Aug 052017
 

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When I first read Maria Rivera’s “Los muertos” (“The Dead”), translated from the Spanish here by Richard Gwyn, I was blown away. I just needed to share it with an international audience. Maria is a fearless poet and activist. It is a pleasure to feature her work in Numéro Cinq.

— Dylan Brennan

Poema leído al finalizar la marcha nacional por la paz el día 6 de abril de 2011,en apoyo al poeta Javier Sicilia y en exigencia de la paz. México D.F.

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Dylan Brennan: Why did you write ‘Los muertos’ (The Dead) and how has it been received?

Maria Rivera: I wrote ‘Los muertos’ in the year 2010 (the year of the Mexican bicentennial celebrations). At that time Mexico found itself immersed in homicidal violence, produced, in part by the military anti drug-trafficking policy undertaken by president Calderón from the beginning of his six year term, an attempt to legitimise his presidency in the wake of electoral fraud. I found myself writing a book about the relationship between poetry and politics (from 2006), a long and ambitious poetic project which attempted to question the strata of the poetic tradition, speak about the different forms of violence, beginning with misogyny, representation of the female body, sparked by the violent repression of female protestors in Atenco carried out by president Fox and then-governor of Mexico State, Enrique Peña Nieto (currently president of Mexico), a crime that remains unpunished. The poem that deals with these events is entitled ‘Oscuro’ (Dark) and was published in 2012.

The unexpected and tragic direction the country has taken since that time became a dark and intense night for me, seeing as I was immersed in the investigation of different forms of social violence and its relationship with poetic discourse. Massacres began, disappearances, clandestine burials, terrible tragedies. In the midst of all this horror was the tragedy (at the time completely silenced) suffered by Central American migrants on their journey through Mexico at the hands of both the authorities and criminal groups. Many were murdered and/or kidnapped.

The dominating discourse in the media at that time was rooted in the governmental narrative that criminalised those who were killed (they were not considered ‘victims’ only occasionally ‘collateral damage’). Both the political class and the intellectual class embraced the government’s argument, legitimising killings and strengthening Calderon’s policies. Faced with international scandals, they even embarked on campaigns to convince the media not to cover violent acts, while at the same time they celebrated the supposed virtues of the country, converting the deaths into mere statistics.

In August 2010, the criminal group known as the Zetas killed 72 migrants in the town of San Fernando in Tamaulipas. This tragedy was a turning point for a citizenry that, for the first time, was forced to take note of the grim brutality faced by migrants in Mexico. Unlike the other massacres the government was unable to criminalise these victims, though initially the event was reported as the discovery of a ‘narco-graveyard’, a survivor was able to tell his story and reveal the true nature of the crime.

At that time, I had realised a great deal of my documentary research, about migrants, victims and violence against women. The San Fernando story plunged me into a profound sense of restlessness and rage: just a few days later came the Bicentennial celebrations, our most important civic celebration. I watched these celebrations filled with bitterness. It was within this context, as part of a larger project, that I composed ‘Los muertos’, taking up a very generous invitation from Antonio Calera, a friend, poet and editor, to participate in an anthology to celebrate the Día de muertos (Day of the Dead), which would be launched that November. This gave me the opportunity to place in the centre of Mexican poetry, in its very heart, that which was really happening in the country, events that didn’t seem to disturb the majority of poets, events that were being silenced: clandestine graves, the mass murder of migrants, anti-female gender violence, agony that occurred without being given a name. I was interested in subverting the official discourse, fascist in nature, that had taken root in the country. Discourse that occurs within language when it has been seized by propaganda. In order to achieve this I denatured poetry, divorcing it from the aesthetic function still assigned to it by many. This decision implied an aesthetic and political gamble as I discovered that the poetry that had previously been written on this theme, covered up the real horror: it seemed to me, in fact, to constitute complicity. This consciousness of the nature of political language determined how I wrote. The composition of the poem was guided by a large and problematic reflection on the social function of art, the ethical problems associated with dealing with victim’s testimonies, the limits of poetry and, in a very concrete way, with Mexican poetry.

As far as its reception goes, the first very positive reaction came from some poets and writers who referred to the poem as a political event in columns, articles and blogs. It was poorly received by other poets (still under the influence of Paz’s normative ethics) who thought that poetry shouldn’t (or couldn’t) deal with these themes, who recriminated me for the decision to not “poetically elaborate” (erase) the brutal violence suffered by those people. This, as far as I’m concerned, constitutes a form of open complicity with the crimes. I was even subjected to the machista suggestion that I should just concern myself with my interior world (with my husband and daughter). As far as the elite intellectuals closely associated with the government, they didn’t like the poem as it contradicted the official discourse, challenged president Calderón, exposed the authority’s criminal collusion, and damaged the image of Mexico.

For these reasons, the poem suffered some political censure from two of the most famous Mexican literary magazines, those favoured by the government. The director of Letras Libres, Enrique Krauze, decided to withdraw the poem despite favourable comments from the responsible editor and the fact that it was ready for publication. I came face to face with the reality that, in Mexico, a supposedly democratic country, poetry can be censored by intellectuals and writers (transformed into the executing hand of the government), that the degree of collusion, in order to render victims invisible, not only implicated the criminals and the authorities but, also extended to members of the intellectual class who actively participated in the silencing of this Mexican horror. Just a few months later, some writers featured in anti-violence movements, when the political context altered due to the emergence of the Movimiendo por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace, Justice & Dignity) headed by the poet Javier Sicilia after the murder of his son, a movement that lent dignity to the victims of violence.

In my own experience, the most brutal part of political censure came from discovering its meaning; from becoming conscious that what was continually attempted to be silenced was not really my voice, but the voices of others, the collective experience, painful and unjust, of those who had been discarded from the national consciousness for reasons of class and gender: poor women and men, Mexican and Central American migrants who were murdered, commercialised, completely dehumanised, silenced by organised crime, authorities, intellectuals and, even by poets who were made indignant by the fact that it were these voices, these victims of the Mexican classist system, that occupied the pristine page of poetry. The censure that I suffered, luckily, confirmed for me the dangers of poetry and the nature of poetry: It is far from an aesthetic, classist and insignificant artefact dominated by the reverberations of light or the trivialisation of horror.

After the initial reception of the poem, in April 2011, I read it at the first demonstration called by Javier Sicilia in the Mexico City Zócalo. The poem was read in front of thousands of demonstrators, recorded by the journalist Janet Mérida who uploaded it to YouTube and it went viral.

The reception it received in the main square was completely unexpected for me: I wasn’t really fully aware of the effect that the poem had caused until some time later. The poem transgressed the literary sphere, and was taken up, nationally and internationally, but other artists: video-art, music, performance, theatre, painting. In the same way it was adopted by those involved in activism, read at demonstrations outside the country and within Mexico, read in front of legislators (by Javier Sicilia, who claimed it was the best poem written in Mexico on the theme), appropriated by migrants, victims of violence in the US, and inspired various collectives such as the group known as ‘Bordando por la paz’. It was translated into various languages, conserving its evocative power (the Argentinean poet Jorge Fondebrider not long ago commented on the impression it made on audiences in the UK after Claire Potter read Richard Gwyn’s translation). The poem has also been anthologised and studied in various countries. The phenomenon of its reception has been, without a doubt, an anomaly within the context of Mexican poetry: it has become the emblematic poem on violence in the country.

Another aspect of the poem’s reception was due to the fact that it was shared on websites that focus on drug-trafficking. I received some emails in which I was asked, for example, how I could know such precise details of massacres, and I was invited to some lost towns of the sierra. For years, I chose not to travel to such places I was disturbed by the wide dissemination of my reading in the Zócalo and these unforseeable results. Though I understood, very quickly, that the poem had now ceased to be mine, that I couldn’t expect a traditional trajectory, that the poem now belonged to the readers who had freely reproduced, copied, altered, shared, appropriated it without even telling me. It’s ironic, but it is the highest aspiration of a poet: to disappear from the poem.

DB: Did you find you needed to carry out much research in order to compose the poem? There are details in the poem, names etc… Are they real or invented?

MR: As mentioned, the poem is the product of a long investigation into violence sparked by the femicides from Ciudad Juárez. The facts that I narrate are all true, occurring at some point during those years, I made a sort of tour of the most significant violent acts up to the year 2010, the sum of the atrocities that make up the recent history of Mexico. I researched the locations of clandestine graveyards that had been discovered, the way in which people had been killed, their origins, their histories. It’s all based on journalistic reports, mostly from the Special Migrants Report from the National Human Rights Commission, from 2009, and an investigation I carried out in Honduras on some of the 72 migrants killed in 2010. Naturally these facts become the basis of a literary invention: their return to life on the Day of the Dead. As far as names are concerned, some are real though mixed up. I decided to expose their history, their wounded bodies, their vulnerable human nature. I tried to be sufficiently specific to avoid seeming ‘literary’, using them, cannibalising their story, which is what the rhetoric of violence does. I believe that poetry has extraordinary powers and that there are ethical borders that should not be transgressed. The use of testimony, for example, is problematic. The dead, the victims, are not literary capital that can be used for gaining authorial prestige. In fact, the poem avoids testimony, focusing instead on naked facts. The dead are defined by their relationship with the living: they are the mirror in which they see themselves and permit us to see them and to recognise ourselves in them. They are called I, you, we.

DB: Do you think that poetry can make a real difference?

MR: Poetry can speak better than any other art during regimes in which language is damaged in order to hide atrocities, systematically used to cover up and simulate, as is the case in Mexico: a country in which everything happens and nothing happens, a victim of the rhetoric of an old dictatorial regime. Dismantling the discourse that legitimised homicidal violence became, for me, a form of resistance in a country that practices torture, forced disappearances, killings, secret burials, brutal femicide, total disappearance of human remains via calcination or chemical disintegration. This terrible violence is perpetrated on all of us, hence the use of the ‘lymph’ metaphor: we are not separate from those who commit the worst atrocities, they are our own organs, our own limbs, our sickness, ourselves. Art’s field of action is rooted in the symbolic. Language unearths, it’s civilising. It returns the hidden, the dismembered, the disjointed, to articulate itself in the country’s centre of political power, in the spaces of the elite which is, as I have said, no longer an innocent and passive participant.

Of course, poetry can make a real difference when it is free to speak, when it is not associated with aesthetic restrictions which are, in reality, political and serve the powerful and their ends: silencing voices and registrars of reality; when it is not linked to the very government that commits atrocities and authors can detach themselves from the classist apparatus promoted by the governmental cultural institutes. Otherwise, the importance that poetry holds will continue to be circumscribed to a reduced number of readers protected by classist institutions beset by the corruption of their members, each patting each other’s shoulders ($houlders). The importance of poetry, of course, has also to do with its capacity to move into other aesthetic experiences, to offer a new vision of the concrete world in which we live. If poetry is not an expression of critical and intellectual passion, it rarely travels far.

DB: Do you think that the poet has a responsibility to write about real events, about politics, social reality etc.?

MR: I believe that each author constructs herself politically. All poetry, if it is public, is political. It all serves a function. Aestheticising poetry, for example, can serve to erase the collusion of the authorities with criminals, to decorate the scenes of horror, to avoid public mourning. Beautiful poetry can serve as a painkiller or a real cure. I, unlike some others, have always considered poetry as a form of responsibility in itself. We all have this, a social responsibility, shared citizenry.

DB: Would you describe yourself as a political poet? Why/why not?

MR: Of course, I consider myself a political poet. I form part of the public discourse and have freely inserted my work in that space. I also associate my work with my gender, writing from a gendered perspective, though deliberately avoiding the personal. I have occupied myself with exploring the experiences of misogynist sexual violence through language and, in the same way, in my poem ‘Los muertos’, I decided to place that in the centre of the aesthetic experience.

DB: Finally, what’s next for you?

MR: The publication of this very long project about which I have been speaking to you, which includes ‘Los muertos’, ‘Oscuro’ and other poems. The book will be entitled, naturally, Política.

 

— Maria Rivera and Dylan Brennan

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The Dead

Here they come
the decapitated,
the amputees,
the torn into pieces,
the women with their coccyx split apart,
those with their heads smashed in,
the little ones crying
inside dark walls
of minerals and sand.
Here they come
those who sleep in buildings
that house secret tombs:
they come with their eyes blindfolded,
their hands tied,
shot between their temples.
Here come those who were lost in Tamaupilas,
in-laws, neighbours,
the woman they gang raped before killing her,
the man who tried to stop it and received a bullet,
the woman they also raped, who escaped and told the story
comes walking down Broadway,
consoled by the wail of the ambulances,
the hospital doors,
light shining on the waters of the Hudson.
Here they come
the dead who set out from Usulután,
from La Paz
from La Unión,
from La Libertad,
from Sonsonate,
from San Salvador,
from San Juan Mixtepec,
from Cuscatlán,
from El Progreso,
from El Guante,
crying,
those who were given the goodbye at a karaoke party,
and were found shot in Tecate.
Here comes the one they forced to dig his brother’s grave,
the one they murdered after collecting a four thousand dollar ransom,
those who were kidnapped
with a woman they raped in front of her eight year old son
three times.
Where do they come from,
from what gangrene,
oh lymph,
the bloodthirsty,
the heartless,
the murdering
butchers?
Here they come,
the dead so alone, so mute, so much ours,
set beneath the enormous sky of Anáhuac,
they walk,
they drag themselves,
with their bowl of horror in their hands,
their terrifying tenderness.
They are called
the dead that they found in a ditch in Taxco,
the dead that they found in remote places of Chihuahua,
the dead that they found strewn across plots of crops,
the dead that they found shot in la Marquesa,
the dead that they found hanging from bridges,
the dead that they found without heads on common land,
the dead that they found at the side of the road,
the dead that they found in abandoned cars,
the dead that they found in San Fernando,
those without number they cut into pieces and have still not been found,
the legs, the arms, the heads, the femurs of the dead
dissolved in drums.
They are called
remains, corpses, the deceased,
they are called
the dead whose mothers do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose children do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose wives do not tire of waiting,
they imagine them in subways, among gringos.
They are called
baby clothes woven in the casket of the soul,
the little tee shirt of a three-month-old
the photo of a toothless smile,
they are called mamita,
papito,
they are called
little kicks
in the tummy
and the newborn’s cry,
they are called four children,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
and a widow (a girl) who fell in love at primary school,
they are called wanting to dance at fiestas,
they are called blushing of hot cheeks and sweaty hands,
they are called boys,
they are called wanting
to build a house,
laying bricks,
giving food to my children,
they are called two dollars for cleaning beans,
houses, estates, offices,
they are called
crying of children on earth floors,
the light flying over the birds,
the flight of pigeons in the church,
they are called
kisses at the river’s edge,
they are called
Gelder (17)
Daniel (22)
Filmar (24)
Ismael (15)
Agustín (20)
José (16)
Jacinta (21)
Inés (28)
Francisco (53)
gagged
in the scrubland,
hands tied
in the gardens of ranches,
vanished
in the gardens of ‘safe’ houses,
in some forgotten wilderness,
disintegrating mutely
and in secret,
they are called
secrets of hitmen,
secrets of slaughter,
secrets of policemen,
they are called sobbing,
they are called mist,
they are called body,
they are called skin,
they are called warmth,
they are called kiss,
they are called hug,
they are called laughter,
they are called people,
they are called pleading,
they were called I,
they were called you,
they were called us,
they are called shame,
they are called sobbing.
Here they go
María,
Juana,
Petra,
Carolina,
13,
18,
25,
16,
breasts bitten,
hands tied,
their bodies burned to a crisp,
their bones polished by the sand of the desert.
They are called
the dead women that no one knows no one saw being killed,
they are called
women who go out alone to bars at night,
they are called
working women who leave their homes at dawn,
they are called
sisters,
daughters,
mothers,
aunts,
disappeared,
raped,
burnt,
chucked away,
they are called meat,
they are called meat.
Here,
without flowers,
without tombstones,
without an age,
without a name,
without sobbing,
they sleep in their cemetery:
its name is Temixco,
its name is Santa Ana,
its name is Mazatepec,
its name is Juárez,
its name is Puente de Ixtla,
its name is San Fernando,
its name is Tlaltizapán,
its name is Samalayuca,
its name is el Capulín,
its name is Reynosa,
its name is Nuevo Laredo,
its name is Guadalupe,
its name is Lomas de Poleo,
its name is Mexico.

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Los muertos

Allá vienen
los descabezados,
los mancos,
los descuartizados,
a las que les partieron el coxis,
a los que les aplastaron la cabeza,
los pequeñitos llorando
entre paredes oscuras
de minerales y arena.
Allá vienen
los que duermen en edificios
de tumbas clandestinas:
vienen con los ojos vendados,
atadas las manos,
baleados entre las sienes.
Allí vienen los que se perdieron por Tamaulipas,
cuñados, yernos, vecinos,
la mujer que violaron entre todos antes de matarla,
el hombre que intentó evitarlo y recibió un balazo,
la que también violaron, escapó y lo contó viene
caminando por Broadway,
se consuela con el llanto de las ambulancias,
las puertas de los hospitales,
la luz brillando en el agua del Hudson.
Allá vienen
los muertos que salieron de Usulután,
de La Paz,
de La Unión,
de La Libertad,
de Sonsonate,
de San Salvador,
de San Juan Mixtepec,
de Cuscatlán,
de El Progreso,
de El Guante,
llorando,
a los que despidieron en una fiesta con karaoke,
y los encontraron baleados en Tecate.
Allí viene al que obligaron a cavar la fosa para su hermano,
al que asesinaron luego de cobrar cuatro mil dólares,
los que estuvieron secuestrados
con una mujer que violaron frente a su hijo de ocho años
tres veces.

¿De dónde vienen,
de qué gangrena,
oh linfa,
los sanguinarios,
los desalmados,
los carniceros
asesinos?

