr. Crosswyn’s office, a nurse on each side, where one of them stays with her, watching her, until he comes.

—Sarah Moss

N5

Sarah Moss teaches at the University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. She is the author of five novels: The Tidal Zone (Granta, 2016), Signs for Lost Children (Granta, 2015), Bodies of Light (Granta, 2014), Night Waking (Granta, 2011) and Cold Earth (Granta, 2009). She is also the author of Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (Granta, 2012) about living in Reykjavik in 2009-10, and academic books on Romantic-era British literature, food history and gender.

Jun 122017
 

Signs for Lost Children has none of the prolixity, the sentimentality, or the melodrama often associated with “neo-Victorian” novels. — Rohan Maitzen

Sarah Moss
Signs for Lost Children
Europa Editions, 2017
368 pages; $19.00

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It is a commonplace that historical fiction is always about the present as much as the past—that the stories we tell about what once was are prompted and shaped by what is. Historical fiction is not therefore condemned to anachronism: rather, at its best, it disrupts our tendency to take our own world for granted, and to think of history as a stable set of facts instead of a constantly shifting and contested array of stories.

Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, the sequel to her earlier Bodies of Light, is just such an unsettling novel, refracting Victorian life through a distinctly modern lens. Both Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children tell the story of Alethea Moberley, born in the mid 19th-century to Alfred Moberley, an artist, and his austere evangelical wife Elizabeth. Wholly committed to her charitable work on behalf of poor and ruined women, Elizabeth has little time and no love to spare for her own daughters, Alethea, called Ally, and her younger sister May. When Ally is a baby, she seems to Elizabeth little more than a vexing interruption to her work:

The baby is crying, its rage spreading like smoke through the house, curling under the ceiling. She has lost her blotting paper. . . . When she has finished this one and the next one, she will see what there is for her lunch, and feed the baby. It cries. It is taking the baby a long time to learn that screaming for what we want does not bring gratification.

The girls are raised in uneasy vacillation between their mother’s severity and the sensual bohemianism of Alfred and his artist friends. For better and for worse, it is Elizabeth’s influence that is most enduring for Ally. Elizabeth treats every vulnerability as a despicable weakness: in her eyes “a nervous, silly woman is entirely useless.” Ally “must learn self-discipline,” Elizabeth holds, and she considers it her duty to instill it. When Ally suffers from nightmares, her mother wakes her with a slap, then dunks her head in cold water before locking her in the scullery. “You must and will learn not to indulge yourself,” she tells her shivering child.

Ally carries this lesson with her throughout her life: “She doesn’t want to be hysterical.” It is a paradoxical legacy. Elizabeth’s ruthlessness is oppressive, yet combined with her insistence that women are capable of accomplishments well beyond the domestic trivialities to which so many Victorian women were restricted, it also empowers Ally to pursue a radical ambition: to become one of England’s first woman doctors. “There is strong opposition to women’s medical education,” Ally’s teacher Miss Johnson warns her; “You are choosing not only to be a doctor but to be a pioneer, a fighter in the vanguard.” When Ally goes to the University of London on a special scholarship for women medical students, she knows she carries “the hopes of many,” and that her own success or failure will define the possibilities for those who come after. The responsibility is daunting and the training is difficult, but Ally knows her work represents a great step forward. Looking back on her miserable childhood from the perspective of her aunt’s more humane London home, still suffering the after-effects of her mother’s severity, Ally nonetheless cannot wish “Mamma had allowed her to grow up in bovine contentment, without ambition or self-discipline”—without Elizabeth, she would never have come so far or be set to achieve so much more.

By the time she graduates, though, Ally has realized that the weaknesses she was raised to despise might in fact be not just natural to her as a person but valuable to her as a doctor. Her mother’s quest for impervious perfection is mistaken:

If she is to be a doctor—as she is to be a doctor—she will be a broken doctor, her own hurt as much part of her practice as her healing. A doctor who can see her own damage and not run away to hide.

“Nerves and hysteria show a weak and foolish disposition,” Elizabeth had insisted, but maybe, Ally thinks, what gets called madness in women is in fact an understandable, even a reasonable, response to their circumstances. What if outbreaks such as her own should be treated with kindness rather than condemnation—and considered cause, not for confinement, but for reform?

These are the questions that underly both Ally’s personal development and professional work in Signs for Lost Children, which takes up her story where Bodies of Light ends. Though the plots are continuous (in the North American edition, some chapters from Bodies of Light actually recur word for word in Signs for Lost Children), the two novels are differently structured in ways that reflect their different thematic interests. Bodies of Light interleaves its family story with commentaries on paintings by Alfred Moberley or his close associate Aubrey West (whose relationship with Ally’s sister May forms a subplot of the novel). These insertions highlights tensions in the novel between art and life, especially between inhabiting bodies and gazing at them, and between appreciating and subjugating them. The novel’s title comes from Matthew 6:22 (“if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”); one way of understanding Ally’s struggle in this book is that she must learn to see her body as itself a source of light: look with, not through, it, to inhabit it without shame or fear.

The chapters of Signs for Lost Children, in contrast, alternate between Ally’s point of view and that of her husband Tom Cavendish, an engineer whom she meet and marries at the end of Bodies of Light. This formal structure, in its turn, reflects this second novel’s interest in marriage, which purports to combine two people into one common identity. Across the novel, Tom’s and Ally’s experiences diverge significantly: can the result nonetheless be one family? and if so, at what cost? Given the legal, social, and economic realities of marriage for Victorian women, this is a vexing question especially for Ally, who worries about losing both her individual and her professional identity. From the beginning, she and Tom focus on defining “new rituals” to represent the kind of relationship they want their marriage to be:

Ally will not promise to obey; it seems a bad idea, says Tom, to begin a marriage with an undertaking made in bad faith. Not being a parcel, she declines to be given away.

Her married name, Ally resolves, will be “Dr. Moberley Cavendish”—but to some, as she quickly learns, she will always be only “Mrs. Cavendish.”

Tom is a good partner for Ally. He supports and defends the work she undertakes at an asylum near their new home in Cornwall: “the majority of patients are female,” he explains to a dubious neighbour, “and many of their troubles begin in exactly those crises of life where it is most desirable that women should be attended by women.” When he goes on a business expedition to Japan without her, it is a sign of the strength of their relationship, but also of the risk they are taking in trying to build a marriage on such unusual terms. On the eve of his departure, Tom tries to reassure her:

“You know—Ally, I am sure the time will pass quickly once we are accustomed to it. At least we both knew from the beginning that this separation was to come. And you will have your work, itis not as if you will need to seek distraction.”

Their separation is a sign of their mutual trust and dedication to preserving each other’s autonomy, but they are apart a long time, and the divided narrative highlights the distance that grows between them, both literally and figuratively.

For Ally, this period of separation frees her to focus single-mindedly on her work at the asylum. She struggles to accept its coercive environment, which seems to her premised on the impossibility of actually healing the patients:

It is not an original thought that the overall effect of the asylum is maddening, that the insane compound each other’s insanity. And this, after all, is why her new profession beckons: how might one devise a regime to cure the mind? It is not the taxonomy of madness that intrigues her but the possibility of individual salvation. If some situations are maddening, others must be—ought to be—sanitary.

She worries that her sympathy for the patients is a sign of her own instability. “So which are you, Alethea?” she imagines her mother demanding: “A madwoman or a doctor? . . . You chose the asylum, Alethea, because you indulge yourself in feeble-mindedness. Because despite all your training and all your so-called qualifications, you are still crazed.” Finally, however, she is unable to bear the inhumanity and intervenes on a patient’s behalf: “‘No. Nurse, stop this. You are unkind. . . . She is like you, and like me. Like all of us. Only more sad.’”

That troubling assertion of likeness between the mad and the sane is at the heart of the novel as well as of Ally’s experience. “How is sanity defined?” Ally wonders. How far is hysteria, for instance, not an illness or a defect but a reaction to being a woman—or a way of seeing women as intrinsically defective? What if the family, supposedly women’s natural domain, sickens rather than nourishes them? What if “there are sick households,” she wonders, “as well as sick individuals”?

Her own outburst in the patient’s defense is considered—including, at first, by Ally herself—as a breakdown, but it leads to a professional breakthrough that is also a crucial step in her personal healing. After a disastrous visit to her parents, Elizabeth’s continued severity drives Ally to run away, fearful that she will be labelled mad and unable to escape the self-perpetuating cycle she has seen destroying the asylum’s inmates. She takes refuge at her aunt’s home, where she is allowed to rest and be comforted. Her own recovery prompts reflection on how other women might benefit from being helped rather than punished for their emotional suffering:

She wonders if anyone has tried to invent at least a temporary refuge from both the madhouse and the mad home, a compromise between an institution and a family. A place where people chose to be, not a place of confinement. . . . An institution where the damage of homes, of domestic life, can be undone, or at least healed. A place where the shape of sanity might emerge.

From this idea comes Rose Tree Cottage, where, under kindly supervision, at least a few patients can regain their dignity and return, rehabilitated, to their lives.

As Ally finds her way towards a new kind of personal and professional peace, so Tom’s travels in Japan lead him towards new insights about his life. If the asylum is in some ways all too familiar to Ally, literalizing her own more abstract experiences of repression, in Japan Tom experiences for the first time what it means to be immersed in the unfamiliar—to be out of his element and unable to take anything for granted, from food to baths to myths and mores. He is drawn to the order and ritual of Japanese life. “Europeans mistake quantity for quality,” he reflects,

filling great rooms with useless objects as if the accumulation of possessions is an object in itself. He remembers De Rivers’s house [in Cornwall] and shudders; it is not silks and teapots the English should be importing but houses. Architects, if not engineers. Missionaries, perhaps, to teach us what is worthy of veneration.

Yet he checks his own tendency to idealize the differences: it took “a thousand years of violence and oppression, he reminds himself,” to achieve the very features he finds so beautiful.

Though Tom and Ally get equal time in Signs for Lost Children, it still feels primarily like her book, perhaps because she has the weight of Bodies of Light behind her. Tom’s voyage of self-discovery is tied to the urgency of finding a “new man” to go with what writers of the late 19th-century called the “New Woman”—independent, self-directed, not looking to men or marriage to define her life. What kind of husband, if any, can a woman like Ally have, or would a woman like Ally want, once she has discovered, as Ally does, that “it is not in romance, nor even sex, that we find the human purpose, but in good work faithfully done”? The key lies, or so Ally’s friend Annie suggests, in the kind of re-education Tom has undergone. “I imagine,” she writes to him,

that when you were in Japan you were always trying to guess what people wanted and what they meant, trying to guess how you might appear in their eyes? . . . But if it was like that for you, if you were watchful and hesitant from first waking until sleep, then you know how it is to be a woman and especially to be a woman entering a profession. We are always strangers in a strange land. I think Ally is like that all the time, hunted and cunning, because she has had no safe place, no home. . . . Rose Tree House may be the first place where she doesn’t have to guess or see herself through another person’s eyes.

“So many of women’s griefs,” Ally herself thinks, “begin in marriage, in the expectation of a happily ever after set into perpetual motion by romance.” Though she once vehemently denied Annie’s suggestion that “a woman must choose between her work and her family obligations,” by the time Tom returns “she has found a way to live and it does not involve the institution of marriage”: “She can work, she thinks, she can be a doctor, she can write articles and perhaps eventually a monograph, but she cannot be someone’s wife, not anymore.” Yet Signs for Lost Children ends with a new beginning between them, based on the fragile conviction that there is value in “the act of living, of continuing to be with each other in the world.”

Signs for Lost Children takes up many themes and issues central to Victorian novels, including the social consequences of industrialization that contemporary writers called “the condition of England question.” “In the mills,” Ally thinks as she crosses the country by train,

machinery bangs and roars. Children pull carts of babies through the streets, taking them to be fed by mothers who sacrifice their own moment to eat in doing so. The weight of outrage and unmet need presses down on this country like wet cloud. Burn it all down, wash England away into the sea, and start again.

This is the revolutionary energy that made Victorian writers like Elizabeth Gaskell worry about class warfare and use fiction to call for reform and reconciliation. Moss’s exploration of gender and madness is reminiscent of the sensation novels of the 1860s, especially Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, in which—as Ally fears for herself—the heroine is immured in an asylum, unable to prove her own sanity, her distress only confirming what those policing her behaviour already believe about her.

In its style, however, Signs for Lost Children has none of the prolixity, the sentimentality, or the melodrama often associated with “neo-Victorian” novels. In some respects the result is welcome: Moss eschews the mannered prose, the array of gratuitously quirky characters, and the proliferation of subplots often seen in novels aspiring to be “Dickensian.” Unlike her subjects, her prose in both of these paired novels is distinctly of the 21st-century: deliberate, restrained, well-crafted. The attention to detail, particularly of the landscapes, yields passages of memorable understated beauty:

They walk to the sea down a green lane, where the trees meet over their heads to form a tunnel of leaves. Alfred shows her bluebells and wild garlic edging the path, and points out violets under the brambles. The gorse is furred with yellow bloom and dark blades of thorn and gives off an unfamiliar scent. There is birdsong but no visible birds, as if the day signs to itself. In Manchester, there will be brown fog, and heat. . . . They round a curve, and the sea is there. Flat rocks make a continuation of the lane onto the beach, into the water, as if inviting her to keep walking into the sea.

There is a cost to such precision and control, however. Descriptions of scenery are delivered in the same tone as descriptions of cadavers; expressions of love and outbursts of lunacy have the same flat affect. In eschewing overt drama, Moss almost seems to reproduce Elizabeth’s prohibitions against hysteria: the powerful feelings that Ally realizes deserve recognition, that may in fact be destructive if suppressed, remain submerged under the polished language of the novels. There’s something apt about that, of course, but by the end of these two novels, both wholly self-possessed and cerebral, I longed for some of the Victorians’ own urgency and flamboyance to break through Moss’s artfully modern rewriting of their world.

— Rohan Maitzen

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Rohan Maitzen teaches Victorian literature in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.

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Jun 112017
 

 

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On ‘stress leave’ from the Afghanistan, Canadian soldier Elias Triffanis has recently arrived on the politically-divided island of Cyprus. In this opening scene, a doctor interviews Elias about the troubling after effects of a recent combat mission that went horribly wrong.  Elias’s troubles, however, are just beginning. —Richard Farrell 

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PAPHOS, CYPRUS, 26 OCTOBER

“How long is it, then, since you have slept?” the doctor asked.

Elias looked up at the ceiling, trying to recall. The blades of the fan turned listlessly—in fact, they seemed to be slowing, as if the power had just cut out again.

“Surely you’ve slept a little since we last met?”

“It was yesterday, right?”

“Yesterday morning.”

“Okay.”

“About thirty hours ago,” the doctor said.

“I’ve passed out a couple of times, for a while. I tried not to.”

“So, you did not remain asleep? You had the dream again?”

“Yes.”

“You wish to describe it again, or the incident itself?”

“They’re almost the same. It’s not really a dream. More like a video of an atrocity.”

“As I said, this is typical of your condition—diagnostic, actually. However—”

“And, no, I don’t.”

“Pardon me?”

“Want to describe it again.”

Drops of sweat glistened on the raw-looking scalp under the doctor’s blond comb-over. Thick glasses magnified his colourless, pink-rimmed eyes, which blinked often. “Avoiding sleep, however,” he said. “It’s understandable, but I fear that such a—such a practice can only make the matter worse.”

“I’ve never needed much sleep.”

“Men of your kind often boast of how little sleep they need.”

“You’re not meant to mock your patients, are you?”

“You do look tired,” the doctor said, as if he hadn’t heard, “though in fact you seem somewhat improved today. Still, I apologize—”

“Frankly, I don’t feel that bad, I feel relieved, because I’m awake now, not asleep and reliving things. Insomnia is a fucking joy in comparison to that.”

“Self-inflicted sleep deprivation—not insomnia.”

“What did you mean by men of my kind?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I have no idea myself anymore.”

“Large men, robust. Metamorphic. Pardon me, mesomorphic.”

Elias Trifannis looked out the window over the doctor’s shoulder: a white pebble beach, the calm Mediterranean pixelated with sunlight. The army was using this former student residence on the west coast of Cyprus to treat personnel on stress leave from the war. Last night, while Elias silently performed yet another set of push-ups on the cold cement floor of his room, trying to hold off sleep, the patient in the next room screamed catastrophically. That was helpful: a few extra hours of adrenalized alertness.

“It’s funny how people think they can look at your body and know your soul,” Elias said.

That magnified blinking again. In a faster, fainter voice the doctor said, “Ah, mais oui, you are quite right, one should never assume a correlation between, between . . . how could I put it . . .”

Elias yawned helplessly, gapingly, a pathological yawn that convulsed his whole body. “Sorry, Dr. Boudreau,” he said at last. “I really do enjoy talking to you.”

“Perhaps you will be able to sleep better on your weekend away? I hope so. You are going across the island, to visit family?”

“Distant relatives.”

“How is your Greek now?”

“Etsi ki etsi. If you don’t mind my saying, you look really tired yourself.”

“Yes.” The doctor’s blinking made it seem he was trying to communicate something in a sort of binary code, words he couldn’t bring himself to say. “It’s not simply this heat wave. Normally, one grows used to working with the—the traumatized, yet I seem to find it increasingly . . . But what am I saying? I must not say such things!”

The fan still gave the illusion of perpetually slowing without ever stopping.

“In any case, Master Corporal—I wish you a peaceful weekend.”

“Don’t call me that, okay?”

“And, please, don’t speak of what happened in Kandahar.”

“I wouldn’t know how to speak about it.”

“And bear in mind, it was not your fault! Not anyone’s fault!”

The doctor subdued his twitching by closing his eyes for a second, then opening them wide. “It was simply . . .”

“An accident. I know.”

“And don’t forget your medication.”

“No way. I love my medication.”

Dizzy, seeing double, Elias tried to focus his gaze. Out the window in the distance a sunburned figure in a swimsuit—who seemed impossibly to be the doctor—appeared on the shore and walked into the sea.

— Steven Heighton

Excerpted from The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton. Copyright © 2017 by Steven Heighton. Published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Steven Heighton is the author of fourteen books, including three short story collections, three novels and six poetry collections, including he Waking Comes Late (2016),  The Dead Are More Visible (2012), Every Lost Country (2010), and Afterlands (2005) 

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Jun 112017
 

In The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, Heighton mashes up the best parts of the geo-political thriller, the historical narrative, an in-depth character study, lashing all these elements together with lyric prose and breathtaking design. — Richard Farrell

The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep
Steven Heighton
PenguinUSA, 2017
352 pages, $18.00

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We are a species hellbent on escaping circumstance, deterministic nomads, forever obedient to the belief that ‘better’ exists ‘elsewhere.’ Utopian societies hold a special appeal in literature. From Eden to Plato’s Republic to Swift’s Lilliput, the allure of alternate reality has long captured the imagination of writers and readers alike. And while post-modern versions tend toward the dystopian—one thinks of Orwell, Huxley, and later Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood—the temptation to enter other worlds remains just as strong.

Steven Heighton’s latest novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, takes place in the war-ravaged ruins of a Mediterranean ghost town, effectively blending utopian elements into a dystopian village. On the politically divided island of Cyprus, lies Varosha. Once a thriving Riviera resort, this now-shuttered city on the U.N. Green Line was abandoned in the aftermath of the 1974 fighting between Greece and Turkey. Some 20,000 citizens of Varosha fled the bombs, leaving behind parked cars, tables at sidewalk cafés, and shops still filled with clothing.

Block by block Varosha too seems more unreal, if increasingly visible. The moon has risen behind him, over the sea, and though not yet clear of the beachfront towers, it lends an indirect glow. Where vines and creepers have not engulfed the signage he can read the names of businesses, in Greek, English, both—a bakery, a steam laundry, a small nightclub, a café whose heavy tables still line the street although the chairs have vanished—and he can tell the makes of the occasional cars melting into the pavement.

Inside Varosha, however, a hidden community survives. Heighton’s ragtag band of misfits, idealists, exiles, and castoffs have built a secret but sustainable commerce-free zone, where orchards of almond, cherry, and pistachio trees thrive in the Mediterranean sunshine. Snare traps catch rabbits, fig trees drop fruit, and what the village cannot produce, they trade for with the friendly Turkish officer in charge of an adjacent military outpost.

Into this secret world stumbles the battle-weary, Greek-Canadian solider, Elias Trifannis. Dispatched to Cyprus for R&R, Elias is haunted by battlefield nightmares. While drinking in a bar, he meets Eylül Sahin, a beautiful Turkish journalist. The two talk, flirt, and fend off hostile attention from a group of Turkish soldiers. Later, after an amorous coupling on the beach (a sex scene replete with turtle hatchlings scurrying seaward in starlight) those same soldiers reappear, drunker, angrier, and armed. Shots are fired. Eylül falls in the crossfire. Thinking she’s dead, Elias—injured and dazed himself—escapes through a hole in the fence, and slips into the hidden world of Varosha.

Outside the fence, an investigation begins. With a Turkish journalist shot, a Greek-Canadian solider missing, and a tenuous peace between rival nations in the balance, the political ramifications of the incident reverberate far and wide. Before lapsing into a coma, the gravely wounded Eylül overhears her attackers hastily concoct a cover story: “The Greek attacked her, we tried to help, the Greek attacked me, you tried to shoot him, you hit her. Simple enough?”

The next morning, these events are reported to the commanding officer of the adjacent, Turkish military garrison. Colonel Erkan Kaya immediately doubts his soldiers’ tale, but also knows “this was a story that would have to disappear.” Suspecting that Elias may have escaped into Varosha, Kaya wants no part of an on-going investigation that could topple his cushy command. “Things right themselves—they always do,” is more than just Kaya’s motto, it is the man’s pervasive ethos. He declares Elias dead, tosses his phone into the water, and reports that the man’s body washed out to sea.

Kaya is a remarkable construct of Heighton’s imagination. The colonel is so likable, so enigmatically decent, that you root for him despite his bumbling attempts to keep secrets. A military officer cut from the mold of Jeff Lebowski rather than Rambo, Kaya’s idyllic life mirrors that of the Varoshans. He lounges at the officers’ club, beds exotic women, and quaffs on mouthwatering lunches of figs, olives, lamb, and raki. His primary struggle is not war, but a stalwart defense of the status quo.

In a sense, two idealistic worlds exist, one inside Varosha, and one at Kaya’s officers’ club. But reality constantly encroaches, and in Heighton’s world, that reality has a name: Captain Polat.

If good stories work through compelling opposition, then Kaya and Polat are wonderfully paired opponents. From the moment he first appears, in a wonderfully taut, almost comedic tennis match, Polat seems determined to defy his boss. Where Kaya is a gentleman of leisure, Polat exemplifies the ambitious, career-minded soldier. Suspecting Elias has slipped away, the young adjutant wants to enter Varosha and unearth its secrets. “Allow me to lead a—sir, I would be honoured to lead a platoon in there—immediately.”

Meanwhile, inside Varosha, Elias recovers from his wounds and two perilous escape attempts that set back his recovery. Part prisoner, part refugee, Elias struggles with his fate. Should he remain in this village, free from the demands of commerce, war, and corruption? Or should he escape, fulfil his duty, and tell the truth about what happened?

In some ways he will be almost sorry to leave. This pocket in the ruins of a dead city seems more like a singularity outside of time, so that past events out there beyond the mouth of the wormhole are coming to feel, by light of day, like hallucinations. Another few months and they might seem to belong in the bio or obituary of a stranger—though by then he will be back out there and dealing with the fallout of the real events.

Heighton’s spellbinding world is under constant threat. The inhabitants are aging. Even the most recalcitrant villagers recognize the half-life of their exile. And the longer Elias remains, the more entangled he becomes in the lives of these villagers. What happens if the obsessed Polat returns? What happens when Kaya is eventually transferred? Though Varosha has existed for more than 40 years, it is a world on the edge.

