Apr 022017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

roberta-levine-outdoors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

roberta-levine-putting-on-boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Roberta Levine

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

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Apr 012017
 

Tatiana Ryckman

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1

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

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

2

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

3

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

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

And we all get busy.

And you got very busy.

4

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

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

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

5

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

—Tatiana Ryckman

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

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Apr 012017
 

Diane Schoemperlen collage from her story “I am a Motel.”

Senior Editor Jason DeYoung picked the fiction featured at the Top of the Page this month. Short stories by Gabriel Josipovici, Diane Schoemperlen, Alan Cunningham, Trinie Dalton, Michael Bryson, Richard Farrell, and Sheridan Hay. Jason wrote: “Some traditional, some spirited, some irreverent, some weird, some with a little something extra – all with velocity.  But also looked for older stuff too, things that haven’t popped up in a while. But I could have made this twice as long – lots there on the site.” I like that phrase, ALL WITH VELOCITY.

Mar 262017
 

“We were in a boat and we were in love and we maybe made you in the blackest moments of this sea.” —Imaginary map by Nance Van Winckel

I thought I’d call this simply THE REALLY BIG issue because, hard as I try to beat back the tide, the issues keep getting  bigger, and this one, well, this one is out there in the stratosphere of issue bigness. But then I saw Susan Aizenberg’s interview with Nance Van Winckel with Nance’s inventive hybrid visual works and I realized that what we are doing here is creating imaginary maps. Everyone who contributes fills in a little personal section of the territory. So I’m calling it the IMAGINARY MAPS issue.

We have this month some truly amazing work. I hope you all read and dwell on these gems. In particular we have gorgeous essays: Warren Motte on the late Harry Mathews, Jeremy Brunger on Kafka, “The Metamorphosis,” and what it means to be a bug, the London-based Italian writer Daniela Cascella on reading Isak Dinesen’s story “The Blank Page,” and a lyric essay by Abby Frucht. We also have performance art by Quintan Ana Wikswo, poetry by Michelle Boisseau and Patrick O’Reilly, new fiction by Russell Working and Tatiana Ryckman, and a My First Job essay by Roberta Levine. As I mentioned, our poetry editor Susan Aizenberg interviews Nance Van Winckel. And from Ireland in our Uimhir a Cúig series, we have poems by the inimitable Afric McGlinchey. From Russia, we have poems by the great Marina Tsvetaeva translated by Mary Jane White. Julie Larios reviews Make Yourself Happy, a new poetry collection by Eleni Sikelianos (we also have an excerpt from the book and an interview with the author). Newcomer Michael Carson reviews the new novel Spoils by Brian Van Reet, Joseph Schreiber reviews the novel Frontier by the Chinese experimental writer Can Xue, and Ben Woodard reviews the long-awaited novel Blue Fields by Elise Levine.

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Mar 142017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0:00 – meteor

1:00 – rock levitating

1:05 – man on bench feeds nonexistent birds

1:50 – building floating, rotating

2:02 – door caves in

2:15 – man in restaurant’s eyes glow

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

2:42 – man crossing street duplicates

2:50 – restaurant sign foreshadows building fire

3:03 – car gradually changes color

3:06 – man floating in sky

3:16 – fire in building

3:28 – solar eclipse

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

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

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

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

—R. W. Gray

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Mar 132017
 

riiki-ducornet-resizedRikki Ducornet

 

1. THE VOID

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

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

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

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

That… Quickening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. PISTIS SOPHIA

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

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

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

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3. ADAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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4. EVE AND THE SERPENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Rikki Ducornet

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

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Mar 132017
 

ben-slotky

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A Wave, a Wash

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

In Atlanta, in Dallas. Where you are.

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

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

This seems to make sense, you think.

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

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

Assertive, you are thinking.

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

Context and usage and great feedback.

You are not saying anything.

There are standards, you are learning.

Necessary content and functionality for a task.

Core tenets for a mobile-first design.

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

We agree that there are things.

You smile at this, you think.

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

A thing does a thing.

We can identify this.

We can establish methods of flow.

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

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

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

This is where you are.

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

§

A Small, Halting Noise

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

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

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

As if to clarify, as if to explain.

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

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

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

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

§

Ope and Whoop

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

You heard sounds.

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

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

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

Action, reaction.

Cause, effect.

If this, then that.

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

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

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

You thought enough.

Not big, not loud.

No proclamations, no declarations.

A decision. Small and deliberate.

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

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

What are the odds, you thought.

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

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

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

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

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

§

Shrimp and Whales

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

Places with significance, you think.

Resonance, you think, grandeur.

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

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

Rote and memory.

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

And maybe, you think.

And somehow, you think.

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

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

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

—Ben Slotky

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

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Mar 122017
 

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

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The Finger

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

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

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

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

“What about the dosing?”

“It’ll have to wait,” he says.

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

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

He does not tell her about the stillborn calf.

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

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

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

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

“The vet phoned about Curly,” she says.

“Oh.”

“He wants to come today.”

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

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

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

“Hello, sweetie,” says her mother.

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

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

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

—Cynan Jones

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

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

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Mar 122017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Mark Sampson

N5


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

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Mar 112017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Carolyn Ogburn

N5
Carolyn Ogburn
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

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Mar 112017
 

Susan Elmslie

X
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A Poet Has Nine Knives

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

X
X
THREE POEMS FROM “TRIGGER WARNING”

Unteachable Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

converging on the scene
I’d just escaped.

My husband and I,
slumped on the couch,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X
If

(after James Hoch, Miscreants)

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

X
Conventions

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

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

X
Faith is a Suitcase

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

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

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

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

X
Ativan

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

Descent

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

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

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

—Susan Elmslie

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

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Mar 102017
 

Fleda Brown

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

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

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The Winner of the Art Prize

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

x

Burial

—for Thomas Lynch, undertaker

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

X

Not Dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

X

Too Much Going Wrong

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

—Fleda Brown

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

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Mar 102017
 

James Joyce & Sean Preston

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long have you been ill for?”

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

“Don’t do the like thing.”

“Came…. Over… Me… like…”

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded in agreement, smirking politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re holding it too high.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What porn do you buy?”

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

“Not-carrying-chairs porn?”

“Welcome to 2016.”

*

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

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

“So illlllll.”

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

“I’m always so sick all the time.”

“My little permanently ill poorly child.”

“Are you poisoning me?”

“To death. “

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

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

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

“It’s on iPlayer.”

“It’s not on iPlayer. I checked.”

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

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

“So loud. Shut up.”

“Wasn’t that loud.”

Quiet, briefly.

“Always talking about coming.”

“Well. I dare say I wonder why.”

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

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

“Not great.”

“A Ry… vi… ta… with a hangover.”

“Yeah. Still not your best work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What problem?” she asked, poker faced.

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

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah, it moved side to side.”

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

There it is.

“What?”

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

“Why this again?”

“You’re such a fucking liar.”

“What are you on about?”

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

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

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

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

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

That’s every man’s life!

Sssh.

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

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

“Are you having sex with her?”

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

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

*

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

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

“Yes, this one girl. She was horrid.”

“What… bitchy?”

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

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

“He commented on her facial hair.”

What the fuck? Why would anyone do that?”

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

“What did he say?”

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

“Oh my God. What an actual dickhead.”

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

“He probably did.”

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

“’She takes photos, maannn.’”

He loved it when they put other people down.

“Ugh, lame.”

He loved it when they saw the same thing.

“Totally”

When they understood.

“Dweebs. The lot of ‘em.”

When he remembered why.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

She offered: “Photography… pornography.”

*

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

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

“I love you,” she said.

“I told you,” he whimpered, immediately.

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

“Don’t. Even.”

“Do you want a blow-job?”

He sighed. Sneezed. “I love you too.”

—Sean Preston

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

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Mar 092017
 

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

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From Joan Fontaine Odisea

4.

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

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

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

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

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4.1

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

.

5.

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

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

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

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5.1

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

.

5.1.1

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

.

14.

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

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

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14.1

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

.

70.

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

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

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

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From Ya nadie se llamará como yo


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

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

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

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

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

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

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

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

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

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

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

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

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

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

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

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

I see a forest and something more alive inside.

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

I see a forest and something more alive inside..

