Dec 062014
 

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Given the magnitude of her achievement, it is hard to believe that Emily Dickinson’s poetry was not presented in an accurate text until 1955, almost seventy years after her death. And since those poems (almost 1,800 in number) continue to surprise and dazzle us with their linguistic ingenuity and psychological penetration, it is even harder to believe that Emily Dickinson was born 184 years ago!—on December 10, 1830. Famously, she spent much of her later, secluded life in her garden or writing in her room in the family house in Amherst. Yet, on Keatsian “wings of poesy,” she traveled the universe, from the microscopic to the cosmic. Her penchant for privacy far exceeded that of Thoreau, who had augmented Nature, the seminal work of his mentor Emerson, with Walden, the record of a temporary retreat to the woods, to live and write in solitude. Emily Dickinson’s only rivals for creative eminence in later nineteenth-century America were notably expansive: world-famous, globe-trotting Mark Twain, sea-voyaging Herman Melville, and that “kosmos,” Walt Whitman, who spread himself amply, in line-length and in the panorama of his Democratic vistas. In contrast, reclusive Emily Dickinson’s genius was in scrimshaw-like concision, economy, distillation. Yet her reach matched theirs in capaciousness. She took “For Occupation—This—/ The spreading wide my narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise—” (657).

But what did Emily Dickinson think of when she imagined “Heaven” or “Paradise”? More often than not, she clung to Emersonian and Thoreauvian “nature.” Her poems and letters on death and paradise, in which the human and the floral are often conflated by this gardener-poet, provide examples of what Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus, termed “natural supernaturalism,” a phrase made part of Romantic criticism’s permanent vocabulary with the publication of M. H. Abrams’s landmark study of the secularization of the sacred—Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971). In an August 1856 letter to her friend Elizabeth Holland, Dickinson’s natural supernaturalism and her pervasive human/floral analogy are explicit, with a fortunate exception: “I’m so glad you are not a blossom, for those in my garden fade, and then ‘a reaper whose name is Death’ has come to get a few to help him make a bouquet for himself.” This follows a passage that assumes the analogy, claiming that this earth would be Paradise enough were it not for frost and that Grim Reaper. This paragraph begins (Dickinson’s letters often combine prose with poetry) in modified ballad meter: “If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not awaken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below, and if God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I have seen—I guess he would think His Paradise superfluous” (Letters, 329).

The relatively open-minded Christianity of Elizabeth Holland and her husband may have freed Dickinson to confide such thoughts. A few years later, she would put this fusion of Nature and Heaven, of the physical and spiritual senses, into poetry. What we see, hear, and know is Nature: a harmonious Heaven whose simplicity is superior to our supposed wisdom:

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity. (668)

Dickinson’s Romantic vision of an Earthly Paradise, its minute particulars as cherished as its sublime manifestations and all the more beautiful because it is under the shadow of death, is reminiscent of Wordsworth, before he froze over, and of Dickinson’s beloved Keats, who never froze over. Keats told a religiously conservative friend, Benjamin Bailey, that his own “favorite Speculation” was that “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone, and so repeated” (Letters of John Keats, 1:184-86). In one of the most beautiful passages ever written by Emily Brontë, Catherine Earnshaw’s daughter (the second “Cathy” in Wuthering Heights) describes her “most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness.” She would be “rocking” at the heart of the natural world, “in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright, white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side,…grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy….I wanted all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee” (Wuthering Heights, Norton Critical Edition, 198-99).

William_WordsworthWilliam Wordsworth

Such passages explain Dickinson’s reverence of “gigantic Emily Brontë” (Letters, 721), one of whose poems (“Last Lines,” also known as “No Coward Soul Was Mine”), a favorite of Emily Dickinson, was appropriately read at her funeral service. Wonderful as it is, Brontë’s description of a naturalized “heaven” or “paradise”—a world in motion, in which the speaker actively and joyfully engages in her surroundings—is both Keatsian and Wordsworthian. The final gathering (waves, breeze, woods, water, the whole world awake and joyous), especially Cathy’s wanting “all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee,” unmistakably recalls Wordsworth’s (and Dorothy’s) “host of golden daffodils,/ Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” Those flowers, which outdo “the sparkling waves in glee,” comprise “a jocund company” in whose presence a “poet could not but be gay,” a joy recalled whenever “They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude;/ And then my heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils.” (“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”)

Wordsworth_Excursion

Wordsworth’s head-“tossing” flowers are personified in a delicately pagan manner, their “sprightly dance” allying them with sprights or sprites: elfin supernatural beings. That disciple of Wordsworth and mentor to Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was also attuned to the sort of earthly paradise that appealed to both Emilys. He began his famous or infamous 1838 Address to the Harvard Divinity School by fusing the “gladsome pagans” in what was his as well as Keats’s favorite Book of Wordsworth’s epic poem, The Excursion (those pagans who “looked” and “were humbly thankful for the good/ Which the warm sun solicited, and earth/ Bestowed” [4:932-38]), with the “pagan” of “The World is Too Much With Us.” Quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, Emerson shocked his pious audience from the outset by declaring that he, too, would rather be “A pagan suckled in a creed outworn” than a Christian impoverished by being cut off from a vital, fecund nature sacrificed to both an austere religion and a crass materialism of “getting and spending.” Accordingly, he began the Divinity School Address with his own deeply responsive evocation of nature’s vital, sparkling, floral beauty. In “this refulgent summer,” it has been “a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold” (Essays and Lectures, 75). Those meadows were alive with flowers aglow with the light of Wordsworth’s “golden daffodils,” and sharing the pagan vitality of their “sprightly dance.” Emerson, like early Wordsworth, would have concurred with Emily Dickinson’s speculation in the letter to Elizabeth Holland: Had God “seen the things that I have seen” this summer, he would—Dickinson boldly or blasphemously surmised—“think His Paradise superfluous.”

It seems a shame that Emily Dickinson, who knew and admired Emerson’s essays, stayed in her room when, in 1872, the great man, after a lecture at Amherst College, visited her brother and sister-in-law, living just next-door. With his acute eye, Emerson would surely have recognized genius, just as he did when he first laid eyes on Whitman’s then-unpublished poetry. There are many passages in which Emerson, a peculiarly grounded Transcendentalist, evokes an earthly paradise. In his essay on Swedenborg in Representative Men, Emerson claimed that the only thing “certain” about a possible heaven was that it must “tally with what was best in nature.” It “must not be inferior in tone…agreeing with flowers, with tides, and the rising and setting of autumnal stars.” “Melodious poets” will be inspired “when once the penetrating key-note of nature and spirit is sounded,—the earth-beat, sea-beat, heart-beat, which makes the tune to which the sun rolls, and the globule of blood, and the sap of trees.” (Essays and Lectures, 686-87)

iemersr001p1Ralph Waldo Emerson

Like Keats’s “a finer tone”—descriptive both of the unheard music in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and of the repetition of earthly happiness “here after”—Emerson’s “not…inferior in tone,” and stress on key-note, melodiousness, and tune, echoes a text familiar to both Keats and Emerson: Wordsworth’s Excursion, and the Solitary’s reference in Book 2 to “Music in a finer tone” (2:710). Even later Wordsworth, tamed-down and religiously orthodox, never ceased to be a lover “of all that we behold/ From this green earth” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 104-5), a poet who found his “Paradise, and groves/ Elysian”—provided the human intellect was “wedded to this goodly universe/ In love and holy passion”—to be a “simple produce of the common day” (“Prospectus” to The Recluse,” lines 43-55). Even in revising from a more conservative perspective his account of his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, Wordsworth never recanted the desire initially expressed, to exercise his skill, “Not in Utopia” or some other ideal place, “Heaven knows where!/ But in the very world, which is the world/ Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,/ We find our happiness, or not at all!” (The Prelude [1850 version]), 11:140-44).