Months pass. A love affair develops between Elias and Kaiti, the mother of twins, who is poised to abandon the village. Kaya transfers Polat to combat duty in Syria, where he becomes a combat hero. Elias attempts to escape again, and nearly drowns. Kaya’s children visit Cyprus, and his teenage son develops a fixation on weapons and exploring Varosha. Kaiti gets pregnant. And then Polat returns, even more singularly obsessed with searching the village and unlocking its secrets.

§

War and its horrors tremble at the margins of this story, in Elias’s memories of a grisly raid in Afghanistan, in the escalation of fighting between the Turks and the Syrians, and in the tension of soldiers willing to kill simply because the guy in the bar wears the wrong uniform. Heighton mostly keeps combat off-stage, but it haunts, a constant bell that chimes. Contemporary violence accretes atop ancient scars, the way wars always must.

Again and again, Heighton doubles his themes, uncovers linkages between his imagery, loops back on history and story. War and peace. Love and loss. Home and exile. Freedom and servitude. On both a macro and micro level, parallel patterns abound, creating wonderful paradoxes, rich layers of detail, and story puzzles to delight.

Heighton delivers another stunner in this his 15th book, and fourth novel. Winner of the 2016 Governor-General Prize for Poetry (The Waking Comes Late) Heighton has never shied away from formidable themes or complex plots. In The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, Heighton mashes up the best parts of the geo-political thriller, the historical narrative, an in-depth character study, lashing all these elements together with lyric prose and breathtaking design. I found myself thinking of Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate, Shirley Hazard’s The Great Fire, and John Fowles’ The Magus.

In fact, Heighton has always reminded me a bit of John Fowles. Both writers are serious craftsmen and rigorous thinkers, with a profound respect for history, nature, and culture. Both populate their stories with strange but fully rendered characters. And both men dazzle their readers with depictions of mesmerizing worlds, elegant storylines, and serious themes. And like Fowles, Heighton is a writer who interrogates notions of reality, examining the borderlands between commerce and community, between mere existence and a deeper, sacred sense of being.

In his compact but brilliant book of writing advice, Work Book: Memos & Dispatches on Writing, Heighton describes the act of reading this way:

Vertical resonance means a downward echoing, the potential for soundings into a textual subconscious, the swimmer’s thrilling sense, when crossing a mountain lake, of unmeasured depths in the dark below the thermocline.

The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep is an invigorating swim into such unmeasured depths.

—Richard Farrell

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[updated bio requested]

Jun 102017
 

DeGroot 8. ZombieZombie – watercolor on paper, 24″ x 18″, 2015

 

As an artist I have been focusing on painting trees and their cast-off limbs, i.e. sticks, for many years.

Trees are completely individual. They are adapters and survivors; each one is unique, and I believe that is something most people don’t think about. We are taught to look at trees based on a stereotype; the image of a perfectly pruned tree is the one most people have in their heads, balanced and symmetrical. But in nature those rarely exist. Trees grow to survive, they adapt to their given environment, growing into strange shapes, producing oddly shaped limbs, becoming contortionists to get to sunlight, and bowing to the will of other larger trees. They grow in context to each other and their neighbors, adapting as best they can to the situation they find themselves in.

 

DeGroot 1. DowserDowser – watercolor on paper,  24″ x 18″, 2015

 

DeGroot 2. For FortunyFor Fortuny – watercolor on paper, 24″ x 18″, 2015

 

While my artwork has always been based on a traditional observation process, the final appearance of the objects in my paintings is grounded in contemporary ideas and concerns and by my own quirky interpretation of the objects’ personalities. These objects allow me to explore my interests in surrealism (especially the Chicago artists collective The Hairy Who) and abstraction along with pursuing the pure physical pleasure of painting.

 

DeGroot 3. La De DaLa De Da – watercolor on paper, 50″x 40″, 2016

 

DeGroot 7. White BirchWhite Birch – watercolor on paper, 24″ x 18″, 2015

 

My current pieces have developed from my compulsive observation of the trees in my “neighborhood” in upstate New York. I am always looking for new trees. I find my subjects by the side of the road or on hiking trails in nature preserves. Often I will ask for permission to cut down a tree on someone’s property after lusting after it for some time.

 

DeGroot 5. Menage A TroisMenage A Trois – watercolor on paper, 7′ x 4′, 2016

 

The last few trees (7′ long) that I have brought back to my studio have reminded me of Las Vegas show girls, adorned with cascading mushrooms, moss, and vines. They stand out in all their finery, in juxtaposition to the other plainer trees. Of course the irony is that these beautiful trees are dead and dying trees, and their finery is the work of decomposers set on reducing them to a rich addition to the earth beneath them.

 

DeGroot 6. ShowtimeShowtime – watercolor on paper, 7′ x 3 1/2′, 2017

Degroot 4. Showtime IIShowtime II –  watercolor on paper, 5′ x 3 1/2′ , 2017 

 

My paintings honor my subjects’ singular elegance and imagined personality, and I hope they can remind viewers to celebrate beauty in unexpected places.

—Katie DeGroot

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Katie DeGroot
Artist Katie DeGroot was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan and grew up in the arcadian suburbs of Boston, MA. As a teenager she moved to Chicago, IL during the famous Democratic National Convention riots of 1968. She attended New York University and Illinois State University before spending nearly 20 years in New York City. Katie now resides on her great-grandparents’ farm next to the Hudson River in Fort Edward, NY, where she raises beef cows and makes art. She is also currently the director of Skidmore College Summer Studio Art Program.

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Jun 092017
 

Photo by Jada Lillo

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Widdershins King

after Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

The augur reads your body as a map to the stars,
a map to ourselves. Your hollow-leg limp, your
slanted dance becomes our left-handed magic.
What for you is necessity, for us is harvest and a
night’s sleep from which we all wake while you
ache all night, grown too tall for your withered
hips. You whisper into the solstice flames, and
we follow your fixed-point starlight toward the
future. You pivot left then fall, but we rescue
you from the dust. When we stake your torso to
the forked oak tree in the center of the grove,
before we touch fire to the cured wood, you
warn us you cannot die, have already died long
ago, and learned to keep one foot hidden beyond
the threshold.

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Teeth

In the booth behind me, a woman speaks to a man.
“Thank God we didn’t try to have a baby,” she says,
“my tumor would have eaten them, would have gained
superpowers!” She laughs, but laughter faded as gray
skin. The man does not reply. I wonder which
superpowers she means. Telekinesis?
Cancer with wings?

What poisons seed my cells?
What malevolent mouth might my body feed?

Admitted to hospital Monday,
transferred to hospice Thursday, Jana
died Sunday.

After, I helped clean out her apartment.
Dust thick as frosting, a sour smell—dog
piss and dirty drains and insane cells
celebrating Carnival in her ovaries, her
lymph nodes, her lungs.

Her words written inside the cover of a calendar five-years
old—THIS YEAR I WILL:
TRAVEL TO DENMARK! PERFORM STAND-UP! SEE
MY CHILDREN SETTLED AND HAPPY!
Her spiral notebooks, scarred by ball-point pen—blue
letters, a forest of upper-cases where her left hand cast
a faint shadow of ink as it crossed the page.
I bagged her notebooks in green plastic bags and threw them away.

The fox’s road-kill teeth etch each afternoon
as I drive home. Sharp white bordered by gums
black as cave glass, black as fresh tar
skinned from the off-ramp closest to home.
Day by day, the fox collapses into herself,
into the dark spaces she left behind in the gutter.
Along the horizon, mountains muzzle
the west wind. Volcanic rock wears down
into brown dust the color of the fox’s pelt.

Why do I crave my daily peek at death—shrunken body,
gleaming teeth, black gums—but this afternoon the dead
fox vanished, teeth and all? Famished, I gnaw my arm to
bone with pointed fox’s teeth.

When my turn comes, I will swallow my prescribed pills.
I will never wear a pink wig, but I will slice off diseased
bits of flesh to toss into the flame.

I will appease the gods. After all this time, we
still believe in gods hungry as ourselves.

X
de novo

Any minute now, the neurologist will open the door & introduce us to the MDA rep. We will fill out forms & sign our name, initial here & here. Each form will read, diagnosis—unknown/in progress. M— dances from square to square, counting floor tiles. Not until the moment when the doctor transforms from work-a-day technician to palm reader, do you fully appreciate the blessings of an unknowable future. Or course, an existential dilemma looms in every instant the proverbial bus misses your vulnerable bones or the apocryphal lightning preserves your tender skin. Yet the absurdity of consciousness amidst the cosmic soup of mystery rests far easier on the mind in healthy times. Listen to the oracle whose voice outlines a vast unknown in a series of appointments and procedures—blood draw; genetics testing, cardiologist; orthopedist; muscle biopsy; MRI; neurologist.

Once home, we comb our digital photo files & compile a timeline of milestones. This age M— army crawls. Remember how he used to roll his toys, scoot after them, playing fetch with himself? We called his game Adventure Time. Here’s the age he crawls—here he pulls himself up to standing, takes steps. Maybe a little late. This age his heels creep off the ground, & when his stance widens, his skinned knees & elbows never go away. He tries to ride a bike & can’t get the pedals around more than twice. For years he can’t skip or hop but see here? Here he leaps, both feet leaving the ground.

In the process, we discover a video from the Airplane Museum: M— in a yellow bi-plane toy, built for toddlers but just big enough for our 5-year-old with his long legs & tiny frame. After an initial push, M— gets the pedals going, his laugh echoing off the concrete floors & metal girders of the hangar’s roof. I film while J— chases her brother & you juggle between our son-the-yellow-missile & museum exhibits—bombers & fighters & helicopters spanning 70 years of American wars. He shouts, I’m in the jet stream! The video bounces & cuts on my, Sh!

Then I’m weeping into your T-shirt. You hold me & ask, What is it? I say our son’s name, only his name, but your grip tightens. You looked it up, didn’t you? I nod. The doctor told us not to look it up! An already-written future at work inside his cells shapes his body whether we know its name or not.

X
Waiting for the Turn

We tread the wave. The Pacific yearns landward and the
tide rises. Once the wave passes, we settle on the long
shelf of sand and holding hands, we balance beyond
the break. My son watches the wave
crest and crash into gauzy white foam, but I
watch the open ocean, timing the swells
until we can leap into the next wave.
Here he is, my boy, singular offspring of countless kisses.
Inside his body history coils, which is to say he contains
the future as the ocean contains us and a sea of air contains
this singular gold-and-blue bead of October afternoon.
Swells build and my son clings to my shoulders
when our feet float free from the sand.
In a time of transition, no amount of time
makes you accustomed to the taste of grief. How will we survive
this suffering? Variants of unknown significance
perform their invisible, broken work inside the membranes
of his cells while another wave pulses warm water
closer to shore and we buoy ourselves in this warmth, my son
and I. We laugh, delirious in the sunlight, and my son touches
his crooked finger to salt drops beading on my face.
He believes the drops are broken bits of wave.

X
How you will learn to ride a bike:

1) Press your thumbprint into your cells’
structures until you don’t know
what will happen yet; 2) Round the shape
of your head with my soft sounds; 3) See
ahead, the horizon of a new
structural bend in the happenings
of boys & dragonflies; 4) What flies
is not time but belief in time’s promise;
5) Forget all I’ve ever said; 6) Discover
within yourself novel repetitions with wings;
7) Fly along the horizon:
try to remember you’ve always known how.

X
Spaceboy, I Miss You

You dance across the ceiling.

You wrap arms around my neck, a hug, a plea
for rescue. I hold you to me. You curve your
body into the spaces between us, and hold me
until you’re full then you float upward to
dance. Under your feet the ceiling’s white, flat
paint wears away.

Nightblue pajamas outline your body, like the sky
your fragile arms, legs, hips, tummy and back, traced by
constellations— Ursa Major, Orion, Castor and Pollux, the
Scorpion, the Forgiving King glow in the dark.

Your walls grow thin.
Rhymes told slant, your tiny narrow fingers stretch
back and fold until they nearly meet the tender skin
binding your hands. You shake and sinew over the
ceiling, and I watch your joy in body, your star-
sprinkled pajamas. You twinkle through the space
between us, and I want you inside my arms, held
close. I wish to speak, to call you back to me, but you
move high on your toes and dance.

Knees jut, hips swizzle,
elbows and wrists and hands knot the air like wings.
From the twisted knots of your ankles, always lifting
you to your toes, you fashion ache into song,
into dancing stars, ceiling not strong enough to hold
such joy.

Come back to me. Come back
to me. I’ll rewrite your constellations.
I’ll repair the scrambled syntax. I will hold you,
stronger than the ceiling, my star-walking son.

I will not lose you to hollows.
I will not forget how you dance.

X
Scar Powder

after The National, “Graceless”

I am invisible and weightless, fine bone
powder voice dissolved in water you
caught inside the vase to feed stems of
goldenrod and firewheels, California
poppies and bluebells plucked from
Colorado meadows rescued from my
childhood summers. Bluebells.
My grandmother calls them witches’
thistles, her voice transparent as water.
As water I will rise up stems because
there’s a science to rising through
windows and my grandmother’s voice
calls through glass—witches’ thistles,
not for malice but for magic—listen, all
my thoughts of you become orange, red,
yellow, blue blooms in the vase
up on the shelf where you will say
it is the side effects that save us,
scars give us grace.

—Erin Lillo

x

In addition to writing, teaching, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loud. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently she’s losing. Her work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review and The Tishman Review. She has an MFA in poetry and fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Jun 092017
 

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In Alice Munro’s work Lives of Girls and Women—billed as a novel, though it is more of a collection of linked stories—“Baptizing” plays Del Jordan, a high school senior seeking sexual initiation, against three antagonists. Two of these encounters end in comic humiliation, while the third is a breathtakingly carnal adventure until she breaks up explosively with her boyfriend.

First, Del meets Clive through her friend Naomi at a trashy bar, but the encounter goes no further than making out drunkenly. Second, she halfheartedly dates her brilliant, socially awkward high school classmate Jerry Storey. And finally, she has a full love affair with a Baptist lumberyard worker named Garnet French. As Glover notes in his essay “The Style of Alice Munro” (from The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro), “this strategy of varying plot structure by using different antagonists in each plot step is also used in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ in which the protagonist Gabriel interacts dramatically with three successive women, Lily, the maid, Miss Ivors, the fellow journalist, and, finally, his wife” (48).

dubliners

Let us start, then, by examining “The Dead.”

Glover expands on his analysis of the Joyce masterpiece in Attack of the Copula Spiders (27-29). In each encounter, Glover says, Gabriel oversteps by making assumptions about the women, who put him in his place. Each of the three set pieces end with Gabriel miffed, nonplussed, humiliated, and disabused of some modicum of his self-delusions. Gabriel jokes with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter that everyone would be going to her wedding to a fine young man one day. This is harmless banter of the sort Gabriel thinks should brighten the day of any working girl. But Lily has had it with her fine young man—with all men, really—and she holds Gabriel accountable for the failings of his wicked gender. “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you,” she says. Gabriel colors in embarrassment.

Next he crosses swords with Miss Ivors, a patriot who gratuitously insults Gabriel’s honor as an Irishman because he has the temerity to write book reviews for a British paper. (The nerve!) “West Briton!” she calls him. She apologizes passive-aggressively but smilingly repeats her slander, leaving Gabriel embarrassed and angry. She possesses the passive-aggressive’s gift for detecting a tender spot in her interlocutor’s psyche—a place of insecurity, self-doubt, weakness, or shame—and jabbing him there with a well-filed fingernail. Gabriel pettily avenges himself with oblique allusions to a strawman version of Ivors in a toast over dinner—after she has left the party and can no longer respond. So there!

Finally, the shifting fault lines of the party unearth the coffin of a buried conflict with his wife, Greta. She suggests that they go to Galway for a visit. “You can go if you like,” he says coldly. In a later conversation in their bedroom, Gabriel, aflame with lust for Gretta, is astonished when she bursts into tears. Turns out she is crying over a boy named Michael Furey whom she was in love with, and who died in Galway years ago. Though frail in his health, he stood out in a cold rain pining for her, fell sicker yet, and died. “I think he died for me,” she says. Gabriel achieves an epiphany of sorts, a bitter one: he has never really known his wife, and now he sees her as someone whose soul he cannot fathom, who has loved another more deeply than she will ever love him. He cannot forgive himself for his petty preoccupations in the face of his wife’s deep, true grief. His newfound self-knowledge is rendered comical by his fantastical, exaggerated self-lacerations, of a sort familiar to psychologists. If he must fail, Gabriel must do so in a spectacular manner: “He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts…” Joyce leaves us with a Gabriel-in-a-hair-shirt who is the mirror image of his former vain self. A few sessions with a good shrink might help him sort out his self-image, even if there is little that can be done about clownish male lusts.

Glover states that in these encounters, “Each woman is more important to Gabriel than the previous one. Each comes closer to threatening and overturning his core psychic constructs. And each woman confronts him with the truth” (Attack, 29).

lives-of-girls-and-women

Similarly, in “Baptizing,” Munro arranges three stories that, individually, are broken up in a series of steps, Glover states, “so that they form a miniature story, a dramatic whole within the larger structure of the story.” Each chapter of this tale ends in Del walking home alone.

In the first set piece of “Baptizing,” Del is an inexperienced newcomer in the grotty Gay-la Dance Hall, which her mother, despite her irreligiousness, compares to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. The man Del is paired off with, Clive, amuses himself faking Dutch immigrant and black accents with his friend.

“Hey, Rastus,” Bert says “spookily” (210—gap-mouthed italics my own). Clive is a fancy, inventive dancer who leaves Del feeling awkward as she tries to match his moves. Back at the table, she “drinks like a fish,” as Naomi approvingly observes. But when the foursome leave and drive about in Clive’s friend’s car, Clive pounces on Del (so drunk she has forgotten she is sitting beside him) and slides his tongue down her throat “like an enormous, wet, cold, crumpled … dishrag” (208). They all end up in a hotel, but after heading down the hall to use the toilet, Del removes her shoes, climbs down the fire escape, and walks off barefooted. In her drunken confusion she first wobbles to Naomi’s home, waking Naomi’s father (who later gives his daughter a belting when she returns home). Del finally ends up in her own bed, alone and hungover, in a dry-mouthed conclusion to this failed romantic evening.

The second set piece likewise ends in failure and with Del fleeing into the night. But it veers even further into slapstick, “something jerky and insane from a silent movie,” she later reflects (226). The story involves the teenage genius Jerry Storey. Student body opinion has paired off Del off with the boy for the sole reason that they are the two top scholars. Almost against their will, they fall into a relationship. Jerry shows a not-atypical masculine preoccupation with himself and his achievements. A science and math prodigy, he is baffled by Del’s areas of giftedness, as in her love of literature. Fairly or not, one is tempted to merge the character Del with a young Munro, yet it is Jerry who daydreams about winning the Nobel Prize in, oh, let’s say ten years or so, maybe twenty (217). Like Clive, Jerry uses fake accents—those of British sophisticates or characters from the comic strip “Pogo,” though this time Del joins in with him in silly dialogues that cover their sense of awkwardness together. As with Clive, their sexual exploration is desultory and amusingly unsexy.

Our hands lay moistly together, each one of us wondering, no doubt, how long in decent courtesy they must remain. Our bodies fell together not unwillingly but joylessly, like sacks of wet sand. Our mouths opened into each other … our tongues rough, mere lumps of unlucky flesh (222).

(Again, those dreadful tongues down the throat.)

The relationship climaxes (in a literary if not physical sense) with Del undressing and lying on Jerry’s bed. Embarrassed, they resort to Pogo accents: “Yo’ is shore a handsome figger of a woman,” he tells her (223). But ludicrously, Jerry hears his mother returning home, and he shoves his naked girlfriend into the basement stairway, leaves her there in the dark. Later he tosses her clothes down the laundry chute. She climbs out a window, and again walks home at night in shame and fury. (They make up the next day.)

As authors must, Munro saves her climactic story—her most affecting and beautiful one—for the conclusion. Del has a love affair with lumberyard worker Garret French. She meets him at a revival meeting that she, a nonbeliever, whimsically decides to attend after a teacher who is a Presbyterian elder gives her a promotional button that reads Come to Jesus. There, Garnet spies Del from across the room and works his way over to her. They don’t even know each other’s name, yet he holds her hand as they listen to a hellfire sermon from an itinerant revivalist. It’s a gorgeous way to create dramatic tension—to have the seduction occur, irreverently and irresistibly, in a religious service. Here Munro nods to another work by Joyce, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, which recounts a sermon delivered amid Stephen Daedalus’s preoccupation with fleshly depravities. In “Baptizing,” the preacher’s key image, that of the sinner crossing a rope bridge held by a thread over the chasm of Hell, also alludes to Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but in a comic twist, Del and indeed the entire audience do not quake in their seats, like Edwards’ congregation, but are entertained by a threat of damnation from which they consider themselves personally exempt. As the preacher orates, people sing out, “Amen.” Del muses, “Movie stars and politicians and fornicators gone beyond rescue; it seemed, for most people, a balmy comfortable thought” (233). The affair that follows is all-consuming, even before it is consummated. Del lies awake sleepless until dawn, reviewing every kiss and touch. “Sex seemed to me all surrender—not the woman’s to the man but the person’s to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility” (239—italics mine).

Glover discerns echoes among Munro’s three set pieces. Del and Garnet visit each other’s homes for a meal, just as Jerry and Del do. Garnet’s sprawling, working class family attracts Del in a way that Jerry and his widow mother do not, but there are similarly uncomfortable sexual revelations in each household. Jerry’s mother, ambitious for her boy’s future, warns Del to use birth control when having sex; Garnet carves the names of his conquests into a beam on the porch, Del’s last of all, underscored and surrounded by stars, indicating she would be his wife.

All three relationships implode, the first two comically, while her final, deepest one ends in tragic rage and a kind of betrayal (a betrayal, that is, by Del; she admits this to herself, even though she is a victim of Garnet’s physical brutality). Del and Garnet go swimming together after making love (258 ff). Garnet tells her she must get baptized as a member of his church. Although minutes earlier she has agreed to bear his children, she resists baptism, recognizing that to do so would be to surrender something essential about herself. His half-joking attempt to baptize her himself turns vicious as he realizes the love he has offered is not reciprocated—that “I had somehow met his good offerings with my deceitful offerings … matching my complexity and play-acting to his true intent” (260). He nearly drowns her, but she refuses to give in and manages to escape his clutches. For a third time, the end of a relationship leaves her walking home.

This final set piece provides a revelation to Del, an epiphany, which unites all three panels of the literary triptych. “The scene has the force of a spell being broken: Del speaks of sleepwalking, of waking up,” Margaret Atwood writes in The Cambridge Companion (111). In her encounters with Clive and Jerry, Del was denied not only sexual fulfillment, but the enlightenment of self-knowledge as to where she stands in relation to men. With Garnet, she finds a deeply satisfying sexual relationship—rare in this life, as she is aware—but with a man with whom she has no future. She must give it up to awaken herself from the spell.

—Russell Working

Works Cited

Alice Munro: Lives of Girls and Women
James Joyce: Dubliners
Douglas Glover: Attack of the Copula Spiders
Douglas Glover, Margaret Atwood et al.: The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro

 

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Russell-Working

Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly,The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the ChicagoTribune. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, theBoston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.

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Jun 082017
 

Clint McCown

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Entropy

Knowledge
is to understand
the differences;
wisdom
is to bridge the
common ground.

Suspenders and
suspense, for example:
shoulder to shoulder
but otherwise unattached.

Which is the one
to learn from?

Even on our worst day,
we can draw abstractions
from the concrete.
Even an unanchored
suspension bridge
can be easily supported
by the simple suspension
of our disbelief.

But abstractions leave us
none the wiser.
Let’s get practical here.

The river is beautiful
only until
we have a need
to cross it.

The river is ugly
only until
we reach
the other side.

Back and forth
we go.

The earth is as much
pendulum as ball:
so even the
peaceable kingdom
will know a day
of slaughter.

And another.
And another.

Progress, it seems,
takes us nowhere
we haven’t already been.

The earth is as much
pendulum as ball.