—Agustín Fernández Mallo, translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington

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

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

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Mar 082017
 

Carlos Fonseca cropped 500px

x

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

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

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

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

Book Cover Lagrimas

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

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

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

Is history a science? Is the attempt to create a blueprint misguided if we’re talking about human endeavor? Or can one look for a pattern there as well? If so, how should one go about trying to find it? Is it best to remove oneself from the world to ensure peace of mind and the tranquility necessary for tracing larger arcs? Or should one try to be as actively engaged in daily life as possible? Do the aims of history writing undergo development, in the same way that ideas of modernism marked a literary shift, partly in response to scientific discoveries? And is there some shining pattern or arch-truth behind these changes? Or is history just an infinite parade of possible anecdotes to arrange, catalogue, exhibit, assemble and frame in a Duchampian exercise, like a box of old film reels? Can the historian in his observational role play some part in affairs, creating change through his attempt to understand? Or is this withdrawal into the imagination folly? My question for you is how you see history, and how is it different or similar to the colonel’s?

CF: I am fascinated by history and I like the image of the historian as someone lost in a giant archive, shuffling around documents as if they were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. And you are absolutely right: I am interested, not so much by the figure of the historian as he who finds the “truth” about history, but rather as he who recontextualizes and reframes the fragments of history. As you note, this is a Duchampian gesture: what matters is the frame, the context. A playful take on history. In this sense, more than a scientist or even a historian, the colonel is a collage artist: like Walter Benjamin before him, his idea is to construct a book in which every single forgotten fact is quoted, framed and analyzed. An encyclopedia of forgotten histories that would permit us to see the other side of History. On the other hand, the book is also critical of the image of that peaceful museum so often imagined as the peaceful resolution at the end of history. The question remains: how to think of political action within this giant museum? How to break open the museum’s doors and start running against the wind of history?

JS: You’ve mentioned Duchamp’s techniques. What is your relationship to art and how do you see contemporary literature as engaging with some of the techniques of the art world? (Do you see it doing this?)

CF: I have become, lately, very interested in artand in particular conceptual art – as a territory lying at the limit of literature. I like Duchamp’s gesture of moving art away from the immediacy of the sensory towards the realm of the conceptual. Or at least, forcing us to reimagine what the relationship between the sensory and the conceptual, between feeling and thought, might be, beyond a mere contradiction. Ideas, too, have a body, I would claim. I see contemporary art as a playful realm of liberty for the imagination and as such I see it as the limit towards which literature should aim. I think that to write alongside Duchamp – as writers like Enrique Vila-Matas, Mario Bellatín or Margo Glantz do – is to imagine literature as a realm where thought meets emotion. As Don DeLillo likes to say: “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking.” I like to think that Duchamp’s gesture is precisely this: to turn thinking into art and art into thinking.

JS: Do you think of yourself as influenced by Puerto Rican or Costa Rican writing in any way? Or do you think nationalistic categories aren’t important?

CF: Influences are a tricky subject. I think you end up being influenced by much more than you imagine or intend. In this sense I can only hope to be influenced by both the Puerto Rican and the Costa Rican literary traditions, traditions which I have read passionately and which abound in wonderful writers. I like to think that just like each writer has two parents, each writer inherits, indirectly, two different traditions. In my case, being born in Costa Rica and raised in Puerto Rico, I like to think that perhaps a novel like Colonel Lágrimas is the strange offspring of the Puerto Rican baroque writing, on the one hand, and Costa Rican minimalism and experimentation, on the other. While writing the novel I kept thinking that the playful narrator had much to do with the voyeurist narrator in Luis Rafael Sánchez’s 1976 novel La guaracha del Macho Camacho, a novel that fascinates me due to its rhythm and narrative techniques. Meanwhile, I also kept thinking about Carmen Naranjo’s 1982 novel Diario de una multitud, an experimental novel that always reminds me of a set of Russian dolls. I don’t think national categories should be abolished but rather rethought or disrupted in innovative ways. But, I guess at the end of the day, I agree with Italo Calvino’s quote: “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.” The writer always has to be a bit out of place, he has to become a bit of foreigner even to himself. Writing is, in a way, another form of exile.

JS: In such a globalized world and with your experiences and influences in particular, do you still think “Latin American literature” makes sense as a phrase?

CF: I think “Latin American literature” only makes sense as an anthropological phantasy: as the label others give us, that is to say, as a particular lens through which the world sees us. I only figured this out when I arrived to study in the United States. Until then, it had always been a pain for me to explain my double-nationality to others: the way I was both Costa Rican and Puerto Rican. This was solved as soon as I arrived to the United States. Suddenly, I figured others had decided for me: I was Latin American. Like any other identity, this was, after all, nothing else but a mask. But masks and phantasies are also real. I think, beyond asking whether it exists or not, it is important for Latin American writers to play with this phantasy: to play with the anthropological phantasy that is Latin America in the eyes of the world. We always need to rethink the phantasy in order to critique it, I would claim. I also think that these broader categories end up helping writers from peripheral countries. If you stay at the national level, you keep reproducing the hierarchies dictated by the market: unknowingly, you keep speaking about Argentine, Mexican and Colombian writers, just because their market visibility is greater. Latin America as a category gives space to writers from countries that wouldn’t have visibility otherwise: countries like Ecuador, Paraguay, or Bolivia, just to mention a few.

JS: The Restless Books page refers to a “new Latin American boom”. Do you think that this term is legitimate? Or do you think phrases like this should also be abolished?

CF: Besides it being legitimate or not, I understand what they seem to be referring to: let’s say that in the post-Bolaño literary landscape, Latin American writers have gained a heightened visibility. Latin America – whatever that might be – is seen as a territory of literary innovation, as an exciting place where new voices can be found. The Bolaño phenomenon – for good or evil – transformed the way international publishers see our work and allowed for the region to be reimagined, no longer as the land of magical realism, but rather as the land of avant-garde innovation. I think this is a great step forward, independently of whether it comes with an actual boom or not. Of course, it does hint at the fact that the boom is still present in our imaginations as the golden age of Latin American literature: a spectre that never gets tired of haunting us.

JS: What writers or artists are important for you? Who do you like to read, from the past and present? How have you been influenced by the work of your teacher, Ricardo Piglia, and how does your work break from his?

CF: The other day I was rearranging my library, so I had time to think about this: which author to place alongside which author, who to give the best spots and so on. I guess, at least right now, the names in the main shelves are the following: Faulkner, Machado de Assis, Borges, Sebald, DeLillo, Lispector, Perec, Sarraute and Piglia. Then, next to them: Bernhard and Calvino. From each I have a particular memory, and perhaps my favorite is Faulkner, but with regards to this novel, I think the most important author was Machado de Assis whose Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (published in the UK as Epitaph of a Small Winner) is a fascinating inheritor to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: a playful experiment in narration. I love the idea of thinking of Machado as a black nineteenth century Brazilian predecessor of Borges, another author that is always central, not only to me, but to most writers in general. Regarding Ricardo Piglia, there is no doubt I am highly indebted to him, not only for his generosity and his amazing lectures, but for his capacity to redefine the way we read nowadays. Very few people, if any, have reimagined the figure of the reader in such a radical manner.

JS: In what direction is your current work headed?

CF: As of late I have become obsessed with obsession. I have become fascinated with protagonists whose engagement with their fixed ideas leads them to that shaky territory between art and science, between madness and reason, between art and nonsense. I am more and more interested by so-called outsider artists: artists working in the realm of that which Jean Dubuffet called “Art Brut”. Artists who don’t see themselves as artists. I see in them a metaphor of art itself, as well as a new way of linking thought and art.

JS: It’s fashionable to glamorize action in the world, and criticize thinking. While your book criticizes somebody who thinks too much, it also gets at many of the subtleties and pleasures of thought. How do you conceive of the relationship between thought and action? Do you think there is still a role for the observer in a world so oriented toward the glamorization of the “event”?

CF: This was one of my greatest obsessions while writing the novel. I wanted to explore the relationship between thought and action. Most people, when they read the novel, say that in it nothing happens. I accept these comments gladly precisely because I was interested in producing such a space of tedium, boredom and thought. A space which, like a museum, has secluded itself from the world in order “to think” the world, but where nothing necessarily happens, at least in the sense of the action to which we are accustomed. The protagonist of the novel, the colonel, belongs in fact to that strange sect of explorers of the negative which Enrique Vila-Matas has so well described in his book Bartebly and Co. Like Bartebly and like Alexander Grothendieck, upon whose life story the novel is based, the colonel decides one day to renounce the life of action in order to dedicate himself solely to the life of thought. I am fascinated by such characters: characters which one day decide to devote themselves to a conceptual project that might at first sight seem absurd, characters like the protagonist of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. I am interested in sketching out how thought is also a type of action, perhaps the most beautiful and contemporary of them all. The only action that truly changes the world.