“Oh Matchless Earth,” Emily Dickinson exclaimed in a one-sentence letter, “We underrate the chance to dwell in Thee” (Letters, 478). She was borrowing from the “Prologue” to Wordsworth’s Peter Bell. Having sailed into the heavens in his little boat in the shape of a crescent moon, and having described the constellations and planets, the speaker asks rhetorically, “What are they to that tiny grain,/ That little Earth of ours?” And so he descends: “Then back to Earth, the dear green Earth…See! There she is, the matchless Earth!” (Peter Bell, lines 49-56). Dickinson herself might be “glad” that others believed they were, in the opening exclamation of her early poem, “Going to Heaven!” But, for herself,

I’m glad I don’t believe it
For it would stop my breath—
And I’d like to look a little more
At such a curious Earth! (79)

There is yet another parallel to Emily Dickinson’s thought that “Nature is Heaven,” or that Heaven would be superfluous, if only our earthly Paradise were free of frost and death. In a passage familiar to Wordsworth, Keats, Emerson, and Dickinson, Milton’s archangel Raphael offers a speculative analogy. Explaining to Adam the mysteries of celestial warfare by likening spiritual to corporeal forms, he adds: “Though what if Earth/ Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein/ Each to the other like, more than on earth is thought?” (Paradise Lost 5:573-76). Emily Dickinson echoed and altered this passage in an 1852 letter to “Dear Susie” (her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert). Reversing Raphael’s “therein,” Dickinson locates love “Herein,” and concludes by taking literally the angel’s rhetorical but intriguing question: “But that was Heaven—this is but Earth, Earth so like to heaven that I would hesitate should the true one call away.” (Letters, 195; italics in original). Milton himself may have been open to the idea of Heaven as a projection of earthly happiness complete with a terrestrial landscape. In his fusion of the Classical and Christian in “Lycidas,” the pastoral elegist leaves us free to imagine the risen man as either “saint” in Heaven or as the “genius of the shore,” drowned, but now, through the power “of him that walked the waves,” mounted to a place “Where other groves and other streams along,/ With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves” (lines 172-75).

In a jocoserious, life-affirming poem looking back to Romantic and Emersonian “nature worship” and ahead to the earth-centered female persona of Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning,” Dickinson rejects religious ritual, a formal “church,” and an other-worldly Heaven in favor of an earthly paradise, a God immanent rather than transcendent, and salvation as a daily process rather than a static end-state:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard for a Dome—

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings—
And instead of rolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton—sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman—
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along. (324)

In an 1863 letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in which she describes herself as “not reared to prayer,” Dickinson pronounces “the ‘Supernatural’…only the Natural, disclosed” (Letters, 423-24). In a poem written that year or the year before (Johnson dates it 1862, Franklin 1863), dawn and noon seem symbols of what she calls “Heaven.” The skepticism implicit in the setting of “Heaven” in quotation marks is confirmed in the final two stanzas:

The Rapture of a finished Day—
Returning to the West—
All these—remind us of the place
That Men call “Paradise”—

Itself be fairer—we suppose—
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace—
Not yet, our eyes can see— (575)

In two letters of 1873, Dickinson subverts Paul’s text (“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”) about the dead being raised and changed as a consequence of Christ’s Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:52-53). In the first letter (April 1873), she pronounces the novelist George Eliot (whom she knew to be a woman, Marian Evans) a “mortal” who “has already put on immortality,” adding that “the mysteries of human nature surpass the ‘mysteries of redemption,’ for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite” (Letters, 506). Later that year, in a letter to Elizabeth Holland, Emily notes that her sister Lavinia, just back from a visit to the Hollands, had said her hosts “dwell in paradise.” Emily declares: “I have never believed the latter to be a supernatural site”; instead, “Eden, always eligible,” is present in the intimacy of “Meadows” and the noonday “Sun.” If, as Blake said, “Everything that lives is holy,” it is a this-worldly truth of which believers like her sister and father are cheated: “While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that ‘this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption’—it has already done so and they go defrauded” (Letters, 508). In a notably legalistic affirmation of earth, included in an 1877 letter to a lawyer, her increasingly skeptical brother Austin, she goes even further:

The Fact that Earth is Heaven—
Whether Heaven is Heaven or not
If not an Affidavit
Of that specific Spot
Not only must confirm us
That it is not for us
But that it would affront us
To dwell in such a place— (1408)

Wallace Stevens, who, in “Sunday Morning,” imagines his female persona asking if she shall not “find in comforts of the sun,” in any “balm or beauty of the earth/ Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?” insists elsewhere that “poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns” (“The Man with the Blue Guitar,” section 5); that we must live in “a physical world,” the very air “swarming” with the “metaphysical changes that occur,/ Merely in living as and where we live” (“Esthetique du Mal,” section 15). Stevens seems to be recalling Wordsworth’s “Prospectus” and Emerson’s seminal book Nature, along with that ardent disciple of Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche. He might as well have been thinking of Emily Dickinson, and her audacious, even blasphemous preference for the tangible things of this earth, to be cherished above thoughts of an otherworldly Heaven, an abstract place offensive to our nature. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s beseeches us in his Prologue to “remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak…of otherworldly hopes!” She never accepted the Nietzschean premise, the Death of God, but, when she was only fifteen, Emily confided in her friend Abiah Root that the main reason she was “continually putting off becoming a Christian,” despite the “aching void in my heart,” was her inability to conceive of an existence beyond this earth as anything but horrible: “Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you?….it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity.” Two years later she tells a friend that, while she regrets that she did not seize a past opportunity to “give up and become a Christian,” she won’t: “it is hard for me to give up the world” (Letters, 27-28, 67). She is not referring to that material “world” of getting and spending that is “too much with us,” but to this “matchless Earth” indistinguishable from, and perhaps preferable to, Heaven.

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The problem, of course, is that this Earth, however “matchless,” is not free of frost and death, so often almost indistinguishable in Dickinson. The invasive force in her Earthly Paradise was less the worm than the frost. The link between the fading and freezing-by-frost of her flowers on the one hand, and the death of those she cannot waken on the other, becomes a dominant motif. Her cherishing of a Heaven-like Earth is sometimes connected with the pain inflicted from above. In one poem, while noting the “firmest proof” of “Heaven above,” she significantly adds that, “Except for its marauding Hand/ It had been heaven below” (1205; my italics). In another letter to Elizabeth Holland and her husband, Heaven’s “marauding Hand” seems both a grim Reaper and a cruel Leveler. Writing during a period (autumn, 1858) when an epidemic of typhoid fever had struck Amherst, she cries out, not in concluding but in opening the letter: “Good-night! I can’t stay any longer in a world of death. Austin [her brother] is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week—our man, Dick, lost a little girl through scarlet fever….Ah! Democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden,—then deep to his bosom calling the serf’s child” (Letters, 341).

virginia-woolfVirginia Woolf

This letter has become controversial. The admittedly jarring reference to the “serf’s child,” both “politically” and historically incorrect, has been described as insensitive, shocking, an indication of casual snobbishness at best and class-conscious callousness at worst, compounded by (in the phrase of Albert Habegger) her “equating ‘the serf’s child’ with her frost-killed flowers” (My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson [2001], 363). We may be reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, who imagines people saying of her, “she cared much more for her roses than for” such human but distant “victims of cruelty and injustice” as those who perished in the Armenian genocide (Mrs. Dalloway [Norton Critical Edition], 88). But the best response to the attack on Dickinson’s “callousness” in this letter seems to me that of Judith Farr. After acknowledging the “insensitivity it projects,” she reminds us that “Austin’s [serious] illness and the coming of winter are also equated” in the letter. She then makes her central point, one I would emphasize as well:

To begin with, it is simply the case that Emily Dickinson loved flowers quite as much and as if they were human; her implicit comparison was…not intended to diminish the “little girl,” as she is rather tenderly called….With the cadences of Ecclesiastes and the Elizabethans always vivid in her ear, it was only natural that Dickinson should express the communion and equality of all living forms in death. Indeed, her letter’s zinnia and child commingling in Death’s grasp calls up such lines as Cymbeline’s “Golden Lads, and Girles all must,/ As Chimney-sweepers come to dust.”….Not snobbery, but the power of the aesthetic impulse to which she was subject is chiefly manifested in Dickinson’s much-discussed letter. (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson [2004], 56)

I would add only that Dickinson’s equation, not limited to the influence of Ecclesiastes and Shakespeare, also had Romantic auspices. Between Death’s “grasp” on a proud flower in her royally purple garden and the death of the little child of a servant there is no more gap than we find in “Threnody,” Emerson’s elegy for his little boy, Waldo. Also a victim of scarlet fever, dead at the age of five, that “hyacinthine boy” and “budding man” was never to blossom, though his father prepares for him, in the conclusion of the elegy, an appropriate Heaven: not “adamant… stark and cold,” but a rather Wordsworthian or Keatsian “nest of bending reeds,/ Flowering grass and scented weeds” (“Threnody,” lines 15, 26, 272-75). In a less-discussed but similar letter to Elizabeth Holland, whose child had suffered a crippling injury, Dickinson notes that “to assault so minute a creature seems to me malign, unworthy of Nature—but the frost is no respecter of persons.” In other letters, starting in the 1850s, Dickinson assumes this floral/frost/human analogue, making explicit what is implicit in poems like “Apparently with no surprise,” where “the Frost beheads” the “happy Flower” (1624): namely, her pervasive connection of flowers and frost with human life and death. At times at least, she includes a vision of transcendence for believers, the hope of spiritual resurrection.