The river is beautiful,
the river is ugly,
but the river is not
the flooded landscape or
the drought-cracked bed.
The river is only the river.

The pendulum
slows,
revealing every star
as finite.

Fire reduces
half the universe to ash;
what’s left will freeze
into atomic dust.

Don’t wait for the sun
to fill the sky.
If there’s a worm hole,
take it.

Remember that
shade tree
in your old back yard.
You’re there now.
Stay a while.

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If Left Alone

every blade
unsharpens
over time

every color fades
toward neutral

every fruit drops

every drop dries

every strength
falters

every breath
every light
goes out, and

every memory,
good or bad,
is lost

I am now here
or
I am not here:

two states
separated by
one letter,
one infinity
of difference

which is the one
to celebrate?

which is the one
to mourn?

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On Claudia’s Birthday

Friends aren’t what they used to be.
The circle has widened beyond
all horizons, and now people
we don’t know
wander in from the street
to rummage through drawers
and stare into the refrigerator.

In this third year after her death,
Claudia, or the fact of her,
prompts the ghosted internet
to tell the world
that it’s her birthday.
That’s not inaccurate, of course:
beginnings are indelible.
But still.

Old-fashioned friends, who know
a platform is no place to live,
send love and share the grief.

But here and there among the posts
the clueless barge right in:
Do something special today!
one tells her.
Have a fun week! says another.
Many happy returns!
Someone sends a birthday song.
A winking smiley-face.

Claudia herself
might have laughed off
these misplaced hints of immortality.
But who’s to say?

Every form of parchment
fades in constant light;
what once was clear becomes illegible.
Now we see through a glass darkly
and then darker still.
No doubt this same congratulation
will make the rounds again next year.

When you see it,
remember the snuffed light
of blown-out candles.
Think how much you’ve lost.

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When Death Comes Knocking in the Night

Oh, you again, I say.
The terror has worn thin.

Habit teaches us to live
with anything, I guess —
the way I stopped worrying
about the atomic bomb
in sixth grade
after the fiftieth false alarm,
all us kids huddling
beneath our desks,
waiting for the final flash.

He still leans on that famous
scythe — a habit of his own.
I think he carries it
only to scare the children,
to keep them at a distance.

He’s not such a bad guy,
just lousy at making friends.
And in spite of what
you may have heard,
he’s terrible at chess.
He’s cool about it, though —
whether it’s a thousand
or ten thousand games,
one win is all he wants.

Our routine is almost playful now.
Stop me if you’ve heard this,
he says. But he never stops.

How many dead people
does it take
to change a light bulb?
He grins his trademark grin.
The number doesn’t matter!
he howls.
There aren’t any light bulbs
in the grave!
Then he cackles like a
drunken sorority pledge.

The humor, he believes,
lies not in the joke itself,
but in the way he tells it.

He tells it repeatedly.

How many dead people
does it take
to change a light bulb?
he asks again.
This is the only joke he knows;
for him it never gets old.

But for once I surprise him.
The number doesn’t matter,
I interrupt.
Dead people can’t climb a ladder.

Death gapes at me,
eye sockets wide,
grinning uncertainly
at my departure.

But the third time,
inspired, as he often is,
by the breaking of fresh ground,
he tries a variation of his own.

The number doesn’t matter!
he cries with sibilant glee,
The dead don’t need light bulbs!
They’re dead!

He thinks he’s hysterical
and laughs so hard
he unhinges his jaw.

How many dead people
does it take,
he begins again.

This goes on for a while.
He’s on a roll now,
as possibilities unfold
without end.

Eventually, boredom sets in.
I tell him I’m still listening,
that I’ve closed my eyes
only to concentrate
on his infinite comedic range.
I tell him his eternity
of punchlines is amazing.
I think he buys it.

How many dead people
does it take,
he intones
for the umpteenth time,

but I’m drifting away,
forgetting the joke entirely.

I ease down
through the sweetness
of the shadow.

Words release me
from their mystery,

and I sink, dreamless,
toward the usual slumber,

not knowing
how long, or how deep.

— Clint McCown

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Clint McCown has published four collections of poems and four novels, the most recent of which, Haints, received the Midwest Book Award. He directs the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University and teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program.

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Jun 082017
 

A tiger has lost his pride and seeks direction from a snake crushing apples in a tree. I’m not usually one for animal parables. But in this moral tale, the fifth in Emmons’ collection—A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales—the elegant prose, precise plotting, and ingenious dialogue transform a relatively straightforward—and often comic—exchange between two species into a remarkable meditation on futility and free will. —Michael Carson

 

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The tiger stopped at a break in the rain and realized he was no longer on the path he’d been following. He scratched the side of his belly against a coleus bush, shook free of the water coating his back and legs, and studied the ferns and mosses growing all around him, a blurred patchwork of greens. He listened for the rasp of Cousin, which like a gnat’s buzzing at his tail had annoyed him all through the hunt, and for the whelps of Sister’s underweaned cubs, and for the irregular footsteps of 2nd Cousin, but heard nothing.

“I’m six furlongs west of the den,” he thought, catching the scent of the dead opossum. “At most nine.”

He was tempted to scoop up with his tongue an ant dragging a webbed mass of tsetse flies, but refrained. What could be seen of the sun seemed to shift and ripple in the sky like its reflection in disturbed water. Was he west of the den, or north? Perhaps he was northwest. Cousin, despite his uselessness in a kill, had a perfect sense of direction, and the tiger felt his absence. Not long ago, for example, Cousin had found the way home after a two-day journey through alien trees that had marooned them in an unfamiliar glade, where they were so famished that Aunt had proposed eating 2nd Cousin.

“Sister!” he called out. “Niece!”

The chittering whir of life in the forest slowed and then sped up again.

“Can I help you?” came a voice from above.

The tiger looked up and saw a snake wound around the gnarled branch of a tree that curved at its base into thick tumorous roots burrowing underground. “Yes, you can go up to a good vantage point and look east for a pride of six tigers. One has a limp, another is missing both ears, and a third has no tail.”

The snake’s mouth opened slightly.

“They can’t be more than a furlong away. Maybe two.”

After making a complete revolution around its branch, the snake glided toward the trunk and then up to another branch. “What happened to your left eye?”

“It was removed by a great rhinoceros. You’re not high enough there to see any real distance.” The tiger sat on his haunches and felt the sharp pain in his groin that had troubled him since the last famine. He covered the furless patch on his stomach with his right foreleg, and the long, sparsely plotted whiskers on his face hung like wilted plume grass. “The rain must have disoriented them. They’ll be desperate to find me. 2nd Cousin already suffers from nerves. Go to the topmost branch and scan the area and you are sure to spot them.”

The snake projected a third of its body into midair and peered up at the tumescent sky. “There is an eagle circling.”

“You are too large to be carried off by such a small bird.”

“Just as you are too powerful to be maimed by a rhinoceros?”

The tiger considered leaping up to seize the snake in his mouth but suspected, with his injury, that he couldn’t.

The snake remained motionless.

“If you don’t help me,” said the tiger, “I will find them on my own and then return to kill you.”

With its tail the snake plucked an apple from a leafy nest and squeezed until it liquefied and streamed to the ground. “Before you arrived, I saw six tigers to the southeast, standing in an attitude of respect around a young tiger half again your size. When he trotted away they followed him in single file, and there were a tail-less male and limping female among them.”

The tiger protracted his claws deep into the earth and objects around him grew less distinct. His heart beat erratically. “You saw a different pride that coincidentally and superficially resembled mine.”

“Yes, certainly.”

“There is no possibility of one being the other.”

“I didn’t mean to suggest there was.”

After a minute in which he shivered as if still wet—a ringing in his inner ear, a cold hard trill, made him wish for the sun’s full return—the tiger squinted at the snake and said, “You are lying about what you saw. It is your nature to trick noble animals, as you did man.”

The snake dropped what remained of the apple to the ground, where it landed on a pile of rotting cores around which flies were buzzing ecstatically, and slid down to hang suspended with its tail coiled around a short spiky branch. From close up the tiger could see its skin reticulated into a network of fitted, glistening scales that were honeycombed with tiny red diamonds. A change occurred in the opossum scent; a new bloody aroma mingled with the old decay, as though its body had just been torn open; he could almost hear skin being ripped away and flesh stripped from bone.

“I will not tell—”

“How old are you?” asked the snake.

“I will not tell you again: either go up and look for my companions or prepare to die.”

“You shouldn’t blame them for following another tiger now that you can no longer procure food or protect them.”

The tiger rose from his seated position and paced back and forth unsteadily, trying to determine how high he could jump without further straining his groin muscle. If the snake descended another two branches and then lowered its head and relaxed, he’d have a chance. “I can procure enough food for twenty tigers; at this very moment I am hunting prey. As for guarding them against danger, in the last six months I have fought off two jackals, a wombat, a marbled cat, an olingo and a sambar deer. The few among my pride who have been injured during that period understand why I was unable to prevent it, such as, during our encounter with the rhinoceros, my own loss of an eye. They are loyal in a way that you, a solitary creature hated the world over, cannot understand.”

The snake seemed to consider this and then said, “I wonder how a sambar deer, or a marbled cat or an olingo, could threaten a tiger. An olingo! The smallest cub could swallow one whole without thinking. Though the real question here is why your pride has waited so long to abandon you.”

The tiger sprang up at the tree from a meter away, felt a sharp bolt of pain, and fell to the ground.

The snake said, “Despite your obvious helplessness, if your former pride comes this way its new leader will have to kill you. The old must ever make way for the young.”

The tiger turned away and tensed his muscles and clenched his jaw and didn’t make a sound. From between his legs agony radiated out in regular, insistent waves. It would soon subside. He watched a chameleon blend into a fern stem as hardy as a shoot of running bamboo; the wind moaned and the sky darkened two shades with the sun’s full retreat behind layered clouds. He felt a drop of rain, heavier and more deliberate than any in the shower that had fallen earlier. The opossum scent was faint. He said, “I look forward to meeting this other tiger. Before ending your life, I will beat him in front of you so that you can see your error.”

The snake plucked off another apple and reduced it, as he had the one before, to pulp. “Let us stop this absurd talk of you harming me, because the only animal you can hurt now is yourself. It would be best for you to accept this and everything to follow.”

The tiger said, “Do you want to know why you are everywhere despised?”

The snake said nothing.

“It isn’t just your willful insincerity, the way you manipulate the truth and consider honesty to be a sign of mental frailty, as though animals who treat each other fairly are too stupid to do otherwise, but rather that, unable to build anything yourself, you concentrate on destruction. I almost pity you.”

“Then we might start a mutual pity society.”

“Friendless, heartless, and deluded into thinking cleverness worthier than love and affection, you could vanish and no one would miss you.”

The snake’s head rested on its coiled body, ten feet off the ground. “And how are you any better off, since your life has come to the same solitary end?”

“I am not solitary or at an end.”

The snake looked meaningfully at the empty space around the tiger. “It’s especially unfortunate because your solitude is not the result, as mine is, of your possessing taste and refinement in a place that values neither, but because when young you used brute force to dominate all the creatures of the earth. Those you didn’t eat you frightened, displaced or ignored. How love and affection, which you claim to value, have operated on or through you beyond the limited confines of your immediate family, is a mystery.”

“Having limited sympathy is not the same as having none at all. Everyone privileges his own and his relatives’ survival above that of others.”

The snake’s forked tongue moved up and down in its open jaw at an invisible speed. “Whether or not that’s true, you’re exceptional insofar as power and compassion are directly correlated; the more one has of the former, the better able one is to bestow the latter. You, being all-powerful, have the potential to be all-merciful. You have chosen not to be, however, which is both convenient and beneficial to you, and which eliminates the moral advantage you might otherwise have had over me. In fact, it is safe to say that your obligation to help instead of hurt weaker animals equals or even exceeds your capacity to do so, making it the greatest mandate in the forest now that man is gone, something only a monster could ignore. And yet you think that having been born a tiger you can pursue your pleasure regardless of its cost to others.”

The tiger caught no more scent of the opossum. He did not need to keep listening to the sophistry of a snake when somewhere in the vicinity Cousin and Aunt and Sister and Great-Niece and Niece and 2nd Cousin were either huddled together, too hungry to move or cry out, praying to the hidden sun for his return, or under the influence of a young pretender stealing what belonged to him.

As he considered where to look for them, a rustling sound to the east preceded the appearance of fifteen zebras galloping across the clearing in a westward direction, followed immediately by a herd of long-necked giraffes. The rain was falling steadier now and vast puddles formed on the ground. Then from opposite corners of the clearing two new sets of animals emerged—from the southeast peacocks, and from the northeast rabbits—to unite on the path trampled first by the zebras and then by the giraffes.

“Where are they going?” shouted the tiger to the snake, who had ascended to the topmost branch and was staring into the distance.

The snake didn’t answer for several minutes, during which bunches of toads, rhinoceroses, goats, horses, gorillas, short-haired cats, mice, beetles and marmots filed past, until finally, with an unreadable expression, it returned to its perch on the fourth lowest branch and said, “They are headed west.”

“But why?”

Rain poured down so heavily now that the tiger felt a uniform pressure on his back. A flock of geese flew above while an assortment of chimpanzees and foxes and deer raced by. The puddles converged into an unbroken pool. Next came wolves and bears and badgers and lambs, and it was a marvel to see the peaceful—the non-murderous—lockstep of predators with their prey.

The tiger said to the snake, who still had not answered, “Is there higher ground to the west, or perhaps a fire to the east?”

“No.”

“Then what did you see?”

“Earlier you said that I delight in destruction and trick noble animals such as man. I’ll tell you what I saw, but first you must hear something.”

The rain fell insistently and the tiger was too weary to protest.

“When Eve came here she was a child. Not biologically, but in temper and intellectual development she was little better than the clay from which she and Adam were formed. I lived on the ground then, and ate a sparse diet of mice and other small fry, with little interest in this tree. Eve used to stand where you are now and ask herself whether she should or shouldn’t eat its fruit. Her life was tiresome, she’d say, without variation or intrigue or intensity of feeling—everything she did produced the same dull note—and eating the fruit would change that. Unless it wouldn’t. What if, she’d say, an unpredictable life of alternating pain and joy and mystery was as unsatisfying as the one of regular contentment and predictability she currently led? What if the afterwards were different from the before in kind but not in substance? And while the prospect of death might invest life with greater meaning than it currently possessed, on the theory that something’s value rises in proportion to its scarcity, it might do the opposite and fill her with a sense of life’s futility.”

The water level had reached the halfway point on the tiger’s legs, and he decided to start walking west with the blind hope of finding his companions, who might intercede on his behalf with their new leader. There was no reason to stay here.

The snake said, “One day, after months of ignoring me, she asked what I thought she should do. Stay and suffer in a familiar manner, with an inevitable increase in boredom as time passed meaninglessly, or eat the fruit and be banished to a place and mode of being that might as easily be worse as be better, and that would come to an end? She couldn’t ask Adam because he wanted nothing more than to love and admire creation; he wouldn’t condone her eating the fruit of this tree because he was not dissatisfied. I told her that if that were the case she could do no wrong that would not also be right.”

The tiger’s stomach now grazed the water’s surface, along which a thousand raindrops ignited in tiny explosions that added to and overlapped and canceled one another out. A memory came to him of standing on an open plain during a heat wave when he was young, under a bleached white sky dirtied in the distance by specks of vultures circling over the elk he had just slain, at which time, stupefied but not yet made frantic by thirst, and for a moment on the other side of a small hill from the others, a single droplet of water had fallen on his nose. There had been no clouds or birds above him, and no rivers within sight to produce this moisture. He’d licked it away and in the fraction of relief it afforded him he’d felt his yearning for more spike to an unbearable degree, and he’d had a vision then of endless water, of a flood like the one now arising, and he’d understood that the leadership responsible for taking the pride so far from a fresh drinking supply, and which just moments before had failed to help him bring down the elk, needed to be replaced.

“Do you know what she did then?” asked the snake.

The tiger could clearly see his father’s body perched that evening at the mouth of the cave where the pride was sleeping, his muscles thin and shrunken, his ears perfectly still, lost in a memory of the world as someplace new, when the cycle of rise and fall was not yet known.

“She walked away and never returned.”

A strong current ran through the water. The tiger’s feet were firmly on the ground, though he couldn’t say for how much longer they could stay there. The rain stripped leaves and pine needles from the trees around him and left bare branches stabbing the blackened sky. A bolt of lightning lit up the clearing in a white flash as the tiger bent down to lap up a mouthful of water, which tasted of loamy soil and bones and aloe and bark and insects and iron and sap and stone and the dust of an ended drought, diluted by tears and thickened by blood. As he drank more the tiger became thirstier, with every drop coming from nowhere and the last of its kind.

“To the west,” said the snake, now on a lower branch, “not far from here, no more than two furlongs away, is a giant ship. A gangway connects the ground and its deck, and is being used to convey up pairs of animals. Even in your condition you could reach it in time.”

The tiger kept his eyes down and drank away his recent hunger and the whelps of Sister’s cubs and the illusion that there would never be a young tiger half again his size. He swallowed his father’s murder and the years he’d led his pride through a shrinking forest and the moment he’d known that his confidence was built on a decaying foundation. He consumed the love and hatred that had once given him vitality, and the times when his survival had been in question, and when it had been a foregone conclusion, and when it had been a matter of neither indifference nor consequence.

The snake came down to the lowest branch and extended its head to within a foot of the tiger’s and said, “We could go to the boat together. I could ride on your back and navigate.”

The tiger didn’t look up or stop drinking. There was so much more to take in. He’d only just begun.

—Josh Emmons

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Josh Emmons is the author of two novels — The Loss of Leon Meed (Scribner, 2005) and Prescription for Superior Existence (Scribner, 2008)and the short story collection A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales (Dzanc, 2017). Read a review of A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales here by Numéro Cinq‘s Michael Carson

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Jun 082017
 

Clearly, Emmons is tired of literary stories that pretend at some kind of conclusive change with respect to character, whether that be in relationships, family, or matters of life and death…Each reading inspires visions and revisions. —Michael Carson

Josh Emmons
A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales
Dzanc Books, 2017
184 pages; $16.95

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Josh Emmons has a peculiar approach to literary sex. His first novel, The Loss of Leon Meed, follows a menagerie of eccentric characters haunted by a banal messianic vision. “Are you saying,” a married elementary school teacher asks her boss in the first pages, “that the only way I can keep my job is if I fuck you?” The principle stutters. “If that’s all it takes,” she says, before pulling down her underwear. His second novel, Prescriptions for a Superior Existence, features forced indoctrination, apocalyptic prophecy, and an anti-sex religious cult. In the opening pages the protagonist is shot for sleeping with the cult’s founder’s daughter.

The twelve short stories in the Iowa graduate and UC Riverside professor’s first short story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, dip even deeper into the delightfully bizarre and drolly promiscuous. They relate orgies, suicide epidemics, medieval warfare, Biblical floods, and Egyptian gods. Protagonists include stuntmen, cultists, nuns, tigers, child prostitutes, and a giant talking egg. Characters attempt to murder spouses and end up falling in love with them. They give up on a sex party and are killed in a car wreck on the way home. They get in arguments with Edenic snakes about tigerness. The sexual ministrations of shape-shifting women give them voice.

Yet for all this titillating fairy-tale whimsy, nearly all the characters seem to be chastely drowning. They come off of failed relationships. They have no direction. They wander in darkness. “The north of France is like the south of France,” says the first line of the collection’s first story. “The tiger stopped at a break in the rain and realized he was no longer on the path he’d been following,” opens a later story. “Nu,” the account of a betrayed wife hiding in a cabin in the woods, begins, “the stream behind Alice’s house fed into a river that led to the ocean.” A sense of similitude and ennui pervades even the most exotic settings. No difference and no point. Definitely no climaxes or climaxing. “There is no north, there is no north, there is no north,” repeats a medieval king at the moment of execution.

Emmons’ jeweled prose exacerbates this disjunction. Here is Bernard, the protagonist of the first story, “A Moral Tale”—the one that begins with “The north of France is like the south of France”—coming off a failed relationship and deteriorating career prospects, living in his cousin’s apartment, judging her for being lazy and drug-addled, and ignoring her insistent requests to set him up with Odette, a friend of hers:

Bernard went to bed and for an hour heard laughter coming from the living room television, then forty minutes of panting, then a long, low-grind blender. He kept on flipping his pillow over to get to the cool side. Eventually it became morning and he took a walk on sidewalks slick with black ice and saw that in this part of the city what broke and was abandoned stayed broke and abandoned. The cold made it all throb in place. He passed empty storefronts and Halal butchers and Gypsy kids selling iguanas and block-long souk with spices like varicolored dunes rippling across linked tables.

Sentences pivot from simple cumulative lists to simple subject-verb-direct object sentences and back to cumulative lists. The effect is that of a slow drip, a terrible occlusion of grays at odds with all those sharp cracks and abrupt shifts that pop around characters like fireworks (whether they be of others masturbating, feudal political-strategizing, or Emmons’ reliable humor). Often the protagonists feel stuck in quicksand, sinking slowly, at a committed puritanical remove from baroque exigencies and St. Teresa ecstasies.

Bernard from “A Moral Tale” moves back into life, into color and noise and warmth, but not in the way the reader might expect. He does not fall for the girl with the mysterious scar across her throat at church. He does not even fall in love with Odette, the girl his cousin wants him to sleep with. Instead, when Odette and Bernard are alone in a room, with him lying on two beanbags and she in bed, Bernard spells out the dramatic incidents and clever dialogue that will not take place; Bernard also baldly states his problems, the story’s ostensible “climax”:

She rubbed her arms and her nightgown didn’t slip down her shoulders. She didn’t sigh or propose that they work on linear equations or say, Bernard, I’m going to tell you something you already know but won’t admit, although if you did then a lot of what’s wrong here, like you lying on those stupid bean bags when I’m cold and alone on a huge mattress, and your having invented that text from your friend, and your unmerciful speech to Veronique about fraud might be fixed: your aunt didn’t ask you to move in with your cousin because she thought you could save her. On the contrary.

Bernard abruptly gets up from the beanbags and goes over to Odette’s bed. As he adjusts to the darkness, “Odette came into view as gradations of black and clothes, he saw, without surprise, with a kind of relief, that what lay beneath the surface was just a darker version of what lay above.”

After the night in bed with Odette, Bernard gets high with his cousin in a park and calls the girl with the scar on her neck to tell her he is watching a mime. The girl asks if this is the kind of mime that pretends to be trapped inside a box. He says that this one doesn’t do that. No one speaks. Wind comes from the west.

Then there are the stories where the characters do not get up and go to bed with Odette, stories where the characters realize too late that they should have. “BANG” is of this variety. It relates a worldwide suicide epidemic from the perspective of a character already given to suicidal thoughts pre-dystopia. Like “A Moral Tale,” the protagonist has the opportunity to go into the bed of someone else. But, unlike “A Moral Tale,” the protagonist backs away in horror from the opportunity. She resists for fear of what her mother might think. She fears the man’s age, his previous marriage, intimacy and the self-redefinition it requires. Now the roommate is dead. The protagonist missed her chance to become someone else. “BANG” concludes on a rooftop. The naked protagonist looks down at rectangular, boxy cars. Its final unpunctuated line—“she aimed a tentative”—returns the reader to the story’s very loud title.

Finally there are those like “Jane Says,” stories somewhere in between, with characters watching on as another rejects sex and with it life. It begins with characteristic drollery: “People say what a tragedy when you are thirteen and selling it on the street.” The thirteen-year-old prostitute-narrator then complains of the janes who pick him up who don’t really want sex—“the sick sad deviants who made you wonder even though you were a prostitute what happened to them.” He doesn’t mind the sex, he says, what freaks him out is pretending to be some jane’s dead son. “It was the pitiable,” the thirteen-year-old prostitute complains, “pitying the pitiful.”

