Apr 092017
 

The following excerpt, the opening passage of Frontier, introduces the central character, Liujin. Note the the crisp, unadorned quality of Can Xue’s prose and the fine membrane between the ordinary and the surreal. 

Frontier is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.

—  Joseph Schreiber

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LIUJIN

IT WAS LATE. Liujin stood there, leaning against the wooden door. The ripe grapes hanging on the arbors flickered with a slight fluorescence in the moonlight. Blowing in the wind, the leaves of the old poplar tree sounded lovely. The voice of someone talking blended with the rustling of the poplar leaves. Liujin couldn’t hear what he was saying. She knew it was the man who had recently been coming here late every night and sitting on the stone bench near the courtyard gate. At first, this had frightened Liujin and she hadn’t dared to go outside. Time after time, she had peeped out the window. Later on, realizing that this bear-like old man was harmless, she worked up the courage to approach him. He had good eyesight: even in the dim light, his eyes were as penetrating as sharp glass. He was busying his hands twisting hemp. He didn’t like to talk with people; his answers to Liujin’s questions were always vague: “I’m not sure . . .” He wasn’t one of her neighbors; where did he come from? Although he didn’t talk with her, he seemed to enjoy talking to himself. His words kept time with the sound of the wind and the leaves. When the wind stopped, he stopped. This was really strange. Tonight, his voice was louder, and pricking up her ears, Liujin made out a few words: “At noon, in the market . . .” Liujin tried hard to imagine the scene in this indoor market: piece goods, gold and silver jewelry, raisins, tambourines, foreigners, and so on. But she had no clue what the old man meant. Even though it was late, a woman was actually singing piteously and plaintively on the other side of the street; the woman seemed to be young. Could she be singing for the old man? But he apparently wasn’t listening; he was talking to himself. These days, Liujin had grown accustomed to his voice. She thought the old man looked a little like the poplar tree in the courtyard. The poplar was old, and so this man must be old, too. Liujin asked: Are you twisting the hemp to sell it? He didn’t answer. Sleepy, Liujin went off to bed. Before she fell asleep, she heard the young woman’s song turn sad and shrill. When she arose in the morning, she saw that the old man had left without a trace—not even a bit of hemp had been dropped on the ground. He really was a strange person. When she inquired of the neighbors, they said they didn’t know of such a person. No one had seen him. This made sense, for people generally didn’t go out so late. Liujin knew that she went to bed later than anyone else in the little town: she had formed this habit a long time ago. Still, what about the young woman singing? Judging by the direction the voice came from, she seemed to be from Meng Yu’s family. That family bought sheep from the pastures, slaughtered them in the market, and sold the fresh meat. With the strange old man showing up in her yard, Liujin no longer felt desolate and lonely in the autumn nights. She felt a vague affection for him, but she preferred not to explore the nature of this emotion.

She had lived by herself in this small enclosed area for five years. Before she was born, her parents had moved here from a large industrial city in the interior. Five years ago, her elderly parents went back to their hometown with many others, but she didn’t. Why had she stayed? Why hadn’t she wanted to go to the big city? She had some impressions of the city from her father’s descriptions of it. These impressions were mostly misty, not very reliable; she had tried hard to synthesize them, but without success. And so when her parents packed their bags and prepared to leave this small frontier town to go back to their old home, she began to feel dizzy. She was even unsteady when she walked. Late at night, for several days before they left, she heard the cracking sound at the riverside: with her bizarre sense of hearing, she knew the sound came from the poplars. These explosions came at intervals until the wee hours. In response to this inauspicious sound, a vague notion gradually occurred to Liujin. When she suggested that she stay behind, her father merely raised his right eyebrow. This was the way he expressed himself whenever something confirmed what he thought. “You’re an adult. It’s your choice.” All of a sudden, Liujin realized that he and Mama had been waiting for her to suggest this: she really was an idiot. So she unpacked her suitcase and put everything back where it belonged. True, she was thirty years old: why did she have to live with her parents? When the train started, her parents didn’t lean out the window. She didn’t know what they were thinking about. But when the last car was about to vanish from view, she suddenly saw clearly the big city in the distance. To be precise, it wasn’t a city, but a large white cloud floating in midair, with mirages in the mist. She even saw the apartment in the tall building where her parents lived. She didn’t know why their window was so dark in the strong light. How had she recognized it? Because her mother’s old-style pleated skirt was hanging in front of the window. On her way back, she walked steadily. She was returning to the home that now belonged to her alone. She trembled a little in excitement.

At first, Liujin wasn’t used to living alone. She sold cloth at the market. Every day when she left the noisy market and returned to the isolated little house, it was dark. For several days in a row, a tiny white wagtail strode hurriedly into her house; the little thing cried out briefly and sharply, as if looking for its companion. After quickly patrolling around inside, it left with a despondent cry. Liujin heard it fly to a tree, where it continued chirping. Had it experienced some tragedy in its life? Sitting under the lamp, she thought about the man who had recently been coming often to the market. He wore glasses, and when he picked up the cloth to look at it, his glasses almost touched the material. Liujin found this amusing. He seemed out of place in the market. He wasn’t like the other shoppers, and he didn’t bring any shopping bags, either. He was dressed like a farmer from the frontier. Of course he wasn’t a farmer; one could see that from the expression in his eyes. He always looked at cloth, but never bought any. Nor did he glance at Liujin. The way he touched the homemade cloth brought about an almost physiological response in Liujin. What kind of person was he? “I’m just looking,” he said, as if imploring Liujin. “Go ahead and look as long as you like,” she replied stiffly. All of a sudden—she didn’t know why—she felt empty inside.

One day, although it was late, the white wagtail hadn’t returned to its nest. It was circling beside a thorny rose bush, singing sadly. Acting on a hunch that something had happened, Liujin walked into the courtyard. She saw the bespectacled man from the market talking with a young woman under the streetlight. Suddenly, the woman screamed and ran away. Looking dizzy, the man leaned against a power pole, closed his eyes, and rested. The wagtail sang even more sadly, as if it were a mother who had lost her daughter. Approaching the man, Liujin said softly, “Tomorrow, I’ll take out a few more bolts of new cloth with a snow lotus pattern. It’s like . . . snow lotus, and yet it isn’t.” When the man heard her talking to him, he relaxed a little and said “Hello.” He turned and looked at her courtyard. Just then, she noticed that the wagtail had disappeared. Without saying anything else, the man left. The way he walked was funny—a little like a horse. Liujin had heard others call him “Mr. Sherman.” Maybe her encounters with him at the market weren’t accidental. Otherwise, why had he appeared in front of her house today? She also remembered the way the young woman had stamped her feet impatiently; at that time, the wagtail was chirping non-stop. Later, Liujin ran into this man in front of her house several times and greeted him properly, calling him “Mr. Sherman.” He always stood there—a little as if he were waiting for someone, for he kept looking at his watch. Liujin wondered if he was waiting for the young woman. Why had he chosen this place? How strange.

With Mr. Sherman showing up, Liujin had more energy. She worked hard tending her garden. Whenever she had a day off, she went into full swing. She planted many chrysanthemums and salvia along the wall—near the thorny rose bushes that were already there. There were still two poplars, one in the front and one in the back of the courtyard. Now she planted a few sandthorn trees: she liked plain trees like this. She also fertilized the grapes. On one of her days off, Mr. Sherman entered her courtyard. Liujin invited him to sit under the grape arbor. She brought out a tea table and placed a tea set on it. Just as they were about to drink tea, the wagtail appeared. It walked quickly back and forth, its tail jumping with each step. It kept chirping. Mr. Sherman paled and craned his neck like a horse and looked out. Finally, without drinking his tea, he apologized and took his leave. Liujin was very puzzled. It was this bird—perhaps it was two or three birds, all of them alike—that particularly puzzled her. Liujin realized she hadn’t seen the young woman again. What was going on between her and Mr. Sherman? Just now as he was sitting here, she had noticed that his right index finger was hurt and was wrapped in a thick bandage. He was dexterous in picking up his teacup with his left hand. Maybe he was left-handed.

By and large, Liujin’s life consisted of going from her home to the market and from the market to her home. On an impulse one night, she walked out and took the street to the riverside. The water level was low, and the small river would soon dry up. The sky was high. She walked along the river in the moonlight. There, she saw the corpses of poplars. She didn’t know if the four or five poplars had died of old age or if they had died unexpectedly. Their tall, straight trunks were ghostly. At first sight, her heart beat quickly. It was hard to muster the nerve to walk over to them. She startled a few willow warblers: their sharp cries made her legs quiver. She turned around and left, walking until she was sweating all over; then finally she looked back. How could the dead poplar trees still be right before her? A shadow emerged from the poplar grove and said, “Ah, are you here, too?” The sound startled her and almost made her faint. Luckily, she recognized her neighbor’s voice. The neighbor wasn’t alone. Behind him was another shadow. It was Mr. Sherman, and he was laughing. As he approached, Mr. Sherman said to Liujin, “When one sees dead trees like this, one shouldn’t run away. If you do, they’ll chase right after you.” The neighbor chimed in, “Mr. Sherman’s telling the truth, Liujin. You haven’t experienced this before, have you?” Even though she was standing in the shadows, Liujin felt her face turn fiery red. Had these two been hiding here long? How had she happened to come here just now? She recalled sitting at the table earlier writing her mother a letter, and being unable to go on writing because her mother’s words kept reverberating in her ears: “. . . Liujin, Liujin. There’s no way for you to come back to us. You’d better take good care of yourself.” Did Mama want her back after so long? She stood up and listened closely for a while to the wagtail’s lonely singing in the courtyard. When she had rushed out the gate, she forgot to close it. Perhaps these two men came here often to study these dead trees, but it was the first time she had ever come here.

“Look, the others are flourishing. It’s only these few trees: Did they commit collective suicide?”

When Mr. Sherman spoke again, his glasses were flashing with light. Liujin looked over at the trees and saw the moon brighten. The other poplars were so beautiful and vivacious that they seemed on the verge of speaking. Only the few dead ones were spooky. Her neighbor, old Song Feiyuan, rammed a shovel against a dead poplar trunk. Liujin noticed that the tree trunk remained absolutely still. Old Song chucked the shovel away and stood dazed in front of the trunk. Mr. Sherman laughed a little drily. Liujin suddenly recalled how wild this neighbor was when he was home. That autumn, this old man had gone crazy and dismantled the rear wall of his house. Luckily, the roof was covered with light couch grass, so the house didn’t collapse. In the winter, he warded off the cold north wind with oilcloth.

“Brother Feiyuan, what are you doing? These trees are dead,” Liujin tried to calm him down. A sound came from the river, as if a large fish had jumped up out of the water.

Liujin was three meters away from the men as she spoke to them. She wanted to get a little closer, but whenever she took a step, they backed up. When she straightened again after bending down to free a grain of sand from her shoe, they had disappeared into the woods. A gust of wind blew over her, and Liujin felt afraid. She turned around to leave, but bumped into a dead tree. After taking a few steps around the dead tree, she bumped into another one. She saw stars and shouted “Ouch!” She looked up and saw that the dead tree trunks, standing close together, were like a wall bending around her and enclosing her. Apart from the sky above, she could see only the dark wall of trees. Frustrated, she sat down on the ground, feeling that the end of the world was approaching. It was really absurd: How had she come here? Fish were still jumping in the little river, but the sound of the water was far away. She buried her head in her hands. She didn’t want to see the tree trunks. She thought it might be her neighbor Song Feiyuan playing tricks. This had to be an illusion, yet how had he and Mr. Sherman caused her to produce such an illusion? She strained to consider this question, but she was too anxious and couldn’t reach a conclusion. Suddenly aware of a strong light, she moved her hands and saw lightning—one bolt after another lit up her surroundings until they shone snow-bright. The dead trees that had closed up around her had now retreated far into the distance. The branches danced solemnly and wildly in the lightning. She stood up and ran home without stopping.

Recalling these events, Liujin felt it was quite natural that the old man had come to her small courtyard. Perhaps it was time for—for what? She wasn’t sure; she only felt vaguely that it had something to do with her parents who were far away. She remembered that the year before he left, her father had also twisted hemp. In the winter, he had sat on the bare courtyard wall: he had watched the activity on the street while twisting hemp. Not many people were on the road then, and there were even fewer vehicles. Father twisted the hemp unhurriedly, and—a hint of a smile floating on his face—gazed at the people passing by. “Dad, do you see someone you know?” Liujin asked. “Ah, no one is a stranger. This is a small town.” Liujin thought to herself, Since every person was familiar, then Father must be taking note of something. What was it? Liujin walked into the courtyard and went over to the wall where her father had often sat. Just then, she heard the sorrowful singing of a bird. The bird was in a nearby nest; perhaps it had lost its children, or perhaps it was hurt, or perhaps nothing had happened. Or was it a pessimist by nature? From its voice, she could tell that the bird was no longer young. Maybe, back then, Father had sat here in order to listen to it. This seemed to be the only spot where one could hear it. What kind of bird was it? She guessed that the nest was built in the poplar tree in back, but when she walked a few steps away, she couldn’t hear the bird. When she returned to her original spot, she could hear it again. If Father had made a companion of it in the winter, it must be a local bird. Could it be an injured goose? If a wild goose had been injured, how could it build a nest in a poplar tree? It did sound a little like a goose. Geese flying south sometimes sounded like this. Whenever Liujin heard geese at night, she couldn’t hold back her tears. It was clearly a cry of freedom, but it sounded to her like the dread that precedes execution. “The sound is directional. You can’t hear it unless you’re in just the right place,” the old man addressed her suddenly and quite distinctly. The hemp in his hands gave off soft silver-white light. “Where did you come from?” Liujin walked over to him. He lowered his head and mumbled, “I can’t remember . . . Look, I am . . .” He broke off. Liujin thought, What kind of person has no memory? Is there a category of people like this? He is . . . who is he? She wanted to move closer to him, but she felt something pull at her right foot and nearly fell down. She was greatly surprised. After regaining her balance, she thought she would try once more—but this time with her left foot. She staggered and ended up sitting on the ground. The old man sat there twisting hemp, as if he hadn’t noticed. Liujin heard herself shout at him angrily, “Who are you?!”

Though it was late at night, a column of horse-drawn carts ran past. This hadn’t happened for years. Liujin had heard that the city was growing, but she’d had no interest in looking at those places. She heard it was expanding toward the east, but the snow mountain was to the east. How could the city expand there? Had a corner of the snow mountain been chopped off? Or were houses being built halfway up the mountain? Liujin had seen snow leopards squatting on a large rock halfway up the mountain: they were graceful and mighty—like the god of the snow mountain. Later, she had dreamed several times of the snow leopards roaring, and at the time, rumbling thunder had echoed from the earth. But even now, she wasn’t sure what snow leopards sounded like. Because it was the weekend, she resolved to watch the old man all night, and find out when he left and where he went. After the sound of the horse-carts disappeared, he stood up. From behind, he looked like a brown bear. He crossed the street and headed for Meng Yu’s home. Meng Yu’s window was lit up. After the old man went in, the young woman, who was singing again, began to wail sadly and shrilly. Liujin heard loud noises coming from the house: Was something going to happen? But after a while it grew quiet and the lamp was also extinguished. After standing there a little longer, she went back to her house and fell asleep. She didn’t know when daylight came. The night seemed long, very long.

— Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping

Published with permission from Open Letter Books

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Can Xue is a pseudonym meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow.” She learned English on her own and has written books on Borges, Shakespeare, and Dante. Her publications in English include, The Embroidered ShoesFive Spice StreetVertical Motion, and The Last Lover, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.

Karen Gernant is a professor emerita of Chinese history at Southern Oregon University. She translates in collaboration with Chen Zeping.

Chen Zeping is a professor of Chinese linguistics at Fujian Teachers’ University, and has collaborated with Karen Gernant on more than ten translations.

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Apr 092017
 

Can Xue’s fiction is exceptional and notably difficult. Conventional narrative expectations are rarely met. It requires a surrender of the norms expected, even in dream-logic, if there is such a thing. Scenes have a disjointed quality. The most mundane moment can, without notice, take on magical elements. —Joseph Schreiber

Frontier
Can Xue
Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
Open Letter Books, 2017
$16.95, 361 pages

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It can be said that Chinese experimental writer, Can Xue, inhabits a strange and elusive territory in contemporary literature. With an idiosyncratic approach to writing, she has created an impressive body of work that effectively explores a geography of the spirit—mapping, if you like, the space where the real and the surreal, the personal and the political, and the magical and the mundane meet. Her 2008 novel Frontier, newly released from Open Letter Books in a crystal clear translation by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, has been eagerly anticipated by her admirers. Yet, for intrigued newcomers, it may well offer an excellent introduction the dazzling, and baffling, world of Can Xue.

Born in 1953, in Changsha City, Hunan Province, South China; Can Xue is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, who took her intentionally gender-neutral penname from a Chinese expression that refers to both the dirty snow that refuses to melt and the pure snow remaining at the top of a high mountain. This inherent duality is very fitting. In the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, both of her parents came under suspicion for their journalistic activities and were sentenced to hard labour. Consequently, their daughter was unable to continue her education beyond elementary school. Despite the brutal hardships her family experienced and her own ill health, Can Xue showed great resilience. With her schooling cut short, she turned to reading. Largely self-taught, she read fiction, poetry, and discovered the joys of classical Western and Russian literature, eventually going on to study and read in English. At the same time, she married, started a family, and worked as a tailor before publishing her first work in the mid-1980s.

She has since published collections of short fiction, novels, essays and literary criticism, including works of commentary on Kafka, Borges, Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Italo Calvino, and Bruno Schulz. While echoes of these writers can be heard in the distance, her own writing defies direct comparison to any other, and, as a woman writing avant-garde literature in China, she breaks all conventions. Many male Chinese writers have been especially hostile to her work, and to the irrational style of her self-described “soul literature.”

Can Xue’s fiction is exceptional and notably difficult. Conventional narrative expectations are rarely met. It requires a surrender of the norms expected, even in dream-logic, if there is such a thing. Scenes have a disjointed quality. The most mundane moment can, without notice, take on magical elements. Characters may respond with fear, complacency, curiosity—or some shifting mixture of emotion. Reactions can fluctuate without notice, leaving the reader—and frequently the protagonists—questioning what has happened. The multiple storylines are rarely fully resolved, while some disappear altogether without further comment.

In an essay for Music & Literature, Nell Pach presents a critical key to accessing Can Xue’s literary world:

Like the narrating beastie of the title story in her 2011 collection Vertical Motion, she has found not just a new direction but a new dimension to move in, a realm where conscious beings experience space, time, and each other unbound from the old rules. Can Xue moves through this new world as guide; she offers it to the reader as an aesthetic event. Properly received, she says, her work opens readers up to affect and intuition. With this otherwise dormant aesthetic logic “activate[d],” each reader can “find the structure inside himself and facilitate the structure to be in an agreement with the work—gradually.”

This approach, to look for structure within oneself, rather than expecting to trace it out in the text on the page, is especially critical for the reading of her longer works. When I first attempted to navigate Can Xue’s 2015 BTBA-winning The Last Lover, I filled pages and pages with notes, determined to follow the apparent logic as if losing the scent would leave me hopelessly stranded. Letting go and allowing the scenes to unfold before me was a revelation, leading to an exhilarating experience unlike any other. I fell under Can Xue’s spell. I became a convert.

Can Xue is not interested in ordinary reality, her domain lies in the dream world of the soul. As such, Frontier, is not a novel that lends itself to a concise, or even sensible synopsis. That is not to say that there is not a story of sorts, but it appears with abrupt shifts in perspective, in time and place, in remembering and forgetting. There are over a dozen primary characters, with a handful more who play secondary roles. Identity is sometimes amorphous. Nothing is ever exactly what it seems, least of all the isolated city in which it is set.

Pebble Town, is an enigmatic place, it draws people to it, but even the residents are unable to firmly grasp the town in its entirety. They muse about its nature, marvel at its fresh air, wonder what kind of magical place it is. Situated somewhere in northern China, next to the magnificent Snow Mountain, the location is necessarily ambiguous. The town stands on the frontier—but, the frontier of what? It is described as a border town; venturing beyond its boundaries may lead to farmland, or wasteland, to the foothills of the mountain, or at a greater distance, to the edge of the Gobi Desert. One thing that is clear is that it is a relatively new community, a town that has been conceived and constructed in this once desolate and remote location, a town dreamed into being. And the boundary between reality and the world of illusion is shaky and unstable. Wolves, bears, snow leopards and a wide variety of birds and other creatures appear and disappear, an elusive tropical garden is suspended in the air, rooms expand and contract, objects exhibit changing qualities, and the ground emits sounds and energies.

If Pebble Town and its immediate environs form the connecting tissue of Frontier, coming to an understanding of its essence feels like something akin to piecing together the reports of an elephant offered by the fabled group of blind men. Those who potentially would know the most—the director of the Design Institute, her African assistant Ying, and the ancient mysterious gardener—share little or nothing of their roles or experiences in the creation or maintenance of this place. Even the work of the Institute itself is murky. The town has already been designed and constructed, but people still busy themselves within its bleak confines.

The central character is Liujin. We first meet her as a thirty-five-year-old woman, living alone and working for a textile merchant in the market. She was born on the frontier and, as such, is innately sensitive to the flora and fauna, and to many of the odd sensations and occurrences in her home and garden. But she can be seemingly blind to presences others can sense. Deeply introspective, she frequently focuses on her own confused attractions to those she encounters, especially Sherman, a man who frequents her market stall. (Many of the names have been changed, with the author’s permission, from the Chinese originals—typically to a Western name with similar sound or meaning.)

Liujin’s parents, José and Nancy, were drawn to Pebble Town from distant Smoke City, to work at the Design Institute. Nancy settles in quickly, but José has more difficulty. However, the arrival of their daughter, an intense, bright, colicky baby, drives Nancy to take refuge at the Institute, while childcare responsibilities fall to José and Qiming, the middle-aged janitor at the staff guesthouse who is smitten with the child. Father and daughter share a close bond and a curious sensitivity that continues to mature as Liujin grows older. Late one night, after they have moved into their own home, she calls out to her mother:

“Where’s Dad?”

“In the kitchen. There’s a hole at the base of the wall there. Maybe a fox made it.”

Liujin felt her way to the kitchen. No light was on there, either. Her father was sitting on a small recliner.

“I couldn’t sleep, anyhow, so I’m keeping watch here. I want to see if anything sneaks out through this hole.”

“Dad, you must mean comes in.”

“No, I meant what I said—sneaks out. There are some weird creatures in this house. I’m not sure what they are.”

Liujin sat down on a stool. She and her father were worried. The wind poured in from that hole. They shifted their position in order to shelter from the wind.

“On a windy night like this, they probably won’t go out,” Father said.

José glanced absentmindedly at his daughter, who was sitting beside him. He noticed that his little girl was growing quieter over the years. Too quiet for her age. Sometimes he wondered if her previous impetuosity now had truly disappeared. As he watched, his daughter’s shadow began wobbling and separating into a few parts. When he looked hard, the parts took the form of a person again. Liujin’s body could break up in the dark (perhaps he was only hallucinating). He’d seen this happen several times, and each time it surprised him. Why had she cried all night long when she was a baby? Was she scared? José’s insomnia gradually worsened. Somehow Liujin became aware of her father’s nighttime activity and began keeping him company. José sighed: a daughter was close to one’s heart. A boy could never be the same.

Years later, long after her parents have returned to their hometown, Smoke City, Liujin continues to be haunted by thoughts of her father, though it is now her mother with whom she maintains written correspondence. She often thinks of her parents in the faraway smog bound city she has never seen. There is a searching, a longing for completeness that seems to drive her, but she does not appear to know what she is looking for and it is likely that an answer, if any, will be found by following spiritual intuition rather than reason. One could say that Can Xue’s characters exist in her fiction the way her readers are invited to approach it.

There are many others inhabiting this dreamlike world who cross paths directly or indirectly. They include the ailing Lee and his pessimistic wife, Grace, a couple who arrived at the Institute a year before Luijin’s parents, and Sherman’s daughter, Little Leaf and her Holland-obsessed boyfriend, Marco. Enchanted personalities also appear in Pebble Town, like Roy, the ageless boy few people can see, and the alluring shepherdess, Amy, who comes from a village on the slopes of Snow Mountain. Early in the novel, the third person narrative perspective changes with each chapter, but as time goes on, the focus will shift between two or more characters, per chapter. Occasionally, a fleeting glimpse is offered into the thoughts of those who are otherwise known only through their engagement with others, while some will remain obtuse, mysterious, even mythical in nature.

To consider Liujin as the main character is primarily to say that it is her perspective that dominates, we spend more time with her and know her better—in so far as she knows herself—but it would be misleading to assume that her story is the backbone of a directed narrative path. The real question that surfaces through the actions and interactions that shape this novel is: What is the nature of existence at the frontier? What is distinct and disorienting about the world Can Xue creates is the absence of an overriding philosophical, or literary mandate. Her allegorical, fantastic creation seems to come from another, more intuitive, organic space that invites open meditation and speculation. Thus, reading her becomes a viscous experience that seems to expand as time passes, rather than becoming more focused and conclusive. In the end, one is left with a lingering sense of potentiality, as ideas continue to percolate and stir the imagination.

It is reasonable to suggest that it is Can Xue’s singular temperament that gives her work its necessary cohesion. She sees herself as a performer, an experimenter, a manipulator of creative forces. During the writing process, she holds to a rigid discipline, attending to her physical well-being and sitting down to write for one hour a day. She does not reread or edit her work. She is admittedly improvising rather than writing to a pre-determined end, allowing the “meaning” to reveal itself—typically after the work is complete. Granted this approach permits the occurrence of odd inconsistencies and explains the unresolved storylines, but taken as a whole, the result is a piece of fiction that more naturally and organically captures the strange, shifting, fantastic atmosphere of dreams.

In her enthusiastic and informed introduction, Iranian-American writer, Porochista Khakpour, suggests that her friend and mentor (who often refers to herself in the third person) is:

. . . almost more medium than artist, a vessel rather than a generator, creation being relegated to its perhaps most logical state: the mystical. “In my mind, my ideal readers are these: those who have read some works by the modernist writers, and who love metaphysical thinking and material thinking—both capabilities are needed for the reading of Can Xue.”

She has, then, channeled her self-directed education in the Western canon, through an original physical and mental routine, to produce a literature that is truly her own. As an accomplished and mature work with a truly engaging cast of characters, set in a community perched on the borders of everyday reality and whatever lies beyond, Frontier contains a world well worth exploring. However strangely disconcerting it can feel to surrender to the psychic geography of Can Xue’s fictional landscape, if you remember that your own dream-logic may well your best guide, the journey can be endlessly rewarding and entertaining.

—Joseph Schreiber

N5

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and Literary Hub. He tweets @roughghosts
Apr 082017
 

The two poems which follow are taken from Make Yourself Happy, the latest collection of poetry by Eleni Sikelianos. These particular poems were chosen by our reviewer Julie Larios specifically because they made her happy—and because they represent a level of energy, concern, wonder, and engagement (with both the beauty of language and the beauty of the natural world) that is typical of the poems in the book. The review of Make Yourself Happy may be read here. We also have an interview of Ms. Sikelianos for Numéro Cinq readers here.

—Julie Larios

 

Making the Bird Happy

House finches bobbing on the branches
like fitful punctuation marks, comma in a puff of snow, blobs
of feathered exclamation
points bouncing
in the cold. They
decorate the view and entertain
the cat with red-winter tail feathers and caps. But
an hour later they’re gone. How/where
did they go?

They’re in the back of the bird book
with low “burry notes’
The red-shafted flicker who was also in the tree gives
a soft muffled bwirr
contact call, a clear keew
close contact call, a soft lilt
………..wik-a-wik-a-wik-a

Every beautiful bird is in Texas.
Indigo bunting.
Lazuli bunting. Look at that bird’s
bright-blue forehead!

Say’s Phoebe says
…………pidiweew, pidireep, pidiweew

a phoebe never mistakes herself
for a bird………………she will never mistake herself for someone’s happy nest

“that’s not the way the bird would see it”………..soaking
…….in ultraviolet spectrum,….magnetic fields,……….sunset’s polarized glow
….a feather drab to us hovers in bird-world in pearlized light

yet when Parker plays “Ornithology” even the cat looks up
belief, the bird is happy
to the bird I keep applying what I think I know

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Do Nothing Fancy

I shall do nothing fancy
to make myself happy. Help!
I dwell here because I do not dwell
among the dead. But sunlight
is lethal to some, so shall I
make a golden ring that replicates itself or build a golden
hour from which is banished grief to
make the hour so roundly happy? Some will bind
themselves in beautiful things and some
in chains. Some made a fetter from
………..–     the sound of a cat’s footfall
………..–     the beard of a woman
………..–     roots of a mountain
………..–     sinews of a bear
………..–     breath of a fish
………..–     spittle of a bird
but what kind of beard?

Name your letter….name it Gleipnir
(a manackle smooth and soft as a silken ribbon)

call it the wolf-joint………or call it the wrist, it is
where the wolf or the world will bite
(put your hand it its mouth as a pledge)

Now: How will you settle an argument with only one hand?
wrist…..wreathe….wrest…..writhe….wr – to twist
the human mouth makes the movement-sounds
twisting out of the bindings
twisting away from how
make yourself happy moving
freely towards the experimental sky
and language the false start to love is

Eleni Sikelianos

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Eleni Sikelianos is a poet, translator, memorist and professor of creative writing at the University of Denver. Her books include Make Yourself Happy, The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead, Body Clock and many others.

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Apr 082017
 

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Eleni Sikelianos is the author of several books of poetry (one of them a book-long single ode titled The California Poem) and two hybrid essay/memoirs (The Book of Jon and You Animal Machine); she has translated work by Greek, Russian, Chinese, and French poets.  She received her MFA from the Naropa Institute in 1991 and currently teaches at the University of Denver, where she is the director of the creative writing program.

Ms. Sikelianos generously agreed to answer some interview questions from our reviewer, Julie Larios; the poet’s responses can be read in conjunction with our review of her new book, a collection of poems titled Make Yourself Happy.

 

Julie Larios (JL): Can you tell our readers a bit about Naropa University and your MFA studies within the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics? That one word—“disembodied”—is especially interesting. What does it mean to you in terms of your own work?

Eleni Sikelianos (ES): I went to Naropa in the late 80s and early 90s, and was lucky enough to study with or be around an incredibly range of writers and artists: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Amiri Baraka, David Hockney and Marianne Faithful are among the most well-known. But I had classes with Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Susan Howe, and these all marked me in various ways. Perhaps one of the most important things I learned at Naropa — besides being exposed to groundbreaking, culture-changing work — was to think of the poet as a figure of engagement. Engagement can mean many things: working in at-risk communities, or studying Sanskrit, but it means doing your work in a serious way.

I think “disembodied” came in as a bit of a joke (I wasn’t around at the founding of the school in the 70s), since the writing school was named for a dead man, and there were lots of dead writers who were genii loci, inspirational figures. Language itself is disembodied, you could say, despite its relation to the body that sounds it or writes it or reads it. One of the things I strive for as a poet is to embody (thought, feeling, experience) in language — and that is one of the great experiments of poetry — the ongoing journey back and forth between embodiment and disembodiment that the medium of language necessitates.

JL: You’ve been called an “experimental” poet. What do you think of that designation and/or the whole idea of designations and categories when it comes to poets?

ES: I was on the radio last month, and the radio host introduced me as an “experimental poet” about fifty times. My graduate students who heard it wondered why he couldn’t just say “poet.” I’m not that interested in categories in this regard, although I do feel fiercely loyal to communities and very connected to lineages. “Experimental” is kind of a stand-in word for a number of things, one of which might be writing that creates meanings as it makes itself, rather than heading toward predetermined meaning. Just a quick look in the Merriam-Webster will tell you a lot:

Experiment

1 a : test, trial

make another experiment of his suspicion — William Shakespeare

b : a tentative procedure or policy

c : an operation or procedure carried out under controlled conditions in order

to discover an unknown effect or law, to test or establish a hypothesis, or to

illustrate a known law

2
obsolete : experience

So, a kind of writing that allows the tentative nature of the world into its proceedings, that admits that meaning and reality aren’t fixed and sets out to test them, to discover and to try (the root meaning of “experiment”). And that has a historical connection to experience (which might itself be becoming somewhat obsolete). If we define it thus, then, yes, it’s a good designation. And if it’s a way for people to understand an approach to writing and reading in a meaningful way, then I’m for it.

JL: Your work indicates an interest in science as well as language. Some people approach poetic investigation and scientific investigation as if they were diametrically opposed perspectives on—and responses to—the world we live in. Why do you think that is?

ES: Well, science is itself a language, a way of communicating things about our world. The word “experiment” serves us perfectly here. I think of both poetry and sciences as ways to test out and discover things about the world, about meaning and structures. I’m not sure most people do think of science and poetry as diametrically opposed, but if they do, it might be because of a cliché about poetry’s sole or primary function as affective. That is not to say that carrying emotion isn’t an important behavior of poetry, it’s just not the only one.

JL: Any recommendations for our readers of poets whose work you're inspired by or of writing in general that interests you and/or informs your own work?

ES: For Make Yourself Happy, I went back to some of the poets who have been important to me for a long time. I was thinking about the joy and bounce in Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, about the devotion of Lorine Niedecker’s sequences, and the combination of astringency and delicate care in Reznikoff’s Testimony. Ed Dorn’s fresh encounter with genre (the Western) and experiment in Gunslinger was in my mind, too. Although these didn’t go into the writing of Make Yourself Happy, recent books I’ve been excited about are Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed, Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye, Dolores Dorontes’ Style (translated by Jen Hofer), and my student Carolina Ebeid’s You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior. I just started Valerie Mejer Caso’s This Blue Novel, and am loving it.

—Eleni Sikelianos & Julie Larios

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Eleni Sikelianos is a poet, translator, memorist and professor of creative writing at the University of Denver. Her books include Make Yourself Happy, The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead, Body Clock and many others.

Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Apr 082017
 

The book’s purpose is not to suggest that language muddies things up permanently; instead, language in Sikelianos’s hands has a fluid quality to it, it has a round-about-ing quality. There is pleasure—and an increased appreciation of the strangeness of words and the power of words – when a reader goes with both the swirl and the forward movement of the river Sikelianos creates.
—Julie Larios

Make Yourself Happy
Eleni Sikelianos
Coffee House Press, 2017
170 pages, $18

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Reviewers sometimes bite their lips with trepidation when a review copy comes in that has been written by an “experimental” poet. Will the experimental nature of the work in their hands be understandable to someone not fully aware yet of the parameters (the “controlled conditions”) of the experiment? Will the reviewer’s unfamiliarity with the poet’s style, if that style is linguistically challenging, get in the way? Will the knee-jerk desire for a normal narrative line or for easily-absorbed syntactical structures obscure the reviewer’s grasp of meaning? That is, will the reviewer (me, in this case) have the energy and the patience to “get it”?

Eleni Sikelianos is described by critics as an “experimental” poet, but her latest book, Make Yourself Happy, calmed my reviewer-related anxieties quickly. The poems throughout do play around with normal narrative thrust and sequencing, and there are syntactical structures that require a second look, and a slower look. So yes, energy is required. But there is nothing about the poems that provokes impatience, nothing that leaves the reader behind, wondering what just happened. The cumulative effect of reading the poems in sequence, from cover to cover (not something I always do with books of less inter-dependent poems) is inclusive—the poems draw you in one after another, and you travel with them (even the title refers to this second-person “you” engagement with the poet—you are invited to make yourself happy, though you sometimes might mis-define or misunderstand what “happiness” involves.) The book’s purpose is not to suggest that language muddies things up permanently; instead, language in Sikelianos’s hands has a fluid quality to it; it has a round-about-ing quality. There is pleasure—and an increased appreciation of the strangeness of words and the power of words—when a reader goes with both the swirl and the forward movement of the river Sikelianos creates.

Eleni Sikelianos Reading at Naropa, 2013

Make Yourself Happy is divided into five sections, prefaced by a few reconfigured lines from William Carlos Williams in which he chides his readers, “Come on! / Do you want to live / forever?” and ends by calling poetry the art of “listening / to the nightingale / of fools.”  Then Sikelianos begins in earnest with the first—and title—section, thirty-nine individual poems—individual, yes, but interconnected by their juggling with and questioning of the word “happy.” The opening poem (“Through the lower window”) ends with this advice: “Get on a donkey / and learn some grammar Get on a donkey / and ride.” Who can resist that imperative?