Even when “the frost has been severe,” killing off flowers and plants that try in vain “to shield them from the chilly north-east wind,” there can be an imperishable garden. I am quoting from a touching letter of October 1851, anticipating the arrival of Austin. She had “tried to delay the frosts,” detaining the “fading flowers” until he came. But the flowers, like the poor “bewildered” flies trying to warm themselves in the kitchen, “do not understand that there are no summer mornings remaining to them and to me.” But no matter the effect on her flowers and plants of the severe frost brought by the “chilly north-east wind,” she can offer her brother “another” garden impervious to frost. The theme kindles her prose into poetry, minus the line-breaks (in fact, Johnson prints it as a poem, #2). She offers a bright, ever-green garden, “where not a frost has been, in its unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum; prithee, my Brother, into my garden come!” (Letters, 149). As Judith Farr remarks, such a garden—which “could never exist, except in metaphor”—is “the garden of herself: her imagination, her love, each of which, she says, will outlast time.” As much as any poem in her canon, this early letter-poem, probably written when Dickinson was twenty-one, “discloses the rapt identification she made between herself, her creativity, and her flowers….‘Here is a brighter garden’ instinctively focuses on the garden of her mind, with its loving thoughts that transcend the ‘frost’ of death.” (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, 56)

A third of a century later, we have a remarkably similar letter in which, at least for her beloved brother, there is an autumnal harbinger of a spiritual as well as a natural spring to come. In this late letter of autumn 1884, the same year she wrote “Apparently with no surprise,” she tells a family friend, Maria Whitney:

…………...Changelessness is Nature’s change. The plants went into camp last night, their tender
armor insufficient for the crafty nights.
……………That is one of the parting acts of the year, and has an emerald pathos—and Austin
hangs bouquets of corn in the piazza’s ceiling, also an omen, for Austin believes.
……………The golden bowl breaks soundlessly, but it will not be whole again till another year.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………(Letters, 848)

Anthropomorphizing (as in the 1851 letter, where the flowers try to “shield them[selves]” from the autumn wind), she presents the “tender armor” of her flowers as inadequate to protect them against the autumnal frost. So, alert to their needs, she brings them indoors, into the “camp” of her conservatory. She ends by quoting the admonition from Ecclesiastes, that we are to remember God before the body disintegrates, before “the silver cord be loosed or the golden bowl be broken” (12:6). But Emily differentiates herself from her brother Austin, a closet skeptic who, for the purposes of this letter, “believes”—has faith, that is, not only in the seasonal rebirth of corn from seeds, but in the spiritual resurrection of the body. His sister, adhering to a seasonal form of natural supernaturalism, confines her hope to a natural spring; her “golden bowl” will “not be whole again till another year.”

Two of Emily Dickinson’s most beautiful, and most Keatsian, poems, mark her major seasonal transition, from summer to autumn. In “As imperceptibly as Grief,” summer has “lapsed away,” a beloved season that can’t quite be accused of “Perfidy” since she was always a “Guest, that would be gone.” The poem ends with summer, like Keats’s nightingale, having “made her light escape/ Into the Beautiful,” a Platonic realm beyond us, leaving behind only the memory, which is to be cherished here on earth (1540). In “Further in Summer than the Birds,” which has been described, by Charles R. Anderson, as “her finest poem on the theme of the year going down to death and the relation of this to a belief in immortality” (Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway to Surprise [1966],169), Dickinson employs liturgical language to commemorate, as in Keats’s “To Autumn,” the insects’ dirge for the dying year. “Pathetic from the Grass,” that “minor Nation celebrates/ Its unobtrusive Mass,” their barely noticeable requiem nevertheless “Enlarging Loneliness.” The music of the crickets, coming later in the summer than the song of birds, is a “spectral Canticle.” Their hymn typifies—in the transition from summer to autumn, with “August burning low”—the winter sleep to come, a “Repose” perhaps implying eternal rest on another level.

In the final stanza, Christian and Hebraic vocabulary yields to pagan. At this moment of seasonal transition, there is, “as yet,” no “Furrow on the Glow” of sunlit, burning August, “Yet a Druidic difference/ Enhances Nature now” (1068). That final religious image, whether we take the Druidic reference as stressing primarily the sacrificial or the animistic element in Celtic nature-worship, powerfully reinforces Dickinson’s own reverence for Nature, its beauty enriched and intensified less, perhaps, by what Anderson calls a “belief in immortality” than—again, as in the ode “To Autumn”—by time’s evanescence and the pathos of mutability, the deeply moving contrast between seasonal return and human transience. That transience extends to all animal life. This poem, written in late 1865 or early 1866, was enclosed in a laconic January 1866 note to her epistolary semi-mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with whom she had not corresponded for eighteen months. Referring to her beloved dog and constant companion, Emily Dickinson restricted herself to a single statement, and a wry question, less pleading than ironic, perhaps bitter: “Carlo died….Would you instruct me now?” (Letters, 449).

Samuel-BowlesSamuel Bowles

Though of course haunted by the thought of immortality, Dickinson was also dubious. In an 1858 letter to Samuel Bowles, she adopts an ironic, pretension-mocking tone. Distinguishing between nature and “us,” she at once anticipates and deflates modern “species chauvinism,” wondering, tongue-in-cheek, how it is that we mere humans, described by her pastor as a “worm,” should also be the very species singled out for a majestic and special end: a resurrection allegedly obviating any need for mourning, including mourning the death of what would seem to be paradise enough for us: summer with its cherished fields, its bumblebees and birds:

Summer stopped since you were here. Nobody noticed her—that is, no men and women. Doubtless, the fields are rent by petite anguish, and “mourners go about” [Ecclesiastes 12:5] the Woods. But this is not for us. Business enough indeed, our stately Resurrection! A special Courtesy, I judge, from what the Clergy say! To the “natural man,” Bumblebees would seem an improvement, and a spicing of Birds, but far be it from me, to impugn such majestic tastes! Our pastor says we are a “Worm.” How is that reconciled? “Vain, sinful Worm” is possibly of another species. (Letters, 338-39)

By this time, the 1730s’ thunderings of Jonathan Edwards against the moral ills of New England’s sinners in the hands of an angry God had lost some of their resonance, even in Calvinist Amherst. But in his debasement of man as a “worm,” Dickinson’s pastor may (the trope is hardly restricted to Edwards) have been echoing the great Puritan’s description of man as “a vile insect,” a “little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing” (The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners [1634]). Edwards himself—whose “Martial Hand” of “Conscience” Dickinson presents threatening “wincing” sinners with hellfire, the “Phosphorus of God” (1598)—was echoing Bildad, the second of Job’s false comforters. From the outset, he had advised the innocent sufferer to abase himself. In his final discourse (Job 25:2-6), Bildad wonders if it is even possible for man to “be righteous before God.” To this fear-instilling God of “dominion,” even the moon and stars are unclean; “how much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm!” How indeed, as Emily sardonically inquires, is that abject status reconcilable with our potential for “stately resurrection”?