—Carlos Fonseca & Jessica Sequeira

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Carlos Fonseca Suárez was born in Costa Rica in 1987 and grew up in Puerto Rico. His debut novel, Coronel Lágrimas, was published in Spanish by Anagrama and in its English translation, as Colonel Lágrimas, by Restless Books. His work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, BOMB, Minor Literatures, and The White Review. He was recently selected as one of the twenty new young voices in Latin Literature by the FIL Guadalajara. He currently teaches at the University of Cambridge and lives in London.

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Jessica straightened

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator born in California, at home in Buenos Aires. @jess_sequeira
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Mar 072017
 

Ceramic box Michel_1Ceramic box by Michel Pastore

Michel Pastore and Evelyne PorretMichel Pastore and Evelyne Porret

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Long ago I lived in North Africa. I learned that among the Berber peoples, the erotic verses from the Koran are traced on the body of the bride with henna—her hands and feet, belly and breasts. On the night of her wedding, her husband licks her body and swallowing, embodies the sacred erotic.

When in the Loire Valley years later, I saw the ceramics of Michel Pastore and Evelyne Porret, I was stunned by the sight of so many domestic objects that were not only beautiful, but also somehow transcendent. In the deepening shadows the late afternoon, they sparked the air and sizzled—more like amulets and talismans than bowls and plates. I mean to say that if they were destined for domestic pleasure, their emphasis was more on the ecstatic than the domestic. This encounter remains one of the most powerful influences within my creative life. Several of the pieces I saw that day are visible below.

Around the time I returned to the United States, Michel and Evelyne moved to Fayoum, Egypt. There they built a home, a ceramics studio and a kiln of clay brick. Soon after arriving, in 1989, Evelyne opened a studio school for local children which is flourishing to this day.

In 1991, Michel, always protean, and inspired by the weavers of the ancient village of Nagada, became interested in textile and clothes design. With the Lebanese designer, Sylvia Nasralla, he opened a shop in Cairo named Nagada. (If you watch this video of a Nagada fashion show, you will be enchanted.)

— Rikki Ducornet.
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Ceramic Evelyne_2Ceramics by Evelyne Porret (above and below)

Ceramic Evelyne_1
ceramic Michel 2Ceramic by Michel Pastore

House in FayoumPastore/Porret house and studio at Fayoum.

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Fayoum photos PDF-19AThe studio in Fayoum

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Pastore and Porret looking at platesPastore and Porret at the studio

First potA pot made of local clay, from the first firing in the Fayoum studio

Fayoum photos PDF-21

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Fayoum photos PDF-47

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Green box 500px

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—Ceramics by Michel Pastore & Evelyne Porret; text by Rikki Ducornet.

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Evelyne Porret and Michel PastoreEvelyne Porret and Michel Pastore

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Rikki DucornetRikki Ducornet

Rikki Ducornet is the author of eight novels as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a two-time honoree of the Lannan Foundation, and the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. Widely published abroad, she is also a book illustrator and painter who exhibits internationally. Her work is held by the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Chile, McMaster University Museum in Canada, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Rikki lives in Port Townsend, Washington.

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Mar 062017
 

By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is  playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels. —Jason DeYoung

The Schooldays of Jesus
J. M. Coetzee
Viking, 2017
272 pages; $27.00

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I.

“T his is how it is. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbor and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now. Time begins. The clock starts running.” Ironically, this here and now is the afterlife.

Characters eking out lonely lives in an unrecognizable historical situation or in an altogether invented milieu are classic narrative approaches in J. M. Coetzee’s novels. But where The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus differ is that its characters have no past. They have come to this novel “world” washed clean of their former lives, without their memories, and given new names—given new ages! One might arrive a child, another a 41-year old male. They are set on their new paths with their new names to find new work or new caregivers. They are forced to learn to read and speak a new language, and given only the most modest of starts in a place called Novilla—a “no town,” where “things do not have their due weight.”

Perplexing and certainly stranger than Coetzee’s other works, these novels continue the departure from his more well known realistic fiction found in such novels as Disgrace or Age of Iron. Indeed, his new works are less concerned with standard storytelling altogether. As David Attwell describes in his critical biography J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing (2015), after Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in 2003, the “simple urge to represent” no longer seem to interest him, instead he is currently engaging in “secondary-order” questions such as, “What am I doing when I represent? What is the difference between living in the real world and living in a world of representations?”

These “secondary-order” questions have appeared as meta-fictional adventures in recent novels, such as Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. But for the current set of novels, he has dropped the meta-fictions for something different, something more abstract and foreign. These characters are new: new to these pages, new to the world itself depicted within these pages, coming up against all this new world’s original customs and beliefs. Its literary touchstone is more Don Quixote and less Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John.

For all their newness, however, these novels are as narratively straightforward as they come, broken into regular chapters and standard scenes, written in Coetzee’s economical, direct prose.

II.

In The Childhood of Jesus one of the first things that becomes apparent is that the majority of its characters are without desires or passions—they are on whole contended individuals. Hard manual labor is done without complaint or imagination, food is primarily bread and water, and sex isn’t a notable consideration because, as you see, it doesn’t “advance us,” as one character explains. Of this dry world it is said: “[I]t is so bloodless. Everyone I meet is so decent, so kindly, so well-intentioned. No one swears or gets angry. No one gets drunk. No one even raises his voice.”

This is Simón, the point-of-view character for both The Childhood of Jesus and its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus. Simón is literally fresh off the boat, arriving on the same ship as Davíd, a young boy whom he takes care of, yet Simón is not his father. While on board the ship, the boy had lost a letter that explained who he was and who his mother is. And one of the main plots of The Childhood of Jesus is a quest to find Davíd’s mother, which turns out to be a woman Simón just “thinks” or “believes” to be said mother. And Simón’s “feeling” feels as random as it sounds. The woman, Inés, eventually accepts that she is indeed the child’s mother despite having no recollection of the child. Remember each person arrives in this world “washed” clean of their previous life, without memories, without connections.

The setting for The Childhood of Jesus is a fictionalized town where everyone is expected to speak Spanish and where housing is provided for. There isn’t much pleasure outside of football, and Simón can’t even find spices at the grocery to make the food better. The novel itself is episodic but can be broken down into three broad movements: arrival, search for Davíd’s mother and her acceptance of that role, and finally setting up Davíd’s education. The Childhood of Jesus ends with the three characters on the run from the law, because Novilla’s officials want Davíd in a special school for children with mental deficits, either mental or emotional. Davíd is without a doubt a special child, yet he doesn’t have deficits. He is playful, willful, and hates authority.

By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels.

III.

The Schooldays of Jesus takes on the same episodic structure as its prequel, and can seem scattered and unfocused at its outset. But at its core The Schooldays of Jesus is the examination and dramatization of concepts related to education. Its opening chapters establish that Simón is the primary agent of education for young Davíd. He is the one who explains and defines the child’s understanding of the world, but as the novel progresses, we see both characters attending school, and we hear Simón philosophizing on the educational values of confronting immoral men and, indeed, the final “showdown” is a debate between measurable science and artistic passion.

The novel opens as the three main characters arrive in Estrella (another city “which has no sensation, no feelings”), where they hope to lay low and avoid the Novilla authorities who might or might not be looking for Davíd. The three end up on a farm, where Simón and Inés pick grapes, while Davíd plays with the other children, slowly becoming the leader of the group. The “gypsy” life doesn’t suit Simón or Inés but it certainly suits Davíd, whom they’ve “never seen so active, so full of energy.” The owners of the farm take particular interest in Davíd and suggest to Simón and Inés that this highly intelligent and gifted child be sent to school. As it is explained, there are four choices in Estrella: public education, which Simón and Inés tried in Novilla to disastrous ends, or the Academies—singing, dancing, and Atom. Davíd chooses dance, despite having no interest in dancing whatsoever.