Allá vienen
los muertos tan solitos, tan mudos, tan nuestros,
engarzados bajo el cielo enorme del Anáhuac,
caminan,
se arrastran,
con su cuenco de horror entre las manos,
su espeluznante ternura.
Se llaman
los muertos que encontraron en una fosa en Taxco,
los muertos que encontraron en parajes alejados de Chihuahua,
los muertos que encontraron esparcidos en parcelas de cultivo,
los muertos que encontraron tirados en la Marquesa,
los muertos que encontraron colgando de los puentes,
los muertos que encontraron sin cabeza en terrenos ejidales,
los muertos que encontraron a la orilla de la carretera,
los muertos que encontraron en coches abandonados,
los muertos que encontraron en San Fernando,
los sin número que destazaron y aún no encuentran,
las piernas, los brazos, las cabezas, los fémures de muertos
disueltos en tambos.
Se llaman
restos, cadáveres, occisos,
se llaman
los muertos a los que madres no se cansan de esperar
los muertos a los que hijos no se cansan de esperar,
los muertos a los que esposas no se cansan de esperar,
imaginan entre subways y gringos.
Se llaman
chambrita tejida en el cajón del alma,
camisetita de tres meses,
la foto de la sonrisa chimuela,
se llaman mamita,
papito,
se llaman
pataditas
en el vientre
y el primer llanto,
se llaman cuatro hijos,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
y una viuda (muchacha) que se enamoró cuando estudiaba la primaria,
se llaman ganas de bailar en las fiestas,
se llaman rubor de mejillas encendidas y manos sudorosas,
se llaman muchachos,
se llaman ganas
de construir una casa,
echar tabique,
darle de comer a mis hijos,
se llaman dos dólares por limpiar frijoles,
casas, haciendas, oficinas,
llantos de niños en pisos de tierra,
la luz volando sobre los pájaros,
el vuelo de las palomas en la iglesia,
se llaman
besos a la orilla del río,
se llaman
Gelder (17)
Daniel (22)
Filmar (24)
Ismael (15)
Agustín (20)
José (16)
Jacinta (21)
Inés (28)
Francisco (53)
entre matorrales,
amordazados,
en jardines de ranchos
maniatados,
desvaneciéndose
en parajes olvidados,
desintegrándose muda,
calladamente,
se llaman
secretos de sicarios,
secretos de matanzas,
secretos de policías,
se llaman llanto,
se llaman neblina,
se llaman cuerpo,
se llaman piel,
se llaman tibieza,
se llaman beso,
se llaman abrazo,
se llaman risa,
se llaman personas,
se llaman súplicas,
se llamaban yo,
se llamaban tú,
se llamaban nosotros,
se llaman vergüenza,
se llaman llanto.

Allá van
María,
Juana,
Petra,
Carolina,
13,
18,
25,
16,
los pechos mordidos,
las manos atadas,
calcinados sus cuerpos,
sus huesos pulidos por la arena del desierto.
Se llaman
las muertas que nadie sabe nadie vio que mataran,
se llaman
las mujeres que salen de noche solas a los bares,
se llaman
mujeres que trabajan salen de sus casas en la madrugada,
se llaman
hermanas,
hijas,
madres,
tías,
desaparecidas,
violadas,
calcinadas,
aventadas,
se llaman carne,
se llaman carne.

Allá
sin flores,
sin losas,
sin edad,
sin nombre,
sin llanto,
duermen en su cementerio:

se llama Temixco,
se llama Santa Ana,
se llama Mazatepec,
se llama Juárez,
se llama Puente de Ixtla,
se llama San Fernando,
se llama Tlaltizapán,
se llama Samalayuca,
se llama el Capulín,
se llama Reynosa,
se llama Nuevo Laredo,
se llama Guadalupe,
se llama Lomas de Poleo,
se llama México.

—Maria Rivera, English translation by Richard Gwyn

This poem, along with 155 others by 97 Latin American poets, selected and translated by Richard Gwyn, was published in November 2016 in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America, from Seren Books.

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María Rivera, poet and essayist, was born in Mexico City in 1971. She is the author of Traslación de dominio (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2000 y 2004) for which she won the “Premio Nacional de Poesía Joven Elías Nandino 2000”, Hay batallas (Editorial Joaquín Mortiz, 2005) for which she won the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes 2005, Rota (EDAU, 2006) and Los muertos (Calygramma, 2011). She has received grants from the Centro Mexicano de Escritores and the FONCA Young Creators programme. She is currently a member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte.

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Richard Gwyn is a poet, novelist and translator, based in Wales, where he is Professor of Creative Writing at Cardiff University.  His most recent book is an anthology of recent poetry from Latin America, The Other Tiger (Seren).

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

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Aug 052017
 

Bruce Stone

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From a work in progress.

The kid takes a steady, probative sip, but still the half-moon ice clatters in the glass and he feels the jolt on the lip like electrocution. He’s pretty sure that it’s possible to ascribe volition and malice to the Alpha. The kid had been out in the yard, tossing wieners to the dogs, per ma’s standing request, and the dogs had gone apeshit, per usual, racing wildly around the dog run, stamping frenzied at the frozen soil, Dolt so aboil with nervous ecstasy that he seemed practically to levitate, and when the kid had backed into the door, his own heart buzzing with the infectious joy of the animals’ apeshit cavorting, the Alpha had timed his standard rebound off the trailer’s side wall—a kind of climactic farewell trouncing of the aluminum-sided hull—and struck the still-canted door such that the knob had nailed the kid right in the balls, and as he lunged reflexively forward, convulsing into a protective fetal crouch, the blade edge of the door panel itself, somehow missing the protuberant schnoz, smacked him square in the mouth with enough residual maentum to ding the buried nerves in his gums and split the top lip, which subsequently swelled up like a gumdrop.

Before he could boot the door closed, three or four dogs had breached the aperture, and they set upon him like a felled carcass, deploying tongues, sniffing furiously, basically giving him concerned what-for.

The pain, each time he dips his face into the cup, is uniform, the same low-voltage sting of slung acids on raw skin, and it bothers him not too much because he is, above all, a compound kid, and has long since grown inured to all manner of grievances and disappointments, physical and spiritual. This shit is atmospheric, elemental. Like eight fit Dobermans who have never known a leash, a non-negotiable term of existence. Like most of the compound’s kids, he’s learned to live with it.

The kid has mastered the ability to see himself clearly, and to love himself somewhat, regardless. He reads his life’s unfolding as if it were an entry in a dictionary of North American childhood, a dictionary with a narrative logic and sensibility, as if every experience were representative and definitive.

See, for example, his pose, in his Eddie t-shirt and toughskins, Indian-style on the oval weave rug superfluous in the carpeted living room, near enough to the tv to change the channel manually, as needed, glass of cheap cola off one knee’s port bow, craptronic Intellevision controller in his clawed grip. It feels, to the eye as much as the hand, more like a calculator than a joystick, like someone’s crude idea of futuristic technology, a flat plastic plank with a nonsensical keypad and an odd disc-lever for steering. Slick game-specific inserts of flimsier plastic slide over the buttons to sheathe the worst of the keypad’s nonsense. The cord connecting controller to console is coiled and insulated like the one for the touchtone, the gizmo’s basic color palette echoing the unit’s own drab interior, its mix of wood-paneling and dingy laminate—the technological future being, in this case, just a hodgepodge of the here and now’s constitutives recombined in the most awkward way possible.

The cola is RC, Royal Crown, the kid’s ma’s beverage of choice for reasons unbeknownst to him, though the kid sometimes speculates. The console is Intellevision (not Coleco or Atari); the cartridge, Burger Time, and the kid steers his avatar up and down ladders, across spindly girders, shambling over cross-section components of a deconstructed hamburger, with veg, while fried eggs and hot dogs for some reason try to thwart his tiny chef’s progress. The guy has to march across the surface of, say, a bun, the traversal of which makes his jaunty steps go gummy, as if the guy has to sort of smoosh the bun’s dome with his wingtips to get it to descend to the next layer of the board—this being the game’s sole object. And he has, in some apron pocket too detailed for capture by code this primitive, a pepper shaker with which he can dust the bogeys and slow them down. They flop on the ground, wither and writhe as if they’ve been effectively singed or tased. The kid, as he plays, feels an appropriate amount of resentment for the gift’s quality and thoughtfulness quotient. He keeps things in perspective. The dogs in the yard are quiet, the winter cold more without than within.

After a while he knocks off, does an air-kung-fu roundhouse that makes the coffee table wobble, scarfs a few bland ChipAhoys with a finger-swipe of low-sucrose frosting from his birthday cake, and before snuffing the last lamp and bedding down on the sofa, he peers through the slats of the home’s port window, sees the light still glowing in the trailer opposite, where the twins used to live, the current occupant just a suspicion or phantasmagoria behind the heavy curtains, and the dogs all seated in a row like eight little Indians, backs straight, rumps down, pylons of darkest night at the fenceline, peering too.

Morning, the kid wakes to the sound of an infant wailing. He strides to the far end of the trailer to dress, inspects the lip in the mirror (less swollen and tender—just a small scabbed divot in the flesh betraying injury), then doubles back to the kitchen where he gulps a shard of kringle before stepping out into the dog run. Nighttime temps above 25, the dogs sleep outside, ass to muzzle in the shed. Most of the dogs rush him (he counts incursions by Intake, Mischief, Dolt, Pinto, and Hammer, though the Alpha still sits, distracted, at the fenceline and nothing could disturb the inviolable idiocy of Dipshit), jaws open and teeth gleaming in the icebox air, all menacing smiles and corded muscles, stump tails waving. The kid’s bottom half’s bedecked in the other jeans, the heavier wool sweater up top, so he acclimates pretty fast to the weather situation, and he hauls out the kibble bin from its slot under the trailer, peels off the lid, and the dogs’ snouts descend ravenous, lifting to nip at his sleeves, dragging tongues that leave a trail of chill across his hands in genuine canine gratitude. Though he stands amid eight adult, feeding Dobermans, the kid feels not a jot of fear, and he slaps at their flanks, pats their skulls, congratulatory.

The dogs hoist inquisitive heads and emit woofs, ears antennaed, jaws still chomping, when they hear the cage door rattle: that’s the kid making for ma’s Concord, the button locks erect as golf tees behind the frosted glass. The kid’s got large-denomination birthday money in his billfold, but he slides in and roots in the cupholder where he scores three gunked quarters which he funnels into a pocket with an air of permissible transgression: ma’s said she doesn’t begrudge him as long as the dogs get fed. She’s still snoring in the front bedroom. Fewer kennel sounds, pacified infant, maybe the kid hears her. The closed climate of the cabin alerts him to the fact that he’s squashed a fresh turd under his Pumas. He inspects his soles, takes it all in, and he feels that sensation, almost like discovery, dawning inside him, some knowledge that’s always at the edge of his consciousness but never countenanced squarely and redressed. He lets the knowledge fester like that, subcutaneous, an ingrown hair.

If there had been a time before the dogs, the kid couldn’t recall it because, far as he was concerned, ma had always been breeding. He’s still not sure whether dad’s untimely exit was cause or consequence of ma’s decision to surround herself with seedstock Dobermans, but he’s seen the nativity photos of the dogs dipping their muzzles like jailbreak felons into the laundry basket, where the kid lay cushioned on beach towels, that placid dazed expression of a baby contemplating umpteen canine teeth and whiskers stiff as brush bristles. Also inexplicable is how the kid survived infancy when the possibilities for carnage were so numerous and imminent, but here he is, lo these dozen years later, still consuming resources and riding upon the Earth’s surface under the lucky Dog star of his birth.

He’s long since stopped trying to deduce ma’s angle in this, her apparently unremunerative second side business. Because she doesn’t actually breed Dobermans, the lone attempt to integrate a female into the pack having ended catastrophically (ma refused to disclose details), so now, ma just trafficked in purebred semen, which she collected in labeled vials by mysterious means, though the kid sometimes speculates, and shipped still refrigerated during winter months only to likewise icebound clients in the upper Rust Belt. Excepting these business transactions, ma showed little interest in the dogs, expressed no affection for them, and harbored no fondness for wildlife in general, broadcasting her mute, tough-titted scorn via pitchfork and wheelbarrow when tetrapod vertebrates got flattened in the compound’s drive. For ma the non-human world held about as much fascination as the human, which is to say, not much.

The kid knew, obviously, what the other kids thought of ma in her role as the compound’s property manager—this being her main side business, which secured for ma and son the dubious privilege of tenanting the first accessible unit lot, nearest Sheridan Road, as well as screening potential occupants. To the other kids, ma was just a flabby troll in a battered housecoat, dark southern Italian, with the kid’s large schnoz but her own large pores, eyes black and smeary as motor oil.

The kid has time to kill before the arcade opens. He feels the contours of said time, its spongy form and mass, like the pressure of the chill air seeping through his meager layers, clamping down on his frame with escalating firmness and conviction. Still the kid lingers at the roadside in his soiled Pumas, tests the damaged lip with his tongue, takes in this view of the #2 trailer, its blue waffle cone siding and balustered porch deck, the notch in the gravel where the twins used to park their Spree. Decorative wedges of beveled 2×4 ring the welcome sign that abuts the main drive, and the kid’s wheeled to scrape, head down, his shoe clean against them, but the process leads him, wedge by wedge, in a tight semicircle until he’s fronting again this diagonal view of units #1 and #2, slice between them of the pointless field that borders the compound, fanning out across space between here and the drive-in before arcing around to bracket the park’s far west end. Along the pointless field’s near margin runs a single track scuffed into the earth, like a property demarcation line, just a wobbly foot-scrawled boundary drawn between the compound’s something and the pointless nothing of low scraggly vegetation legible only in the language of bees, bent stalks of indestructible weeds, pendant shapes of burst seed pods, general aura of interred garbage, eighty-sixed cola cans’ slow erosion, lumpy hillocks of cast-off moped tires, and motley slumbering soil-borne contaminants—a topographical barrier of what isn’t, walling off stuff that evidently is—along which track the kid was last summer speeding on the twins’ Spree, spraying soft apples at bug-bit runts skulking in between-unit yards, spewing streams of smacktalk in the compound’s unrepeatable vernacular, and the kid’s hair’s all torn up by the wind of his loco-motion, shit-eating grin stretched from ear to ear. Kid’s scouting loci of memories.

Aladdin’s Castle’s change machine converts quarters into flimsy faux-gold tokens, stamped with the arcade’s logo and a suitably Arabian backdrop (oil lamp, minaret). The kid recognizes that this is a shrewd business practice, on the casino model, requiring kids to burn their money at this arcade, instead of strewing quarters all over town. Bun N Games, the nearest competing sanctioned arcade hall, is practically audible from the parking lot of the Market Square mall-space housing the Castle, but every retail outfit, gas station or bowling alley, with both cash register and wall socket boasts a cabinet console to sop up the city’s flow of loose change. The kid’s even heard tell of a porn-style game at the train station—reportedly called Cherry Popper—whose graphics, per his informant, were virtually jerkable. This kid himself has dropped incalculable amounts into the Punch-Out! machine at the southside Supervalu, but he still can’t beat the third Bald Bull, a kind of cartoon Clubber Lang whose savage uppercut combination, preceded by a crouched, pogoing bull rush, is all but unstoppable. A good game, he concedes, can be enjoyably vexing. The Aladdin’s Castle token strategy feels tacky, bespeaks an abject desperation with which the kid can readily identify, but if the kid were a betting man, he would pick this chain, with its shameless pandering and anxious larceny, to outlast all contenders and comers.

The kid has a feel for these things, the slow creep of death’s stench across everything that’s knowable.

—Bruce Stone

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Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.

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Aug 052017
 

George Saunders

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Reading, around the same time, Pastoralia (2000) by George Saunders, “Money” by Douglas Glover (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015), and “The Evil Gesture,” by Russell Working (Numéro Cinq, 2017), I have the sense that each of the stories could have been written by either of the other authors. What is it about these stories, characters, and prose styles that makes them appear to have come from the same hand?

I have to answer, verisimilitude—a word that appears in Saunders’ title story, when the guy playing caveman in the theme park gets a memo from his boss:

In terms of austerity, it says. No goat today. In terms of verisimilitude, mount this fake goat and tend as if real. Mount well above fire to avoid burning. In event of melting, squelch fire. In event of burning, leave area, burning plastic may release harmful fumes.

In terms of verisimilitude, indeed. Saunders in the earlier story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” features a narrator whose job (at another theme park) is “verisimilitude inspector.” Which I suppose is what I want to be in this essay.

While Saunders’ premise is typically absurdist—a middle-American couple has a precarious job at a theme park playing cave people, a kind of kitsch Flintstones—the lens of the characters is our given anchor in that sketchy reality, and so it comes across with a convincing punch.

In Glover’s “Money,” a miserable con-man named Drebel is painted faithfully, without fanfare, just as he is (“His favorite words were liquidate and fester”). Even as Drebel imagines himself (at the end) as “a demonic messenger, an immense black figure towering above a smoking, lifeless plain,” we have seen him from the inside out, knowing him, for all his self-serving crimes, as fellow human.

Russell Working’s protagonist, a boy named Jordan, invites us to inhabit his existence for a spell, fixated on his quest to go trick-or-treating, thwarted by the funeral of his uncle Aaron, beheaded in Afghanistan.

Russell Working

In each of these stories our immersion in the characters is so complete that we become them, and in that merger the larger themes of exploitation, evil and violence are absorbed in our experience: not so much cogitated but integrated.

Other masters of ironic realism come to mind. Thomas Mann launched a career with his unstinting recreation of bourgeois life in Buddenbrooks; wherein all the weaknesses and limitations of the society and its citizens are exposed to full view. Invited to see the unforgiving truth of our commonplace nature, we can smile with scorn, yet earn the gift of distance from such foibles. We emerge with a larger capacity to see the failings not only of others around us, but then also ourselves, because the muscle of discernment has been well toned.

Thomas Mann

In the case of Mann’s last work, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the verisimilitude of character works to earn the roguish con-man our sympathy because we have been so hospitably welcomed into his, yes, confidence. In this merger, again, comes sympathy, empathy, forgiveness of sins—because he and we are one.

The verisimilitude is achieved with a recreation of the culture, whether in the manner of Saunders’ (or Glover’s, or Working’s) fabrications of superficial Americanisms, or Mann’s faithful rendering of the furnishings and fixations of the German bourgeoisie. Along with the convincing setting, whether elaborate or sparse, the diction of the characters and narration is organically suited to convey the same conditions and values, exposed to the witnessing eye.

Realpolitik and the Moral Imperative

In his own essays and interviews, Saunders notes that an early influence was Isaac Babel, and he also cites Tolstoy, particularly Resurrection. Babel’s Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003) offers the war correspondent’s firsthand depiction of the Polish front under the assault of the murderous Cossacks—the leading wave of the Bolshevik Revolution trying to export itself by force upon its western neighbor. This unnecessary campaign, presented with complete reportorial objectivity, is at once horrifying and galvanizing. In response I feel with vicarious rage and repulsion the contrary of this bloody senseless human history—rather, the necessity to shout the moral imperative, to love one’s fellow human. But first we must taste the fresh blood of murder.

Between battles, Babel rides with the Cossack horsemen across fields of rye littered with corpses, sparkling in the sun. They find lodging in ruined villages, each with its churches desecrated, its women raped, its foodstocks looted, its prisoners shot point-blank or slashed with sabers, its livestock slaughtered summarily for the single pleasure remaining for the syphilitic soldiers: eating.

These men so degraded by war inveigh to their superiors about injustices concerning ownership of horses; they stumble in bloodsoaked rags, insisting on slogans of the people’s party; they sleep when they can on piles of louse-ridden hay; they gnaw at green meat, awaiting the next village to plunder. And they long, like Babel himself, for home and the peaceful life.