On second thought, is that advice imperative? The next poem—the title poem—makes us wonder: “We do confuse what is a command and what / a prayer / statement and threat, question / and answer.” So we’ve been warned to be careful, as we read further, about the assumptions we make in our lives: those assumptions might not make us happy. At least, not happy in the way sunlight or a croissant in Paris or butter standing “in a bright rectangle of light” might make us happy, says the poet, nor in the way that the ear “tends to hear what it needs to make itself happy.”

We make assumptions, we create the idea of happiness, we are taught it, sometimes incorrectly. Sikelianos recognizes that we feel happy when we eat ordinary bread, or when we see the buds on the lemon trees. But “Tomorrow / we’ll learn all things to undo in the Making Ourselves / Happy school.” Further along in the first section, at the end of the poem which begins “I had taken the long way home…” , we hear the speaker say, “I would not wish to live anywhere, ever, where everybody’s always / happy.”

A choice must be made between “the pursuit of property or of happiness,” and a difference must be established between relief and happiness. People get confused, they sometimes mistake their privileged status for happiness. So we need to be careful with definitions, Sikelianos suggests. Maybe by doing “nothing fancy” we can make ourselves happy. Or, in the poem that begins “To make myself happy in the face of error…” she admits that the sounds of words can make us happy. “To make myself happy in the face of error I repeat / bandicoot long-nosed bandicoot. You / try it. And see how happy / is the b, the oo.”

It’s clear that Sikelianos—a poet, translator, memorist and professor of creative writing at the University of Denver—enjoys the sound of words, and enjoys the way words themselves seem physical (embodied, capable of movement.) Early on, we begin to hear chiming and rhyming, with the word “ombre” sitting next to “hombres,” and, later, the word “wrist” morphing into “wreathe…wrest…writhe.” Later in the book we hear blue/hue/shoot/thru; in another poem, spare/air/there, and in a poem only six short lines long, we hear softshell, sinner, saved, saved (again), saint and shrine. In the poem which begins “How Happy Are You” (which includes Likert-test boxes measuring our responses to what is being said, from Less True to More True) Sikelianos states, “O how a word can hover in its surroundings between sense and sorrow / a narrow   sound   shivering / as if the world itself rushed in decay toward that trembling.”

There are many guesses and suggestions in this first section about the how-to of making yourself happy (and about the how-not-to’s.) In the same poem about the sound of the b and the oo, Sikelianos writes, “I look through the pine trees and think / of children who are hungry / somewhere, this poem / can’t feed them. That is not / a right way.” Poetry can’t, of course, become embodied enough to substitute for what materially feeds us. But Sikelianos said this in a recent poem-essay titled “Experimental Life” (American Book Review, July/August 2016):

My concerns now as a so-called experimental poet, are different than they were / …when I wanted to tear everything apart and start anew / …but certainly from when I was dedicated to the poetic performance of language above all else. Now it has come to seem that culture-making and art-making are preservationist acts / For salvaging some thinking and feeling among the tatters.

Poetry can, she suggests, matter. It is a “sensory remnant, as if we could still taste it on our tongues.” Sikelianos recognizes “the tatters” that exist, and she commits herself to examining how to live as a creative person in that kind of world. Further into the ABR essay she says this about life (“animation,” we are told, is the word Aristotle used):

…to consider only material in the abstract (like capital or language) / Is a way of reducing us to bare life / But to consider material’s animation, its movement and interactions / Means to take spiritual, emotional, political, personal and material risks in the poem / And these things (we will call them) together are what make context / (from the Latin: to weave together) / Which is a way to live in the world

For Sikelianos, happiness seems to mean that a way has been found to salvage thinking and feeling and to establish context. As a poet, she must work to “animate” language, to weave what is material with what is abstract, and to take risks with words. She enjoys “… the sound of each word rubbing up against the others / The rhythm of each jostling in its context / Rhythm being one of the things that animates the living.”

As she says in the poem that begins “One Way,”

a fuzz of white pine sapling says yes yes
in the wind then
no, no!             when it says yes
and when it says no make a
go of
it. It
is how to live.

We must do our best to make a go of it, she suggests, just like the pine saplings do. And one of the tools poets use to do their best is language. Of course, language can be a fierce wind, too, blowing on those saplings: “Gustave Flaubert’s father / had a voice like a scalpel, able / to skin the feeling right off / the surface of the body.” We hear another warning: Be careful not only with definitions but with words themselves.

As the first section proceeds, it becomes clear that Sikelianos is interested in dichotomies—life/death, inside/outside, money/honey, green/grief (“coming to be” and decay), the natural world / the constructed world. This interest becomes even clearer in the second section of the book, titled “How to Assemble the Animal Globe,” which consists of thirty-one poems divided into seven sub-sections, all relating to extinct species (“lastlings”) on seven continents, all the extinctions due directly or indirectly to human action / inaction. This is the natural world vs. the constructed (man-made, man-destroyed) world.

The poems in this section contain many lines of encyclopedia-like information about the animals. For example, these lines about the Bubal Hartebeest of North Africa: “…when viewed head-on, the horns / formed a U; the last captive female. died November 9, Jardin des Plantes, 1923.” I can find no poetic language, only information, in the poem about the Tasmanian Tiger. But many of the poems in this section also break into lyrical passages, like the poem about the Mauritius Blue Pigeon which ends with a ship’s artist who “up in the river gorges, saw / the plucked earth coming”.

There is a whole song of extinction in this section, as well as several small, haiku-like poems. About the Pied Raven, Sikelianos writes “over hill and dale   the only thing moving / like a riddle a raven/ is as little in its yellow eye / as mine.” A poem titled “Great Auk” uses alliteration with abandon (beautiful / bird / bizaare / burning / burning /body’s / buried / bones / beaks) and tops it off with clever near rhymes: auk—skin / auction / unction. It’s a pleasure to see the poet enjoying the tools in her toolbox.

Two poems (“For You to Write About” and “Lost and Found (Lazurus Species”) do what many great poets love most – they name things. These two lists of extinct animals beg to be read aloud, with names that roll around on the tongue: “Broad-faced Potoroo / Darling Downs Hopping Mouse / Crescent Nail-tail Wallaby / Pig-footed Bandicoot….” In a footnote to the Lost and Found poem, we learn that the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect was also known as “the walking sausage or the land lobster.”

The fourth section—a 34-page poem titled “Oracle Or, Utopia”—charts a path through the jungle of man’s abuse of the planet (“…what it means to be live alive, when the world made its first sounds / …what it means / to be gone agone) and the possibility of weaving one world from the previous two (man/nature or past/future.) Of course, nothing about this path is easy; “Utopia” is an imagined place, and an “oracle” is a prophecy with ambiguous meaning. The section focuses on the future, but it sneaks in lines like this: “Then if the past / comes bustling in like a band of cocked revolvers…” Trying to determine how the past and the future can flow together smoothly, with “all the pictures moving forward and back / the old rock dust and the new new planet” involves poetry, which can move between “rupture” and “rapture.”

“Is There a River Here / Epode,” the fifth section, offers up a lovely 2-page poem ending on a welcome note of optimism, as does the sixth and final section, “There Were Ancient Questions Inside My Head (Rider.)” Added after the last poem are fascinating endnotes—often expanding on scientific principles mentioned in the book—and acknowledgements for the many images used throughout.

For readers of Numéro Cinq who shy away from experimental writing, I encourage you to give Make Yourself Happy a try. Consider the words of critic Warren Motte, who said this in his essay titled “Experimental Reading”:

[T]he experimental text involves us, enrolling us willingly or unwillingly in the process of textual production, and enfranchising us in that process as full partners. In the first instance, it may shock and bewilder us insofar as it beggars traditional, normative strategies of reading and interpretation. Yet by the same token, it grabs us and demands a reaction from us; it engages us and insists that we do something with it; it rejects outright a passive reception in favor of an active, articulative one. …Experimental writing obliges us to read experimentally….

We go at the experimental text hammer and tongs, gradually realizing that the text has been conceived with that very process in mind, and that in fact it anticipates our interpretive efforts. In other words, whatever else the experimental text may speak about…it also (and crucially) speaks about us, and about our efforts to come to terms with it. Moreover, it addresses that speech directly to us, in an unmediated manner—just as if it were inviting us to engage in a conversation….

This is the conversation Eleni Sikelianos invites us to in Make Yourself Happy. She starts the conversation by asking us what happiness is, and though she doesn’t feed us answers, she closes the conversation six sections later with these lines:

Of happiness, what have we lost? What wilds it?

My loves

I call all
of you.

Here, I want you entirely happy.

—Julie Larios

Note: The poet – whose poetic voice is generous and inclusive—also generously responded to questions for a Numéro Cinq interview running concurrently with this review. You can link to her responses here. And you can read two of the books poems (“Making the Bird Happy” and “Do Nothing Fancy”) in their entirety here, with thanks to Ms. Sikelianos and Coffee House Press for their permission to reprint these poems from Make Yourself Happy.

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Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Apr 072017
 

Abby Frucht

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If she weeps, maybe then they won’t find her amusing.

But she doesn’t, so they do.

“We got a lady here who… a lady with a… only maybe you better see for yourself,” fake-whispers the attendant from her desk in Mercy Hospital’s ER lobby, phoning news to the staff about the 2 a.m. patient with the bat bite, not. The big doors swing open on oiled hinges, a smell of coffee ghosts out as the patient slips in, the blended odors of sterile gloves and unrolled gauze featuring so sharply in the patient’s recognition of prior ER visits as to be either actual, resurrected by nostalgia or conjured by dread. The nurses all wear Crocs and the creak of those soles across laminate flooring is likewise as real as it is conjectured. The doctor wears saddle oxfords, the patient sham Uggs, Chuck lies barefoot at home sleeping off the night’s tantrum. In pigtails and bangs like Abby Sciuto’s on NCIS, the ER attendant enquires of the chairs in the now-vacant lobby, “Why would someone of driven to Mercy at 3 in the a.m. wanting rabies vaccine when there wasn’t a bat? What’s wrong with ’em?” A large scrap of frayed burlap pinned with a message on notebook paper – Don’t Touch This Curtain God Forbid – blocks entry to her cubicle.

“Tell us why you believe you were bitten by a bat if you saw no bat,” says the ER nurse.

“Tell us what you were doing when you think a bat bit you,” the doctor says.

“I think kayaking,” the patient says.

She thinks she was kayaking? Or she was kayaking? Or maybe she only thinks she thought she was kayaking? The doctor keeps such fulmination to himself, since the patient is of his mom’s generation. Even her chart, indicating decades of medical predicaments causing him to surmise she might have Munchausen Syndrome but which on random scrutiny reveals breast cancer detected, pin-pointed, aspirated, evaluated, differentiated, operated, irradiated, abbreviated, eliminated, PET scanned, overlooked, and once again investigated, might as well be his own mom’s medical history, all co-paid promptly with a Venture card. Hoping someday to globe trot on credit card miles himself, he pictures both women’s, his mom and this patient’s, Experian scores:

Payments: Never Late.
Responsibility: Individual.
Potentially Negative Items: Blank.

Miles, thinks the doctor. Lima, Prague and Hanoi subsidized by infiltrating carcinoma. Like Mom, tonight’s patient jets off between crises, bucket list in hand. It’s not unlikely the two almost oldish ladies were once or twice seatmates on a plane somewhere. NOOK Books, Bloody Marys, and neither one of them abashed on rising yet again to make her way to the toilet. Also a shared hubris at being unequipped to master the inflight entertainment system.

Fifty-eight and proud of it, the doctor sees of his patient, just like Mom. College professor two grown sons one divorce three pregnancies tobacco use never plus a smart smartass boyfriend with a baseball cap lousy pectoral muscles but mind-blowing arms. The doctor’s mom once smoked too but when her premiums jumped, she too stopped admitting to it. Her divorce went through when the sons were mere boys. As for the abortion, if it would have been the doctor’s now grown-up sister, he grieves for her.

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The bat likely was roosting inside the storage hatch of the hard yellow plastic sit-on-top kayak. Atop the hatch a lid hangs sideways, threads stripped from being opened and shut too often although she never stores things there since only air, only buoyancy belong in there. Since new, the lid never screwed up right, allowing leaves spiders rainwater and snowmelt to find their way in, plus a squirrel must have nested in there one spring hence the cracked apart nuts that spilled out of the hatch when she flipped the boat over to hose off gunk. She shuts the lid with a swift hard thwack of her amphibious shoe, flicks twenty spiders onto the lake then swivels to see if she’s paddling hard enough to leave their hundred and sixty legs behind. On some days the flicked spiders skate alongside for a couple of strokes but on others they’re towed by cobwebby muck. Fishes glide past pulling tangles of algae and once, mid-winter on ice so thick there are roads plowed for driving, she hiked right past a hand without registering it there amid dormant bubbles then lurched backward for a double take at the cold dead fingers that turned out to be a glove not black exactly but colorless, glassine, suspended in ice like a glove paperweight. She thwacked it hard with her boot. It remained unmoved.

Because of the whole of Lake Winnebago sloshing at her crotch when she’s kayaking, she’s in the habit of peeing freely while paddling, declining to use the bathroom before setting off so that her pee might commingle with duck pee goose pee fish pee cormorant pee fisherman pee kid pee heron pee pelican pee fly pee turtle pee frog pee swan pee gull pee and worm pee, then be rinsed and cleansed anew as if the lake were a Kohler Memoirs® Vertical Spray Bidet with four faucet holes. Bat colonies, if you have ever built a house for one like Chuck has in hopes of rescuing a mating pair from white-nose syndrome, prefer to roost on scored wood slats within narrow vented chambers with precisely measured landing strips. The unscrewed hatch of the kayak isn’t ideal but it’ll do in a pinch if the bat scooches forward into the nose and remains well hidden, as it really must have done since she never once saw it, like sometimes when her doctors ask where she hurts, she answers, “Everywhere. Nowhere.”

“It’s safer to assume it’s a bat if it’s not, than that it isn’t if it is,” had warned the nurse at Nurse Direct on the phone at 1 a.m. although the patient was already certain of this from reading WebMD, “since you’ll die if you have rabies but you won’t if you don’t. So drive to the hospital and get the vaccine. Don’t go to bed and don’t wait until morning. Only how did it bite you if it stayed well hidden?” the nurse at Nurse Direct had kept wanting to know.

“If you didn’t see the bat and you don’t remember being bitten and you’re not feeling sick dizzy nauseous or feverish and since your blood pressure is only moderately elevated, then why do you believe you were bitten by the bat if there’s nothing apparently wrong with you?” the doctor went on.

“My blood pressure’s only elevated because I’m at the hospital,” she says, noting “a” has changed to “the” as if to signify a shift in the doctor’s credulity even as the nurses gather close enough to hear while pretending to make themselves occupied. “Besides there was nothing apparently wrong with me the day before I learned I had cancer either except a nightmare I had about monsters on Amtrak throwing gobs of diarrhea at passengers. Doesn’t everybody’s body know they’re sick before their minds know it? Haven’t I read something sort of about that on Mayo Clinic MD?”

Understanding she brainstorms too many questions and is governed by too many bursts of indignation but drinks way too little booze to have booze, like Chuck does, to blame them on, she wilts for a minute before revving up again, recalling her complicity in recent, shared tantrums such as by waking Chuck up accidentally on purpose by phoning Nurse Direct at 1 a.m. this very morning from her desk down the hall eleven footsteps from their bedroom, where she had known she was mistaken he wouldn’t hear. Like other of their fallouts it boggles her brain how small the offense and how far-flung its imputations, these seeming to pertain to some man-poet, maybe, someone Chuck dreamed up from her teaching job and now appeared to believe she was chatting it up with since that’s how wounded he was, how enraged she might waltz out without saying goodbye and “quit raising my blood pressure quit complaining so much” quit wrecking his Type-B existence here at home with the dogs who unconditionally revere him … except there is no poet, only Chuck’s distinctive intellect, his grasp of U.S. and world political history, his adorable grocery shopping addiction, and those dazzling forearms to keep in mind. To all males since grade school the patient’s least composed responses come from glimpsing those least guarded planes of their bodies, although the forearms she’s familiar with from snippets of love poems – when you emerge from the bedroom in a clean cotton shirt sleeves pushed back over forearms scented with the rains I hurried thinking of you your far away lover your forearms decked with bangles old companion of your arms beautiful again the slipping bracelets stay in place now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face – are never stand-ins for battered male ego but perfumed, starlit, bedazzling, and becalmed.

“Who the fuck are you talking to at one in the morning do you think I like waking up to your crap?” Chuck shouted, his love handles jiggling when he slapped at the door jamb.

“Oh for God’s sake Chuck at least put on a shirt.”

The nurse gathered her wits to ask a third time, “Only why would you suppose you were bitten by a bat if you saw no bat?” making the question sound philosophical, which meant it had no answer.

Atop the desk chair was draped the gift of a shawl from the patient’s younger sister a preposterous pink purple velvet flounce that looked sexy on the furniture but if she wore it made her look like a Musketeer. She pulled it closer around when Chuck loomed at the threshold overplaying his unease about her nonexistent man-poet, mainly because she really should have a poet, a beatnik, her beatnik, especially since the hottest she and Chuck ever get is when waltzing to ‘The Thrill is Gone’ in a loft in a barn at a friend’s yearly Halloween party, Chuck dressed as a rabbi and she as a dog.

Chuck bellowed he was sick of her. She reminded him he’d been sick of her since the day they fell in love if you could call it that. He told her you couldn’t. She promised to pack her suitcase and be out of there by noon so he had nothing to worry about “except I’ll never pay you back the money I owe you I’ll donate it to Wildlife Conservation Society which gets four of four stars on Charity Navigator.” He said, “the dogs stay here.” Their loss, she conveyed, without needing to speak it, since he already knew. Nurse Direct went quiet, stupefied, while the patient shrugged the shawl back onto the chair as if removing the armor that wouldn’t protect her in favor of the bare skin that wouldn’t, either. Chuck prefers to forget all their hullabaloos since they’re all about nothing. Next day, he’ll forgive all row and invective. He’ll ask, “How’d you sleep, Hon?” when they wake in the morning. He’ll ask does she have laundry she needs him to do since he’s doing his anyway and should they drive to the Sturgeon Trail in New London to watch the dinosaur fishes spawning along the Wolf River or would they rather stay in bed and watch George Stephanopoulos while waiting for the flocks of Indigo Buntings to finally arrive at the freshly filled feeder, to which she’ll answer “Fuck you,” “Maybe,” “Probably,” and “Yes.” Such hangovers – Chuck’s clemency and her acquiescence– is the price they both pay for their anger mismanagement, though if he looks away for long enough she’ll give him the finger. “Oh for fuck’s sake give it a rest, Hon,” he’ll scold, which means he really does remember, remembers all the crap they fling at each other and even some of the rage they hang onto for later, like when she’s driving them home from some party or other along dark wooded roads unfamiliar to her. How loud he gets, when she is designated driver. And how she wilts in return then flares up again.

“Shut up don’t call me Hon when you’re angry at me it doesn’t work like that you’re so ignorant when you’re drunk you’re cerebrally challenged you don’t know it but that’s part of it and by the way it’s getting worse with old age,” she taunts, then changes her tack and asks for a lecture since teaching always calms him down. “Tell me again why President Adams defended the Boston Massacre soldiers,” she offers, getting part of her question deliberately wrong just so Chuck can correct her: “Adams wasn’t president just an attorney we weren’t even a country the revolution hadn’t started, Hon, don’t you remember?” Her feet in strappy gold sandals all but skidding off the brake because the truck is too big the night dense and surreal no matter how many times she has driven them home through a forest so dark that when there’s a deer, the deer looks like two storm lamps launched at the windshield. Then sober or not the truck veers nearly into the trees, just missing a sofa someone propped in the dark at the edge of the road for whoever likes plaid enough to haul it away. The times she doesn’t fight back it appears she’s a dupe, but only if there’s someone around to hear.

“Do you wear sunscreen while kayaking?” the doctor asks the patient. Like her sons’, the doctor’s eyes remain fixed on hers when he and she are speaking as if he’s practicing taking his own mom seriously like on a beach with her once when he was a kid they found a grave in the sand: the lamination shredded on some British tourist’s driving license and underneath it as they dug further down to search, a basket of gnawed-on chicken bones.

“Not always,” she concedes, exposing for his perusal her shaven leg on which the bat bite waits to be further examined. “I took a photo of the fang marks in case they disappeared before I got here, it looks just like the one on publichealth.gov,” she says, but here the pinpricks still are, two markings, like fangs, and around them a welt with no burn no itch no numbness no ooze and on that scale of one to ten they use for triaging pain, zero. The doctor aims his stylish flashlight as if to funnel the markings onto a map that might reveal to him her actual reason for being here. It appears he keeps the flashlight at all times on his person for how naturally he avails himself of it, flinching at the sight of the radiation scarring on what might otherwise be a still halfway admirable if matronly cleavage not unlike Mom’s. He requests she repeat the details of her most recent image-guided core needle biopsy, to ascertain how much her plotline varies with each inquisition. The combed top of his head, what if she reaches to tousle it the way she does her sons’ curls but never Chuck’s pate under the baseball cap, the scrooge of leftover hair? Frowning she examines the fang marks again, recalling yet another rabies symptom from healthexperts.com: a fear of water so strong you can’t swallow your saliva, your slop pail of tears. There’s a cousin she’s met of Chuck’s too many times who makes cum jokes at weddings and to funerals brings a lady friend who reminds her of herself when she and Chuck are squabbling – wild and sweet from a hillside away like a possum she saw once in snow in Ohio but up close there’s the snout like a mutant hyena’s and the cutthroat tail.

“You’ve been through a whole lot,” the doctor offers, slapping the file with the palm of one hand.

“I know but lucky for me I don’t mind too much being in hospitals. My dad was a doctor I enjoy spending time with medical people the very worst of it is I can’t donate plasma any longer because of the meds I used to love giving plasma you just lie there read novels and get paid twenty dollars, thirty on Thursdays.”

She straightens her posture, proud to bear scars that leave her feeling so fine as to push off on her kayak Saturday mornings only to be done in by a bat. That is, if it’s rabies, of which according to PatientSymptoms.net the incubation period lasts anywhere between a week and seven years but which you don’t know you’ve got until the symptoms appear, at which point you die. She might be lying around with Chuck watching George Stephanopoulos three hundred and seventy Sundays from now and all at once be drooling, terrified of light, scared stiff by the noise of the telephone ringing and then convulsing gagging passed out dead. Bowing his head as if to make it appear a world weary sigh the doctor reminds her of cradle cap, the way new mothers swab their newborns’ fontanels with cotton batting soaked in baby oil, the yellow scales rubbed free as if releasing the newborns from the eons of fishes that via ontogeny are still turning into them. Unlike the doctor with his red mites of hair, Chuck is balder than most babies on the day of their births. A dull forensics show on television pleases Chuck for moving so slowly as to forestall aging, his and hers.

“Is there anything else wrong that’s troubling you maybe even that last biopsy but by the way that’s terrific news on the cancer I see it’s been five years with no recurrence?”

“Not quite five,” she corrects him. “Four and three quarters.” She can tell what the doctor hopes to suggest: that it’s the cancer she’s scared of, the cancer that bites, not some waterlogged rodent with forlorn wings. More patient than she, he gets the lay of her karma, taking her temperature minus the usual choice of thermometer. Rather he employs only filial tact and the discretionary slender trendsetting flashlight. She doesn’t mean to be flip. It must be nice to own a torch you can switch off and on according to what you wish or have no wish to find.

“The thing about this abrasion it could be practically anything,” the doctor concludes. “We see this kind of abrasion from minor falls kitchen mishaps the kind of incidental trauma no one thinks twice about unless it ends up here. Now, that isn’t to say it’s not possibly a bat bite. There’s nothing about this scratch here that tells me it’s a bat bite, but then again there is nothing about it that tells me it’s not. But if a bat chomped down on you, that’s a sizable animal. A bat might look tiny compared to you but it’s a hundred times bigger than a biting fly and when a biting fly bites you, you feel it, right? Add to that the chances of a bat biting anyone are all but practically nil. Then, too, less than one percentage of bats even carries rabies virus. That’s less than one in a hundred,” he says.

Frowning she plucks at the fang marks again recalling something else Nurse Direct had to say or was it QuackWatch.com, that there are two kinds of rabies: Furious and Dumb.

“You call this a scratch?” she asks.

.

The drive home from Mercy takes place in the dark, dawn not having risen or broken yet like at dinner last night when she and Chuck were at their fancy friends Bob and Harriet’s dinner party eating cake at the table beneath the pergola, an opulence for which you might pay extra at resorts although to sit underneath the tall ribbed beams is like being digested by a whale. Dinner is always a five-star affair at Harriet’s, but though the patient is always shooed from the stove, she’s allowed to help out with the serving and clearing like by ferrying mugs of Harriet’s coffee across the lawn to the pergola. The door she kneed open while wielding the tray had swung heavily shut on the hem of her skirt, leaving only a scratch and a couplet of pinpricks of blood on her thigh she forgot all about until home from the hospital, climbing in bed where Chuck lies sleeping, all curled up.

You didn’t bite me, she transmits, it wasn’t you after all the doctor thought it was the cancer but it was Harriet’s door he might of cured us otherwise God forbid.

She holds her face to a smudge on Chuck’s cool bare lavender-tinted arm, urging her burnt-out scrap of breast upon slackened fingers. He hasn’t showered but he never stinks, and instead of her waking him up on purpose, she lets him snore like a baby. It’s not so terrible fighting it’s just how we do things how we get by we knock our commas around we knock out our connections. In some languages birth isn’t passive like in English but active and intransitive. She learned this from the elder of her two sons: You’re not born, you born. You simply skid into somebody else’s arms, together in darkness rather than moonlight but you can’t have everything.

— Abby Frucht

CITATIONS

1. Title: modified lines from the poem, “Nine on a Happy Reunion,” translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

2. when you emerge from the bedroom in a clean cotton shirt sleeves pushed back over forearms scented with: Deborah A. Miranda, “Love Poem to a Butch Woman,” from The Zen of La Llorona, Salt Publishing, 2005.

3. the rains began I hurried thinking of you your forearms decked with bangles your faraway lover old companion of your arms beautiful again the slipping bracelets stay in place: modified lines from the poem, “Nine on a Happy Reunion,” translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

4. now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face: Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” from New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, Beacon Press, 1992.

.

Abby Frucht is the author of two short story collections, Fruit of the Month, for which she received the Iowa Short Fiction Prize in 1987, and The Bell at the End of a Rope (Narrative Library, 2012). She has also written six novels: Snap, Licorice, Are You Mine?, Life before Death, Polly’s Ghost, and A Well-Made Bed (Red Hen Press, 2016), on which she collaborated with her friend and colleague Laurie Alberts. Abby has taught for more than twenty years at Vermont College of Fine Arts and has served as a judge for the Pen Faulkner award for Fiction. She lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Apr 062017
 

Russell Working

 

When the Rawlses finally arrived at Grandma and Granddaddy’s house in Eufala, there was no place to park.  Cars crowded the lawn and driveway, and TV vans lined the shoulders of the road, leaning out from the pavement as if feeling poorly and ready to topple over and give up the ghost.  (“The ghost,” the boy whispered.  Was it bad?  Bad to say words aloud as you thought them?)  So Dad left the pickup down the block by a house with a tree where a farmer in overalls was hanged by the neck until dead.  Spooky, since it was already getting dark.

Jordan had been taking pictures of the sunset with Mom’s iPad as they headed south from Muskogee, and he knew it was “unworthy,” the word she had used—“unworthy of you to keep harping on it on such a day”—but the thought came to him, There’s still time.  (“Time,” he said.)  Time for trick-or-treating, he meant.

Dad carried Su Ellen, asleep in her car seat and tented in a pink blanket, and Mom brought what Dad called the “superfluous bucket of chicken.”  “I know my people,” he’d said, but she insisted you couldn’t show up empty-handed.  The boy followed, his school backpack slung over one shoulder.  Dad buzzed his own head every Sunday morning, except for a curl from his widow’s peak, and you could see a port wine birthmark as big as a pancake on the back of his scalp.  Mom’s hair was frizzy and dark, and she had a slight overbite and a zit at the corner of her mouth which she had daubed with makeup.

At Grandma and Granddaddy’s yellow home on the corner, its American flag at half-staff, they’d forgotten to string up the spooky orange lights this year, but their neighbor’s house had an inflatable witch, a huge spider clinging to the eaves, a dummy holding a jack-o’-lantern head, and fake tombstones for IZZY DEAD and IMA GONER and BARRY A. LIVE.

“I hate Halloween,” Dad said.

Reporters were waiting on Grandma and Granddaddy’s lawn.  Their cameras and microphones were labeled with ABC, CBS, Fox, and others, too, but some of them just had notebooks and recorders.  Noticing Jordan’s family—the Chicago Rawlses—they stopped checking their smart phones.  Dad, usually surefooted and long of stride, slowed, as if considering whether to retreat and find another way in.  When the Rawlses reached the yard, the reporters huddled around with faces arranged so sad, Jordan wondered if they, too, had known Uncle Aaron.  A lady in hoop earrings said, “Excuse me, but are you all family?”

Dad said, “I’m his brother.  Was.”

“I am so sorry.  I can only imagine.”

The reporters all nodded.  They, too, could only imagine.

Dad looked at the house as if hoping his folks might come out and rescue him, but nobody stirred in the house.  A cameraman had him state and spell his name for the record.  Dad handed the car seat with baby Su Ellen to Mom and she stepped aside.  He was wearing civvies, but the reporters must have guessed from his haircut, because someone asked for his rank (“Captain”), then said, “Navy?” and he told them, “United States Marine Corps.”  The reporters wanted to know how Dad felt.  He said it was a living nightmare.  The NBC lady asked how long Aaron had been a soldier, and Dad corrected her: Marine, ma’am.  Not soldier.  When someone asked if there was a wife, he said no, just the ex, she’d be flying in tonight.  No; no kids.

One reporter wanted to know what Aaron was like as a kid.  Well, sir, Dad said, clearing his throat, my brother, he was always getting up on top of things.  He gritted his teeth and for a moment Jordan thought his father was grinning.

The FOX lady asked, “Like, for instance?”  Oh, Dad told them.  Like when Aaron was three and he clambered up onto the carport roof.  Yes, ma’am, three years old.  Little monkey.  Dad was seven, followed him up to make sure he didn’t fall off.  A neighbor phoned their mom, is how she found out.  Nine years old, Aaron hauled his bike up on top of their father’s tractor-trailer rig and rode off the end, pretending to be Evel Knievel.  Broke a bunch of bones.

“He was my kid brother,” Dad said, “but he was my hero.  Nothing scared him.”

Mom slipped a tissue in the hand at his side.  He dabbed his eyes and nose, apologized.  The reporters said of course, no need.  A CBS lady touched his arm.

Just then Jordan’s backpack slipped off his shoulder and spilled open.  He’d forgotten to zip it.  Out tumbled the Wimpy Kid books and his Evil Gesture costume, which Mom had packed for him.  The Evil Gesture wore a three-horned hat and a suit of a red and black check pattern, with tiny skulls instead of bells hanging from the zigzag collar.  But what everyone was looking at was the cackling skull mask.  Jordan was too horrified to move.  Mom’s face changed from sad and weepy to really, really angry, and she crammed everything back in and zipped up the backpack.  Jordan was hot with shame.  His grandparents were not supposed to see the mask, today of all days, and here it was, revealed for TV.

A gray-haired reporter said, “You fixing to trick-or-treat, son?”  Jordan didn’t answer, afraid this man, too, would find him unworthy.  The reporter said, “Well, that’s a pretty spooky costume.”

Somebody asked if you had one message for the American people today, what would it be?  Dad said he did not feel called to advise the nation right now.  He added, “Excuse us,” and led the family into Grandma and Granddaddy’s side door, where a sign read, NO MEDIA!!!

The kitchen was over-warm even though a window was open, and a biscuity, hot-doggy smell filled the air.  People at the counter were chopping carrots and distributing ice in red plastic cups.  The Grands, as Mom called Grandma and Granddaddy, were nowhere to be seen, but Jordan recognized their pastor from the Free Will Baptist Church and Dad’s cousins and uncle of the Tulsa Rawlses.  Across the room, Aunt Staci, Dad’s big sis, was listening to a marine staff sergeant in dress blues who was shaping an invisible lump of clay with his hands as he spoke.  Aunt Staci was an army nurse but wore civvies today like Dad.  Uncle Dave, her husband, a doctor, was deployed to Afghanistan.

With a glance that told Dad, “You were right,” Mom set the bucket of chicken on a sideboard already crowded with a crockpot of gumbo and a pan of ribs and fried chicken and mini-hot dogs and biscuits and salad and corn with specks of something red like peppers in it, as well as brownies and cookies and cake.  Su Ellen began crying, and Dad removed her from her car seat and tucked her in a baby carrier on his chest.  Babe-zers blinked in bobble-headed astonishment.  Were there dis many people on Earf?  Where dey come from?  Babies were so funny if you scrutinized them.  Aunt Staci, puffy-eyed, pinching her nose in a much abused tissue, rushed over and hugged Mom and Jordan, then captured Dad and Su Ellen in a baby sandwich.  People turned ugly when they cried.

“I just can’t get it out of my head,” Aunt Staci said.

“You didn’t watch the video!?”

“Oh, God, how could I miss it?  It just was on in the Emergency Department.  I mean, not all of it, but enough.”

“Where’re the folks?” Dad said.

Aunt Staci led them to Dad and Uncle Aaron’s old bedroom, where Jordan and his parents always slept when they visited.  She knocked and peeked in.

In a room lighted by the afterglow of the sunset, a very large couple had pulled up tiny chairs beside a bed on which a skinny, white-haired lady lay facing the wall.  Jordan knew them—the Reiersgords, Grandma and Granddaddy’s best friends from church.  He was a throat-bearded man whose belly bulged in his orange OSU Cowboys jersey.  His wife was a frog-shaped lady who seemed to have slipped rubber bands around her wrists, elbows, ankles, and neck.  The white-haired lady rolled over on the bed to squint at them, and with a shock Jordan recognized Grandma.  She’d always been roly-poly and pink-cheeked, but she had wasted terribly skinny, and her jet hair had gone white since he had last seen her on the Fourth of July.  She was part Choctaw (“though not enough to do me any good”), and her Indian features were pallid, even bluish.

“OH!” she cried, her eyes seizing Jordan.  “Come here, you!”  Her face wrinkled up, and she swung her legs off the bed as she sat up to hug him, smearing his skin with her wet, whiskery cheek.  “What took you all so long?  I was so worried about this guy.”  The ferocity of Grandma’s embrace alarmed the boy.

Mom and Dad sat down on either side of her and hugged her sidelong, and the grownups all cried.  Mrs. Reiersgord said, “We’ll be getting back to the kitchen.”  She nudged her husband, who lumbered out after her, supporting his belly as if it might otherwise sag down around his ankles.

Jordan felt bad, as evil as an Evil Gesture, but when he thought of Uncle Aaron, he couldn’t cry, because he didn’t feel sad, only afraid.  He’d been sick to his stomach ever since he first learned about Uncle Aaron’s kidnapping in Tajikistan last May.  He would ask Mom to drive him to school, and she’d say, “Since when do you need a ride?”  All the way there he was alert for kidnappers and would notice whenever a passing car or UPS van slowed down, possibly to grab him.  The boy barely remembered his uncle, whom he had only seen twice in the last three years, and in his mind, the strong, shaven face of Aaron in his Officer Service Uniform had been replaced by that of the gaunt, bearded man in orange, kneeling before some kind of Ninja in black.  The boy did remember his uncle tickling him once on the floor of the den as he screamed for mercy.  Jordan had kept a wary distance after that.

Last spring Uncle Aaron had mailed a Kyrgyz felt hat, as tall as a pope hat, that he had found in a market.  He addressed the gift to “The Chicago Rawlses,” but Dad decided it was for Jordan.  Mom thought it would make a great Halloween costume.  Hearing this, the boy made a point pushing it off the back of the dresser in his closet, to be forgotten amid the dust on the floor.  After Uncle Aaron was kidnapped, he felt guilty, though not enough to put on a stupid hat like a Smurf might wear and regular old clothes and call it a costume, which is the kind of lame-o idea grownups came up with.  Luckily, Mom had forgotten the hat.