Man’s biblical genesis and Fall seemed to put that glorious end in doubt. Prior to ejecting guilty Adam and Eve from Eden, the “Lord God” tells them, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen 3:19). For Hamlet, man is “the paragon of animals.., how like a god,” and yet, to him, “what is this quintessence of dust?” (2.2.305-7); Wordsworth, in the opening book of The Prelude, tries to “reconcile” the contradiction: “Dust as we are, the immortal Spirit grows/ Like harmony in music” (1:340-41). Dickinson can engage this tension in the grand tradition, observing that “Death is a Dialogue between/ The Spirit and the Dust,” with Spirit triumphant, “Just laying off for evidence/ An Overcoat of Clay” (976). But she takes a different tack in a couplet-poem she opens by ironically addressing God as “Heavenly Father”:

“Heavenly Father”—take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband—
Though to trust us—seem to us
More respectful—“We are Dust”—
We apologize to thee
For thine own Duplicity—(1461)

So much for Bildad-like groveling! Like the image of the worm, that of dust reflects the Calvinist estimate of human worthlessness. But here the “worm” turns, with the “sinful” creature finding fault with the Creator. Despite his seeming straightforwardness, God committed a dubious act (an inconsistency emphasized by the alliterated candid and contraband). In fashioning us as he did, he set up, between dust and immortal spirit, not so much a creative tension as a radical contradiction. He thus stands accused of double-dealing, and any “apology” we make to so duplicitous a God will be less an acknowledgement of our own guilt, or a seeking of pardon, than a self-justifying defense—an apologia in the form of j’accuse directed against a divine adversary. That vindictive God himself supplied the right word. “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Exodus 20:5). Dickinson, who, like Mark Twain, cherishes the role of lawyer for the plaintiff when it comes to amassing evidence against God’s supposedly benign providence, has the children of Dust visit the charge of injustice upon an anything-but-paternal Heavenly Father, accusing him—blasphemously, though appropriately, given his supreme power—of “the supreme iniquity.”

Emily Dickinson 2

If this reading is accurate, our apology to God for his “own Duplicity” allies the poem with the most blasphemous of Omar Khayyám’s quatrains addressed to God, at least as adapted by Edward Fitzgerald in a translation the Victorian world accepted with a shock of recognition:

Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake:
……….For all the sin wherewith the face of Man
Is blackened—Man’s forgiveness give—and take!

The work of such writers as Carlyle, Tennyson and Arnold, and, later, Hardy and Housman, all responding in their different ways to Darwinian and other scientific and rationalist challenges to religious belief (including Biblical Higher Criticism) places an imprimatur on the judgment that Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubáiyát “reads like the latest and freshest expression of the perplexity and of the doubt of the generation to which we ourselves belong.” That acute observation was made, however, not by a British Victorian but by an American—the scholar and man of letters Charles Eliot Norton, writing in 1869, a decade before Dickinson wrote “‘Heavenly Father’—take to thee.” Not only the “doubt,” but the “perplexity” as well, is reflected in Dickinson’s poem, for the syntax of her opening lines suggests petition even more than protest. James McIntosh (Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown [2004]), identifying “humankind” as “the supreme iniquity,” takes these lines to mean: “Father, take humans, who are the supreme iniquity, to thee” (47). Perhaps; but what, then, of the poem’s final lines? My own reading is closer to that of Magdalena Zapedowska, in her 2006 American Transcendentalist Quarterly essay, “Wrestling with Silence.” She argues that, in this poem, Dickinson focuses, not on the Fall as original sin,

but on the subsequent expulsion from Paradise, which she blasphemously construes as the original wrong done to humankind by a God who first offered people happiness, then distrustfully put them to the test, and finally doomed them to suffering. Undermining the dogma of God’s benevolence, Dickinson contemplates the terrifying possibility that the metaphysical order is different from Calvinist teaching and that the human individual is left wholly to him/herself, unable to rely on the hostile Deity against the chaos of the universe. (“Wrestling with Silence,” 385)

At such moments, Emily Dickinson sounds like her considerably more public contemporary, Mark Twain, who made no secret of his religious skepticism, but who nevertheless refrained from publishing his most vitriolic attacks on the Judeo-Christian God, a divinity he described, even before his dark final decade, as both duplicitous and cruel. As the examples of Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain illustrate, for all our immortal longings, we are haunted, and angered, by the death implicit in our originating dust—in the case of both Dickinson and Twain, what Byron called “fiery dust.” And if the “Heavenly Father” who presides over this beautiful but doomed world really is an indifferent and “Approving God” (1624), Emily Dickinson seems to care less for him and for a posthumous, perhaps empty Heaven, than for this Earthly Paradise—the perishable beauty that must die, everything she wishes could “transcend the ‘frost’ of death,” but which she strongly suspects will not.

“Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?” That haunting question was posed by W. B. Yeats in one of his greatest poems, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” He was not suggesting anything so trite as that we love things and then they disappear. He was reminding us that we love beautiful transient things because they are mutable, doomed to vanish. That is precisely why we cherish them so, recognizing, as Wordsworth poignantly acknowledged even in the great Ode in which he claimed intimations of immortality, that “nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.” These splendors and glories are part of a “supernaturalism” that is “natural.” That great enemy of otherworldly hopes and cherisher of the earth, Nietzsche, referred in a December 1885 letter to irretrievable beauty. In a floral image that would have appealed to Emily Dickinson, who would die shortly after this letter was written, he spoke of Rosengeruch des Unwiederbringlichen: the faint rose-breath of what can never be brought back.

Of course, with Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson as her precursors, we do not really need Emerson’s disciple Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s disciple Yeats to explain why Emily Dickinson’s Earthly Paradise is not only beautiful but death-haunted. I quote Yeats and Nietzsche (and Emily would, I think, approve) for the poignant beauty of their language in commemorating the pathos of mutability, what Wordsworth—deeply moved by the humblest “flower” that blossoms and blows in the breeze—called, in the final line of the Intimations Ode, “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

— Patrick J. Keane

Author’s Note: Though most Dickinson scholars prefer the three-volume edition of R. W. Franklin (Harvard U.P., 1998), Emily Dickinson’s poems are here cited by number from the one-volume Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Little, Brown, 1957, and often reprinted). Her letters are cited from the three-volume but continuously-paginated The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (Harvard University Press, 1958). Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson, are cited from: Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. (Yale UP, 1981); The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Harvard UP, 1958); Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (Library of America, 1983).

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PAT kEANE

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves(1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

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Nov 112014
 

AlastairReidAlastair Reid — 1926-2014

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Scottish poet Alastair Reid died on September 21st of this year at the age of 88, just three days after the naysayers for an independent Scotland won the day and the sunstruck madmen of Reid’s poem “Scotland” crawled home in defeat. It seems fair to say Reid’s poem — with its direct title, its landscape in high relief, and its dour fish-shop matron — stands as one of the poet’s definitive takes on the culture of his homeland.

Scotland

It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’

In the referendum of September 18th, good money was bet that Reid’s woman represented Scotland well enough to prevail — her brow bleak, her ancestors raging, her misery ancient — and that the optimistic Home-Rule voters would not prevail. They did not go down in flames; perhaps their failure was more sodden. Certainly “We’ll pay for it” was the rallying cry for those who urged a No vote and who implored Scottish voters to stick by the Queen.

QueenApparently, the Union needed Scotland, and vice versa.

But what of the Scottish landscape, in contrast to the taciturn Scottish character? “…the air shifted with the singing of actual angels. / Greenness entered the body. The grasses / shivered with presences, and sunlight / stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.” Reid  celebrated landscape.  How a poet capable of writing those lines can fade into the background on the stage of British poetry is a puzzle to me. In 1954, Selden Rodman wrote an introduction to Reid’s work for Poetry magazine in which he said, “There are echoes of Dylan Thomas and Auden….[Reid] stands among these gifted contemporaries as an equal, one of the few poets writing in English to promise a continuance of their original affirmation.”

ScotlandA view of the Scottish hills: “Greenness entered the body….”

Could it be that since much of Reid’s mid-career energy was spent on the translation of poets who wrote in Spanish — Borges, Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Pacheco, Padilla — his relative obscurity as a poet in his own right was guaranteed? As with other poets in this Undersung series, Reid was not completely invested in his identity as a poet; his output of poetry was high-end but sporadic, his interests were broad, his wanderings wide, and his abilities as both essayist and translator loomed large enough to cast a shadow over his own talent as a poet. On the other hand, it might just be that Reid’s early ascendency was interrupted by something more sanguine, something described this way recently by the columnist Daniel Mendelsohn (himself a translator) in the June 3rd New York Times’ Book Review column, “Book Ends”:

As a critic, I’m often struck by the way in which so many successful writers settle into a groove by midcareer: Whatever marked them as special, new, or distinctive when they started — the “thing” that set them on their path — becomes, with time, a franchise; at worst, a straitjacket. By the end, most of us repeat ourselves. Very few — perhaps only the greatest — continue to grow.”