Babel’s war, like every war, is hell on earth. The enormity of its suffering stands in contrast to the comfort of our privileged existence, apart from such madness and strife, coercion and fear. Yet our private fate, in war and peace, is compromised just as it is in the collective evil of war. In Babel’s pithy phrase, “To save his own goods and chattels a man will gladly set fire to another man’s hide.” (Glover’s Drebel stands as exhibit A of this uncomfortable truth.) And regardless of one’s own circumstances and moral choices, the arrival of hell looms in the chaotic demise of one’s own body, subject to the nonpetitionable torture of decay, that universal finality of death.

Literary realism, to be complete, it seems, must, like Saunders in his latest work, the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, bravely make a centerpiece of death. The frequent theme and device of Saunders’ short stories, complete with likeable zombies and unfortunate Asian women strung on wires as lawn ornaments, is precisely that dark heart of reality, giving us the gut punch that will wake us past the corporate-speak and juvenile pablum that passes for speech in our day. Death is a wakeup call for all.

Luckily we get to try it out first, while we have the luxury of living, if we try on the world as it is according to Babel, or Tolstoy, or the characters of Saunders’ world. That world, so truly painted and finely drawn, in spare lines, yet in details and phrasing so breathing and alive, is none other than ours.

In the face of human depravity and suffering, if one fully identifies with its victims and perpetrators, one is moved to the moral imperative of human love, instead. Saunders quotes Tolstoy to that effect:

“If once we admit—be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case—that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds…. Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances.”[1]

Yet, Saunders qualifies the temptation to assign too much moral or thematic impulse to the creation of the story.

The assumption trickles down that artists have this viewpoint we want to ram down your throat.… I’m not really trying to say anything. Most people assume you have an intention and then you execute. There are some writers like that. But for me, I’m trying to not have an intention. I just have a little fragment and start working with it to see where it goes. When I’m done, sometimes I go, Wow, I said that? I didn’t know I thought that.[2]

In the end, the purpose is more “literary” (Babel), objective in the sense of Buddhist “witnessing,” and  “simple… almost invisible.” [3] The morality is not expressed but felt, in the successful literary rendering of reality, no matter how disturbing: “Love, at least in the fictional sense, is… clearer sight.”[4]

Praxis and Witness

In Babel’s notes published with the Red Cavalry stories, I’m struck by certain phrases that seem like a manifesto for minimalist realism:

Simply a story… Very simple, a factual account, no superfluous descriptions.
No continuity… Pay no attention to continuity in the story.

Short chapters saturated with content.

[and from the concluding remarks by his daughter, Nathalie]: “Babel’s ultimate aim in the stories … was literary effect.”

What can we make of this confluence of realism and literary effect? If the aim is verisimilitude, then it seems almost as if writers achieving that aim would sound the same as each other: as indeed the school of Raymond Carver spawned a generation of barebones writing, lean of telling and laconic of both narrative and dialogue… or Hemingway before him, another primary influence Saunders cites in a New York Times Magazine interview.[5]

Yet intrinsic to the “literary effect” of the realist is each writer’s given praxis. For Saunders, that means stylistic devices such as the use of extra question marks; jargon such as “due to,” “plus,” and “per”; speech authentically bastardized from media and corporate tropes; the use of capital letters for the iconic branding of everyday aspects of mundane American life. And there is that particularly American flavor to the thoughts, actions and speech of the characters. Parroting trends in the superficial culture, steeped in bureaucratese, fearful of stepping out of conditioned roles.

Compared to Babel’s graphic tapestry of setting, elemental in its rye fields full of corpses, its ruined churches and commandeered farmhouses, Saunders’ settings are stage sets for the play of the characters in dialogue or monologue; outlines constructed only for context, as the real world that is created resides in the characters themselves. The character is the world, and herein lies Saunders’ spiritual depth of compassion for any and all personalities enacting the divine and wacky human (or animal: dog, fox…) experiment.

In the absence of elaborate framing of setting, or any kind of authorial interpretation offered, there is allowed on the part of the reader a complete identification with the character/subjects. The monologues in the form of letters, reports, columns, or diaries all immerse the reader in the world of the character, richly rendered to allow us to experience fully the living of that life.

Saunders has said, in a recent CBC interview,[6] that it is detail which, because it makes the character come alive, earns them sympathy from the reader. Thus Saunders distinguishes between realistic description, and “nondescript” writing.

In terms of irony, it is the humor which flavors the reader’s final evaluation, knowing that no malice is intended, but only truth—which is understood dispassionately, or compassionately, as we are invited with Saunders to simply witness all that is—in the Buddhist way that Saunders is known to subscribe to.

Absurdist Therapy

A key dimension of Saunders’ realism is the absurdism embedded within it: a natural discovery given the inherent absurdities of American culture (“America has always been nuts.”[7]). And it is the absurdist dimension that gives free reign to the writer’s unique imagination, that sets him apart from contemporaries who might strive only for a more limited realistic approach.

The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to “real life”—he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.… Our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.[8]

The absurdist imagination allows not only the distinctive style of the writer to emerge; it encourages us to question everything. In this more profound state of decoupling from a reality that is at once both transparent and weird, we are jarred from our own comfort zones of self-satisfaction and denial.

“If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you’ve doubled it. If you have a negative tendency and you look at it… then the possibility exists that you can convert it.”[9] The truth will set us free: or at least, it gives us the possibility of freedom, if we so choose.

Does George Saunders translate this stance from its spiritual, aesthetic and moral grounding into any kind of real-world political action imperative? Or is it left for each of us to find our best way forward, better attuned to the lives of others?

The latter course is pointed to by

the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities.[10]

—Nowick Gray

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Cited and Selected Works

Douglas Glover, “Money” (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015)

Russell Working, “The Evil Gesture” (Numéro Cinq, 2017)

Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003)

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901); Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954)

George Saunders:

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) (short stories and a novella)

Pastoralia (2000) (short stories and a novella)

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) (novella)

In Persuasion Nation (2006) (short stories)

The Braindead Megaphone (2007) (essays)

Tenth of December (2013) (short stories) 

Fox 8 (2013) (novella)

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) (novel)

George Saunders Interviews

“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year”, Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.

2014 George Saunders interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.

“Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” George Saunders, NPR, January 6, 2013.

Radio Interview with George Saunders on “Read First, Ask Later” (Episode 27).

“George Saunders: On Story,” by Sarah Klein & Tom Mason, Redglass Pictures, The Atlantic, December 8, 2015.

CBC interview, Q, 13 April 2017.

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Numéro Cinq production editor Nowick Gray is a writer and editor based in Victoria, BC. His writings span an eclectic range of themes, structures and styles in fiction and creative nonfiction. Educated at Dartmouth College and the University of Victoria, Nowick taught in Inuit villages in Northern Quebec, and later carved out a homestead in the British Columbia mountains, before finding the “simple life” in writing, travel, and playing African drums. His mystery of the Arctic, Hunter’s Daughter, was published in 2015 by Five Rivers. Visit his website at nowickgray.com or Facebook page at http://facebook.com/nowickg

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Tolstoy quoted in Saunders, “Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” NPR, January 6, 2013.
  2. Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star, January 11, 2014.
  3. Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.
  4. CBC Radio, Q, 13 April 2017.
  5. “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.
  6. CBC Radio interview.
  7. CBC Radio interview.
  8. New York Times Magazine interview.
  9. New York Times Magazine interview.
  10. Joel Lovell, New York Times Magazine interview.
Aug 042017
 

This excerpt comes early in Igiaba Scego’s novel, Adua, available from New Vessel Press, and follows the character of Zoppe, Adua’s father, as he adapts to life in an Italian prison. Scego is journalist and novelist born in Itay in 1974 to Somali parents.

Adua was translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards.

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Zoppe knew that the best escape route was through his head.

That was the place where he found all the lost scents of his childhood. There, caano geel, shaah cadees, beer iyo muufo.

Candied ginger. Marvelous cinnamon. His Wonderland Somalia.

Zoppe thought about all this crouched down on the cold floor of his cell in Regina Coeli. His head between his knees and his thigh anxious against a battered chest. Vertigo and stabbing pain coursed through his tired veins. And his aching limbs felt defeated. He suspected he had two broken ribs. It was hard for him to breathe and even to bend over.

“Those bastards really mangled me.”

And as if that weren’t enough, they had tossed him unceremoniously in solitary. “This way you’ll learn what happens when you mess with us.”

Beppe gave him a pat on the head before handing him over to the prison. He touched him like a mother her young. Then he had him sip a yellow liquid.

“Drink, nigger, drink.”

Zoppe gulped with difficulty. He made a horrified grimace and felt something burning inside. Was he dying?

Beppe patted him again. “Drink up, you’ll feel better.”

And Zoppe drank and died once, twice, three times. Then with the fourth sip, the warmth began to reach his spent cheeks.

“My aunt’s walnut liqueur can revive even the dead. You’ll feel better soon, you’ll see,” the soldier said, smiling.

In that miserable cell where they’d stuck him there was a cot and a bowl of slop. Limp potatoes floated alongside prickly worms. Zoppe was young, he was famished, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat.

“I don’t want to shit myself to death in this stinking cell.” The room was square, gray, repugnant. Words inscribed with bloody fingernails covered the walls with pain. Zoppe started reading to try to figure out what lay ahead in his increasingly uncertain future.

Mauro da Pisa, Alessandro da Bologna, Antonio da Sassari, Lucio da Roma, Giulio da Pistoia, Simone da Rimini, have all passed through here. The oldest date was 1923. The best inscription was dated 1932. Zoppe recognized it immediately, the supreme poet was one of his favorites:

Through me is the way to the city of woe.
Through me is the way to sorrow eternal.
Through me is the way to the lost below.

“They’ve never cleaned up, that’s clear,” he said, addressing an imaginary audience. Actually, he didn’t mind the quiet of that isolation. It was a reprieve from the torture, from the senseless beatings that had defiled him down to his soul.

His tormenters would soon appear with their stinking farts and vulgar taunts. But in the meantime there was that strange, rat-scented calm to cradle him.

The pain didn’t subside. It was his groin that hurt to death, especially his testicles. Beppe had really beaten him badly. Zoppe asked himself if after all those hits his seed would still be fertile. His testicles throbbed and a yellowish liquid dripped from the tip of his penis. He felt heavy. And he could barely open his puffy eyes.

At the age of twenty he was an old man.

A premature oday, with a drooling mouth and achy bones.

He had his visions to comfort him. His mind catapulted him back into the home of Davide the Jew and his little girl, Emanuela.

He had recently been their guests, and the details were still so effervescent and fresh in his mind that he could almost remember without trying.

He could see the sour cherry preserves that Rebecca, Davide’s wife, had prepared for dessert. He’d filled up on that delicious tart and had also relished what had come before.

“What is this dish called?” he’d asked, astonished at his overflowing plate.

“It’s rigatoni con la pajata,” Rebecca replied.

Just then Zoppe noted how much mother and daughter resembled each other. The same wide forehead, the same big ears, and those sparkling emerald eyes. But whereas Emanuela was exuberant like all children, Rebecca had something mysterious and seductive about her.

Zoppe envied Davide.

And he said: “It smells good. I envy you this rich dish.” Davide accepted that sweet envy.

Looking around, there was really little to be envious of. It was all so small. Even the furniture was tiny. The house was composed of two rooms united by the reddish light that filtered in through a small window. The kitchen with an iron stove was in plain view. In the middle, a table, some tattered chairs and a flesh-toned armchair. The space was packed with furnishings. In every detail there was a certain affinity for symmetry that made such a chaotic space endearing. Zoppe was drawn to a blond walnut cabinet with drawers covered in faux vellum. It was an exquisite object that did not fit well with the overall simplicity. It was a little bit like Rebecca, that cabinet, too refined to be the centerpiece of that set.

Rebecca … Davide … Emanuela …

It was incredible for him to see white Jews. Zoppe had known only Falasha Jews, the Beta Israel, from Lake Tana, even though his father had told him that in the West there were Jews “with skin as pale as the moon.” These were pink Jews, so cordial, and their Roman house so cozy and inviting.

Zoppe was blinded by the ochre walls that matched harmoniously with the violet flooring. He was impressed by the hoard of books; they formed a cathedral. And the knickknacks scattered all over the place: ceramic dolls with real hair, decorative wall plates, tasseled colorful boxes and lots of photographs of old people in shiny, faux, silver frames.

Zoppe liked this middle ground where sour cherries intermingled with knowledge.

If he had his basin with him he’d have read the fate of those three people. He would have seen their beginning and their end. All their happiness and their atrocious suffering. Their passionate kisses and betrayals. If only he had his basin he would have warned them about all the dangers and joys of the world.

§

“Water,” he requested to the guard. “I’m thirsty.”

“Not so fast, Negro,” was his answer. “You’re not at the Grand Hotel. Learn some manners. You say ‘Water, please.’”

“What dfference does it make? You people don’t have good manners anyway,” Zoppe retorted.

“Ah, we’ve got a rebel here,” the guard said. “If times were different,” he added, “we would have shown you, you piece of shit. In Regina Coeli we don’t like rebels. You’re ticks, useless lice of humanity. In Regina Coeli it’s easy to die of hunger or thirst, learn that. It’s easy to bring down that cocky crest you’ve got. In Regina Coeli it’s a short path to the graveyard. But you’re a damned lucky louse. They told me not to let you die. So I’ll bring you your water. But mind you, I might not be able to kill you, but put you through hell, that I can do.”

Zoppe said nothing. He wanted to smash that fatso’s face. But he was in chains. And weak all through his insides. Eventually he ate the slop of potatoes and prickly worms. From the very first bite he could tell that his stomach would refuse to digest it. Vomiting was the logical consequence of an unwanted meal.

Zoppe was a cesspool. The worms dropped from his mouth whole. Restless worms, still alive and a little stunned. He could see them creeping slowly over his wasted body.

“Where’s my water?”

He needed to try to sleep. But could one sleep in such a state?

He wondered whether his father, Haji Safar, knew that he was in prison now.

“I’m sure he had a vision.” And Zoppe prayed that it hadn’t made his father suffer too much.

Happy images from his former life stopped the pain. The lively eyes of his sister, Ayan, his father’s gentle hand, the discipline of the Jesuits who had taught him Italian, and the intense letters from his Ethiopian friend Dagmawi Mengiste. They surrounded him and urged him not to give up. He saw their prayers spiral around him in an embrace of courage. “They love me,” Zoppe thought, “and they’re thinking about me right now.” Even the Limentani family was thinking of him.

He could hear the little girl asking her mother, Rebecca, “How do you draw a wildebeest, Mama? Do you think it has the same hump as a camel? Why don’t we invite the brown man over for lunch again and ask him to draw one for us?”

Zoppe saw Rebecca’s face tensed in a mask of fear. Maybe she knew about him.

Maybe news of his arrest had spread.

He’d ended up in trouble over Francesco Bondi, that Romagnolo with the flat nose and yellow teeth.

Zoppe appreciated nothing about that man. He was too tall, too invasive, too chatty.

He detested the droopy mustache and red hair that the Romagnolo showed off like a trophy. Bondi was always there asking question after question, waiting for amazing answers that Zoppe was never able to give.

And also, he only ever talked about women—bottoms, bosoms, lips, sex. Zoppe found him vulgar. Obviously.

“Do you have a girl?” the Romagnolo often asked. But Zoppe didn’t open up.

Of course he had a girl, but he had no intention of telling that guy about it. Asha the Rash was his woman. Every night in his dreams he savored the moment when he would make her his. But he didn’t want to share such private thoughts with anyone, let alone that lout Francesco Bondi. He didn’t want to sully her beautiful name with a filthy person like him. The Romagnolo ruined women, for sure. Every day he went bragging about his conquests. Mirella, Graziella, Elvira, Carlotta. All of them with big busts and big bottoms. All snatched up under the nose of distracted husbands. These provincial Don Juan routines bored him. He didn’t have all that time to waste. He had to work, not dawdle around. Zoppe’s greatest desire was to impress his superiors. He wanted honors. He wanted cash. So he had to look active. Lots of work didn’t scare him. Especially when he thought of the nice gifts that he would be able to give his Asha the Rash one day.

But then that strange morning came.

Francesco Bondi pounced on him with breath that still smelled of sleep.

Zoppe wasn’t alone. In that miserable and miniscule room he was ashamed to call an office, there was a man with yellow hair.

“Hey, Negro,” Bondi yelled euphorically. “I saw another Negro like you on the street yesterday. I thought you were the only one in Rome.”

Then the Romagnolo noticed the man with the yellow hair. “You’re not military,” Bondi said, a little irritated. “What are you doing here?”

“Don’t judge by appearances. I’m even more, in a sense. The name’s Calamaro.” The two men shook hands hesitantly.

“And this Negro you saw on the street, what was he like, if I may ask?”

“He was a Negro, what do you think he was like …”

“They’re not all the same, did you know that?” said the man with the yellow hair. “There are different types, in every region. Their hair and noses diverge wildly. It depends on the climate.”

“Hair? That stuff this guy has on his head, you expect me to call that hair?”

“Yes,” said Calamaro, calmly.

“Are you kidding me?”

Zoppe buried his nose in his papers and mentally wandered through the city of Rome in search of the other African Bondi was talking about.

There was definitely Menghistu Isahac Tewolde Medhin. The Eritrean hothead. He ran into him one day around the Pensione Tedeschi on Via Flavia. The Eritrean walked slowly, he didn’t worry about being seen too much like Zoppe did. Medhin didn’t want to hide, let alone disappear. His movements were filled with pride. He walked with his head high. He had just finished at the Monte Mario international college run by the Methodist Episcopal Church and was trying to figure out what the future held for him. Zoppe didn’t like the man. His words were too learned, complicated. And his avid anti-Italian ferocity terrified him. That man would soon get himself into trouble. “I shouldn’t have anything to do with him, otherwise he’ll ruin me.”

As he was lost in these thoughts he saw Francesco Bondi’s hand sink into his curly hair.

“You call this hair? is is wool, not even good quality wool!”

“It’s hair,” Calamaro replied calmly. “It’s not pretty, but it’s hair. The gentleman is a Negro, but his features are less Negroid than the anthropological specimens I examined in the Congo.”

And then he too, no different than Bondi, sank his hand into the hair on Zoppe’s exhausted head.

The Somali exhaled with all the strength he had in his lungs and sat there despairingly listening to the two Italians.

He couldn’t say exactly when the discussion turned into something more serious. Had it been Bondi who offended Calamaro, or maybe the reverse? Zoppe was confused. He saw only, through his hair, that the two had moved on to hands—their hands. Fists, in short.

“Please, gentlemen,” said Zoppe, disconsolate. “Please,” he repeated. Then he got the inauspicious idea of trying to break it up.

The police arrested only him for that strange morning brawl.