These past months Jordan had been more anxious for his father than for the remote uncle of legend.  “Are they going to try to kidnap you, too, Dad?”  “Buddy, they wouldn’t dare.  Besides, the bad guys are way far away.”  Still, Dad had bought a Colt M45 Close Quarters Battle Pistol and began taking Jordan to the shooting range on weekends.  At night boy armed himself with his Nerf gun in bed, and this upset Mom when she sat on it while tucking him in, because she thought he was playing with it after lights out.  Actually, it was for protection.  He was not a moron, he didn’t think a Nerf bullet would kill a Tajik, but if it hit him in the eye, it would give Dad time to come running with his gun.

Last night Jordan had awakened to find himself in the back seat of the pickup.  Out in the darkness a billboard glided past with a smiling lady’s face and the words FREEDOM FROM PAIN.  Headlights came at them and taillights streaked away.  Su Ellen was asleep in her back-facing car seat beside him.  Oddly, Mom was at the wheel.  Dad slumped in the front passenger seat, his head bobbling forward and righting itself.

“Where we going?” Jordan said.  (“Going,” he whispered.)

“Shhh, let Daddy sleep.  Grandma and Granddaddy Rawls’s.”

“What about Halloween?” he said.

“You can trick or treat there.”

The next time he woke, it was daylight and Dad was driving.  They were pulling in to a McDonald’s.  The boy asked where they were.  “Springfield,” said Dad.  “Abe Lincoln’s old stomping ground.”  It wasn’t until they finished their pancakes and sausage that Dad said, “Buddy, we got some bad news.”

§

Now Grandma released Jordan.  As she pulled her palms down her face, stretched her saggy skin.

Jordan said, “I’m very sorry about Uncle Aaron, Grandma.”  (“Sorry,” he whispered.)  He glanced at his mother, who nodded that this was the right thing to say.  Grandma peered at the boy’s face, but not finding something she sought, she lay back down facing the wall.  She kept a hand on her tummy.  Maybe she was hungry.

“Grandma, I’ll share my candy with you after I go trick-or-treating.”

Mom swatted his shoulder and bugged her eyes angrily at him.  What? he mouthed, and she nearly swatted him again.

Dad said, “Your ulcer acting up, Ma?”

Grandma shifted in a lying shrug.  Aunt Staci nodded for her.

“Maybe you ought to see a doctor,” Dad said.

Grandma pulled a pillow over her head.  “OHHHHH, stop it!  All of you.”  Jordan’s spine shivered all the way to his tailbone.  The grownups looked like they didn’t know what to do.

For a while they sat there stroking Grandma’s shoulder and leg.  She reached back, but when Dad took her hand, she pushed it away and found Jordan’s instead.  What should he do?  Just stand there holding his grandmother’s soft, boney hand?  Mom nodded: Just like that.  He surveyed the room.  Grandma’s treadmill stood along one wall, stacked with boxes.  A bookshelf was lined with Uncle Aaron’s old collection of toy Indian warriors and cavalrymen in blue, made of tin and painted.  One of the soldiers had long, yellow hair like Custer.  He was threatening to saber a brave in full-body black war paint who brandished a tomahawk.

“Kirsten’s in the living room with your granddad,” Aunt Staci told Jordan.  (Kirsten was Jordan’s cousin.)  “Maybe you two should go say hi.  Your Mom and I can set with Grandma.”

They found Granddaddy watching Fox News with Kirsten.  Who had pink hair!  They both stood up for hugs.  She was wearing jeans and pink socks and a pink hoodie that read MIZZOU, which is where she played mellophone in the marching band.  Granddaddy had the same old circus barker’s mustache and goatee, and his bald, spotty head sprouted stray hairs, shimmery against the light.  After hugs Granddaddy said, “He’s with the Lord now,” and Dad said, “He sure is.”  The left side of Granddaddy’s face kept flinching into a half mask, baring his teeth and flexing the tendons of his neck, as if a malevolent lightning bolt had illuminated a painting in the Disney World Haunted Mansion.  A tissue box lay by Granddaddy’s chair, and they wiped their cheeks and honked their noses and talked about Grandma.  Ought to see a doctor for sure, but try telling her that.

Kirsten nudged Jordan with her hip, throwing him off-balance.  “Look at this big guy!  We’re going to have another linebacker here, just like Luke.”  Luke was her brother, but he didn’t play football anymore because he was studying for his master’s in England.

“Jordan’s playing Pop Warner,” Dad said.  “Offensive tackle.”

“I lost a tooth,” the boy said.  He opened wide to show his cousin the hole in his gum.

“Last week, middle linebacker knocks him flat,” Dad says.  “Hits the turf so hard, he spits out a tooth, Jordan.  So he finds it and runs off the field and hands it to Mom.  Didn’t want to miss out on that dollar.”

“Whoa!” Kirsten said.  “You stud!”

In fact, Jordan wasn’t very good at football.  His size had excited the coaches at first, but he was clumsy and was frequently humiliated by smaller opponents who wriggled past to sack the quarterback or take the running back down for a loss.  His team had lost every game but one.  In the car home Dad always advised him on everything he had done wrong.  “You cost your team twenty yards holding.”  His head coach told him the same thing, at the top of his lungs.

Kirsten was chewing her hair, which was so bright it did look eatable, like cotton candy.  The boy’s fingers reached out and combed her pink locks.  “What are you going as?” he said.

At first she didn’t understand; then she giggled.  “Jordan, this isn’t a costume.  It’s my normal hair.  I dyed it.”  To Dad she said, “He is so funny!”  But maybe she decided smiling was unworthy, because her face fell and she tucked the hair back in her mouth.

Granddaddy said, “Sit down, take a load off your mind.”

He bent at the waist and at the knees and groped back for the armrests and tottered back into the easy chair.  He pulled a lever to clump up the footrest.  “Little woozy with the meds they got me on.”  Kirsten sat in the rocker and held his hand.  A couch was aligned with its back to the dining room and the kitchen beyond, and Jordan sat beside Dad and Su Ellen and was enveloped in her aroma of talcum, pee, and milky barf.

“So how was the trip down?” Granddaddy asked the TV.  “Y’all get out before that ice storm?  They showed it on the weather.”

“Dodged the worst of it.”  Dad lifted his hands from his knees and let them fall.  “Little sleet is all.”

“Well, that’s—.”  The spasm seized Granddaddy’s face again.  He raised his Crimson Tide coffee mug to his lips and peered in, then set it down.

Dad asked what they were going to do about “arrangements,” since they didn’t have a—.  But he did not finish his sentence.

“Seeing as how the government wouldn’t let us come up with the ransom, maybe they’ll let us purchase his REMAINS!” Granddaddy cried.  “You heard, right?  The terrorists are offering to sell us his body.  Maybe they’ll give us a discount on the head.”

Glancing at Jordan, Dad said, “Dad, he doesn’t know how it happened.”

A commercial came on for a man who owned a fleet of red plumbing vans and a herd of cattle and was promising to stand up for Oklahoma values.

Kirsten said, “Can I?” and took the baby from the carrier on Dad’s chest and went back to her rocker.  When Kirsten stood Su Ellen on her knees, Babe-zers made a face like, Pink hair!  As if!  You could see how every little thing amazed her.

Dad took his father’s hand.  Granddaddy glanced at the hand that was holding his, patted it, looked back at the TV.  Dad let go and picked up the remote.  “Mind if we turn that off?”

Granddaddy gestured at the table with a gnarled finger.  “You put that dang thing down.”

“Yes, sir.”

A blond lady with big eyelashes told the news about the USA.  Oklahoma was red and Illinois was blue. So were most other states, boldly the one or the other, excepting a handful that were pinkish and blueish or gray, neither hot nor cold, as if they might be spewed from the mouth of God.  Jordan jiggled his knees.  Dad stopped him with a hand on his thigh.  “I was just telling those reporters how he got up on the roof.”

“I remember that,” Granddaddy said.

Now it was that TUMS commercial where a headless chicken slaps up a man at a barbecue.  Then the man fights back, and the chicken respects this, so they become friends and play volleyball.

The boy went over to peek out the curtains.  Darkness seeped up from the black forms of the journalists and the TV vans and through the veiny trees and across the sky.  Jordan slipped a wooden rod into the sliding glass window to lock it.  Down the street a car stopped and let out three kids, hard to say what, maybe a Zombie, a Princess, and a Batman.  They skimpered up to a double-wide trailer.  Dad patted the seat beside him, and Jordan came back and plopped into the deep of the couch.

“When are we going trick-or-treating?” Jordan said.

Dad shushed him with a look of fury.

On the screen beside the news lady, a photo of Uncle Aaron appeared.  He was wearing a beard and a shirt like the Oklahoma State Cowboys when in fact he’d been a Sooner.  A Ninja was standing beside him with a knife.  “2nd Lt. Aaron Rawls” was printed on the frame.  Across the top of the screen it read, NO MERCY.

“Leave the room!” Dad said.  “Now!”

“Why can’t I watch?”

GET out of here, or I’ll burn that costume in the fireplace.”

The boy fled to the kitchen, squeezing past Mr. Reiersgord, who was watching the TV from the doorway.  Mrs. Reiersgord put mitts on her rubber-banded hands and opened the oven door.  Hammy steam gusted out.  “Stand back, Aar—Jordy.  What am I saying?”  (“Air,” the boy whispered.  He was not air, was not Air Jordans, was also not Aaron.  Plus he hated the name Jordy.)  Over at the sideboard he snitched a finger lick of frosting off the cake.  From the doorway Mr. Reiersgord hollered, “Statement from the White House!”

Jordan sneaked back in with everyone stampeding from the kitchen.  The TV screen was split, showing the news lady and an empty podium with two flags behind it, American and a blue one with stars.  Kirsten vacated the rocker, handed Su Ellen back to Dad, and sat on the floor at Granddaddy’s slippered feet.  People laid hands on Dad and Granddaddy as if for a calling upon of the Holy Ghost.  Rubber-banded hands, as heavy as fat little haunted house gremlins, landed on his shoulders from behind.  Obama came onstage and said, “Good evening, everybody.”  He gestured a fist with his thumb sticking out and said something about Aaron Rawls.  He was mad­­­­.  At Uncle Aaron?  Turned out the president, too, could only imagine.  He said the entire world was appalled, and the people who did this were not Islam.  But we would confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with hope and civility.  When he was done, reporters asked questions.  The president said it would be premature to speculate, but make no mistake.  He walked off, and the air seeped from the lips of the watchers here, as if they’d been expecting something else, though just what, nobody said.

What Jordan was not clear on was, was anybody going to revengence the Tajiks and Ninjas?  But he did not ask, because everyone was crying again except for him.  Granddaddy’s whole face was frozen in his evil mask, his eyes red.  Dad came over and half-crouched to hug Granddaddy, his cheeks shellacked with tears, resting his chin on his father’s bald pate.

Now the TV showed the blond lady at her desk, they’d be right back.  An X-ray of a skeleton danced in high heels.  The watchers began filtering back to the kitchen, and Mrs. Reiersgord’s hands departed from Jordan’s shoulders.  The skeleton flapped its arms and wriggled its hips.  It turned into a lady with gray hair.  She was smiling.

Granddaddy said, “You note how he always tries to explain away the religion.  How stupid does he take us for?”

“Dad, he’s just making the point that not all—”

“So who should we blame, then?  Mormons?”

The front doorbell rang and Jordan cried, “I’ll get it!”  Out on the dark porch were the trick-or-treaters he’d seen earlier, the Zombie and Ballerina and a Darth Maul, it turned out, not Batman, wearing a rubber mask with its red and black devil’s face and baby goat horns.

“Kirsten, we got any candy?” Jordan called.

She palmed her brow.  “Oh, jeez, did we forget candy?”

In the street behind the kids, two dark heads were watching from the car.  Jordan ran to the kitchen and hollered, “We got any candy?”

“Not before dinner,” said Mom.

“Not for me!” Jordan cried in vexation.  “There’s trick-or-treaters!”

But she was talking to the preacher, and she raised a finger.  That’s one!  Jordan checked Aaron’s room, but Grandma was gone.  Upon his return, the living room door was a kidless rectangle of dark.  Anyone could have infiltrated the house.  He shut the door and hung the security chain.

Su Ellen was crying, as purple-faced as Coach Barker after a fumble.  A poopy smell wafted.  “You’re right, Pop,” Dad said in a tone that suggested he did not wish to argue, and he added, “Sorry, we got a situation here.”  He headed for the hallway.  By now, everyone had cleared out of the living room except for the staff sergeant, Jordan, and Granddaddy.

“So who do you think they were, Aaron?” Granddaddy asked Jordan.  “Presbyterians?  Buddhists?  Maybe your grandmother should’ve dressed up for that press conference in orange lama-lama robes instead of that danged headscarf.”

The boy’s skin prickled all over.  “My name’s Jordan, Granddaddy.”

The staff sergeant’s face blanked as the gravity of the error sank in.

“Well, I know that!” Granddaddy said.

“But you said—.”  Jordan bethought himself.  His mother always urged him to do this, to bethink.  “I have to go.”

He was waiting in the hall as his father emerged from the washroom with Su Ellen, who was still crying, though at a lower volume.

Very respectfully the boy said, “Dad, may we please go trick-or-treating now?”

Dad gritted his teeth.  “Jordan, did you not just see what—?”  Then he paused, bethought.  He said more calmly, “I need to be here for Grandma and Granddaddy.  We haven’t even eaten dinner.  Be patient.  What did I say?”

“Seven o’clock.”

Maybe, after seven-thirty, is what I think I said, if there’s an opportunity.  We’ve got plenty of sweets here, anyway.  Did you see those M&M cookies?”

Jordan had.

“Come on, they’re calling us.”

Mr. Reiersgord and several church friends who had been helping prepare dinner had departed, leaving his wife, the preacher, and the staff sergeant as the sole remaining non-relatives.  Mom took Su Ellen off to feed her.  Dinner was ready, but Grandma, Granddaddy, and Aunt Staci were unaccounted for.  Mrs. Reiersgord went to round them up but she returned with Granddaddy alone.  She said, “Charlotte won’t be eating.  Staci’s with her.”  She told Dad, “She’s back in their bedroom, so whenever you all want to move your stuff in—.”

Everyone huddled around Dad and Granddaddy and bowed their heads.  The preacher beseeched Almighty God to come in this time of grief and bless this family.  And bless Aaron, Lord, up there with you, and, and Holy One, thank him for defending our freedom, God, for greater love hath no man than to lay down his life.  This drew “amens” from the crowd.  Everyone loaded up paper plates at the sideboard and sat in the dining room.  Mrs. Reiersgord circled the room, distributing napkins to those who’d forgotten and topping off water, coffee, 7-Up, and Coke.  Finally she plopped down, fanning herself, and said, “Whew!”  Nobody talked much except for murmured requests for the salt or the butter.  Granddaddy broke apart two mini-hot dogs with his knife and fork, eating the crusts separately from the wieners, his face flinching to a mask and then softening.  He cleared his plate and headed to his and Grandma’s bedroom.  Aunt Staci returned in his place.

Jordan nibbled at a drumstick.  Using the green beans as fencing, he created a hog wallow for a farrow of red-speckled corn.  He hoped that this evidence of activity on his plate would substitute for the actual consumption of veggies, but when he said, “May I please be excused?” Mom replied, “Not until you clean up your veggies.”  Dad told her, “Leslie, forget it.  Not tonight.”  On the wall Jordan noticed a clock.  Eight thirty-six!  No, seven thirty-six.  But still.  Dad saw where he was looking and misdirected: “You can play on the iPad,” even though Jordan had already used up his gaming time.

He played Terraria in the kitchen until the clock over the cup rack showed eight-o-six.  He returned to the dining room and stalked around the table twice, then whispered in his father’s obscene earhole, “May we please go trick-or-treating?” drawing an eyeball rebuke.

A strategic withdrawal was required.  The boy retreated to Dad and Uncle Aaron’s old room, cutting a cake-slice of light in the darkness as he opened the door.  Should he enter?  He should.  He closed the door but for a crack.  Maybe he’d hide here until the grownups noticed he was gone and panicked, thinking he’d been kidnapped.  Couldn’t you have taken the child trick-or-treating?  That was all he wanted, and we had to make him feel bad about it.  As Jordan’s eyes adjusted, they took in the shadowy figures of the toy cavalry and Indians on the bookshelf.  Had Aaron worried about Mormon Islams as a kid?  A Sioux warrior’s arrow poisoned with horridness shot through his chest.

ACCEPT PAIN, INFLICT VICTORY: this was his football coach’s motto.  It was on the team T-shirt.  But “accept” sounded wrong, because pain came barreling in, accept it or not, like an illegal clip from behind that took you down.  What about fear?  Should you accept it, or was it better to resist?  And how did you uninflict fear when it flicked you?  Jordan closed the door the rest of the way and was enveloped in darkness.  Was he afraid?

No.  Yes.

The glow beneath the door starkly planed across the carpet shag.  As his eyes adjusted, he scowled in the mirrored closet door, but the effect was comical.  No tears came, just silly-putty terror.

Only the Evil Gesture could scare off the Ninjas.

The boy pulled his costume from his backpack.  He put it on over his clothes, the sleeves and pant legs bunching up uncomfortably.  Without the cackling skull mask, he was just a plain old kid, fattened by the extra layer of clothes.  Did he dare put on the mask?

He did.

Evil Lord Gesture darkly surveilled himself in the mirror.  The transformation encouraged him.  Ninjas would panic at the sight of his cackling skull face.  And poop in their pants!

Pardon our stinkiness, Lord Gesture, they’d say.  We bow to your submission.

Verily, thou shalt die anyhow, says the Gesture.  In revengence for Uncle Aaron.

NOOOOOOOOOO, we don’t wanna die!

The Evil Gesture revenges the Ninjas with his diamond Minecraft sword.  And they poof into clouds of vile black dust.

The Gesture reached his dread hands for the tin soldiers.  Which one would be the bad guy?  Custer, of course.  Jordan felt around in the dark to figure out which toy was which.  The Indian with the tomahawk toddled over and hacked at Custer’s neck.  Yah!  De-headed.  (“De-headed,” he whispered in his mask.)  Custer’s body fell over and died.  With his fingers the boy tried to break Custer’s head off, pressuring it this way and that, but the solid metal would not budge.

Something moved on the bed and Jordan nearly peed his pants.  A dark form lay there, staring at him.  Grandma.  He yanked his mask off, taking with it his hat.  Hadn’t Mrs. Reiersgord said she’d gone back to their room?

Grandma said, “What’re you supposed to be?”

Jordan told her.  (“Gesture,” he repeated in a whisper.)

“An Evil Jester?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What happened to the one you wore last year?”

This puzzled him, because they had not been here last Halloween.  Maybe Mom had sent photos of him in his Spider-Man costume.  “I outgrew it.”

“Oh, come on.  I could have altered it.”

Jordan did not know what to say.

“Nothing scares you,” Grandma said.

“What?”

“Boys,” she told him.  “That’s your downfall.  Right off the top of the semi.”

Jordan eased toward the door.  “Want me to get Granddaddy?”

When no answer came, he left, shutting the door behind him.

Back in the kitchen, the boy hid the mask behind the refrigerator.  He left the lights off.  (“Downfall,” he said.)  In his array of costume, he evilly manifested himself at the counter, within sight of Dad at the dining room table.  But Dad was looking the other way, at Aunt Staci, as she told about the time a couple years back when Aaron met up with Uncle Dave, who was passing through Kyrgyzstan on his way to Afghanistan.  At a roadside market two Kyrgyz women got in a fight, pulling hair and knocking over a watermelon cart.  Aaron tried to separate them, so they started punching him and whacking him with bunches of carrots.  Aunt Staci wiped her eyes and said Aaron laughed very hard about that and loved to tell the story afterwards.  Kind of like Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.  Turns out they’d rather be let alone to fight each other, didn’t want to be rescued by us.

Jordan’s eyes returned to the iPad, but all he did was whirl it on the smooth countertop.  Twirl, thwup, whup, whup.

The kitchen light flipped on.  Jordan did not look up.

Dad said, “How come you’re sitting here in the dark?”

Twirl, thwup, whup, whup.

“Trying to make your mean, old father feel guilty for not taking you trick-or—?”

Thwup, whup, whup.

“I’m sorry, I just find it hard to believe that you don’t care what happened to your uncle.  This horrible, horrible—.  And yet you—.”

Twirl.

“The old silent treatment.”

Thwup, whup, whup.

Dad said, “They cut his head off, Jordan.”

He looked sickened at his own words, as if he wanted to take them back.  A horrid feeling pierced Jordan, the poison arrow, and his skin prickled.

“I know,” he said.

“I shouldn’t’ve told—.  You know?  How?”

Jordan interrupted, “I never said you were mean.”

“All right.  All right.  Get your mask.”

Jordan reached behind the fridge for the cackling skull face.  It was bearded with greasy dust.  Dad brushed it off over the trash can and washed it in the sink.

“How come you stuck it back there?”

“You said Grandma and Granddaddy shouldn’t see it.”

Dad considered this.  He dried the mask with paper towels.

They slipped out the back door and cut through the neighbor’s yard to Third Street, where Granddaddy had parked so he could come and go without encountering reporters.  Granddaddy had told them that there was a “Trunk-or-Treat” at the church, where the grownups dressed in costumes and distributed candy from their cars.  (“Trunk,” Jordan breathed.)  Youth group buses came from forty miles around.  This one doctor, he always went as Frankenstein’s Monster.  That’s where they headed, the Free Will Baptist Church, Dad up front, Jordan in back.

Thus it was always so with grownups, the Evil One thought as he buckled the seatbelt around his coat-fattened tummy.

But the tables would be turned in the Trunk-or-Treat, when he manifested himself in his dark power, scaring everyone pantsless.

Dr. Frankenstein, look! Ninjas would cry.  The Evil Gesture is here!

Impossible! Frankenstein answered.  He lives in Chicago.

It’s true, Mine Hair!  Run!  He’ll poof us into dust devils of black powder.

There can be no outrunning our doom.

But when they got to the Free Will Baptist Church, the lights were out and the parking lot was empty.  No cars, no Trunk-or-Treat, no Doctor Frankenstein.  Both Chicago Rawlses, father and son, peeked in the dark windows of the Fellowship Hall, where three headless half-men hung from a wheeled coat rack.  “Nichts,” Dad said.  Granddaddy had told them the Methodists and the Mission Outreach Full Gospel Church had started copycat Trunk-or-Treats, and Dad circled by, but they, too, were abandoned.

“Jeez, it’s barely eight-thirty,” Dad said.  “I can’t believe they roll up the sidewalks so early.”

Jordan took off his mask.  The skin of his under-face was cold.  “I told you!” he said.  “We waited too long, and we missed Halloween!”  And although he tried not to, in his unworthiest act in a day of unworthiness, he started to weep, not for his uncle, or for deheadings and incivility and Ninjas, but for the candy he was missing out on.  He was embarrassed by his own greed and childishness, but he could not hold back his tears.  “I thought Halloween would be fun, but it’s not.  That doesn’t mean I don’t care about Uncle Aaron.  You think I don’t, but I do.”  (“But I do.”)

Dad did not scoff, as he did when Jordan cried in football, or lose his temper and shout, as he was known to do, but slumped a little at the wheel.  “Look, Aaron.  Jordan!  Jeez, my brain.”  He reached back and, his cold, hairy hand groped blindly to clasp Jordan’s.  Presently Dad withdrew the boom of his arm and wiped his eyes.  He found a pair of gloves in his coat pocket and inhabited them with his hands.  “Why don’t we—?” he said.  “Your Aunt Staci and me, we used to take Uncle Aaron out.  And—.”  He shook his head at some memory.

“And what?”

“And there weren’t Trunk-or-Treats back then.  We’d go house-to-house, like in Chicago.  Aaron, this one year, he—.”  Dad snuffed out a double-barreled burst of air.  “Come on, sir, we’ll find you some candy.  Come on up front.”

“But I’m not supposed to.”

“It’s Halloween.  We’ll defy the law.”

He could see better up by Dad.  Most houses were dark, and almost no trick-or-treaters were circulating.  When Dad found a promising site (decorated, porch light on), Jordan hesitated.

“Go on, Ace.”

“Will you go with me?”

“Jordan!”  Dad indicated the house with his thumb like an umpire calling an out.

The boy dried the cold, wet mask on his knee and put it back on his face.  Re-Eviled, Re-Gestured, he ran to the front door and rang the bell, ready to flee if any criminals sprang out.  He counted to five, then ran back to the pickup.

Over the next twenty minutes, Jordan accumulated only eight pieces of candy and a toothbrush from a lady who said she was a dentist.  Back in Chicago, you got half a pillowcase of candy on Halloween.  Several homeowners said they’d run out, he should’ve come earlier.

Eventually they stopped at a stucco house with lighted windows and a front-porch banner of the Holy Ghost descending as a dove.  Jordan ran up, rang the bell, and raced back to the car, ding-dong-ditch.  As he was getting in, Dad said, “Hey, you didn’t wait long enough.”  A Jabba the Hut lookalike stood backlighted in the door.  “Look, it’s Mr. Reiersgord.  Go on.”  The Gesture evilly returned to the porch and presented his flimsy Walmart bag.  Reiersgord’s bearded jowls blubbed over the collar of his orange Cowboys jersey.  Could that rubbery face be a mask, hiding a fatso monster?

“We don’t have any candy,” he said, “but I got something even sweeter.”

He offered a postcard from a stack in his hand.  On a background of candy corns were two illustrations:

Jesus, with a lamb draped around his neck (right)
A cackling Devil with a face like the Evil Gesture’s (left)

For those who couldn’t figure which was which, the images were labeled JESUS and SATAN.

A message read:

DON’T BE TRICKED
Celebrating Halloween
It’s the DEVIL’S Day!!!
Whom Shall Ye Serve?
SATAN, Prince of Darkness?
Or JESUS, Lord of Life?
God’s Love:
It’s the Sweetest Treat of All!!
—Reiersgord’s Ice Cream Parlor

Jordan turned the postcard over.  On the back was printed: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life!!!”  Along the bottom, the card advised: “Bring this card in to Reiersgord’s Ice Cream Parlor at 436 E. Grange Avenue and recite John 3:16 for a FREE single-scoop ice cream cone of any flavor (except licorice)!!!  Limit one per customer.”

Mr. Reiersgord asked, “You given your life to Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, young man?”

“Yes, sir.”

The wrinkling of Reiersgord’s brow indicated he was not altogether persuaded.  “Then you ought to know not to wear an evil costume like that.”

Jordan dropped the card in his bag.  Reiersgord’s eyes followed the motion of the boy’s hand.  “Pretty meager haul,” he said, not without sympathy.  He was an ice cream man, after all.

“We missed the Trunk-or-Treat,” the Evil Gesture said.

(“Trunk,” a boy’s lips whispered within the mask.)

“’Course you did, heading out at nine o’clock at night, practically.  Don’t tell me you’re the Rawls boy?  Jordy, is it?”

“Jordan, sir.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?  Show me your face.  Should’ve known you were a Rawls just by the stance.  Your grandma’s right: spittin’ image of your uncle at that age.  Now, you ask yourself if you’re one hundred percent sure that if you’re run over by a cement truck while you’re out trick-or-treating tonight, you’ll wake up in the arms of the Lord.”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“I’d like to believe that.  Same for your brother.  Would like that reassurance.  Your uncle, I mean.  Because I remember him.”  He shook his head.  “You know, we had a boy, Mrs. Reiersgord and me, but he went to be with the Lord.  April the twelfth, 1992.  We have that faith, we do earnestly contend.  Whereas Aaron—”

Dad honked the horn, and Mr. Reiersgord waved.  He eyed the Walmart bag.  His plump fingers rummaged in his pockets and came up with a dollar coin, a paperclip, a matchbook, and an unopened roll of TUMS.  “Tell you what, I can offer you a dollar or the TUMS.  Taste like candy, and they work pretty good if you got acid reflux, which I don’t know if you do.  I’m not offering the matches, you’ll burn the house down.  So what’ll it be?”

“The TUMS,” Jordan said.

“TUMS it is, but you ask your folks before you try them.”

“Yes, sir.”

§

That night Mom and Dad tucked Jordan into Aaron’s old bed, and they made up an air mattress on the floor for themselves.  (For now Su Ellen was sleeping in Aunt Staci’s room, near the living room, so the grownups could hear her cry from the living room.  She’d be moved later on.)  They kissed him before slipping out and closing the door most of the way.  But just as Jordan began following the children carrying shovels and a Styrofoam headstone to bury their dead guinea pig, the bedroom door cracked open, tipping him out of the drift-boat of sleep.

A black figure entered.  Grandma.  “Scoot.”  She lay down beside him, Fixodent breath in his ear.

“Ma’am, I got you something.”  Jordan reached across her and felt for the TUMS on the bedside table.  “For your stomach.  Mr. Reiersgord gave them to me.”

Grandma clutched them but did not open them.

“Is Uncle Aaron in heaven?” Jordan said.

“I don’t understand.  What do you mean?”  Grandma sat up on her elbow and pinned him to the mattress.  He was afraid to answer.  She turned on a lamp and began opening and closing the desk drawers.  “I got all your letters.”

Jordan’s skin prickled.  The gospel postcard on the desk drew Grandma’s attention.

“It’s from Mr. Reiersgord,” Jordan said.

“How come he thought you’d need this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why, he was there the day you went forward in church.  Every day you were gone, we reassured ourselves thinking of that.”

After sorting in every drawer in the desk, she gave up, wringing her hands.  “I’ll look tomorrow.  I can’t seem to find—.”  She hunched forward and rocked, face in her hands.  Finally, she turned out the light and lay back down on the bed.  “Not that there weren’t moments of backsliding.  That Halloween, Daddy laid down the law, but it was M-80s and tipping cows just the same.  And when Deputy Wurth brought you home in handcuffs!  That window cost us three-hundred fifty dollars.  Lucky thing we knew him, or your so-called celebrating would have landed you in juvenile hall.”

(“Celebrating,” the boy whispered.)

Grandma heard.

“That’s what you called it, you and that Anoatubby boy.  Deputy Wurth called it vandalism, pure and simple.”

The door opened, and orangish light flooded in as if from a spaceport, and within this bright rectangle appeared two silhouettes like Ninjas.  They took Grandma’s hands and helped her up.

“Ma, it’s his bedtime,” Dad said.  “Come on, you can talk in the morning.”

“Charlotte,” said Granddaddy, “let Jordy be.”

“Jordy?” she cried.  “What about Aaron?”

“Aaron’s gone,” Granddaddy told her.

Dad quickly assured, “He’s perfect.  No more tears, no more pain.  We just—.  Come on, Mom, Jordan needs—”

“Gone where?” Grandma said.

“Shh.  Come on this way.”

Dad and Granddaddy led her out, each holding a hand.  The door closed on Jordan.

(“Celebrating,” the boy told the dark.)

—Russell Working

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

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Apr 052017
 


Author Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker

Levine’s spare language works brilliantly to capture both the vastness of the open water and the claustrophobic chaos of underwater caverns. — Benjamin Woodard

Blue Field
Elise Levine
Biblioasis, 2017
224 pages; $14.95

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Much like her thrill seeking protagonist, author Elise Levine’s isn’t interested in convention, and in her new novel, Blue Field, she cleverly toys with structure and omission to tell the story of Marilyn, a woman who takes up cave diving as an outlet to escape the sadness she feels for her recently deceased parents. Levine’s spare language works brilliantly to capture both the vastness of the open water and the claustrophobic chaos of underwater caverns; it also provides a heightened, stylized canvas for Marilyn’s addictive nature, which encourages her to push her skills to their dangerous limits. The result is a tale of self-destruction and hubris, and it is absolutely gripping.

Written in a close third-person perspective, Blue Field unfolds in six parts that cover brief moments in Marilyn’s life. In the first, she falls for her instructor, Rand, as she learns the basics of diving. Part two centers around a dive two years later. Marilyn and Rand are now married and Marilyn’s friend, Jane, has also taken up cave diving. The dive goes sideways, and the results carry over to part three, which features yet another large time jump.

This bouncing ball pattern continues throughout the remaining sections: Marilyn loses her confidence in diving, is on site to witness a freak tragedy, and then returns to the water with determination. By trusting the reader to fill in the blanks left by time gaps, Levine not only eschews unnecessary narrative beats, but she focuses her text on the agony and ecstasy of diving. This decision reinforces the adrenaline rush that comes with the sport, where water means everything and clouds all other of life’s threads, and it drops the reader into the single-mindedness of Marilyn and her gang.

As these characters dive, Levine’s style transforms the page into a kind of textual illusion, for passages simultaneously present the underwater world as wide open and confined. When Marilyn submerges in part two, for instance, Levine begins by writing:

First one in, Marilyn hung. Alien, aquanaut—trussed and bound, packed tip to toe into a sealed drysuit. Hoses from her tanks tentacle around her and a nylon harness cradled her chest and hips and crotch and cupped her buoyancy device to her back like wings.

In this passage’s first sentence, the word “hung” implies weightlessness in the water, but also restriction. (What does one typically hang from? A noose? A tether?) From here, the next two sentences take this restriction and exploit it with descriptions of the equipment strapped to Marilyn’s body, complete with constricting language like “tentacle” and “bound.” Yet, mere sentences later, Levine segues to ruminate on the limitless feeling of standing at the bottom of a body of water:

But here, twenty feet beneath the surface in a pewter-tinted corona of visibility that extended maybe thirty feet in all directions before blurring like smoke—thirty-foot viz—just water, water everywhere. Freshwater. Middle of the north channel between two great northern lakes.

When read together in a single paragraph, the juxtaposition is effective, as it creates alternating feelings of safety and discomfort, and as Marilyn and Rand move to explore their targeted underwater ruin, the reader is primed for ratcheted tension. Levine maintains this momentum with fragmented sentences (“Here but she wanted out. This instant.”) and repetition (“Think, she thought from some pit deep in her brain. Think hard or die. Had any thought ever been clearer? Think and live.”). Sentences begin to collide, and a textual panic takes over.

In fact, even outside the water, flashes of panic present themselves, and throughout the novel, nearly every aspect of life takes on a yin/yang duality. The relationship between Marilyn and Rand wavers from loving to toxic: Rand screams at Marilyn in frustration; Marilyn accuses him of striking her; they frequently make violent love and threaten to break apart. Likewise, most of the peripheral characters in Blue Field, like Rand’s diving buddy, Bruce Bowman, are portrayed as difficult live wires who will also give you the shirt off their backs, and the extreme diving community itself is painted as one with questionable loyalty. At one point, Marilyn looks at an online diving forum’s fatality list, and is greeted with headlines like “FAREWELL, TRAVELLER, DIVE ON IN THE BEAUTIFUL AFTERWORLD” and “BYE DUMB BITCH, PUTTING YOUR LIFE IN HELL ON PURPOSE EARNED YOU A BODY BAG.” These contrasts add dimension to Marilyn and Rand, and they help the novel achieve an interesting balance, and, perhaps thesis: life is good and bad, freeing and suffocating, loving and perilous.

Fans of James Salter may see Blue Field as a quasi-homage to the late author’s own Solo Faces, for both employ spare language to chronicle extreme adventurers (Salter’s novel tackles mountain climbing), and both include a character named Rand as the seasoned veteran, taking new thrill seekers to nature’s limits. To continue with the idea of balance, one could see Salter’s creations as high above life and Levine’s as deep below. Whether this comparison is Levine’s intent or not doesn’t ultimately matter, however, for Blue Field is a remarkable novel on its own. Its story reflects the modern escapist fantasy so many desire, yet never achieve. As Marilyn becomes obsessed with her passion in an effort to figure out life, we recognize her craving and experience her thrills vicariously.

— Benjamin Woodard

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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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Apr 052017
 

N5


1. THE FIRST TO RISE

I

miss my friend Robin. Robin Kilson. She was a black panther who was raped by the Black Panthers. And I met her when I was fairly young and she taught me a lot about betrayal, and betweenness, and belonging. And she died ten years ago and they say not to look into the face of what is sacred and to close your eyes or to avert your eyes or maybe just cover your eyes because then your eyes are still open and what you’re seeing is something beyond sight.

I think Robin talked so much about deprivation of belonging, and all of the places that she fought to belong in and arrived at only to realize she didn’t belong and she didn’t want to belong and I wonder if she feels that way now that she’s dead.