Later in the story, a new jane picks up the narrator. She drives him to the woods and signs her worldly possessions over to him. “People use you and don’t see you for who you really are,” she tells him, “and it’s that way with all of us.” She leaves him in the car, walks into the woods. A sharp crack follows. “Lady!” the boy yells. “You got to take me back to the city.” He flounders about in the darkness. He falls. He asks for her in a whisper, quietly, “as though speaking softly would close the space between us, as though about existence she’d been wrong.”

Emmons writes tightly knit, engaging plots. Each phrase, paragraph, and scene carefully reticulates into the next. His prose is uniformly eloquent, clean and precise. The stories have meticulously considered desire-resistance patterns. But these are not simple, straightforward literary short stories. Neither are they strict moral tales as the title suggests. The often passive, sexually chilly characters do not change or reveal character so much as try to do everything they can to disguise it and forestall revelation. Pair this with fantastic environments and whimsical humor, and many of these stories left me with an odd sensation, as disoriented as the characters themselves.

This is not a criticism. Maybe it’s the point. Clearly, Emmons is tired of literary stories that pretend at some kind of conclusive change with respect to character, whether that be in relationships, family, or matters of life and death. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Emmons said that many of the characters in A Moral Tale are stuck on the idea of themselves they don’t want to give up because the cost would be too high. “We have to keep revising our understanding of ourselves forever,” Emmons said, “and this is okay.”

The same could be said of not just the characters but also the curious stories in this curious collection. They do not lend themselves to easy analysis or classification. Each reading inspires visions and revisions. What they have to say, their “moral,” comes—if it does at all—in whispers, as though speaking softly might close the distance between Emmons and the reader, as though about both moral tales and literature we all have been wrong.

—Michael Carson

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

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Jun 072017
 

Childhood in the Brooklyn streets influenced Neugeboren’s work, in particular novels like Big Man and Sam’s Legacy.

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Sam left the train at Church Avenue. A few blacks guys got out. “Ours is a neighborhood in transition,” Ben had said, and Sam had to laugh. A neighborhood in transition—that was rich. When he’d been there, growing up, it had been mostly Jews, mixed with some Catholics, Irish and German. Sam didn’t mind though. The blacks never hassled him. Maybe the word was out that he had some kind of business with Sabatini. He touched his side pocket. Some guys—his buddy Dutch was one—said you were crazy to keep a blade on you, that if you got cornered and they went for you and found it on you, you’d get it ten times worse. But Sam did what he wanted. He liked feeling the blade’s weight against his thigh.

From Sam’s Legacy 1973

A little more than ten years ago, I asked novelist Jay Neugeboren to take me on a walking tour of Flatbush, the Brooklyn neighborhood he describes above in Sam’s Legacy. I asked because I’d been reading his novels then, pretty obsessively—as I have been reading them again lately—and wanted to get a closer look at the streets that had inspired them. I was interested, too, in the notion of inspiration. Wondering at that particular time (as I am still wondering) about the proposition that we (as writers, as people) are marked by our first glimpses, by the immediate shadows about the crib, the childhood streets, and all our life is an effort if not to escape then to get a better glimpse.

Neugeboren was widely acclaimed early in his career for his portrayal of urban subcultures: for his Cassavetes-like attention to detail, to off the radar characters. In mid-career, he all but disappeared as novelist—not publishing a novel for 20 odd years—until a recent revival prompted in part by small press Two Dollar Radio. This has brought his older work attention and five new novels into print

Neugeboren is an innovative novelist, conjuring forms that defy easy categorization. His characters leap through multiple identities—racial, familial, sexual. He is master of a particular American prose style, one that owes as much debt to European novels as to the dialect of the immigrant streets. It is a style translucent in its lyricism. There is durational quality: in the accumulation of detail, in the way the writing dwells in the moment, in the naturalistic surface. At the same time there is something else: a wash, a tint, a coloration that makes no pretense to realism at all.

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Jay is a Jewish writer, second generation, born Jacob Mordecai Neugeboren. I first met him in 1980, when I was a student of his at the University of Massachusetts. He was just finishing The Stolen Jew: the central novel in what has become known as The Brooklyn Trilogy.

He was somewhere in his forties then, his hair tight, curly (or that’s the way I remember it), just verging toward grey. Thirty years later, that day in Brooklyn, he possessed (and still does) the gait and manner of a man much younger. He is a small man, athletic by nature. He has high cheekbones, tapered features, a cleared eyed smile.

Neugeboren 1973

Flatbush—on that sunny afternoon in April 2006—was a Caribbean neighborhood, West Indian and black, colorful, yes, full of life, but also poverty. The poverty had been there when Jay grew up, though in different ways. Further down Flatbush Avenue— in the heart of the old immigrant hive—the old King’s Movie Palace sat empty and deteriorating, as it had since the mid-seventies. The famed Erasmus High School stood with its gates shuttered and closed.

Flatbush Avenue where we walked in 2006

The streets were crowded. A mother in a hurry pushed her baby in its carriage.  A cluster of young gangsters stood languid on the corner.  Nearby, an old man coughed into his black fist.  It was the old Flatbush, but then it wasn’t. Us, loitering there, no matter our histories, we were, in the midst of the new immigrants, no longer Italian, or Jewish, or whatever we imagined. We were white.

This question of identity, it’s allusive and shifting nature, is very much endemic to the streets.

And is very much at the core of Neugeboren’s work.

We went down Martense Street, to the small tenement where Neugeboren had grown up: a two-story building, four tiny apartments, two up, two down. The building stood alongside a number of similar buildings, all red brick, separated by narrow concrete walkways.

I had some idea of what it had been like in the little apartment. Partly because Jay had told me, but also because I’d read about it in his novels—and in the autobiographical memoir centered on his brother, Imagining Robert.

So I had some notion of his family, or felt I did. Of his beautiful mother, the nurse, who supported the family. Of her dalliances (real or imagined). Of his emasculated father, often unemployed. Of his talented, disturbed brother, who spent much of his adult life in the care of New York’s notorious mental health system.

Jay with his younger brother Robert in Flatbush, circa 1945

As a young boy, Jay told me, he had attended yeshiva nearby. He pointed out the place as we walked (or where it had once been).  Where he’d stood at the morning service at schul, his arm wrapped in the tephillin—a strap wound seven times about the arm, binding him to the word of God. At the heart of that word was the great emptiness of the Jewish God—who at once gave everything (all the lives people lived, all the stories, every word), but promised nothing more, no hereafter, only dust. The recognition of God’s word did not offer salvation—at least not in the Roman Catholic sense that I was raised—but was at same time the source of life, inspiration, human compassion.

The streets were full of noise.

We circled through the neighborhood. Though the old parade ground, past long blocks of ball fields and tennis courts. Down into Ditmas Park (an odd oasis of former wealth, of deteriorating Victorian mansions, awaiting gentrification or further decay, it was hard to know).  Up Nostrand, down Church, past the library on Linden, circling bookie joints that used to be, drug stores and delis long gone, a grocery transformed into a rummage house, used clothing spilling onto the street.

We ended back on Martense.

The Martense Street tenement where Neugenboren was raised

Jay lived in Manhattan now and wanted another look before we went our separate ways. He went around the building, searching for the window where he and his brother—with whom he had shared a bed in the tiny apartment—used to stand with their noses pressed against the glass.

 

THE EARLY NOVELS

Then cackles the way he does. Oh yeah, I’m in the big time. Me and Louie’s Leapers, we burning up the league, win seventeen games in a row. These last months, between games and Willa and those sessions with Rosen, you want to keep up with me, you got to run, man.

From Big Man, 1966

Italo Calvino, in speaking about his own first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, said he spent the rest of his career trying to write his way out of the maze, the artistic quandary, he’d created for himself in that first book. Italian American novelist John Fante, author of Ask the Dust, once said pretty much the same thing, referring to his fictional alter ego, Arturo Bandini, who haunted his novels until the end.

In similar ways Jay has never moved very far from his existential subject matter: from Martense Street and his Jewish roots. A world populated by outsiders: small time gangsters, low-lifers, school teachers, orphans, widows, aspiring athletes, passing celebrities, people trying to be good (most of them) but running constantly against their own personal and tribal histories.

Jay’s first novel, Big Man, draws from those streets: the story of a young black man, once a college basketball star, caught in a vortex of self-hatred and shame after getting thrown out of the sport for his involvement in a point-shaving scheme. The story is based in part on real events: a 1950’s New York betting scandal, back when Brooklyn was the epicenter of college basketball. As in real life, the victims were not the bookies and odds makers and college officials who benefitted. The people who took the fall—who bore the brunt of the shame: in the papers, on the streets, and in their lives—were the players themselves, mostly black.

The novel is in a mode akin to the old social realism, but with some of the optimism of Dickens: fatalistic—recognizing the social constraints—but with a character who finds a way to survive. Neugeboren’s second novel, Listen, Ruben Fontanez—based around a racially charged murder—has similar socials concerns, though told from the other end of the ethnic divide, narrated by an aging Jewish school teacher, Harry Meyers, who works in the slums of Brooklyn, mostly with Puerto Rican kids.

Meyers is feverishly ill, moving in and out of consciousness, his living quarters (and his imagination) inhabited by his former students, teenage runaways, kids with nowhere to go. The decaying neighborhood is at once a source of sustenance and an inescapable trap. The way out is deeper in.

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THE BROOKLYN TRILOGY

“In my early books, I used to pride myself on their “objective” quality. I mean, I don’t think I’d ever done an autobiographical novel in a way that even anyone who knew me could feel. My books always seemed to be very much about other things. I think that was one way, in my own life, of not dealing with certain materials, potentially very rich materials, things that I do know about, but also material that I was afraid of, and felt I couldn’t handle. Now, with The Stolen Jew, I’ve found a subject, a subject that comes from deep personal wells with.

Neugeboren, circa 1980

In the late sixties, Neugeboren went to the south of France with his first wife, and stayed gone for the better part of two years. Part of the reason, to recreate those Brooklyn streets, he needed physical distance from the place itself.

Jay examined this paradox in Parenthesis: An Autobiographical Journey. (1970): a piece whose original intention had been to chronicle his own career as a political activist. The result was a manifesto of sorts, a personal one, contemplating the limits of realism but also examining his early life in Brooklyn, his scholarship years at Columbia, a forsaken attempt to join mainstream America as an executive trainee for General Motors.

“I was interested in the experimental work going on at the time, in new novelistic forms ” Jay told me. “At the same time there was this personal material—based in a world I knew—that I wanted to explore in my fiction.  But I didn’t want to lose other things, from Victorian novels, things that I love, like character and story and plot.”

This result was The Brooklyn Trilogy, so-called because of its deep immersion into the psychological terrain centered on a few corners of Flatbush over the course of fifty years.

The first of these novels, Sam‘s Legacy, concerns a small time gambler who has gotten himself in over his head with an Italian bookie. He lives with his aging Jewish father above a clothing store in the heart of Flatbush.

The novel has a naturalistic surface, but there is a postmodernist structure, involving both an outer story and inner one. While the outer story focuses mostly on Sam the gambler—on his hustle, his efforts to save both himself and his father—there is another story, a found manuscript, a book within the book: My Life and Death in the American Negro League: A Slave Narrative

This novel-within-a-novel takes the form of a memoir written by an aging black man in the neighborhood. The man’s name is Tidewater, and the inner novel tells the story of his career as a star player in the Negro Leagues, where he was known as the “black Babe Ruth.”

At the heart of Tidewater’s tale is his own competition with the real Babe Ruth, who—according to Tidewater at least—hid his own bi-racial roots in order to play in the white leagues. The competition between the two men involves a deep admiration, as well as a hatred, a mix of tenderness and brutality that belies the public image of Ruth, casting his amorous affairs and relentless carousing as the veneer of more complicated sexual and racial identity.

In the end, the inner and outer worlds of Sam’s Legacy dovetail in ways that evoke an underlying paradox that is present throughout The Brooklyn Trilogy.

Personal identity rests on a history that is at once total illusion and immutable fact.

The second novel of The Brooklyn Trilogy, The Stolen Jew, is in many ways a much different kind of novel:  a family novel, at first glance—drawing (figuratively if not literally) on Neugeboren’s own family history— a generational tale, part thriller, part meta-fiction, with a ruminative main character, an aging Jewish author in conversation with this brother’s ghost. This is a complex, richly associative novel with multiple plot lines, a formal structure akin to Sam’s Legacy, containing likewise a novel-within-a-novel: this one written by the main character. The book maintains, within its digressions, a forward moving narrative: a romance quest that sends the besieged Nathan from Israel to Flatbush to the old Soviet Union, before bringing him home to his childhood sweetheart.

Along the way, Nathan hatches a plan to recreate one of his own novels in manuscript form: a forgery he hopes to sell on the black market to provide cash for Soviets Jews seeking to emigrate to Israel.

This artistic forgery is very much the kind of thing Neugeboren does in his fiction. Set in an earlier Russia, at the time of czar’s pogrom, it recreates, in part, the family’s own history and a larger social history: a tale reminiscent of Isaac Babel, in which the leading enforcers of anti-Semitism are often the Jews themselves.

With its intricacies, The Stolen Jew achieves the depth, the lulling dreamlike quality of Russian novel. It is a mesh of history and folklore, of literary influence, of rabbinical wisdom, and personal history re-imagined.

The final book in the trilogy, Before My Life Began, starts at the end of World War Two, on the streets of Brooklyn, when the main character, David Voloshin—the son of Jewish gangsters—is twelve years old.

Told in style both translucent and highly colored, it opens like this:

All the men were trying to kiss my mother, so I kept pulling at her dress for us to get away. Pink and blue streamers caught in the dark curls of her hair, and tiny dots of silver, on her bare shoulders, sparkled under the light from the lampposts. In the middle of the street Louie Newman was standing on the hood of Dr. Kaplan’s new Buick, trying to dance with a skinny woman who wore a shimmering black dress, and it seemed to me that the sequins on the woman’s dress glittered like the scales on an enormous fish. I didn’t feel well. I wanted to go home, to be in my own room. I pulled harder and I thought I heard my mother’s dress tear—I stopped pulling at once, scared—but she didn’t seem to notice. Her dress was made of a pale lavender silk-chiffon, dark-purple irises swirling around one another toward the ground. I saw a man’s lips pressed against her lips, but she was laughing too hard for him to keep them there. I’d never seen so many happy people before in my life. Everybody was dancing and singing and shouting and hugging each other and throwing paper into the air. Above the noise and the lights and the stores and the apartments buildings the sky was black. Where was my father? Could I tell him, later, what my mother was doing with the men? Would he see that her lipstick was smeared at the corners of her mouth?

Later, as a young man—caught up in the endless triangles of his family —David ends up killing a man from a rival gang.  He flees Brooklyn, adopting a new identity as Aaron Levine, a teacher and civil rights activist working in the South.

There is more darkness and violence ahead, a struggle towards synthesis, the imaginary moment when David will return him to reclaim his identity. When he will take his children to his old neighborhood and show them where he grew up.   The alley, the concrete courtyard, the four small rooms of the apartment.  In that moment, he sees himself walking through that apartment with his boys, room by room. The rooms are clean, white, empty.  Freshly painted, full of light.

In this vision, if only for a moment (and only in the imagination), the world of the Brooklyn Trilogy—of Martense Street, of familial struggle and racial conflict—is transformed.

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After its publication in 1984, Jay wouldn’t publish another novel for more than two decades.

When it appeared, in 2005, this new novel, entitled 1940, was featured in the LA Times Book Review, in a front page article that served to re-introduce Neugeboren to mainstream literary consciousness.

In the decade since, there has followed an intense period of productivity, rare for a writer at any stage of his career, including two collections of stories and five new novels.

None of these is set in Brooklyn.

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BEYOND FLATBUSH

1940 concerned itself with a woman in search of her lost son, a young man recently missing from a mental asylum. She is aided in her search by a refugee from a different kind of madness, Dr. Eduard Bloch: the Jewish doctor who, in real life, had worked as Hitler’s childhood physician—and whom Hitler allowed to emigrate to the U.S. so that he might escape the death camps.

Hitler’s gesture of kindness, his unexpected humanity, exemplifies the kind of irony that continues to drive Neugeboren’s fiction. He may no longer be writing about Brooklyn, but one recognizes the terrain, the walls of an inescapable maze, as Calvino would have it.

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But what about the long period between novels? That gap of twenty odd years?

It’s tempting to regard those years as a kind of prolonged version of that parenthetical time in Southern France. There is some truth to that, I believe, as Jay wrote a good deal of non-fiction during this period, including Imagining Robert, the memoir which captures his brother’s struggle with madness.

I asked Jay if—during that long period between novels—he had given up on the form.

Jay shook his head.

“A novelist’s career is a ragged thing,” he said. “It isn’t a straight line. You disappear for a while (or seem to). Then suddenly, you are in fashion again (or seem to be). Who knows why? . . .  Inspiration, I don’t know . . .  You are given your material, or you find it, by sitting down, by pursuing it . . .  Publishing is a tough business,  a strange business, but ultimately it is what it is.  For me, if I am writing every day—and I’m always writing—I’m a happy guy.”

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One of Neugeboren’s most recent novels, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company (2013,) is also among his most daring and magical, alternately dark and light, at once innovative in form and highly narrative.

It tells the story of a Jewish family wandering like gypsies about the American countryside—with a horse, a wagon and a hand crank camera—engaged in the making of silent films. The action begins on a frozen lake outside Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1915, and eventually migrates to the orange groves of Hollywood. Set during the silent film era, it has the structure and feel of a silent film itself—and characters with the same kind of eerie luminescence.

The family possesses a psychology not unfamiliar to Neugeboren’s readers. There is the beautiful mother, and the three men who adore her: her son, her husband, her husband’s brother.

The mother is the glamorous star, and Joey, the son, is his mother’s favorite, “born too beautiful to be a boy.”  He takes up cross-dressing, playing the part of a girl in the silent films:  a role he takes on more often (and with increasing pleasure) as he grows older. Eventually he achieves stardom himself, not as a man but as woman.

As in Shakespearean drama, the swapping of gender identities is a foil for romance: in this case a romance where the androgyny of the characters is part of their nature, at once wonderful and dangerous, precipitating—as in the world of silent film itself—sudden and calamitous action.

To our jaded eyes, the abrupt transitions of silent film seem herky-jerky; through the lens of this novel they again appear magical. Sure, these are baroque, post-Victorian plotlines (though their abrupt and startling violence sometimes surpasses Quentin Tarantino), but the author’s point is to prove just how much this consummate artistry can persuade us to accept. The swift and daring transitions in this narrative are like the punches of a welterweight, moving almost too fast for the eye to follow; they give this very short novel the impact of a work twice its length. —Madison Smartt Bell. Boston Globe

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Jay’s latest novel Max Baer And The Star Of David (2016) is similarly compact, similarly swift.  It takes the form of a historical document: a handwritten transcript—the deathbed account of a life spent in the shadow of legendary boxer Max Bear Sr. as told by his black sparring partner.

In the novel, as in life, Max Baer Sr. was a paradoxical figure: a brutally powerful boxer with a jovial public persona. Not so jovially, he had beaten an opponent to death in the ring—at Recreation Park in San Francisco—with a half-dozen full-blooded punches to the head. Despite his sorrow, this did not end his career. He was a showman, charismatic, alternately generous and mindlessly selfish, popular with women, handsome, childlike and clownish, as apt to play the joker as the brute. In preparation for a bout with the German boxer, Max Schmeling, he had the Star of David sewn onto his boxing trunks. A publicity stunt, maybe. Or because he was part Jewish (or so he claimed) and wanted to emphasize this fact before he climb into the ring to beat the Third Reich’s favorite boxer.

The real meat of this deathbed memoir, though, is in the off stage moments, the interactions between the black sparring partner and Max Baer Sr., a friendship that starts because of Baer’s interest in the man’s Creole sister. The relationship plays out partly in the bedroom— in an increasingly incestuous ménage a trois—but also in the sparring ring, where the men go after one another in ways both vicious and oddly tender.

All of this, of course, echoes the encounters between Babe Ruth and Tidewater in Sam’s Legacy, examining the dualities of racial and sexual identity, the nature of erotic and familial love, the intertwining of violence and compassion.

The same shadows, the infinite shadows, cast upon the childhood streets.

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The last time I saw Jay was in his apartment in Manhattan. I was passing through the city on my way home to California. We drank Jay’s vodka and ate prosciutto and cheese that I had bought earlier in Little Italy. It was the middle of winter and very cold. We talked about books, about family, about writing. Jay was finishing up the Max Baer novel. Myself, I was between projects, in a bit of maze, just having finished what I thought would be the final book of crime series set in North Beach, the old Italian neighborhood in San Francisco.  I wasn’t sure what I would do next, and pretended not to be worried about it.

The phone rang. It was one of Jay’s sons, Eli.

Jay is the father of the three. Divorced in mid-life, he raised his children—two boys and a girl—pretty much on his own. You can see shades of the children in the books Jay has written.

While he talked to his son, I admired on the shelf the outermost figure in a set of Russian dolls: a hollow wooden figurine, painted like a Russian peasant, that twisted open to reveal another smaller but identical doll within, and another within that, and another. There had been reference to these toys inside of one of Jay ‘s novels, I thought—inside one of those stories within stories—and this infinite regression brought to my mind (then or now, it doesn’t matter) the beginning of Sam’s Legacy, the ritual wrapping of the telephin, imagined by Sam when, in that opening sequence, he is surrounded by the crowd at the Garden: fans, gamblers, a collective yearning, a noise rising up out of the nothingness.

I was holding the innermost of these wooden dolls when Jay got off the phone.

“What are you doing?”,

I shrugged.

The way he looked at me—the way it seems to me now —I was the young man in the synagogue. Never mind I was raised in a different religion, on streets far away.

I stood with the doll in my hand.

“Open it.”

I did. Jay smiled.

It was deliciously empty.

—Domenic Stansberry

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DOMENIC STANSBERRY is an Edgar Award winning author of ten novels. His most recent,The White Devil, is a sultry, decadent thriller concerning a young American woman in Rome who finds herself implicated in series of crimes dating back to her childhood. The book was just named finalist for both the 2017 Hammett Prize and Foreword’s Indie Book of the Year. Stansberry’s other work includes the North Beach Mystery Series, which received wide praise for its portrayal of the ethnic and political subcultures of San Francisco. Books from that series include The Ancient Rain, named several years after its original publication as one of the best crime novels of the decade by Booklist.  He received the Edgar for The Confession, a controversial neo-noir centered on a Marin County psychologist accused of murdering his mistresss.

First print rights to this article provided to Numéro Cinq from the PFLA Newswire, a project of the Pacific Film and Literary Association, a 501(3c) non-profit.

 

 

Jun 062017
 

x

The Elements of Cohesion Must be Weakened

And there was a good way off from them
an herd of many swine feeding.
(Mark 5: 30)

In the Gospels demons hurl themselves head-long
Into a herd of swine and the swine promptly rush
Over a cliff and drown in the sea. It is easily a scene
Goya imagines quite closely in another context: when
Revolutionaries in the hours before dawn, sleepless
For several nights, walk now closely together, as if
Synchronized after a long rehearsed performance
And prepare to execute two brothers. A two-year old’s
Tantrum likewise is always preceded by a trespass
Into a country of endless exhaustion. No one present
Notices how he passes over that border. Soon he trips
And slips out of his mind, screaming and convulsing.
His eyes evidence a far away look. Cities are bombed out
Beneath them. Outside the tombs two men press
Their heads into their hands because of the demons.
Nearby, the smell of swine. With Goya it is the same:
Innocent bystanders hide their faces behind their hands
As in a game of peek-a-boo. Recall how in Kurosawa’s Dreams,
When over the decimated landscape of the hills demons wail,
It’s because their pain is too much: sharp bones protrude
Through their skulls. In Goya’s painting we cannot see the eyes
Of the revolutionaries who will do the shooting. Their backs
Are turned, their heads are cocked low to the butts of their rifles.
We see how the surviving brother pleads. And we see how the one
Holding him steady stares out of his skull as if he will never sleep again.
I can see the city roofs and the spire of a church over low hills.
Beneath the cliffs, which are not visible, the sea is inaudible.
Perhaps Christ is about. Who knows! Goya’s painting hangs
Close by on my wall. The revolutionaries locked in step, eyes unshut.

x
The Scene From Here

So I see near the beach beside the docked
and decommissioned ferry, a makeshift flagpole
on which hangs, half-mast, the French Tricolore.