— Igiaba Scego, Translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards

Published with permission from New Vessel Press

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Igiaba Scego is an Italian novelist and journalist. She was born in Rome in 1974 to Somali parents who took refuge in Italy following a coup d’état in their native country, where her father served as foreign minister.

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Jamie Richards is a translator based in Milan. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Oregon. Her translations include Igort’s Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks, Giovanni Orelli’s Walaschek’s Dream, and Jellyfish by Giancarlo Pastore.

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Aug 042017
 

 

“So what do we have now in its place?”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Rumina Sethi)

In place of prudence this tumble of gulls
and vultures effervescing from bulldozers
along archipelagoes of landfills.
In place of justice, hybrid tea roses
and cockapoos, puggles, labradoodles.
In place of temperance, pop-up surveys,
monogrammed collars, logoed zipper pulls.
In place of courage, postal holidays.
In place of faith, profiling, surveillance,
data mining, intelligence satellites.
In place of hope, adjustable-rate loans,
spin-offs, takeovers, derivatives, bailouts.
In place of love, speed limits in school zones,
reflective vests, flashing yellow warning lights.

X

“You love anybody yet?”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Alyson Hagy)

Which one you counting on love to transform:
you or your lover? This lover love you back?
Figured out how to stick to one at a time?
Find familiar sweeter than exotic?
Always prefer what you got to what you don’t?
Believe you’re the exception to the rule?
Think things’ll get easier at some point?
Sure this time love will prove too big to fail?
Storybook, destined for a happy ending?
Not planning to get old like the rest of us?
Botched it before, but you know what you’re doing
this time? Have a backup plan in place?
How much more inventive will your lover’s
treatment of “fidelity” be than yours?

X

“What happened to the suburbs, the exurbs, the shopping malls, and the edge cities?”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Julie Abraham)

That one year in high school Kevin Wilton
bought a Gremlin that didn’t look like much
(had been wrecked, body didn’t quite sit on
the frame), and didn’t so much roll as lurch,
but got us to track practice and the mall
and once a double date (I remember
his date but not mine). He was tall,
strong, broad-shouldered, but (I learned much later)
his father still raped him and beat his sister.
One time, only once, he drove us backward,
mall to freeway, by the off-ramp, faster
than I’d have driven even faced forward.
No cars were exiting, we lived. Too late now
to pay him that gas money I still owe.

X

“Go back to what?”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Jennifer Atkinson)

Go back to storm warning and rain delay.
Go back to parchment, papyrus, vellum.
Go back to land line and gravel driveway.
Go back to blent, unbent light, pre-prism.
Go back to samekh, yodh, zayin, aleph,
great auk, ivory-billed, passenger pigeon.
Go back to cave painting and petroglyph.
Go back to mask, to God from the machine.
Go back to compacted cosmos, the size
of a penguin’s egg, steadied by webbed feet,
stayed from snow, against God’s belly feathers.
Go back to left hand does know what the right.
Go back to stage fright, recurring nightmare,
back to Houston, we’ve had a problem here.

X

“That something has to come undone?”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Jenny Boully)

Or that, of what in fact did come undone,
we have to tell ourselves it needed to?
The same way I say I had no part in
the things I’ve done but can’t believe I’d do?
Or that, because we think we’re better than
others and could teach them a thing or two,
some blemish we’d managed to keep hidden
from ourselves will force its way into view?
Or that the something now coming undone,
much bigger than we are, includes all our
trivial undonenesses in its one
vast undoing, entails that we ourselves are
undone already, no matter what we do,
and undone ultimately, through and through?

—H. L. Hix

X

H.L. Hix’s recent books include a poetry collection, Rain Inscription (Etruscan Press, June 2017), an art/poetry anthology, Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2014), and a translation of selected poems by Estonian peasant poet Juhan Liiv, Snow Drifts, I Sing (Guernica Editions, 2013), translated in collaboration with Jüri Talvet.

X

X

Aug 032017
 

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A centuries-old encomium to romantic love and longing, Kuruntokai is one of the classical anthologies of love poetry from the Cankam era of Tamil, South Indian literature. Written in a formal style involving a first-person monologue by any of a number of characters in a love drama, these poems reconstitute the field of human emotion by plunging it deep into its source in the cycles of landscapes, seasons, times of day. The characters are represented as anonymous and archetypal (talaivi is the heroine, and talaivan the hero), but no reader experiencing these poems full of detail and fine nuance avoids getting turned inside out. For a beautiful exploration of the history of this genre of poetry (called akam) and the central role of poetics in South Indian culture, refer to the recent book by David Shulman, Tamil: A Biography (Belknap/Harvard, 2016).

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Poem of the desert road

Talaivi says—

As though a sliver of sacred conch shell
in the reddened sky, there it is,
the slim moon, risen again.
Could he ever forget me and my tears?
Striding in that wide wasteland
he’s just like a bull elephant
that for his limping mate splits a tall yā tree,
stabbing it with his tusks to take the white bark,
which wounds him with its dry taste. He swallows
then thunders to the outer bounds of what the heart can bear.

Katampanūr Cāntiliyanār
Kuruntokai, verse 307

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Poem from the jasmine-filled forest

Talaivi says—

Under the spiraling horns of our dark buffalo,
the grinning bell on the rope tied to her thick neck
peals each time she moves in the dead of the night.
He hasn’t returned.
Massive black boulders forget what it is to be washed by rain
and stand waiting like dust-covered elephants,
where hills beyond hills curve the path he took.
He doesn’t think of my yearning shoulders and bamboo-like arms at all.

Maturai Marutan Ilanākanār
Kuruntokai, verse 279

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Poem amid avenues lined with ornamental trees

Talaivi says—

We live in the same city, but he avoids my street.
When he does come down my street, he doesn’t step in to visit,
and as though he’s strolling past some strangers’ cremation grounds,
he takes an eyeful and keeps walking,
as though he’s not the one who has driven me out of my shyness
and my mind. Such love, like an arrow shot from a bowstring,
soars for only a moment and then falls someplace irretrievable, far away.

Pālai Pātiya Perunkatunkō
Kuruntokai, verse 231

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Poem of the cool, purple-flowered hillsides

Talaivi’s friend says—

She’s got stomach to flirt and risk without hesitation.
Who’s to judge if he’s a gem or a good-for-nothing?
Her dance teacher says she’s got the clearest head,
but the day that she set her eyes on the dark pond
covered in green and a profusion of tight, bursting buds,
she coveted the long petals of the blue lotus inside.
Now, her fiery eyes choose heartache
and she’s set her jaw, resolute.

Pēricattanār
Kuruntokai, verse 366

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Poem of the mountainside wildflowers

Talaivan says—

On charred and newly sown land, the rhythmic beat of the cane in my girl’s hand
entranced a pandemonium of parrots, which lay down
seduced by her waving and her cries: the music of music.
Those parrots, mistaking her menacing for a greeting, wouldn’t fly off,
and I saw her furious eyes flood like a pair of mountain spring waterlilies
shot with heavy rain droplets and dotted in a lush flight of beetles.
She is the poem that has drowned my soul to its last drenched flower.

Kapilar
Kuruntokai, verse 291

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Poem from the blue lotus seashore

Talaivi says—

Flowers from morning glory beach vines and waterlilies,
plaited into long garlands, drenched our tresses there
as slick crabs fled from me and my friends
and into the sea. Just one day’s
raucous games with that god of the shore has bitten off
our entwining friendship. Strange what a dearth desire makes.

Ammuvanār
Kuruntokai, verse 401

—Translation by A. Anupama

Resources: Vaidehi Herbert’s translations at learnsangamtamil.com and Robert Butler’s translations. I owe much gratitude to T. Kabilan for material assistance with this set of poems.

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

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Aug 032017
 

All photos  by Paul Lindholdt.

 

His every stride equaled two of mine. His proper province was the clouds. Sage-green moss swayed from pine trees and seemed to wreath his head. Bark chips, fallen needles and twigs beneath our feet made a spongy duff.

As often as our schedules allowed, my father and I packed up gear and threw it in the pickup. We blasted across Snoqualmie Pass from our family acreage in Seattle to camp, fish and hike in the Taneum drainage, Colockum Pass, Crab Creek, Clover Springs. That same canopied pickup served us as our bed.

We needed relief from the population crush in Seattle. We found sanctuary in the arid basin and highlands of Eastern Washington. He and I shared a tacit rapture, an unspoken contract. We favored “the dry side” so far that we came to call those inland pine and fir forests home. My mother and sisters stayed behind.

The coastal interstate can become a kind of asphalt hell for those who love the Big Outdoors. Even out of earshot of the I-5 corridor – that great artery of the West – it brooded over my bent world when I was young, hatching drizzly days and nights. It was as if electromagnetic radiation had found a way to colonize my blood. Traffic racket as lymphoma. Particulates seen and heard and smelt.

Some people always need frontiers. We find them wherever we are able – on fresh continents, on high seas, in outer space. My ancestors hit the Pacific Ocean and I bounced back inland. My design: to reoccupy the intermountain West, reclaim sparsely populated places that others had abandoned for the coast.

My home lies by the Idaho border now. It is low-rainfall natural grassland, like the eastern two-thirds of Washington, mixed shrub-steppe and conifer. Some moisture, mostly snowmelt, distinguishes it from sheer desert. Shrubs struggle to grow on the Columbia Plateau. So do the many tree species in its higher reaches.

From my home, I bicycle an old railway, the Fish Lake Trail. Converted to a community path, it links the towns of Cheney and Spokane. Wild beings throng along it. Attention is a form of devotion, I believe, and so I often slow to ogle them close at hand. The magpies, hawks, eagles, deer; also the smaller sorts that can prove invisible, the praying mantises and walking sticks. On other days I blur by, I opt for speed, music churning in my earphones, leaving the wild beings be.

A freeing sport, this bicycling. It opens riders to aromas both pleasant and rank. Even at speed I can detect leaf mold, pungent forbs, alkali water, a carrion heap. The asphalt that I pedal is a petroleum product. So are the skinny snakes of my tires, my handgrips and cable casings. Such petrochemical reminders subdue any self-congratulation that might otherwise arise from my nonpolluting ride.

Occasionally I load up my bike on a city bus and tote it to the office. After work, I cleat into the pedals for the fifteen-mile ride home. Speeding stealthy as the breeze, I power past milkweed and massive ponderosa pines, past animals sunning or ambling on the path. Flocks of turkeys cause me to wonder which of us would suffer most if we smashed up. Bald eagles above Queen Lucas Lake eye me at eye level from low branches where they fish. Bull snakes, lizards and the occasional rattler soak up the heat radiated by the black asphalt.

In my neck of the woods, moose who stand at shoulders a full six feet high spook us. Several times a year we encounter bulls or cows on breathless trails or backroad scrapes. They tower blackly over our compact cars. They feed on our landscaping and linger in our yards. Approaching them can be hazardous.

Moose kill more people than the leading two or three predators do. They strike with forefeet like horses. We surrender our domestic spaces to them without being told. We lavish them with gratitude for the wildness they exemplify so close at hand. Complete attention extends my utmost devotion to them. One cow I’ve seen twice along my bike route wears a blond chest and a forehead blaze.

From a window in the Spokane home, I’ve watched a young bull nibble at the leaves of a river birch, a top-heavy sapling I planted just the year before. The animal threw its considerable weight into the tree, bent the sapling double and devoured the leaves. Farther and farther up the trunk it pushed and chewed. At last it straddled the whole bole and bent the sapling back to Earth, like Robert Frost’s swinger of birches did for sheer sport in his poem “Birches.”

After the moose finished eating, every leaf was gone. It must have been a rush when the tree sprung back up between its legs. The next year the leaves all sprouted again like revelation, and that river birch grew too sturdy to subdue.

A coyote hunting along the Cheney end of the bike path got a big surprise. Close upon it I pedaled and whistled a shrill alarm between lips and teeth. I was only aiming to keep it alert and alive. It leapt a stream and bolted up the twelve-foot berm. Railway laborers built the berm when they excavated rock to level a path for the railway a century ago. Their heaps of basalt cobbles tower now.

The leavings of the railway laborers remind me they were more than flesh-and-blood machines. A century after Italian immigrants swung sledgehammers and picks to flatten the grade, their rock ovens remain. I stumbled on the ruins of one oven while stalking redhead ducks beside some pothole ponds. Yes, I am a geek who is forever seeking new species to add to his ornithological life list.

Waterfowl forgotten, I focused down on the crumbled dome beneath my feet. Crafted by hand, plastered over by gray lichens, the mud mortar that held the stones in place long washed away, it took a fallen igloo shape. It began at last for me to resemble a human face. A jumble reminding me how people’s mouths cave in and wither with old age. How gums shrink and we grow “long of tooth.”

Using stones of local basalt, the laborers made shift to bake dense loaves of bread. Think wood-fired pizza today. A slate slab toted from site to site served as oven floor. Wood first burnt inside the oven would superheat the entire dome. Then bakers raked out the spent coals and swept clean the slate, sprinkled meal on it, inserted the dough and sealed the door. To bake those loaves from start to finish (I have it on excellent authority) would have taken a mere quarter-hour.

The barely visible aperture of the oven door in my fancy became the tooth-shaken laborer’s mumbling mouth. The structure put me in mind also of a kiva: a subterranean chamber some Indians in the southwest built, its style thought to replicate the emergence of kachinas or ancestors from former environs or lives. For the émigré laborers who made transcontinental rail beds, Europe might have resembled a stained and tainted netherworld, America the promised land.

History lies closer to the surface in this arid landscape than it does on the coastal third of the state. Soils are shallower, scrubbed bare by Ice Age floods. The potholes where I stalk ducks formed when Pleistocene-era vortexes or eddies plucked and scoured bedrock. Those vortexes are called kolks. Bodies rarely may be buried very deep due to all the stone. In the business of Indian-white relations, place names remain as blunt reminders of our ancestors’ legacy of conquest.

Col. George Wright hanged members of the Yakama and Spokane tribes. He slaughtered hundreds of their horses to weaken their ability to survive and fight. As a sort of reward his name memorializes a fort, a cemetery and an arterial drive. In turn the most well-known of his victims, Qualchan, lent his name (however ironically) to a real-estate development, a golf course and a footrace.

Onomastics, the study of proper names, has stirred my imagination since I settled here. The name Spokane looks as if it needs to be enunciated like cane at the end. But it has been given a midrange vowel, and so it sounds like can. The creek where Qualchan was hanged appears on state maps as Latah (Salish for fish), but it appears as Hangman on the national records. Federal cartographers seem unwilling to let the state forget its treacherous bit of regional history.

A tool I found along the Columbia River lay on the surface as well. With my spouse and friends, I was paddling a kayak on the river’s Hanford Reach. We pulled out on an island near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Plutonium there helped manufacture the Fat Man bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Since we took that paddle trip, “the site,” as locals call it, has been opened to the public and named the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Among other topics, it commemorates “The Dawn of the Atomic Age” and “the creation of the atomic bomb, which helped end World War II.” Visitors take busses to the site.

Before we launched our kayaks, I read online: “Radioactive ants, flies and gnats have been found at the Hanford nuclear complex, bringing to mind those Cold-War-era ‘B’ horror movies in which giant mutant insects are the awful price paid for mankind’s entry into the Atomic Age.” If paddling past a nuclear reactor on fast water seems counterintuitive today, we did not think about it at the time.

We had come to experience that last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River. By the grace of its fast-moving water, Chinook salmon still spawn there. Almost every other portion of the river has been dammed. We stopped to pee on the sandy island formed by sediment before the dams went in. Atop the sand, as if crying aloud be found, a stone tool from the First People lay in plain sight.

In my cultural naïveté, I pocketed the tool. Carried it to my office and put it on a shelf, little knowing that the legal protocol for such artifacts is to let them lie, leave them behind, make the Big Outdoors a big museum. Made of basalt, a fine-grained igneous rock, it was used for knapping, my archeologist-colleague Stan Gough said. To knap is to shape stone by striking at it with another stone to fabricate tools. Stan identified this one as a flensing or skinning implement.

The beauty of that tool resides in its simplicity. In the heft of its antiquity. And for the way it manages to prod the imagination. Its value lies in its lack of utilitarian value. We assign undue value to the useful artifacts – smartphones and microwaves, automobiles and beauty aids – that surround us. The man or woman who knapped the skinning tool focused his or her attention with a keen devotion. A devotion that would have been more Earth-centered than most other forms of reverence flourishing today. Less other-worldly and more this-worldly.

All this useless beauty lies far beneath the surface of the landscape for my kind. Inside our jaded gaze, natural splendor seems to drain away like topsoil in an Ice Age flood. While museums draw millions of observers, and paintings fetch hundreds of millions in investments, the arid landscapes of the American West reside in silence, begging for federal money to rectify decades of neglect. Maybe such landscapes as mine are acquired tastes. Maybe only certain sensibilities find their images mirrored in the stark and Spartan lands of my adoptive home.

My father never was a collector of artifacts, a Wild West reenactor, or a practitioner of creative anachronisms. He was a modern man from Seattle who needed to get away. The last time he visited me, we motored out to open range, that quaint space where grated cattle guards keep stock from roaming. An Angus trotting beside the road tickled him. He joked it was “out for a morning jog.” The cow really looked the part. Tail raised, hoofs clopping, dust puffs settling behind.

—Paul Lindholt

 

Paul Lindholdt is a writer and professor of English at Eastern Washington University. He has won awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Washington Center for the Book. His publications include: John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler: A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New-England (Univ. Press of New England, 1988); Cascadia Wild: Protecting an International Ecosystem; History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians; Holding Common Ground: The Individual and Public Lands in the American West; The Canoe and the Saddle: A Critical Edition; and In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau (University of Iowa, 2011), which won the 2012 Washington State Book Award in Memoir/Biography.

 

 

Aug 022017
 

Darran Anderson

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Imaginary Cities cover image

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Imaginary Cities
Darran Anderson
University of Chicago Press, 2017
ISBN 9780226470306 (paper) $22.50
ISBN 9780226470443 (e-book) $18.00
576 pages

Published in the UK and worldwide by Influx Press.

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THE ABIDING DESIRE FOR NO PLACE

The Thirteenth Hour

T he future will be old. It may be bright and shiny, terrible and wonderful but, if we are to be certain of anything, it will be old. It will be built from the reconstructed wreckage of the past and the present and the just-about possible. ‘The future is already here’ according to William Gibson, ‘it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ You sit amongst fragments of it now.