Does she feel a sense of belonging with the dead?

She’s not my relative. There’s no blood between us but she has felt like an ancestor ever since she passed away. More of an ancestor than my own ancestors, and there’s no reason for me to belong to her but I feel that I belong to her. And somewhere there’s a long thread that hasn’t been broken between the two of us.

Most of what we talked about were broken threads. Most of the time we spent together was holding threads to see if they would reach. She was a sixty year old quadriplegic African American Black Panther and I was a 19 year old lost child in the west and we would take these strings and somehow they tied together and the knots still hold but I know for her there were strings she tried to tie to people she thought were like her, other black panthers, other women, other afro-caribbeans, other people from Boston, other professors, other people in wheelchairs, other people with shaved heads.

I don’t think the strings that we always expect to connect are the ones that hold.

But the one that we tied, has held.

2. THE SECOND TO RISE

I must have been around nine probably when my blood grandmother said she had a very exciting day planned. And we packed a picnic together.

There were crickets in the summer. It was absurdly green in the South in June with noises of bugs and leaves and flowers bursting out and we were making fried chicken and ham sandwiches and Dr Pepper bottles and I knew we were going for a picnic that’s all I knew that we were going for a picnic and we got in her car and we drove and we got out and it was a beautiful place but it was a cemetery and a graveyard and I asked her why we were there and she seemed so happy. And so full of joy about the surprise that was awaiting me. And this adventure that we were on. And she said I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you, and we ran through the graves in her housedress and me in my brother’s clothes like a little boy and we reached a tulip poplar tree full of huge pink flowers falling all around and she pointed glowing at the ground and she pointed and pointed and pointed and she said, look look look, here’s your grave.

And I realized somewhere that day that she had bought my funeral plot. She had gone to the cemetery and bought me my grave. And that she hadn’t done this for anyone else. It was just for her and my grandfather. And she said, So that you’ll always be here. You’ll always have a place to belong.

And we ate our fried chicken and our Dr Pepper and its bottles on this beautiful green sloping blossom-filled path, where I had been given a place to decompose.

And I realized that was not where I belonged.

I think she wanted me to lay with my ancestors but the ancestors that I had were not her.

The thread that I tried to tie to her was not a thread that tied and held.

3. THE THIRD TO RISE

We have pipelines threading underground. The Black Snake pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, the black snake of prophecy that is connecting the north to the south of this continent and is burrowing through the sacred and its eyes are open but it’s not seeing. The people who are destroying the earth and tunneling through the graves of the ancestors are not seeing. Their eyes are open and they are not seeing and I want to say, go to your grave, and lie there, and open your eyes in the darkness. Who will reach out to you? When you descend that far, whose string will follow you down?

There’s a sense that the pipeline doesn’t belong. It doesn’t belong in sacred space. It doesn’t belong. Oil doesn’t mix with water. Oil doesn’t belong in our water. Gas doesn’t belong in our water. It has its own grave. Which perhaps are dinosaurs. Perhaps bringing the fossil fuels from the earth is the most ancient grave robbery we’ve ever known.

All I know is that at night when it’s dark and my eyes are open I want to reach down farther than a drill, farther than any equipment could go, to the birthplaces and death places and sacred places that are under what we take for granted.

I was raised not believing in dinosaurs. My mother said that dinosaur bones were placed in the earth by god during the seven days of creation so that when they were found in the 19th century, in the 20th century, in the 21st century, they would test the faith of the nonbelievers. And it wasn’t until I was 20 that I learned that dinosaurs were real. The black snake of oil, of gas, of fossil fuel. A fossil is a body. Is a dead body of something that was once living. That people have chosen to exploit. My grandmother decided where I would be buried while I was still alive—even at nine that felt like a form of exploitation.

How—how do we see the dead?

4. THE FOURTH TO RISE

I was in Vienna working on a project that involved the archives of the anthropology department at the museum and there was a young anthropologist who had found some disturbing files. She was a woman, and the department was male dominated and they didn’t like her around. Interrupted their reality, I suppose. And they put her down in the vaults, which are underneath all of the beautiful Hapsburg plazas of Vienna. And she said, I’m afraid what I found is going to get me fired. And I’m afraid my supervisor will destroy them. And they have to be seen by someone who can see them. And I didn’t know what these were. She told me to bring my camera and told me I needed to see.

And I saw hair and fingernails and she explained they were from Jews collected for anthropological purposes a few days before they were murdered in the gas chambers. And each of the envelopes had a number. And each of the numbers corresponded to a name. And each of the hairs were different. Some were light, some were dark, some were straight, some were curly—there were fingernails of infants, there were fingernails of old men, everything numbered and I thought this is what I’m here to see, the remains of the dead something sacred, and she said, no there’s more. We must have to go down deeper. So we took the elevator and we went down for a long time. It was the longest elevator ride I’ve ever taken. And at the end of it were tunnels and more tunnels and at the sides of the tunnels were climate controlled—almost prison cells—but they called them archives and she opened the door with a key and there were banana boxes everywhere. As far as you could see down the metal industrial shelving cold—so cold—so far underground—banana boxes. Banana boxes from the 1930s, the 1920s, the 1950s, and then older boxes that were also fruit boxes that said—in languages from all over the world—bananas, oranges, and she looked at me and I knew I was supposed to see, I was seeing boxes of fruit but maybe if I closed my eyes I would see what she wanted me to and I did and it felt terrible down there. It felt terrible down there.

And she led me over to a box, and it was full of carefully marked femurs. And she said, this was a tribe in Niger. And we walked a little ways further and there was another row of shelves and there were orange boxes and there were newspapers and she just said, we’ll just unwrap the first newspaper. And there were finger bones and wrist bones—an assortment of tiny fragments and she said this was an aboriginal tribe in Australia and this, this continued through every continent. Another collection of fruit boxes filled with such strange fruit, and I asked her as I tried to breathe why the fruit boxes and she looked and me and she said, they so closely correspond to the size of human bones.

And I realized the orange is the hand. The fist. The black fist of Australia. Is the size of an orange on a ship brought back to a museum in Austria. And a banana is the length of the femur of a pygmy tribe in Africa, brought back by camel, by train, carried down stairs after stairs after stairs down into a cold basement in Vienna where they were fossils. And they were fossil fuels. They were fuel for hatred. They were a fuel for power. They were a fuel for control. A fuel for sadism over other people.

We don’t get to choose very often where the fossils of us remain. I don’t know how I feel about an afterlife. If Robin… The Robin I remember from the Black Panther photographs. The Robin I remember as she lay in bed dying still loudmouthed, still brave, still damaged, still full of threads.

Is she an ancestor fossil? I draw strength from her but I don’t desecrate, and I want the oil workers and the gas workers and the everyday people with their pipeline and their black snake to go down deeper. They don’t respect the fossils.

How far down do they need to go to learn respect?

And will it take their lives, as well as ours?

5. THE FIFTH TO RISE

In the middle of the United States there’s a town called Saint Louis. There’s the Saint Louis Arch, which would go by the name of a landmark. A landmark. A mark on the land that we all can agree upon perhaps when it’s erected, when it’s an arch that’s erected in a town like Saint Louis with the Mississippi River running below this arch that connects nothing with nothing to nothing. White is not connected to black. The segregation of Saint Louis is not affected by this landmark, arch, bridge from nowhere to nowhere.

It was 1992, I feel like it was before we recognized bombs as something that could land on us, here, there were stink bombs and smoke bombs for Fourth of July. Winter. New Years Eve. A holiday where a smoke bomb could be lit off against a white bank of snow or a dusky twilight early in the evening for children to be out. A flash of magenta or a flash of turquoise the gorgeous colors of smoke bombs from roadside fireworks stands. But in 1992, I only knew magenta and turquoise and saffron and cyan as the vivid colors coming from bombs that did not explode but only smoldered.

And so I was in Saint Louis with a young man my age who was very angry. And he was not interested in smoke but he was interested in bombs. And this young man had gotten me into his car and we had driven and driven and driven—I had no idea where he was taking me and then in front of us is this archway. And an archway is a gateway is a point in a journey where you’re crossing a threshold. But the threshold was so unclear. It didn’t cross the Mississippi, it didn’t cross, nothing was connecting, it wasn’t a bridge it didn’t make sense, and then we were in the elevator. The elevator at the Saint Louis Arch is a box that ascends a staircase it rocks the shape of the architecture the bend of the steel. The chamber is so small—it’s crypt-like—your knees are touching knees and you’re rocking as the car, a cube, is making a journey up an angle that is circular and there’s the roundness that doesn’t fit with the squareness and yet by god you’re going to the top.

By god, I went to the top. And this is where the bombs were not going to be smoke bombs but incendiary bombs, explosive bombs, bombs that would bring the arch down. The arch from nowhere to nowhere would explode in the name of this boy’s anger.

At the top of the arch it’s surprisingly narrow and you lie on your stomach at a strange angle that’s not standing up or not lying down, it’s suspended but you’re supported, it’s the angle of flight but gravity is still pushing you down onto this carpeted surface and there are windows and you look out on black Saint Louis and white Saint Louis and the Mississippi River and he says to me I’m going to blow it all up. And in that moment in that position in the arch from nowhere to nowhere, the gateway was the belief that I and everyone around me was going to die. It’s not a question. Might we die. Could we die. We’re in the process of dying. It’s—we are about to die. And since that threshold, that was crossed with no visible explosion, I have never since been human again. Not in a sense of being mortal and not in a sense of being immortal, but at that angle, suspended, between lying down and standing up, lying down and standing up. Lying down and standing up. In the space in between the two where you’re at an angle, traveling towards a destination that is no longer human.

6. THE SIXTH TO RISE

To escape this man, I got a bus going anywhere. I was in Nambé Pueblo, I was in Española, I was at a Greyhound station, it was blindingly bright and it was as far as my money would take me. Somebody—I don’t remember who—a woman, came up to me and she said you look like you need help. I’m not sure she used the word help. Then her husband was standing beside her. And I remember nothing about the word help. I just knew that I was to go with them. And when I arrived in their adobe there were ravens on the windows, one by one, each window I would look at and they, they said again this thing to me that was not help, it was not, you need our help, it was a word that I cannot remember. And they kept saying, you need, you need, and I was not lying down, I was not standing up. I was not human, I was not alive, I was not dead I was not mortal, I was not immortal, and they gave me peyote and I became a scorpion.

For five days I was a scorpion. I was not a scorpion but I was a scorpion. I was not a human who thought she was a scorpion. I was not a scorpion who thought she was a human. I was neither a scorpion nor a human. I was a human and I was a scorpion.

They told me my tail had the capacity to kill. I had never thought of myself as having the capacity to kill. I looked at myself and I was black and shiny and deadly. I had never been deadly before. For five days I was deadly. I walked. I walked outside. I walked the pueblo. I was not dead. I was not alive.

I was not human, I was not scorpion—I was deadly.

I asked them what I was supposed to do with this capacity to kill. What was I supposed to do with this capacity to cause pain? Was it justified as self-defense? Could I light this bomb of poison in the name of something like justice? Like revenge? Could it be a firework display of power to say, I can choose to make the living dead.

For five days I walked. I didn’t kill anyone.

7. THE SEVENTH TO RISE

Years later, I was working in northern Mexico, on the Tohono O’Odham. We were finding parts of women. They hardly seemed dead. They would have a leg with a shoe, and I would expect it to walk. The desert was full of bodies of women who were fossil fuels but they were desiccated and buried after they were exploited. There was no river of their blood coursing through a land of genocide, it was drying in their veins under the soil—sometimes I knew their names and sometimes… Sometimes there was no name.

I was walking in a forest in northern Europe, and there was a pile of ashes as high as I am tall. As wide as I am long. Grey. A kind of grey the sky will never turn. The kind of grey a rock will never be. Only a human incinerated will turn that color grey. It’s not forgettable.

How much have we forgotten in our landmarks? How many of us know the land on which we walk? The black snake pipeline. What does it really travel through?

Interstate 10. What does it truly travel past?

The Autobahn. Over whose ashes is it built?

8. THE EIGHTH TO RISE

I sleep at night but it’s not sleep, it’s something else. It’s not a human sleep because I don’t wake from it. All I know is there’s darkness, and I know I’m dead, and I’m lying down, I’m aware, I’m lying down and there’s darkness, and I’m dead and this lasts and it lasts and it lasts until the shapes of my room come back—the squares the circles, the angles, I sit up, I stand up, I’m upright. Upright is alive. I go outside into the desert so that I can feel the land and I feel like stomping. I feel like pounding. I feel like I should be on all appendages—scorpion legs. Human legs. Arms. Everything pounding, to let out what’s in the earth

Those who are sleeping are not quiet. Our ancestors who sleep—are they dead?

My grandfather sleeps in a green Naugahyde chair after dinner and we’re happy that he’s peaceful, we’re happy that he’s not angry, we’re happy that he’s fallen asleep after an insubstantial meal, and we go about our evening so delighted that he’s resting until we realize his chest isn’t moving, there’s nothing rising and falling, there’s no up, there’s no down—there’s just him at this angle, at this slanted angle suspended in a green Naugahyde easy chair and his heart has stopped and he’s here, but he’s not here.

9. THE NINTH TO RISE

For animals when they are fearing death, they have three choices. They can fight, they can take flight, or they can freeze. Those are the only three options. Those are the only three options for survival. Fight or flight or flee. And we who are not human who have not earned the title of human, those of us who are dead or have become something else—we have these choices, fight flight freeze, fight fight fight flight freeze, up down over, standing, lying, leaning.

And in the morning when the sun has come up, and I think it might be possible that I’m alive, and I stomp my feet on the desert floor—I want them to rise. I want all of them to rise. I want the trafficked women to rise. I want the genocided tribes to rise. I want the lynched to rise. I want the incinerated to rise.

Do I want them to fight? Do I want us to fight?

And I’m a scorpion again and I know I’m dead and I’m deadly and they’re dead and they’re deadly. And the living are dead and the dead are living and we’re in pain.

And I think, can this tail be used for justice? Is it possible? Can we protect and not protest? Can we have our tail and not be forced to use it? And some mornings as it turns to autumn and the fog rises from the Bosque and for a minute I think, yes, we’re rising—I can’t tell who fought back and who did not. Who froze and who fled. Who fought and who fled. Who fled then fought then froze. Who froze then fled then fought. There’s too many. There are too many. They go on. And on. And the deeper the soil and the deeper the rock the deeper they’ve climbed out and we stand and we look at each other and we say, we want justice, what do we do now?

—Quintan Ana Wikswo

N5

Quintan Ana Wikswo is the author of The Hope Of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (Coffee House Press), a collection of photographs and stories, and a forthcoming novel with photographs, A Long Curving Scar Where The Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press, 2017). Other work appears in magazines such as Tin House, Guernica, Conjunctions, the Kenyon Review, and Gulf Coast, and in anthologies, artist books, and exhibition catalogues. Her projects have received multiple solo museum shows in New York City and Germany, including the Berlin Jewish Museum, F.A.C.T. (UK) and are presented in galleries such as Ronald Feldman Gallery (NYC) as well as in museum and public collections throughout the United States and Europe including the Brooklyn Museum, the Jewish Museum Munich, and People for the American Way.

This Polaroid series created during a ritual walk for Thanksgiving Day, along the Jornado del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man) desert of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro: the genocidal road of the Spanish conquistadors, the site of the explosion of Trinity (the plutonium infusion fission nuclear bomb), and the American Indian Wars against the Apache and other Native Nations. The bones depicted in these photographs are of the skulls of cows left chained to fence posts. Thanks to the Creative Capital fellowship and the Theo Westenberger Estate. These images are part of a multidisciplinary collaboration in progress with Matt Contos and Andrea Clearfield.

N5

Apr 042017
 

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The first thing one might remark about Harry Mathews is that it is virtually impossible to describe his writing in a really satisfactory manner. For his writing is utterly particular, emphatically its own thing rather than any other thing. It is moreover elusive, interrogative, sleek, and agile. The best way to account for it, I suppose, would be to reproduce it in its entirety, from first word to last. That would be a most interesting and illuminating exercise, without a doubt; but it is clearly impractical (and undoubtedly illegal) here.

One can say that he was an experimentalist, someone who was committed to exploring the boundaries of his art, continually putting those boundaries to the question in order to demonstrate that the vital horizon of literature is far broader than one might have imagined it to be. In that sense, Mathews takes his place in a tradition of twentieth-century American prose experimentalists, among people such as Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, William Burroughs, William Gaddis, David Markson, William Gass, Gilbert Sorrentino, John Barth, Walter Abish, Robert Coover, Ronald Sukenick, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Rikki Ducornet. Like many (if not all) of those figures, Mathews was an internationalist, someone who felt as at home in Paris or Venice or Dorset or Lans-en-Vercors as he did in New York, his birthplace. The fact that he died in Key West makes a great deal of sense, because Key West, as everyone knows, is located at the very edge of the world.

Quintessentially American but at the same time deeply internationalist: where many people might see contradiction, Harry Mathews found complementarity. It is safe to say that he learned as much about his craft from Proust, Joyce, and Kafka as he did from Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. And it also should be noted that those two traditions, the European and the American, broadly conceived, cohere and enrich each other in Mathews’s work, in the kind of “infinite conversation” that Maurice Blanchot points toward as the highest function of literature.

Harry Mathews was a writer’s writer—and if that term seems a little bit belated in our vexed and dithering present, it is no less apposite. He was surely influenced by two French writer’s writers, in the first instance at some remove, in the second far more closely. I’m thinking of two “Raymonds,” Raymond Roussel and Raymond Queneau. Today, Roussel is virtually unknown to most general readers, as obscure now as he was during his own lifetime (1877-1933). He is nevertheless a giant of the French avant-garde, the living link between Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Jarry on the one hand, and Dada and Surrealism on the other. His writing is elaborate, intricate, often arduous, always invigorating. Roussel is perhaps best known for his novel Locus Solus (1914), and it is not by chance that Harry Mathews borrowed that title for a literary magazine that he founded, along with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, in the early 1960s. Roussel was a patrician figure who lived off a private income. He was famously eccentric. Both an accomplished pianist and a champion marksman, he designed what must be understood as the ancestor of the recreational vehicle; he imagined a reading machine that would make his own books more understandable; he filed a patent on the use of emptiness. Though not as obviously extravagant as Roussel, Harry Mathews was also a patrician figure, especially among constitutionally impoverished writers. Always well turned out, he was also something of a dandy, and a boulevardier—and once again, one might note just how belated those two terms may seem, right now.

Mathews never met Roussel, of course (he died just three years after Mathews’s birth); but he did come to know Raymond Queneau. Indeed, in 1973, at the invitation of his friend Georges Perec, Mathews joined the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or “Oulipo,” a group that Queneau had cofounded with François Le Lionnais in 1960. From then until Queneau’s own death in 1976, he would see the writer at the group’s monthly meetings, in the company of other young people like Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, Marcel Bénabou, and Paul Fournel. His association with Queneau and the Oulipo served to confirm a taste for formal rigor that is already apparent in the novels that Mathews wrote prior to joining the group, such as The Conversions (1962), Tlooth (1966), and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971-72). Crucially, the Oulipo provided Mathews with a theoretical logic for formalist experimentation, one that was firmly based in both tradition and innovation. For if the Oulipo, under the guidance of its elders, was committed to the elaboration of new literary forms, in an aspect of its work the members called “synthesis,” it was no less committed to another aspect called “analysis,” which involved research into the history of formalist expression, and the identification of precursor figures whom the Oulipians wryly identified as “plagiarists by anticipation.”

Another element in the Oulipo’s aesthetic that would be crucial for Mathews was the rejection of inspiration in favor of hard work. The notion of inspiration was firmly entrenched in Romanticism, but is was massively appropriated by the French avant-garde, most notably in Surrealist thought, as the latter is articulated in André Breton’s manifestos. Raymond Queneau has been a member of the Surrealist group as a young man, but he broke with them in 1930; and indeed in that same year he was one of the signatories of  “A Corpse,” a pamphlet denouncing Breton’s dictatorial leadership style. The lessons Queneau learned would come to shape the nascent Oulipo in key ways, mostly by counterexample. Thus, where Breton was the undisputed pope of Surrealism, the Oulipo’s leadership model was far more diffused and broadly shared. Thus, while Breton took perverse delight in excommunicating dissident members, the Oulipo explicitly outlawed exclusion, insisting that members always remain members—even after their death. Thus too did the Oulipo take the idea of inspiration out of the creative equation, viewing it as capricious and unforeseeable, a notion that handicaps rather than helps an artist. They replaced it with “perspiration,” with the principles of artisanship and craft. One can see those principles at work in a lot of Harry Mathews’s work, but perhaps most obviously in 20 Lines a Day (1988). His title is borrowed from Stendhal, who famously said, concerning the difficult work of a professional writer: “Twenty lines a day, genius or not.” Mathews took him at his word, and applied that maxim to his writerly practice during what he described as a difficult time in his life, a moment when he had to attend to a great many family preoccupations, while at the same time trying to finish his novel Cigarettes (1987) and struggling to come to terms with the premature death of a man whom he described as his closest friend, Georges Perec.

That friendship, between a French war orphan and an American who had enjoyed both fortune and privilege, was in many ways a curious one. But clearly it was a powerful, rewarding relationship for both Mathews and Perec. They translated each other (Perec translated both Tlooth and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium into French); armed with cigarettes and drink, they spent whole days listening to Wagner’s Ring cycle; and beyond a doubt, each made the other a better writer. By his own account, Perec’s death from lung cancer at age 45 hit Mathews very hard indeed. Working through his mourning over a period of several years, Mathews remembered his friend in a text entitled Le Verger (1986, translated two years later as The Orchard), as moving an elegy from one writer to another as one is likely to find. In that text, Mathews borrowed a technique that Perec himself had borrowed from an American writer named Joe Brainard, which consists of prefacing each utterance with the phrase “I remember.” The vignettes that Mathews are brief, laconic sketches—but they are no less pungent because of their formal concision. One of them, near the end of this short book, serves to put on display the impulse that animated the project as a whole: “I remember experiencing great happiness on the day in June, 1975, when I realized I loved George Perec without reservation.”

That moment is a startling one in which Mathews focuses closely and largely without embellishment on raw truth. It is all the more astonishing in view of the fact that such moments are relatively rare in his work. That is not to say that Mathews was uninterested in “truth”; but it is legitimate to point out that he was skeptical of it—or at least of the easy ways in which we commonly understand it. In the penultimate chapter of Tlooth, for instance, he causes a saturnine doctor to declare: “My dear, in medicine the truth is a goal one cannot attain.” Rather than truth itself, Mathews was interested in the construction of truth, the transformation of truth, the translation of truth—and perhaps indeed more interested in those very principles themselves than in the way they inflect “truth” or the “real” or “life” or “experience.” For those latter things belong to the domain of things that are, whereas construction, transformation, and translation are all matters of becoming, and Harry Mathews was far more interested in becoming than in simple being.

One of his Oulipian texts illustrates that point nicely. Entitled “Mathews’s Algorithm,” it outlines a process whereby given elements of a literary text (alphabetical letters, or words, or phrases, or even paragraphs) are arranged in a table, whose order is then subjected to predetermined permutations, furnishing new kinds of textualities. The claims that he stakes for his literary machine are strikingly bold ones: “The algorithm can make use of existing material as well as of material specially invented for it [. . .]. It can be used both to decompose (or analyze) texts and to compose (or invent) them. [. . .] It is capable of dealing with fragments of letters, either graphic or phonetic. as well as their component parts, not to mention amoebas, molecules, and quarks. It can juggle not only episodes of fiction [. . .] but entire books, indeed entire literatures and civilizations, planets, solar systems, galaxies—indeed anything that can be manipulated either in its material or its symbolic form.” It is important to recognize, however, that Mathews’s purpose is centered upon the theoretical rather than the practical dimension of his machine. That is, his principal concern is not the texts that can be derived from it, but the model itself, its combinatorial potential, its power to transform, and thus its consequences for the way we understand literature and its crucial process of becoming.

In a similar perspective, one should note Mathews’s skepticism of the sign, and most especially the literary sign. “But whut do you dou with the significant?” muses a character in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. “A road sign say, Miami 82 mile. What re-ality do this indicate? Miami? The distans be-tween the sing and the sity? The location of the sign? The semi-ottic (?) re-ality, the mmediate realita, posit a structsure . . .” Mathews was certainly not alone in questioning the sign during the early 1970s, but I feel that his skepticism is more radical than that of many of his contemporaries. It was certainly more sustained, and the fact is that he found ways to turn that skepticism to immediate artistic purpose in his writing. Throughout his career, he put the very idea of meaning on stage, causing it to perform in different ways, following a variety of scripts, in order better to understand both what is essentially reliable in that notion and what is demonstrably hollow.

In regard to translation, Harry Mathews might be described as a fundamentalist, a true believer and a crusader. In “The Dialect of the Tribe,” a text included in Country Cooking and Other Stories (1980), he has this to say: “The longer I live—the longer I write—the stronger becomes my conviction that translation is the paradigm of all writing. To put it another way: it is translation that demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving speech, that supremely human gift.” Once again, quite patently, it is a matter of becoming: the very idea of translation suggests that things may be articulated in different ways, that signification is dynamic rather than static, that what we are is less important than what we do. The lesson is a welcome one, not least by virtue of what it suggests about our status as readers, and about the way we ought to come to literature, as active participants in the construction of meaning, rather than as passive consumers.

For my own part, I feel that such insistence on mobility lies at the very center of Harry Mathews’s particularity. He is a mercurial figure, an artist constantly on the move, and thus largely unseizable in any definitive way. Rereading him is a pleasure—and, at times, a revelation. It obliges one to think of him kinetically, putting literature to the question again and again, always taking literature seriously but at the same time pointing out its ludic vocation. It is bracing to see the way he mocks the conventional boundaries between fact and fiction in a text like My Life in CIA (2005). It is amusing to watch him speculate about literature and its uses in Singular Pleasures (1999). It is bedazzling to see him juggle the small and the large, the subject and the object, the momentous and the trivial in The Journalist (1994). It is agreeable to imagine him traversing literary space in the broad, easy stride of a fictional character like Larbaud’s Barnabooth or Perec’s Bartlebooth, an individual who stoutly refuses to be confined to the world in which he was conceived.

—Warren Motte

 

Warren Motte 2016

Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

 

 

 

Apr 032017
 

Black blood. Stringy flesh. Clutching. Entangling. Stumbling. Close-third person. Present tense. A hot center. Van Reet’s opening scene establishes the motif of within and without—a hall of dissimilar but equally destructive mirrors, of characters who seek escape and end up tangled in razorwire. —Michael Carson

Spoils
Brian Van Reet
Lee Boudreaux Books, 2017
304 pages, $26.00

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In his 1955 preface to Isaac Babel’s Collected Stories, Lionel Trilling confesses to being disturbed by the “terrible intensities, ironies, and ambiguities” of Babel’s Red Cavalry. “They were about violence of the most extreme kind,” says Trilling, “yet they were composed with a striking elegance and precision of objectivity, and also with a kind of lyric joy, so that one could not at once know how the author was responding to the brutality he recorded, whether he thought it good or bad, justified or unjustified.”

Brian Van Reet’s first novel, Spoils, also disturbs. A veteran of the Iraq War and Michener graduate, Van Reet has published award-winning short stories about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and U.S. soldiers returning home from Iraq. There is a tenacity in his prose unique to soldier writers, a furious exactness, and yet a delicacy also, an earned incandescence. Reading him, one understands that this is not a young man recording his war experiences, a “moral witness”—this is an artist, an artist compelled to write war.

Spoils opens several weeks after the 2003 Iraq invasion. Cassandra Wigheard, a female Military Police specialist, pulls security in a Humvee at a roundabout outside Baghdad. Two males, one crass and bigoted, the other paternal and sentimental, keep her company. It’s unclear why they have to sit there exposed. It’s also unclear why they are in Iraq at all. The Why is muddled. All that matters is the now. The fact of war. “This one is bored tonight,” says the narrator. “She would move closer to the war’s hot center.”

Mortars answer her prayers: “Down below, the driver’s door opens, and Crump stumbles into the street, clutching his face, yelling: black blood falls from his hands, stringy flesh draped on his cheek. The other door opens, and McGinnis looks up at her helplessly before ducking around to the back side, out of her line of fire, going for Crump, who has stumbled farther away and tripped over a roll of concertina, thus entangling himself in razor wire. Everything going to shit too fast to believe.”

Black blood. Stringy flesh. Clutching. Entangling. Stumbling. Close-third person. Present tense. A hot center. Van Reet’s opening scene establishes the motif of within and without—a hall of dissimilar but equally destructive mirrors, of characters who seek escape and end up tangled in razorwire. The section concludes as another soldier drags Cassandra into a canal “over which streams of glowing red and green tracers hurtle gracefully like a hail of burning arrows launched from the wall of a medieval fortress.” She sinks down “into the dark tangle of fluid reeking of pungent, musty life.” She is no longer bored.

The next narrator, one of those responsible for the mortar attack, also seeks an end to boredom, an escape from the aimless ennui of civilized hypocrisy. Al-Hool abandons an upper-middle-class life in Cairo for that of a mujahedeen in Afghanistan, then Chechnya, and then, eventually, Iraq, because this is what the logic of exit demands, the rotating absolution of movement toward ever-greater violence. Al-Hool has many justifications for his jihad adventurism, none of them especially religious—he, like all the protagonists, have little patience for or with God—the most succinct of which is this: “Exit. War.”

That warm hot center. Later, trapped in an apartment in Fallujah, Al-Hool can’t bear to think he has been repeating the same mistakes over and over again, “that the years have taught me nothing or, worse, that I have learned something vital but am unable to apply it.” His fellow mujahedeen video the beheadings of U.S soldiers. They saw off heads. Their broadcasts send the war spinning out of control (if war is in fact a thing controlled) and give the adventurers the lack of control they thought they craved. “Praise God that what is gone, is dead,” Al Hood prays, remembering his dead son, swallowed by jihad.

The final narrator, a U.S. Army tanker, alone relates events in the past tense. A “watcher” with a fainting problem, Sleed leaves his parents’ basement and pill snorting to find “a higher purpose” in the Army. He talks much about thing getting “real.” His tankmates take pictures of massacred Iraqis. They steal from Saddam’s Palace. They accidently kill civilians. They blow up buildings. Things become “real.” He has found that place where “everything matters so much, it is pointless to worry about anything.” “Believe me,” Sleed says after escaping an IED blast, “I’ve tried them all, and there’s not much that will get you higher.”

His tank crew speeds back and forth across the hot center, touching it and running away, like a child’s game, a dare. Sleed picks up the shattered skulls of Americans who didn’t make it to the other side: “A deep pain beat at the center of me, and I thought I was going to faint again, but all I did was retch up water.” They bumble forward in their ten-million dollar machine blowing up mujahedeen and civilians and everything in between. “The whole world watching,” says Sleed, “and no one but us knew the truth.”

Mistakes are made. A quest plot is twinned with an escape plot (and what is the difference, really?). Later, in another cell, a captured U.S. soldier: “Come and do it!” he shrieked, the kind of unmodulated shrillness that can only from a human being pushed to a place where the lines between fight and flight approach a vanishing point. “Just get it the fuck over with!”

This is not a story about patriots. No one defends home and hearth in this book. Not Al-Hool, not Sleed, not Cassandra. This is not a story about disillusionment. This is a story about people who seek out the lines between fight and flight, those in love with this vanishing point, who perhaps want to vanish into the point. This is a story about people escaping home. This is a story about adventurers—those already disillusioned, and who seek out war to bury what is left of illusion.

How do you write a war story about those who are not patriots in the traditional sense? You triangulate their desires: you make a trinity that sabotages the either/or of war, what Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory called “adversarial proceedings” or “the gross dichotomizing” that “great imaginative habit of modern times.” You create a form to fit the subject, a trinity that does not allow any neat parallels, but a chaotic orbit of clusters, forever trading places around that warm sun of war.

Choric voices converge in Triangle (!) Town, a suburb of Baghdad, a derelict backwater populated by crippled Iraqi children and their destitute elders; it is a new warm space, another of those spots that draw the adventurous like moths—a geography, like Afghanistan, “at the edge of the known world and at the same time, its obscure, violent nexus.” There, freshly trapped in Humvees, tanks, factories, basements, and ditches, our heroes find an escape. They escape into darker cells, new prisons.

One of their number, Cassandra, knows this already. Her story, related entirely in the present tense, risks becoming nothing but the present, becoming nothing at all: “No matter how much she wants to, she can’t close her eyes, and even if she did, no sleep would come. Her heart feels like it’s working too hard, straining itself like a leaky pump with more air than blood rushing through fleshy valves. Time stretches thinner and thinner, shedding its one elemental quality, forward progression, like a strand of gold spun so fine, it loses atomic color and becomes clear.”

This clarity, this moment, this invasion, the videotapes, the American money, spawns “forward progression,” more invasions, more death, more money, a rippling effect not unlike a tide pool with waves going to and away from and parallel to shore. Triangle Town will be destroyed. Iraq too. We (of the future) know the ending. But that doesn’t stop the story does it? No one listens to Cassandra. Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon; Orestes, Clytemnestra. Athena saves no one. Time stretches thinner and thinner. We move ever onward to that warm center. Clarity.

Sleed, the voyeur, the fainter, the trophy-hunter, claims “the whole world watches but no one but us knows the truth.” But the truth deceives, takes away when it gives. “The night before,” says Sleed. “I’d been destroyed by regret, but now it turned inside out, to anger, like when you do something wrong and get called on it.” Regret becomes anger and anger violence and violence regret and regret anger and anger violence. Sleed has his own prayer: “There’s a certain way of doing it where the good guys become bad guys and the bad good, and there’s another way I wish I do where there are no categories.” He still wants an exit. But he is already at war.

Near the novel’s end Al-Hool looks on the Iraqi landscape. The beauty surprises him: “It was the palm groves, I think, the neat rows of them, the way they appeared from the moving car, each tree shifting in parallax with those in front and behind, creating an illusion of infinite depth, as if you could walk forever through the groves.” From the right angle, the prison bars offer hope, from another, a hall of mirrors. The sins of Al-Hool and the Americans—the decapitated heads and destroyed neighborhoods—are resurrected on televisions and computers across the globe. “Praise God that what is gone, is dead,” Al Hool prays.

“This is the end of boredom,” says Baulin, a war-wasted frostbitten twenty-two year old platoon commander, to the feckless narrator of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry—that voyeur, that “milk-drinker.” There is nothing Babel’s narrator covets more. But neither is there anywhere to go from there. That’s the point. The myth of Cassandra is not a happy one; it is, however, an artful one.

In his discussion of Red Cavalry, Trilling describes writers predisposed “to create a form which in itself be shapely and autonomous and at the same time unusually responsible to the truth of things and events.” This writer “concerns himself with the given moment, and, seeming almost hostile to the continuity of time, he presents the past only as it can be figured in the present.” Van Reet’s novel does not merely replicate war experience like the ubiquitous recording devices in the novel itself, or as a moral witness might, eager to expose the horror of this or that incident of war for hope of a better, less violent, future; neither does Spoils offer excuses, justifications, that sliver of hope which comes with the past tense, that perspectival arrogance of a known future.

Instead, Spoils offers us shared tragedy—our shared attraction to the vanishing point and perhaps our shared hostility to the continuity of time. The enemy, it turns out, stumbles for an exit too; the enemy, it turns out, recoils in horror at not just the violence at every exit, but the way in which time transforms and redeems this violence. The enemy is us and we are the enemy. Thus are the spoils of war. Van Reet’s prose is supple. There is a kind of “lyric joy” in this brutal record. It never drags. It is we who drag—the way we inch ever closer towards war’s hot center.

—Michael Carson

N5

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

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Apr 032017
 

Nance van Winckel

 

In Book of No Ledge, one of her new collections, poet and writer Nance Van Winckel brings together poetry and visual collage in a series of brilliantly reimagined encyclopedia entries and maps that are a pleasure to read. Witty, both lyrical and satirical, beautiful to look at, and wonderfully inventive, the collection lives up to poet Mary Ruefle’s description of it as “a book of wonder.”

rsz_bookofnoledge

Recently Nance Van Winckel spoke with U.S. poetry editor Susan Aizenberg about Book of No Ledge in a series of emails. Numéro Cinq is thrilled to present here two of the collages from the collection, together with a summary of their conversation, and a third, more recent piece of what the poet calls “wall writing.”