I run past. The route I take follows
the trail beside the channel, its slow waters
flowing from lake to lake, its currents shallow,

benign, so that no danger troubles the swimmers
who recline and drink on their rubber floats before
they leap in and submerge. Nothing is hidden of summer

in the Valley where all along the shore
children build tiny sand castles, dig twisting moats
into the mud. Lone suckers feed on the lake floor.

It’s been a weird July. Every afternoon for over a week
storms break over the mountains—lightning, thunder—
the rain falls hard. Conversation turns to the weather.

What’s the worst they’ve seen (if they’ve seen it before)
those who’ve been here a long time can’t recall
or won’t say, and the weather anyhow has its own way

of doing things. It’s easy to stare at the hills and think
about nothing. As if the mountains would have you wander
into them, burrow into fallen pine needles, stay there.

Soon I turn from the trail and run up-hill on the old track
or where the railroad tracks were that once ran the span
of the valley from the coast into Alberta. History marks

landscape like a scar, like the flesh healed into woven stitches
above my right eye, so that a reddened furrow is cut close
but hardly visible except to those women who’ve pressed

their fingers there. In the evenings I’m reading Euripides
on my mother’s patio, near the lakeshore where a giant peach
is open until late; teenage girls inside serving ice cream floats

later flutter about the beach above the glow of their cell-phones.
Early in the morning last week I woke to the sound of a voice
announcing on a megaphone the names of marathon runners

as they crossed the finish line. AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, applause,
all the spent athletes like in Ovid, that story near the end
about the runner who had escaped the finale of the last age,

when iron returned to fire and fire to sand. He moved like an ant
below the gods who at that point were left with little to do;
they say Apollo caught him easily, pressed him between his finger

and thumb, squished and ground him up until he too was sand,
flicking him down to where he was left with the rest of civilization,
subject to the wind’s shifts. In the afternoon my three year old son

learns to swim. I prop him on my knees in the lake, cup my hands
underneath his arms; he does not let me relax my grip but screams
delight and terror when I throw him into the air and let him fall

again into my hands and collapse into my arms, cold water
washing over his face and hair. He cries because of his wet eyes,
all the water in his nose and mouth. Later, on the sand, he tells me

Babi, you protect me, right? I recall that version of Theseus’ myth
where he wanders without a spool of yarn stashed in his pocket.
My boy is a diamond cut into the air. My own midway inclines toward dust-

dry ponderosa bluffs, the shelter of my ear like caves carved into the clay
cliffs which rise here on either side, the trail metamorphosed into scree.
The Trojan Women all wail and wail. There is no happy conclusion.

The ships on which they sail take them elsewhere far away.
Last week in Nice a few young drunk Brits took selfies next to a family
mourning their dead. Life returns to normal quickly.

Out on the lake the boats pull skiers; above the water a man
harnessed to a parachute is pulled around awhile. The scene
from here shows him minuscule, like a dead man in an airborne pulley.

What is normal? The air I breathe is dry, dry. The mountain flowers
are yellow. No sound from the trees.
Not even birds.

x

The Etymology of Ideology

They didn’t know what they were doing. The train
Tracks on the hills behind their minuscule town were long
Abandoned; the last train passed through years before.
So the body they found, the horses near the pastures,
The dogs unleashed in fields, all this took on its own
Larger contour, like a collective vocation, an invisible
Order into the late afternoon, the hours before stray parents

Called one another and inquired into their children’s
Whereabouts. I have not seen them at all, not for a long
Time. Up in the bush the fires begin intentionally. Because
The hero of the story, the smallest, is bored too easily. Or
Because—it’s anyone’s guess, really—he is already insane.

x

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his ordinary head
except from photographs, eyes wholly terrified.
And yet his torso, bent over his bound hands,
is like a light flickering in some empty apartment,

illuminating: a table, a cracked cup, itself. Otherwise
he’d be merely bare life, unlucky in foreign lands,
a common captured adventurer, hostage
to barbarians in a bombed city, almost a fiction.

Otherwise you could forget him. His body,
beneath vacant space, poised before collapse,
would not hesitate, tremble as if a living man:

he would not, from all the borders of his headless corpse,
burst like a dumb star: for there is no place left
where you aren’t seen. Your life will change.

x

On the Origins of Utopia

Many people have long felt the desire to do something
With their lives besides consuming goods. They desire
To interact and develop but for this there is no remedy
Calculable in classical economics. This gets me
Wondering. It would be a fine thing, all that flourishing,
Along with everyone else, but also decently private
So as not to burden one’s neighbors with too much noise
Or such a torrent of dumb ideas all at once. Space required
Is also allocated into the general scheme of the better life,
If not the best life, since the latter wedges its dissatisfaction
Into the minds of each of us according to our old desires,
Childhood vistas, incurable heartbreak by the age of sixteen.
It was silly then but also so totally serious that now our leaders
Wage their private warfare, their revenge, and we’re all implicated.

x

On Tyranny

Such hateful things. Heiro and Simonides,
Reclining through the uninterrupted afternoon,
Contend that the tyrant cannot do better than
To immediately hang himself. This is not bad advice
Except for the tyrant’s refusal to listen to Heiro and Simonides,
Who’ve fled together into Goya’s painting, Shooting of the Third of May.
But they fail to outrun the tyrant’s many admirers—
Those armed men, bored silly, lonely, who otherwise have nothing to do.
Now they’re occupied with the At-Oneness of the tyrant’s intentions:
The execution of Heiro and his friend, the poet, Simonides, dying beside him.
Still, Heiro does not cease to give his two cents worth; he raises his arms;
If the blood-muck pooling beside his feet became a common fire
Around which those who are lonely tell stories,
Then this is Heiro’s final story before the end of all that is Heiro:
Thus he stands and raises his arms above the earth, his gestures
The size of cosmos, his complaints Promethean,
Against fickle gods, against the machinery of lust,
A Tyrant’s boredom, against those whose bodies
Are equal to mass times distance, whose ignorance
Is dense as a failed universe, hopes dismantled
Like the station wagon of a family shot dead, in cold blood,
Ill-favoured and forgotten…Heiro sees it all,
Claims the remainder for the Greatest Story Ever Told,
The incredible bulk of a husband’s failure; the noblest
Scholar on his hands and knees, barks on command,
While furtive urchins run towards the river,
Lie on the ground, cover their bodies in mud, turn into slugs.
Now Heiro sees it all so quickly, he wants to tell it all,
But he vomits as he commences—with what great fortitude!—
To utter his final dispatched breath. Such hateful things.

—Darren Bifford

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Darren Bifford is the author of Wedding in Fire Country (Nightwood Editions, 2012) and Hermit Crab (Baseline Press, 2014). His next book of poetry will be published with Brick Books in 2018. He lives in Montreal.

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Jun 052017
 

Miranda Boulton (The Painter)xxxxxxxxKaddy Benyon (The Poet) 

 

The studio is at the top of the narrow terraced house in what was once an attic. Clean, white lines, and a long slice of window that displays the city below, glittering in the sunshine that has followed a snow flurry. The space has that rich, expectant silence of all places where creativity occurs. It belongs to the painter, Miranda Boulton, and its walls are lined with canvasses that are part of her recent body of work, one of which, Day to Night, was selected for the 2016 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The paintings draw on the 17th century Dutch tradition of flower painting, but here the eerie calm of the black background surrounds a vortex of layered expressionistic images that have a mesmeric quality. Miranda tells me how the painting came about:

Day To Night  40 x 30 cm, oil on board (2015)

Miranda Boulton (MB): I was thinking about how I was painting and I was flicking through my phone late at night. I saw this image of flowers and the next day I tried to recreate it. I used to use photos to paint from, I needed something solid to reference. With this painting, I let go of all that and just worked from memory. It was like getting rid of my stabilizers. I let go and it all seemed to come together for me. It became more about the process of painting, of one stroke leading into another, then taking it off and going back and forth in layers of paint… pentimento… it was letting go, so one mark led to the next, it was a process of trying to get to something, of knowing and unknowing.

Pentimento, I discover, when I look it up later, comes from the Italian for repentence, and refers to traces in the work that show the artist has changed her mind in the course of composition. The traces may appear in the underdrawing, or in the painting over the drawing, or in subsequent over-painting. It seems appropriate that working from memory and its infinite layers should result in a palimpsestic painting of such complexity. And appropriate, too, that the unfathomable depths of the internet should provide its origin.

MB: A lot of the source material I use is from the internet. I quite like the distance. When you’re dealing with flower imagery it’s so personal and I find the internet neutralises that. The image becomes a free-floating thing that can mean anything. Then it’s about capturing that meaning.

Victoria Best (VB): I have this idea of the internet as a vast unconscious, just not your unconscious, but other peoples’. It’s like a huge daydream in which you cycle through other people’s discarded images.

MB: I think all the paintings are about ghosts, they are all haunted. For me it’s very much an acknowledgment of the past and the present merging… It’s an interesting thing about painting that you have this whole history behind you and you have to acknowledge that. You have to deny it and accept it; you have to hold it somewhere but it can’t be too much to the forefront. Because I studied art history I had too many images in my head and it took me a long time to desaturate myself. Now I know what my influences are, but I don’t spend a lot of time looking at books because it’s memories I’m interested in filtering. It’s these traces that are left on us that I want to explore and I can only do that when I’m in process. It’s a process of knowing and not knowing and letting go and it’s the actual paint, the texture and the materiality, that allows it out.

VB: It’s all about the flow.

MB: It becomes almost meditative when you know you’re functioning in the moment. You have to hold it all, be aware of it all, but you’ve got to put it over to one side when you’re doing it. I think there’s a process in doing a body of work. You start with an idea and there’s a point where you have to look back and quantify it, think it through. It’s like going below and above water. I understand it now although for a long time I didn’t.

VB: So how long did it take you to do this?

MB: This painting? Probably took me about six months. In different settings and times so there are different layers. Each of these paintings has been completely other paintings before, and worked through over time, and completely destroyed and then worked into again and again. There’s an archaeology.

VB: Do you have to work through sketches in order to get what you want?

MB: No, but I work things out when I’m doing these smaller ones. I work out a gesture, ideas, and then it comes to fruition on the larger ones. They have many more layers underneath the surface.  Sometimes it works in one layer, but if you haven’t worked on the layers underneath it doesn’t have quite the same density to the surface.

A World in Itself  50 x 40 cm, oil on board (2016)

Nevertheless, I find myself deeply drawn to the smaller paintings with their bell jar effects. Having been in the presence of Miranda’s work for a while now, the theories of Rollo May on creativity are coming to my mind. In his book, The Courage to Create, May proposed that creativity is first and foremost an encounter, be it with ‘a landscape, an idea, an inner vision, an experiment’. We know in works of art when that encounter has significance for ‘genuine reality is characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.’ Artists, for May, are people who have the courage to risk turning their intense, sensitive consciousness onto their world in order to have those startling encounters. If you have escapist art, you won’t get that experience of encounter. But with Miranda’s work, I’m conscious of being in the presence of something very real and visceral.

MB: There’s a lot of figuration. This one [Day to Night] there’s a lot of limbs and different parts of the body. To me the image in the middle is like a kind of truncated torso. Whereas these ones I was interested in being much more internal… internal organs, blood and guts. But made quite timeless in a way and contained.

VB: You have this very 19th century effect here with the bell jar. You have something very sterile and held without oxygen but in fact you can see inside it to the blood and the guts. That’s a terrific draw into the painting.

MB: It’s the old and the new, a collision. There’s a timeline when you read a painting. You have a moment when you take the whole thing in, and then you unpick it. Every book, every movie, is fed to you chronologically, but painting is very different. It happens in the moment and then unfolds over time.

VB: Because painting can’t explain anything. Most other artforms explain, but an image doesn’t.

MB: No, you have to bring your own meaning to it, you bring yourself to it and you respond to it in different ways. It can take a lot of time. Once you’ve seen that painting and you start to look into it, you will never see the same thing again. It’s amazing and one thing I absolutely love. It’s the temporal process of painting and I think that’s why building up these layers over time is very important to me, because you’ve got to unpick them over time.

Rollo May also talks about the artistic ‘waiting’, the necessity of holding still and calm in the face of the empty page, the blank canvas, for the next right step to take place. ‘It is necessary,’ he says, ‘that the artist have this sense of timing, that he or she respect these periods of receptivity as part of the mystery of creativity and creation.’ I ask Miranda if this is something she is ever conscious of: waiting for the images to settle and the time to come.

MB: I don’t think I’m aware of it but I’m aware of creating the conditions for it to happen. If you’re too aware you trip yourself up. You have to get in the studio and just do it. This week after the holidays I went back into the studio and I had one day when nothing worked. I was going in and out between the layers of paint looking for the imagery. Two days later I went back in the studio and had a great day. It takes a long time for it to come out of the painting and some days I’ve got a real fight on my hands. But when you get there, it’s so worth it.

VB: When we first discussed doing this interview, I was talking about art often being pre-empted by crisis. And your feeling was slightly different.

MB: I think for me, it’s never been about crisis. It’s a feeling of being very uncomfortable, vulnerable, and then I know I’m getting somewhere because it’s really, really hard.

VB: Rilke says the artist is a perpetual beginner in his or her circumstances.

MB: Yes, you’re going back to the beginning often and questioning. It’s a process of uncovering yourself. Because it really is all about you. Maybe there’s a point when you take a step forward that you know is really positive because its uncovering or exposing something else about yourself. I need that vulnerability to know I’m having a real encounter with the work.

I have been impressed all along by Miranda’s creative serenity. I’m beginning to realise that she has this startling grace because she is so at home in her processes, so welcoming to every stage of creativity, accepting even the hardships – perhaps especially the hardships – as necessary and relevant. I’m intrigued to know how she began painting.

MB: When I first started painting seriously, about 15 years ago, it was landscape based. My Granny passed away at 101. I had a very close relationship with her and when she died I went to the house and found this book of photos that my Grandpa had taken. I never met him; he was a painter and he died before I was born. The photos were taken in Norway in the 1930s and for two years I painted from them. I put other things in, figures and animals and really made them my own. I created this whole mythological world from them. I’ve always had this thing about combining figures within the work whether it’s landscape or still life, there’s just this humanistic side, something fleshy in there. I have tried to move away from it but it always comes back whatever I do. I’ve accepted that now.

Recline  40 x 30 cm, oil on board (2011)

VB: Did you know you would always do something artistic?

MB: Yes, I always wanted to be a painter. I suppose growing up with painting around me and Granny telling me about her days at the Royal College, it became this mystery, the mystery of the artist.

VB: So both your grandparents were painters?

MB:  They both went to the Royal College and met there. Granny went into fashion design and he went into painting. So growing up with it around, it was always a possibility. It was open. It was allowed. And my Grandpa’s studio was still in the house and she didn’t clear it out. So I used to go in there and just stand and look at all the brushes and the paints and the canvasses and things. There was just this kind of romance in my head.

VB: How has motherhood been? Has motherhood got in the way?

MB: I think it’s helped. Beforehand, I used to spend hours thinking, what shall I paint, what shall I paint? And then suddenly, I had no time. I had two hours and I had to get on with it. It really freed me up, it stopped me judging myself. I used to go to a lot more exhibitions and read a lot more books, look at a lot more paintings and suddenly I had no time and it was actually the best thing. I was so image saturated and the possibilities… when you get to a canvas you have endless possibilities. I had to strip it bare; it was a kind of going inwards to go outwards. And also, because I was in the home, it kept me sane. So my son would go to sleep and I would put the baby monitor on him and go and paint.

VB: Did the landscapes move into the flowers? Did you have a stage in between?

MB: Yes there was a stage when I was playing different genres. I like working within a genre, a seam I’m really mining. So I did the landscapes and then I was working with lots of different imagery for a couple of years. I used to trip myself up. I’d get so far with a line of imagery and then think, that’s getting a bit problematic, I’ll try something else. But you never get into anything in depth if you don’t stick with it.

VB: You need that concentration and focus.

MB: If you look up here I’ve got rules of painting. I did those nearly two years ago when I said to myself: you’ve got to hone in. And I’ve stuck to it and it’s been the best thing.

VB: How much is art about permission?

MB: Yes, precisely. But you’ve got to understand your own methods of making it harder for yourself – or momentarily easier, but harder in the long run. I was making it easier by saying, I’ve got bored of this, I’ll do a figure, I’ll do a landscape, I’ll do all of it. But actually I was tripping myself up for the long term. In the short term it was keeping the flow going.

VB: Isn’t that the way? The running away is never…

MB: The facing up to it is what matters. You stick with it. I told myself: if you want to paint flowers, then you paint flowers. Do what you want.

VB: Why is that the hardest thing? To say: do what you need to do, what you want to do, what exactly speaks to you in the moment, free from other people’s demands and expectations. I don’t know why that’s so hard.

MB: We’re very self-critical. But I think the thing that’s probably changed over the last few years is painting from memory. Although the landscapes were about memories they weren’t my memories, they were my grandparents. It’s about traces left on our minds. It’s an interesting thing about the process. You think you’ve gone somewhere really different and then you realise…ah, I’m back in the same place. But maybe I have moved forward a little bit. For you, it’s really different, but probably no one else realises it.

VB: So maybe it was with the flower paintings when you felt you’d actually found your…

MB: Yes, I understood because it was the second massive body of work I’d done, and I understood what the first one was about through the second one on a much deeper level. You have to have a fascination with something. Then to understand that fascination you have to do it for long enough so that you can go back to the beginning many times.

VB: You have to have a whole revolution.

MB: You have to lose your way massively and then find it again.

VB: The art of going wrong.You have to go wrong first before you can go right.

MB: And this is what I’m talking about with the vulnerability. You have to sit with that absolute discomfort.

We have stumbled into the territory of my favourite theory about creativity – that it is as Kathryn Schulz says in her book Being Wrong, ‘an invitation to enjoy ourselves in the land of wrongness.’ She argues that art comes about because ‘we cannot grasp things directly as they are.’ In consequence, there exists an exploitable gap between the real and our perceptions, a gap embroidered and embellished by the powers of imagination. The artist who permits free rein to imagination effects entry into a parallel world ‘where error is not about fear and shame, but about disruption, reinvention and pleasure.’ This extends to the consumers of art as well, for we look at art in order to lose ourselves, so that we might find ourselves in new ways. I think of Miranda’s pentimento, the layers and layers of overpainting that create these deep, pleasurable palimpsests in which we cannot distinguish which lines, which forms are the ‘right’ ones to read. And I think of her embrace of vulnerability and discomfort, knowing that these are the states that open into creativity, not block it. It seems strange to think about wrongness in relation to Miranda and her art, when she is so clear in her vision, so steady in her process, and so calm about the necessity of creative disquiet. But it’s the eerie uncertainty of her paintings and their ghostly resonance in which the past and the present collide that remain in my memory long after seeing them.

Mary  60 x 65 cm, oil on board (2017)

MB: I’ve just done these two paintings this week. I don’t think this one’s finished, though this one definitely is. It’s possibly a little bit more easily read than a lot of my paintings but I’m so happy with it. It’s just hit something for me.

VB: I love the cameo. It’s something my eye is drawn to the whole time. I’m looking at the centre always in reference to the frame.

MB: For me it’s like a mirror. You’re reflecting yourself within the imagery.

VB: It’s interesting what you were saying about having to work in a place of knowing and not knowing, of certainty and doubt, the past and the present. There’s a really interesting play here between wildness and control.

MB: Yes, there’s a sort of romantic quality to it. There’s a deliberate wornness, an acknowledging of age. Which is reflected in the background and also in the imagery.

VB: I love the texture of the pink. It feels like it’s reaching out to me.

***

The room is small but high-ceilinged and orderly, comforting and snug. There’s one wall of bookshelves filled with thin volumes of poetry and notebooks that have the properly thumbed and used appearance of books constantly considered and reread. Above the small, neat, desk there is the most beautiful storyboard I have ever seen. I can’t read the lines printed on the white cards that fill the margins, or make out very clearly the cluster of images pinned in the centre, but it feels as if something very rich and complex is going on in this thought cloud. The room belongs to the poet, Kaddy Benyon, whose first collection, Milk Fever (2012) garnered awards. She is working on her second, Call Her Alaska, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, ‘The Snow Queen’, and has finished a third, The Glass Harvest. She is also currently writing a novel. Kaddy’s early career was as a television scriptwriter, but then her work took an abrupt turn.

Kaddy Benyon (KB): I think it was when my son was a baby that we moved to Cambridge and I did the MA at Anglia Ruskin in Creative Writing. I thought: I am only going to write teen novels because I’ve written Hollyoaks and I know exactly what I’m doing, thank you very much. And I came out of the machine two years later a poet. I wasn’t expecting that; I didn’t really know how that happened.

VB: Did you get an assignment to write poetry that started you off?

KB: In my final year there was going to be a scriptwriting module and I said to my tutor, with respect I’ve done this as a job and I think it’s a bit of a waste of time. Can I do an independent study? And they said, yes, we have this brilliant poet [Michael Bayley] who tutors people. Would you be interested in poetry? I was really playing hard to get and said, well I love reading it but I don’t think I’m a poet. And my tutor said, just go for a week with him, see what you think. It’s seven years this week that I met him and we’ve still got this lovely collaborative relationship. The first poem I ever wrote for him, we met up for the tutorial afterwards and he was very serious. He looked at me and I thought, fuck, it must have been awful. And he said, this is seriously good, send this out. It got taken by London Magazine, the first thing I ever wrote and it’s in my book [Milk Fever] as well, the one called ‘Ice Fishing’. He really loved it and he just encouraged me. He reads every poem that I produce, even now.

VB: It’s funny isn’t it… do women have muses? Is he a muse?

KB: I wouldn’t say he is. He’s sort of like my safety net. If a poem hasn’t been Michaeled I feel it’s no good. It needs to go through him and get the thumbs up or the thumbs down. Sometimes he’ll say, this isn’t quite there, just leave it for a few months, come at it from this angle, or this drafting technique. Everyone needs someone who’s above them on the ladder and who says, come up here, it’s great. I don’t really know any other writers who haven’t got that first reader, who you can stand in front of, kind of naked, and say: I’ve produced this, I don’t know what it is. Could you look at it? Do you still love me? I’m nervous, Michael’s nearly retired now and he wants to do less and less. So I feel like I need to have my eye out. I need to have a writing mummy or daddy, because it can’t always be him, even though it’s been brilliant and I hope it continues as long as it can. It’s frightening. I suppose to acknowledge the need for that is halfway to getting it.

VB: So let me get this straight. After Milk Fever, you did the ‘Snow Queen’ poems [Call Her Alaska] and then you moved onto this new body of work?

KB: The Snow Queen isn’t finished. That was why I was in residency at the Scott Polar Museum [in Cambridge] and that was Arts Council funded. It did produce the exhibition, ‘The Snow Queen Retold’, and there are something like 200 poems in draft. About 30 are done.

Robbergirls

You came and I was longing for you.
You cooled a heart that burned with desire.
…………………………………………………….—Sappho

The Robber Maiden

You were the prettiest little trinket
these sooted eyes had ever seen,

& yet I robbed you
of your defences: laid you

out on a bed of straw, slipped
you dripping from your hood, your furs,

those rabbitskin boots.
You wept when I licked the icedust

glister from your breasts; kissed
your twenty-three ribs; spread

heat & delight between your thighs.
We wintered on whispers &

firelight & my hundred smoky
turtledoves peeping from the rafters

seemed like poets, rolling love
on their tongues instead of ashes.