All prophecies are intrinsically about the now. When George Orwell, slowly coughing himself to death on the wind-scoured island of Jura, wrote 1984 (under the original title ‘The Last Man in Europe’), it was a reversal and critique of the year in which he wrote it, 1948. This was the cracked mirror of the present. When he wrote of doublespeak, he was writing not just of the future and the Soviet Union but of traits he identified and deplored in his fellow journalists, imperial bureaucrats (carving the earth up at Versailles and contemporaneously at Tehran) and the politicians of Britain, the proto-Airstrip One. Orwell took the threads of his day and followed them to their logical and horrendous conclusions. So perceptive was his take, influenced heavily by Zamyatin’s exceptional We, that it rendered the vast majority of jumpsuit-wearing dystopian literature to follow as somehow naïve. One edge he had was an awareness that things will not entirely work in the future. The architecture of his future London is a transposed version of his contemporary city, yet to recover from the Blitz and mired in widespread poverty; ‘Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses. . . their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air?’

In the future, there will be not only flux but pointlessness, frivolity, inefficiencies, all these things that make us human by accident and which we rail against daily.

There are exceptions:

The Ministry of Truth – Minitrue, in Newspeak – was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air . . . Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously.

They gazed at everything and were blank in response. Orwell knew that totalitarianism would obliterate not just satire but the very meaning from words. Objective truth was illegal if not unknowable. Black was white. The daily torrent of lies was provided and monitored by the Ministry of Truth. Continual war was waged by the Ministry of Peace. Austerity was provided by the Ministry for Plenty; ‘The Ministry of Love was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all.’

It would be a mistake to see Orwell’s vision as an extreme one, unique to the world’s obvious tyrannical regimes. Orwell knew that the instincts and interests behind the world of 1984 were evident everywhere. Ideology is faith; irrespective of whether that’s in god, dialectical materialism or the invisible hand of the markets. It is faith and in this there is absolution and condemnation. It is this that proves Orwell’s warnings so perpetually apposite. The powerful of every conceivable political and corporate variation will employ faith. Questioning and a fidelity to the objective is the only bulwark against it. And yet if and when the worst comes, life will go on, due to Humanity’s resilience, often when it seems like it shouldn’t. We would do well, as Orwell counselled, to see the traces of the dystopian around us, to find the ends of those threads and how far along we are; the most accurate prophecy being that people, and the allure of domination, never really change. We can Copenhagenise our future cities, make them as green and smart as we can, but provided we are still embedded in systems that reward cronyism, exploitation and short-term profiteering, that require poverty and degradation, it will be mere camouflage. Dystopias will have cycle lanes and host World Cups. What may save us is, in Orwell’s words, a dedication to ‘common decency’, and the perpetual knowledge that it need not be like this.

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Cockaigne

The future may well fail but the urge for the utopian is a valid one. It emerges from the failures and unsatisfied wants of the present. Inventors identify problems of the present, vacuums to fill and preferable end-results to backcast from. The shadow and dynamo of aspiration is present misery and the utopian impetus contains tragic often-untold real-life stories. It’s no accident that Hansel and Gretel find the cottage made of sweets and gingerbread when they are at the point of starvation or that Harry McClintock sang of arcadian joys during the Great Depression. For all its jaunty wide-eyed delinquency ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ is a song of shadows and implications. It speaks, as nursery rhymes do, of pestilence and regicides, of police brutality, starvation, drought and exposure to the elements. Utopia here is simply an escape into a parallel world of fairness, justice and comfort. In medieval times, the popular myth of the land or city of Cockaigne gave vent to these same notes of protest and yearning.

Work was forbidden, for one thing, and food and drink appeared spontaneously . . . One could even reside in meat, fish, game, fowl and pastry, for another feature of Cockaigne was its edible architecture. The weather was stable and mild—it was always spring—and there was the added bonus of a whole range of amenities: communal possessions, lots of holidays, free sex with ever-willing partners, a fountain of youth, beautiful clothes for everyone and the possibility of earning money while one slept.

In a version inscribed in an Irish monk’s manuscript (circa 1350), Cockaigne was linked to biblical promises of rivers of honey for the righteous but turned subversively against heaven:

Though paradise be merry and bright,
Cokaygne is yet a fairer sight . . .
There is no thunder, no hail,
There is no vile worm nor snail,
And no storm, rain nor wind.
There no man nor woman is blind . . .
There are rivers great and fine
Of oil, milk, honey and wine.

The verse then spins off into a ribald account of amorous monks and nuns, as well as a desire to escape the darkness of the buildings of the time:

When the monks go to Mass
All the windows which are of glass
Turn into bright crystal
To give the monks more light.

Here is the vacuum speaking; the need for technological solutions (the electric light, mass-manufactured glass etc.) to rescue the hours, amounting to years, of darkness spent in stone cells huddled next to reeking candles of animal fat. The absence of this once-common state is an indication that we exist without realising it in what once would have been sought after as an improbable utopia. This is to say nothing of how we can now communicate instantly across the globe, live vastly longer lives, see worlds from the microscopic to the cosmic that we scarcely knew existed, listen to and watch performances by the dead. Despite this, we doubt the existence of progress, partly because we have the luxury of doing so.

The Brothers Grimm speak of Cockaigne with the insightful absurdism of the nursery rhyme: ‘There I saw a plough ploughing without horse or cow . . . and I saw two gnats building a bridge . . .’ with the proviso, ‘have I not told enough lies?’

Look beyond the nonsense and you can see it is a future of automation they are willing. This is most evident in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s version Het Luilekkerland where men condemned as lazy and gluttonous are nevertheless allowed time to sleep or simply stare at the sky, as automated creatures scurry around serving them; an egg with legs, a suicidal roasted pigeon, a suckling pig running around peeling itself. This is a future life of leisure and farmyard robots, granted by the freeing of hours from rudimentary tasks. It is a utopia of time; the ability to waste time as we choose by being freed from the wasted time of obligations. Today, we have never had more labour-saving devices of convenience and yet the blissful life is suspiciously fleeting and elusive.

‘A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling.’ Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human. Perhaps Cockaigne momentarily eased the pressure of a life lived in struggle and penury. It became, as popular jokes of its kind do, a competitive sport with each teller outdoing the last. In its extravagance, Cockaigne exposed the comparative meanness of reality, where farce and tragedy are intrinsically wedded. Yet there was always the outside possibility, even in the wildest of renditions, that this was a physical place of some description on the face of the earth and escape to it (the realm of the idle rich) might be possible, however remote. The urge for the utopian is strong in the desperately poor, meaning that missionary forces promising better worlds in this life or the next tend to find a ready ear and a base to exploit. It is also proof that utopias were not the sole preserve of indulgent philosophers. By denying the utopian as some kind of failed parlour game, we exclude ourselves from understanding its appeal and the power it still grants those who can offer it. We know Cockaigne does not exist but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in it.

—Darran Anderson

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Reprinted with permission from Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson. © 2016 Published in the United States by the University of Chicago Press and in the UK and worldwide by Influx Press. All rights reserved.

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Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities. He writes on architecture, culture and technology. Anderson is a former co-editor of The Honest Ulsterman, and is also the author of a 33 1/3 study of Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg. His forthcoming memoir, Tidewrack, about the river Foyle in Derry, will be published by Chatto & Windus.

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Aug 022017
 

 

The man with a hunchback missed a few steps and his hunchback was gone. His body was found by the river at the end of the street. They said it was the ritualists who cut off the hunchback, and that they believed it would yield money for them. The river overflowed its bank and washed the worshippers away. They said that the mermaid had taken her revenge. A drug dealer appeared one morning in a canoe. He moved into the empty island in the middle of the river. We called him Rasta Man because of his dreadlocks and the way he spoke in Jamaican patois. Three months later, he disappeared without a trace. A man appeared claiming to be Jesus and traversed the streets with good news and disappeared soon after, too. Uncle Israel moved into one of the apartments beside us. He was one of the weirdest man I ever saw. He had Krishna Consciousness symbols hanging everywhere in his house. He placed a small casket in the living room. I swear he was good man, too. He made friends with a few people in the neighborhood, including my father. Soon after, he disappeared, clean, without a trace.  No one knew his whereabouts.

A man chopped off a young boy’s head. He lured him to the back of his hotel and butchered him. When they found the head, it had tears in the eyes. That shit was all over the television, the saddest thing I had ever seen. They said he wanted to sell the organs to hospitals in Saudi Arabia. He rotted away in prison. He awaited trial until death took him. I swear everyone wanted to see him hang. The man lived ten blocks away from us before the event. A brave citizen alerted the people when the severed head was discovered at the back of his hotel. Everyone woke up and decided that enough was enough. An angry mob burned his house. For two weeks, smoke still escaped from charred remains. For two weeks, it smelled like a burning foam at his house. Whenever I walked past it, I felt sad. A month later, a bee hive formed. Three months later, a mad man moved into the house. A year later, the children of the murderer came back to claim their father’s property. Madness ruled these streets. Charred insanity rained here. I swear, the street ran itself for a long time. No government authority was effective here. Well, not just the street, the country ran itself, too.

These streets, these roads, this space, had more stories to tell than the fantasy land of elves and goblins. Here, everything was alert and alive: dogs, ants, chicken, goats, lion, roofs, men, women, children, vigilantes, trees, merchants, sand, sky, air, priests, lovers, demons, sea turtles, and fishes, and me. To survive here, you had to be alert. No slackers.

You could make a few bucks seating down in your house and selling worn out rubbers and bottles for kobo’s and pennies to the men that wondered around with worn out sacks hanging on their backs. Rumor had it that when no one was watching, they could steal little kids, too; turn them into yams and throw them inside their worn out sacks. I swear, I will tell you everything.

It was a road that branched into two. The smaller road we were asked never to take a night. Men and woman poured garbage in it because they were too lazy to walk all the way to the market road to throw away their garbage. A girl got raped here. She wailed until her throat dried up. Before the men could organize themselves into vigilantes, the assailant had already fled. No one dared to confront the rapist alone, cowards. For people that believed in so much about being a brother’s keeper, that said a lot. We all wanted to believe that we were our brother’s keeper, I too. Father was the only one who ever accepted the truth about existence, and us, and brotherhood, and the neighborhood. Each man was for himself. Each man with his own god.

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Uncle Max always roared that he fought for the people. He boasted about how he could take on all criminals alone, and he never took one down. That man never said anything without shouting. Uncle Max was full of shit, I swear. Uncle Max never cared about anyone but himself in reality. He lived two blocks away from us. Broad shouldered and tall. Terrible, terrible man. He was an awesome liar, too. One day, he disappeared and never to be found again.

Two people were suspected in the rape, one who limped when he walked and another guy I will tell you about. The one who walked with a limp was considered more dangerous than those who walked with two legs. You would find him at carpenter’s shop arguing. Getting into fights. Dodging blows and knocking men down. He was a well-known brute. You dared not call the police against him because he would still get out and come for you.

The other suspect was tall and brutish man called The Jaw Breaker, the only person who dared to knock the limping man down. He was a fine chiseled handsome man who won his respect on the street with his fist. I watched them fight, The Jaw Breaker and the one walked with a limp. I was small. Barely thirteen. On the day of the fight, I was returning from the market with two sacks of vegetables. I dropped them on the ground, close by the security gate, and watched. The Jaw Breaker matched the limping man face to face, blow to blow, until he overran him. The limping man bled like a scene in Spartacus; blood splashed on the wood fence meters away. He forever set a record on the street. There were no rules here. Winner took all, including name.  After that fight, The Jaw Breaker took over the street.

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If you had a daughter, you dared not let her out at night, the night might swallow her. The girl who had her legs sprawled in the moonlight by the little road, learnt the hard way. We, who heard the cry of terror, learnt fear. Fathers heard the cry and felt less manly. They felt the sting in their souls. These are places that God dared not go to. Men were losing face. Men were broken..

I was thirteen when I encountered the Bakassi Boys. They parked by bridge and dragged a thief out of the van. In one swift swing of the cutlass, they slashed his arm away. By the bridge. The arms of a human wriggled and spasmed in pain. The mouth cried out in pain. The man begged. I was mortified. I didn’t know whether to go forward or backward. I couldn’t move. When they slashed the next arm, the blood splashed on me. Three drops of blood on my white clean school uniform. I swear, my heart was pumping blood faster than normal. I feared that the Bakassi Boys would flash their cutlass at me, and it would show red. Legend had it that their cutlass flashes red once you’ve stolen something, anything. I remembered that I had stolen a piece meat from my mother’s pot of soup that morning. I did not know if I was to be next, or if I should cry for the macabre scene before me. For a boy with a soft heart, I was broken.

I watched a man severed from limb to limb, and his blood gushed straight into the river. The river licked its fingers clean, and bees buzzed across the strange river plants and flowers and rotten garbage floating atop. The angry Bakassi Boys found a tire and set the body, or what was left of it, on fire. I swear, he shit on himself before dying. I saw this, and my life was never going to be the same. Ever. It was as if angels had plucked innocence from my eyes and thrown me into the depth of pain. I couldn’t tell if I was ready, but I walked miles back home under the sun. Clutching my friend’s hand and muttering nothing that made sense. I spent the rest of the evening washing the blood off my clothes. I never said a word to anyone, not my mother or father. I understood it all, things disappeared, and so did the blood. I swear, the world seemed upside down, and dark.

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I was thirteen, but never bookish. Never clutching a copy of Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy or Achebe to walk with on the street. I swear, here, you never wanted to appear bookish. Here, you never wanted to appear weak.  Strength was everything and brute force was a sign of manhood. I read at night.

In the evening, I washed the darkened glass gloves and filled the lantern with kerosene. When the electricity went off, my mother, armed with a match stick in her hand, struck it and lit the lamp. I sat with the lamp in my bedroom and read all the beautiful books in the world. I swear, it was then that I read Charles Dickens, Peter Abrahams, and Achebe. I loved Peter Abrahams most, he mirrored the street the way I wanted it. His character Zuma was part of my existence. I watched Zuma struggle through the unknown.

Mother loved Efuru most. I don’t know why it was so. But before I could read Efuru, my brother tore it in pieces, and I had nothing to read. My brother was quiet and could walk round you the whole day without you knowing. He always disappeared into the street and came back at night. Never in trouble, never brought trouble home. For me, that wasn’t enough to survive here. I observed the street as much it observed me. Most of my friends in school were never bookish, they were mere brutes. Walking weapons. Deadly brutes. That was all I needed on the street and not a copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I swear, I loved Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but in the street, that was real shit, and you needed your head and brute force most.

Not just men roamed the small road, ghosts roamed it, too. A man with fire on his head that my father saw. A lady in white gown that Mama Daniel saw. A forest riding itself in the wind that Mama Ekene saw. They all lived to tell the tale. The carpenters never said anything about what they saw, even though their workshop was by the small road. They only made caskets and sweated under the sunlight and talked about Biafra and how it could rise again from its ashes. They talked about our secret ally, Israel, and how they will help us conquer these uncircumcised northerners. It was there that I first learnt about Ojukwu and his bravery on the battlefield. In our destitute classrooms at school, no teacher dare talked about it. Our tongues dried in want of our own history. These carpenters told us stories while they sawed wood and applied glues at the ends. Even though their versions of history were tainted with acrimony, yet we savored it. The young minds that roamed the street, they all savored it.

We listened to our fathers tell tales of hunting for food during the civil war. Our fathers were broken by the war. These men were never taken care of. Their insides were bruised. They were insane. When they declared “No victor, No vanquished”, no one cared about their insides, about repairing them psychologically. I swear, our fathers were walking time bombs. Most of them bruised their sons in turn. They bruised the government. They bruised the women. They raised the men who were now bruising the street and knocking teeth out.

Father was a brute. Sometimes in his eyes, there were sharp pain and deep kindness. Sometimes, he swung his arms at us. Cursed us. We walked around without hope, hoping for a fix. Hoping that we could be saved. Hoping that someone was coming to save us. When some of us realized that no one was coming, they went mad. Hope was something a man needed to live. It made us wake up. I found hope in the hope that hope was coming. I hoped. Biafra was never to be the same since we lost hope. Biafra had died.

Father said, in that war zone, there was no God. Children with bloated stomachs, ailing. Ailing to death. Ailing for photography and flashes, and media news, and a cry for help. Ailing at a leader that asked them to pray that God would win the war for them. Father never went to church after the war. On Sundays, he sat on the balcony and drank beer and cursed every living thing and told stories. A man whose shadow filled the whole house and whose footsteps could be heard from miles away.

Mother was meek and beautiful. Mother believed that God could help us. God could flush open through the dense cloud and bring down his might, and the beauty of the earth that had once belonged to Adam could belong to us. We could live in paradise again and worship God and sing hallelujah at the call of the last trumpets.

One day, I asked the catechist who the trumpeter would be, and he said it was angel Michael. The same night, as I was walking back home, I saw a baby that had been thrown into the dirt by the market. The sun had dried the body to death.  Angel Michael must have blown his trumpet too early and too loud, damn.

We were already in our own beautiful kind of hell. The priest that raped a girl did it by the altar, and God said no word, not that we heard. The priest went on living. The girl went on living. The parents went on defending the priest instead of their daughter and bowed down to him every Sunday. The priest continued to celebrate mass, and the Christian apologists forgave him, they said, “Even though he is a priest, he is still human.” I said: “Fuck that shit” in the dead of the night, when no one was watching me.

Mother ended every prayer like this: “Do not let the evil men ask us ‘where is our God? Where is your God?’”. She believed so much in what she believed. She believed God would vindicate us against all the evils parading on the street, in the air, in the village with malicious uncles seeking our souls. God was there to cut out all the black magic and deliver us. I swear, we prayed for deliverance every day. We read Psalm 35 every night waiting for the angels to come down from heaven. I was thirteen, but I was getting tired of being in an everlasting battle with the devil. I was getting ready to account for myself and blame the supernatural less. I swear, I was. Let the devil be. Honestly, let him be.

The street ended by a river. The river flowed into the world. Our house was a bungalow surrounded by ixora flower. The ixora flower attracted beautiful butterflies in the hamattan. They sucked the life out of the flowers and they withered. But the flowers always grew back again. Beautiful things always grow back again, and evil things come back again, too. They do. The ixora was locked in an endless circle of beauty and death and birth. I watched it every season. I wasn’t small. I wasn’t thirteen anymore. I was looking at the fiery world.

I was eighteen when Donald came to visit us from the university. I was eighteen and the warm wind was filled the sunlight and gently glided over all the fallen leaves towards the river. I was eighteen and strong in my faith and had tasted my first alcohol and vomited on the passage of our house. Father watched me and laughed and said I was becoming a man.  I was eighteen, and life seemed more hopeless than hopeful because I had failed the entrance exam to the university. I was eighteen without hope. I swear. I was eighteen when the snake crept of the hole at the backyard and launched it assault at us, and father furiously cut off its head in one swift swing, with a machete. The body danced and danced until it couldn’t move anymore. We buried it. But I learnt that snakes dance before they die.