At the Academy of Dance, however, Davíd becomes awestruck by his teacher, Ana Magdalena Arroyo, who is an ethereal beauty, with the kind of splendor that “stands up to closest scrutiny”; Davíd also takes quickly to the school’s cockamamie philosophy of “dancing the numbers.” “Just as there are noble metals and slave metals, there are noble numbers and slave numbers,” Ana Magdalena explains. “You will learn to dance the noble numbers.”

This numerology, this cosmology is explained over and over in the novel without much success—both Simón and the reader are left flummoxed. “The numbers are in the sky. That is where they live, with the stars. You have to call them before they will come down,” we are told. But “you can’t call down One. One has to come by himself.” This mystical rubbish leads Simón to declare Ana Magdalena to be a preacher: “She and her husband have made up a religion and now they are hunting for converts.” To which Inés undercuts Simón’s assertions by saying that is how you “teach small children.” In her previous life in Novilla, Inés says she too taught small children. She gave each letter of the alphabet a personality, “making them come alive.” The novel is unremittingly dialectic.

The relationship between Inés and Simón is fraught, tenuous, and unsatisfying on both accounts. They are indeed on opposite poles. There isn’t a modicum of chemistry between the two. In fact, they seem repulsed the other. In the apartment they share, Simón feels more like a lodger than an equal member of the family. Simón at every turn pushes Davíd to accept Inés, but she is a “hard-hearted” and clumsy mother. When Davíd moves out to become a boarder at the Academy of Dance, Inés is quick to suggest Simón find a place of his own.

After a rather subtle introduction, a character named Dmitri begins to insert himself into the lives of the three characters. Dmitri is an attendant at the museum next door to the Academy of Dance, and he, in is own words, “worships” Ana Magdalena: “I am not ashamed to confess it.” Dmitri is a man of passion. The children love him; he often has a pocketful of sweets for them after school. Simón reflects on Dmitri thusly: “How wholehearted, how grand, how true Dmitri must appear to a boy of Davíd’s age, compared with a dry old stick like himself!” Indeed, Dmitri is set up as a counter beat to Simón’s pragmatism. Lovely Ana Magdalena, however, treats Dmitri coolly. And initially, Dmitri doesn’t seem all that important to the novel, but in a “crime of passion” he kills Ana Magdalena.

After the death of Ana Magdalena, the story turns to an examination of how we are to know someone else, how are we to know someone’s true identity. In regards to Dmitri, Simón repeatedly warns Davíd that he doesn’t know why Dmitri takes him into his “confidence”—a word that reappears frequently—because “you don’t know what is going on in his heart.” After Dmitri’s subsequent trial and conviction, Simón, Inés, and Davíd try to reassess and reassemble their lives. In the messy aftermath, Simón takes a writing class of all things. He reveals (with near-comic results) in business letters and résumé cover letters that he has come to a “crisis” in his life, and that meeting Dmitri (whom he dislikes and, from a moral point of view, despises) “has been an educational experience for me.” He continues, “I would go so far as to list it among my educational qualifications.” To be sure, these are the schooldays of Simón as well!

IV.

Critics haven’t praised these novels quite the way they have Coetzee’s previous work, calling them “dry as sawdust” and an “ascetic allegory.” I personally enjoy the direction these novels are taking: they’re attempting something different in a landscape glutted with novels and stories just trying to exist within an established tradition. They remind me of Coetzee’s early novels—In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Life & Times of Michael K.—with their rather alien environment and imaginative leaps.

In something more traditional, Dmitri’s trial and conviction might have make for a proper ending, but here the narrative is pushed forward to complete the novel’s theme, and the ending is more cerebral, a showdown between a man of science and a man of art, vaguely concluded on purpose, perhaps in agreement with Camus, who wrote: “solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity.”

Richly enigmatic, The Schooldays of Jesus leaves off precisely where another volume might be necessary to give us our final answers. The two novels are so much about this shaky lad and dad relationship that you want to see how it comes out in the end.

—Jason DeYoung

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Jason DeYoung
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Madcap Review, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

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Mar 062017
 

Kelly Cherry

 

Burning the Baby

Someone struck a match and the baby went up in flames. Members of the family choked on the sickening smell. The father was afraid to look at the mother: surely she would not have done this to her own child. Yet he remembered when his son, sixteen, slapped her in the face and she screamed at him, Edward, hit him, hit him. He could not bring himself to hit his son and she never forgave him for that. The mother looked at the father quickly, then looked down at the floor. He would not have done such a thing, would he? But the baby was burnt, there was no question about that. Sweet little babe, now blackened and flaking, now something like a tiny Christmas tree charred by lightning. The older brother made measurements, seeking to determine how much shorter the baby was post-burning. The baby’s legs, roly-poly and chubby, were burnt off at the knees, which meant it could not even crawl. Of course, being dead meant that too. The sister tried to comb the baby’s burnt hair but it fell out in bunches. The sister began to cry. The baby wouldn’t crawl or play with her. Had the sister done something wrong? What had she done? What? She tickled the baby but it still refused to laugh or squeal. She was in trouble, she knew. She was supposed to watch out for her baby sister, keep her happy, make sure no harm came to her. No harm! She wanted to die. She thought her parents probably wanted her to die. She didn’t dare look at them. They would be so angry with her.

§

Drought

Water is leaving us. It’s disappearing from water tanks, reservoirs, lakes and rivers. The water table is dropping. Plants are dying. The sequoias known as California redwoods, having flourished well over a millennium, are dying. In California, water is rationed. Bath water. Water for lawns. Water intended to accompany food. Jerry Brown, the governor, is not just worried; one can hear fear in his voice. His voice climbs just slightly higher when he talks about the drought in his state but the higher is enough to clue us in. What calamities will occur if the drought continues?

Will Californians continue to stay in their state? What if the forests catch on fire? But they already do. They are likely to do so again. Also likely is that at some point, as rationing increases, and water becomes more difficult to obtain barring the return of a rainy season, residents will leave for more congenial locales. Some, anyway, and no doubt later, more. Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada will not be among the places to which they move. Those who move will favor areas with sufficient precipitation. That is bound to mean the North, with its snow and rain. It’s true that there are storms in the South but there are also hurricanes and tornadoes in the South, and people looking to escape from one disaster won’t want to have to deal with another.

Animals also head north but thousands of them die along the way, especially the pets who were abandoned when people fled. The dogs and cats, especially the small ones, the turtles and the goldfish will not make it to the Far North. (The goldfish will be turned out of their fishbowls without ceremony, and before any of the goldfish realize what is happening.)

So the people move north and the population of Northern cities multiplies. People are crowding one another. There’s not enough room to breathe. Some people are angry about this. They buy guns or get out the guns they already have. Road rage is rampant. The homeless, packed in parks, sleep folded up in lobbies and thresholds and raid garbage cans for food but there is never enough food for all the homeless. Some jump fences, racing to flag outgoing planes but airline workers shove them back. Some ride boxcars, and a few of them make it to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

When they get there, they discover that Russians and Japanese are there, too. They will have come over the Bering Strait. They will wear shorts and tee-shirts. Snowpacks are melting. Snow is melting. Igloos are melting—and the Inuit designed them never to melt. To the Russians and the Japanese, it seems as if they themselves are melting.

South Americans, on the other hand, have followed the Andes mountains to the Drake Passage, hoping to get to Antarctica. But we will stick to what most concerns us.

All over the world, people head for the mountains. From the worn-out Appalachians to the Himalayans of Uttarakhand to the Kamchatka Peninsula. It does no good. Once, mountaintops were cooled by crosswinds, and people and animals were invigorated, refreshed; now the hot tongues of sunshine flick and lick until people and animals are fatigued, too fatigued to climb farther, and they look in vain for even an inch of shade before they crawl behind a boulder to die.

The constant sun enervates. Yes, night still arrives, but one’s skin is burnt so bad that sores appear on arms, legs, and bald heads. People give up on clothes, abandon their garments, for it is too painful to wear them. Everyone gives up.

Which makes everyone else want to give up. And why not? Humans cannot live without water. Yes, there  have been attempts to desalinate seawater. And some have worked. Briefly. Recycled wastewater is also promising. The problem is, neither works well enough to produce the quantities of fresh water that we need at the rate at which we need it.