Over the years, Reid did not settle for a straitjacket; he wandered the world and grew as a writer, seldom repeating himself, accepting few of the categorical limitations that certain genres (and upbringings) usually insist upon us. He was restless, and his writing reflected it. He moved between poetry and prose, between memoir and travel writing and translation work and articles about sports — he even wrote two picture books for children.

He was born – his father a minister, mother a doctor – near Whithorn in the Galloway region of southwest Scotland in 1926, the year of Scotland’s debilitating General Strike, during which soldiers and tanks were used in the streets of Glasgow to disperse angry crowds of union men. The entire decade of the 20’s was one of mass emigration from Scotland, with families leaving behind high unemployment and miserable living conditions in order to head out for better highlands and lowlands in “the colonies”; the vision of so many people leaving home, longing to find a more comfortable life, might have contributed to Reid’s famously itinerant lifestyle.

Emigrants

“What drew me to writing was its portability,” he once wrote; “it requires essentially no more than a notebook and a pencil, and it allowed me to own my own time, to travel light, to come to rest anywhere….”

His poems often explore the pull away from, and eventual push back towards, home:

Whithorn Manse

I knew it as Eden,
that lost walled garden,
past the green edge
of priory and village;
and, beyond it, the house,
withdrawn, white,
one window alight.

Returning, I wonder,
idly, uneasily,
what eyes from inside
look out now, not in,
as once mine did,
and what might grant me,
a right of entry?

Is it never dead, then,
that need of an Eden?

Even this evening,
estranged by age,
I ogle that light
with a child’s greed,
wistfully claiming
lost prerogatives
of homecoming.

Reid understood that what the landscape offered and what the people offered could be radically different things. But he did find a number of places that came closer to what he was searching for, especially in the landscape and language of Spain and Latin America, and in the character of their people. It was this level of comfort that allowed him to focus on learning Spanish – to hunger for it, to eat it up and beg for more – and begin his highly-praised works of translation.

Over his lifetime Reid lived for extended periods in Majorca, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic – on a ginger plantation – Mexico, England – in a houseboat on the Thames – and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, where he finally settled in (or was settled by old age) until his death. The obituary Charles McGrath wrote in The New Yorker three days after Reid’s death opens with this line: “The poet and translator Alastair Reid, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-eight, had itchy feet.” In his essay titled “Digging Up Scotland,” published in 1981 in The New Yorker, Reid makes clear that his restlessness had something to do with finding a place where he could “feel one” with his surroundings:

“I have a friend in Scotland, a painter,” he wrote, “who still lives in the fishing town he was born in, grew up in, went to school in, was married in, raised his children in, works in, and clearly intends to die in. I look on him with uncomprehending awe, for although I had much the same origins, born and sprouting in rural Scotland…I had in my head from an early age the firm notion of leaving….He has made his peace with place in a way that to me is, if not unimaginable, at least by now beyond me. ”

Reid seldom stayed in one place long enough to have what he considered a permanent address; his mail was delivered to the offices of The New Yorker, where he let stacks of it pile up for months. His unease with permanence is clearly visible in his poems, where two perceived opposites often pull against each other, interfering with any hope that the tug-of-war will be settled or the people involved come to rest, as seen in the opening stanzas of a poem titled “What Bones Say”:

The skeleton
is hardly a lesson
in human nature.

Similarly, stones
are the bones of landscapes,
and yet trees blossom

in contradiction.
We are much more
than our brittle topography.

In those lines, see how beautifully Reid handles the simple language – in the near-rhyme of “skeleton” with “lesson,” the full rhyme of “stones” with “bones,” and in the echo that chimes between “lesson,” “blossom” and “contradiction” – not overwhelming readers with musicality, but giving us just enough. I admire the courage he has to say something as large as “We are much more / than our brittle topography.” He approaches language the same way in the other poems transcribed here – the abundant alliteration in “Scotland” and its chiming verbs – “shimmer” and “shivered” – the triptych of “idly,” “eyes” and “inside” in “Whithorn Manse,” its full rhymes (“white” and “alight) and near-rhymes (“need,” “Eden” and “garden.”) Reid’s poems seem spoken at first, easy and conversational, but the music on which they rise is carefully and thoroughly composed.

In the same New Yorker essay mentioned above, Reid writes, “The natural world and the human world separated early for me. I felt them to be somehow in contradiction, and still do. The Scottish landscape – misty, muted, in constant flux and shift – intrudes its presence in the form of endlessly changing weather; the Scottish character, eroded by a bitter history and a stony morality, and perhaps in reaction to the changing turbulence of weather, subscribes to illusions of permanence, of durability, asking for a kind of submission, an obedience. I felt, from the beginning, exhilarated by the first, fettered by the second. Tramps used to stop at our house, men of the road, begging a cup of tea or an old shirt, and in my mind I was always ready to leave with them, because between Scotland and myself I saw trouble ahead.”

He traveled first to Spain; it was during his time in Majorca – six years, off and on — that he met and became friends with the poet Robert Graves (about whom I wrote in my Undersung article about poet-novelists.) Their friendship ended when Reid fell in love with – and ran away with, temporarily – Graves’s muse, Margot Callas. Though Callas eventually returned to Graves, the conversations and apprenticeship Reid once enjoyed with the older poet were finished. In an essay Reid wrote on the occasion of what would have been Graves’s 100th birthday, he chided Graves for having been “mired in domesticity” during his first marriage, but then Reid becomes more conciliatory, saying “The English have always kept Graves at a distance, as if he were an offshore island, out of the mainstream – something they often do with English writers who choose to live elsewhere and are still successful.”

MajorcaThe Majorca home of Robert Graves – “an offshore island, out of the mainstream”

The same might be said of Reid himself – an offshore island in the sea of British literature. His most important books are out of print; these include his poetry collection Oases; Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations; Outside In: Selected Prose; Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner; and Weathering: Poems and Translations. If you subscribe to The New Yorker, you’re in luck – he contributed articles and poems there for more than forty years, and my quick search of their archives produced 152 hits.

In addition to “Scotland,” Reid’s most anthologized poem is “Curiosity,” about a dog’s and cat’s (but mostly human’s) view of the old adage “Curiosity killed the cat,” with the poet coming down hard in favor of being curious. Click here to hear it read by Reid himself over at The Poetry Archive. Rather than transcribe the poem so you can read it, I hope you will finish this essay and then go over to The Poetry Archive to listen to it.  We’re lucky to have recordings of these poems(as well as three others) in Reid’s own voice, since it was voice that he valued above all other qualities in a poem.

In an essay about translating his friends Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, he wrote, “I realized I couldn’t read a poem of Neruda’s simply as words put down on the page without hearing behind them his languid and caressing voice. The most important thing to me in translating these two poets was the sound of their voices in my memory, since this helped in finding my way in with the appropriate English….The key was voice.”

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda — from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid)

He went on to say, “For me, Neruda’s poems were fundamentally voiced – spoken poems of direct discourse – his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.” Describing one lecture he went to at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Reid says Neruda’s voice “spread out like a balm over the English crowd; a magical sound, even without the thread of meaning.” [Note: my source for these quotations from the essay about Borges and Neruda was in Spanish – the translations are my own.]

1754-PABLO_NERUDA_5-630x350Pablo Neruda – “…his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.”

It was Reid who was instrumental in getting the work of both Neruda and Borges in front of English-speaking readers. About translating Borges, Reid was less lyrical than he was about Neruda: “Translating Borges was, for me, like learning a private language….” He refers to Borges’s skeptical and questioning tone, concluding that Borges’s poems were more interdependent than Neruda’s, linked as they were by a “recurring heraldry of symbols – chessboards, maps, knives, mirrors, coins, labyrinths, tigers, libraries….”

Reid and Borges

Reid (second from left) and Jorge Luis Borges (third from left)

One of Reid’s most interesting observations about Borges focused on his blindness: “After many conversations with Borges, from the most serious to the most entertaining, I came to the profound realization that for him, I existed only as a voice. Maybe this led me to the deep conviction that voice is the most long-lasting incarnation of my existence. Even more, it is in voices rather than photographs that the dead remain alive.”

borges-in-libraryJorge Luis Borges – “…for him, I existed only as a voice.”