Donald and I walked into the night to the cyber café. To my surprise, he pulled a gun, his tall body hunched over this shiny death object. He loaded it. He was the gentlest of figures I had ever met in my life.  I could not believe that he owned a gun until I saw him with one. He was like one of those sweet movie characters in a suit, wearing a rimmed spectacle and singing love songs. Very soft spoken. Very smooth. Pastoral. Like a man looking after God’s sheep.

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“Always be on guard,” he said. He looked at me, and put the pistol in his back pocket. We walked down towards the hospital and took the path towards the tarred road. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t surprised either. I had always known that Donald was a bad boy. But I never imagined that he had a gun on him all the time he was chatting with my parents, and pretending to be immaculate.

“You always have this on you?” I asked.

“Yes. Never underestimate the strength of your enemies. Never be off guard. Always believe that they are coming for you. Maybe I am being followed,” he said, and smiled. He looked at me like I was just as smart as he was. Like I had a role to play. I was a quiet person. Just as innocent looking as he was.

“Who are they?”

“They. They. People I have hurt that want to hurt me back. People that are after my life. They have tried many times to end me and failed. I am a master of illusion. They can’t find me,” he said and spit angrily. A dog barked. He spit again and continued, “Ninety percent of senses, one percent rugged. I like you because you are smart. You are the future.”

Honestly, I didn’t understand what he meant. I was young and never a cultist nor planning to be one. If mother had the faintest idea that I was even having this conversation, she would have had a heart attack.

We walked that night under the shinning neon street light until Nigerian Power Authority took the light, and the only light that illuminated our path was from moving cars. When we got to the cyber café, it was dark. We paid for two people. I read all about the unknown world out there. About America and Europe. I read about aliens and the universe. I read about universities around the world, until Donald tapped my shoulder and said that he was having a bad feeling. We walked into the night. Donald could smell danger miles away. That was his specialty.

We walked. Two men walked behind us, carefully. Donald slowly removed his pistol and clicked off the safety. The men kept their distance. We kept walking towards the garden and when we entered the green vegetation, they followed us. We hid and watched them. They looked brutal, like they could snap necks with their muscles. Donald aimed and fired. He gripped the pistol against the recoil. He fired again. I don’t know what happened to the men. We walked into the night, and back home, and slept peacefully. When I woke up, Donald was already up laughing with my parents. He was a devil of a man and as smart as a ghost. Very smart. I never said anything. He left in the afternoon and went back to the campus.

“They will all pay,” he said to me before boarding the bus.

I was walking on the road, armed with nothing but my consciousness. That I existed. That I was alive. That was mind boggling in itself. Here, we survived. I didn’t know if I had been a witness to murder or not. I didn’t know if Donald shot to kill or not. All I knew was that rounds were fired and none replied. All I knew was that it was dark, and I ran as fast my feet could carry me. All I knew was that Donald’s escapades never stopped. He became the king of the street and everyone bowed to him. He became of the best known sniper in town and gunned down whomever whenever. Rumors had it that he gunned for politicians, too. He told me a lot about the game. He said I should join the game for protection and because I was smart. He was the first man to ever speak to me about Albert Camus in an insistent way. I swear, he worshiped Camus.

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I kept on walking on the road, dust and debris flew around me. I kept on walking on the road towards to the cathedral for a grand mass celebrating the Corpus Christi. I kept on walking on the road to seek God’s face, asking him to come and help us all. I kept on walking on the road to St Anthony to pray, to recover all the damned things we’ve lost throughout the years, including my sanity. I kept on walking on the road believing that God was with us, and for us. I prayed for the street. Donald prayed for the street, too. The street prayed for the street.

I was growing and the street was growing. I was home and hadn’t gained admission to college and life was pain. I prayed endlessly before the effigy of Virgin Mary. At some point, I wondered what sort of life it was in which one would pray endlessly for every little thing. We prayed for safe road, for clean water, for healthy food, for rain, for admission to the university, for love, for marriage, for our going and coming back. No one was responsible for any shit, just God and his angels patrolling our condemned streets.

When drugs came to our street, they took John. The rumor was that he smoked something too strong for him to handle. But that evening we watched him rave naked mad on the street and his testicles dangled like a worn out sack hanging on tree in a windy day. His tinny penis was lifeless, as he ran naked down the street, and all the children watched. The men held him down and tied him to a pole and we watched. Fresh mad. He was never to be seen again after they took him away to a Christian madhouse where the pastor cured madness with strokes of cane and colorful candles.

When death came, it performed strange rituals and held my friend strong. She was the strongest girl I ever meet. Her stomach bloated and she fought and fought till the sun went down. She drowned in the fight. I watched her pregnant with nothing and all the medical facilities in this goddamn place had no idea what. They said nothing. She walked into the house of God and all the promises. I watch her dance in with a bloated stomach in the house of the Lord. Death chased her into those blocks with a sickle and sliced her soul away.

The sun was falling in the horizon and the earth was orange in color. Beautiful orange. I held the rail and watched her dance to psalms and violent church songs. I watched the prophetess tell her all the messages from God, that she would be victorious. She died smiling. She died strong. She died with the hope of afterlife and all that promises. I knew, I knew we were alone. I knew she was alone. We all tried to love her to death. But, I swear, she took that journey alone.

I was twenty when we heard the cry in the night and no one dared to go out of the house because the cult boys were raiding the street. When we woke up, the dismembered body of The Jaw Breaker littered the street. Some said his evil had caught up with him and he was no longer the king of the street. Some said it was the Vikings Cult members that cut him to pieces. All we knew was that his liver was cut out and placed on his body as a warning to the Black Axe Confraternity. That morning, the air was frosty and foggy. We walked to the river bank and watched the gore. These streets of sorrows and black nights that wheeled and wheeled into nothing. But it made me. It was me.

I was twenty-four when I survived a bomb attack by Boko Haram by just a few meters. I swear, a few meters. I left the country. I left the street. All those images pulsed in my head playing a series of films, streaming unceasingly. Picture by picture of what life might be like out there. Outside my little town. It became clearer, the brute force of winter and the shy sun. I was twenty-four when it dawned on me that I was black.  I was on the streets of Europe examining its sanity and insanity. Whatever I left behind, came with me.

I was twenty-four when black men were being hunted down on the streets of Vienna. I was twenty-four when I realized that the educated lot on the streets of Europe was more dangerous than the uneducated.

I was twenty-four when I walked into a whore house in Europe and met sisters who had lived in the countryside. They swung happily on poles, wearing shiny underwear, and danced to German ululation in a brutal winter. I swear, I nearly shouted hallelujah when their ass-shapes shifted under the disco light.

I was twenty-four when I met Henry and shared hemp under the lights of his master cook kitchen and talked about brotherhood and colorlessness. Before him, I was just a man. I was happy when I walked up that hill with my brothers under the blessing of the full moon. Dramatically, the church bell tolled. I swear, it tolled and I kept walking. The moon appeared three times its size before my eyes and I kept moving. If I had been thirteen, I would have stopped and recited the angelus.

I kept walking. I was twenty-four when I saw a black man being arrested at the train station in Vienna. He was pushed around while he protested in a thick accent. The thick German Polizei weighed him down and weighed him into the car. I swear, his first crime was being black and then other things.

I was twenty-four when whispers passed around about a black man who died while being transported back to Africa. They gagged him to death. All the big media in Austria and Germany said nothing. Amen brother. I swear, amen brother.

I was twenty-four when I refused to perform my life in Berlin, Vienna, Zurich, and all the cities still shinning in their medieval glory. I was twenty-four when I hiked mountains, shared beers and weed with brothers and sisters who wished to be left alone. I watched the fields and beautiful plants, fell in and out of love and drank myself to stupor. Yet nothing happened. Just a song forgotten and the sound of ghosts of people who died on streets that God wouldn’t go to.

I was twenty-four when I saw brothers on the streets of Geneva hustling, passing drugs for survival, with stories on their faces. Looking at them, one would shriek and yawn and listen and drown. The streets of Geneva could be passive and gentle, but these men do not ask to be loved, they wanted to make a living. Just a living.

I was twenty-four when I fell in love again and it seemed like God had finally appeared to me. She was everything hidden on a traveler’s path. Hidden in the rail station. Hidden behind me until I turned back and our eyes met. Her eyes were darker than mine, her skin were darker than mine. When she smiled at me at the train station that night I thought that I had it all. I thought that everything had turned magical in one snowy night. That all my broken places were beginning to repair themselves. Her name was Salisha, and she was on her way to Zurich. We shook hands and smoked on platform two and talked about all the beautiful things Africa had to offer us. And the ugly ones too. I hadn’t smoked for hours, and when I did, it hit me like it was my first day smoking.  I had watched her all day at the train, the way she comforted herself and leaned on the coach, I swear that I loved everything about her. When I saw her lighting a cigarette, I walked to her and said it.

“I swear, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever set my eyes on.”

Those eyebrows lifted up like the wings of a tiny angel, and her smile perfectly fitted on her slim face. I swear, the world shrunk at that instance and fell at her feet. I wouldn’t had wasted a moment to ask her to marry me, I swear. And if she had asked me to take her with me, I would have taken her. Her beauty was indescribable, and I spare it by not describing it.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Originally from Cameroon,” she said, “but live in Paris now.” She had apparently been traveling for a day on her way to visit her brother in Zurich. Her voice was a natural symphony to my ears.

“And you?” she asked me.

“Nigeria, I am studying here,” I said. “Tu parle francais?”

“Oui…,” she said with a symphonic voice, and laughed. It sounded straight into the heavens and to God himself. Her clothes were light, her leather jacket must have cost a fortune. She wore a dark blue jeans and boots. She was classy, she had style. I had style, too, despite how poor I was. Even though I had cheap jacket from Lidl on, I felt rad inside. My boots came from the mall in the little city I was living in where white boys and girls stared at people like morons, like I dropped from the sky, like they had never seen a black man before.

We spoke a little French and laughed. We talked about school and laughed. We talked about the beauty of Paris and laughed. I told her about my school and laughed. She told me about Zurich and laughed. We laughed like the world was ours, like the platform belonged to us. We watched cartoons on her Ipad and laughed. We watched Nigerian and Cameroon songs and laughed. We watched a girl from Hungary searched by immigration as if she was nothing, we pitied her. We talked about it a little and forgot it. Deep inside of me, I loved her, and laughed.

.

We talked in the train and watched the mountains outrun us. We talked and watched the houses on the mountain and valleys and neon streets and roofs with snow. Whenever the train made a stop, we stood in the beautiful platforms and smoked. We were stuck in the train together for hours. I swear that when I got off, I felt like it had all been just a few minutes. I felt like I needed more time.

“I hope we meet again,” I said.

“We keep in touch, add me on Facebook,” she said.

I found her on Facebook and we became friends. We talked all the time. Almost every day. I continued my journey to Geneva in one piece. She promised to meet me in Geneva. I watched out for her in Geneva the day she promised, but she never came. Her brother had been caught in a drug burst. He would rot in jail. She went back to France and I tried all I could to make life easier for her with words, I swear words are never enough. She disappeared one day from all the social media never to be found again.

The ground ate her. Life ate her. Existence ate her. I swear, it has eaten many people I’ve known and been friends with. My greatest fear is that one day it would eat me. I swear I will bite off its ear before it eats me.

—Chika Onyenezi

 

Chika Onyenezi is a writer living in United States. Born in Owerri, Nigeria, he holds two degrees, including an MA from European Peace University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in The Fanzine, Identity Theory, Litro Magazine, Ninth Letter Online, and elsewhere. He received Honorable Mention in the 2016 Glimmer Train Fiction Open.

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Aug 012017
 

 

Midlife

To select different options, click here.
Timed out waiting for a response.
Ten minutes ticking.
If you do not book now, the future into which you would have flown
will be irrevocably erased. No more husband and kiddies
at the park, the little one dangling in the baby swing,
wailing, as big brother tackles the slide for the first time.
Instead you will wait in an airport lounge for a stranger.
You will live on a floodplain and the worst will happen.
A fault will open and your car will plunge.
Earth will fill your mouth.
The beautiful tree, the one with the reddest leaves up top
(always the first to fall) will crash the window midsleep.
You will not hear it coming.
You will fall on the stairs and forget where you came from.
You will blink out please end this now
and no one will understand.
You will win a million bucks.
You will look like a million bucks.
You will have the eyelashes you always dreamed of.
Your tattoo of a wildebeest will scroll from your ankle to your knee.
You will strut your stuff.
You will gather feathers.
You will cocoon all winter and emerge a sculptor with your first exhibition
scheduled for the MOMA five years hence.
You will have a five-year plan.
You will dance to the end of love.
You will wonder a lot.
You will twiddle your thumbs.
You will stroll with a stroller.
You will be pushed in a stroller.
This is your life.
Your mother will bend toward you with an unremembered tenderness,
her fine hair swept from her brow by the wind.
You are the centre.
Your body is the universe.
There are things on your eyelashes that call you home.
Every second another.
Every second a pyre or a hole in the ground.
Every second a generation.

 

Selfie

Wherever you go, there you are.
Someone can see you on a screen.
This is being monitored for safety reasons.
This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.
We have you in our care.
In front of the Mona Lisa, everyone with an iPhone.
The girl who’s never crossed an ocean
asks if it’s true that they’re all Japanese taking selfies.
This one goes out to the one I love.

 

Mother

Six little ducks went out to play over the hills and far away.
Over a sunset far in Vermont.
Where Frost set his “Out, Out.”
A landscape Shakespeare never imagined.
And the saw that leapt
from the boy’s hands
the boy’s hand
out of the classroom in which the teacher read those lines
cool as mist in her loose dress.
The childfree teacher,
she of the fuddy-duddy husband and the pugs.
And forever the blood in your mind.
And forever the palms of your hands
made as they were made
inside the body of the woman you aren’t.

 

Lost

Mother duck said quack quack quack quack.
Something old, something new.
Borrowed and blue you leave the house,
borrowed and blue you find them,
leave them alone and they’ll come home.
Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean.
Each with a particular gift, none greater
than his love for the others.
You’ve always looked out for number one.
But only five little ducks came back.
And the one who wandered
went a long way into the forest
where he found an abandoned house.
On the floor a trail of seed.
He gobbled his way through the kitchen,
down the stairs, and into the cellar
where they kept the people they would eat.
He did not know this.
He thought he was a person too.
And so he stayed there until
the rest of the last people in the world
returned from their hunt empty-handed
and roasted him with one of their captives
and his skin crackled and popped under the feathers
and they ate of that which they loved and it was good.

 

Bad Dream

In the corridors of the Overlook hotel,
in the mirror at the end of the dark hall,
in the room with the red drapes called the Black Lodge.
What happens there is the mind twisting a mobius strip.
The worst is never the worst, those fears
are not the fears that will take us,
it is the ordinary fears, the fast car
and the girl on the corner, the hot dog in the throat,
the late-night walk through the dogless park.
No horror films about the apartment fire, the hurricane.
The mutations after the nuclear disaster of your choice
bloom too quietly for the screen.
The descendants with their insides on the outside.
The worst has not been born.
The room goes on. In the throat
the herringbone floors.

 

Noise

We have digressed.
In the middle there is a lot of that.
The life of the out the life of the in.
Languages clatter their sabers.
I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you.
Orders and wrongs.
The middle is a long place,
low to the ground, with little sense of vista.
Capability Brown was never here.
The crops sustain and, depending on the season,
flash the blue of flax or gold of mustard.
Mustard fields.
No end in sight.
The sea darkening.
I think that’s it.
The middle is rife with references.
Can only really be named long long after,
when end begins to whinny its arrival.
And no one will want that name.

 

Once

There was a day we were not grateful and what happened was terrible.
Rain fell from the sky and we griped.
It turned to ice.
Dogs followed us, biting.
The slick sidewalk held our sagging haunches which,
had we been older, would have broken and marked the beginning
of the end. Too thrifty for heat, we shivered
enough to anger ourselves. Or, when they said vigour
we heard anger. The cornucopia grew mold, its magnificent shell
made badly of papier mâché, a piñata,
stuffed with warty gourds not meant to eat.
Then the sun came out inside our heads. What we had squandered.
The baby slept for hours and what we wrote was glorious
and even though it all was lost in the great crash of the laptop
the happiness lasted.

 

Strandbeests

Meanwhile the wind through the limbs makes the beings seem to exist
as other than hope and plastic.
Makes them seem to be being.
Avoiding red meat decreases mortality but at a certain point it’s a question of
happiness.
Chicken’s better but what of the cages, fish but what of the mercury.
The exploitation of the harvesters of soy.
Who has suffered more and why.
Fatigue gathers behind the eyes and in the throat. Though not tired, the subject
becomes anxious about being anxious.
He made them only out of PVC at first, then added propellers, then a sort of wings.
In comparison we are needy.
At the end of the world will be plastic.
They walk on their own and keep walking.

 

Niceville, FL

There really is a place.
There it is dimly. Mulchy beds of growth
hide the residences while smallish red-flowered trees
pop up intermittently as Bluewater Boulevard clicks by.
Grass is patchy there are no sidewalks an overcast
spring it was then it looks more highway than street
but on the map a quaint community of crescents and the like
nestled against lake and what looks like ocean but the zoom’s too zoomed
to check. Yup that’s a golf course there are the lucky few
captured in their carts that day a lone jogger we’re
zooming now across the median into the shrubbery
a word too English for this this is not vacation land
dark with growth how thick it is no names
for the blur that emerges the closer we get to what
it’s not called. Someone thought this place
a place people would want to be. There it is
from farther out on a big bay on the Gulf Coast
cheaper there no doubt though from here we think
holiday we think the fingerrub of money but that was before
the bottom dropped before the article about the sinkholes
where rain’s acid’s leached deep into the earth
if that is what we call the earth and through a hole a lake drained
until kids could grab the fish and through a hole
a room in which a man sleeping his brother
woke to hear a sound (what sound?) and there was
no room there was nothing there was
a hole into which he pushed or fell and later
was pulled out alone forever. Impossible
to wake and find that lack. To wake and feel a wetness
on one’s face and find in the mirror one’s face
is not a face is barely is not a thing is worse than the dream of falling
teeth there are eyes to see the space where the face
was the feel of it not real the look of it
a hole into which one plunges the crazy thought
of a joke, While I slept the dog ate my face.
Not that it happens but it happened. Such things
are not for Niceville where a spray keeps the course
mosquito-free but why so dark beneath those plants
along the road why are the houses so far in so far
off as though there were no view no lake no
ocean to look at as though there were nothing forever.