Which is why these days you (who are you?) will find us dying, always in places that used to promise water. Just before we die, we often hallucinate. Images of waterfalls, running rivers, water fountains, and rain rain rain leave our tongues hanging out, our eyes popping, our throats dry as martinis or deserts. Dry as calcification. Dry as a ponderous pedagogue. Dry as a basement of vampires with no fresh throats to suck.

We hankered for salt. Could anything be more ironic?

Renal failure was common. It led to cardiac problems.

We were too exhausted to lick our own lips.

§

Derek

She named him Derek. It was the name that came to her, for no reason she could think of, and it had all the more urgency for having no reason. The name seemed to fit him. His mother had abandoned him. Mother bats often leave their babies behind; something frightens them and they save themselves before they stop to think about the baby. (There’s usually only one baby at a time; occasionally there are twins.) Or she may have died, perhaps in a heat wave, which can kill off huge numbers of bats.

She found Derek when she was digging out weeds next to the barn. She called a wildlife shelter to ask what to do. “Don’t touch it. Bring it in,” they said, and she did, but she had already touched it. In the shelter was a long row of bat babies, each one swaddled in a knitted scarf or dish cloth. Their wings were under these wraps. The darling creatures looked like little bat burritos—that is what they are called. To see a bat fly out of a chimney or across the moon can be scary: the bats are swift and their wings relatively huge. But tucked into their scarves, with their wings folded and only the little heads peeking out, they look like sweet, snuggly, sleepy babies.

She held Derek, wrapped up, in her hands, presenting him to the shelter workers.

“Derek?” they said. “Is he male?”

She didn’t know. It hadn’t occurred to her that he might be female.

They lifted him up for examination.

“He’s no Debbie,” they said, “so you’re in luck.”

A shelter worker was rubbing Derek gently on his stomach, though such a tiny stomach could only be a tummy. Then the worker picked up an eyedropper and squeezed some milk into his mouth. “You know they can carry rabies?” the worker asked.

“Yes,” she said, thinking, Derek doesn’t have rabies.

“Derek doesn’t have rabies,” said the worker, then added, “They’re called pups.”

“The babies, not the rabies, I assume.” She smiled.

The worker looked at her as if she might be mentally challenged.

“He’s falling asleep.”

“Pups do that. Especially when they’ve sipped enough milk. They are, after all, mammals.”

I knew that, she wanted to say. “Why are some of the others squeaking?”

“All bat pups have to practice echolocation. They have different calls and have to figure out which are theirs. They also have to learn to fly, just as birds do.”

“Is there anything else you can tell me?” She hadn’t known that bats had different methods of echolocation.

“Ever seen a microbat?”

She shrugged, not knowing whether she had or hadn’t.

“There’s a bumblebee bat.”

“That’s very alliterative.”

“Allit—? Sure. The bumblebee bat is maybe the size of a jellybean.” The worker glanced away from Derek and looked straight into her eyes. “It weighs about as much as a penny weighs. Actually, it weighs a little less than that.”

She stared back at the worker. “May I take Derek home now?”

“He’s probably better off here.”

“But I found him.”

“And you brought him here, where you knew he would be better off.”

“But he belongs to me.”

“Bats are wildlife. They don’t belong to anybody. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“It’s not a question of understanding. The fact is that Derek is mine. I found him.”

“Maybe I’d better get my boss. She can explain it to you better than—”

“There’s nothing to explain. Just give me back my bat.”

“I can’t!”

She swooped Derek up and put him in her shirt pocket. A little guano didn’t worry her.

The worker ran after her, shouting Stop! Stop!

Why would she stop? Derek was her baby. Nobody could tell her otherwise.

§

On Teaching

It was a nice day so I joined my kids on the playground. Shadows made the small cotton-ball clouds look scruffy, as if they were children with dirt on their faces. They needed to be scrubbed with a damp washrag. Children, children, I said twice, clapping smartly each time. They circled me. They surrounded me. I was shaken to see that they were drawing the circle tighter and I had become their prisoner. How had this happened? I was going to clap a third time but one of the children shushed me with a finger over her lips. I felt, I felt—outraged. Who were they to dictate to me? The teacher was I. The leader was I. They were the helpless children. Surely that’s right. Surely that’s how it’s always been. Is this a trick? A prank? Children have a habit of playing pranks, don’t they. A prank, then. A silly—

“Mrs. Morgan,” the girl who dared to shush me said.

“Yes. What is happening here?”

“Happening?”

“What is going on here?”

“Going on?”

They came closer and closer, the circle closing, their shoes scuffing mine, their sweetish breath—breaths—making my heart beat faster, making it hard for me to breathe.

One-love, two-love, three-love, four.
See the teacher on the floor.

One of them had tripped me, and though I wasn’t on the floor I was indeed lying on the ground, one of my shoes beside my hip.

Five-love, six-love, seven-love, eight.
See the teacher take the bait.

What the hell did that mean? Their chanting made me frantic. I stood up, holding the shoe that came off. With one shoe on and one off I had to shift from side to side.

Nine-love, ten-love, eleven-love, twelve.
Here’s a book you really should shelve.

They are telling me I should go shelve a book! Who do they think they are?

One-love, two-love, three-love, four.
Take yourself thence and come no more.

Because I had one foot in a shoe and the other in only a sock, I had to bob up on one leg and sink down on the other. They had stripped me of my dignity. “What do you want?” I asked.

“Take yourself thence and come no more,” they said as one.

At my desk in the schoolroom I wrote a letter of resignation and signed it with my good ballpoint. I handed in grades—all A’s, because I was afraid they might retaliate if I failed them. I cleaned out my desk drawers. I did feel a bit sad when I did that but the sadness didn’t last long.

—Kelly Cherry

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Kelly Cherry is the author of 25 books, 10 chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. She is the former Poet Laureate of Virginia. Also: Emeritus Member, Poets Corner, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, NYC. NEA, USIA, Rockefeller, inaugural recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, Bradley Lifetime Award, Phillabaum Award, Weinstein Award, others. Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin Madison. Eminent Scholar, UAH, 2001-2005. Her new book Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem is forthcoming imminently.

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Mar 052017
 

michel-de-montaigne-006
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Drawn from Life, Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne
Translated by M. A. Screech; Introduced by Tim Parks
Notting Hill Editions, London
185 pp, £14.99

 

One could easily diminish Michel de Montaigne (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne) (1533-1592) as being that inventor of the essay, that plodding form which considers and concludes.  Spanish painter Pablo Picasso once observed, “Yo no busco, yo encuentro” (I don’t seek after, I come upon).  Picasso’s observation could help us focus and situate Montaigne’s insinuatingly sinuous, uncannily accurate prose.  His focus is not result-oriented on content and conclusion but rather is maker-focused on composition and creating. Much of each essay magnifies its composition in a language.  Repeatedly, Montaigne thinks of his efforts as flawed, monstrous or distorted. To become his reader, I have had to become a kind of ventriloquist engaged in an act of translation and projection, of time, genre, gender, language and many translations.  It was only when I found how uncertain, fearful and tentative he was that I could begin to write of him wholeheartedly.  I came to appreciate that Montaigne struggled tremendously with how to think far more than with what to think.  In other words, he was not writing conclusions; he was coming upon what he found as it appeared. In order to be a seamless ventriloquist, in order to read and know Montaigne, I had to get as close to him as I could. In effect, I had to mimic now what he did with what he called his self: “The world looks always opposite; I turn my sight inwards, and there fix and employ it. I have no other business but myself, I am eternally meditating upon myself, considering and tasting myself. Other men’s thoughts are ever wandering abroad, if they will but see it; they are still going forward: for my part, I circulate in myself” (“Of Presumption”).  He chose to establish a singular intimacy with himself which I would I saw have to emulate as his ventriloquist.  At first, I felt overwhelmed and uninitiated when I received the beautiful Drawn from Life. At once, I asked myself how much in all did this great figure write, and when, and which of all his writings are in this volume, how do they change and what is his flag ship hobby horse, his daunting intellectual obsession?