At one point, Reid explains Borges’s style: “He spoke English with the respect a language well-known to him deserved, but within which he did not live – that is, with the controlled cadence of literature. On other occasions, in the company of Spanish-speakers, he was more playful, less solemn. Still, I think his bilingual upbringing gave him a sense of the arbitrary and fickle nature of language: a bilingual person is more aware of the gulf that exists between word and object than someone limited to a single language.”

ouncedicetrice

Reid’s awareness of the strange nature of words and his innate playfulness (in Charles McGrath’s obituary write-up, Reid is remembered as “cheerful, funny, and irreverent, with high expressive eyebrows that were frequently squeezed together in amusement”) show up full force in his picture book Ounce Dice Trice, a collection of nonsense – that is, a collection of real but relatively unknown words – tantony, quicklings, moonglade, etc. – revealed to us in all their strangeness, the way a talented chef might reveal the secret ingredients of a favorite dish. In the book, Reid creates several imaginative ways of counting from one to ten without numerals (“Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist” and “Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim.” The words sound like they come straight off the playground. Of course, the whole point of the book is wordplay, emphasizing that “gulf between word and object” recognized by people who have learned more than one language. Illustrations by Ben Shahn make the book a collector’s item – previously out of print, it’s now available again thanks to the New York Review Children’s Collection.

Ben ShahnReid himself was a gongoozler….

Reid’s origins might have been provincial — even restrictive — but as he grew his poetry and prose became more and more cosmopolitan and expansive. He regarded translation as an act resembling “bewitchment,” and he wrote that the translation of someone else’s work required “not only reading it deeply and deciphering it, but climbing on top of the scenery backstage, up onto the supports and the scaffolding.”

I often wished while getting my MFA that the program I attended had offered a translation track. Translation seems to me one of the best ways – almost acrobatic, according to Reid — to capture and understand how a poem works. Reid understood the way a poem could float out over the reader “without the thread of meaning,” though with his own poetry we are lucky enough to find both meaning and music.

Poem without Ends

One cannot take the beginning out of the air
saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’.
The process is continuous as wind,
the bird observed, not rising, but in flight,
unrealised, in motion of the mind.

The end of everything is similar, never
actually happening, but always over.
The agony, the bent head, only tell
that already in the heart the innocent evening
is thick with the ferment of farewell.

— Julie Larios

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Julie Larios has contributed seven previous essays in her Undersung series for Numéro Cinq, highlighting the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale and The Poet-Novelist; her own poems have been featured in our pages as well. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Nov 082014
 

Frank Richardson bio pict 2The author outside a bakery in Bamberg, Germany

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For a long time, as I read, I paid no more attention to the length of sentences than I did to their grammar or syntax. It wasn’t until I discovered Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu that I learned to appreciate how long and short sentences can be juxtaposed for emphasis and how syntax can mimic the flow of thought and action. Of course, Proust is famous for his long sentences, some of which extend well beyond 200 words; these sentences intrigued me the most. The closest analogy I can imagine is that discovering Proust’s long sentences was like discovering a new genre of music, as if I had lived my life without knowing there existed such things as symphonies. If prose is like music, then some types of writing must resonate with particular people just as we have different musical tastes, and Proust’s swirling syntax certainly resonated with me. Eyes opened, I pursued the subject and discovered the rich variety of ways other writers employ long sentences to dramatize the actions and thoughts of characters.

But why labor to construct a 200-word-long sentence when a dozen shorter sentences can communicate the same information and not task the reader’s attention and patience? A sentence is greater than the sum of its propositions. A sentence’s syntax – the order in which the words of the sentence are arranged – affects its emotional impact, e.g. placing a proposition at the end of a sentence engenders suspense. But the possibilities extend far beyond this simple example. In Artful Sentences Virginia Tufte limns an incredible range of syntactic arrangements that function symbolically. She describes “syntactic symbolism” as when “syntax as style has moved beyond the arbitrary, the sufficient, and is made so appropriate to content that, sharing the very qualities of the content, it is carried to that point where it seems not only right but inevitable” (271). In the following excerpt from the novel Correction, Thomas Bernhard uses repetitive syntax to symbolically represent the protagonist’s mania for perfection, viz. he corrects himself while explaining the process of correction:

We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously, because we recognize at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we again correct the correction of this falsification . . . (242)

Tufte cites many examples to illustrate the diversity of emotional and mimetic effects of syntactic symbolism. What Tufte calls syntactic symbolism, David Jauss calls “rhythmic mimesis” and notes that “sometimes the syntax does more than convey the appropriate emotion; sometimes it also rhythmically imitates the very experience it is describing . . .” (70-71).[1] The rhythm of the syntax in Bernhard’s prose conveys the protagonist’s exasperation while simultaneously informs on his character. But the “experience” Jauss refers to can mean movement, whether physical action or the more nebulous movement of human thought. I’ve found these types of motion mimesis to be particularly effective applications of the extended syntax of long sentences.

Thomas.BernhardThomas Bernhard

It is important to note that neither Tufte nor Jauss restrict their examples to long sentences; rhythmic mimesis can be conveyed by sentences of all lengths. But given my penchant for longer sentences, I began looking for how they might be used in the manner Jauss and Tufte describe. After surveying a wide range of fiction (different time periods, genres, narrative modes, etc.), I noticed a pattern whereby authors applied long sentences effectively to create a rhythmic mimesis of motion, speech, consciousness, and even character. In the last category a long list can be used to communicate a fictional character’s character, as exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s obsessive memoirist in The Mezzanine. Motion mimesis – using prose to imitate actions – is an excellent use of long sentences with stunning examples found in such diverse works as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many of Faulkner’s stories, and the fiction of David Foster Wallace. Spoken language is no less rhythmic than written, and the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal demonstrates that long sentences can be used to capture the personality and style of a teller of tall tales in his 1964 Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. In the depiction of the conscious mind in fiction, James Joyce’s achievement in Ulysses still exemplifies how the syntax of long sentences can mimic the rhythm of thought. Two contemporary writers who answered the challenge of capturing the mind’s stream of consciousness include: David Foster Wallace, who in Infinite Jest takes the reader into the realm of the subliminal, of dreams and drug-induced states; and the French writer Mathias Énard, who pushes the boundaries of what we call a sentence even further than Joyce, with his book-length sentence in his 2008 novel Zone.

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The List

The most obvious reason to add propositional content to a sentence is to increase the amount of descriptive detail, and long sentence constructions often contain lists. But the point isn’t to string together a random catalogue of items just to fill the page: lists can elucidate character.

Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine is a daydream, a meditation on life, on questions large and small. The story, presented as a memoir, is told in first-person point of view by Howie, a thirty-year-old factotum obsessed by his childhood. The novel is short, 135 pages, composed of fifteen chapters, many of which have long, detailed footnotes wherein the narrator indulges his love for digression. Howie’s conflict is with himself. He wants to achieve what he calls a “majority,” that is, a moment when he will have “amassed enough miscellaneous new mature thoughts to outweigh and outvote all of those childish ones” – the age of forty, by his calculations – but his obsessive recollections, his seeing the world through the screen of childhood memories, remains his primary obstacle (Baker 58). The novel’s plot is built around a single event – an escalator ride – during an ordinary day five years prior to the novel’s present (its fictional time of writing). At that time, Howie worked at an unnamed corporation and takes us from his lunch break back to his office on the building’s mezzanine, with the escalator ride serving as the focal point. In a narrative where there are more tangents than forward motion, a reader might become overwhelmed with the apparently superfluous anecdotes, but these memories, meditations, and observations – and Baker’s seamless segues between them – are the real magic of The Mezzanine.