Susan Aizenberg (SA): I love your charming Introductory note, in Book of No Ledge, in which you describe a child first infatuated with a handsome door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, and then in love with the books themselves. Though there was no handsome door-to-door salesman in my experience, I remember feeling as a child a similar fascination with encyclopedias and illustrated guides of various kinds. I’m wondering if you would talk a little about your childhood experiences as a reader as they relate to this book.

Nance Van Winckel (NVW): Well, I was a reader as a kid and I was very interested in the sciences. Because my family moved frequently, I was often the new kid in school, and I read in the lag time it took to make new friends. Books were a “constant” in my life. I liked the diagrams of how things worked— especially bodies and body parts. Early on in life I wanted to be either A.) a spy or B.) a laboratory scientist. And perhaps becoming a writer/poet was a sort of melding of those two professions.

SA: I love the idea of writer/poet as a melding of spy and scientist. I’m particularly drawn to your vivid description, in the intro, of the point of view and voice of the encyclopedia, wonderfully personified as “Mr. Explainer,” and how they change over time as Mr. Explainer realizes the “you” has become a much older woman with “nice sharp scissors and even X-acto blades” – another image I love – who questions his authority. This idea of voice or voices seems important throughout the book, which is rich with wordplay, satirical humor, puns, and seemingly effortless shifts in diction. I’m wondering if you would speak a bit about voice in your work, and how the idea of being in dialogue with Mr. Explainer shaped (if it did) the series of photo-collages.

NVW: Yes, exactly! Talking back to Mr. Explainer from a future quite different from the one he (Commandant of the Past) posited so definitively, so upbeat and full of happy endings—that was very much the tone, which for me is a kind of fuel. I have to get the stance before almost anything else. The attitude. If only as an adult I could again be the imp-kid, the sassy girl, I was when I was ten. That girl got smacked sometimes or sent to her room. I squashed her down. But hey, apparently she ain’t dead yet!

SA: Clearly, and thankfully, she is not! Can we talk a bit about the conception and creation of the book, which seems to me equally a work of literature and visual art? It is, first off, a lovely physical object; the pages are silky (like encyclopedia pages?) and the collages quite beautiful. There is so much to look at and read and consider on every page – I love the richness of it. I don’t think I can overstate what a genuine pleasure it is to read. Would you talk a bit about your process?

NVW: I worked on these pages over the course of about five years. The encyclopedia I altered is actually 13 volumes, and at about a sixth grade level. As I paged through it, it brought back those memories from girlhood and reading, and I fell back in love with all the graphic elements. So I mainly used pages that had a lot of visual material on them. My method was to work on these very “visual” pages, which were all in black and white, and part of what I was doing was teaching myself—as I most always am these days—new techniques in colorizing, cut-and-paste, and many other things available from my old friend, Photoshop. (I’ve been noodling around with that program since back when I was a magazine editor [of Willow Springs] and designing the magazine with a program called PageMaker, which evolved into Photoshop.) As I worked on the visual layout of a page, I would often write new text to replace the old text. Sometimes I just carried printouts of the pages around with me in their waiting-for-text states, i.e. big blocks of space where text would go. I liked this method because I could work on other projects simultaneously—linked stories, other “regular” poems, etc.—and these encyclopedia pages would wait patiently for me and, as I mentioned above, I sort of knew the persona to slip into when I returned to them.

SA: You’ve generously shared with us two of the pieces from the collection. Would you speak a little about them?

NVW: One of the aspects I’m drawn to in this work is how the visual material can interact with the text—fill in gaps in the “story,” provoke a nonlinear kind of logic, or suggest a larger worldview/context than the text alone permits. This page, now titled “He Who? She When?”, was originally called “Advancements in Medicine.” I don’t feel in any way obliged to stick with the original subject matter of a page. For me, it’s all about the interplay of words with images that have “tangential” connections, thread-like, or tonal. The sense the pieces make, I hope, is more intuitive than conscious and rationale.

He Who, She When?

I haven’t said anything about the maps, and I’d like to. Most of these were not part of the encyclopedia I altered. Rather, they were from an online website (from New York Public Library’s “digital collection”) of public domain “rare” maps. I used these in the book a little like section dividers, and I am forever grateful to Pleiades Press for allowing them to be double-page spreads and displayed so well. (I’m grateful to Pleiades for so much! The support of the editors and designers there has been extremely helpful to me.) Here, my little bit of text—”We were in a boat and we were in love and we maybe made you in the blackest moments of this sea”—is spread out upon a map of The Black Sea, a place I’ve actually been. The text is stamped around into the sea with all sorts of variations on the arrangement of these words. This felt like a kind of homage to ancestry, not just mine but “ours.”

Map

SA: Thanks so much, Nance! Can we end with you sharing with our readers what you’re working on now?

NVW: Yes, my eighth book, Our Foreigner, received the Pacific Coast Poetry Award and is just out from Beyond Baroque Books. I’m working on a book that’s primarily a memoir; it has many sorts of hybrid forms going on in it, including some visual black and white collages.

Our Foreigner book cover

And I continue to do a little wall-writing. This is a recent piece.
I have a website for examples of this work.

Wall Writing example

 

Nance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreignerwinner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017), Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016), and Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2014). She’s also published five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014) and Boneland: Linked Stories (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2013). She is on the faculties of Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers and Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing Program. The recipient of two NEA poetry fellowships, the Paterson Fiction Prize, Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Poetry Award, a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, Nance lives with her husband Rik Nelson in Spokane, Washington.

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Susan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award.

 

Apr 022017
 

Image of poet Michelle BoisseauMichelle Boisseau

 

In Situ

The seaweed salad beside an ice cream float.
A flop-eared goat on the doghouse roof.
An elbow peers out of a torn sleeve
among the poolside breasts, partially eclipsed.
“Strange neighbors,” came from the neighbors.

Favorite sweater aboard the emptied bus.
A spoon between axes. An ax beneath the truck.
Outside the circus a planet inside a puddle
shivers like a horse near an orchard.
Next to me and wide of you. Trickling light

down my back, just when I’m settled into
an orbit far from the sun with its noisy huddle,
I’m nabbed by a grammar that unmatters me.

 

To an Oak

A chatter of acorns, a cloud of wigglers—
in a flood of excess we started out,
worked our way into a squishy place
and gathered strength for the big push.
The ponds emptied their faces to the sky.
You kicked out the floor of the seedcase
and sprouted hairs to drink with. I was cut loose

and hurried down the hallway by a nun.
For a time we could stand head to head.
You laid down tracks of time, a blink
of green each spring laddered into reach,
every leaf celebrating the feast of light.
Greedy for the hurry and soon enough
I was grown and sloughing seeds.

Your bark furrows, your shadow breaks,
clearly you weather your share of sorrows.
But I don’t think you get lost wondering
what it’s worth. Now fifty, sixty years go past
and you’re just setting to work. Your first
crop of acorns meteors the garden
and I am what nested for a while.

 

I Ain’t Studying No War

“ A cancer cell can, in theory,
keep dividing forever.”

 

Like the picky monarch in the milkweed
forever can thrive only on the maths
of theory which is also the habitat
gods, exaggeration, and the grasping need

for ever-and-ever
and the flipside, never, never, never.

Mother, brother, brother, younger sister
and now–coronas break up like whispers.

We could use Lear’s dexterous fool to turn
inside out the rule of these war metaphors,
to pluck apart this laughable lingo,
so we could cradle the goose-fleshed thing
and tender in our hands the thrashing heart
of beauty which can grow only because it starts
and therefore must dwindle and die

like every bird and every star.
Oh, reason not the need.
And don’t ask why.
Sooner or later we all lose at war.

Mother, brother, brother, sister and now
the claws snap fast inside me as well.
I won’t strap up and flail against the swell.
The wind and the rain grumble from the west.
I want to be stroked apart like a flower.

 

“2-28-2014”

Your final date comes to even numbers:
geometry writes the line as 2—

it means length without width. At 12:44 a.m.
you started riding the incalculable

line narrower than the dragline a spider
throws out, tinier than the silk’s proteins

tied head to head (& absolutely straight),
smaller than quarks inside lightweight

hydrogen: for even a quark isn’t only math.
Now you live in pure theory. The point

on the calendar has only position.
Nothing is less. “2,” legless swan,

the number that separates. The line,
the border you crossed wasn’t chalked,

but I see it and toss a stone before me
and hop toward where it doesn’t land.

 

Still Life

Four tangerines on the table,
one rolled behind the salt
as if to simper all alone.
Well, it’s no one’s fault.

The snow is coming down
welcome for once, a comic cloud
in all its riot gear. Things go.
What happens to me now

and next won’t be about
loneliness. Ahead, a drop off.
And the clock that says an hour’s coming
you cannot start or stop.

—Michelle Boisseau

 

Michelle Boisseau won the Tampa Review Prize for her fifth book of poems, Among the Gorgons, published by University of Tampa Press in 2016. Her A Sunday in God-Years, Arkansas 2009, in part examines the slave-holding past of her paternal ancestors in Virginia, into the 17th century. Trembling Air was a PEN USA finalist, University of Arkansas Press, 2003; she’s also published Understory, the Morse Prize, Northeastern University Press, 1996, and No Private Life, Vanderbilt, 1990. She has been publishing her poems in prominent literary journals since 1980, and her work has appeared in many anthologies, websites, and textbooks. Recent poems are appearing in Best American Poetry 2016, Poetry Daily, Poetry, Gettysburg Review, Yale Review, Southwest Review, and Shenandoah. Her textbook, Writing Poems (Longman), is now in its 8th edition. Boisseau has twice been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she is Senior Editor of BkMk Press and Contributing Editor of New Letters.

 

 

 

Apr 022017
 

roberta-levine-with-cat

x

My first real job was in a hematology clinic in the late seventies. The office, located on Eight Mile Road in Detroit, was a small beehive of rooms where three clinicians saw patients, with five women acting as support staff. There I fell under the spell of one doctor who was everything admirable: a scientist, a professor, a musician, and also a little goofy. I was seventeen; we were perfect for each other.

My job wasn’t demanding: I called patients in from the waiting room, watched as the tech drew their blood, weighed them, and then led them to an examining room where I gave them a dressing gown and asked them to undress. The difficult part was seeing critically ill people day after day. But by the time I realized, my stint had ended and I returned to the summer vacation of the rest of my life.

I’d just graduated from high school, which sounds very flags flying and trumpets blaring, when in fact I’d limped through my senior year until I finally stopped going months before graduation. My psyche had snapped. I couldn’t tolerate the people at school, the hubbub, the drama, the flat wooden desks, the washed-out teachers, the cacophony of the lunchroom, and the emptiness I felt there. Instead I stayed home in my room with its red carpet, wrought iron table, black and white bedspread, and woven headboard I’d spray painted black. There, in my twin bed, I read or wept until my mother demanded I do a household chore. The school must have mailed diploma.

Then in July, Henny, the office manager, asked me to return to the office as a full-time worker. My parents, who didn’t know what to do with me, probably saw the job as a godsend; a safe place where adults would watch over me instead of having me hospitalized.

Without the internal starch to resist, I zipped on a white uniform and showed up for work the following Monday. From then on, I slid on my virginal garb and performed the role of someone who functioned in the world during the week. One perk of showing up was seeing my hero in action. He was spectacular. He listened to others, treated them with kindness, ministered to their illness with a light touch, and sent them off hopeful.

I wasn’t alone in admiring Dr. A. The four other women who worked there also thought he walked on water. The office manager, Henny, led the pack. She was a Chihuahua-sized person who acted like a German shepherd. She scheduled appointments and collected payments from patients, scaring them into paying their bill with her blood red nails and dark scowl. The front office where she stood had a sliding window that opened onto the waiting room. Most of the time she kept the glass shut. She knew how to act professionally, yet without warning she could say the cruelest thing. Afterwards, in an Oscar-winning act, she’d disavow responsibility for her words. Scary stuff. I tried to stay out of her way.

roberta-levine-by-door

Barb, the typist, also worked in the front office. She was a wiz at transforming dictation into typed pages, as if she were part machine. Though maybe seven years older than me at most, she seemed born of another generation. At lunch she did needlepoint and talked of her mother constantly, with a country twang that belied the fact she’d grown up twenty miles west of Detroit. She also loved hair spray; by Friday amber beads pearled the strands of her red hair. Sometimes she’d show me a passage from one of Dr. A’s reports. His writing was lyrical, cogent, and humane. Barb never mentioned the reports of the other two doctors whose work she also transcribed.

The insurance gal worked in the back section of the lab. She was a tiny person born in Wyandotte, a blue-collar town downriver from Detroit. She was sort of pretty, but there was an off-putting dark cast to her personality. If she didn’t agree with something I’d said, she wouldn’t say so; instead she’d give this snarly, bark kind of laugh that was both derisive and dismissive. She barked around Henny a lot.

Bernice, the lab technician, was the heart of the office. She had dreamy purple-blue eyes which were often red-rimmed from either allergies or husband troubles. She’d been married a few times and had a couple of kids. She and Henny often held hushed conversations in the mornings.

While the other women shuffled paper, Bernice did actual medical work. She drew patients’ blood, made slides, filled hematocrit tubes and set them in the machine to spin. Most of her day was spent peering into a microscope, identifying and counting good and bad blood cells. She showed me an example of a sickle cell once and explained that, unlike a healthy circular red blood cell, this was half-moon shaped and therefore carried less oxygen through the body.

Bernice was my direct superior. She taught me everything I had to do in the office. And though I felt low as linoleum, I tried my best because I wanted Dr. A. to think well of me.

He was smart and funny, and unlike my father, heard everything I said the first time. I wanted him to adopt me; he already had three sons, he needed a daughter. One morning he demonstrated what he’d be like as a father when a delivery guy boldly looked me up and down. Dr. A. saw this and was outraged, which I translated to mean he’d protect me from louts and any other misfortune.

Dr. A. always made a point of engaging me with some nonsense before we entered an exam room. He’d jiggle his eyebrows like Groucho Marx or tell a joke, and after I’d laughed he’d put on his serious face and tap on the door.

While he conversed with the patient, I stood by the wall willing myself invisible. His patients were usually milky pale with rumpled skin and hollowed-out eyes. From my spot at the wall I saw a woman with a surgically smoothed chest. At first I admired her flat chest, envied it almost, and then the penny dropped and I realized both her breasts had been removed. However, if she was seeing Dr. A., the disease still hounded her. She’d given her breasts to cancer but it wanted more. It made me wonder what cellular bombs were brewing beneath my own elastic skin.

roberta-levine-outdoors

During the exam he’d listen to the patients’ heart and lungs, palpate their bellies, and check the lymph nodes under their arms and at their groin if necessary. Then he’d say one of three things: how well they were doing, that they needed a blood transfusion or chemotherapy, or that Henny would arrange for them to be admitted to the hospital.

By now I was eighteen, and five days a week I watched people wheel their loved ones into offices where they hoped for good news. In contrast, my pain and confusion had no precise diagnosis though it made me stagger as I worked through the day. I struggled in silence, tamping down my despair as I tried to keep up with the new tasks added to my evolving job.

For instance, Dr. A. performed bone marrow extractions in the office. The sterilized white package, wrapped like a package from the butcher, held all the necessary items for the procedure. As I watched, he’d inject an anesthetic into the area, talk to the patient as it took effect, and then plunge a long, hollow metal needle into the patient’s sternum or hip bone. It was sort of like coring an apple but instead of apple seeds, he brought up a tube of moist bone marrow. The apparatus he used looked both barbaric and elegant. Once he’d finished, I had to clean the instrument, wrap it in white cloth, secure it, and then set the package in the autoclave, a small box like a microwave that hummed as it sanitized what was inside of it.

roberta-levine-in-kitchen

Bernice also taught me how to use a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope to measure a patient’s blood pressure. To start, I’d wrap the cuff around their upper arm, then support their arm as I squeezed a rubber ball that pumped air into the cuff. Once the cuff was tight, I’d set the bell of the stethoscope at the crease in their elbow, turn the knob at the base of the ball to release the air and listen through the stethoscope for a sound. The first whoosh signified their systolic pressure and, when that sound ceased, the diastolic pressure. Afterwards I’d quickly note each number. However, the sound and lack of it were often faint. Since I was unsure of what I’d heard, I’d ask the patient if I could do it again. These people were so agreeable. They were used to being poked and prodded by someone wearing a white uniform, and my costume signaled an expertise I didn’t possess. I felt awful about doing it a second time, but I had to be sure it was correct.

As if this physical intimacy weren’t enough, they next asked me to learn how to draw blood, something Bernice usually did. I guess they thought if I did it, Bernice would have more time for her other work. Since I thought Dr. A. had suggested it, I agreed to become a phlebotomist.

The morning training was held at Sinai Hospital, where I’d been born. We began with shoving a needle into an orange, which I didn’t mind. Then we moved on to people. I could hardly hold a conversation with someone and now I had to swab their skin with alcohol, tie off their arm with a rubber tourniquet, and jab a needle into them. It made my hands sweat to touch their skin as I searched for a vein. For a while I hid in the bathroom, but that strategy was short-lived; eventually I had to stick and be stuck by someone else.

As the morning continued we refined our new skill with more instruction. The needle had to be jabbed quickly to reduce the pain, but couldn’t be pushed too far or it would drive through the vein causing blood to leak into the surrounding tissue. Once needle handling was sort of mastered, the trick was to locate the vein. Men’s were easy to find–they often rise above the skin’s surface–while women’s veins often hide. The instructor told us to press our finger in the crease of the elbow until we sensed a line of resistance, i.e., the vein, and then clean the area and slide the needle in. Sounds simple enough. But veins are easily lost. They can roll, be thin as thread, or flatten out if someone is dehydrated, which sick people often are. Somehow I made it through the training.

Back at the office, Bernice wanted me to practice my new skill. She stood by as I tied a tourniquet around an older man’s exposed arm. He had dry, wrinkled skin, where once he’d had taunt muscles and a tattoo. But like a horse, I shied at the jump and Bernice had to finish it while I hid in the back lab.

Mornings Henny sorted the mail. Among the bills and letters were envelopes from the hospital, which held slips printed on pink paper. They were referred to as pink slips and were death notices. When one showed up she’d read off the name of who had died and we’d groan in recognition. However, if a cluster of pink slips arrived, the women would crack jokes in what I thought was a disrespectful manner. After months of this reaction, I came to see that they were struck by the patients’ deaths and black humor was their collective way of handling it.

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Dr. W., one of the three doctors, saw the sickest patients. His face reminded me of Richard Nixon or a rubber mask version of Nixon. After I’d learned how to draw blood, he asked if I’d fill injections for his patients who needed chemotherapy. I was caught. I had the time, and if I didn’t do it Bernice had to do it and I’d already let her down by not wanting to do the phlebotomy thing, so I said yes. This new job was done in between weighing patients, getting them settled in a room, taking their blood pressure, and filing glass slides. It was also kind of fun to do.

When a patient required chemotherapy, Dr. W. would give me a Post-it listing the name or names of the medication to use. The medicine was stored in boxes in the lab refrigerator in between staff lunches and a carton of half and half. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein, pumping 5ccs of sterilized water into the rubber gasket of a tiny bottle and watching the crystals dissolve. Another med was a form of mustard gas used during WWI. The third, referred to by its acronym 5FU, came in glass ampules. The tops were pretty easy to snap off, and then I’d draw the liquid up into the tube of the syringe. To be on the safe side, I’d rest Dr. W.’s Post-it on a small tray along with the syringes.

Yet even with these precautions, I more than once filled the syringe with the wrong med. After I’d taken the tray into his office, I’d have this impulse to check the trash and if I saw a glass ampule lying on top of a paper towel instead of a tiny rubber-topped bottle, I’d hurry to Dr. W.’s office and hover in the doorway to see if he’d already given the patient the injection.

If he had, I’d back away and go into an exam room where I’d yank the used paper off the exam table and pull a fresh sheet over it. As I did this I’d think how to tell Bernice what I’d done. Then I’d lined up the stethoscope, the reflex hammer, and the prescription pads before heading for the lab.

There I’d watch her perched on her stool, her eyes plugged into the microscope as her finger tapped the counter. She’d done it for so many years she could count and listen at the same time. After I’d whispered my mistake, her finger would stop and she’d pull her face away from the microscope and take a swig of coffee. Then she’d say, “Go tell Dr. W.”

Of course I wanted her to handle it. I was the youngest member of the office, whose job description kept expanding. I made the coffee, made sure the bathroom stayed tidy, picked up after the patients, stacked magazines in the waiting room, treated everyone nicely, and screwed up the medication. I was sure they’d call the police, so I locked myself in the bathroom. I wanted more than anything to off-load the blame, but I couldn’t. I’d been moving too fast, I hadn’t triple checked the Post-it against the medicine. When someone tapped on the door, I had to open it.

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Dr. W. sat in his office behind his desk. I explained my mistake. As he listened, his rubbery face lengthened. The silence that followed multiplied, had children of its own who had weddings and spawned more children. Finally, he said something like, “These people are very sick, one injection isn’t going to kill them.” I wouldn’t say he was casual about hearing this news, yet what could he do? The chemicals were rushing through their bloodstream. They’d already left the office. Obviously he bore final responsibility for my actions, but the mistake haunted me. I didn’t know how the body would react to potentially clashing meds. Would it make them sicker?

A few weeks later Henny read out the pink slips, including the name of the woman I’d given the wrong medication. The line was direct: I’d mishandled the meds and the woman had died. I was an uneducated eighteen-year-old. I didn’t know if there was a relationship between the medication and her death, and no one put me wise either way. I felt raw with responsibility and in that state couldn’t ask for clarification.

And in that darkness, came some light. Dr. A. invited me to join his family at their vacation home in upper Michigan. I was thrilled to be asked but puzzled by how little he spoke to me while we were there. Most of the time I hung out with one of his sons.

Winter passed, as did spring, and June came round again. I’d spent a year at the hematology clinic, in whose rooms I’d practiced becoming more of a person. I’d seen patients with punishing diseases come and go, and now it was time for me to go, too. Whatever romance I had with medicine died in that.

—Roberta Levine

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Roberta Levine lives in rural northwestern Pennsylvania where she writes about art, the environment and education. She earned a BFA at the University of Michigan and a MFA from The Vermont College of Fine Arts. She contributes to Kitchn/Apartment Therapy, writes short stories, and teaches in an arts enrichment program offered through Allegheny College.

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Apr 012017
 

Tatiana Ryckman

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1

When I saw you again it was suddenly and exactly as I feared or hoped, which is to say it was exactly the same.

You walked into the room you’d walked in the year before and we sat close pretending we always sit close, and we went to dinner with mutual friends pretending we always go to dinner with mutual friends, and our friends tried to pretend I would not be going home with you until it became ridiculous.

2

At the holiday party the entire city’s enthusiasm kept coming between us. I was just waiting for everyone to leave.  I didn’t care that the year was dying, I didn’t worry that I was leaving anything behind.

3

Because all of my grand gestures were neurons train hopping on thoughts of you, you couldn’t see them from the other side of my skull or country.

And I didn’t blame you because no one is a mind reader, I hear.

And we all get busy.

And you got very busy.

4

It became hard not to imagine, in heartbreaking detail, that busy was somebody who moved you from one all-consuming task to the next. From the bed to the floor. From the specific taste of their body to the books they inspired you to write.

Soon, between the flights I took in my mind to your room and the ways I held you in my mouth and the monuments you built to our hours together in your living room, there was this someone else, who would occasionally step out of my own fantasies of you to remind me how far away I really was.

During long periods of silence I convinced myself that nothing had transpired between us. That my willingness to undo my life at your feet was ordinary.

5

What we were calling “inevitable” turned out to be debilitating sadness.

Alone in bed I’d say, “I’m dying” over and over again. But nothing happened. My cells regenerated at the same rate. I refreshed my empty email inbox. I was dying while making breakfast and that turned into dying while washing dishes which turned into dying in the shower and then dying in the bed again and then later, over a glass of juice. I was dying on the floor. I was dying while listening to sad music on headphones. I was dying while looking at personal ads on Craigslist. I was dying while watching videos of sleepy kittens on youtube. I was dying while watching two women taste each other on a different website with a similar name. I was dying while making popcorn for dinner and sending smiley face text messages to friends and Liking things on Facebook. I was dying while looking at the ceiling and then the wall and back at the ceiling again. I was dying and wishing I would just die.

No one could see it, but I was very busy. I was dying all the time.

6

I couldn’t help but notice that you were probably not in love.

Not with me, anyway. Which is not to say I would have promised I was. Not yet, anyway.

But I was noticing both the lack of you and the prevalence of mosquitoes in the yard and it felt like being alone at a party. Like watching my phone as if I had friends on the way. But I was just pretending to nature that you’d show up.

—Tatiana Ryckman

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Tatiana Ryckman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of two chapbooks of prose, Twenty-Something and VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live. These linked vignettes are an excerpt from  I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do), a novella forthcoming from Future Tense Books.

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Mar 142017
 

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“Upon first watch,” Cam Robert for NPR writes, “the music video for Bonobo’s song “Kerala” seems simple: a repetitive series of on-the-beat cuts as lead actor Gemma Arterton runs through the streets, losing her mind for no apparent reason.” The repetition Robert points to here rules the music video, only ceasing when the protagonist, Arterton, closes her eyes. She stumbles through a park, then along a street, then across the roof of a building as bystanders collide with her, reach out to help, stare on in wary fear.

The rolling repetition Bison (Dave Bullivant) uses is unnatural, the manifest opposite of persistence of vision which perceptually allows us to blend distinct film frames into what we perceive as motion. Here our desire for motion, for the visual narrative to progress, is relentlessly resisted. We are trapped in loops.

This would create perhaps an untenable relationship with a protagonist: an exercise in stuttering and nausea, an experiment the viewer would tire and turn away from. Except, Arterton’s character it would seem has her reasons; in the background, sometimes out of focus, sometimes with immediate effect on her, impossible and uncanny things are occurring: rocks lift off the ground, a meteor hurtles towards earth, a building floats in the air. We are drawn into a double seeing: we see the film footage repeat and are caught in its repetitions as she is, and we see or try to see past those repetitions to the strange events occurring around her. As Robert adds, “The anxiety created by that repetition serves a purpose: It forces you to pay attention to the things happening around Arterton as the scene plays out. Nothing in this video is as it seems.”

Alone, the repetitive editing would be technique killing art. Instead, where we might tire of her stuttering world, we see in these uncanny events a counterpoint, an antagonism, a conflict that threatens her. We identify where we would otherwise have lost interest or been just overwhelmed with stimulus.

Does this make our viewing desire threefold: a desire to see forward in time, free of the repetitions; a second desire to not be drawn into the past and what we have already seen; and, third, a desire predicated on the uncanny occurrences, which has us yearn to see past the repetitions, past the tug forward and backward in time. It’s as though Proust’s manic melancholic poetics found Eisenstein’s montage and seeing is being pushed to its limits. The result is perhaps not what Julia Kristeva called Proust’s “time embodied,” but perhaps anxious bodies as victims of time. I experience this film with my queasy stomach, my anxious compassion, and the place where migraines start – no small feat for a play of images on a screen.

Jacob Brookman in the British Journal of Photography traces this technique back to an earlier video Bison made for the group Four Tet: “The glitching technique was first premiered by Bison in a promo for Four Tet’s remix of John Hopkins’ ‘Vessel’, back in 2010. The looping motif matches the mechanical EDM aesthetic of both tracks, but the new video’s decreased choreography results in a more unique, potentially more nauseating effect.

The visual experience of “Vessel” is more palatable, the loops are not as large, where in “Kerala” the narrative and the lengths of the shots promise us motion, that the narrative will move on; then it does not. That repeated refusal causes more nausea. Both films, then, borrow from photography in the sense that they resist motion, fragment it.

With over three million views on YouTube at the time of the writing of this article, the video has intrigued online audiences. The repetition joined with the uncanny occurrences around Arterton create a peculiar ambivalence, something to see past the repetition. More than one viewer has posted on the threads, attempting to itemize almost manically the uncanny moments:

0:00 – meteor

1:00 – rock levitating

1:05 – man on bench feeds nonexistent birds

1:50 – building floating, rotating

2:02 – door caves in

2:15 – man in restaurant’s eyes glow

2:27 – TV footage shows the video about 30 seconds into the future flipped horizontally and without the roll back edits

2:42 – man crossing street duplicates

2:50 – restaurant sign foreshadows building fire

3:03 – car gradually changes color

3:06 – man floating in sky

3:16 – fire in building

3:28 – solar eclipse

3:46 – people standing in a grid pattern, looking up

3:57 – birds take flight (or are they humans?)

The resulting anxiety and desire suit the story being told, Arterton’s overwhelmed character and her struggle to escape.  Bison, in interview with Brookman, remains ambiguous about what all these events add up to: “I like everyone else’s theories about it – I think they’re really interesting. I’ve been driven by curiosity instead of an end goal.”

Bison defines his process as technical first: “I have my mini obsessions into a technology and that’s how I like to work [but] I think that a strong aesthetic voice is something born out of a large body of work. With Bonobo, there’s a lot of technical things going on within it, but it still has this warmth and this character. And that is – as a solo director – where I exist.”

—R. W. Gray

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Mar 132017
 

riiki-ducornet-resizedRikki Ducornet

 

1. THE VOID

Atte1mpt to imagine – and the task is futile – an absence, as when the night sky is empty of her moon, of moonshine, of stars, of starlight. Imagine a void in which you are without purchase (there is no place to stand); a night as unfathomable as a pool of ink (there is no pool, no ink) in which the vast firmament has dissolved. There is nothing but absence. (And you, the one who attempts this imagining, are nowhere to be seen.)

Imagine the beggar’s bowl once the beggar has slipped behind the trees to relieve himself – one of the many disadvantages of corporality. The empty bowl he did not submit to you is not there, having vanished into thin air, and there is nothing to fill in its absence. (You must also imagine that there is no air.) I say also recalling that when we (who are corporeal and irreversibly implicated in the material world) gaze upon all that has been seeded and aggregated, we are compelled to acquire things illicit and divine, of powers seemingly magical, to cry out; spellbound: “I’ll take that! And also: this!” Some say we are like ravens bewitched by things that catch the light. Imagine an emptiness that knows nothing of light. That all this that surrounds us is gone: the mole on your lover’s cheek, the shape of her wrists – and consider how once before time (I say once well aware of the absurdity) there was only the Void.

Now imagine he who is the Void, that eminence without name, sleeps. He is perfect, self contained, empty of dreams. And yet, unprompted, he starts, and reaching for a thing both essential and absent, murmurs: Light! (He does not eruct. Nor does he roar. The roaring comes later with Yavweh. Do not confuse him with Yavweh!) (Some will tell you he tore an egg in two and with the yolk made the universe, but no! You see: he was himself the egg!)

This light of his that surges forth the instant he speaks fills the void. Dazzled, he awakens. Or, rather, he is that Dazzlement. He is that Awakening.

That… Quickening.

As when a youth sees, not quite hidden by the leaves, a girl the color of wild honey standing in a pool of water, illumed by the lunar light. Threading the water through her black hair, she moves her limbs in the seductive manner of the willow, the water revealing and concealing forms that – if they are the vessel of light, are also the very things that lead us astray, far from the light we aspire to that initial impulse empty of confusion, limpid and marvelous. (Yet she is marvelous also; this I admit to you. She who causes Confusion! And one is left wondering: why has he who is the light, who is the Egg, engendered so many questions begging answers? The truth is, she is about to upend everything. Washing her hair!

We have acknowledged that the Void is empty beyond emptiness. A regency with nothing above, below, or to either side and so: incorruptible. At its core the Resplendent Germ burns devoid of femininity (yet harboring Her potentiality). He knows (he knows everything) that love without an object is unimaginable. She is there, immanent, standing in a pool of light that reaches her navel: Barbelo! He gazes into the generative mirror that he is and that surrounds him, and sees his reflexion burning there. In this way she is sparked – as when an ember leaps from the fire and blazes alone on the tiles before the hearth.

Enamoured from the First Instant (and this is exactly what it is!) he adores her. After all, is she not a perfect projection of himself? Only an image and yet she knows enough to praise him and ask at once for gifts. She has clout! She is the Womb of Everything. He gives her what she wants in a flash: Thought! Truth! Indestructibility! Foreknowledge! Eternal Life! Newly minted archons, they stand in gratitude, bowing and scraping: the Androgynous Pentad of the Aeons!

Everything stirs. When he gazes into her eyes, a pneumatic current penetrates two perfect irises. Quick as lightning she conceives the One who, if resplendent, will fail to save the world. The Christ! Who any second now will uncoil in Eden, his scales like prisms gleaming in the moonlight, and speak convincingly and sensibly of moral awakening to Eve and her Adam – and this to the eternal rage of Yavweh – that despicable interloper.

But before that can happen, a galaxy of superterrestrial luminaries are projected by the Pentad – they cannot help themselves. Their names are far to numerous to put down here; indeed they would demand a book, no, an entire Library (as would the names of the sublunar demons that, thanks to that malevolence: Yavweh, will any minute now appear in droves and elbow their way into every aspect of existence, disguised as beasts: aerial, aquatic and terrestrial, and hell-bent on corrupting, corroding, mortifying, and bringing everything down. But for now there is Subtlety. There is Perfection. There is Time, also. And space. Indeed the two embrace with such conviction they cannot be torn apart – as on an evening somewhere in the galaxy, lovers come together and time stands still and the flesh dissolves into heat and light. Above them the sky shimmers with powers, with alphabets of fire. These foretell everything to come.

From this bright turbulence Wisdom arises – a luminous egg of stardust quickened by a serpent of fire whose tail rends the night sky like a knife of ice. She is called The Virgin. Perfect Memory. The Lustful One. The Wanderer. Wisdom. Pistis Sophia.

 

2. PISTIS SOPHIA

Alone, suspended in a liminal space between perfect light and chaos, she considers how Barbelo was made, and longs for a loving image of her own to cherish. She acts without permission, and this is her error. Her impulse, born of loneliness and longing, is unlawful. To her shame and horror, she creates a monster with twelve faces – all roaring for attention. She names him Yaltaboath, but his names will be many: Abortion, Miscreation, Abomination, The Adversary of God, Saklos, Samael, Yavweh, Man Eater, Jehova. She takes him far from everything, sets him on a throne within impenetrable clouds and abandons him. Exhausted she sleeps. Her sleep is restless. The cosmos takes on weight. Opacity.

Yaltaboath’s rejection is bitter beyond bitterness. Where he sits brooding, the sky grows dim. “I am God!” He bellows into the silence. “There is no other!” And he calls forth an army of angels to do his bidding: The Reaper, Pestilence, the Keeper of the gates of Hell. Melancholy. Gangrene. There are 365 of them: one angel for every day of the year. They have the faces of wild animals, their forms scripted from the stars in the sky or, as was the bull, seeded by the moon. (It is said they have significance beyond themselves. The fish correspond to the deep waters of the soul, the birds to the soul’s longing for the light.)

But… what of Adam? Is Adam immanent? Do the stars foresee him? Or is he a projection of Yaltaboath’s pride? We know this: it takes Yaltaboath’s angels 365 days to make Adam.

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3. ADAM

Adam is formed of red clay. He is formed of mud, of ashes. (Some call him “volcanic.”) Each of Yaltaboath’s angels make one of his 365 parts: bone soul, sinew soul, blood soul, the right testicle and the left. The angel Yeronumous makes an ear, Bedouk a buttock and Miamai the nails of his feet. (Some say Adam falls to earth from deep space like a meteor – as did that other wild man: Enkidu.)

But angels cannot proceed without demons and so Yaltaboath now summons the passions that – you will appreciate this – take hold only where there is a body to contain them. Passion such as dread and grief, agony and wrath; the kind of thwarted loving that leads to death. (These take their source from carbon, sucking it up just as the infant sucks milk.)

Once Adam is formed, his body is perfect and yet without cohesion. He cannot stand but worms his way along the ground inch by inch. At night when he rests his head on a stone, his lungs ache with dust. He is confused. In the wind he trembles. His destiny is unknown to him; he is unknowing. His life is like the death the Mesopotamians describe in which the dead kneel naked in the dark eating clay.