Gerda

Slipping from her mother’s whiskered
skins, she haunts my tangled forest

dreams, a bandit in snicking
thickets. She creeps under cover

of leafmould, fingerblades grazing
my lips, strips me of my mantle, my kirtle,

those rabbitskin boots.
Pinned between her jack-knifed limbs,

a scent of flame & fury rises from her
skin; her flapping rabble of filthy

mocking birds laughing from the rafters.
Snowmelt: whetted backbone to

aching backbone, I steal from her
choking stranglehold, drag her kicking

heart from its unlocked, bare chest,
spit on the embers of her desire & flee.

VB: How many poems are you looking to have?

KB: Probably 50 to 60 so I’m way over. I’ve got the luxury of choosing. But I had a bit of a blip. It was in 2014 in the spring, just a bit of a mental blip and needed to take time out. I couldn’t write anything for three to six months but I was still at the Museum, and it was quite difficult because I was almost pretending everything was fine. But I wasn’t producing, although I was doing all of the research. I was loosely following the journey that Gerda makes in the fairy tale but sometimes I put quite a feminist slant on it, sometimes quite a Sapphic slant with her and the Robber Girl. I did my research trip to Finland and it was almost like I was taking in so much information and possibilities that I couldn’t hone it down. All of my notebooks are just full. About a year ago I went through them and typed up everything I could, so it is a more manageable beast now.

VB: What was the first thing that drew you towards ‘The Snow Queen’?

KB: When I was seven, my dad went to Denmark on a business trip and he bought me a version of the book back. I just fell in love with the pictures, the one of the Robber Girl in particular. Because they terrified me but they excited me at the same time. So there was quite a wicked pleasure to it.

VB: There is something about the Snow Queen. What is it about her?

KB: I assume, with my Jungian head on, that she is an archetype in all of us, scares all of us, and we think she’s going to kiss us and we’ll freeze. I don’t know.

VB: I think she’s somewhere between being scary and comforting. She’s the cold mother. There’s the possibility of the maternal and of patronage… but there’s also something vicious as well. This is what interests me about poetry. I can get my head around a novel of the ‘Snow Queen’ or an analysis of it. But poetry — it seems to me a strange way of saying that what you want to say isn’t easily said.

KB: I feel a real chiming with the fairy tale and I think I’m all the characters in it as well, like in a dream. I can be icy and distant when I’m into my work, and I could attach my sledge to an idea and go racing off without thinking.

VB: So you were working on Call Her Alaska, and then the poems on the islands came along?

KB: Yes, I had this breakdown I mentioned in 2014 and I was feeling so ill and I said to my husband, let’s just go somewhere we’ve never been before, let’s go to an island in the middle of the sea. My poetry tutor used to mention this place that was a bit like Avalon; I didn’t know whether it was fact or fiction, and it was Lindisfarne. I said, let’s go to Lindisfarne and all four of us just fell in love with it and we’ve been back every year since. I think about 30 of the poems came just in that week. Then I got a residency this time last year to Eigg, and we went to Skye in the summer. So the collection is about those three different islands, and I don’t know why they came to get me, but they did. That manuscript is being Michaeled at the moment. And I’m just scared of that as well. I’m scared of everything I write.

Cloudberries
……..(after Edwin Morgan)

There were never cloudberries
like the ones we found
that tender afternoon
in peaty ruins
Lindisfarne Castle
a late autumn sunlight
wind moving in the dunes
heather staining the mainland
your pale hands emerging
from fingerless gloves
to uncover a little plant
preserved in salty darkness
you untucked its leaves
revealing three amber jewels
the first bruised to a juice
the second placed delicately
on your tongue your blue eyes
on mine my open mouth
watering to take the final honey
cluster between my lips
leaning side by side
our wellies kicked off
you urged me to abandon
my island living
walk the causeway beside you
my tight fist nestled in your palm

let me be beautiful
in that remembered light
precious as the rose gold lodes
coursing deep within
your highland hills
let me reach for you and follow

let the tide rinse away our tracks

VB: The anxiety of creation is so prevalent. I remember reading that creativity is a form of trespassing on the divine – Prometheus being one of the first examples, stealing the secret of making fire, and the Gods punished him for that.

KB: The liver business. That feels right, intuitively. This novel I’m writing… it’s fast. I feel like I’m channelling it, or I’m being whispered it, so it’s not really mine. It’s almost like the gods are giving me this gift and then I will claim it as my own by saying: by Kaddy Benyon. But it doesn’t really feel like that.

I tell Kaddy about one of my favourite theories of creativity by the psychotherapist, Christopher Bollas in his book Cracking Up. Bollas pointed to the constant free flow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved as the basic element of our fundamental creativity. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ But I wonder whether the sensitive, dynamic, creative mind both uses this free flow and falls foul of it. I think that stress plus a freewheeling mind often results in catastrophising. Creative folk may well produce beautiful and innovative result from free association. But it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark mental alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up.

KB: That really makes sense to me because my analysis has underpinned everything that I’ve written that I’m proud of. The analysis has taught me to use my mind in a free associating way that I use with all my poems. It’s almost like a mind map.

VB: It’s about processing, isn’t it? Because things get processed very small in the creative mind.

KB: That’s true about noticing, I think, letting your mind be open to noticing how things are connecting up that you might not be conscious of yet. That’s what the analysis has done for me.

VB: You went into analysis after the breakdown?

KB: No, I was already in analysis. It was 2008, so it’s been nine years this January and my first creative writing teacher at university, Edmund Cusick, had died quite suddenly and quite young and I had just had my son. We’d moved house as well. I was overwhelmed and I needed someone to talk to. I didn’t actually know what analysis was at that time, but I knew that my teacher who died, who was a poet as well, was very into Jung. So I looked it up on the strength of his stuff. He was the first person, when I was 18, to tell me I could write. He was the first one to give me permission. I was at university and he used to say, right, I want you all to keep a dream diary and write poems in response to your dreams. So that’s completely how I work now.

VB: So dreaming is an important part of what you do?

KB:  I’ve had poems that have arrived from dreams, fully formed. Not often; a couple in Milk Fever, like the one about Louise Bourgeois just came. I do keep a dream diary, because I think dream material is free from all the stuff you’re trying to force or impose upon it to make it mean something. And it means something in its own way anyway, it just might not make much sense. I quite like things that don’t make sense. They have an intuitive sense but not a logical one and I like that.

I’d been reading Carl Phillips’s wonderful meditation on poetic creativity, The Art of Daring, shortly before seeing Kaddy, and his insight on poetic meaning, that any ‘successful poem – one that is true to human experience – will resist closure. To be resonant is to resist absolute closure’ occurs to me now, thinking about the experience of dreaming. Closure, or what stands in its place in the poetic universe, often comes in the form of form, in the typographical shape of the poem on the page. Phillips suggests ‘Form, shape – these may be our only way, finally, of making sense of the world around us. And the body may be the one form, finally, from which we begin, each time, our knowing.’ I’m intrigued by the neat, firm formality of Kaddy’s poems, and one, ‘Causeway’, is a particular favourite of mine.

Causeway

No workmen or bulldozers, just two plucky women ceaselesslyX trying to reach one another despite winter storms, rising tides, savage winds untamed from Scandinavia. Daily they strive – not so much to hold back the tide – but to work with it, around it, in deference to its unstable surge to spoil, spill and gush across their toil; to ransack any progress and demolish vague relations to the mainland. Natural drainage is compromised by drifts of sea-born debris: silt, salt, wrack and shattered shells, all plotting to induce some fresh destruction. And I know, god how I know, how it begins to feel like a punishment, a kind of ritual destruction, this endless, joyless, repeating and repeating and repeating only to witness the sea’s deleting.

KB: It’s about the analytical work and the way my emotional tides come along and destroy it every now and then. And we start again. I’m trying to do new things with form and every experiment I don’t know if it works or not. In Call Her Alaska there are a lot of two-sided or two-faced poems that are almost wings with a column of nothing in the middle. One is about Gerda on one side and the Robber Girl on the other and they’re seeing that they shared a bed in a very different way. It was quite complicated to do and sometimes I just want to rip them up and throw them out the window. But when they come good it’s worth it.

VB: I always think of you as so finished in what you do. Whatever I’ve read of yours has been so polished, so beautiful. I think of you as someone who produces these carefully faceted gems.

KB: I’m aware that I’m doing that as part of my process. My eye can’t tolerate a messy poem. But I think it’s too much of a constraint on myself to express myself neatly and symmetrically at all times. Because life is messy and humans are messy.

VB: But maybe there’s something in that form that holds back, that holds you back in a sense.

KB: I think I needed that with Milk Fever for sure. I needed a container to be absolutely watertight because I wasn’t sure what I was dealing with and it was rising up from somewhere I’d never tapped. And I was constantly flooded with the material that was coming. It was almost like I had to impose the form on it. But now I’m more comfortable with my process and I feel I can’t be writing poems that could have been in Milk Fever now. I have to have moved on and be taking risks even though its terrifying.

VB: Thinking about containers and Milk Fever… I was just thinking about your mother and the fact that the hug is the basic form of containment. It’s that: I’ve got you moment. You’re within the circle of my arms.

KB: Yes, and it’s probably also the strongest recurring theme in my analysis. I’ve said to my analyst nearly every day for nine years, can I have a cuddle? And she’ll say no, you can’t have a literal cuddle, but I’ll cuddle you by holding you in my mind. But I do feel the analysis  has opened up the creativity. I was aware since I was six I wanted to be signing books in Heffers. That’s all I wanted, ever. But I didn’t know how to do it, or how much of my self I had to draw up and present to the universe to see if the universe would like it or not.

VB: One of the things I’m most interested in is this idea that art comes from the place of being wrong. And that can be from the fact that reality is always distorted by our perceptions. I’m thinking of what Carl Phillips says, that poems tend to transform rather than translate.

KB: What comes to mind when you say that is: when I was writing a poem called ‘Strange Fruit’ it came from my most shameful feelings when I was a teenager, ugly and repulsive, and I felt like I had to say it, but I had to put it into beauty. Is that what you mean? That I made something ugly beautiful?

Strange Fruit

Sometimes I have an urge to slip
my hands inside the soiled, wilting
necks of your gardening gloves;
to let my fingers fill each dusty
burrow, then close my eyes and feel
a blush of nurture upon my skin.

Sometimes I am so afraid my hurt
will hack at your figs, strawberries,
or full-bellied beans, I dig my fists
in my pockets and nip myself. Sometimes
I imagine the man who belongs to
the hat hanging on the bright-angled

nail in your shed. I think about you
toiling and sweating with him;
coaxing growth from warm earth;
pushing life into furrows. I am curious
about what cultivates and blooms
there in your enclosed, raised bed –

yet I want no tithe of it for myself.
Sometimes I just want to show
you the places I’m mottled, rotten
and bruised; I want you to lean close
enough to hold the strange fruit
of me and tell me I may yet thrive.

VB: Yes, but without translating it into something obvious or too straightforwardly explanatory. You didn’t need to have an explanation. What you needed to do was transform that sense into something meaningful.

KB: That makes sense. And I think I didn’t really realise the weight of that in my work. Not just in my poetry, but in the novel as well. It’s almost like the kernel of it is my biggest shame. Or rather, the thing I was made to be most ashamed of, but I actually found it beautiful.

VB: I like that.

KB: I was reading one of the Notting Hill Editions books of essays, the one called Humiliation. The author was saying something about shame and vomiting and diarrhoea when all your most smelly, shameful, awful innards just come out violently, and that’s like the creative process for me. That’s how it feels. And I do feel mostly ashamed of my productions until I can polish them and make them beautiful. My first drafts are like the worst nappy in the world, just a shit explosion.

VB: Shame is a cul-de-sac of emotions. Guilt is about reparation, but shame you’re stuck with. I’m ashamed of myself, I can’t exist, I can’t live, I can’t be. You have to do something with that. The psychiatrist, James Gilligan, made a study of the most violent prisoners in jail and found that they had all suffered terrible shame in early life.

KB: It’s a real head-hanging one, isn’t it? Shame and rage are next door neighbours.

VB: And rage turned inwards is anxiety. So there’s a whole circle of stuff going on… it’s the circle of artistic life, isn’t it?

KB: Why do we do it?

VB: Because ultimately it’s reparative. Somewhere along the line.

I, too, have that Notting Hill Editions essay by Wayne Koestenbaum entitled ‘Humiliation.’ Later, rereading it again, I find an anecdote that strikes a chord, as it were. One of his fellow students at an unnamed summer music school tells him about the way that a popular teacher whose speciality was ‘relaxation’, ruined her own performing career by sitting down at the piano for her onstage debut before an applauding audience only to be sick over the keyboard. Koestenbaum has this reflection to make on the story: ‘Vomit on the keyboard – that image symbolises, for me, the always possible danger of the body speaking up for its own rights, against the stringent demands of the mind’s wish to construct a plausible, attractive, laudable self for other people to consume.’ Thinking about Kaddy’s poetry and the anxieties that surround her creative process I feel a strong belief that it’s one of art’s most important tasks to stand up for not just the rights of the body, but the reality of the body, the reality of our messy, upsetting, often overwhelming existence. It’s the job of art to talk about all the truths no one wants to hear, in ways in which they might finally manage to hear them and be assuaged. In that way Kaddy, like other artists, can experience the all-important acceptance of what feels like the worst of the self, though it’s only our shared humanity. But what I also hear in everything Kaddy says is her intense, passionate love of her creative process. In the very act of polishing that turd, Kaddy’s love trumps her fear and that is a powerful act. I ask her if she feels valid as a writer.

KB: When Milk Fever first came out, it was like, oh I’ve produced something and people like it and this is strange and nice. That was 2012 and I do feel very under pressure to produce either another collection or do something different so I can sustain that viability. I don’t feel like it’s just a given forever. I find myself longing to be in the position, either as a poet or a novelist, where I have a publisher and any idea I have will be considered, and hopefully published. They have faith in me, I have faith in me… but I just don’t feel I’m there yet.

VB: It sounds like a good family thing. You want that parental authority in place.

KB: I’m never not working. It’s constantly what I’m doing and worrying away at. I love it. But when you can’t prove it… People often ask me in the playground, ‘When is your next book coming out?’ and it’s the worst question ever. Because the answer is not only when I’m ready, but if I ever get another publisher. I think it was quite affecting that Salt stopped publishing single author collections of poetry about the year after mine came out. So I went from the euphoria of yes, I’ve arrived! To oh shit, I’ve got to start again. So now with The Glass Harvest, it’s kind of done. I imagine if I sent it off to a few places they’d at least read it because I’ve been published before. But there’s no guarantee and I just can’t face the no. It took me two years to write that and it just meant so much to me as it was all that I went through. So I’m not sending it anywhere. Because that might just stop me writing altogether and I’m in the middle of this novel.

VB: The process is horrible and can be toxic at times, and not at all good for people who are writers. It’s ironic that you couldn’t have made it worse for people who are writers.

KB: And it’s frightening, weirdly, conversely, just to know that an agent is waiting to have a look [at the novel]. Even though most of the other writers on Hollyoaks had agents, I’d got the job on my own and I didn’t need an agent to look for anything else. And now it’s that horrible thought: would anyone be interested? Would anyone take me on? Would they earn any money from me? Oh God, too much pressure. You know when you don’t know whether you’re being bold or stupid? That’s where I am with it.

VB: My money’s on bold.

***

This is what happens when you work with creative people. Miranda and Kaddy – who happen to live minutes apart – became interested in each other’s work over the course of these interviews. Now Kaddy has one of Miranda’s paintings on her wall, and Miranda has some of Kaddy’s poems. They both intend to create something in response to the work of the other. In six months’ time, we’re all going to meet up again to see what they have produced and to discuss the creative processes they went through. Intense, irresistible curiosity, the lure of the new idea or the intriguing object, was something we never spoke about in our interviews – it just went ahead and happened instead.

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Born in Cambridge, Miranda Boulton has a BA (hons) in Art History from Sheffield Hallam University and finished three years on the Turps Banana Correspondence Course in 2015. She has exhibited widely across the UK and was selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (2016), The Salon Art Prize (2011) and The Artworks Open (2010 and 2011). Her exhibitions include: a two-person exhibition ‘Off Line On Line’ at Studio 1.1, London (2015), and the solo exhibitions ‘Lost in The Middle’, New Hall Art Collection, Cambridge (2012) and ‘Outside In’, Madame Lillies Gallery, London (2011). She has work in private collections in France, USA, Ireland and many locations within the UK. Miranda is currently co-curating a group exhibition ‘Storyboard’ at Lubomirov Angus Hughes in London, which opens on the 14th April. www.mirandaboulton.co.uk

Kaddy Benyon’s first collection, Milk Fever, won the Crashaw Prize and was published by Salt in 2012. She has also written poems in response to Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ for a collaborative exhibition with a costume designer during a residency at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. Last year Kaddy travelled to the remote Scottish island of Eigg for a residency with The Bothy Project. Whilst there she wrote poems toward her second collection, The Glass Harvest. Kaddy is a Granta New Poet and has been highly commended in the Forward Prizes.
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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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Jun 042017
 

Huck Out West picks up Huckleberry Finn’s adventures after he has indeed headed out to the territories and taken up a life as an itinerant in the American West. Essentially a drifter, Huck in this way fulfills the destiny inherent to his character as depicted in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he is content to float his way down the Great River to no particular destination beyond a loosely defined “freedom.” —Daniel Green

Huck Out West
Robert Coover
W. W. Norton, 2017
320 pages; $26.95

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Robert Coover has been a presence on the American literary scene for over 50 years now. In many ways, the critical response to each new book he publishes continues to register the perception that he remains an adventurous writer who repeatedly offers challenges to convention, a perception in which Coover himself must take considerable satisfaction, as he is indeed one of the most consistently audacious and inventive of the first generation postmodernists his work partly represents. Coover’s novels and stories subvert both the abiding myths and shibboleths—sometimes outright lies—that animate American history, and the formal assumptions of literary storytelling, often by adopting the ostensible conventions of such storytelling but subjecting them to a kind of straight-faced parody. In his new novel, Huck Out West, Coover turns to such a strategy, in this case not simply mimicking the patterns or manner of an inherited narrative form, but creating a new and extended version of a specific, already existing work—a sequel, but one intended to provoke reflection on the earlier work’s cultural implications and its literary authority.

Coover has drawn on the elemental power of stories and storytelling going back to his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, as well as the story collection Pricksongs and Descants, the latter including such stories as “The Door,” “The Gingerbread House,” and “The Magic Poker,” all of which invoke fairy tales and fables as both form and subject. Coover is one of the central figures in the rise of what came to be called “metafiction,” but where, say, John Barth wrote in books like Lost in the Funhouse a blatantly self-reflexive kind of story that proclaims its own fabrication, Coover dramatized the conditions of fiction-making allegorically, making storytelling itself the story. This is perhaps best illustrated in his novel The Universal Baseball Association, still arguably his best book and the most revealing of his fundamental preoccupations as a writer. The novel’s protagonist, J. Henry Waugh (JH Waugh), is the God-like creator of a fictional world that is ostensibly a make-believe baseball league but that de facto represents an alternative reality in which Henry can emotionally and intellectually invest apart from his unsatisfying and humdrum job as an accountant. Indeed, his investment in this reality becomes so all-encompassing that at the novel’s conclusion it would seem he has disappeared into it—albeit as the now withdrawn and omniscient deity who contemplates his creation without intervention.

Although a book like The Public Burning, probably Coover’s best-known and most controversial work, would not at first seem to feature the same sort of concerns informing The Universal Baseball Association—it is, after all, a novel about weighty issues related to politics and history, not about an obscure accountant dreaming his life away—but in fact The Public Burning is not really about politics and history—not directly, at least—but politics as representation, and the distorting effects the sensationalized and distorted forms of representation in America have on American history and culture. In both UBA and The Public Burning, we are shown how easily, even eagerly, human beings shape reality into fictions and subsequently insist on taking those fictions as reality, with predictably disastrous consequences. J. Henry Waugh exemplifies individually what American culture at large evidences more generally: the desire to refashion a recalcitrant reality into a simple, more manageable creation, in which we must force ourselves to believe or that repressed reality will disagreeably return.

A novel like The Public Burning eludes designation as a strictly “political” novel—and thus avoids seeming a dated artifact of a fading Cold War controversy—because it is not finally a representation of the Rosenberg case per se but a representation of the representations to which the Rosenberg case and its legacy have been submitted, an evocation of American depravity through the discursive forms—exemplified by the New York Times and Time magazine—and manufactured imagery—embodied in “Uncle Sam”—that shape and circulate the specific content of that depravity. If J. Henry Waugh retreats into his private invented reality to fill his own inner (and outer) void, in The Public Burning the emptiness is felt as a social loss, an absence of meaning, to be counteracted through the invented reality provided by Media myths and fantasies, myths that at their most destructive must be reinforced through the ritualized spectacle into which the Rosenbergs’ death is organized.

Since The Public Burning, Coover has published numerous, consistently lively works of fiction of various length (8 novels, including the mammoth sequel to The Origin of the Brunists, The Brunist Day of Wrath, 7 novellas, and 3 collections of short fiction). While these books never seem repetitive, they do return to a few obviously fruitful subjects—sports, fairy tales, movies—and can certainly be taken as continued variations on the self-reflexive strategies introduced in Pricksongs and Descants, Universal Baseball Association, and The Public Burning. At times this strategy is more muted, as in Gerald’s Party, which seems more purely an exercise in surrealism, while in other books the artifice is unconcealed, directly integrated into plot and setting, as in The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, one of Coover’s most underrated books that dramatizes the plight of a character caught in an ongoing fiction from which he cannot seem to escape, a fictional character aware of his own fictionality.

Coover has also produced a series of novel and novellas that foreground their own fictionality by presenting themselves as versions of a particular mode or genre of fiction. Dr. Chen’s Amazing Adventure is Coover’s take on science fiction. Ghost Town is a western, while Noir evokes the hard-boiled detective novel (as filtered through film noir). Such works could not exactly be categorized as pastiche, since they are not so much imitations as efforts to distill the genre to its most fundamental assumptions and most revealing practices. Nor could they really be called parodies, since the goal is not so much to spoof or ridicule the genre but to in a sense turn it inside out, make it disclose the specific ways a particular mode of storytelling lends its conventions toward motifs and typologies that in turn have worked to substitute themselves for the actualities those conventions were created to depict, preventing anything resembling a clear perception of historical and cultural actualities apart from these archetypal representations. In novels such as Pinocchio in Venice and now Huck Out West, Coover takes this strategy of metafictional mimicry a step farther by seizing upon a specific iconic text and reworking it, both as a kind of homage to the prior work but also to create a parallel text that echoes the original while it also sounds out the work’s tacit if partly concealed assumptions and elaborates on its latent if unspoken implications.

Huck Out West picks up Huckleberry Finn’s adventures after he has indeed headed out to the territories and taken up a life as an itinerant in the American West. Essentially a drifter, Huck in this way fulfills the destiny inherent to his character as depicted in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he is content to float his way down the Great River to no particular destination beyond a loosely defined “freedom.” If the objective in Huckleberry Finn for both Huck and his friend Jim (who seeks literal freedom from bondage) is obstructed through the auspices of Tom Sawyer, likewise in Huck Out West Tom causes his supposed best friend (“pards,” they call each other) mostly trouble for their friendship—in fact, in Huck Out West Tom threatens to hang Huck, an act only the most naïve reader would believe he does not intend to carry out. Tom, who literally rides back into Huck’s life (a little over halfway into the novel) on a white horse, again proves unreliable and self-serving, although in Huck Out West these character traits, which Coover has keenly abstracted from the portrayal of Tom in Twain’s novel, are much more deadly in their potential consequences (not only to Huck) than when expressed by Tom Sawyer the 12-year-old boy.

Before Tom makes his reappearance and ultimately sends Huck off on the same kind of open-ended adventure that concludes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck brings us up to date on his life since his journey down the river, which includes riding along with Tom for the Pony Express. After Tom decides to head back east, nothing really captures Huck’s interest long enough for him stay in any one place, so when the novel’s present action begins he has settled into the life of a wanderer:

When [Tom] left, I carried on like before, hiring myself out to whosoever, because I didn’t know what else to do, but I was dreadful lonely. I wrangled horses, rode shotgun on coaches and wagon trains, murdered some buffaloes, worked with one or t’other army, fought some Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, and didn’t think too much about any of it. I reckoned if I could earn some money, I could try to buy Jim’s freedom back, but I warn’t never nothing but stone broke.