Nicholson_BakerNicholson Baker

The story begins as the Howie’s lunch hour is ending and he is approaching the escalator leading to the mezzanine of his office building. Howie is an obsessive, voracious observer of the world around him and delights in sharing his observations in this “memoir.” Mid-way through the second paragraph he digresses to inform us about his activities during his lunch hour, including a two-page-long footnote on the history of drinking straws. Thus, it becomes clear early that this escalator ride is going to take some time to complete; indeed, it will take the remainder of this engaging and richly imagined novel. By chapter five Howie hasn’t even stepped onto the escalator; the story has focused on his past. The first paragraph of chapter five is composed of three short sentences and one long cumulative sentence (341 words) that enumerates Howie’s favorite “systems of local transport” as a child, including rotisseries, rotating watch displays, hot dog cookers, and, of course, escalators:

Other people remember liking boats, cars, trains, or planes when they were children – and I liked them too – but I was more interested in systems of local transport: airport luggage-handling systems (those overlapping new moons of hard rubber that allowed the moving track to turn a corner, neatly drawing its freight of compressed clothing with it; and the fringe of rubber strips that marked the transition between the bright inside world of baggage claim and the outside world of low-clearance vehicles and men in blue outfits); supermarket checkout conveyor belts, turned on and off like sewing machines by a foot pedal, with a seam like a zipper that kept reappearing; and supermarket roller coasters made of rows of vertical rollers arranged in a U curve over which the gray plastic numbered containers that held your bagged and paid-for groceries would slide out a flapped gateway to the outside; milk-bottling machines we saw on field trips that hurried the queueing [sic] bottles on curved tracks with rubber-edged side-rollers toward the machine that socked milk into them and clamped them with a paper cap; marble chutes; Olympic luge and bobsled tracks; the hanger-management systems at the dry cleaner’s – sinuous circuits of rustling plastics (NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY!) and dimly visible clothing that looped from the customer counter way back to the pressing machines in the rear of the store, fanning sideways as they slalomed around old men at antique sewing machines who were making sense of the heap of random pairs of pants pinned with little notes; laundry lines that cranked clothes out over empty space and cranked them back in when the laundry was dry; the barbecue-chicken display at Woolworth’s that rotated whole orange-golden chickens on pivoting skewers; and the rotating Timex watch displays, each watch box open like a clam; the cylindrical roller-cookers on which hot dogs slowly turned in the opposite direction to the rollers, blistering; gears that (as my father explained it) in their greased intersection modified forces and sent them on their way. (35-36)

Howie follows this long catalogue with a short sentence, telling us that the escalator shared qualities with these systems with one notable exception: he could ride the escalator. This telescopes his childhood obsession into adulthood – he can, after all, still ride escalators – where the escalators stimulate Proustian involuntary memories of childhood including, he tells us, memories of his and his father’s shared “mechanical enthusiasms” and of the specific memory of his mother taking him and his sister to department stores and instructing them on escalator safety. This memory, in turn, stirs his concern that he spends too much time (in the present of his writing, not the time of his riding the escalator) thinking of things exclusively in terms of his childhood memories, an epiphany that sets up the last paragraph, a précis for the novel:

I want . . . to set the escalator to the mezzanine against a clean mental background as something fine and worth my adult time to think about . . . I will try not to glide on the reminiscential tone, as if only children had the capacity for wonderment at this great contrivance.[2] (39-40)

True to his digressive tendencies, however, the escalator won’t be mentioned again until chapter eight, and it is not until the midpoint in the novel that Howie actually boards the escalator.

Baker’s long list sentence adds character detail to this dense tale. First, note his eye for specifics: the “blistering” of the hot dogs, the “men in blue” at the airport. Second, he uses metaphor and simile: the “new moons of hard rubber” and watch boxes “like open clams.” Thus, the list not only informs on Howie’s whimsical, yet poetic and reflective nature, but also shows us, by example, his obsessive behavior. Howie acknowledges he likes the things other children liked, only he liked something else more, something odd, something unusual; and then he shows us how much it all meant to him with his detailed recollection. Once Howie begins his recollection, he becomes lost in it; his list goes on and on and he can hardly break free from its hold on him as new things are added and elaborated in fractal-like digressions. Howie spirals into many such lavishly detailed memories and the long sentences convey his sense of being lost in contemplation. Despite his continuing attempts to escape the gravitational pull of his childhood, Howie keeps being drawn deep into memory. A convincing stylistic choice, this long list sentence adds detail while simultaneously revealing character through syntactic symbolism – the long, uninterrupted flow of Howie’s list shows us his obsession with his childhood.

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Motion Mimesis

Syntagmatic extension of a sentence always has one consequence: it keeps the reader in the moment. Except for perhaps sentences that run for pages, most readers will read to the end of a long sentence before making a full stop at the period. Dwelling on the action can have several effects depending on the subject, including heightening the emotional impact of the moment, whether that is grief or joy, ecstasy or terror. When actions are depicted by the sentence, the rhythm of the prose can lend itself to mimicking the character’s movement. An excellent example of such motion mimesis is found in the climax of William Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning.”

“Barn Burning” is a coming-of-age story set in the post-Civil War American South. The 23-page story has a linear timeline, is written in the past tense, and covers six days, from a Monday through a Saturday. The third-person limited point of view focuses on the thoughts of the protagonist, the ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, youngest of the four Snopes children. The paterfamilias, Abner Snopes, is a violent sociopath, and at the beginning of the story he is a suspect in the burning of a barn. After being found not guilty, he loads up his family for the twelfth time in ten years and moves to the next hamlet to find a work on a farm. The day they arrive Snopes indulges his hatred and jealousy by going to the house of the landowner Major de Spain and deliberately soiling an expensive carpet with horse manure. When asked to clean the rug, Snopes destroys it in the process. In court for the second time within a week, Snopes is fined ten bushels of corn; enraged, that night he sets out to burn de Spain’s barn. When he sees that Sarty is shocked, he becomes worried that his son will thwart his plans and has him held back by his mother. After Snopes and the older son leave, Sarty breaks loose and runs to the de Spain mansion where he bursts in and warns them of the imminent arson. Sarty flees down the road toward the barn and is soon passed by de Spain on horseback. Hearing three shots, Sarty believes his father dead and runs away, leaving his family forever. The primary image of “Barn Burning” is “blood,” which Faulkner uses eight times and always in the context of Sarty and his father or family. In the climax Sarty must choose between his father, his blood, and what he feels is the moral, right choice of warning de Spain.

lg-portrait-of-william-faulkner-896William Faulkner

Young Sartoris has an apparently instinctive sense of right and wrong that jars with his father’s violent, malicious behavior. In the opening scene when his father is before “the Justice,” the boy knows his father is guilty: “He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (Faulkner 4); and two days later, after his father is told by Major de Spain that he’ll have to pay twenty bushels of corn for destroying the rug, Sarty, working in the field, hopes that this will mark the end of his father’s reign of terror; he thinks: “Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish – corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses – gone, done with for ever and ever” (17). He can’t believe it when his father tells him to get the oil; he knows what his father intends to do. As Sarty is fleeing down the road after warning de Spain, his “blood and breath roaring,” he is in a semi-fugue state:

He could not hear either: the galloping mare was almost upon him before he heard her, and even then he held his course, as if the very urgency of his wild grief and need must in a moment more find him wings, waiting until the ultimate instant to hurl himself aside and into the weed-choked roadside ditch as the horse thundered past and on, for an instant in furious silhouette against the stars, the tranquil early summer night sky which, even before the shape of the horse and rider vanished, stained abruptly and violently upward: a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars, and he springing up and into the road again, running again, knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying “Pap! Pap!”, running again before he knew he had begun to run, stumbling, tripping over something and scrabbling up again without ceasing to run, looking backward over his shoulder at the glare as he got up, running on among the invisible trees, panting, sobbing, “Father! Father!” (24)

The motion described by the sentence begins with de Spain’s galloping mare gaining on Sarty and continues with him flinging himself into the ditch. After the stunning pause with the juxtaposition of “furious silhouette” and “tranquil . . . night sky (“stained” as blood stains), the motion then gathers momentum as Sarty resumes his sprint. What follows are sixteen more verbs, mostly action verbs, expressed as present participles[3] (as opposed to the past definite). This creates a sense of simultaneity and continuous motion. Faulkner repeats “running” four times and “run” twice within the second half of the sentence; this emphasis extends beyond the motion it is describing to become a metaphor for Sarty and his future. Following the gunshots, he pauses briefly crying the familiar “Pap! Pap!” – his blood; his blood now severed he resumes his run but now he is running away as he had imagined when his father asked him to get the oil: “I could run on and on and never look back . . .” (21). This horrible moment, the defining moment of Sarty’s life, when the choice he made results in the death (at least as far as he can tell) of his father, this desperate race, is captured wonderfully by the Faulkner’s long sentence. The reader is held in suspense as the Sarty runs toward his father and as de Spain rushes to defend his property and is finally swept along with the boy as he runs and runs, never to look back.