At last, the archons of the Upper Spheres look down and see Adam confounded in his filth and suffering. They rush to Pistis Sophia and awaken her. She is scolded and she is advised. She calls for Yaltaboath at once. As he approaches, gyring in a vortex of fever and contagion, she shudders with horror. But Yaltaboath is flattered, disarmed by the unprecedented attention. His mother has summoned him at last! And he has so much to tell her! He is the master of an army of angels and demons! Master of an entire world! Its moon and neighboring planets!

“I have seen your creature,” Pistis Sophia tells him. “I have seen how he dwells in ignorance, unable to speak or stand. Yet he could be flawless. Breathe into his nostrils and he will rise. Even the archons, the angels will envy his beauty.

Yaltaboath descends to earth at once and does as she has told him. In the instant he breathes into Adam’s nostrils, Adam stands. But there is something more. The one spark of light that was Yaltaboath’s now belongs to Adam. This gift is immeasurable, for now Adam is fully capable of transcendence.

Yaltaboath sees that he has been tricked and ignites with anger. The same anger that will torment Job and test Isaac. The same anger that will bring down the tower of Babel and cause men to speak to one another without comprehension.

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4. EVE AND THE SERPENT

Awakened to the world, Adam explores paradise. Everything speaks, everything sings. He discerns spells on the backs of turtles, and drinks at pools of fresh water with the lions and gazelles. There are sweet grains to eat, figs, pomegranates, and bitter herbs. What is the world if it is not magic? But if all the creatures have a mate, Adam sleeps alone.

Once again the angels take up the red clay. Formed in the heat of their hands, Eve is the color of cinnamon, of ebony. Her eyes are gold, silver and pearl, and her hair falls to her shoulders like clusters of grapes. When Adam sees Eve for the first time, a veil lifts from his mind. Eve. The moon incarnate. Her perfect flesh unscarred. Reaching out he touches her for the first time. Seven days and seven nights they cling together. In the moonlight the bees move among the stars. My beloved, Adam whispers. My one and only murmurs Eve. (And it is true.)

Christ, who always hovers near, sees this unfold, and smiles. He appreciates that they are resplendent in one another’s eyes, just as Barbelo and his father were once resplendent. He is covered in iridescent scales, and as they embrace he coils around the tree, the One Tree, like a vine, singing. When at last the lovers lie quietly side by side, he approaches Eve. His voice is irresistible. (Of all the creatures in Eden, Christ is by far the most beguiling.)

That night the three of them eat apples, watching lightning strike the horizon, the comets tearing space like birds with knives in their beaks. In the sound of thunder they hear Yavweh’s insane bellowing. (He has never ceased his bellowing and his angels have never ceased their yammering!) When day breaks they run for their lives.

Later, as Adam and Eve continue on alone, they ask questions of one another such as:

Why are we punished in our bodies which are the vessels of light?

Why are we banished from Eden, longing as we do, for the light

—Rikki Ducornet

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

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Mar 132017
 

ben-slotky

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A Wave, a Wash

You are in a meeting. People are saying things. In the meeting and online.

In Atlanta, in Dallas. Where you are.

Somebody says, “Accessibilty has a rough measure of initial page and one flip scroll.”

Somebody says, “If I am a mobile customer, I have mobile concerns.”

This seems to make sense, you think.

There is something there, you think. You think about saying something, something about this, but you don’t know who you’d say it to.

Everybody is saying something. Crisp words, one after the other. Cool and clean.

Assertive, you are thinking.

Assured, you are thinking. Like a small, tight smile.

Context and usage and great feedback.

You are not saying anything.

There are standards, you are learning.

Necessary content and functionality for a task.

Core tenets for a mobile-first design.

Shared across device type. It needs to serve a purpose, whatever this is, that is, this is what these crisp, assured words are saying. You like this, the hum and the buzz. All of those words bouncing around. This is good, you think. You think you nod. Things need to serve purposes. This means two things, you think in the middle of all of these bouncing words, in the middle of Atlanta and Dallas. In the middle of where you are. One is that there are things. This is good to know. We all seem to be agreeing on this, even though no one is saying that, even though none of these crisp, cool words are saying that.

We agree that there are things.

You smile at this, you think.

Another thing this means is that things need to serve purposes.

A thing does a thing.

We can identify this.

We can establish methods of flow.

Flow, content wording, prioritize critical information, establish a model and keep it. These are precepts, they are tenets. Processes, forms. You are not paying attention. It doesn’t matter. There is too much, a wave, a wash, and it is over, over, and you are gone.

.

As the pattern gets more intricate and subtle, being swept along is no longer enough. Somebody said that once. I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe it is. I’m not the kind of person to answer that question, never have been. It’s cold and I don’t have time for this. With my scaly claws, I hike up the collar of my tan trench coat. I’m a crocodile, and it’s freezing.

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And slowly pan up and silhouette and up and moon and night, and that right there is the opening scene of Crocodile Detective, a book or movie you will never write. You think about Crocodile Detective a lot, but not as much as you used to. You are out of your meeting. Out of those words.

This is where you are.

You are walking through the tunnel between buildings thinking about a crocodile detective. You are underground. Lights are in walls. You are tracing a pattern in the carpet; you are on the right side. It is a concourse. In another book you wrote, this where you would write something like “you know how you’re sometimes thinking about how you’ll never write a book or movie about a crocodile detective? How sometimes that haunts you?” That would be part of it; you would think that was funny. This is where this is; this is where you are. In a tunnel, lights in walls, dripping with significance, thinking about a character from a book you haven’t written, a book you’ll never write. This is interesting, you think. Remember this, you think, as you head into your next meeting.

§

A Small, Halting Noise

In the atrium on H1, there is a 3D printer. It’s shooting lines of glue, Ron says. Ron has a parrot named Sinbad. Ron can ride a unicycle. That’s how it works, Ron tells you, pushing up his glasses. It’s not hard.

Ron is glad to talk. His shirt is purple and tucked into his jeans. His tennis shoes are white. New Balance. There is a guy you call Ron’s Fat Nephew. You usually see him on M3. He looks like Ron, except younger and fatter. You told your team about that once. Everybody laughed. You’re thinking this while Ron doesn’t blink or budge. Ron doesn’t move. He’s waiting to explain this. It’s not that hard. You can see yourself in his glasses. This what you’re doing, in Ron’s glasses and in real life.

You watched The Friends of Eddie Coyle last night. Robert Mitchum, 1973. You think about how you are now a person who can say that. You can ask somebody if they’ve seen The Friends of Eddie Coyle and if they pause, you can go Robert Mitchum, 1973.

As if to clarify, as if to explain.

You never saw that coming. You are also the kind of person who can say, “I’m going to stop you right there,” in a conversation. That is a line from a book you will never write, you think about saying to Ron’s glasses but don’t.

You read the book before you saw the movie. You didn’t know there was a movie until you were looking for movies to watch. Now when you can’t sleep, you watch movies. Before when you couldn’t sleep, you wrote. You are watching movies now. Your friend gave you illegal screeners to watch. He used to be a nurse. His brother died of a heart attack. You didn’t know he had a brother until he told you that he died.

You may watch The French Connection. You are thinking about a scene in Dial M for Murder where the detective pulls out a mustache comb and starts combing his mustache. That’s the last scene of the movie. A guy combing his mustache. You feel like asking Ron’s glasses something about this, but don’t know what to ask.

It’s adding things up, Ron is saying now. Ron is pushing up his glasses again and you lose sight of yourself for a second. You are gone and then you are back.  He’s explaining things. He leans forward. You can see yourself again. You wonder if you look horrified. You can’t tell. Ron is explaining 3D printing to you. It’s something about the accumulation of layers, the layering upon layering. A 3D printer shoots lines of glue. It adds up, it does. A thing on a thing on a thing. Rows and rows. An accumulation of layers. You make a small, halting noise. You tell Ron you’ll see him later and you head to your 1 o’clock.

§

Ope and Whoop

You are thinking scenes, you are thinking rich inner life. Yesterday the escalator stopped. This was between M and H; this was yesterday. Stopped, and people stumbling, no one hurt, thank goodness.

You heard sounds.

You heard ope and whoop. Not the ope and whoops you usually hear, not the ope and whoops you and everybody else says when you about run into each other.

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Everybody says ope and whoop; everybody’s always about to run into each other.

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You have stopped saying ope and whoop. This is something you’ve decided, a conscious decision.

Action, reaction.

Cause, effect.

If this, then that.

There was no reason you said this; you don’t know why you started. You all of a sudden just said ope and whoop when you about ran into somebody. This could be a thing, you thought, a clue to a mystery you’re not sure you believe exists even though it got harder and harder not to.

You said ope, you said whoop. You did and you didn’t.

Accepted, ignored, until one day, and you don’t know what day it was, but you do know it was between K3 and L3, by one of the video labs, right at that corner, the one with the sign about the viruses and disks, that you heard one, two, three people say ope and whoop. Three different people did, right in a row, right as they were about to run into each other.

You thought enough.

Not big, not loud.

No proclamations, no declarations.

A decision. Small and deliberate.

You are thinking that now. You are thinking that now, then, by the sign. You are thinking that in the middle of the ope and whoop.

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One day you saw a redheaded man walking by eating chicken fingers. He was busy, he looked busy. He was walking to something or from something. Hands grabbing chicken fingers. Red hair on head. Later that day, in another building, you saw another redheaded man, a different redheaded man. He was eating chicken fingers, too.

What are the odds, you thought.

What is the math, you thought, because there was a math out there that discussed this, that covered this. You are sure of it. There is always a math, always an algorithm. Connecting and intersecting. Bouncing and colliding. There is a music, there is a math. It is measurable and it is determinable. For all of this. It is a question of whether it’s been discovered yet.

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You are thinking how it feels sometimes like you are remembering something great that you just forgot. It feels like this sometimes, like you are remembering a time where you thought of something great and then immediately forgot it. You are thinking it feels like that, right now, and you pass Janet Earth. You wonder if your locker is in this hallway. It could be. This is your building. You have always been in this building, the whole time you’ve been here. People would say where do you live? You have always lived on M.

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This is what people at work said when they wanted to know where you sat, which building, which floor. This meant that, or we thought it did. Maybe it didn’t mean that anymore, maybe it always meant something else, when they said where do you live. When you meet people here, you say what do you do. They would tell you and then you would say where do you live. This was the second thing. What you meant was where do you do that. The thing you just described, where does that occur. You are thinking how this is the second thing you say to everyone, to people, while you are thinking about how you have always lived on M. Maybe your locker is here. You have a key on your key ring for your locker. You have had it for 6 years, this key. It has been here the whole time.

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There was a fat woman crying outside of the H cafeteria. You saw her when you walked in. She was by herself. She was sitting on a bench, crying. Her head in her hands, her knees pressed together, crying. People walked by her from all sides. There was sun everywhere. People walked by her, talking. To each other, on their phones. Talking about meetings and plans and whatever it was that people talked about when other people sat and cried which, when you think about it, could be almost anything. There’s no limit, you thought as you walked passed the people talking and the woman crying, to what they could be saying. It could be almost anything.

When you come out of lunch she is still there, still crying, still sitting. People are still walking by, but not as many. Lunch is almost over. You wonder if she is there. There are a lot of ghosts here, you think. You may be one of them. You think about the car accident. You wonder if you are dead, if you have been dead this whole time. You smile when you think this, kind of and not really. You think about the baby that has died and the other baby that has died. You think of the baby from that show Baby in a Cowboy Hat and how that baby will die. You walk away thinking about how all the babies, all of them, will someday die, which is a sad thing to think, you think, so you don’t think about it anymore.

§

Shrimp and Whales

You are intimidated by history. It is too much, you think, to be around all of this history. This majesty, this glory.

Places with significance, you think.

Resonance, you think, grandeur.

It is too much, the weight of it is. The weight of possibility.

It is better to be here, you think. In the middle, surrounded and ensconced. Flatness and horizon.

Rote and memory.

You hide in the anonymity, in the ubiquity. This is everywhere, this is everything, and you are walking, walking. There are places you need to be, spaces that need filling. If you are not there, there is nothing there. There would be nothing without you, without any of you, without all of you, you think, and you know how this sounds. People have to be places for there to be places to be, you think, and you know that’s wrong. You scratch your head or make a face that looks like you’re about to scratch your head. You are in a hallway. This is what people would see if they saw you, that would be your face. This got away from you, you think, the way things do. If you catch just parts of it, you think. Glimpses of it as it goes by. Hurtling and fleeting. You can make out bits, you can make out pieces. All of it could add up.

And maybe, you think.

And somehow, you think.

A thing you think people should know is this. A blue whale can eat up to 9,000 pounds of krill every day. This is a fact. Verifiable. This is a monstrous, wonderful, outrageous fact. This is where you are, where we are. We are where monsters swim the seas. Monsters that eat tons upon tons of tiny shrimp. There are monsters, you think, and we all know there are. You can say a thing like a blue whale can eat up to 9,000 pounds of krill every day and people will accept it. Calmly. Fully. They accept it because it is true. It being true makes people not question it, how wonderful and strange it is. If you say this to people, about the blue whale and the krill, people will nod. They will say wow or whoa. If you almost ran into them, they’d say ope and whoop. You imagine almost running into somebody and then telling them about the blue whale and the krill. They would say ope, whoop, wow, whoa. Those would be the sounds they make if that happened, you bet, and you think about trying that out. An experiment, you think. A trick.

One time you were walking down the hall with Jordan. There were two women in front of you. One tall, one shorter. Indeterminate. One says to the other, “I really need to start eating more shrimp.” She has a pained look on her face. This has been troubling her. She has been thinking about this, her face says, about how she needs to start eating more shrimp. She is pained by it, troubled by her lack of shrimp-eating. The other one, the taller or the shorter one, doesn’t matter, looks at the other one as she’s saying this. She has a pained look on her face, too. She is nodding. Slightly and imperceptibly. A series of small nods as she walks, looking at the other woman’s face. There is empathy, there is understanding. She knows the other woman really needs to start eating more shrimp. This has been troubling her, she is glad the other woman said this. Finally, she thinks, and you can’t tell what any of this means.

Did you see that, you ask Jordan. Did you see that just there.

—Ben Slotky

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Ben Slotky’s first novel, Red Hot Dogs, White Gravy was published by Chiasmus in 2010 and was re-released by Widow & Orphan in 2017. He recently completed his second novel,  An Evening of Romantic Lovemaking, a fictional autobiography told in the form of a stand-up comedy routine. His work has appeared in The Santa Monica Review, Golden Handcuffs ReviewMcSweeney’s, HobartJuked, and many other publications. These selections are from his new novel, A Wave, A Wash. He lives in Bloomington, IL with his wife and six sons.

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Mar 122017
 

This section of The Long Dry provides a wonderful snapshot of the novel as a whole. Here we can spot the tense-yet-loving dynamic in Gareth and Kate’s marriage; we sense the interminable hardship and danger of farm life itself; and we get a glimpse of the book’s central plot point: the cow that has gone missing at the height of a drought. Perhaps most importantly, we also get a snippet of Jones’ lean, spare prose — the signature quality of this fine book. — Mark Sampson

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The Finger

Inside she sets the table. The knives and forks and plates in piles on the vinyl cloth. She starts to read her catalog of supplements, things she hopes will stop her aging, help her hold less water, help her be less tired, and make her want sex more. For her age, she is a very beautiful woman, but she does not see it. It is beginning to go from her. She knows it.

He comes in, scraping his feet on the metal grill outside the back door, not because he needs to, but from habit. Or perhaps it is his announcement—a signal they have always had but never spoken of. They had many of these when they were younger.

She rinses the cafetière and warms the cup with water from the kettle, which she’s boiled several times while she has waited for him. She does not make the coffee. Some things she mustn’t do. She’s threatened by the coffee, about how strong to make it, how it tastes when it is made. He makes coffee every day, just for himself as no one else drinks it. He makes a strong potful of coffee at this time of the morning and it does him for the day, warming up the cupfuls in a pan as they are needed, which makes them stronger as the day goes on. No one else touches the pan. She says it’s why he does not sleep. His first coffee each morning is the remnants of the night before because he does not want to wake the house grinding the beans, and the children sleep above the thin ceiling of the kitchen.

He sits at the table with a loose fist and runs his thumb over the first joint of his forefinger in the way he has, so it makes a quiet purring sound, like rubbing leather.

“What about the dosing?”

“It’ll have to wait,” he says.

He rubs his finger. He does this always at the table, talking or reading a paper, even with the handle of a cup held there, so that this part of his finger is smooth and shines. Whenever he’s at rest.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve checked the obvious places and she’s not there. She’s got her head down and gone.”

He does not tell her about the stillborn calf.

“It’s typical. It has to be today,” she says. “I should have gotten up to check.”

“She would have gone anyway,” he says quietly.

He looks down at the missing part of his little finger on his right hand and makes the sound against his thumb again. She still blames herself for this damage to him. He was trying to free the bailer from the new tractor and she had done something and the catch had just bit down. He takes a mouthful of coffee. It was a clean cut and it healed well and he could have lost his hand instead. That’s how he looks at it. In some ways he loves it.

She burned the toast, so he goes quietly over and makes some more while she tries to rescue the wrecked slices.

“The vet phoned about Curly,” she says.

“Oh.”

“He wants to come today.”

He knows the vet will put the old dog down. Not today, he thinks. It’s a hard thing to have happen today, if he has
to find the cow too.

“You should have some breakfast,” he says to her. It’s odd how seriously we take the silly names of animals.

The door latch snaps and Emmy comes in still dressed in her pajamas and with her blanket tucked in her hand, thumb in her mouth. She shuffles over to the old settle and curls up with her green-and-purple zebra. She would come down when she heard her parents talking in the kitchen below in the morning.

“Hello, sweetie,” says her mother.

She shines her eyes up at her mother, looks to her father quickly, shyly. Something secret passes between them and she smiles and settles. They stop talking of the cow.

He sits there rubbing his finger and looking at the stump of his little finger fondly.

“It’s going to be hot again today,” he says.

—Cynan Jones

“The Finger” is excerpted by permission from The Long Dry (Granta Books and Parthian Books, 2014; Coffee House Press, 2017). Copyright © 2014 by Cynan Jones.

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Cynan Jones is the author of six novels, including The Dig, Everything I Found on the Beach, and Bird, Blood, Snow. He lives in Wales

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Mar 122017
 

In The Long Dry, Jones writes very well about ducks, their sex lives, and their feces. In fact, if there were an International Literary Prize for Writing about Ducks, Their Sex Lives, and Their Feces, Jones would easily win it. These passages are moments of levity in an otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating novel. –Mark Sampson

The Long Dry
Cynan Jones
Coffee House Press, 2017
136 pages; $15.95

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If there’s one thing novelist Cynan Jones knows very well, it is the menace of ducks. Ducks are a menace. Anyone who grew up on or near farmland knows this. Ducks have a way of wreaking havoc on a farm, especially with their feces. Cynan Jones knows this. In his novella, The Long Dry, Jones writes very well about ducks, their sex lives, and their feces. In fact, if there were an International Literary Prize for Writing about Ducks, Their Sex Lives, and Their Feces, Jones would easily win it. Behold:

Given the way they have to have sex, it’s remarkable that there are any ducks. More remarkable that they have sex often. The male more or less drowns the female, who has to focus hard on staying afloat, and they both have to deal with wings and beaks and water and feathers, and it looks nasty, and they still have sex. So there were a great many ducks. And they all shat everywhere.

It became a problem for the tourists, and the locals didn’t like it. People talked about the ducks in pubs, and if you stood in lines at the local shops you heard people talk about ducks … If you put your washing out, somehow the ducks knew, and by some defiance of physics managed to crap on it. And duck crap isn’t nice. It’s green like baby shit. If you fed a baby on broccoli for a week …

The reason why they shat so much … was because “the people” fed them chips, whoever “the people” were. A duck should eat things from the water; that’s what they’re designed to do. But they were lazy and so hoovered up whatever people threw them, fighting off the seagulls and the errant starlings and the pigeons and, if they had to, fighting off each other, too. This poor diet is making the poor ducks poo. That was one take. Answer: we should give them proper food. Genius. So they tried. It was not the answer. They ate the food put down and the fish and chips and had sex even more. Ducks’ arses were no tighter than they’d ever been. There were simply too many ducks.

This passage is a moment of levity in an otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating novel. The Long Dry is Jones’ debut book, first published in the U.K. in 2006 and made available in North America this year by Coffee House Press. Jones has published several other books in the years since, including The Dig, Bird, Blood, Snow, and Everything I Found on the Beach. His prose has been compared to that of Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway – that is, lines of spare, almost taciturn beauty that belie the tension and fraught emotions that coil below the surface by using short, compact sentences with a deceptively simple syntax that carries a surprising amount of descriptive weight. It is a style that could (and, perhaps, should) be labelled derivative of those two masters, but it is also one that serves the setting and themes of The Long Dry well.

This short novel (my reviewer’s copy is paginated at just 119 pages) is set on a hardscrabble farm in Wales. Jones structures the book using many briefly, almost elliptical chapters that act as a kind of narrative pointillism, slowly painting us a bigger picture. Our protagonist is Gareth, who inherited the farm from his father and lives there with his wife, Kate, and their two children, Dylan and Emmy. A couple of issues become apparent at the beginning of the book: a harsh and unforgiving drought has swept across the countryside, and a pregnant cow on Gareth’s farm has gone missing. These two misfortunes will prove the catalyst for a series of vignettes that will reveal the various physical, financial, sexual and psychological deprivations surrounding this family. As the reader soon learns, Gareth’s is a world plagued with miscarriages, sexual frigidity, infidelity, money woes and a looming family tragedy.

The novel’s central tension exists between Gareth and his wife, Kate. They do love each other but they are, we come to learn, very often on opposite sides when it comes to matters of the farm and their own success on it. Much of what divides them is the hard road they had to travel to give birth to Dylan and Emmy, as the couple suffered multiple miscarriages between their births:

They continued to try, first easily then with more need, to give their son a brother or sister. She miscarried twice. On the third time they told her she couldn’t have children then. She was thirty-four and damp like autumn, not wet in the way young women are, like spring, but damp and rich and earthy, and it didn’t seem right that she could not have a child. She was fertile and hungry, like fallen leaves.

In the midst of all this, Kate allows her herself to engage in a brief and regretful dalliance with a farmhand one day while Gareth is away. The encounter is short and loveless – the farmhand basically fucks her against a filthy tractor tire in the shed – and yet it casts Kate into a deep depression and acts of self-harm. Gareth, as far as we can tell, does not learn the truth: “It was two years before she was well again but she still feels sick now when she thinks of what she did, and the nagging doubt haunts her sometimes. It has never been the same since then. He blamed it on the miscarriages.” Through her depression, we can see how much more the farm means to Gareth than it does to her, and this divide will lead to an explosive exchange between them near the end of the novel.

Gareth’s father purchased the farm in 1951 to quit a job at a bank that he hated. Jones gives us little detail about how the father’s views on farming varied from his son’s, but one is left with the impression that Gareth’s holds an idealized view of what this land meant to his father and he is desperately trying to live up to an unspoken sense of expectation. A key link between the previous generation’s farming and Gareth’s is the story of Bill, who comes from the farm next door. Bill’s father killed himself after the hogs he had invested money in contracted a rare disease and had to be destroyed. Bill himself is described as “simple”, and never fully grasps that his family actually sold the farm prior to his father’s suicide or that the family must move into the village afterward. In an act of charity, Gareth’s father gives a portion of his land to Bill in the wake of his father’s death, a kind of pretend farm that Bill is free to work on, and it’s a kindness that Gareth himself continues to extend:

So Gareth’s father gave some land to Bill. He fenced off a few acres by the road and said to Bill it was his land now, and he could farm it. So he takes the orphaned lambs and grows things there and helps out on the farm when help is needed, like a shearing time, and he cuts grass for old ladies in the village and takes people spuds and cabbage, but underneath, as Gareth knows, he doesn’t understand still.

Perhaps fittingly, Bill’s situation on the farm features prominently in the climatic argument between Gareth and Kate near the novel’s end. Kate, fearful of their future, is pushing her husband to sell some of their land to home developers, but Gareth refuses to pull the carpet out from under Bill’s feet. “My father gave him that land,” he tells his snarling wife, “and I won’t take it from him.”

The biggest, and also darkest, irony in The Long Dry is that neither the lingering season of drought nor Gareth’s lost cow about to calve are the worst tragedies about to befall this farm, this family. We are told, in a kind narrative aside, that nine days from the conclusion of the novel’s main action, a fate will befall daughter Emmy that will lead to her sudden death. Emmy, we learn, will lose her life after eating a poisonous mushroom while out for a walk in the woods. The mushroom she eats is one of the most poisonous found in Europe: the amanita virosa, or “destroying angel.” It is especially lethal due to a delay between initial ingestion and the onset of symptoms.

Indeed, Jones goes into great chemical detail as to what happens to Emmy’s body as the toxins move through her after she eats the fungus; and it is startling how much emotional power he’s able to rend out of such a clinical description. Emmy’s death hits us hard, not because we have gotten to know her particularly well over the preceding 80-odd pages, but because Jones frames her death as just another hardship that comes from farm life, from an existence so very dependent on grappling with the natural world in all its capriciousness. Somehow, this makes Emmy’s fate even more devastating.

Thankfully, there are glimmers of hope that come near the end of The Long Dry – in the somewhat predictable form of the arrival of rain. It is what we, and Gareth’s family, are left with: the sky opening up and giving us a reprieve from all that has taken its toll on us, but also a reprieve from the even darker tragedies that await us in the wings.

—Mark Sampson

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Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His new novel, The Slip, is forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2017. Mark’s stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

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Mar 112017
 

I’m told if you score a bullet across its tip with a pocketknife, first lengthwise then across, your shot will penetrate its target cleanly, but ravage the organs inside. I thought of this when reading the blunt, clean prose of Melissa Febos in her new memoir, Abandon Me. —Carolyn Ogburn

Abandon Me
Melissa Febos
Bloomsbury, 2017
320 pages; $26.00

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I am told if you score a bullet across its tip with a pocketknife, first lengthwise then across, your shot will penetrate its target cleanly, but ravage the organs inside. I thought of this when reading the blunt, clean prose of Melissa Febos in her new memoir, Abandon Me. Her sentences are short, precise things containing emotional whirlwinds of joy and pain.

Melissa Febos is a writer and teacher who grew up in Massachusetts, earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and currently lives in Brooklyn. She’s on the faculty of Monmouth University and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA); she serves on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and the PEN America Membership Committee. Her debut work, Whip Smart (2010) is a memoir of her work as a dominatrix. It’s also a story of getting sober, getting honest, and learning to live in her own skin. (It’s also funny: When her therapist asks her what a dominatrix is, Febos responds, “It’s really just one of the most well-paid acting gigs in this city.”) Her essays are found in journals, magazines, and online venues from The Rumpus to the Chronicle of Higher Education Review.

It can be hard to write about staggeringly painful personal life stories without sounding superficial, even trite. Students are encouraged to “write from the scars, not the wounds.” With the passing of time, the story may become more focused; resonances, patterns reveal themselves, and hard emotional truths can be drawn slowly to the surface. In other words, to write a simple truth about your own life, as memoir writers do, requires a great deal of craft. For all its risqué subject matter, Whip Smart was a more or less conventional memoir written by a smart, gutsy writer not afraid to explore her own history with honesty and poise. Febos would have been barely thirty when her first book was published. Now, seven years later, she takes more chances. Abandon Me is a deeper, riskier book.

Abandon Me opens with an epitaph from the psychologist D. W. Winnicott, “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.” The book’s title, also the title of the novella-length essay found within, is both demand and plea: Abandon me. When written as a sentence—and it does feel like a sentence, both complete thought (the “you” understood, just off-stage) and punishment—the capital-A insists on being heard, a harsh, cruel word; while me is small and subjective.

The word abandon, Febos tells us, comes from the French, abandoner:

to give up, surrender (oneself or something), to give over utterly, to yield utterly.” Derived from a French phrase, Mettre sa forest a bandon, which meant to give up one’s land for a time, hence the latter connotation of giving up one’s rights for a time. Etymologically, the word carries a sense of “put someone under someone else’s control.

While no abandonment is complete in itself—and they’re all, here, ricocheting from the same impulse—the themes of absence, longing, and desire run throughout Febos’ relationships here. One of the abandonments she writes about is the departure of her father, when she wasn’t yet two. It wasn’t a disappearance: he was “a small suitcase that my parents unpacked for me as a child.” His name was Jon; he was “a career drug addict and alcoholic; he was Wampanoag; he played guitar.” She’d grown up knowing another man, here called the Captain, as her father, an Portuguese sailor whom she physically resembled more than she did her mother. The Captain left when she was eight.

In other words, Febos young life was marked by abandonment, the state of being the one left. But she’s also the one who leaves, the abandoner. Switch the words around: I abandon. I leave. “No lover had ever left me,” she writes. “I had spent enough years in therapist to know this was not something to brag about.”

The abandonment of the father mirrors that of the lover (and, in turn, mirrors that of the father), but it’s Febos’ abandonment of herself that is written most deeply throughout these pages. “Fear of abandonment begets abandonment,” Febos writes. “I gave myself away to solve the pain of his leaving and in doing so performed my own abandonment.” But along with biological bloodlines, Febos was parented by books, by story.

If a self can be said to resemble a house, Febos’ home is a library. The memoir begins with the Captain reading Ferdinand the Bull to Febos as a child, dissolving a paragraph later to the adult Febos and her lover reading Hemingway to each other in bed. Febos turns to books, stories, and television throughout the text range from Ferdinand to the Oxford English Dictionary, Salinger to Cervantes, Carl Jung to Scott Peck, William Blake to Salvador Dali, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth to the 1984 fantasy film, The NeverEnding Story. Febos’ story is stitched together with other stories, stories she’s claimed as her own. “To hold the memory of my history was to be searingly awake. I was not awake.” (178) So how much of this is true?

That’s the question everyone wants to ask the memoirist: What really happened? If you’re going to tell the truth, we demand evidence, facts, veracity. But to remember is an performance of the imagination, a deeply creative act.

She’s told us how to read her. In this 2016 essay called “Kettle Holes,” Febos writes:

We are all unreliable narrators of our own motives. And ‘feeling’ something neither proves nor disproves its existence. Conscious feelings are no accurate map to the psychic imprint of our experiences; they are the messy catalog of emotions once and twice and thrice removed, the symptoms of what we won’t let ourselves feel. They are not Jane Eyre’s locked-away Bertha Mason, but her cries that leak through the floorboards, the fire she sets while we sleep and the wet nightgown of its quenching.

We’re all, Febos seems to imply, creating ourselves out of ideas of ourselves, even while we’re living up to our nostrils in emotions that we didn’t choose, feelings (that, she reminds us, aren’t facts) that will not let us go. “Our selves are sometimes the only things over which we wield power,” she writes. “And our means of expressing it are sometimes chosen for us.”

At its most prosaic level, Abandon Me is the story of an affair: Febos fell in love with a married woman; they had a brief, tumultuous relationship, which ended messily. If you want to read the story for the plot points, you’ll find here a familiar story. Between its outlines, Febos weaves the threads of her renewed relationship with her birth father, and the women relatives with whom he lives. She pulls mythology, pop culture, history and philosophy into her narrative, as if surrounding herself with a posse of lively, intellectual friends.

But at its core, Abandon Me is almost wordless. “I had exiled large swaths of my history, and had been denied others. I had spent long stretches of time divorced from my body.” Paragraphs break off mid-thought, conversations are offered in fragments. It’s told in short chapters, often only a few pages long, even these broken into smaller units. Her friends don’t understand what she’s doing, why she doesn’t see them. She can’t explain it any better to her friends than she can to her lover. The best parts of this book make no sense at all.

That’s what I mean by ambitious. A lesser writer would have made her story make sense. She would have filled in conversations with dialogue, remembered what she wore; she would have distracted us from the gut-punch of pain that leaves us reeling with memories of our own. It’s not an easy book to read, not least because it demands that we read it with an honesty of our own.

There are places where Febos’ sentences are tonally repetitive, thudding, insistent. I longed for the distraction of a more lyrical line, and the wry humor that I remembered from Whip Smart. But maybe, more than anything else, I felt uncomfortable with my own memories of my own breathless affairs, the reminder that the most personal experiences are never ours alone, but are, despite all our feelings to the contrary, universal in their particularity. I can’t wait to see what Febos writes next.

—Carolyn Ogburn

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Carolyn Ogburn
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

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Mar 112017
 

Susan Elmslie

X
X
A Poet Has Nine Knives

One to trim the fat
One to cut the line
One for father’s back
One for that crook Time
One to keep it sharp
And to slice it thin
One that’s sly and jagged
As a gutted tin
One for keeping sheathed
One to pick the latch
One whose only deed’s
To carve your epitaph

X
X
THREE POEMS FROM “TRIGGER WARNING”

Unteachable Moment

woe to the innocent who hears that sound!
xXX—Odyssey 12.44, Fitzgerald translation

In lockdown, I’d been desperate
to hear sirens; once outside, safe,

they were too much. Paroxysmal,
dopplered, they blared past me hur-ry

hur-ry on the way to
my daughter’s daycare,

and at home, in our living room, on the TV:
looped footage. Our near silence

punctured by the stifled lament
of police cars, ambulances careening to the ER,

converging on the scene
I’d just escaped.

My husband and I,
slumped on the couch,

unable to get out the oars, were watching
our daughter playing on the floor.

“That?” she asked, pointing
at the screen. “Ambulance,” I said,

but she shook her head, still pointing,
her finger stirring the air.

I turned it right down, but I could still hear it.
I told her, “That’s a siren,”

waited to see if she was satisfied
with just the word, or if she’d press me

for what the sound itself meant
this moment. I was queasy

watching my school on the news, as if learning
who and how many

could stanch the genre, as if the next
“kept to himself” wasn’t also taking cues,

gearing up— shooting selfies, posed with his Glock—
and again, on every channel,

sirens will serenade kids filing from schools,
some with their arms on the shoulders of the kid ahead,

looking for all the world like anguished rowers.
I got down on the floor.

X
If

(after James Hoch, Miscreants)

if he had taken up guitar, played
ping pong or Ultimate Frisbee, tried
deep breathing, accepted human frailty,
adopted a mutt at the SPCA,
shovelled his neighbour’s walk,
did a year abroad
if there were more ways in than out
if he felt that someone was listening, maybe
a boy on the beach, after parasailing
at Île Sainte-Marguerite, the scent of umbrella pines
and eucalyptus in the air,
taking sips from a can of Kronenbourg
if his favourite aunt had been a police officer
if he’d had a favourite aunt
if his car had gotten a flat, and he’d taken this
as a sign to take a spiritual U-y
if he had smelled fear and been able to name it,
if he could laugh at himself
if he’d read Dostoyevsky, Ian McEwan, Tim O’Brien
if he’d preferred the Guggenheim and techno gadgets to guns
if he made a mean gulab jamun or tiramisu or quindim
if it was so simple it was beautiful
if he’d had a sibling with cystic fibrosis, a teacher from Trinidad,
a chum who medalled in Taekwondo, a summer of love,
a walk in the park, a hug around the neck,
a Sudoku habitxxxxxxif he had talked
to his doctor or mother and tried meds
and planted some sub-zero roses
if he had been pulled over for unpaid tickets,
bowed to cosmic irony and vowed to give peace
a chancexxxx.if he had not been born, or was somehow reborn
xxxxxxxxxxxxif we could recognize him this turn,
xxxxxxxxxxxxslipknot time, help him
xxxxxxxxxxxxto feel good in his skin
xxxxxxxxxxxxwhen he begins this
xxxxxxxxxxxxday and when he lays his head down to dream

X
Conventions

the same message: how horrible it was, how little
there was to say about how horrible it was.
xxxxxxxxxxXXXxXXxx—Bob Hicok, “In the Loop”

The running and then
the footage of people running.
After the chaos there is silence,
a failure of words but not of sound,
which we know travels in waves,
and the speed of which is still the distance
travelled per unit of time.
The sound of a firearm going off
in a school hallway is not unlike the sound
of a metal locker slamming inside your head.
The colleagues you hugged
and who hugged you will go back
to arms’ length, which is healthy.
Maybe you will cry
one night doing dishes,
up to the elbow in thinning suds,
combing for straggling flatware,
which might suggest something poetic
about the correspondence of the elements
or, when you think about it, the extraordinary
capacity of the workaday to anchor
and unmoor us.