 

Wet

Rain on the lake willows.
Rain on the shore willows.
Rain on the swallow house.
Rain on the swallow.
Rain on the ash treated with a pesticide.
Rain on the lawn treated with a herbicide.
Rain on the mallards.
Rain on the pricey houses and the cheaper.
Rain on the ice cream stand.
Rain on the house in England that was his a while.
Rain where he slept.
Rain where he stood to read the paper at the grand piano.
Rain on the playground.
Rain on the corner shop with its varieties of sweets.
Rain on the violet creams.
Rain on the London suburb air.
Rain on the London country air.
Rain on what he came for.
Rain on his dead father’s garden.
Rain on him dead at the grand piano the newspaper open before him.
Rain on the phone ringing and ringing.
Rain on the doorbell.
Rain on the door opening.
Rain on the lake the centuries of the lake that is not a lake.
Rain on the name on the sign.
Rain on the planters of begonias and bougainvilleas.
Rain on the elsewhere.
Rain on the fresh-washed car.
Rain on the goldenrod.
Rain on the uppermost branches.
Rain in runnels down the trunk.
Rain on the crying girl.
Rain on the library.
Rain on the naptime the little tent the dolls left out.
Rain on the playhouse the swings the twisty slide.
Rain where it counts.
Rain on the clicks of the red-winged blackbirds.
Rain on the gravel path.
Rain where the fireworks will blast.
Rain on the dryer huff.
Rain on the doormat the umbrella left out.
Rain on the e-mail.
Rain on the name.
Rain on my friend in Montara California.
Rain on her drive to make enough to live in Montara California.
Rain on her husband not yet dead.
Rain on Nicholas and William.
Rain on Harry and Sasha.
Rain on Aidan.
Rain on Katriona and Nicola.
Rain on Gabrielle, Felix, and Myriam.
Rain on Pip and Tom.
Rain on Naomi and Isabel and long gone never gone Josephine.
Rain on Josephine, Nora, and Patrick.
Rain on Béatrice.
Rain on Nina and Martin.
Rain on Sam and Clara.
Rain on Henri and Sam.
Rain on Max and Gus.
Rain on Sam and Naomi.
Rain on Abby.
Rain on Isabelle.
Rain on Isabel.
Rain on Alex and Theo.
Rain on Shayle and Theo.
Rain on Emily.
Rain on Erin.
Rain on rain on rain.
Rain on Beatriz.
Rain on Nora and Johanna.
Rain on Andrew and Joanne.
Rain on Patrick and Andre.
Rain on David, Cindy, Barbara, Tim, and Danny.
Rain on Stephanie and Kevin.
Rain on Madeleine and Éloïse.
Rain on.
Rain in runnels down the street.
Rain that bears repeating.
Rain that’s rained.
Rain we don’t need.
Rain they need.
Rain that California.
Rain that Vancouver.
Rain that the reservoirs.
Rain across the nation.
Rain in the interior.
Rain at the northernmost reaches.
Rain on the new green metal roof (ping ping).
Rain on the neighbours.
Rain after the walk.
Rain before the recess.
Rain at the latest.
Rain in this time zone.
Rain on caffeinated.
Rain on chocolate.
Rain on the leftovers.
Rain on the barbeque cover.
Rain away mosquitoes.
Rain away the days.
Rain into the trajectory.
Rain on the silver car on its way.
Rain on the old streets with the new laid bricks.
Rain on the new streets with the old laid pipes.
Rain on the one-month old.
Rain on Mila and Gabriella.
Rain on Lucca, Gabriella, and Matteo.
Rain on Emily and Louise.
Rain on Gabriel and Lucas.
Rain on Sophia and Gordon.
Rain on Bulgaria.
Rain on the former places.
Rain on the end of the nineteenth century.
Rain on the cemeteries.
Rain on Lordship Lane.
Rain on the Caribbean.
Rain where they came from.
Rain on Landscroft Road.
Rain where I stood.
Rain twenty years ago.
Rain where my grandmother left.
Rain of decades.
Rain on the first taste of tarte pom’sucre and Belgian fries with mayo.
Rain on the newfound apartment.
Rain on all the unanticipated sadness.
Rain on the winter.
Rain on the frostbite.
Rain on the last places rain on the first places.
Rain where my grandmother.
Rain where my grandfather.
Rain on the voyage.
Rain on the waves.
Rain on the Victorian era.
Rain on the Victrola.
Rain on clematis.
Rain on the trellis.
Rain on the darkness.
Rain into the darkness.
Rain on the girls in the painting sheltered under hydrangeas.
Rain on the continent.
Rain in the well.

—Stephanie Bolster

 

Stephanie Bolster is the author of four books of poetry, most recently A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth. Her first book, White Stone: The Alice Poems, won the Governor General’s and the Gerald Lampert Awards in 1998. Born in Vancouver, she teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montréal.

 

 

Jul 262017
 

BabelTower of Babel (for Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman) – ink, acrylic, antique paper on panel, 48 x 38 inches, 2016

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This is the Last Call issue because it is the final issue. Numéro Cinq will cease publishing new work when we complete the roll-out in August. The site will remain live forever (or whatever forever amounts to in Internet years). It will also be backed up and archived, so that as long as there is electricity there will be a Numéro Cinq somewhere, a monument to the collective efforts of all our editors, writers, artists, and readers.

I’m stopping the magazine because we are soaring, reputation rising, the quality of new work never better. We have a well-oiled infrastructure in place. The masthead is replete with intelligent, gifted, dedicated people. But, paradoxical as it might seem, this feels like the perfect moment to sign off, mount up, and ride into the sunset.

The magazine is named for an imaginary terrorist organization in one of my short stories. It was born under the flag of the outsider: rumbustious, experimental, anti-capitalist, and defiantly non-institutional. We did it the wrong way on purpose. No submissions, no submission fees, no financing, no donors, no board, no contests to raise money, no grant applications, no splashy design help, no tech experts, no institutional support, no ads. I was thinking of samizdat, underground mags run off on mimeograph machines. I was moreover impatient with what I perceived as a general need for prior approval. (Oh, I’m going to start this project, research that, publish this — as soon as I get a grant.) And I was also reacting to a perceived threat: the advent of electronic publishing, the decline of bookstores. Everything was going to hell in a hand basket. But at Numéro Cinq we opted to embrace the new and see what advantages could be earned. Forget fear, ignore cultural malaise, we thought. Just try a little something and see where it will go. Have fun, be earnest and uncool, exhibit naive bravado, panache.

We also intended above all to honour the writers. One of the chief problems with print magazines is that they disappear shortly after publication. If you’re lucky, you have five copies and can perhaps find one in the stacks at the college library. The analogous problem with online publications is that after the flash of publication, your work disappears into the anarchic bowels of unsearchable archives. I designed NC to avoid these pitfalls. Instead of dumping the entire issue at the beginning of the month, we opted to publish one or two pieces per day so that each author had a day in the sun at the top of the front page. Then I added the RECENT ISSUES section; every writer’s name would be linked on the front page of the magazine for three months. And then I solved the impenetrable archive dilemma by designing multiple transparent search pathways and a logical archive organization: genre contents pages (linked to buttons down the right column but also lined to dropdown menus in the nav bar), issue by issue links under BACK ISSUES  (in the nav bar), also special feature pages  (linked in the nav bar) and our author archive pages (for authors who have appeared regularly in the magazine). We also opted to pay special attention to translators; we have a translators’ content page (so every translated item is entered in its own genre contents page and again under the translator’s name on the translation page). This mean seem a bit arcane, but it’s important to give a sense of how much care we tried to take with that precious commodity, our writers. (I also ruthlessly deleted any cross-eyed, stupid, ad hominem, unsupported comments that showed up under posts.)

NC was always meant to be a community, not a distant institution and especially not a submission portal that no one ever read or engaged with. We published mostly be invitation. But if a person engaged intelligently with the community (in comments, on Facebook, on Twitter), that person was apt to get an invitation. Many of or writers started as readers. We also used the set essay series — What It’s Like Living Here, Childhood, My First Job — as entry points for developing writers or gifted amateurs. You may all remember the periodic call for submissions.

In brief, this is what we were, what we tried to be. But it is the fate of revolutions to form governments and transform into the thing they rebelled against. The direction of all is toward entropy and stasis. Now we hope we can avoid that fate by simply stepping aside, assigning ourselves to the evanescent.

That said, the August issue is a revelation. I discreetly put out the word and, Lo! — it was like the housecarls and shield lords (if you can imagine also many female shield lords) gathering to make a last stand for the old cause. Writers leaped at the chance to appear in the last issue. Some put off other deadlines to finish work for NC. Long promised work suddenly materialized. I was touched over and over at the words people wrote to me about what the magazine has meant, how important it has become. (Okay, I have difficulty with praise. People have written things in the past weeks such that I have been unable to reply. You know who you are.)

But the issue. That’s the important thing, what I must focus on. We have writers from around the world — Canada and the U.S. but also Britain, Argentina, Italy, Nigeria, Hungary, Romania, Mexico, Russia, and more. A packed issue. Here’s the rundown.

 

Wayne Koestenbaum (Credit: Ebru Yildiz)

From Wayne Koestebaum, a writer I’ve know since the mid-1990s when he appeared on the radio show I hosted, we have two stunning “notebooks,” collections of aphorisms, brilliantly witty, mordant and touching (not all at once but delicately threaded).

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

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

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

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

—Wayne Koestenbaum from “#20 [thick book on mother-shelf pinnacled me o’er Tums]”

Chika Onyenezi

From Nigeria, by the young writer Chika Onyenezi, we have a new story in a mode that combines the contemporary with the folkloric.

A man chopped off a young boy’s head. He lured him to the back of his hotel and butchered him. When they found the head, it had tears in the eyes. That shit was all over the television, the saddest thing I had ever seen. They said he wanted to sell the organs to hospitals in Saudi Arabia. He rotted away in prison. He awaited trial until death took him. I swear everyone wanted to see him hang. The man lived ten blocks away from us before the event. A brave citizen alerted the people when the severed head was discovered at the back of his hotel. Everyone woke up and decided that enough was enough. An angry mob burned his house. For two weeks, smoke still escaped from charred remains. For two weeks, it smelled like a burning foam at his house. Whenever I walked past it, I felt sad. A month later, a bee hive formed. Three months later, a mad man moved into the house. A year later, the children of the murderer came back to claim their father’s property. Madness ruled these streets. Charred insanity rained here. I swear, the street ran itself for a long time. No government authority was effective here. Well, not just the street, the country ran itself, too.

—Chika Onyenezi from “There Are Places God Wouldn’t Go.”

Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando, one of our indefatigable senior editors, long ago promised me a going-home essay. I never thought I’d get a text as astonishing as this. Fernando flies home to Argentina, and intercut with his own narrative is the fictional narrative of a second homecoming, the two trajectories magically coinciding at the close. This memoir has everything: the myth of return, gritty disenchantment, deft self-analysis and revelation, plus the outreach into fiction, resonance and mystery.

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

—Fernando Sdrigotti from “Notes Towards a Return.”

Rikki Ducornet

Rikki Ducornet — she’s been a comrade and inspiration the past few months. Rikki is one of those too busy to have a piece in the last issue, too burdened with other deadlines. When she told me, I was a tad disappointed. Five days later she sent me a poem, brand new, written for the magazine, a poem with obvious topical resonance framed against the metaphysical, profound with meta-commentary, and yet eruptive, alive.

-One has a tendency to ascribe intention to the Abyss,
……………….even a logical scheme,
although it has been demonstrated, time and time again,
……………….that any given hypothesis, even
“verified” is contingent on provisory facts. As the nursery rhyme asks:
In the mouth of of despot, what is more fickle than facts?
.

Thus is Philosophy forever seated on the horns of chronic uncertainty.
……………….Science, Her Right Hand,
insists that the First Quality of the Abyss is surprise.

—Rikki Ducornet from “Bees Are The Overseers.”

Lance OlsenLance Olsen

From Lance Olsen, we have a wonderful section of his novel-in-progress My Red Heaven. In this bit, Walter Benjamin appears seated under a linden tree composing his thoughts toward what will become his epic, unfinished Arcades Project. Readers will want to compare this section with an excerpt we ran earlier from the same novel. The two texts are radically different, and this gives you a sense of the collage structure of the novel as whole. It seems vast and beautiful, gathering the political and philosophical threads of a tortured modernity in early 20th century Europe.

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

—Lance Olsen channeling Walter Benjamin, from his novel-in-progress My Red Heaven.

Victoria BestVictoria Best

Victoria Best said she didn’t have anything but then added that she had been working on a book of biographical essays about writers in crisis (the crisis forged into art). Would I like to see one of those just in case? Sure. She sent me three. I published her essay on Henry Miller in the July issue and saved the one on Doris Lessing for the final issue. It’s a masterpiece. No need to beat about the bush. It’s breathtaking in its concision, its masterful weaving of life event and shrewd psychological analysis and truly perceptive literary reading. Beautiful through and through. (Victoria makes you wonder why anyone would write a 600-page biography.)

Doris Lessing had taken all the ugly, entrapped, rageful relationships she had experienced – her mother and her father, her mother and herself, old Mrs Mitchell and her son, herself and Frank Wisdom, every relationship she had ever witnessed between a white man and his black slave and had distilled the awful essence from them. What she wrote in The Grass Is Singing was that any relationship based on domination and submission was doomed to disaster for all parties concerned; the dominant had to rule so absolutely, the submissives had to be so crushed, that no full humanity was available to either of them. Instead they were locked in airtight roles, waging a futile war to maintain a status quo that damaged and reduced them both. On one side would be fear and contempt, on the other resentment and bitter self-righteousness. Compassion and sympathy – love itself – had no room to breathe, no space to nurture joy and pleasure.

—Victoria Best from “Mother Tongue.”

Doris Lessing writingDoris Lessing

Curtis White

Curtis White heard the call and sent me an excerpt from a work-in-progress written “after Rabelais.” It’s a delicious hoot. You can feel the Rabelaisian rhythms in the sentences. The text revels in excess. And the whole thing sizzles with the ironic tension between the flat American idiom and the ebullient Renaissance syntax. I wrote Curtis back, quoting one of my favourite list sentences from Rabelais, which he immediately recognized as one he used to teach his students.

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

—Curtis White after Rabelais  from “Dining at the Stockyard Trough.”

S. D. Chrostowska

S. D. Chrostowska sent us a mysterious, glittering alternate universe story on the conflict between orality and literacy. The domination of oral cultures by literate cultures is one of my own hobby horses (we’ve both read out McLuhan), so I loved this story. Maybe you’ll want to call it a fable or a parable. But it imagines what would happen if orality were banned entirely.

Of course, much nuance was lost in the process, but it was not mourned for long; the baby, orality, was thrown out with the bathwater of facial expressiveness. Gradually and naturally, even private communication was being conducted exclusively in writing. Writers seen in the act of writing adhered strictly to the no-expression rule, which diverted attention from their face to the text committed on the transparent scroll interposed between interlocutors. Emotional concepts and terms, after a period of proliferation (when they were desperately needed to substitute for previously unconstrained nonverbal expressions), all but vanished as the suppression of expressiveness became normalized. The gestures, habits and practices that underpinned and imbued words like “love” with meaning were gradually lost.

—S. D. Chrostowska from “The Writing on the Wall.”

ZsuZsa Takács

From Hungary, we have poems by ZsuZsa Takács translated by Erika Mihálycsa. Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. We’ve had her in NC before, a short story published last October. And Erika has contributed translations as well as her own essays and fiction. She has been a stalwart for the cause.

Where does bargaining begin, the withdrawal
of consent, the defensive fidgeting, the living
for the last moment, the hour stolen
for banqueting, or making love? I might
lapse there as well – our emperor left the decision to us,
but Socrates forbids cowardly action.

ZsuZsa Takács from “Yearning for an ancient cup” translated by Erika Mihálycsa.

Erika MihalycsaErika Mihálycsa

Paul Lindholdt

Paul Lindholdt submitted a What It’s Like Living Here essay. It was elegant and beautiful. We had a conversation. I said it’s beautiful I’ll publish it but it’s not a WILLH essay because it doesn’t follow the form exactly. He wrote back and said he’d rewrite it. I said don’t you dare rewrite it. He said he wanted it to be a WILLH essay. I said well okay I’ll call it whatever you want as long as I get to publish it. This is where we left things. He’s a tremendous writer.

Col. George Wright hanged members of the Yakama and Spokane tribes. He slaughtered hundreds of their horses to weaken their ability to survive and fight. As a sort of reward his name memorializes a fort, a cemetery and an arterial drive. In turn the most well-known of his victims, Qualchan, lent his name (however ironically) to a real-estate development, a golf course and a footrace.

Onomastics, the study of proper names, has stirred my imagination since I settled here. The name Spokane looks as if it needs to be enunciated like cane at the end. But it has been given a midrange vowel, and so it sounds like can. The creek where Qualchan was hanged appears on state maps as Latah (Salish for fish), but it appears as Hangman on the national records. Federal cartographers seem unwilling to let the state forget its treacherous bit of regional history.

—Paul Lindholdt from his essay “Shrub Steppe, Pothole, Ponderosa Pine.”

Ralph AngelRalph Angel

I’ve published Ralph Angel’s poems and his essays before. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I read the line: “For the artist, wasting time, which the French perfected, is called discipline.” Need I say more.

For the artist, giving up thinking is called discipline. Giving up hope, giving up certainty, comparison and judgment is called discipline.

For the artist, wasting time, which the French perfected, is called discipline.

“Those who depend upon the intellect are the many,” wrote the minimalist painter, Agnes Martin. “Those who depend upon perception alone are the few.”

—Ralph Angel from “Influence, a Day in the Life.”

Kinga Fabo black and whiteKinga Fabó

Hungary again! Kinga Fabó has already published poems in the magazine, and she’s been a wise and enthusiastic supporter of the magazine for a long time on Facebook and Twitter. Her work is experimental, wildly exciting, slyly ironic, and suffused with a dark eros. For the last issue, she sent me a short story translated by Paul Olchváry.

A fine orgy flooded through her. Perhaps her overblown need for a personality, her oversize ability to attune, was linked to her singular sensitivity to sounds. Effortlessly she assumed the—rhythm of the—other. Only when turning directly its way. She is in sound and she is so as long as she is—as long as she might be. Yet another orgy flooded through her. She would have broken through her own sounds, but a complete commotion?! May nothing happen! “VIRGINITY  IS  LUXURY, MY  VIRGINITY  LOOSE  HELP ME,” T-shirts once proclaimed. This (grammatically unsound) call to action, which back then was found also on pins, now came to mind. An aftershock of the beat generation. And yet this—still—isn’t why she vibrated.

—Kinga Fabó from “Two Sound Fetishists” translated by Paul Olchváry.

Paul OlchvaryPaul Olchváry

Maria Rivera

This is our last Numero Cinco, our Mexican series. Dylan Brennan, our Mexican connections, has curated a powerful activist poem by Maria Rivera called “Los Muertos” and translated for us by Richard Gwyn.

Here come those who were lost in Tamaupilas,
in-laws, neighbours,
the woman they gang raped before killing her,
the man who tried to stop it and received a bullet,
the woman they also raped, who escaped and told the story
comes walking down Broadway,
consoled by the wail of the ambulances,
the hospital doors,
light shining on the waters of the Hudson.