Huck must decide whether to buy Jim’s freedom because shortly after heading west, Tom Sawyer consigned Jim back to slavery by selling him to a band of Cherokee Indians. Huck is regretful about this decision, but does not look for Jim after all. Eventually Huck does serendipitously encounter Jim, who has indeed attained his freedom and is now traveling with a wagon train of settlers that Huck is hired to guide. He has become a devout Christian and forgives Huck for apparently abandoning him, but this is the last we see of Jim in Huck Out West. It is on the one hand disappointing that Coover chooses not to engage with the specific racial issues raised by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (as John Keene does in his updating of the novel in his book Counternarratives), but on the other hand, he does in effect transfer the theme of white American treatment of racial and ethnic minorities to the eliminationist campaign against Native Americans during the post-Civil War migration to the western “territories.” This campaign is represented most directly in the character of Custer (“General Hard Ass,” as Huck refers to him), but the historical forces portrayed in all of the novel’s actions converge around a broad account of a rapacious, mercenary America determined to extend its sovereignty over all the land it can exploit, with little regard for the devastation and suffering this expansion leaves in its wake.

Ultimately Huck Out West does mirror the Huck/Jim relationship of Huckleberry Finn in Huck’s pairing with a Lakota tribesman, Eeteh, who shares with Huck a general disinclination to bear down and work hard, preferring his own kind of independence, but who is nevertheless an adept storyteller in the Lakota tradition and regales Huck with tales about the trickster figure, Coyote. It is Eeteh who directs Huck to the Black Hills in order to elude General Hard Ass, whom Huck fears wants him imprisoned, or worse, for refusing an order, even though Huck was serving only as a civilian scout. Thus Huck finds himself living in a teepee in Deadwood Gulch, a pristine creek valley when Huck arrives but soon transformed into a muddy slough overrun with prospectors, their hangers-on, and all the hastily constructed buildings erected when gold is discovered. It is into this suddenly chaotic place that Tom Sawyer arrives as well, allegedly deputized by the federal government to bring order. What Tom really seeks to do in Deadwood Gulch is seize the main chance, to use it as the opportunity for the same sort of self-aggrandizement that is always Tom Sawyer’s ultimate motivation.

Huck can never quite accept this, even after Tom has threatened to hang him for defying Tom’s wishes. Rescued from Tom’s bluster by Eeteh (who brings along a few Lakota warriors for good measure), Huck replies to Tom’s predictable apology: “You’re my pard, Tom, always was. But it ain’t tolerable here for me no more. If you want to ride together again, come along with us now.” Tom demurs, and Huck rides off with Eeteh, but in this case lighting out for a territory more informed by Eeteh’s spontaneous, generally elastic storytelling than by the “stretchers” told by Tom, lies he tries to believe are true—or tries to convince others they should believe. Huck himself has earlier indicated he already understands the difference between Tom’s stories that hide reality and the kind of story that might be truer to Huck’s sense of reality: “Tom is always living in a story he read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does. For me it ain’t like that. Something happens and then something else happens, and I’m in trouble again.”

Huck Out West is not as purely a picaresque narrative as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but Coover has certainly captured the nomadic state of Huck Finn’s soul. He has cannily discerned the essential nonconformity manifest in the character created by Mark Twain, and memorably transformed the adolescent’s lack of ambition into a more self-aware skepticism toward social expectations and cultural practices—while still preserving in Huck an ingenuous outlook that acknowledges what the world is like but remains free of malice or resentment. This quality is reflected in the colloquial eloquence of Huck’s narrative voice, which again Coover has adapted from the same quality found in Twain’s novel but has further developed into what may be the most impressive accomplishment in Huck Out West. Huck doesn’t merely sound “authentic”; his idiomatic expressiveness is sustained throughout the novel less to provide “color” than to establish Huck as a character able to render his circumstances persuasively through the integrity of his verbal presence.

If I did develop one reservation about Huck Out West while reading it, it was from the invocation of Custer as Huck’s bete noire and scourge of the West. This move threatens to make the novel too reminiscent of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, whose narrator also relates his peripatetic adventures in the Old West in a vernacular-laden voice. Perhaps this only indicates how much Berger himself may have been influenced by Huckleberry Finn, and the work of Mark Twain in general, but Berger’s Jack Crabb is primarily the means by which the novel effects its darkly comic burlesque of American myth-making. Huck Out West engages in its fair share of this sort of lampoonery as well, but ultimately it goes farther. Robert Coover provides a new version of the twice-told tale offering a radical representational strategy that still allows for dynamic storytelling, even as it interrogates its own process of representation.

—Daniel Green

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Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016).

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Jun 032017
 


Mark Foss being tickled by his brother.

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Jesus Understood

In 1961, my parents buy a split-level, four-bedroom house in a new subdivision in the west end of Ottawa called Pinecrest, a middle-class suburb where none of the mothers work (outside the house), and the kids walk home for lunch to find the front door unlocked. They are creating more space for their unexpected third child — me — although I never seem to find it.

I learn to tell time by the kitchen clock, which is seven minutes ahead so my father won’t be late for work. In the morning, I sit on his knee and eat half his breakfast grapefruit. In the afternoon, I kneel on the pink chesterfield, staring out the living room window for a sign of his imminent arrival on the horizon. I am in the crow’s nest of a ship, a pirate suffering from scurvy desperate for nourishment.

Like all of our neighbours, my family is white. Like most of them, we are vaguely Protestant. I have no religious instruction other than Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, which haunt my dreams. In one, a young boy is hit by a car. In the hospital, the boy in the next bed teaches him to hold his arm up at night to accept Jesus as his saviour. But the boy in the accident is pretty beat up. They have to prop up his arm on some pillows. The boy’s arm collapses when he dies overnight, but Jesus understood. I long to be understood too.

My father fears break-ins at the house during weekends to the cottage. Unsolicited, I pray the way I’ve seen on television with both hands folded to my chin. Fearing that Jesus will not understand, I cite a thesaurus of property crimes to ensure our house is not burgled, broken-into or robbed. Is it “A-men” or “Ah-men”? I hedge my bets, saying it both ways. A few times even, with variations, so that Jesus does not feel slighted and punish us for bad grammar or syntax.

A week after the minister from the United Church visits our house, my father drops me off at the church to join a friend in the choir. But my friend is not there. I am ten years old, too shy to put up my hand, too afraid to make waves. I sit alone, listening to the hymns in tears, waiting to be saved.

My mother doesn’t answer when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to the door. She stays in the kitchen, and tells me to hide behind the pink chesterfield so they think no-one’s home. I wait forever, worried they will simply try the knob and find it unlocked. I want to understand who they are, but accept at face value the need to fear them. I lay low.

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Ghosts

My father takes up so much space that, like my mother, I feel the only option is to be smaller-than-life. At a friend’s birthday party, I win the balloon for staying quiet the longest. It’s no effort at all since being well-behaved is my default position. It makes me invisible and, paradoxically, gives me the attention I crave.

Even my Old West action figures are unfailingly polite. Johnny West and Captain Maddox take turns watering their horses out of the back of the humidifier on top of the landing beside my parents’ bedroom. While my mother has one of her many five-minute rests, they tiptoe around the mesa and bring their mares back to the corral before my father gets home at 6:07 p.m. expecting dinner on the table.

My parents eat upstairs, while my brother and I dine in the rec room in front of the television. He’s ten years older and gets final say on shows, but allows me to switch during commercials. With all the back and forth, the channel selector on the Zenith starts to go, allowing ghostly images from one show to cross into another. In his workshop, my father files a groove into the broken shaft of a Sherwood hockey stick so it fits perfectly over the channel selector. A firm push — a poke check, really — sends the phantoms back to the world where TV shows live when you’re not watching them.

The stick demarcates space between channels, but also between the two of us. We keep it handy on the coffee table, a desk my father got surplus from work. He cut the legs in half, and my mother varnished the oak surface in a deep red. The TV Guide, our sacred text, is on my brother’s side. He forbids me to draw moustaches, beards, and eye patches on the celebrities featured on the covers until the week is over, and of course I comply.

My older sister is long gone and, after my brother moves out, I eat downstairs alone. I can watch what I want now, but sometimes I watch his shows to pretend he’s still sitting beside me. I respect his rule for defacing the cover because he might visit from Winnipeg and I don’t want to disappoint him.

There are so few rules in my family that I need to make my own. On Christmas morning, I open my stocking and one present before waking the household. When I come home with a friend after school, the two of us play with my chemistry set on the deep freeze in the garage until my mother returns. I long for bigger rules and firmer principles. Unlike my action figures, I am malleable in all directions.

I don’t care for superheroes, identifying instead with the tormented vampire of my Dark Shadows comics. He pretends to be writing a book to cover his absence during daylight hours. I like how he flits between human and bat, how he moves between the past and the present, how he hides in plain sight. Now you see him, now you don’t.

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Baby

In sixth grade, I start a five-year diary that gives four lines to take stock of the day. Not much room to express feelings, but that suits me fine. I look for them instead in the lives of others.

I hatch a plan to sneak into our classroom after school to flip through Nicole’s little black book. I fear the cleaning lady will see through me or that Nicole has not seen me at all. The best I can manage is writing her name in my diary that night. A few choice words.

Nicole disappears with the other cool kids at recess while I play a ball game called “Baby” with my nerdy friends. Since players can twist their bodies but not move their feet, I roll the ball strategically to tag them out. I win a lot except the last game of the year. Because it is my last recess — the beginning of the end of childhood — my feet are glued to the earth, but my head is somewhere else. I am busy recording what to remember.

As the calendar year draws to a close, I am restless. Not for the excitement of a new year, but rather so I can repeat the description of last year’s “yummy dinner” in the space allotted for January 1. Echoes and symmetries. The promise of the familiar offers comfort I can find nowhere else.

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Summers

One of my first books is Tommy Visits the Doctor, which offers a reassuring picture of a middle-aged male physician with greying temples who gives his child patients a lollypop when they leave. A parallel story shows a young bunny going to the rabbit doctor who receives a fat carrot on the way out of the burrow. I do not think to be afraid before reading the story.

I do not visit the doctor when the dead limb falls off the tree, carrying me to the ground. I lose my wind, look around for it in panic. How does my mother hear my gasps? I am in the woods, far from the cottage. She bids me rest in bed with the blinds closed, as if darkness itself will stop the new route my spine plans to take.

I live at the cottage with my mother all summer, dreading the arrival of my father on weekends. He is the great surgeon and I the nurse, expected to hand him the instrument required — a Phillips screwdriver, a square of coarse sandpaper, a pair of sidecutters or needle-nose pliers — before he himself knows it’s needed.

The tools are a mystery to me, much less interesting than the stories of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. As I eliminate murder suspects, the troublelight droops in my hand, throwing my father’s work under the car into shadow. I have no defence, no alibi. But even as he chastises, I am secretly pleased since my guilt means he sees me.

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Social Studies

I invite different friends to the cottage for a week at a time, but never Allan, one of my Chinese friends. I am not even sure we are friends at all. I share lockers with him from fifth to eighth grade. I play foot hockey with him at recess and when I curse for the first time at a bad play he enthuses that I’ve finally become one of the gang. The sense of belonging this creates makes me want to swear for joy.

I go to Allan’s birthday party every year, which is managed by his older sisters. We play hockey on the rink in back of the Catholic school near his home, and then play more games in his basement. I win first prize one year — a can of lychees in syrup. I feign appreciation, but it’s a strange reward, especially when the runner up gets a hockey puzzle in a can. It must be a Chinese custom, one more thing I don’t understand or question.

When Allan gets sick in eighth grade, I am the one who delivers a cassette tape of limericks recited by the class as a get-well-soon gift. My classmates record it dutifully, and I resent being picked as the messenger. The class knows without knowing this is no ordinary illness and no-one wants to get too close.

I visit Allan in the hospital where he wears a baseball cap. When he returns to school, he ends up on the “skin” team in gym class, and we all see the marks on his chest. He doesn’t seem to be the same. Even his hair is different.

He disappears again from school, and I deliver another tape of dumb poems. I bring him homework, too. Maybe his backdoor is unlocked, even if he lives on a less desirable street. But I don’t check. I don’t want to get trapped into spending time with him, of witnessing his decline. So I leave the books on the barbecue in the carport outside the door and call him from home. After all, I only go to his house on birthdays and he’s never been inside mine at all.

Allan misses graduation and the chance to leave five words to be remembered by in a cheap photocopied keepsake the teacher makes for all of us. So she writes something for Allan, making a joke based on his last name which rhymes with “wrong”. Like the limericks, it’s not so funny.

I wear brand new white wide-legged Howick jeans with four stars on the back pocket to the graduation party. Unlike everyone else who eats KFC, I get a plate of cold meat, which provokes many questions. Ask and ye shall receive. I want to be seen, and yet don’t stay for the dance, running home, faster than when I feared the bullies in third grade. Nicole will be there, and all the other girls I pine over and can’t approach.

The summer before high school I am up at the cottage, which is a good reason not to visit Allan in the hospital again. I don’t know whether he propped his arm up the night he died.

It’s a Chinese custom, I’m told, for the older children to handle the funeral. Same goes for the square of white paper containing a quarter and a candy they hand me at the wake. A candy to sweeten my loss, and money to buy more sweets.

He looks less real than ever, lying there, the first dead body I’ve ever seen. Our teary-eyed teacher hands out a tissue to everyone, a little melodramatically, but my own tears won’t come. Neither will words. Not here.

Ready or not, my childhood is over. What I have left is my desire to keep him alive. I hang onto the wrapped up sweet and the quarter, and the single page in Allan’s hand from Social Studies class. I must have borrowed it from him one day when I was sick and he got sick before I could give it back.

We were learning about Australians, how they have many of the same things we do in Canada. Most live in the cities. They enjoy life. These are the things worth remembering.

— Mark Foss

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Born in Ottawa, and now living in Montreal, Mark Foss is the author of three books of fiction and numerous short stories. His most recent novel, Molly O, appeared in 2016. Spoilers, his first novel, was partly inspired by his radio drama, Higher Ground, which was broadcast on CBC in 2001. A collection of linked stories, Kissing the Damned, was longlisted for the ReLit Award in 2005. His stories have also appeared in such literary journals as The Fiddlehead and The New Quarterly, as well as in Canadian and American anthologies. He is currently completing a new novel. Visit him at www.markfoss.ca.

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Jun 022017
 

Trinie Dalton, 15 years ago, with Dennis Cooper and his then partner, Yuri.

 
Echo Park, CA, 1990s

That day, we received a Fedex from Brazil for Alprazolam and a Fedex from Spain for Absinthe; we had a nice slotted spoon and sugar cubes to melt through the spoon to sweeten the absinthe; from our house we had a good view of downtown at sunset from the hill right above my favorite pink museum, the one where the diorama tunnel of Chumash Claymation dolls being epic in nature burrowed almost all the way up to our basement; therefore we had everything we needed for a nice night.

Somewhere in there, our hamster went missing. She just attached a tiny pink bow to her ear, applied lipstick, picked the lock on her metal cage with a teeny tiny paper clip and excused herself to go observe the great outside, perhaps the front yard pond where I was cultivating pickerel, duckweed, and water lettuce like Frida Kahlo tending her water gardens at her Casa Azul. Beckoned by the shiny full moon, high above the bay laurel tree, our hamster started her spirit journey. At least she was safe in her Lucite ball, the kind that rolls around the room, which I’d placed her in after she escaped her cage earlier. But all the doors were open, it was so warm that night, and she rolled down the steep back hill towards the black walnut gulley where the skunk nest was.

Or so I thought when I hadn’t seen her for a couple hours. Turns out the dog rescued the hamster in her ball, from rolling down the outdoor deck’s stairs. Where was I going with this? Oh yeah: The deck stairs were pink and there was a witch cave in the basement below it (as well as our laundry room). The dog had the Lucite hamster ball, clamped in his mouth when he came back inside, the plastic globe reminded me of a cheesy crystal geode, and the little panicky tan hamster was still in there, totally fine, just jittery and fixating on a sunflower seed. It was a miracle to witness animals saving animals, a memorable interspecies moment. I had a shot of Jack to slow the two glasses of absinthe down. The rodent’s transportation bubble gave it all an intergalactic feeling, like the dog had dug up a thousand year-old alien egg, and E.T. was about to pedal by on his dirt bike through the sky, en route to find his boy master. I remembered hamsters lived wild in Germany and figured ours had merely wanted to smell night air, completely innocent, which I can for sure understand. In fact, this whole melodrama inspired me to set her free a couple weeks after that—just took her out to the bushes and kissed her head and pet her with my index finger very gently, admiring her peach fuzz one last time, and put her down under the oleander. Thinking back on it now, that was unwise because oleander leaf is deadly to mammals and if she got hungry she probably stocked her cheek pouches up with it before her quest for Valhalla. Uh oh.

The eastside at that point was still graphite friendly, lots of doodlers and jammers lived there. The Jimi Hendrix wannabe next door woke me up every Sunday morning as he weekend-warriored his Stratocaster, before hangover brunches at Millie’s; the scrub jays were so cranky and loud some afternoons you wanted to get them stoned to shut them up; the pirate radio station was one canyon over; and a badass gang defended my street with meritorious efficacy. I could have an iguana pal anytime I wanted by just walking next door and petting one, and cumbia boomed on the weekends. Two doors down was a communal hammock that everyone in the hood stopped to swing in: rich and poor, tall and short, young and old, singers and creepers, anyone who wasn’t into corporate shit was welcome in it. The equality hammock. Up towards the top of the block, guys who dressed up like British Dandies with ascots smoked heroin and made bad music, and up at the very tippy top of the block where the houses dead-end into Chaparral, the high priest of dandyism decided to strut his black potbellied pig on a leash all the way down past all of us, to get a ground-level boulevard ice cream cone mimicking us commoners. The pig and the absinthe made a solid team, in terms of image building. I walked down to the bodega to get smokes; a crack dealer was working the storefront pretty hard and I felt right at home. I was past crack by then, way more into getting mellow and archiving the present tense with collage making, alphabetizing the record collection, and admiring our black and white kitchen linoleum, which resembled a chessboard.

Well anyway, I pet the dog’s head and said “good boy” and gave him some chicken in exchange for the hamster ball. I put some pantyhose on. I might have got sidetracked reading a book about gems & minerals. I made a beaded necklace. The neighborhood owl came out, freestyling like an alarm for smog levels. A uniquely striated Sphinx Moth flitted across our picture window outside, and the way it left a neon trailer in the air across the black night horizon reminded me of that David Lynch movie Mulholland Drive. Going outside to get a breath of fresh air myself, I decided then and there I loved street lamps.

The city is not a bad place to live, if you dial certain things in: wall to wall soundproofing so you enjoy the 3am vibe when the stars are aligned, a readiness for your intricately carved jack o’ lanterns to get smashed by buffoons, a canteen to walk with. The city is for people who get happy when they see vomit in the gutter because something real has gone down in that same spot. You’re like an archeologist giddily digging up dinosaur bones, relishing the filth of others. You’re like a stoner who just got his brown bag with a warm burrito in it, and you’re choosing which salsas to dump on it. You’re a green dragon slithering though life, noticing the Victorian lampshade trend evolving in your neighborhood and not minding a bit. It’s not a bad trend, with its low-light and fringe cloth lamp coverings. Kind of Jack the Ripper, but with a peaceful, opiated vibe. There have been worse looks in domestic lighting practices.

—Trinie Dalton

 

Trinie Dalton is author/curator of six books, and teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Forthcoming texts of hers can be found in monographs about Mark Grotjahn (Anton Kern Gallery); Chris Martin (Skira); Sam Falls (JRP Ringier); Cristina Toro (LaCa Gallery); Jessica Jackson Hutchins (CCAD Gallery); and Tannaz Farsi (Linfield College Gallery).

 

 

Jun 012017
 

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Once when I was in the eighth grade, my mother showed up at the school and told the principal there was a family emergency and she had to pull me out of class for the day. I didn’t have any family except her, but I kept my mouth shut.  I walked out with her and climbed in the car and waited to see what she’d do.  Mostly she didn’t do crazy things.  She was old when I was born.  She worked at the pharmacy and didn’t have any hobbies or anything.

“Something I wanted to show you,” she said in the car, giving me a sidelong look.  She was wearing a blue and white dress and looked kind of nice, not fancy, but nice.

“You going to tell me what it is?” I asked.

“Nope,” she said.

“Guess it’s some kind of big mystery then.”

“Guess it is,” she said.

“And you haven’t lost your mind,” I said.  “That’s not the mystery, right?”

She threw another sidelong glance at me, this time with an eyebrow raised.  That nearly broke me up, but instead I turned away and looked out the window as the town rolled past, pretending not to be too curious.  She took us past the Shop’n Save and the two thrift stores and the pharmacy where she worked, what she called the Business District.  That always made her laugh even though I couldn’t see the joke in it.  After that we turned onto Edgewater, which ran past the Starlight.  The Starlight had been closed as long as I could ever remember but I always checked the marquee anyway, just to see.  It looked the same:

KI GDOM OF THE SP D RS

LAS3R BLAST

I never knew if that three was supposed to be there or if they’d lost one of the Es, same way they lost some of the other letters in Kingdom of the Spiders.  Either way I figured it’d probably been a damn good double feature.  I wished I’d seen it.

Edgewater ended at the riverbank, and that’s where we got out.  I followed her through the trees, struggling to keep up with her, until we came to a picnic area by the water.  There was a stone overlook with a clear view of the river, and that’s where she finally stopped.  She straightened her dress and looked out toward the West Virginia side of the Ohio River.  I looked too, but the only thing to see was an old factory that had gone to seed.   Ivy grew up and down brick walls already darkened with graffiti, and all the upper windows were broken.  You could see tree limbs snaking over the edge of the roof.

She looked down at her watch.  “Ought to be soon,” she said. “Paper said it’d be one o’clock.”  She was shifting her weight from one foot to the other, the way she did sometimes when she was nervous.  But she was smiling, too.  I thought of asking her again if she’d lost her mind, but I didn’t.  We waited.

I didn’t know what we were supposed to be looking at.  But after a couple minutes there was a sound like a dozen firecrackers going off across the river.   Then the bottom floor of the factory crumpled in on itself like its legs were cut out from underneath.  All five stories of the factory came crashing down.  You could hear it from the other side of the river, a great whoosh of sound that hit you like a blast of wind whipping across the water.  A dust cloud bloomed where the factory had been, rising up and spreading over the water, blocking the sun.

I was holding my breath.  Next to me I heard a sound like I’d never heard come from my mother before, a great whooping war cry.  I turned to see her spinning around with her arms flung in the air, blue dress whipping in the afternoon light, hopping from foot to foot and hooting like she’d just cast a spell to bring down the sky itself.  Gray dust fell all around us.  She grabbed my hands and laughed and made me dance with her, and so I danced and I hooted along with her, yelling at the sky like a madman.  She smiled at me, and I thought she looked a lot younger then.  And I thought how nice it’d be if the two of us could stay like this.  Not on the riverbank with the sky falling around us, but just the way it felt right then.

Or maybe I didn’t think that, not at that moment.  Maybe it was only looking back when it seemed that way to me.  Because it was only a couple weeks later that Dutch showed up.

He was leaning against a post on the front porch when I got home from school.  I recognized him from the pictures even though he was older now and he was losing his hair.  He was thin and had a tan, leathery face, and he smiled too much just like in the few pictures I’d ever seen of him.  He was chewing a toothpick as I walked up.

“The man of the house,” he said, with a grin.  “You probably don’t remember me.”

I looked at him and didn’t say anything.

He shifted the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.  “No harm if you don’t.  You know who I am, though?”

“You’re Dutch,” I said.

His face clouded a bit, but then he smiled again.  “Dutch’ll do fine.  So you’re thirteen now.  That’s something.”