X
Faith is a Suitcase

You’ve lugged it
down narrow aisles,
hoisted and stowed it overhead
with the ersatz pillows,

leaned on it
during the layover, dozed,
head nodding like a monk at prayer.

Hello split seam, wonky wheel.
Who wouldn’t blame the gorilla?

Locked, key lost.  It waits
in the corner of the room
like an agèd aunt.

X
Ativan

Fleck of wherewithal.  Just
to have it in a tiny faux-
abalone box, to know you can
lift it with a licked pinkie,
if required.  Bitter
plaster-of-Paris smear
under the tongue
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxXxbecause
the mind’s default is flee
and your baby’s lumbar puncture
is scheduled for 2:30.  Necessity
and consent
in a slow dissolve.
Not so much a buffer
as the strength to stand
beside the hospital bed
and be two of the hands
holding him for the needle’s kiss.

Descent

My baby was still nursing, and I’d lean over
the bed’s steel rails to give him the breast,
let him twist his fingers in my hair until he slept
anchored by electrodes, gauze bonnet, fat snarl of wires
twisting into a Bob the Builder backpack
that housed the Trackit box near the call switch.
I could not leave the ward though they urged me to
go home, get a shower, change.  At night,
an infrared video camera captured our quiet ballet.

I could not leave, could not leave.  On the third day
I was sent down to the basement,
to the abandoned locker room.
Past the heavy steel door that would not quite close,
I stood under exposed ducts, frazzled fluorescent tubes
in a ship’s bilge. Whiff of mildew, occult drip.
In the dim light I found the one narrow
shower stall, the slick edge
of the torn plastic curtain, pulled it back.

No one to hear me.  My baby
lay in a bed flights up, electrodes
pasted to his scalp, helmeted in gauze.
I stripped, hung my milk-sour track suit
and hospital towel on a hook, stepped over the lip
onto a flattened shopping bag spread like a lily pad
on the blackened grout, institutional-green tiles.
The first cold water,
my baptism.

—Susan Elmslie

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Susan Elmslie is a poet and college (CEGEP) professor of English and Creative Writing in Montreal. Her collection I, Nadja, and Other Poems (Brick, 2006) won the A. M. Klein Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the McAuslan First Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and a ReLit Award. Her poems have appeared in several journals and anthologies—including the Best Canadian Poetry in English (2008, 2015)—and in a prize-winning chapbook. Susan has been a Hawthornden Poetry Fellow and has read her poems in translation for the series curated by Guy Cloutier for Les poètes de l’Amérique française. A first-prize winner in the Arc Poem of the Year contest, Susan has been longlisted and shortlisted for other national and international poetry contests. Her book Museum of Kindness is forthcoming with Brick (Fall 2017).

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Mar 102017
 

Fleda Brown

We’ve published poems and essays by Fleda Brown before, but this is something special, an apotheosis of sorts. Thursday, March 16, 5-7 pm, she’ll launch The Woods Are on Fire: New & Selected Poems at the Corner Loft in Traverse City, Michigan. The book contains 20 poems selected from seven earlier books plus 48 new poems and comes out with the University of Nebrasks Press in its Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry series. The eminent Ted Kooser himself wrote the introduction.

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Fleda Brown book cover image
The Woods are on Fire: New and Selected Poems
Fleda Brown; Introduction by Ted Kooser
University of Nebraska Press, 2017
Paperback, $19.95
978-0-8032-9494-3

x

The Winner of the Art Prize

Is a 15-foot quilted forest scene
hundreds of trillium from puffily
quilted at one end to sewn-on
tatters at the other. I was saying
I don’t understand the bombs
that blow off the heads of children
and soldiers how bombs can be
expelled from their casings
with a rapture by rapture I mean
the desire to ignite and whether
this is evil or springtime-mechanized-
outsourced-multiplied-stretched
unto exhaustion. Jerry’s back
has seized up electrodes have been
fastened to various locations
to repeatedly fire to wear out
the muscles so they might return
to their previous pattern except
new pains keep coming seedlings
edging up from the dark white blasts
of trillium a natural law. Odysseus
returns after Troy, after the Cyclops,
the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis
the bloody heads of his crew their
bodies eaten or lost at sea Odysseus
after twenty years returns to Penelope
sword unsheathed suitors slain
even old Laertes murders all around
as if peace is death in other words
so what I don’t get is the quilt how
those thousands of tiny piercings
and piecings for weeks and months
when you stand back mean a forest
serene sun-dappled flowered.

x

Burial

—for Thomas Lynch, undertaker

You’re right, it’s good to have a body
in state, satin-surround, to kiss the face,
open the ground, see how it is with all
of us, how it was with my classmate
Frank who died of measles, his pillowed
freckles dark and done.
Good, the blatant coffin, the procession,
the undertaker, the taking under.
To turn a body to ash—I can see how
it flies in the face of full-on facing
how slow the earth means to be.
XXXXXJack, however, yesterday opened
a tiny wooden box and dropped
Nancy’s ashes in a hole. We each spaded
in loose dirt. What ashes were left,
that is, after he’d launched most of them
in the lake: an advantage,
to unhouse ourselves fast and float
where we will, lonely, maybe, without
even the worm’s witness, but delicately
dispersed.
XXXXXI’m thinking, though, of the gar
my uncle Dick dropped in a planting hole,
the huge white pine that peaked thirty feet
above the rest, the legend of that lain
at the foot of the tree, what one
hands the other by way of heft, the air
ponderous with it all these
eighty years.

X

Not Dying

He says he wakes and it feels momentarily
like he’s finally dying, a giving way, a sinking
or hovering, can’t say, but momentary: a window swung
open you don’t realize until a breeze.

I take him for a ride along the tongue
of land, west looking east, looking back at the city
from a point. Jet trails. He points them out, strung
like necklaces, one fresh, with its glint out front.

We talk glaciers how they stuttered and glinted
down Michigan, pools for each pause,
those excellent lapses. And branches bare because
the trees are all dead, he says, forgetting the time of year.

No, I say, dormant. Road hum. Ducks with their flawless wake.
It hurts to turn his head. I slow and turn. Each new thing
needs to be dead center, unencumbered. The names:
mallard, jet trail, Power Island. Boat slips claim

blank water breathing in their hollows. He says it feels
like dying, he says it as if he had been lit up from the inside,
a room waiting, a waiting room. Not an ordeal,
but road hum and light.

At night the aides come by. One kisses him goodnight
on the lips, he says. Where? The lips. He smiles
as if he’s gotten away with something. He’s miles
away, a faint agreeable aftertaste. Nothing he can describe.

X

Too Much Going Wrong

I want to quit thinking about
trouble and instead praise
the cars moving exactly right
along the curved roadway, not
bumping each other or the curb.
Days that were thick and watery,
everything at its summer: gerbil,
peanut butter, tippy-cup, days
that started over and over
and were still small as a VW
with its hard shocks and no
seat belts and you beside me
in the Infant Seat made of wire
and plastic and facing forward,
held down by nothing yet
at the intersections my arm
flew out to hold you back
so that nothing would happen
while everything was happening.
Sheets on the line, diapers tumbled
at the Laundromat for softness,
and in the mirror, Look, you found
yourself and me, hair and tongue,
the most delightful shapes,
words just beginning, slobber
and drool as if the universe had
thought this up, in particular,
and showed us as if in a dream
and we dreamed our way, through
nights and days, without crashing,
and inside the car the sweet
music and the small feet
bouncing up and down.

—Fleda Brown

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Fleda Brown has published nine collections of poems. Her newest book, The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, from U. of Nebraska Press, in the Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry Series, is just out. Her memoir, My Wobbly Bicycle: Cancer and the Creative Life, came out in 2016. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware and was poet laureate of Delaware from 2001 to 2007. She now lives with her husband, Jerry Beasley, in Traverse City, Michigan. She is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington.

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Mar 102017
 

James Joyce & Sean Preston

.

I’d love to be able to sing, or play piano. Can you imagine how obnoxious I’d be if I had a tangible talent?” he said to her, as though a more discreet gift bubbled beneath his surface.

The pair crossed the road. He did that thing where he blocked her way with his arm, intending to lift this arm barrier when an opportunity to cross the road arose. She did that thing where she stepped through his arm barrier a second earlier than he would lift it, indicating that she did not need his help crossing the road. He didn’t mean to condescend, not that he cared if he did, but it was not his intention. He found crossing the road challenging. There were several near misses in his youth; he worried that they would die crossing the road.

She had her habits. One of them was buying cheap furniture from places that were so fucking far away, by the time you paid for travel to the ungodly zones of south-west London, you hadn’t really saved much money at all.

This habit is why the pair stood outside a house in an area of London that they had never been to before. She looked around, the air smelt unseasonably fresh, wet with Autumn. A tree that stood in the front garden had been chopped to a stump. Somewhere in her that made her feel glum. Still, it was a beautiful house, and beautiful houses encouraged something close to hope, she had found.

“Wouldn’t you like to live around here?” she asked.

“Why? So we can travel all the way to north-east London to get cheap furniture?”

“Stop moaning. Always moaning. I’m paying for it,”

“It’s not the paying for it. I’d happily pay for it and stay at home and let you carry a chair all the way home.” He said, before a satisfyingly timely sneeze shook his world. “Ugggghhh. Fucking cold; fucking eBay.”

“How long have you been ill for?”

“Dunno. Just sort of came over me today… like a…”

“Don’t do the like thing.”

“Came…. Over… Me… like…”

This habit is the habit of trying to be funny. It is a noble pursuit. Whatever simile he came up with would be irrelevant. He believed the real humour to be derived from trying to be funny was not any resulting wit, but the actual pursuit of humour itself.

*

Armchair collected, the pair emerged from the house, the chair arched on his back.  She would pirouette down the garden path, thanking the woman who had sold the chair, smiling wide, complimenting the beautiful garden, saying goodbye, wishing well, assuring the seller that they were OK to carry the acquisition.

Once outside, alone, they stopped to work it all out. They hadn’t thought this far ahead. She took the front legs of the chair – a thick oak frame with the promise of reclineability, and he cupped the back legs with his hands, bearing most of the weight. It wasn’t working. It was awkward. He just wanted to do it his way, to carry it on his own. But more than that he wanted to complain.

“This is much bigger than you said it would be.”

“Well, she was standing next to it in the picture so it looked little. I didn’t expect her to be that sort of bigness.”

He laughed at that. Her lazy TV parlance threw up some excellent descriptions from time to time.

“Yeah. She was a sort of a weird bigness though. Mainly big below the waist. Like a Weeble.”

She nodded in agreement, smirking politely.

“Like Mrs Doubtfire when she messes up the costume change in that restaurant bit.”

“Or one of those children’s’ drawing where you fold the paper and draw the next compartment…”

“Yes, yes… like some kid drew it and she came to life, “ he added. “Y’know, I once broke up with a girl in infants by writing: ‘You’re dumped’ on the t-shirt of the middle torso bit.”

“You’ve told me.” A habit of his was to recall occasions in which he had outsmarted or bettered romantic interests in his life.

“I bet you used to draw a Papa Roach t-shirt or something shit like that.” He said, hurt, before dropping the chair on one side, sending the leg into his thigh.

“FUCK. Fuck, fuck, fuck. For fuck’s sake.” He put the chair down and continued the display of anguish. “It’s not working. Let me carry it on my own. You’re too low bodied.”

“You’re holding it too high.”

“If I hold it lower I’m bending my back like a fucking tramp.’

It was her time to perform now. She displayed doubt; reservation at the analogy.

He picked up the chair, hoisted it on his back. “Tramps bend.”

“Are you just thinking of Fagin? Because he’s not really a tramp.”

“Of course he is, he wears fingerless gloves.” He stepped down from the pavement to avoid an oncoming family that, to his utter dismay, had not single-filed. “Ahhh, this fucking thing. I’m not well enough for this.”

“I’ll give you a blow-job when you get home.”

“No you fucking won’t! Don’t fucking say that if it’s not true.”

She shook her head. Now it was her turn to be hurt. “I paid for it; I pay for fucking everything for the house. You never buy shit for the house.”

“You care about the house. I don’t. I don’t buy shit for the house because I don’t care. I don’t fucking go on at you for not buying porn because you don’t fucking like porn. What would be the point?”

“What porn do you buy?”

He picked the chair back up. “Blow-job porn. Men getting blow-jobs from girlfriends and not carrying chairs.”

“Not-carrying-chairs porn?”

“Welcome to 2016.”

*

The tube was fairly empty. A real reprieve, he thought. The presumption that the carriage was going to be busy had made him anxious. Seeing the lit carriage pull up with whole sections empty delivered a lightness to the evening. The worst was over. The unknown: gone. The meeting of strangers: gone. The carrying: the worst of it behind him.

She noticed his mood variations and had a basic understanding of root cause. Food was a great modifier, of course, and there were also antagonisers and pacifiers at her disposal. She used them sparingly, used them well. Right now, she pacified him by mothering him. Her hand rested gently upon his skull, her fingers stroked his crown. He couldn’t kiss in public, so it had always struck her as odd that he was so readily mothered in front of people. The carriage was emptyish but even if it had not have been, he would’ve let her cosset him.

“So illlllll.”

She smiled. Not a performing smile. “I know.”

“I’m always so sick all the time.”

“My little permanently ill poorly child.”

“Are you poisoning me?”

“To death. “

“At least I’ll get some sleep and won’t have to carry chairs home.”

Then he did that thing he does in sitting up very suddenly, remembering something important, a matter of urgency somehow recovered:

“I really wanted to watch Space Jam the other day.”

“It’s on iPlayer.”

“It’s not on iPlayer. I checked.”

“I’ve got it on VHS,” she said, regretting instantly.

“What fucking good is VHS? We don’t have a video player. I have one video and it’s porn and it’s useless because we don’t… have…. a video player. When I want to watch Space Jam, I watch it online, when I want to come, I come to stuff online.”

“So loud. Shut up.”

“Wasn’t that loud.”

Quiet, briefly.

“Always talking about coming.”

“Well. I dare say I wonder why.”

“Ooooo. So dry. Such great ‘dry comedy’.”

“That also is very good dry comedy. Much drier than mine because you really prolonged the bit where you said ‘dry comedy’. Dryer… than… a Ryvita.”

“Not great.”

“A Ry… vi… ta… with a hangover.”

“Yeah. Still not your best work.”

And then that silence where the pair go who knows where.

“Actually, I was going to say,” he said, finally, “Why did you tell Brian that I would be unlikely to want to go on any holiday with them this year.

”Well I dunno. You said you didn’t want to go away.”

“No. I didn’t want to organise going away.“

“Well I dunno-uh,” she protested again. “He mentioned it to me and I said I wasn’t sure because I knew I would be in trouble if I said the wrong thing.”

“No one is in trouble in this relationship. Least of all you.”

Silence again. The tube stopped. The doors chimed. The doors opened. A girl with an ironically garish Gucci sweatshirt got on. It was the sort of sweatshirt his girlfriend used to wear when they first started seeing each other. It was tight, promised nothing. There was charm to the train girl’s makeupless face, and the dampness to her neck, flushed red, was encouraging somehow.

He stared at the girl. He is a fool in this way. He mostly thought of how much he wanted the sweatshirt, but also, inevitably, he thought of the girl naked. He learnt to hate this in himself, or maybe she had taught him. He considered this before an awareness that his partner was staring at him staring at the train girl came over him suddenly, dreadfully.

“God. Doesn’t she… doesn’t she look like… actually you don’t know… Thingy, anyway.”

He crossed his arms, checked his shoes, contracted his lips, raised his eyebrows, aware that his subterfuge had fooled no one. But he is unyielding. He will maintain his innocence, should it be questioned. He shouldn’t have panicked, he should have said nothing, but he did. He would’ve grasped at anything.

“Oh, I sorted that problem with the toilet seat.”

“What problem?” she asked, poker faced.

“It kept moving side to side. Had to get underneath it and screw it back up,” he said, performing the actions as he explained.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah, it moved side to side.”

“Maybe you can fix Catherine’s as well.”

There it is.

“What?”

“Maybe you can fix Catherine’s toilet as well.”

“Why this again?”

“You’re such a fucking liar.”

“What are you on about?”

She shook her head. Rueful. She was rueful. And she was a volatile human being. She approached eruption. He had seen this many times. This was their habit, and it had to play out. He hoped that she would take pity on him. It sometimes went that way. He wished that he could take back all the moaning about the chair, he wished that he could go back to being mothered, or smothered. He wished he could go back to carrying the chair. He didn’t want the Gucci sweatshirt, no matter how beautifully garish it was, or how beautifully it framed the train girl’s tits. He wished all thoughts of nakedness could be expelled forever. He just wanted her to take pity on him, see his suffering. And this time she did. Sort of. She wasn’t going to let it rest yet, but there was calm to her.

“Look at your face, you look so panicked.”

He sensed that he could speak freely. He might’ve ventured exasperation, even.

“I’m not panicking. I just hate being accused. I’m sick, I’m picking up a chair, and you just wanna turn it on me somehow so you’re the upper-hand person. You want to be in control; you hate it when I get to be fed up about something. So now you’re bringing up nonsense about some girl I fucking hate anyway. And she’s ugly. I wouldn’t have sex with her if I was single.”

“So your life is basically just not having sex with people you want to because you have a girlfriend?”

That’s every man’s life!

Sssh.

“What makes you think that’s not every woman’s life too?”

“Because they don’t just try to have sex all the time when they’re single.”

“Are you having sex with her?”

“For fuck’s sake, no!” And then a sneeze. A big one. Followed by a second. “I’m too ill for this shit.” He wiped his eyes, sniffed a few more times. “And too grumpy in life now to make anyone else want to have sex with me. Way too miserable a conversationalist. And deaf too. I can’t hear anything in clubs anymore. Could you imagine a chat with me at some bar? ‘Hey, y’alrght, what’s your name?’ … ‘Yamya.’ … ‘What? Never mind. What you drinking?’ ‘Yamya.’ … ‘Oh fuck off.’”

What a reward it was to hear her laugh. Better yet when she had to look away to try and hide it.

*

“Nearly home now,” she said, pointing out what was undeniable. He offered nothing, the chair on his back, the air colder, his mood subdued, beaten. “So did Brian try it on with anyone the other night?”

It was her habit to talk, to find out what had happened.

“Yes, this one girl. She was horrid.”

“What… bitchy?”

“I dunno if she was bitchy. I mean she was horrid to look at. Discouraging face.”

“Perfect for him. So what went wrong then?”

“He commented on her facial hair.”

What the fuck? Why would anyone do that?”

He looked at her now. “I know, I know. She did have a fair bit going on though. Not that he should have said anything.”

“What did he say?”

“I dunno. Some joke about signing up to her Movember.”

“Oh my God. What an actual dickhead.”

“It wasn’t even part of his routine, he was trying to get somewhere with her. He came up to me later asking where she was gone. Said he loved her.”

“He probably did.”

He laughed. He loved it when they got on like this.

“’She takes photos, maannn.’”

He loved it when they put other people down.

“Ugh, lame.”

He loved it when they saw the same thing.

“Totally”

When they understood.

“Dweebs. The lot of ‘em.”

When he remembered why.

“Why do all girls take photos?” she complained.

“Fucking excellent question. I honestly don’t know, but I have never been out with a girl before you that didn’t consider herself a photographer. It’s like men who are DJs. ‘Yeah I DJ’d at my mate’s thing the other night.’ … ‘Cool, did your girlfriend take photos of the night oh she did oh well that’s fucking great cheers mate.’”

“I think men find it attractive because it reminds them of porn.”

“Because some porn is photos?” he said, labouring a confused expression.

“Yeah.”

He nodded, accepting the suggestion as at the very least valid.

She offered: “Photography… pornography.”

*

The armchair didn’t fit. That was obvious from the minute they were in the living room. The cove it was supposed to slot into was way too narrow. The pair stood, trying to figure out whether there was anything that could be done. But there was nothing. It simply would not fit.

He looked at her, his hands on hips. And she looked back at him. She did that thing, that exaggerated grimace.

“I love you,” she said.

“I told you,” he whimpered, immediately.

“Don’t look so satisfied. You look like your grandad that time he read that article about tofu giving you cancer.”

“Don’t. Even.”

“Do you want a blow-job?”

He sighed. Sneezed. “I love you too.”

—Sean Preston

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East Londoner Sean Preston is the editor of short fiction platform Open Pen, considered by Francis Plug: “More like a shot of absinthe than a pint of boring lager.” Sean is an ex-pro wrestler, full-time thing-maker at a South London record label, and short fiction writer.

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Mar 092017
 

agustin-fernandez-mallo-by-aina-lorente-solivellas-500pxAgustín Fernández Mallo (Photo by Aina Lorente Solivellas)

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From Joan Fontaine Odisea

4.

A created thing is more perfect
the less it carries the mark of man,

thank you, Bar Code, for still guaranteeing silence,
the ingredient in objects alchemy was searching for.

Underneath this skin is another skin,
and under that another, and another, and another,
and thus, as many layers as you like, until n∊N→∞
antecenter of the center which is finite.
That center is the mask.

[the week has 8 Mondays. The 8th is the week]

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4.1

This beach is one I don’t recognize. A bottle moves
closer in to shore with the message afmallo@hotmail.com, which
I myself wrote when I was a capsized drifter
and I didn’t throw messages into the ocean but into rivers
which
[I didn’t know] goe out to the see whiche is deeth.
You spread out pure,
unoxidized,
unwinged.
On beaches you’ve never walked you now step upon yourself.

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5.

The ball traces a parabolic arc and
the golfer matches its arpeggio with her back.

The sky tenses and her breasts,
more mercury than ever, complete the silhouette
against the ocean of grass.
……………………………….It’s raining
against the grain.

The water’s geometry can’t overcome
the dry thwack of silence when the atmosphere gasps and the ball touches
….down.
Sphere against sphere. Your nipples
[endless and expectant] turn down, the windows
of a beach hotel in winter.
……………………[a car honks, your husband’s waiting].
No caddie could ever
pick your clubs like me.

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5.1

Light at dawn undoes the knots
on bowties, cuts through the make-up,
dissolves smoke and happy new year!s
in that hollowness that lasts a few hours
when the calendar shifts a digit.
………..I surprise myself thinking one day I’ll be an ancestor.
You come in pulling on a bra strap, oblivious
to the black and white confetti stuck to brittle hair,
I want you to know that tonight is my birth, you say,
and I won’t be able to forget you.
In that house we were all
terminal mannequins from Golpes Bajos,
material from childhood [where nothing ever happens
and you have to make it up].
Creation and Apocalypse sometimes coincide.

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5.1.1

The point of remembering is forgetting
oneself, making the heart into
a weathered magnet that leaves
things equidistant from each other,
…………………….spinning
…………………….in their places,
the point is not to try to find out
where the sliver of light under
doors is coming from,
or the sliver of light between your lips.

.

14.

At the end I saw my body empty out
………..[1.83 m in 64 kilos]
a pencil with no lead you joked
Saturday afternoons
and Antonio Vega was playing:
I get a chill when I see
your young body and your soul
isn’t in its place anymore.

A suitcase with no destination
is a suspicious object.
A body with no shape
………..[1.83 m for 64 kilos]
is the axis around which
a traveler spins, awkward and pointless,
never my guest again.

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14.1

I look at your smile and I think
all lyric poetry expresses loss.
A child doesn’t write verse,
a diet of memory still hasn’t
passed through him, they still
haven’t shuttered
his local Toys Я Us.

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70.

The first light of day doesn’t stop the night,
it keeps on weary in another
more visible and secret sector.
…………[grass between asphalt cracks,
…………ice on the edge of a kiss,
…………the implosion of planets,
…………the silence of objects].

What you’re seeing isn’t morning,
but the logical opponent of night
produced by binary reasoning,

to wake up is to be reduced to photons,
center and stop-point
of that other nocturnal particle which is sleep
sectioned into petals.
And they fall.

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From Ya nadie se llamará como yo


I see a forest and something more alive inside (prayer)

…………An indeterminate being wanders through the valleys, howls on the peaks, sleeps beneath the snow, its tracks take on different directions all the time. Nonetheless, it senses the Earth’s magnetic field. I know because its footsteps follow the veins of certain minerals. (Cardiology)

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

…………The cells of the retina are the same as those of the skin because when we are embryos the retina is part of the skin. This gives us a clue as to why the literature of every civilization develops a multiplicity of analogies between the eyes, the epidermis, and that which unites them, light. (Great Migrations, 1)

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

…………The wolf rejects us because he knows that in his chest there is an area, no larger than the pit of a cherry, which is incredibly sweet to a palate we believe we have forgotten. (Zoophilia, 1)

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

…………In a big-box store I saw kids playing with balls from the display stand, pedaling around and ditching the bike wherever they felt like it, jumping rope, hitting punching bags with no rhythm; the ones who weren’t yelling were laughing. “These kids here have grown up inside, they don’t know anything else,” he said to me. (Foundational Moments, 1)

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

…………The hardcourt used for the game of tennis is obtained by crushing thousands of bricks taken from abandoned housing developments. (Great Migrations, 2)

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

…………Animals pose in front of the camera lens but not because they feel they are being watched. The pose is older than their looks, even older than their bodies. The pose is blind, but it sniffs, it finds its way. (Speleology, 1)

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

…………In rural areas Nature is strictly separated from the human habitat: specialized physical and climactic barriers are erected between the home and open country to ensure survival. In cities, the urban landscape forms a continuum with the buildings’ interiors, the city enters its apartments in the form of colors, smells, materials, and even flora and fauna. This continuity is what ensures the survival of the inhabitants of an urban space. (Extreme Climatology, 1)

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

…………In me there is no body: I am a ship travelling in the same direction as Earth. (Pet, 1)

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

…………Regarding the ancients and their languages, now dead, we must remember that we only retain their texts, the writings they’ve left us, not the sonic record, and so we have no idea how they pronounced their words. If today we could hear a Greek from the 4th century B.C. pronounce poiesis, or a Roman say rosae, it’s possible we would hear what would, for us, be grunts or birdsong. Just thinking of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra spouting out sounds like a dog barking, or a whale or a robot, produces a kind of shiver that could knock down a good portion of our idea of History, or even of civilization. What’s left to us is the mute materiality of that writing, and we make up a sonic landscape for ourselves, built as a fantasy. Thus, the only thing that truly brings back the past in real time is sound. That’s why voices are so important for the paranormal, for spiritualists, in live concerts, political rallies, etc. The oldest recorded human voice is a 35-second recitation of the poem, “America,” read in 1890 by its author, Walt Whitman, and recorded on a primitive wax cylinder. 35 seconds which not only seem to bring the poet to us from beyond the grave, but which also establish year zero of human speech such as we know it today. (Spring, 1)

I see a forest and something more alive inside..

—Agustín Fernández Mallo, translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington

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Agustín Fernández Mallo was born in La Coruña in 1967. He is a qualified physicist and since 2000 has been collaborating with various cultural publications in order to highlight the connection between art and science. His Nocilla Trilogy, published between 2006 and 2009, brought about an important shift in contemporary Spanish writing and paved the way for the birth of a new generation of authors, known as the ‘Nocilla Generation.’ He has also published a book of stories, El hacedor (de Borges), remake, and the essay Postpoesía, hacia un nuevo paradigma. His poetry is collected in the volume Yanadie se llamará como yo + Poesía reunida (1998–2012), and his latest novel, Limbo, was published in Spain in 2014.

Zachary Rockwell Ludington teaches Spanish at Emory University in Atlanta. He received an award in 2014 from the PEN/Heim Translation Fund for Pixel Flesh, his version of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Carne de píxel. His creative work has appeared in Drunken Boat, PEN America, and elsewhere.

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Mar 082017
 

Carlos Fonseca cropped 500px

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Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lágrimas is a novel that deals with the attempt of mathematician Alexander Grothendieck to isolate himself in the Pyrenees and devise a formula that encapsulates the whole of the 20th century. To do so he invents different personalities, all with different lives and interests — Chana Abramov, a woman obsessed with painting the same Mexican volcano a thousand times, Vladimir Vostokov, an anarchist in battle with technological modernity, and Maximiliano Cienfuegos, a simple man who will nonetheless become the symbol for the Colonel’s as well as Europe’s restless political conscience. Grothendieck’s own life story traverses the 20th century, from the Russia of the October Revolution to the Mexico of the anarchic 1920s, from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam, back to France and from there to the Caribbean islands.

While reading it I thought of the theories of social scientist Gregory Bateson, who saw society as a set of systems with adaptive changes, dependent on feedback loops and the way multiple variables change and interact. This is a deceptively simple novel — turning its pages, one enters a kind of Zen state, as anecdote follows anecdote, and every word is located precisely in the place that seems right for it. But these are not just jewels moved by pincers on a metal plate. Through its form, Colonel Lágrimas dares to ask about the meaning of activity and the meaning of thinking, and embodies those questions in the structure of the text itself.

Each fragment is exquisitely written, and although not linear, the carefully phrased thoughts seem to be in an order that makes sense. If one were to be swapped out, however, it would not fundamentally dislodge the architecture of the work. Every individual “idea” contributes to the anecdotal edifice, but the book does not really depend on any one of them, in the way a formula depends on the variables that comprise it. Just as in Bateson’s theories, the pieces interlock in interactive ways that suggest a meaning beyond the individual parts. Any “formula” devised by Grothendieck would have to be dextrous enough to take these billions of feedback loops, sequences and interactive mechanisms into account, no minor undertaking, perhaps even impossible.

Colonel Lágrimas embarks on these abstract challenges in a way that is both beautiful and analytical — it doesn’t surprise me that Fonseca used to want to be a mathematician. Born in Costa Rica in 1987, he grew up in Puerto Rico. Now he lives in London and teaches at the University of Cambridge. The book was originally published by Anagrama, and was translated for Restless Books by Megan McDowell, who has also worked on Juan Emar, Alejandra Zambra, Carlos Busqued and a number of other authors.

Book Cover Lagrimas

Jessica Sequeira (JS) : How did you decide to write this book? In what ways does it link to your life experiences and to your studies? (It doesn’t have to, of course, but I wonder if there’s a connection.)

Carlos Fonseca (CF): I think most books are the product of a constellation of obsessions. I started writing Colonel Lágrimas as soon as I saw that many of my obsessions coincided within the same structure: my obsession with Chuck Close’s hyper-realist portrait paintings, my obsession with Alexander Grothendieck’s life as some sort of allegory of the twentieth century, my obsession with archives and archival-novels. When I started writing it, I was finishing my doctoral studies and I somehow imagined the novel as a form of escape from academic studies. Then again, you can never escape your obsessions. So the novel ended up addressing some of the ideas that intrigued me at the time: the idea of a history as a giant museum, the inability to pass from thought to action, the Borgesian notion of history being reduced to a giant encyclopedia or archive. And then, there is also the story of how – as an adolescent – I wanted to be a mathematician. Perhaps, now that I think about it, the novel was a way of rethinking my past.

JS: The colonel seems to face a similar set of questions a historian would. While reading, I noted some of his possible confusions, which I’ll copy here:

Is history a science? Is the attempt to create a blueprint misguided if we’re talking about human endeavor? Or can one look for a pattern there as well? If so, how should one go about trying to find it? Is it best to remove oneself from the world to ensure peace of mind and the tranquility necessary for tracing larger arcs? Or should one try to be as actively engaged in daily life as possible? Do the aims of history writing undergo development, in the same way that ideas of modernism marked a literary shift, partly in response to scientific discoveries? And is there some shining pattern or arch-truth behind these changes? Or is history just an infinite parade of possible anecdotes to arrange, catalogue, exhibit, assemble and frame in a Duchampian exercise, like a box of old film reels? Can the historian in his observational role play some part in affairs, creating change through his attempt to understand? Or is this withdrawal into the imagination folly? My question for you is how you see history, and how is it different or similar to the colonel’s?

CF: I am fascinated by history and I like the image of the historian as someone lost in a giant archive, shuffling around documents as if they were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. And you are absolutely right: I am interested, not so much by the figure of the historian as he who finds the “truth” about history, but rather as he who recontextualizes and reframes the fragments of history. As you note, this is a Duchampian gesture: what matters is the frame, the context. A playful take on history. In this sense, more than a scientist or even a historian, the colonel is a collage artist: like Walter Benjamin before him, his idea is to construct a book in which every single forgotten fact is quoted, framed and analyzed. An encyclopedia of forgotten histories that would permit us to see the other side of History. On the other hand, the book is also critical of the image of that peaceful museum so often imagined as the peaceful resolution at the end of history. The question remains: how to think of political action within this giant museum? How to break open the museum’s doors and start running against the wind of history?

JS: You’ve mentioned Duchamp’s techniques. What is your relationship to art and how do you see contemporary literature as engaging with some of the techniques of the art world? (Do you see it doing this?)

CF: I have become, lately, very interested in artand in particular conceptual art – as a territory lying at the limit of literature. I like Duchamp’s gesture of moving art away from the immediacy of the sensory towards the realm of the conceptual. Or at least, forcing us to reimagine what the relationship between the sensory and the conceptual, between feeling and thought, might be, beyond a mere contradiction. Ideas, too, have a body, I would claim. I see contemporary art as a playful realm of liberty for the imagination and as such I see it as the limit towards which literature should aim. I think that to write alongside Duchamp – as writers like Enrique Vila-Matas, Mario Bellatín or Margo Glantz do – is to imagine literature as a realm where thought meets emotion. As Don DeLillo likes to say: “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking.” I like to think that Duchamp’s gesture is precisely this: to turn thinking into art and art into thinking.

JS: Do you think of yourself as influenced by Puerto Rican or Costa Rican writing in any way? Or do you think nationalistic categories aren’t important?

CF: Influences are a tricky subject. I think you end up being influenced by much more than you imagine or intend. In this sense I can only hope to be influenced by both the Puerto Rican and the Costa Rican literary traditions, traditions which I have read passionately and which abound in wonderful writers. I like to think that just like each writer has two parents, each writer inherits, indirectly, two different traditions. In my case, being born in Costa Rica and raised in Puerto Rico, I like to think that perhaps a novel like Colonel Lágrimas is the strange offspring of the Puerto Rican baroque writing, on the one hand, and Costa Rican minimalism and experimentation, on the other. While writing the novel I kept thinking that the playful narrator had much to do with the voyeurist narrator in Luis Rafael Sánchez’s 1976 novel La guaracha del Macho Camacho, a novel that fascinates me due to its rhythm and narrative techniques. Meanwhile, I also kept thinking about Carmen Naranjo’s 1982 novel Diario de una multitud, an experimental novel that always reminds me of a set of Russian dolls. I don’t think national categories should be abolished but rather rethought or disrupted in innovative ways. But, I guess at the end of the day, I agree with Italo Calvino’s quote: “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.” The writer always has to be a bit out of place, he has to become a bit of foreigner even to himself. Writing is, in a way, another form of exile.

JS: In such a globalized world and with your experiences and influences in particular, do you still think “Latin American literature” makes sense as a phrase?

CF: I think “Latin American literature” only makes sense as an anthropological phantasy: as the label others give us, that is to say, as a particular lens through which the world sees us. I only figured this out when I arrived to study in the United States. Until then, it had always been a pain for me to explain my double-nationality to others: the way I was both Costa Rican and Puerto Rican. This was solved as soon as I arrived to the United States. Suddenly, I figured others had decided for me: I was Latin American. Like any other identity, this was, after all, nothing else but a mask. But masks and phantasies are also real. I think, beyond asking whether it exists or not, it is important for Latin American writers to play with this phantasy: to play with the anthropological phantasy that is Latin America in the eyes of the world. We always need to rethink the phantasy in order to critique it, I would claim. I also think that these broader categories end up helping writers from peripheral countries. If you stay at the national level, you keep reproducing the hierarchies dictated by the market: unknowingly, you keep speaking about Argentine, Mexican and Colombian writers, just because their market visibility is greater. Latin America as a category gives space to writers from countries that wouldn’t have visibility otherwise: countries like Ecuador, Paraguay, or Bolivia, just to mention a few.

JS: The Restless Books page refers to a “new Latin American boom”. Do you think that this term is legitimate? Or do you think phrases like this should also be abolished?

CF: Besides it being legitimate or not, I understand what they seem to be referring to: let’s say that in the post-Bolaño literary landscape, Latin American writers have gained a heightened visibility. Latin America – whatever that might be – is seen as a territory of literary innovation, as an exciting place where new voices can be found. The Bolaño phenomenon – for good or evil – transformed the way international publishers see our work and allowed for the region to be reimagined, no longer as the land of magical realism, but rather as the land of avant-garde innovation. I think this is a great step forward, independently of whether it comes with an actual boom or not. Of course, it does hint at the fact that the boom is still present in our imaginations as the golden age of Latin American literature: a spectre that never gets tired of haunting us.