There were three books of 107 essays of different length and tone.  These were essais, meaning attempts which indicate their spirit—not a finality, but a stab into the open.  The first volume “A,” including 57 passages written 1571–1580, was published in 1580 ; the second “B” included 37 passages written 1580–1588, was published in 1588, and the third “C,” often called the Bordeaux copy, with thirteen passages written from 1588–1592, was posthumously published in 1595 with the help of his adoptive daughter Marie De Gournay,  Now, in this Montaigne revival,  there are critical divisions between those liking the 1595 version and the 1588 Bordeaux heavily-edited copy.  Drawn from Life has eight essays from Book One, two from Book Two and three from Book Three.  Two substantial essays are not in Drawn from Life: his “Of Friendship, ”Chapter 27 in Book One, recounting the loss of his closest  friend, Étienne de La Boétie, whom he called his “double,” and ”Of Vanity,” Chapter 9 in Book Three. Their absence actually is important for an incrementally intimate reading of Montaigne, the one who ever incrementally attempts.   Now that I had fashioned this mechanical chessboard of chapters, I had to read and confront the first chapter which had two conspicuously different names in different translations: “We Search the Same End by Discrepant Means, or “That Men by Various Ways Arrive at the Same End”. The first chapter was at first like a hard tire; it retained an opaque, impersonal, even impenetrable feeling. As I kept reading his chiseled words, fruitlessly looking for a summation, I soon felt that the thing repeated, the hobby horse was fear, not of death or pain, but of losing mental control and becoming not oneself. All at once, I remembered Samuel Johnson in his 1751 Rambler, when he proposed his groundbreaking idea of the “invisible riot of the mind”. Throughout his essais, Montaigne considers and engages just such a riotous mind—searches for ways to distract it, ways to bring it under control, ways to exercise its dangerous powers more effectively.  In this of necessity highly condensed review, I hope to illuminate briefly and consequentially that 1) Invisible riot of the mind, 2) an always incomplete self and spirit, and 3) Montaigne’s clamorous awareness of writing.

Early on, Montaigne considers something new: what he calls “the close stitching of mind to body” (25). Indeed, he is introducing both to himself and his readers a vast and fear-inspiring, hitherto unaddressed uncertainty—that is the mind “whirring about, noting ….I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy” (73). He is presenting the temporary mental derangement Johnson had called the “invisible riot of the mind”. In classical philosophy, the paradigm had been far more stable: “wisdom is a controlled handling of our soul, carried out, on our Soul’s responsibility, with measure and proportion” (93). In his plague-scarred, war-conflicted times, Montaigne encounters a new inner fear and, with no hesitation whatsoever, declares “It is fear that I am most afraid of” (9). He shows a terror of decision making taking over soldiers on the battle field, women in the dining room. This general fear is not of battle or physical pain of which he is intimately familiar given his insistent kidney stones. He explicitly refers to this fear as a “leprosy of the mind,” “a terrifying confusion,” “Inconstancy of his mind,” which can “dominate you and tyrannize over you.” in “an internal strife* (74, 139). The title of this review points to his exquisite awareness of mental displacement: “the cries of a mind which is leaping out of its lodgings” (92). Such loss of mental certainty is to him akin to the drunkenness when one “loses all consciousness and control of himself” (80). Montaigne’s second hobby horse is self or soul, or, what we now call consciousness.

Montaigne certainly introduces readers in a new way to self and soul with which he posits one should commence their studies. Interestingly, he feminizes “soul” throughout. He commits himself unequivocally to his life’s task which becomes these essays: “My own mind’s principal and most difficult study is the study of itself”. He virtually flexes with passion about this commitment: “For anyone who knows how to probe himself and to do so vigorously…reflection is a mighty endeavor and a full one: I would rather forge my soul than stock it up” (111).  Virginia Woolf sings his praises: “this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection; this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne”. Ultimately, he confesses rather disappointedly that “I have nothing mine but myself, and yet the possession is, in part, defective and borrowed” (“Of Vanity”). This self-soul is incomplete, unstable, inescapable and imperfect, but it is all he has, all we have, to work with.  He calls this “self” many names (because it is many things): “oddments,” “bits and pieces,” “multiple forms,” but  In spite of these flaws, Montaigne tells his readers that he is and this is a book whose faith can be trusted, that ”it is his own self that I am painting” (xxii). In spite of uncertainties, he commits his life to that soul which “can see and know all things, but she should feed only on herself” (158). He says that he is not trying to study himself to make people think more of him:  I do so ”in order to bring mine lower and lay it down”. Such humility furnishes profound trust in what he says. He wants not a single unified soul or self to own: “What I would praise would be a soul with many storeys, a soul at ease wherever fortune led it” (115-116).  His is a remarkable acknowledgement of a gift–this awareness of himself as something he must forge rather than stock up (111). That is, he must make and create and modify that soul, that self which is his life’s study. In the process, he writes in such a way as to provide alternatives to others who might become inflicted with what he has called the “illness of our soul,” its distractibility, its dependence, its flamboyance and its passions (134). Souls “can be controlled and excited by some racing disembodied fancy based on nothing” (146). Overall, Montaigne’s nobility comes through in his courage in facing all of this: “Life is a rough, irregular progress with a multitude of forms” (110).

Ever a purposeful dreamer, Montaigne says of his prose, “I who am more concerned with the weight and usefulness of my writings than with their order and logical succession must not be afraid to place here a little off the track, an account of great beauty” (105).  His essays are flooded with digressions about his inadequate writing, how poor his memory is, how common the subject, how second-rate his diction. He laments that his “ability does not go far enough for me to dare to undertake a rich, polished picture, formed according to art” (107). They are, however, compellingly elegant, learned, unpredictable, intimate, experimental and morally important.  For one thing, he insists upon the need for writing what can happen rather than pompously showing a bombastic version of what had happened: “I have undertaken to talk about only what I know how to talk about, fitting the subject matter to my capabilities….There are some authors whose aim is to relate what happened: mine (if I could manage it) would be to relate what can happen” (28, 27).  One could undertake an in-depth study of his parenthesis and read forever better Modernist fiction. His interruptions combined with self-conscious links to what he had just been saying with a self-conscious allusion to his ejempla draw the reader trustfully to him. Sometimes, he denigrates his own “scribblings,” or, more graphically, “monstrous bodies of diverse members, without definite shape, having no order, sequence, or portion other than accidental…excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always undigested” (“Of Vanity”). Montaigne was aware that his writing was changing, perhaps to compensate for what he had perceived as their insufficiency. He would make up for it by his “intricacies,”’ and make chapters longer, “such as require preposition and assigned leisure” (“Of Vanity”).  One of the special beauties of Notting Hill’s edition is that it omits the longer, more reflective, essays from the collection, allowing the reader a free intimacy with his evolving voice over time in a plethora of highly varied topics.  An unexpected example of Montaigne’s modern sense of writing occurs in the history of the translation of the Horace quotation in “Of Friendship”: esinit in piscem mulier formosa superne. This is usually translated:  “a fair woman in her upper form ends in a fish”. The poet in me reading found something discordant, flatfooted and incomplete in that image, and I searched until I found that the point is that the woman was beautiful above and that her beauty became truncated and deformed below, since at the end of her body appeared that unappealing fish tail.  This contradictory image, “A woman, beautiful above, has a fish’s tail” emphasizes Montaigne’s persistent frustration in the artistic process, in the failure of scribbling to render it beautifully. With just this modern sense of fragmentation and incompleteness, Montaigne writing of his dearest friend, catastrophically concludes after his friend’s death, “I was so grown and accustomed to be always his double in all places in all things, that methinks I am no more than half of myself” (“Of Friendship”).

In the course of “scribbling” and revising his three hobby horses, 1) mental imbalance, 2) the challenge of the soul, self, consciousness, and 3) trying to write it all forth, Montaigne had come upon mercury, upon something bouncing, bobbing, rare, and uncontrollable. Recent splendid books, like Philippe Desan, Montaigne: a Life and Sarah Bakewell, Montaigne, How to Live remarkably Illuminate his haunting and significant contemporaneousness. What he found in those years of writing was indeed an independent awareness, or consciousness with which he tenaciously ever struggled, amidst physical pains, the turbulence and warfare of his times as well as his sense of incompleteness. Slowly, it came to me in an Archimedes moment that actually de Montaigne about one hundred years before René Descartes, was recognizing something similar to “Cogito, ergo sum; I think; therefore I am”. Across the centuries, these two men shook hands with what we now consider consciousness. Ever practical and isolated, Montaigne felt it his chore to get to be as ventriloquist close to the consequences of such cognition as he could, without vanity or didacticism.  He simply threw himself in, as a “mind which is leaning out of its lodgings”. That position indirectly led to the banning of his writings, since he came to know that in his new intimacies he wouldn’t hide truths about his sexuality, the inconstancy of the human soul and race, or the gluttonous materialism of his times. Knowing himself, his mind, and his consciousness to be his to control led him to find life far simpler and clearer.  Rather unexpectedly, he recognized quite openly, “my freedom is so very free” (28).  The design of this excellent Notting Hill edition offers us Montaigne pure and free, his language, his zigs and his zags, dubieties and vanities, without trying to give readers any predetermined intellectual conclusion or framework. This edition allows his essays to sing and play on, so that we readers may do what Picasso suggested: discover joyfully and not tediously seek after.