“Fourteen,” I said.

“Fourteen, that’s right.”

I was thirteen still.  But I wanted to throw him off.   I was off balance and I guess I wanted him to be, too.  “Where’s my mother?”

“Fixing some dinner,” he said.  “That’ll be nice, won’t it?  Give us a chance to get comfortable with each other.”

“It’s three-thirty,” I said.

“Just got here from Jacksonville,” he said.  “Long trip, your mom knew I’d be hungry.  Jacksonville’s some kind of town.  You want to hear about Jacksonville?”

I went inside.  There was a suitcase in the hallway, that was the first thing I saw.  In the kitchen my mother had three skillets going on the range, cooking red potatoes and broccoli and something that might’ve been chicken in a brown goop.  She’d put some make-up on and was wearing a necklace I’d never seen her wear before, and she smelled like perfume.  I didn’t think she even owned perfume.

She saw me and had to blink a few times, it looked like, to recognize me.  “Tell your dad it’ll be ready in twenty minutes,” she said.

“Dutch,” I said.  “His name’s Dutch.”  I was furious at her then, but I didn’t really know why.  I was as furious as I would’ve been if I’d come inside and found her setting the house on fire.

“I didn’t mean to say that, I wasn’t thinking.  I’m flustered,” she said.  “He just showed up, is all.  Called an hour ago and said he was at the train station, asked if he could come by and see us.  Can you believe that?”

“No,” I said.

“We’ll give it a try,” she said.  “How about we give it a try.  Be nice to him, Bo.  He’s had a hard life too.”

“You can’t even cook,” I said.  That was true.  She was a lousy cook.

“I’m inspired,” she said.  And she flashed a smile that broke my damn heart.

Dinner was rotten.  Not the food, just the company.   I didn’t say much.  When Dutch asked me a question I thought long and hard about whether it was worth answering, and then if I did answer, I tried to be as unhelpful as possible.  Mostly the two of them looked at each other across the table and made googly eyes at each other, and Dutch told stories.  He talked about trying his hand at farming in Colorado.  He talked about a stint with the Merchant Marines when he foiled a mutiny.  He talked about driving a rig in Florida and training elephants for a traveling carnival in Louisiana.   He talked about being one of those painted statues on the wharf in San Francisco and witnessing two different murders because he was so good at being a statue.  Everything was pretty interesting and most of it sounded like a lie.

After dinner I helped bring the dishes in.  “None of that’s true,” I said to my mother.  “Jesus Christ please tell me you know that.”

“Course I know that and watch your mouth,” she said.  “He sure is entertaining though, isn’t he?”  Then she started humming some old song, and I knew it was hopeless.  You can’t talk sense to anybody when they’re humming some damn old song.

I went into the living room where Dutch was settling onto the couch with a cigar.  There was a brand new glass ashtray on the table.  I looked at that glass ashtray and I hated it.  I knew that my mother ran out to the store to buy that damn ashtray soon as she found out Dutch was coming.

“So here we are,” said Dutch.  “We don’t got to like each other, I guess.”

I thought about saying something then.  I thought about saying we were doing just fine without his leathery face.  Instead I picked up the ashtray, holding it up for Dutch to see.  He didn’t react.  I flung it toward the living room window.  Only I never could throw worth a damn, so it struck the wall beside the window instead.  And it wasn’t even glass, just that kind of plastic that looks like glass, so all it did was scuff the wall and land on the floor in a pile of ashes, which made me even angrier.

My mother came into the room and saw the mess.  She glared at me.

“Little accident,” said Dutch, still smiling.  “No harm, no foul.  This’ll work itself out.”

I looked around the room and my eye fell on a ceramic lamp on the end table beside the sofa.  I lifted the lamp and Dutch gave me a look.

“Alright now,” said Dutch.

I threw the lamp at the window.  This time, my aim was true.  It cracked the window and made a nice satisfying sound when it smashed against the floor.

My mother screamed and Dutch jumped to his feet, but he didn’t move toward me.  Instead he held out his hands and said, “Everything’s still good, Nora.  It’s all good.  Boy’s acting up.  Nothing but a temper tantrum here.  A lot to process for the boy, is all.”

“It’s too much,” my mother said.  “I need to sit down.”  That was the first time I’d ever heard her say that, that something was too much.  Maybe she’d thought it before.  But I hadn’t ever heard her say it.

“Course you can sit down.  Sit down, Nora,” said Dutch.  He looked at me and said, “Think about your mother now, Bo.”

That sickened me, to hear him say my name.  I turned my back on them both.  I went into the kitchen and took a couple or seven plates out of the cupboard, and stacked a few mismatched soup bowls on top.  It was hard to carry but I walked the stack back into the living room.

“Oh dear god,” my mother said.  “Dutch.”

“This is what you think a good son does,” said Dutch, and he shook his head.

I was going to take my time and throw them one by one.  I thought that’d be the right way to do it, for maximum devastation.  But I hated Dutch saying that and shaking his head like that.  So I tossed the whole stack all at once.  It was pretty heavy and I couldn’t get a lot of air underneath, but it didn’t matter.  They made a sound like a bomb going off in a china factory as they hit the wood floor.

Dutch yanked my arm and dragged me off to the bedroom while my mother screamed louder than ever.  He threw me down on the bed.  He got in a few good licks on my ass, and some of them hurt some, but I didn’t make a sound.  Eventually he stopped.  I couldn’t see him because I had my face down in the pillow.  But I could hear him breathing hard.

“You’re a tough bastard,” he said.  “You got some of your old man in you after all.”  I must’ve made some sound then, because he said, “You don’t want to hear it, I get that.  I respect that.”  And he put his hand on my shoulder.  I had a thought about shrugging his hand off.  But I felt too ornery to do even that.  I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

I expected there to be some repercussions the next day.  But they were too preoccupied with each other to yell at me.  Dutch picked up a new set of plates and bowls at the thrift shop, and he had the window fixed before I even came home.

He took up residency after that, I guess.  It was mid-June and school was letting out.  I tried to be out of the house early so I wouldn’t see him much.  I’d pack a thermos and some sandwiches and set off on my bike to the creek.  Later in the day there’d be a few kids there, around the old wooden trestle bridge, fishing or horsing around.  But early in the morning it was quiet and real pretty there.  I’d sit by the creek and think on things.  Or I’d ride across town to the Starlight and sit in the overgrown parking lot and run through Kingdom of the Spiders in my head, the way I figured the movie played out.  Later I’d ride out to the ball field behind the school and meet up with whoever had a game going on.  Then I’d ride some more.  Eventually I’d make it home, tired and sore from riding and using that as an excuse not to be sociable.

Dutch said he had a friend who was a construction foreman.  He wanted Dutch to be a co-foreman on a new apartment building going up in Elkton, only they weren’t breaking ground till sometime in August.  I had my doubts that a co-foreman was a thing.  But Dutch kept busy.  He fixed the shower curtain, and he painted the baseboard trim, and he patched up the drywall in the hallway where the front door had banged into it for years.  He re-grouted the bathroom even though the grout seemed fine to me.  I thought the drywall was a little lumpy and the painting was sloppy, but I guessed he was trying.  He didn’t talk about it.  I’d just notice the things he’d done and that’s how I knew how he was spending his days.

One night I came home and found Dutch alone on the porch with a glass of whiskey.   He and my mother had a routine where they’d sit out on the porch with cocktails and listen to jazz music on my mother’s battery-powered radio.  He said he’d spent a year living in New Orleans with a roommate who was a jazz trumpeter—this was after he left that traveling carnival—and he wanted to share what he called his love of the art form with my mother.  Tonight it was just Dutch, though.  The sun had gone down but there was some redness left in the sky.  I asked him where my mother was, and he said she was laying down.  “Few too many mint juleps,” he said, and winked at me.

He was listening to a country station on the radio.  I asked him what happened to the jazz, and he waved the glass in front of him.  “Needed a break,” he said.  “Sometimes you need a break, is all.”

“From what?” I asked.

“Being somebody,” he said.  He stared at me for a bit, then held out his glass.  “You want a sip?”

I wanted to say no, but I thought he’d expect me to say no.  So I took a sip.  It was foul, and burned going down, but I made myself take another.  The second sip was worse.

He took the glass back and laughed.  He had an easy laugh.  “You’re okay.  You’ll be okay.  You just need—you know what you need?”

I shook my head.

“You need to be more generous,” he said.  “You know what I mean, generous?”

“I know what it means.”

“You’ll have a poor life if you go through it like that, not being generous with people.”

I didn’t say anything, because it didn’t seem like he was expecting me to.

He sat back and looked out over the streets, which were growing summer dark.  “This place,” he said.  “It’s kind of special, isn’t it?”

I didn’t answer him.  I thought it was special in some ways.  I liked the way the train tracks outside of town were all overgrown like they were from some ancient civilization, and I liked the look of the trestle bridge down by the creek even though it got condemned a while back.  I liked the abandoned drive-in theater and how you could imagine, when you were there, that there’d really been an apocalypse and there were giant spiders just beyond the trees, marching on River Oaks to take back their kingdom.  But Dutch wouldn’t know anything about those things.

“Seemed nice enough when we came here, your mom and me,” said Dutch.  “Seemed like the kind of place to settle down.”

“But you didn’t,” I said.  Not accusing him.  Just curious what he’d come up with.

Dutch tilted his head to look at me.  “I had too much in me,” he said.  “That fair enough?”

I shrugged.  I didn’t know what that meant.  It sounded like a thing you said when you didn’t ever look too hard at yourself.

He leaned back in the chair.   In the dusk I couldn’t see his face too well.  “This is a fine enough place,” he said.  “Only when you’re young like I was, maybe fine doesn’t seem so attractive.  Got to get some living under your belt is the thing.  Then maybe you reassess.  Then maybe you get a little worn down at the edges, and ‘fine’ starts to look good.”  He laughed again.  “Maybe ‘fine’ starts to look damn good.”

I had a weird idea then.  I had an idea that he wanted something from me but I didn’t know what it was.  It wasn’t love.  I don’t know that he ever thought of me as his boy or would’ve felt much for me even if he had.  But there was something he wanted right at that moment on the porch.  Maybe if I knew, I would’ve given it to him.

“I’ll tell you about a place,” said Dutch.  “Monterey.  Ever heard of Monterey?”

I shook my head.

He didn’t say anything more for a bit.  I thought maybe he decided not to tell me his Monterey story after all.  Either way was fine with me.  Then he did speak again, only his voice was different, quieter.  He talked like somebody telling a story, some particular story, for the very first time.  “Monterey is the edge of the world,” he said.  “That’s what I read once, in a magazine.  It was some kind of travel magazine and there was an ad for Monterey and it said, ‘Come to Monterey, at the edge of the western world.’  With a photograph of these pretty cliffs leading down to an ocean that was, Jesus, bluer than anything you ever saw.  Bluer than the idea of blue.”  He whistled softly.  “‘The edge of the western world.’  I read that and I thought, ‘There’s a place to go someday, Dutch.  Even if you don’t have a dime when you get there, Dutch, that’s a place where you’ll never feel anything but rich.’”

“You ever make it there?” I asked.

“I did,” he said.

I waited for him to go on.  I had questions, but I didn’t want him to think I was all that curious.

He said, “Mostly you’ll find that places don’t measure up to your expectations.  Mostly that’s the truth.  But Monterey measured up.”

“Because the ocean was all blue,” I said.  That sounded like I was making fun of him, and right away I was sorry I said it.

“You can stand there by the cliffs in Monterey and feel the whole continent behind you,” he said.  “The water’s blue, that’s for sure.  But there’s something grand and dark about the world stretching out behind you like that.”  He paused and seemed to think about what he’d said.  Then he said, like he was clarifying: “There’s something momentous about that.  Like you’re close to something.  You don’t even know what it is, only that you’re close to it.  And that’s an exciting place to be.”

I hadn’t ever seen the ocean except on television shows and in movies.   But I closed my eyes and tried to picture it like the way Dutch was telling it.  I pictured it with the sky like it was now, the color drained out of it, so I couldn’t even see the water.  I could just hear the waves dying on the rocks below.

“I had more than a dime when I got there,” Dutch was saying, “but not a whole lot more.  I ran a few scams to make some money.  Nothing too far out there.  Just enough to get me going, get me a place to stay.  Mostly I was running pretty straight.  I liked it there and I didn’t want to cause any problems for myself, or for anyone else either.  Eventually I took a job at a shoe store by Cannery Row—that sounds like it’d be a low-class sort of place, but the canneries all closed way back.  It’s an upscale part of town.  And this store was upscale too.  Respectable.”  Again he was quiet for a few seconds.  I shifted my position against the porch post and waited.

“There was this woman,” he said.  “Anamarie.  Came over from Spain, from Madrid, a few years before, but she spoke English better than I ever did.  She owned a vineyard.  Owned a couple vineyards.  She had long legs and a cool, dark face, and I thought she was a model when she first came into the shop.  I’d been in town about three months by then.  I sold her a pair of three hundred dollar shoes and didn’t stop talking for one second while she was there. I wanted to keep her there as long as I could, I guess.  Finally I asked her if she wanted to get dinner, and she said yes.  I don’t know why she did.  I never knew why.”  He turned his head to look up at me even though he couldn’t see my face now any more than I could see his. “You know that saying, that somebody’s above your station?  You ever heard that saying?”

“I’ve heard it,” I said.

“We ran together for a little while,” he said.  “We drove down to Big Sur on the weekends.  She showed me the vineyards and taught me a few things.  We drank a lot of wine together.  But she was above my station and I knew it.  I couldn’t ever quite—I couldn’t wrap my head around it.  What I was doing with her.  She liked the way I talked.  I’d sing to her sometimes, too.  I’d sing old things, like I’d sing ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ by the Duke.  Or Hoagy Carmichael, ‘The Nearness of You.’  My mother used to sing Hoagy Carmichael all the time.  I couldn’t really sing but it must have sounded nice enough.  Anamarie didn’t grow up in this country so she didn’t know how the songs were supposed to go anyway.  Anyhow, we’d sit out on her balcony on a night like this, but we’d have the Pacific right there.”  He gestured toward the road, which was dark enough by now that if you squinted right it could’ve been the ocean.  “She looked—I thought she looked as much like a part of that landscape as the ocean, or those rocky cliffs.  She belonged to it.  Even though she grew up on the other side of the world, she belonged to it.  She’d pour herself a glass of champagne—she drank champagne the way I drank everything else—and she’d say, ‘Sing me a song, Dutch.’  Or she’d say, ‘Tell me another story, Dutch.’  I knew it wasn’t anything permanent.  I knew I’d run out of stories to tell sooner or later.  But I kept her entertained for a while.  For a good while.”

He stopped, and this time he didn’t start up again, so I knew he was finished telling me whatever it was he wanted to tell me.

“So you ran off,” I said.

He thought about it.  “I didn’t measure up,” he said.  “If I’m looking at it square, then I’d say I didn’t measure up.”  He finished the last of his whiskey and set the glass down beside the chair.

I told him it was late and I was going inside.

He put his hand on my arm as I walked past, and leaned his head toward me.  “You want to hear a funny thing?” he said.

The smell of whiskey washed over me.  His hand felt hot against my skin, but I didn’t move it or shrug it off.

“River oaks,” he said.  “They don’t even have river oaks in Ohio.  We’re a thousand miles from anywhere that’s got ’em.  I looked it up once.”  He let go of my arm.  “It’s just a name, is all it is.  Just something to make the place sound like something else than what it is.   They’re just swamp trees anyway.”

He dropped his hand then and turned away from me, and I went inside.

§

For the rest of the summer, things were mostly okay.  Dutch talked a lot.  He kept trying to ask me questions even though I didn’t give him much reason to keep trying.  I knew he was going to run off again at some point, because that’s what he did.

I watched my mother to see how she was taking it all.  Some days she seemed happy enough to me.  Other times I thought I wasn’t seeing her right at all.  I’d catch her standing in the kitchen with her hands on the countertops, just looking out the window with a hard look on her face.  I thought that couldn’t be a good thing, to have that kind of look when you were just standing and looking out a window.  That couldn’t mean she was pleased with Dutch coming home and living with us after so many years of it just being her and me.   Then an hour later she’d be on the sofa with her feet up in Dutch’s lap, and they’d be watching television and talking as if they were an old married couple again, instead of whatever they were.  Or I’d watch Dutch make her mint julep and carry it out the porch, where they’d sit until the sun went down.  And there were nights when all three of us were out there.  She’d tell Dutch to play that jazz for her again, because she thought she was getting the hang of it.  And somebody walking by might’ve thought there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary going on, that it was just a thirteen-year-old boy hanging out with his mom and dad.  Sometimes I’d think about it like that myself.  I’d picture it the way a stranger would picture it.  And I’d be tempted by that picture even though I knew it wasn’t a true one.

Now and then that summer, when it was late and I’d gone to bed, I thought back on that day by the river, and I remembered the way she danced.  Not even a dance, but like she was casting some damn spell.  And I’d think maybe that’s what it really was, and somehow she’d brought Dutch back.  In the morning I’d forget about thinking these things.  But some of it must have stayed with me into the daylight hours, because I’d catch myself looking at her.  Letting that idea settle in.  Judging her, I guess.  For letting Dutch stay, and for bringing him back to us in the first place.

It was in the last week of August when I woke up to find him packing his things.

He was wearing just some wrinkled khakis and a t-shirt that he’d already sweated through pretty well.  The suitcase was open on the sofa.  I looked inside and saw that he didn’t have much in it other than his clothes.  A coffee mug, a Louis L’Amour book, a couple bottles of booze.  He was in the kitchen pulling a souvenir highball glass down from one of the shelves when I walked in.

“The farewell party arrives,” he said.  He walked past me and tucked the glass in with his clothes in the bottom of the suitcase.

I asked him where my mother was.

“In her room,” he said.  “Said she doesn’t want to see my damn face.”

I said, “Do you blame her?”

He looked at me then, and I could see he hadn’t slept.  His face looked older and more leathery than usual, and his eyes were glassy.  He hadn’t combed his hair.

“I don’t,” he said.

“Nobody needs you here,” I said.  I felt like I’d been waiting all summer to say that and have it come out the way I wanted, with some authority behind it.

He nodded.  “I know it,” he said.  “So I’m leaving.”

For a few seconds I didn’t get it.  Then it hit me that she’d kicked him out.

He laughed.  “I deserve that too,” he said.  “That look.”  It was the same easy laugh.  It wasn’t a happy laugh, either.  I wondered if it wasn’t ever a happy laugh, and if I’d just never paid any attention to it other than seeing how easy it came to him.

I didn’t say anything more.  What could I have said that wouldn’t have sounded hollow?  He knew I didn’t want him around.  Better not to say anything, I figured.  I just stood nearby and watched him gather up the last of this things.

A taxi pulled up outside, and I walked him out.

“Where will you go,” I said.  Because suddenly I did want to know.  I wasn’t ever planning to visit.  I just sort of wanted to know where he’d be in the world.

The taxi driver opened the trunk and Dutch tossed his suitcase inside.   He stopped by the open passenger door and gave me a long look that I couldn’t read at all.  Finally he said, “You’re a tough bastard, all right.”  That’s all he said.  Then he slid down into the cab and tapped the roof, and the car drove off.

It was ten in the morning before my mother came down.  She didn’t seem tired or beaten down.  She had a hard look on her face that I hadn’t seen before.

“He’s gone?” she said.  I nodded.

The day was a quiet one.  I asked her if she wanted to talk about anything and she said she didn’t.  I hung around the house anyway.  I thought maybe she’d be down even though she was the one who’d kicked Dutch out, but she wasn’t.  She wasn’t herself, I could see that, but she wasn’t down.  I figured she was resolved.  I figured that was the word for her.  And that had to be a good thing.

After dinner I helped her clean things up.

“We could sit on the porch,” I said, when we were done.  “There’s a game on.  We could sit on the porch and listen to the game, if you want.”

She gave me a weary look that lasted only a second or two.  Then she got that look of resolution back on her face.  Like it was something she maybe didn’t want to do but she was willing to go along.  She said, “Listening to the game sounds good, Bo.”

We went and sat outside.  There was a breeze and the streetlamps were just coming on as the daylight bled away.  The game was already in the third inning so we listened and caught up on what was happening.  I looked at her now and then and thought she didn’t look great.  Her face was sort of pinched, and I thought she was clenching her jaw.  I wished I had something to say.

I went inside for a Coke.  When I opened the fridge door, my eye fell on a little plastic bag of mint leaves.  I stood there with the door open, thinking.  It seemed like maybe it could be a good thing, but I didn’t know.  I took the leaves out, washed them and laid them out to dry on the counter.  There wasn’t much bourbon left but I figured there’d be enough.  I pulled down a highball glass and put some sugar and water in it, then set about muddling the mint the way I’d seen Dutch do it.  Taking my time, trying to get it right.  After I added the bourbon and ice, I stirred it up and threw in a couple of extra mint leaves.  It looked like a mess, but I thought I’d done it right.

She turned to see me come back out on the porch, and she spotted the glass before I could say anything.  She drew in a sharp breath and looked up at my face.  I didn’t know what she’d do, then.  I thought she might yell or knock the glass out of my hand.

Instead she smiled.  It was a smile I hadn’t ever seen before and I didn’t know what to make of it.  Maybe it was just the time of day and I couldn’t see her eyes so well.  But it seemed to me like she was looking right through to the other side of me.  Like she was smiling at something she could see on that other side, but I’d never be able to see.

“Well thank you, Bo,” she said.  She accepted the drink, and took a sip.

“I hope it’s okay,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “it’s just fine, Bo.”

We listened to the game without saying anything more for a while.  I was feeling better about things.  I felt like the summer was only just starting, even though that wasn’t true.

“I like it here,” I said.  I meant I liked it here on the porch.  I liked having the radio on with the game, and watching the night slip over everything, and things feeling still and settled at the same time.

She didn’t say anything for a time.   When she did speak, there was an edge to her voice that made me look over at her.  She was holding the mint julep but she hadn’t taken another sip since that first one.  She was holding it in both hands, the way a baby might hold a cup.

“This place,” she said.  “This goddamn place.  You know what I think?”

I shook my head even though she wasn’t looking at me.  She was looking out at nothing.  Or maybe at whatever she’d been looking at before, when she smiled at me.

“I think,” she said, “there are places you go to, and there are places you go past on your way somewhere else.  And River Oaks is one of those other places, Bo.  You speed by and maybe you wonder what kind of lives those people have, the people who live there.  Maybe you wonder.  But mostly you thank god you’re still driving.”  She looked at me then, and I was glad I couldn’t see her too well.  “Only there are people living in those places who can’t keep on driving.  And when you figure out it’s you—that you’re one of those people, Bo, living someplace where other people are just happy to speed past—well, Bo, that’s a bitter thing.  That’s a bitter thing to come to know.”

She didn’t say anything more.  The game kept going on the radio.  I was afraid to say anything more, so I only sat thinking.  A pick-up drove past, heading east out of town, its headlights sweeping across the porch.  I thought about that day on the riverbank.  And I wondered if I’d been wrong to blame her, for thinking she’d cast a spell to bring Dutch back.  Maybe she’d cast a spell to keep him gone.  And it just hadn’t worked.

I knew there was something for me to say.  It couldn’t be right, what she’d said, that couldn’t be all of it.  I knew there was something.  It felt close.  But maybe I only wanted to believe that.

The trees shook in the night breeze.  The fall was all of a sudden coming on.   I put my arm around her shoulders and asked if she’d come inside with me.  Her body stiffened for a second or two, like she was still caught up in whatever it was that made her say what she’d said.  But I kept my arm around her.  Finally she put her head down.  She didn’t anything, just put her head down and rested it on my arm.  I was okay with that.  The night was coming down, and we stayed like that, on the porch, for a good long time.

—Tom Howard

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Tom Howard’s recent fiction appears in The Cincinnati Review, The Open Bar at Tin House, Booth and Willow Springs, and individual stories have received the Willow Springs Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Fiction, and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction.  He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.