JS: What writers or artists are important for you? Who do you like to read, from the past and present? How have you been influenced by the work of your teacher, Ricardo Piglia, and how does your work break from his?

CF: The other day I was rearranging my library, so I had time to think about this: which author to place alongside which author, who to give the best spots and so on. I guess, at least right now, the names in the main shelves are the following: Faulkner, Machado de Assis, Borges, Sebald, DeLillo, Lispector, Perec, Sarraute and Piglia. Then, next to them: Bernhard and Calvino. From each I have a particular memory, and perhaps my favorite is Faulkner, but with regards to this novel, I think the most important author was Machado de Assis whose Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (published in the UK as Epitaph of a Small Winner) is a fascinating inheritor to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: a playful experiment in narration. I love the idea of thinking of Machado as a black nineteenth century Brazilian predecessor of Borges, another author that is always central, not only to me, but to most writers in general. Regarding Ricardo Piglia, there is no doubt I am highly indebted to him, not only for his generosity and his amazing lectures, but for his capacity to redefine the way we read nowadays. Very few people, if any, have reimagined the figure of the reader in such a radical manner.

JS: In what direction is your current work headed?

CF: As of late I have become obsessed with obsession. I have become fascinated with protagonists whose engagement with their fixed ideas leads them to that shaky territory between art and science, between madness and reason, between art and nonsense. I am more and more interested by so-called outsider artists: artists working in the realm of that which Jean Dubuffet called “Art Brut”. Artists who don’t see themselves as artists. I see in them a metaphor of art itself, as well as a new way of linking thought and art.

JS: It’s fashionable to glamorize action in the world, and criticize thinking. While your book criticizes somebody who thinks too much, it also gets at many of the subtleties and pleasures of thought. How do you conceive of the relationship between thought and action? Do you think there is still a role for the observer in a world so oriented toward the glamorization of the “event”?

CF: This was one of my greatest obsessions while writing the novel. I wanted to explore the relationship between thought and action. Most people, when they read the novel, say that in it nothing happens. I accept these comments gladly precisely because I was interested in producing such a space of tedium, boredom and thought. A space which, like a museum, has secluded itself from the world in order “to think” the world, but where nothing necessarily happens, at least in the sense of the action to which we are accustomed. The protagonist of the novel, the colonel, belongs in fact to that strange sect of explorers of the negative which Enrique Vila-Matas has so well described in his book Bartebly and Co. Like Bartebly and like Alexander Grothendieck, upon whose life story the novel is based, the colonel decides one day to renounce the life of action in order to dedicate himself solely to the life of thought. I am fascinated by such characters: characters which one day decide to devote themselves to a conceptual project that might at first sight seem absurd, characters like the protagonist of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. I am interested in sketching out how thought is also a type of action, perhaps the most beautiful and contemporary of them all. The only action that truly changes the world.

—Carlos Fonseca & Jessica Sequeira

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Carlos Fonseca Suárez was born in Costa Rica in 1987 and grew up in Puerto Rico. His debut novel, Coronel Lágrimas, was published in Spanish by Anagrama and in its English translation, as Colonel Lágrimas, by Restless Books. His work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, BOMB, Minor Literatures, and The White Review. He was recently selected as one of the twenty new young voices in Latin Literature by the FIL Guadalajara. He currently teaches at the University of Cambridge and lives in London.

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Jessica straightened

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator born in California, at home in Buenos Aires. @jess_sequeira
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Mar 072017
 

Ceramic box Michel_1Ceramic box by Michel Pastore

Michel Pastore and Evelyne PorretMichel Pastore and Evelyne Porret

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Long ago I lived in North Africa. I learned that among the Berber peoples, the erotic verses from the Koran are traced on the body of the bride with henna—her hands and feet, belly and breasts. On the night of her wedding, her husband licks her body and swallowing, embodies the sacred erotic.

When in the Loire Valley years later, I saw the ceramics of Michel Pastore and Evelyne Porret, I was stunned by the sight of so many domestic objects that were not only beautiful, but also somehow transcendent. In the deepening shadows the late afternoon, they sparked the air and sizzled—more like amulets and talismans than bowls and plates. I mean to say that if they were destined for domestic pleasure, their emphasis was more on the ecstatic than the domestic. This encounter remains one of the most powerful influences within my creative life. Several of the pieces I saw that day are visible below.

Around the time I returned to the United States, Michel and Evelyne moved to Fayoum, Egypt. There they built a home, a ceramics studio and a kiln of clay brick. Soon after arriving, in 1989, Evelyne opened a studio school for local children which is flourishing to this day.

In 1991, Michel, always protean, and inspired by the weavers of the ancient village of Nagada, became interested in textile and clothes design. With the Lebanese designer, Sylvia Nasralla, he opened a shop in Cairo named Nagada. (If you watch this video of a Nagada fashion show, you will be enchanted.)

— Rikki Ducornet.
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Ceramic Evelyne_2Ceramics by Evelyne Porret (above and below)

Ceramic Evelyne_1
ceramic Michel 2Ceramic by Michel Pastore

House in FayoumPastore/Porret house and studio at Fayoum.

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Fayoum photos PDF-19AThe studio in Fayoum

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Pastore and Porret looking at platesPastore and Porret at the studio

First potA pot made of local clay, from the first firing in the Fayoum studio

Fayoum photos PDF-21

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Fayoum photos PDF-47

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Green box 500px

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—Ceramics by Michel Pastore & Evelyne Porret; text by Rikki Ducornet.

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Evelyne Porret and Michel PastoreEvelyne Porret and Michel Pastore

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Rikki DucornetRikki Ducornet

Rikki Ducornet is the author of eight novels as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a two-time honoree of the Lannan Foundation, and the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. Widely published abroad, she is also a book illustrator and painter who exhibits internationally. Her work is held by the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Chile, McMaster University Museum in Canada, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Rikki lives in Port Townsend, Washington.

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Mar 062017
 

By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is  playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels. —Jason DeYoung

The Schooldays of Jesus
J. M. Coetzee
Viking, 2017
272 pages; $27.00

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I.

“T his is how it is. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbor and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now. Time begins. The clock starts running.” Ironically, this here and now is the afterlife.

Characters eking out lonely lives in an unrecognizable historical situation or in an altogether invented milieu are classic narrative approaches in J. M. Coetzee’s novels. But where The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus differ is that its characters have no past. They have come to this novel “world” washed clean of their former lives, without their memories, and given new names—given new ages! One might arrive a child, another a 41-year old male. They are set on their new paths with their new names to find new work or new caregivers. They are forced to learn to read and speak a new language, and given only the most modest of starts in a place called Novilla—a “no town,” where “things do not have their due weight.”

Perplexing and certainly stranger than Coetzee’s other works, these novels continue the departure from his more well known realistic fiction found in such novels as Disgrace or Age of Iron. Indeed, his new works are less concerned with standard storytelling altogether. As David Attwell describes in his critical biography J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing (2015), after Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in 2003, the “simple urge to represent” no longer seem to interest him, instead he is currently engaging in “secondary-order” questions such as, “What am I doing when I represent? What is the difference between living in the real world and living in a world of representations?”

These “secondary-order” questions have appeared as meta-fictional adventures in recent novels, such as Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. But for the current set of novels, he has dropped the meta-fictions for something different, something more abstract and foreign. These characters are new: new to these pages, new to the world itself depicted within these pages, coming up against all this new world’s original customs and beliefs. Its literary touchstone is more Don Quixote and less Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John.

For all their newness, however, these novels are as narratively straightforward as they come, broken into regular chapters and standard scenes, written in Coetzee’s economical, direct prose.

II.

In The Childhood of Jesus one of the first things that becomes apparent is that the majority of its characters are without desires or passions—they are on whole contended individuals. Hard manual labor is done without complaint or imagination, food is primarily bread and water, and sex isn’t a notable consideration because, as you see, it doesn’t “advance us,” as one character explains. Of this dry world it is said: “[I]t is so bloodless. Everyone I meet is so decent, so kindly, so well-intentioned. No one swears or gets angry. No one gets drunk. No one even raises his voice.”

This is Simón, the point-of-view character for both The Childhood of Jesus and its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus. Simón is literally fresh off the boat, arriving on the same ship as Davíd, a young boy whom he takes care of, yet Simón is not his father. While on board the ship, the boy had lost a letter that explained who he was and who his mother is. And one of the main plots of The Childhood of Jesus is a quest to find Davíd’s mother, which turns out to be a woman Simón just “thinks” or “believes” to be said mother. And Simón’s “feeling” feels as random as it sounds. The woman, Inés, eventually accepts that she is indeed the child’s mother despite having no recollection of the child. Remember each person arrives in this world “washed” clean of their previous life, without memories, without connections.

The setting for The Childhood of Jesus is a fictionalized town where everyone is expected to speak Spanish and where housing is provided for. There isn’t much pleasure outside of football, and Simón can’t even find spices at the grocery to make the food better. The novel itself is episodic but can be broken down into three broad movements: arrival, search for Davíd’s mother and her acceptance of that role, and finally setting up Davíd’s education. The Childhood of Jesus ends with the three characters on the run from the law, because Novilla’s officials want Davíd in a special school for children with mental deficits, either mental or emotional. Davíd is without a doubt a special child, yet he doesn’t have deficits. He is playful, willful, and hates authority.

By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels.

III.

The Schooldays of Jesus takes on the same episodic structure as its prequel, and can seem scattered and unfocused at its outset. But at its core The Schooldays of Jesus is the examination and dramatization of concepts related to education. Its opening chapters establish that Simón is the primary agent of education for young Davíd. He is the one who explains and defines the child’s understanding of the world, but as the novel progresses, we see both characters attending school, and we hear Simón philosophizing on the educational values of confronting immoral men and, indeed, the final “showdown” is a debate between measurable science and artistic passion.

The novel opens as the three main characters arrive in Estrella (another city “which has no sensation, no feelings”), where they hope to lay low and avoid the Novilla authorities who might or might not be looking for Davíd. The three end up on a farm, where Simón and Inés pick grapes, while Davíd plays with the other children, slowly becoming the leader of the group. The “gypsy” life doesn’t suit Simón or Inés but it certainly suits Davíd, whom they’ve “never seen so active, so full of energy.” The owners of the farm take particular interest in Davíd and suggest to Simón and Inés that this highly intelligent and gifted child be sent to school. As it is explained, there are four choices in Estrella: public education, which Simón and Inés tried in Novilla to disastrous ends, or the Academies—singing, dancing, and Atom. Davíd chooses dance, despite having no interest in dancing whatsoever.

At the Academy of Dance, however, Davíd becomes awestruck by his teacher, Ana Magdalena Arroyo, who is an ethereal beauty, with the kind of splendor that “stands up to closest scrutiny”; Davíd also takes quickly to the school’s cockamamie philosophy of “dancing the numbers.” “Just as there are noble metals and slave metals, there are noble numbers and slave numbers,” Ana Magdalena explains. “You will learn to dance the noble numbers.”

This numerology, this cosmology is explained over and over in the novel without much success—both Simón and the reader are left flummoxed. “The numbers are in the sky. That is where they live, with the stars. You have to call them before they will come down,” we are told. But “you can’t call down One. One has to come by himself.” This mystical rubbish leads Simón to declare Ana Magdalena to be a preacher: “She and her husband have made up a religion and now they are hunting for converts.” To which Inés undercuts Simón’s assertions by saying that is how you “teach small children.” In her previous life in Novilla, Inés says she too taught small children. She gave each letter of the alphabet a personality, “making them come alive.” The novel is unremittingly dialectic.

The relationship between Inés and Simón is fraught, tenuous, and unsatisfying on both accounts. They are indeed on opposite poles. There isn’t a modicum of chemistry between the two. In fact, they seem repulsed the other. In the apartment they share, Simón feels more like a lodger than an equal member of the family. Simón at every turn pushes Davíd to accept Inés, but she is a “hard-hearted” and clumsy mother. When Davíd moves out to become a boarder at the Academy of Dance, Inés is quick to suggest Simón find a place of his own.

After a rather subtle introduction, a character named Dmitri begins to insert himself into the lives of the three characters. Dmitri is an attendant at the museum next door to the Academy of Dance, and he, in is own words, “worships” Ana Magdalena: “I am not ashamed to confess it.” Dmitri is a man of passion. The children love him; he often has a pocketful of sweets for them after school. Simón reflects on Dmitri thusly: “How wholehearted, how grand, how true Dmitri must appear to a boy of Davíd’s age, compared with a dry old stick like himself!” Indeed, Dmitri is set up as a counter beat to Simón’s pragmatism. Lovely Ana Magdalena, however, treats Dmitri coolly. And initially, Dmitri doesn’t seem all that important to the novel, but in a “crime of passion” he kills Ana Magdalena.

After the death of Ana Magdalena, the story turns to an examination of how we are to know someone else, how are we to know someone’s true identity. In regards to Dmitri, Simón repeatedly warns Davíd that he doesn’t know why Dmitri takes him into his “confidence”—a word that reappears frequently—because “you don’t know what is going on in his heart.” After Dmitri’s subsequent trial and conviction, Simón, Inés, and Davíd try to reassess and reassemble their lives. In the messy aftermath, Simón takes a writing class of all things. He reveals (with near-comic results) in business letters and résumé cover letters that he has come to a “crisis” in his life, and that meeting Dmitri (whom he dislikes and, from a moral point of view, despises) “has been an educational experience for me.” He continues, “I would go so far as to list it among my educational qualifications.” To be sure, these are the schooldays of Simón as well!

IV.

Critics haven’t praised these novels quite the way they have Coetzee’s previous work, calling them “dry as sawdust” and an “ascetic allegory.” I personally enjoy the direction these novels are taking: they’re attempting something different in a landscape glutted with novels and stories just trying to exist within an established tradition. They remind me of Coetzee’s early novels—In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Life & Times of Michael K.—with their rather alien environment and imaginative leaps.

In something more traditional, Dmitri’s trial and conviction might have make for a proper ending, but here the narrative is pushed forward to complete the novel’s theme, and the ending is more cerebral, a showdown between a man of science and a man of art, vaguely concluded on purpose, perhaps in agreement with Camus, who wrote: “solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity.”

Richly enigmatic, The Schooldays of Jesus leaves off precisely where another volume might be necessary to give us our final answers. The two novels are so much about this shaky lad and dad relationship that you want to see how it comes out in the end.

—Jason DeYoung

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Jason DeYoung
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Madcap Review, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

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Mar 062017
 

Kelly Cherry

 

Burning the Baby

Someone struck a match and the baby went up in flames. Members of the family choked on the sickening smell. The father was afraid to look at the mother: surely she would not have done this to her own child. Yet he remembered when his son, sixteen, slapped her in the face and she screamed at him, Edward, hit him, hit him. He could not bring himself to hit his son and she never forgave him for that. The mother looked at the father quickly, then looked down at the floor. He would not have done such a thing, would he? But the baby was burnt, there was no question about that. Sweet little babe, now blackened and flaking, now something like a tiny Christmas tree charred by lightning. The older brother made measurements, seeking to determine how much shorter the baby was post-burning. The baby’s legs, roly-poly and chubby, were burnt off at the knees, which meant it could not even crawl. Of course, being dead meant that too. The sister tried to comb the baby’s burnt hair but it fell out in bunches. The sister began to cry. The baby wouldn’t crawl or play with her. Had the sister done something wrong? What had she done? What? She tickled the baby but it still refused to laugh or squeal. She was in trouble, she knew. She was supposed to watch out for her baby sister, keep her happy, make sure no harm came to her. No harm! She wanted to die. She thought her parents probably wanted her to die. She didn’t dare look at them. They would be so angry with her.

§

Drought

Water is leaving us. It’s disappearing from water tanks, reservoirs, lakes and rivers. The water table is dropping. Plants are dying. The sequoias known as California redwoods, having flourished well over a millennium, are dying. In California, water is rationed. Bath water. Water for lawns. Water intended to accompany food. Jerry Brown, the governor, is not just worried; one can hear fear in his voice. His voice climbs just slightly higher when he talks about the drought in his state but the higher is enough to clue us in. What calamities will occur if the drought continues?

Will Californians continue to stay in their state? What if the forests catch on fire? But they already do. They are likely to do so again. Also likely is that at some point, as rationing increases, and water becomes more difficult to obtain barring the return of a rainy season, residents will leave for more congenial locales. Some, anyway, and no doubt later, more. Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada will not be among the places to which they move. Those who move will favor areas with sufficient precipitation. That is bound to mean the North, with its snow and rain. It’s true that there are storms in the South but there are also hurricanes and tornadoes in the South, and people looking to escape from one disaster won’t want to have to deal with another.

Animals also head north but thousands of them die along the way, especially the pets who were abandoned when people fled. The dogs and cats, especially the small ones, the turtles and the goldfish will not make it to the Far North. (The goldfish will be turned out of their fishbowls without ceremony, and before any of the goldfish realize what is happening.)

So the people move north and the population of Northern cities multiplies. People are crowding one another. There’s not enough room to breathe. Some people are angry about this. They buy guns or get out the guns they already have. Road rage is rampant. The homeless, packed in parks, sleep folded up in lobbies and thresholds and raid garbage cans for food but there is never enough food for all the homeless. Some jump fences, racing to flag outgoing planes but airline workers shove them back. Some ride boxcars, and a few of them make it to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

When they get there, they discover that Russians and Japanese are there, too. They will have come over the Bering Strait. They will wear shorts and tee-shirts. Snowpacks are melting. Snow is melting. Igloos are melting—and the Inuit designed them never to melt. To the Russians and the Japanese, it seems as if they themselves are melting.

South Americans, on the other hand, have followed the Andes mountains to the Drake Passage, hoping to get to Antarctica. But we will stick to what most concerns us.

All over the world, people head for the mountains. From the worn-out Appalachians to the Himalayans of Uttarakhand to the Kamchatka Peninsula. It does no good. Once, mountaintops were cooled by crosswinds, and people and animals were invigorated, refreshed; now the hot tongues of sunshine flick and lick until people and animals are fatigued, too fatigued to climb farther, and they look in vain for even an inch of shade before they crawl behind a boulder to die.

The constant sun enervates. Yes, night still arrives, but one’s skin is burnt so bad that sores appear on arms, legs, and bald heads. People give up on clothes, abandon their garments, for it is too painful to wear them. Everyone gives up.

Which makes everyone else want to give up. And why not? Humans cannot live without water. Yes, there  have been attempts to desalinate seawater. And some have worked. Briefly. Recycled wastewater is also promising. The problem is, neither works well enough to produce the quantities of fresh water that we need at the rate at which we need it.

Which is why these days you (who are you?) will find us dying, always in places that used to promise water. Just before we die, we often hallucinate. Images of waterfalls, running rivers, water fountains, and rain rain rain leave our tongues hanging out, our eyes popping, our throats dry as martinis or deserts. Dry as calcification. Dry as a ponderous pedagogue. Dry as a basement of vampires with no fresh throats to suck.

We hankered for salt. Could anything be more ironic?

Renal failure was common. It led to cardiac problems.

We were too exhausted to lick our own lips.

§

Derek

She named him Derek. It was the name that came to her, for no reason she could think of, and it had all the more urgency for having no reason. The name seemed to fit him. His mother had abandoned him. Mother bats often leave their babies behind; something frightens them and they save themselves before they stop to think about the baby. (There’s usually only one baby at a time; occasionally there are twins.) Or she may have died, perhaps in a heat wave, which can kill off huge numbers of bats.

She found Derek when she was digging out weeds next to the barn. She called a wildlife shelter to ask what to do. “Don’t touch it. Bring it in,” they said, and she did, but she had already touched it. In the shelter was a long row of bat babies, each one swaddled in a knitted scarf or dish cloth. Their wings were under these wraps. The darling creatures looked like little bat burritos—that is what they are called. To see a bat fly out of a chimney or across the moon can be scary: the bats are swift and their wings relatively huge. But tucked into their scarves, with their wings folded and only the little heads peeking out, they look like sweet, snuggly, sleepy babies.

She held Derek, wrapped up, in her hands, presenting him to the shelter workers.

“Derek?” they said. “Is he male?”

She didn’t know. It hadn’t occurred to her that he might be female.

They lifted him up for examination.

“He’s no Debbie,” they said, “so you’re in luck.”

A shelter worker was rubbing Derek gently on his stomach, though such a tiny stomach could only be a tummy. Then the worker picked up an eyedropper and squeezed some milk into his mouth. “You know they can carry rabies?” the worker asked.

“Yes,” she said, thinking, Derek doesn’t have rabies.

“Derek doesn’t have rabies,” said the worker, then added, “They’re called pups.”

“The babies, not the rabies, I assume.” She smiled.

The worker looked at her as if she might be mentally challenged.

“He’s falling asleep.”

“Pups do that. Especially when they’ve sipped enough milk. They are, after all, mammals.”

I knew that, she wanted to say. “Why are some of the others squeaking?”

“All bat pups have to practice echolocation. They have different calls and have to figure out which are theirs. They also have to learn to fly, just as birds do.”

“Is there anything else you can tell me?” She hadn’t known that bats had different methods of echolocation.

“Ever seen a microbat?”

She shrugged, not knowing whether she had or hadn’t.

“There’s a bumblebee bat.”

“That’s very alliterative.”

“Allit—? Sure. The bumblebee bat is maybe the size of a jellybean.” The worker glanced away from Derek and looked straight into her eyes. “It weighs about as much as a penny weighs. Actually, it weighs a little less than that.”

She stared back at the worker. “May I take Derek home now?”

“He’s probably better off here.”

“But I found him.”

“And you brought him here, where you knew he would be better off.”

“But he belongs to me.”

“Bats are wildlife. They don’t belong to anybody. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“It’s not a question of understanding. The fact is that Derek is mine. I found him.”

“Maybe I’d better get my boss. She can explain it to you better than—”

“There’s nothing to explain. Just give me back my bat.”

“I can’t!”

She swooped Derek up and put him in her shirt pocket. A little guano didn’t worry her.

The worker ran after her, shouting Stop! Stop!

Why would she stop? Derek was her baby. Nobody could tell her otherwise.

§

On Teaching

It was a nice day so I joined my kids on the playground. Shadows made the small cotton-ball clouds look scruffy, as if they were children with dirt on their faces. They needed to be scrubbed with a damp washrag. Children, children, I said twice, clapping smartly each time. They circled me. They surrounded me. I was shaken to see that they were drawing the circle tighter and I had become their prisoner. How had this happened? I was going to clap a third time but one of the children shushed me with a finger over her lips. I felt, I felt—outraged. Who were they to dictate to me? The teacher was I. The leader was I. They were the helpless children. Surely that’s right. Surely that’s how it’s always been. Is this a trick? A prank? Children have a habit of playing pranks, don’t they. A prank, then. A silly—

“Mrs. Morgan,” the girl who dared to shush me said.

“Yes. What is happening here?”

“Happening?”

“What is going on here?”

“Going on?”

They came closer and closer, the circle closing, their shoes scuffing mine, their sweetish breath—breaths—making my heart beat faster, making it hard for me to breathe.

One-love, two-love, three-love, four.
See the teacher on the floor.

One of them had tripped me, and though I wasn’t on the floor I was indeed lying on the ground, one of my shoes beside my hip.

Five-love, six-love, seven-love, eight.
See the teacher take the bait.

What the hell did that mean? Their chanting made me frantic. I stood up, holding the shoe that came off. With one shoe on and one off I had to shift from side to side.

Nine-love, ten-love, eleven-love, twelve.
Here’s a book you really should shelve.

They are telling me I should go shelve a book! Who do they think they are?

One-love, two-love, three-love, four.
Take yourself thence and come no more.

Because I had one foot in a shoe and the other in only a sock, I had to bob up on one leg and sink down on the other. They had stripped me of my dignity. “What do you want?” I asked.

“Take yourself thence and come no more,” they said as one.

At my desk in the schoolroom I wrote a letter of resignation and signed it with my good ballpoint. I handed in grades—all A’s, because I was afraid they might retaliate if I failed them. I cleaned out my desk drawers. I did feel a bit sad when I did that but the sadness didn’t last long.

—Kelly Cherry

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Kelly Cherry is the author of 25 books, 10 chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. She is the former Poet Laureate of Virginia. Also: Emeritus Member, Poets Corner, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, NYC. NEA, USIA, Rockefeller, inaugural recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, Bradley Lifetime Award, Phillabaum Award, Weinstein Award, others. Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin Madison. Eminent Scholar, UAH, 2001-2005. Her new book Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem is forthcoming imminently.

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Mar 052017
 

michel-de-montaigne-006
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Drawn from Life, Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne
Translated by M. A. Screech; Introduced by Tim Parks
Notting Hill Editions, London
185 pp, £14.99

 

One could easily diminish Michel de Montaigne (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne) (1533-1592) as being that inventor of the essay, that plodding form which considers and concludes.  Spanish painter Pablo Picasso once observed, “Yo no busco, yo encuentro” (I don’t seek after, I come upon).  Picasso’s observation could help us focus and situate Montaigne’s insinuatingly sinuous, uncannily accurate prose.  His focus is not result-oriented on content and conclusion but rather is maker-focused on composition and creating. Much of each essay magnifies its composition in a language.  Repeatedly, Montaigne thinks of his efforts as flawed, monstrous or distorted. To become his reader, I have had to become a kind of ventriloquist engaged in an act of translation and projection, of time, genre, gender, language and many translations.  It was only when I found how uncertain, fearful and tentative he was that I could begin to write of him wholeheartedly.  I came to appreciate that Montaigne struggled tremendously with how to think far more than with what to think.  In other words, he was not writing conclusions; he was coming upon what he found as it appeared. In order to be a seamless ventriloquist, in order to read and know Montaigne, I had to get as close to him as I could. In effect, I had to mimic now what he did with what he called his self: “The world looks always opposite; I turn my sight inwards, and there fix and employ it. I have no other business but myself, I am eternally meditating upon myself, considering and tasting myself. Other men’s thoughts are ever wandering abroad, if they will but see it; they are still going forward: for my part, I circulate in myself” (“Of Presumption”).  He chose to establish a singular intimacy with himself which I would I saw have to emulate as his ventriloquist.  At first, I felt overwhelmed and uninitiated when I received the beautiful Drawn from Life. At once, I asked myself how much in all did this great figure write, and when, and which of all his writings are in this volume, how do they change and what is his flag ship hobby horse, his daunting intellectual obsession?

There were three books of 107 essays of different length and tone.  These were essais, meaning attempts which indicate their spirit—not a finality, but a stab into the open.  The first volume “A,” including 57 passages written 1571–1580, was published in 1580 ; the second “B” included 37 passages written 1580–1588, was published in 1588, and the third “C,” often called the Bordeaux copy, with thirteen passages written from 1588–1592, was posthumously published in 1595 with the help of his adoptive daughter Marie De Gournay,  Now, in this Montaigne revival,  there are critical divisions between those liking the 1595 version and the 1588 Bordeaux heavily-edited copy.  Drawn from Life has eight essays from Book One, two from Book Two and three from Book Three.  Two substantial essays are not in Drawn from Life: his “Of Friendship, ”Chapter 27 in Book One, recounting the loss of his closest  friend, Étienne de La Boétie, whom he called his “double,” and ”Of Vanity,” Chapter 9 in Book Three. Their absence actually is important for an incrementally intimate reading of Montaigne, the one who ever incrementally attempts.   Now that I had fashioned this mechanical chessboard of chapters, I had to read and confront the first chapter which had two conspicuously different names in different translations: “We Search the Same End by Discrepant Means, or “That Men by Various Ways Arrive at the Same End”. The first chapter was at first like a hard tire; it retained an opaque, impersonal, even impenetrable feeling. As I kept reading his chiseled words, fruitlessly looking for a summation, I soon felt that the thing repeated, the hobby horse was fear, not of death or pain, but of losing mental control and becoming not oneself. All at once, I remembered Samuel Johnson in his 1751 Rambler, when he proposed his groundbreaking idea of the “invisible riot of the mind”. Throughout his essais, Montaigne considers and engages just such a riotous mind—searches for ways to distract it, ways to bring it under control, ways to exercise its dangerous powers more effectively.  In this of necessity highly condensed review, I hope to illuminate briefly and consequentially that 1) Invisible riot of the mind, 2) an always incomplete self and spirit, and 3) Montaigne’s clamorous awareness of writing.

Early on, Montaigne considers something new: what he calls “the close stitching of mind to body” (25). Indeed, he is introducing both to himself and his readers a vast and fear-inspiring, hitherto unaddressed uncertainty—that is the mind “whirring about, noting ….I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy” (73). He is presenting the temporary mental derangement Johnson had called the “invisible riot of the mind”. In classical philosophy, the paradigm had been far more stable: “wisdom is a controlled handling of our soul, carried out, on our Soul’s responsibility, with measure and proportion” (93). In his plague-scarred, war-conflicted times, Montaigne encounters a new inner fear and, with no hesitation whatsoever, declares “It is fear that I am most afraid of” (9). He shows a terror of decision making taking over soldiers on the battle field, women in the dining room. This general fear is not of battle or physical pain of which he is intimately familiar given his insistent kidney stones. He explicitly refers to this fear as a “leprosy of the mind,” “a terrifying confusion,” “Inconstancy of his mind,” which can “dominate you and tyrannize over you.” in “an internal strife* (74, 139). The title of this review points to his exquisite awareness of mental displacement: “the cries of a mind which is leaping out of its lodgings” (92). Such loss of mental certainty is to him akin to the drunkenness when one “loses all consciousness and control of himself” (80). Montaigne’s second hobby horse is self or soul, or, what we now call consciousness.

Montaigne certainly introduces readers in a new way to self and soul with which he posits one should commence their studies. Interestingly, he feminizes “soul” throughout. He commits himself unequivocally to his life’s task which becomes these essays: “My own mind’s principal and most difficult study is the study of itself”. He virtually flexes with passion about this commitment: “For anyone who knows how to probe himself and to do so vigorously…reflection is a mighty endeavor and a full one: I would rather forge my soul than stock it up” (111).  Virginia Woolf sings his praises: “this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection; this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne”. Ultimately, he confesses rather disappointedly that “I have nothing mine but myself, and yet the possession is, in part, defective and borrowed” (“Of Vanity”). This self-soul is incomplete, unstable, inescapable and imperfect, but it is all he has, all we have, to work with.  He calls this “self” many names (because it is many things): “oddments,” “bits and pieces,” “multiple forms,” but  In spite of these flaws, Montaigne tells his readers that he is and this is a book whose faith can be trusted, that ”it is his own self that I am painting” (xxii). In spite of uncertainties, he commits his life to that soul which “can see and know all things, but she should feed only on herself” (158). He says that he is not trying to study himself to make people think more of him:  I do so ”in order to bring mine lower and lay it down”. Such humility furnishes profound trust in what he says. He wants not a single unified soul or self to own: “What I would praise would be a soul with many storeys, a soul at ease wherever fortune led it” (115-116).  His is a remarkable acknowledgement of a gift–this awareness of himself as something he must forge rather than stock up (111). That is, he must make and create and modify that soul, that self which is his life’s study. In the process, he writes in such a way as to provide alternatives to others who might become inflicted with what he has called the “illness of our soul,” its distractibility, its dependence, its flamboyance and its passions (134). Souls “can be controlled and excited by some racing disembodied fancy based on nothing” (146). Overall, Montaigne’s nobility comes through in his courage in facing all of this: “Life is a rough, irregular progress with a multitude of forms” (110).

Ever a purposeful dreamer, Montaigne says of his prose, “I who am more concerned with the weight and usefulness of my writings than with their order and logical succession must not be afraid to place here a little off the track, an account of great beauty” (105).  His essays are flooded with digressions about his inadequate writing, how poor his memory is, how common the subject, how second-rate his diction. He laments that his “ability does not go far enough for me to dare to undertake a rich, polished picture, formed according to art” (107). They are, however, compellingly elegant, learned, unpredictable, intimate, experimental and morally important.  For one thing, he insists upon the need for writing what can happen rather than pompously showing a bombastic version of what had happened: “I have undertaken to talk about only what I know how to talk about, fitting the subject matter to my capabilities….There are some authors whose aim is to relate what happened: mine (if I could manage it) would be to relate what can happen” (28, 27).  One could undertake an in-depth study of his parenthesis and read forever better Modernist fiction. His interruptions combined with self-conscious links to what he had just been saying with a self-conscious allusion to his ejempla draw the reader trustfully to him. Sometimes, he denigrates his own “scribblings,” or, more graphically, “monstrous bodies of diverse members, without definite shape, having no order, sequence, or portion other than accidental…excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always undigested” (“Of Vanity”). Montaigne was aware that his writing was changing, perhaps to compensate for what he had perceived as their insufficiency. He would make up for it by his “intricacies,”’ and make chapters longer, “such as require preposition and assigned leisure” (“Of Vanity”).  One of the special beauties of Notting Hill’s edition is that it omits the longer, more reflective, essays from the collection, allowing the reader a free intimacy with his evolving voice over time in a plethora of highly varied topics.  An unexpected example of Montaigne’s modern sense of writing occurs in the history of the translation of the Horace quotation in “Of Friendship”: esinit in piscem mulier formosa superne. This is usually translated:  “a fair woman in her upper form ends in a fish”. The poet in me reading found something discordant, flatfooted and incomplete in that image, and I searched until I found that the point is that the woman was beautiful above and that her beauty became truncated and deformed below, since at the end of her body appeared that unappealing fish tail.  This contradictory image, “A woman, beautiful above, has a fish’s tail” emphasizes Montaigne’s persistent frustration in the artistic process, in the failure of scribbling to render it beautifully. With just this modern sense of fragmentation and incompleteness, Montaigne writing of his dearest friend, catastrophically concludes after his friend’s death, “I was so grown and accustomed to be always his double in all places in all things, that methinks I am no more than half of myself” (“Of Friendship”).

In the course of “scribbling” and revising his three hobby horses, 1) mental imbalance, 2) the challenge of the soul, self, consciousness, and 3) trying to write it all forth, Montaigne had come upon mercury, upon something bouncing, bobbing, rare, and uncontrollable. Recent splendid books, like Philippe Desan, Montaigne: a Life and Sarah Bakewell, Montaigne, How to Live remarkably Illuminate his haunting and significant contemporaneousness. What he found in those years of writing was indeed an independent awareness, or consciousness with which he tenaciously ever struggled, amidst physical pains, the turbulence and warfare of his times as well as his sense of incompleteness. Slowly, it came to me in an Archimedes moment that actually de Montaigne about one hundred years before René Descartes, was recognizing something similar to “Cogito, ergo sum; I think; therefore I am”. Across the centuries, these two men shook hands with what we now consider consciousness. Ever practical and isolated, Montaigne felt it his chore to get to be as ventriloquist close to the consequences of such cognition as he could, without vanity or didacticism.  He simply threw himself in, as a “mind which is leaning out of its lodgings”. That position indirectly led to the banning of his writings, since he came to know that in his new intimacies he wouldn’t hide truths about his sexuality, the inconstancy of the human soul and race, or the gluttonous materialism of his times. Knowing himself, his mind, and his consciousness to be his to control led him to find life far simpler and clearer.  Rather unexpectedly, he recognized quite openly, “my freedom is so very free” (28).  The design of this excellent Notting Hill edition offers us Montaigne pure and free, his language, his zigs and his zags, dubieties and vanities, without trying to give readers any predetermined intellectual conclusion or framework. This edition allows his essays to sing and play on, so that we readers may do what Picasso suggested: discover joyfully and not tediously seek after.

—Linda E. Chown

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 LEC2
Linda E. Chown has published three books of poems, Buildings and Ways, Inside In, and All the Way up The Sky, also a critical book, Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Works of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. She spent 18 years living, writing, and teaching in southern Spain where she was betimes a Fullbright professor of America lit, one year at the University of Deusto, one year at the University of Salamanca. Subsequently, she taught for many hears at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She has published a multitude of talks and papers on the likes of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, Oliver Sacks, Albert Camus, Susan Glaspell, and many others. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from from the University of Washington. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, did creative writing at San Francisco State University, and worked in the fabled Poetry Center. She now lives in Michigan. Her newest poems were recently published in Poethead.