—Linda E. Chown

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 LEC2
Linda E. Chown has published three books of poems, Buildings and Ways, Inside In, and All the Way up The Sky, also a critical book, Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Works of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. She spent 18 years living, writing, and teaching in southern Spain where she was betimes a Fullbright professor of America lit, one year at the University of Deusto, one year at the University of Salamanca. Subsequently, she taught for many hears at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She has published a multitude of talks and papers on the likes of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, Oliver Sacks, Albert Camus, Susan Glaspell, and many others. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from from the University of Washington. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, did creative writing at San Francisco State University, and worked in the fabled Poetry Center. She now lives in Michigan. Her newest poems were recently published in Poethead.

 

 

Mar 052017
 

Ruth Lepson
Ruth Lepson

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1.

It was Auden who once declared that “the only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.”[1] It is indeed pointless to invest time and meaningful pages outlining how a work is “bad” when the same resources could be used to promote “good” work. Implied in Auden’s remark is what one might call the social function of criticism which, in today’s world of mass cultural production, is to narrow the reader’s search to a handful of quality texts, works that will endure outside current modalities and antics of marketing, and in the process pave an angle of descent into said texts. With this responsibility comes the added burden of picking a critical trajectory, one that does justice to the work without tangentially downplaying the context within which it came into being.

Striking that balance, between a pure reception of the text and a careful interrogation of its context, can be daunting, especially when the writer deliberately places the self – through the work and paratextual material – as the material for the work itself. Thankfully, Ruth Lepson’s poetry does not plunge the critic into this awkward position. Of her private world we know very little, as all she allows us of herself is a small trace of her childhood, on her website:

Born in New York in 1949; a year later we moved to Princeton, as my father got a post-doc in math at The Institute for Advanced Study. My mother, who lived in Lithuania until she was twenty, became a mathematician, too, and a sculptor, and later wrote a (still unpublished) book on math as an art form. My father had studied music at Juilliard while getting his master’s at Yale in math and physics. He played bassoon and conducted. Any spirituality that developed in me came from my maternal grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi, and I lived on my uncle’s kibbutz for two summers, picking pears in ’67…[2]

She leaves us with her poems and the poems alone. Attempting a thematics-obsessed assessment of her work – holding up tropes and biographical anecdotes – is a futile venture, for her work manages to resist this kind of criticism, though resonant with poignant themes. It however consciously dispels and/or balances resonance and theme with the workings of syntax and the controlled use of aphorisms (that create context). Memory, as a recurring theme, is a prime example. It weaves in and out of her most recent collection, ask anyone, but does not stretch into a confession. Instead, the recollection/memory of love, lost or gained, is swaddled in tense (sometimes philosophical) insights that dissipate the affective possibilities love and its connotations. Consider this passage from ‘knowledge in black’:

I’ll tell you where the ocean ends it ends in
a particular place in space which continues
in blackness until that time
you’re swimming in the ocean when time becomes
space you no longer swim . as a body

are we done[3]

The poem itself will continue, leaving that lone line to simmer subliminally, ambiguously, jarringly, in the reader’s mind. It is almost impossible to contemplate what it might imply – a break up, an exit from a heated fight, an ultimatum – without an equal reflection on the sophisticated beauty of the lines above – the build-up to that lone line.  It becomes more complex, endurably so, when the first seven stanzas, including the one above, appear before that lone line:

the switchmen sleep with newspapers
across their chests

it’s true that in the country questions
are green green as pique as somber
stationary things

even later it’s still true and not true
that in the country questions are green
since in the country no one knows literature

and the wild’s of the lion’s mane are
decked with pleasures of all kinds stemming

from the green questions the questions
that are green

I’ll tell you where the ocean ends it ends in
a particular place in space which continues
in blackness until that time
you’re swimming in the ocean when time becomes
space you no longer swim . as a body

are we done[4]

With such a range of ideas, aphoristically shared, the concreteness of the lived experience suggested by the lone line, intense or fragile, evaporates or refuses to yield to our idea of what it might imply. In other words, “are we done,” and its suggestion of proximity to the self, to a dialogue with another, a gravitation towards a personal event, becomes a shadow of a larger idea of life itself. It is extraordinary how Lepson’s poems manage to achieve this feat, offering us the frightening “wilds of the lion’s mane” contrastingly “decked with pleasures of all kinds” in one helping. Perhaps it is her use of robust imagery, aphoristically rendered yet wary of cliché. Interestingly, those aphorisms, it seems, provide context:

you can sleep in the sun when you love
only the enlightened sleep over the sea
anyone who loves can swim in the sun

we fell on the plumes and the berries fragrances
grand and lilac-filled we rose
and the bowers tossed us all the way into the sun

who can sleep over the sea . no one .. only those
who’ve shed . . .
only they sleep[5]

While the first stanza offers a line of general context, “you can sleep in the sun when you love,” the second departs from that general idea and returns to the self, “we fell on the plumes and the berries fragrances,” and the third jettisons the self, returning to a general idea framed as a question: “who can sleep over the sea…” (26). These multiple transitions, towards and away from the self, are central features in Lepson’s work. When the poem moves away from the self, it does so with the intention of establishing or highlighting a strand of universal truth; and when it returns to the self, it is to apply said truth to an individual experience, without lingering on the experience itself (to the point of becoming overtly confessional).

Where have we seen this before? Creeley, of course, whose poems influenced Lepson’s work. Indeed, at first glance, a Creeley reader would see resemblances here and there, controlled enjambments and syntactic manoeuvrings, what – for most poets – would be a nightmare to accomplish without sounding like ducks playing the harmonica.

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2.

While Lepson’s latest collection is a controlled meditation on the self and its relation to objects, people, and existence, the overall tone is better understood by returning to her first output, Dreaming in Color (1980), where signs of what will eventually become her signature near-rendering of intimacies abound. Near-rendering, because the promise of intimacy is often dispelled by a deflection of said promise with, in most instances, an inserted call for critical inquiry.

Consider “Collage,” from Dreaming in Color:

In a corner of Boston –
a group of buildings,
above another group of buildings,
across the street,
in the distance,
pastel green and blue.
Under the full moon,
they remind me of San Francisco,
which reminds me of you.

Maybe they still are
and do.

I looked around.
No one was watching.
There was the trolley.
I put the moon in a box
and got on it.[6]

There is vulnerability and perceptible loneliness in those lines, but those feelings are not evoked by what is said – “they remind me of San Francisco, / which reminds me of you” – but by the cluster of distances and arrangement of objects that bracket those two lines: the buildings, the moon, the absence of watching eyes. The second stanza, strategically isolated, has a subliminal effect that accentuates the speaker’s own isolation in this collage of objects and distances. What we are therefore left to ponder is the very arrangement that elicits – in the reader – the narrator’s own feeling of isolation, not isolation in itself.