—Maria Rivera, from her poem “Los Muertos” translated by Richard Gwyn.

H. L. Hix

Our poetry co-editor Susan Aisenberg has brought back H. L. Hix for our last issue. Long time readers will remember he appeared here once before (look at the poetry contents page). Read these: fitting for the end of things.

Or that the something now coming undone,
much bigger than we are, includes all our
trivial undonenesses in its one
vast undoing, entails that we ourselves are
undone already, no matter what we do,
and undone ultimately, through and through?

—H. L. Hix from “That something has to come undone.”

 

Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska just had a story we published selected for the 2017 Best Canadian Stories. I thought we could double that triumph by publishing another story, and she accommodated me. Not only that but she sent along a selection of her gloriously disturbing, alienated photographs as well. I met Jowita years ago when we were both touring for a book. I believed in her and her work from the moment she told me the story of coming to Canada as a young adolescent from Poland, lonely and marginal, and how she assuaged her loneliness by hiding out in the Woodstock, Ontario, public library for days on end painstakingly teaching herself to read English. That’s where she made herself as a writer.

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

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

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

—Jowita Bydlowska from her story “Almost dies all the time.”

Stephanie Bolster

Ah, the divine Canadian poet Stephanie Bolster who has a talent for opening a chasm in syntax and driving the reader’s car right into it. Brought to us by our poetry co-editor Susan Gillis.

To select different options, click here.
Timed out waiting for a response.
Ten minutes ticking.
If you do not book now, the future into which you would have flown
will be irrevocably erased. No more husband and kiddies
at the park, the little one dangling in the baby swing,
wailing, as big brother tackles the slide for the first time.
Instead you will wait in an airport lounge for a stranger.
You will live on a floodplain and the worst will happen.
A fault will open and your car will plunge.
Earth will fill your mouth.

—Stephanie Bolster from “Midlife.”

Warren Motte

Warren Motte, through our interactions over the magazine, has become a friend. We exchange news about our sons, our dogs. I solicit work from him, he solicits work from me. We have developed an amiable camaraderie (as I have with many of the writers and editors involved). Warren is also one of the few contributors who truly gets what an NC author photo should look like. I always say, Send me a photo of yourself, preferably relaxed and informal, with a dog or a child. Hardly anyone take me seriously. Only the chosen few who truly understand. Warren is among them.

Odysseus, Panurge, Eugénie Grandet, Gregor Samsa, Humbert Humbert, Oskar Matzerath, all of them from Ahab to Zeno, mere constructs! And their worlds pure figments: no more flying carpets, no more hansom cabs, no more magic lamps, no more tartar steppes! Such a perspective does not bear contemplation for long. Its very bleakness urges us toward another position, I think. One that we can occupy at our leisure, and wherein we are no longer obliged to choose between subject and object, self and other, inside and out.

—Warren Motte from “Division and Multiplication.”

Grant MaierhoferGrant Maierhofer

Grant Maierhofer just arrived at the magazine last month. We published a Germán Sierra interview with him and a short story. He represents the cutting edge of experimental art that is sometimes called Post-Anthropocene, art that literally comes after the world era of human domination, art characterized by a systematic denial of the sentimentalized anthropocentric view of history and culture. Human have destroyed nature. We are in the countdown (Make America Great Again notwithstanding). I had to get him into the last issue if only because I have a tremendous sympathy for his aesthetic.

Walking for me changed when architecture changed, cities or long rural stretches suddenly took on meaning, became signs of something, warped. In Jarett Kobek’s novel of the 9/11 attacks, ATTA, his iteration of Mohammed, Atta, wanders cities hearing voices in their materials. I hadn’t known this prior to reading but Atta was a student of architecture, had written a dissertation in fact regarding the imperialist dominion of metropolitan architecture over the Middle East. The heft of these sentiments is largely unimportant to my purposes here, but I often wonder about the post-9/11 psyche and its relationship to architecture. Like the possibility of burned, sacked, destroyed works of art—either by the hands of their creators or fascists or mere accident—I wonder if anticipation of destruction alters our sense of the landscape in ways it simply couldn’t prior to the explosive power of our present.

—Grant Maierhofer from “Peripatet.”

Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk’s translations of poems by the Russian Alexander Tinyakov come to us via the good offices of Mary Considine Beck to whom we are eternally grateful. And grateful also for these blackly cynical and exuberantly negative poems. Read the teaser quote below. And smile.

Lovely new coffins are headed my way,
full of the finest young men.
Pleasure to see them, simply a joy –
pretty as birches in spring!

—Boris Dralyuk translation, “Joie de Vivre” by Alexander Tinyakov.

A. Anupama

A. Anupama comes back one last time with a new selection of classic Tamil poetry, beautiful and mystical in their fusing of the erotic and the divine — read them carefully; they are a combination of sly, sometimes comic love poetry and the self meeting the godhead. Go back through the contents pages and read A. Anupama’s own poems, her earlier translations, and her essays on translation. We have a lovely extended archive of her work.

Talaivi says—

We live in the same city, but he avoids my street.
When he does come down my street, he doesn’t step in to visit,
and as though he’s strolling past some strangers’ cremation grounds,
he takes an eyeful and keeps walking,
as though he’s not the one who has driven me out of my shyness
and my mind. Such love, like an arrow shot from a bowstring,
soars for only a moment and falls someplace irretrievable, far away.

Pālai Pādiya Perunkadunkō
Kuruntokai, verse 231

—A. Anupama translation, “Poem from avenues lined with ornamental trees”

Patrick J. Keane

It took Pat Keane roughly three hours to get me a new essay when I wrote to him. This time an extended treatment of Mark Twain and T. S. Eliot. Erudite, eloquent, lapel-grabbing, astonishing in his ability to access quotations, Pat Keane is like a glacial eccentric, out there on his own, provenance unknown, no other like him. His contributions to the magazine, from early on, have been an anchor to my editorial heart. As long as Pat Keane trusted his work to me, I knew we were doing a good thing.

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

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

—Patrick J. Keane from his essay “Of Beginnings and Endings: Huck Finn and Tom Eliot.”

Josh DormanJosh Dorman

Artist Josh Dorman’s “Tower of Babel” is a gift as cover art for the issue. An updated biblical icon combining a painterly quotation from Breughel the Elder with a Bosch-like menagerie of creatures. I dunno — it does remind me of the magazine in a way. Read the interview and look at other work by Dorman.

I work in a subconscious state. A narrative may assert itself, but more often, multiple narratives and connections emerge. You guessed right when you asked about images that beg to be grouped together. It’s almost as if they’re whispering when the pages turn. It may come from my formalist training or it may be much deeper rooted, but I feel the need to connect forms from different areas of existence. A birdcage and a rib cage. A radiolarian and a diagram of a galaxy. Flower petals and fish scales. Tree branches, nerves, and an aerial map of a river. It’s obviously about shifting scale wildly from inch to inch within the painting. I think the reason I’m a visual artist is because it sounds absurdly simplistic to say in words that all things are connected.

—Josh Dorman

Darran AndersonDarran Anderson

Fernando Sdrigotti, editor-at-large, snagged this wonderful excerpt from Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities. Anderson has long been on my hot list of prospects to invite, so it’s fitting he’s here at the end. Visionary.

The future will be old. It may be bright and shiny, terrible and wonderful but, if we are to be certain of anything, it will be old. It will be built from the reconstructed wreckage of the past and the present and the just-about possible. ‘The future is already here’ according to William Gibson, ‘it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ You sit amongst fragments of it now.

—Darran Anderson from Imaginary Cities.

Montague Kobbé

Montague Kobbé uses To Kill a Mocking Bird as a prospecting tool to help unravel the contemporary mysteries of race, terror, diaspora and transculturalism.

Three days after the fortuitous capture of Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man for four months, the BBC published a profile of his lawyer, Sven Mary. The title of the piece was deliberately incendiary and utterly telling of the sentiment prevalent in Paris, in London, in Brussels, in Europe: “Sven Mary: The Scumbag’s Lawyer.”

Despite his notoriety in Belgium as a high-profile defense attorney, I had never before seen a photograph of Sven Mary – indeed, I hadn’t even heard the name until I clicked on the aforementioned piece. Hence, it’s fair to say that I had never really had much of a chance of building a balanced image of the lawyer in question, my judgment necessarily skewed by the tone of the very first notice I had of the existence of this man. This circumstance immediately made me think of Atticus Finch, the hero in Harper Lee’s cult novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

—Montague Kobbé, from his essay “Of Discrimination, Transculturalism and the Case for Integration.”

Michael Carson

Michael Carson has been on the masthead a short time but he’s already contributed lovely reviews and a powerful essay on story plot. Now, at last, we get to see his fiction. Wild, apocalyptic, dystopian, and alive. Note also his cheeky theft of the double amputation from my story “Tristiana.” Mike confessed when he sent me the story. We have had a good chuckle over this. He’s a young writer I believe in.

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

—Michael Carson from “El Paso Free Zone”

Paul PinesPaul Pines

Paul Pines has contributed visionary and speculative essays and poetry to the magazine, but this time he pens a good old-fashioned memoir that draws on his time running a jazz club in Brooklyn. I adore this essay for its evocation of a place and a time and the music.

My fascination was ignited again during hormonal teenage summers cruising the beach that ran along the southern hem of Brooklyn from the elevated BMT subway stop on Brighton Beach Avenue, all the way to Sea Gate. My crew roamed between the parachute-jump, rising like an Egyptian obelisk from Luna Park, to the fourteen story Half-Moon Hotel. Both loomed like thresholds at the edge of the known world. The haunting quality of the place was especially palpable in the shadow of the Half-Moon Hotel, where Abe Reles, as FBI informant guarded by six detectives, jumped or was pushed out the window on the sixth floor. Reles had already brought down numerous members of Murder Incorporated. His defenestration occurred in 1941, the day before he was scheduled to testify against Albert Anastasia. The hotel’s name echoed that of Henry Hudson’s ship, which had anchored briefly off nearby Gravesend Bay, hoping to find a short cut to Asia. Folded into the sight and smell of warm oiled bodies on the beach and under the boardwalk, past and future pressed hard against the flesh of the present.

—Paul Pines from his memoir “Invisible Ink.”

Bruce Stone

From Bruce Stone, an excerpt from a work-in-progress, a trenchant, densely-written fiction. Think: dog boy and sperm trafficker, and a vast, spreading darkness.

If there had been a time before the dogs, the kid couldn’t recall it because, far as he was concerned, ma had always been breeding. He’s still not sure whether dad’s untimely exit was cause or consequence of ma’s decision to surround herself with seedstock Dobermans, but he’s seen the nativity photos of the dogs dipping their muzzles like jailbreak felons into the laundry basket, where the kid lay cushioned on beach towels, that placid dazed expression of a baby contemplating umpteen canine teeth and whiskers stiff as brush bristles. Also inexplicable is how the kid survived infancy when the possibilities for carnage were so numerous and imminent, but here he is, lo these dozen years later, still consuming resources and riding upon the Earth’s surface under the lucky Dog star of his birth.

—Bruce Stone, from his work-in-progress “Tokens.”

Ronna Bloom

From Ronna Bloom in Toronto: tender, intimate poems often set in hospitals, thus bodies, separation, and tenuous hope.

In the Giovanni and Paolo hospital
the old wing opens out like fields and windows
in a Van Gogh painting, light penetrating halls
and making space in silence. No one’s there at all,
but—salvesalvesalvesalve.
When I return to my more brutal realms
the word comes with me. I don’t declare it.
How light in my suitcase it is, how old-fashioned
and almost ethereal, but in some lights
real, and close enough—to salvage.

—Ronna Bloom from “Salve.”

Igiaba Scego

Igiaba Scego is Italian of Somali parentage. We’re privileged to be able to publish this excerpt from the translation of her superb novel Adua.

“Ah, we’ve got a rebel here,” the guard said. “If times were different,” he added, “we would have shown you, you piece of shit. In Regina Coeli we don’t like rebels. You’re ticks, useless lice of humanity. In Regina Coeli it’s easy to die of hunger or thirst, learn that. It’s easy to bring down that cocky crest you’ve got. In Regina Coeli it’s a short path to the graveyard. But you’re a damned lucky louse. They told me not to let you die. So I’ll bring you your water. But mind you, I might not be able to kill you, but put you through hell, that I can do.”

—Igiaba Scego from her novel Adua, translated from Italian by Jamie Richards.

Jamie Richards

And as usual there is more still in production. Actually, some not even seen yet but promised. It’s the last issue after all. So come to the bar, place your last orders, enjoy the last hours of conversation and laughter and delight. And say goodbye.


Editor-in-chief, last seen…

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Jul 152017
 

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

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Victoria Best has a theory about creativity and writers in crisis. This stunning essay is one of a series of which she writes: “I really loved writing these essays because every writer I chose, once you got down to it, was a hapless flake, making the most terrific mess of their life and yet stalwartly, patiently, relentlessly processing every error, every crisis and turning them all into incredible art. How could you not love these people and their priceless integrity? I felt like I had found my tribe. Didn’t matter in the least that they were pretty much all dead. There was just that precious quality – vital, creative attentiveness to everything wrong – that I cherished.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

June Miller June Mansfield 

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Le Dome Cafe Paris 1930sParis cafe, 1930s

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

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

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

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

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

Anais NinAnaïs Nin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Henry Miller biographies collage
Notes on Sources

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

—Victoria Best

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Victoria Best

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

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Jul 152017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually she’s rather pretty.

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

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

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

“Two bedroom?” she asks.

“No, three.”

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

She takes all this in.

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

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

Would she like to see the place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At night a central hanging light illumines.

The cenotaph, however, was never built.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this madness or transcendence?

Or both?

Or neither?

Do tattoos have to mean anything?

Does anything have to mean anything?

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

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

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

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

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

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

His marriage followed a similar course, more or less.

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

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

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

What would his condo go for now?

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

Does she think that price will hold?

She hesitates, but says it should go up.

What does she think about St. Johns?

She loves it.

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

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

He had no idea where to go.

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

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

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

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

They have been here for years.

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

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

She doesn’t respond.

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

Where are all these people coming from?

He knows the answer in part—California.

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

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

How are people making it?

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

Is Portland going under?

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

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

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

“Portland is a great town,” he says.

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

“Where is—” she asks.

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

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

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

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

Boullée says about his cenotaph in a treatise.

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

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

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

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

It his hot.

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

The toilet flushes.

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

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

The French Revolution was around the corner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real estate agent has not returned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he sees her lying on his bed.

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

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

And then it isn’t hot.

.

.

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

“How was—”

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

She pauses a moment, thinking.

“Don’t tell my boyfriend.”

And pauses a moment more.

“I’ll tell him.”

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

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

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

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

Gary Garvin

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

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Jul 142017
 

Grant Maierhofer Flamingos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant Maierhoff GAG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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German Sierra

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

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

Grant Maierhofer

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

—Grant Maierhofer

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

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Jul 132017
 

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

— Joseph Schreiber

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

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

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

— Fleur Jaeggy, Translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff

Published with permission from New Directions Publishing Company.

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

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

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Jul 132017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Joseph Schreiber

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

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue guffaw.

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

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

More Exhibits for the Court to consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Andrew MacDonald

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

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

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

Adam Daily

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

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

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MKJ: Yes, doubt… or intrigue!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jul 112017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Stephen Brockbank

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

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Jul 112017
 

Kate Hall

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THIS PRIMORDIAL SHAPE IS A GENERALIZATION OF THE SHAPE

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

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

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

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AND THEN THE GENERALIZATION ERROR WAS CALCULATED

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

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LET US FIRST CONSIDER THE ROLE OF ERROR

Captured in journeys through water.

In aquariums.

In jars of tap water.

As in, a little pond water has been added.

And of course there is blame.

Which no one can answer.

That the light passes through.

That widespread devastation.

That in great abundance.

A single red eye.

Then many.

That colored the sea for miles.

Ephemeral puddles.

As habitat.

Transparency.

As in, a fact not found.

Despite The Field Book of Natural History.

Predators.

To sink into deeper water by day.

To feed by night.

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

A container for the impossible.

That fell 9 days from heaven.

That and then 9 more.

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A TOY SYSTEM CLOSE TO THE REAL WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Kate Hall

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

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Jul 112017
 

 

Old Goris

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Tigranyans

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

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

 

The Streets

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

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

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

 

Lasti Khut

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

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

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

 

Old Goris

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

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

—Patrick Findler

 

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

 

 

Jul 102017
 

The Death of the Perfect Sentence Book Cover

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

*

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

Trust was the only valid currency.

It was just so exhausting.

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

*

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

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

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

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

“Aha,” said Raim.

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

“So what can we do?” Raim asked.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

But Lidia Petrovna now had two options.

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

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

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

In other words, there was no question.

—Rein Raud translated by Matthew Hyde

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

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

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

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Jul 102017
 

Sydney Lea

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The Great War
…….International Writers Conference Excursion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Sydney Lea

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

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Jul 102017
 

.

.Sounds with the Wind

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

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

.

Being out West When Time Stood Still

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

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

Clouding in open fog.

.

In the Light of Dreaming Rinny

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

And music. Oh, the music everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

When I think of yesterday today

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

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

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

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

.

Before, When the Sun

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

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

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

—Linda E. Chown

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

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Jul 092017
 

Heather Ramsay on Elk Mountain

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The view

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

The View

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

The View_2

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

Mid Century Modern

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

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

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Getting to know the neighbours

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

Briteside

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

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

The Owls

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

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Back channels into town

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

SaveOn

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

Gated Communities

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

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

Skow Kale Hall

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Downtown Chilliwack

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

Wellington St ChilliwackWellington Street,  downtown Chilliwack

Hi Fidelity Shop

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

Chilliwack Museum

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

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Summer heat

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

Cultus Lake from Ryder LakeCultus Lake, seen from Ryder Lake

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

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

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

The Red Ball

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The warning

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Heather Ramsay

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Heather Ramsay

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

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Jul 092017
 

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

— Dylan Brennan

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a fragment from 

PLEASE INSERT COIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

— § —

INSERTE una moneda por favor

si desea continuar
inserte una moneda

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

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

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

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

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

 —Ricardo Cázares

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

§

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

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Jul 082017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed and closed his eyes.

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

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

Maybe five minutes, he murmurs with no further movement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Daniel Davis Wood

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

Jul 082017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two new friends.

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

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

Younger sister Randall.

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

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

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

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

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

A calling card from the boys of Barfield Road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother the housewife, in suburban kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Nowick Gray

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

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Jul 082017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the songs speak to ineluctable.
the books give false maps

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

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

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

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

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

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

the éloquence du néant, of absence

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

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

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

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

tense and
mood; how already on edge this english

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the air is
like a song

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

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

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

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

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

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