In Lepson’s work, thought reveals itself in the choice and structural placement of words and, in other instances, a reluctance to carry an emotion to an expected end. The goal, it seems, is to create a binary that balances overt emotions with critical deliberations. “Love Poem,” from Dreaming in Color, is a good case in point:

Outside it’s pale blue.
Inside it’s pale green.
There’s white muff
on the beige sofa of roses.
Let me smoothe your forehead.
Let my eyes soften.
Let me stop inquiring of everyone else
if I’m still alive.
I’ve been dulled for too long.
Let me show you
charcoal cats
wandering here,
gold bits of music,
the people of cinnamon and maroon.
Stay here.
Not as a woman would ask a man
I ask this, but as the moon
would ask the night.[7]

The first six lines are, in a sense, true of a love poem, for love evokes an image of tenderness, of vulnerability: “Let my eyes soften.” But then the insertion of “inquiring” temporally deflates the reader’s dreamy ride in a land of “pale blue” colors “on the beige sofa of roses.” To inquire is to actively conceptualize and articulate a question. To “stop inquiring” is even more complex, since it a choice to reverse the process. But then the poem takes us back to a place where “charcoal cats” roam, with “gold bits of music/ the people of cinnamon and maroon.” Soon enough, we return to “inquiry,” this time replaced with the word “ask:” “Not as a woman would ask a man/ I ask this, but as the moon/ would ask the night.” One could argue that Lepson would rather have us thinking than dreaming, or doing both simultaneously. This, perhaps, explains the poems in Morphology (2007), a collection that pairs photographs with poems gleaned from moments in the poet’s own dreams. The book itself is a tangible embodiment of Lepson’s aesthetic, that deliberate urge to strike a balance between what is dreamt and felt with a measure of critical detachment.

The poems in Morphology are dreams rendered in words. A dream, as we know, is an intimate thing, personal, remote and unreal. The telling/sharing of a dream is an intellectual process, an act of translation with a keen eye for the subtleties of narrative. First, the dream is recalled in bits and pieces, sometimes in completely mis-remembered chunks; then the dreamer shops for the right words to communicate her dream. In a sense, therefore, the impact of a dream rendered in words relies on the dreamer’s choice of words. And if dreams are abstract, narrating them to a listener or a reader is, in itself, a balancing act, since the abstract remains what it is in the dreamer’s mind, with a “real” equivalent as rendered in words. This, perhaps, accounts for the opening poem in Morphology:

Concepts and
facts are drifting
around in the
air. One at a time
they sizzle into fireworks.
Then I can’t see them be-
cause they’re inside me.[8]

While the dream remains, “inside” the dreamer, it however appear as “Concepts and/ facts . . . drifting/around in the air.” By employing the words “concepts” and “facts” to narrate a dream – for the poem itself is a description of an actual dream – the dream (an unreal thing) becomes a thought-thing expressed in “Concepts and/ facts.” Within the dream itself, as narrated, a duality is apparent: the free-floating “Concepts and/facts” that, suddenly, “can’t” be seen “be-/ cause they’re inside” the dreamer.

In subsequent pages, the reader is faced with unevenly shaped poems[9] – sometimes with wild, blank spaces – that textually concretize recalled moments from dreams:

Fanny Howe and I are go-
ing to … … … … … … . share a

… … … … … … … … … .. suite
… … … … … … .in a dorm
… … … … … … … … . with
two … … … … … … … … . oth-
er wom-
… … … en.[10]

If the shape of this section of the poem (above) mimics the non-linear, subjective nature of dreams, the poet’s recollection – reliable or not – offers us a rather objective picture of that dream. It is this duality, the non-linear and subjective (frail, intimate, sensitive) paired with, wrapped or rendered in objective terms, that marks Lepson’s poetry as “Fragile and objective,” as Fanny Howe says of Lepson’s work.

There is, therefore, a readily visible intellectual breadth in her poems, as that duality – its creation and intended impact – is in itself a product of the poet’s intellectual process. Most important, however, is the fierce grasp on the function and limits of language, where the poet does not merely play and experiment with language for its own sake but for an intended subliminal effect. That subliminal effect is accentuated by the not-quiteness of her poems, how they leave the reader sandwiched between a climax and a joyous longing for more, practically making us “want to think and dance at the same time” as Betsy Sholl says of Lepson’s poems.

In some instances, that not-quiteness appears in the form of a theme paused abruptly, perhaps for fear of slipping into excess. This is more visible in her new collection, ask anyone, where questions of power, politics, society, and life itself are undramatically presented, parcelled in carefully picked phrases that – in themselves –  dismiss ponderosity and pretension. This, to the critical eye, reveals the poet’s faithfulness to form as content in itself, and as receptacle for subject matter. This duality requires of the reader a fierce attention to the poem’s controlled movements and turns, from a central theme or idea to pure aesthetic preoccupation intended to complement or contextualize said theme or idea. Reading Lepson’s work, one sees how that movement is intertwined and brought to life within individual poems:

a shower of sounds –
missed the mist in the
air there tumbling
over the western sky
lifelong
rush tumbling of
climate end of peace

That last line of that excerpt, “climate end of peace,” is as ambiguous as it is poignant.  The reader can see the poet’s gesture towards political commentary, in the same way that – in other fragments of the same poem – the promise of intimacy is quickly dispelled by the use of open-ended language:

got a cup of coffee
for the pleasure of
keeping up with you
no solemnity
a day
worthy and shopworn

The texture of Lepson’s poems reminds one of Duncan’s spare, sharp lines that release small clusters of thought. It was Duncan who reminded us that poetry itself “feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,” very much like what we see in Lepson’s work, where those strands – thought, feeling, impulse – are readily visible.

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3.

Reading Duncan, Creeley, and – now – Lepson, one is strangely reminded of pointillism. This, of course, raises the question: Can language, poetic language in particular, be equated with pointillism? I leave that for another study. Here my focus is not on the very act/process of creating images from dots, but on the subsequent subliminal impact of said image (as an assemblage of individual dots).

Once complete, a pointillist piece, elegant or not, finds itself competing for attention with the very process that brought it into existence. We are, for me in particular, fascinated by the amalgamation of simple color-dots. To see the image, therefore, is to see the whole dots at once; and to see the whole is to acknowledge the presence of individual dots. And this happens automatically, subliminally.

Consider Morning, Interior, Maximilien Luce’s painting of Gustave Perrot. While you see Perrot getting dressed – the morning light streaming in – you also see the collage of unique dots that form the image. There are, therefore, two images at once, though one stands out as the image. What the neo-impressionist does with colors, dots, and divisions, language poets and their descendants do with words. Lepson finds herself nestled, innovatively, between late modernist and early post-modernist aesthetic, at once accessible yet full of controlled inbetweenness.

Lepson is not an easy poet, I must add. This, however, does not imply complete abstraction or a deliberate obscuration in the name of style. In fact, there are poems where she remains accessible, dwelling on a single theme, nonetheless transitioning between moods. This is more visible in her new collection’s final poem, “we’re all small,” a piece for her dear friend and mentor, Robert Creeley:

really, creeley?

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were you alive

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at one time

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who visits your burial site

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I do so do

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lots of others were you

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merry – impossible query –

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complex as a bee

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and a flower simultaneously

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you had it all still

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lingering in sadness sometimes

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only one eye with it

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saw like a salamander

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with your existential why

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bye bye I say it over and over

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I ask if you enjoy
the english landscape in

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mt auburn cemetery

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where we walk and where

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they put you on tour

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even in death

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you’re on the tour

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my my[11]

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4.

To the newcomer to Lepson’s poetry, I say two things: start from her recent volume, but be sure to read the rest. Then go to Creeley, Duncan, and Levertov.

— Timothy Ogene

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Timothy Ogene
Author photo by Claire MacKenzie

Timothy Ogene was born in Nigeria, but has since lived in Liberia, Germany, the US, and the UK. His poems and stories have appeared in Tincture Journal, Numéro Cinq, One Throne Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, Tahoma Literary Review, The Missing Slate, Stirring, Kin Poetry Journal, Mad Swirl, Blue Rock Review, aaduna, and other places. He holds a first degree in English and History from St. Edward’s University and a master’s in World Literatures in English from the University of Oxford, and he is currently completing a master’s in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His first novel, The Day Ends Like Any Day, is scheduled for publication in April 2017.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 12.
  2. See http://ruthlepson.com/biography.
  3. Ruth Lepson, ‘knowledge in black,’ ask anyone (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2015), 25.
  4. Ibid. 24-25.
  5. Ibid. 26.
  6. Ruth Lepson, ‘Collage,’ Dreaming in Color (Cambridge: Alice James Books, 1980), 53.
  7. Ruth Lepson, ‘Love Poem,’ Dreaming in Color (Cambridge: Alice James Books, 1980), 25.
  8. Ruth Lepson and Walter Crump, Morphology (New York: BlazeVOX, 2007), 2.
  9. The shapes were arranged in collaboration with Christina Strong.
  10. Op. Cit. Lepson, Morphology 111.
  11. Ruth Lepson, ‘we’re all small,’ ask anyone (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2015), 68.