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The Never-ending Story

As anyone who has ever listened to a speech knows, there is a rhythm to the spoken word. A speaker may drone on and on and put the audience to sleep, or he can be dynamic, lyrical, and modulate his tone to keep the audience’s attention. Generally we need pauses in a speech; they are necessary moments of reflection and break the monotony of an unchanging cadence. Aside from soliloquy, fictional characters rarely have unmitigated speech; otherwise the writer, like the droning speaker, might lose his audience. So it is intriguing to find a writer who is willing to take up the challenge of writing a continuous monologue without chapters, without section breaks or line breaks; indeed a monologue as a single sentence that captures the rhythm of language while still entertaining the reader. Such is Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.

First published in Czechoslovakia in 1964 and in an English translation by Michael Henry Heim in 2011, Hrabal’s single-sentence book defies categorization. His friend and reviewer Josef Sǩvorecký called it a “long short story” (Sǩvorecký 7). Adam Thirlwell, who wrote the introduction for the 2011 edition, called it a “novel in one monologue” (Hrabal viii). Semantics aside, this unique story, or collection of tall tales, is a wonderful example of how a writer can sculpt a very long, yet engaging sentence that mimics the spoken word. Hrabal developed his style of story-telling, what he called páblitelé – which Sǩvorecký translates as “tellers of tall tales” and which Thirlwell translates as “palavering” – based on the free-association rambling of oral story-tellers in his life. But this is not a form of automatic writing or free writing – genuine craft is expressed in Hrabal’s prose; the narrator’s monologue (it isn’t really a speech – speeches are organized logically and are intended to communicate specific information – neither of which applies here) is by degrees whimsical, ribald, lyrical, poignant, and profound.

Bohumil-HrabalBohumil Hrabal

Superficially, the book represents the uninterrupted speech of a septuagenarian shoemaker named Jirka who is regaling a group of sunbathing women with his stories of being a soldier during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, his sexual exploits, his opinions on the church and religion, and his humorous digressions of tall tales. It is told in the first-person, mostly in the past tense, and follows real time in that the amount of time it takes to read the 117 pages approximates the time it would take to actually listen to the narrative. Jirka’s desire is to be listened to, to flirt with the ladies; his conflict is keeping his listeners’ attention. But unlike a random, garrulous old man droning on and on, one who won’t let you go until you hear every variation of the same big fish story, Jirka keeps us listening:

neither Havlíček nor Christ ever laughed, if anything they wept, because when you stand for a great idea you can’t horse around, Havlíček had a brain like a diamond, the professors went gaga over him, they tried to make him a bishop, but no, he chose justice, a little coffee, a little wine, and a life for the people, stamping out illiteracy, only perverse people dream of rolling in manure (better days ahead) or of chamber pots (your future is assured) because the thing is, dear ladies, you’ve got to rely on yourselves, take Manouch, who thought he had it made because his father was a jailer and all he did was drink and pick up bad habits, which leads to fights like the quarrel in the days of the monarchy between the social democrats and the freethinkers and clerics over whether the world comes from a monkey or God slapped Adam together out of mud and fashioned Eve from his insides, now He could have made her out of mud too, it would have been cheaper, though nobody really knows what went on, the world was as deserted as a star, but people twitter away like magpies and don’t really care, I could set my sights on a charmer, a prime minister’s daughter, but what’s not to be is not to be and could even take a bad turn, Mother of God! the crown prince had syphilis and that Vetsera woman shot him, but then she got shot by the coachman, though any young lady will tell you you might as well be buried alive if the man in your life has a faulty fandangle, when I was serving in the most elegant army in the world I told our medical officer, Doctor, I said, I’ve got a weak heart, but all he said was, So have I, boy, and if we had a hundred thousand like you we could conquer the world, and he put me into the highest category, so I was a hero . . . (3-5)

For the purposes of this essay I’ve selected this 340-word excerpt of the 117-page long sentence so that a sense of the rhythm can be appreciated. In the book as a whole, after the comma, the most common punctuation mark Hrabal uses is the question mark, then the dash, then the exclamation point; there are no colons or periods (even at the end) and only one semicolon.

In this relatively short passage there is an astonishing variety of subjects. He begins with philosophizing about the writer Havlíček and Christ (a favorite subject); then makes an aphoristic statement (a common habit); he reflects on Havlíček’s history with clear parallels to his own (Jirka’s) values; he quotes ironic entries from his favorite book of dream interpretations, refers to his audience, and then drops another aphorism. He interrupts himself at one point with the exclamation “Mother of God!” (another habit) indicating that he has just remembered something that he absolutely must tell the ladies right away. Note that Hrabal doesn’t let us forget the scene: more than a dozen times in the book Jirka refers directly to the women he is speaking to, but here he also says “though any young lady will tell you,” an indirect nod in their direction and a preface to his flirting. He concludes this part of his never-ending sentence with a tale of the absurd, a lampoon of his time in the military (another favorite subject).

Sǩvorecký writes that Hrabal’s importance “lies predominantly in this language, in how his stories are told” (8). The book’s forward momentum is carried by Jirka’s engaging voice and the bizarre, often humorous tales he tells. Narrative voice isn’t carried by subject matter and diction alone, but by the order of words, i.e. the syntax with which those words are arranged.

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The Persistence of Thought: Mind Mimesis

One of the most elusive subjects in fiction, as in life, is the nature of human consciousness. Philosophers have been arguing about how we know (or think we know) what we know and how we know what others know since the emergence of language. Epistemological questions aside, how can a writer convey – or attempt to convey – the nature of human thought?

Methods for representing a character’s thought span the range of narrative modes. Consider first-person. It seems straightforward enough: have the character simply tell us what he is thinking. When addressing another character, this is dialogue, or if alone, a soliloquy. Soliloquy typically follows the rules of grammar and is logically organized. And soliloquy, although spoken alone, is presented as if to an audience, which requires it to be more coherent (Humphrey 35). But what if the language is internal self-address, i.e. the language we “speak” only to ourselves? The narrative mode used to describe this is variously called free direct thought, internal monologue, or autonomous monologue. Interior monologue, in contrast to soliloquy (or dialogue) is more associative; prone to spontaneous, illogical shifts; and is rich in imagery (Cohn 12). The acme of internal monologue in literature is found in the “Penelope” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses is the ur-text for modernism. Published in 1922, this canonical “stream of consciousness” novel is the story of the lives of three principal characters, Leopold Bloom (who works in advertising), his wife Molly (a professional singer), and a family friend Stephen Dedalus (an aspiring poet) on a single day: June 16, 1904. The book is divided into eighteen sections and is organized according to Homer’s Odyssey, with Bloom in the role of Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman myths). Bloom’s journey takes him from home, through his day in Dublin, and then back again; along the way he is joined by Stephen. Almost all of the chapters focus on Bloom, but the last chapter, commonly referred to as “Penelope” in reference to Odysseus’s wife, takes place in the mind of Molly while she tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep after her husband returns home and joins her in bed at approximately two in the morning. “Penelope” is divided into eight “sentences,” although the only reason for designating them thusly are line breaks with indentation; the chapter has no punctuation except for two periods, one at the end of the fourth sentence; one at the end. The run-on nature of the chapter is the point, that thought doesn’t stop; it keeps flowing in an endless stream until you either fall asleep (except for dreaming) or die, i.e. you can’t turn thought off.

james-joyceJames Joyce

Molly has had a singular day: she has had an affair with her manager Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. Lying awake in bed, her thoughts roam: she thinks about Boylan and compares his sexuality with Bloom’s; she thinks about her marriage and that she and “Poldy” (whom she suspects has had an affair too that day) haven’t have sex since their son Rudy died shortly after he was born eleven years prior; she thinks about the future and is worried about their finances, she fantasizes about the twenty-something Stephen; and she thinks about her past, including the men she has known, her childhood in Gibraltar, and (famously) when Bloom asked her to marry him and she said yes. The only indication of an external world is a train whistle she hears; the only action, when she gets out of bed to use the chamber pot. Molly’s character is highly nuanced and through her unedited stream of consciousness the reader empathizes with the conflicts she faces in her life. After her fantasy of seducing Stephen concludes, her thoughts turn back to Boylan, then to Bloom as the last sentence of the chapter begins. She is annoyed with Bloom for having kissed her bottom after he crawled into bed. Her annoyance leads to sexual fantasies with other men until she is distracted by Bloom crowding her on the bed; she thinks:

O move over your big carcass out of that for the love of Mike listen to him the winds that waft my sighs to thee[4] so well he may sleep and sigh the great Suggester Don Poldo de la Flora if he knew how he came out on the cards this morning hed have something to sigh for a dark man in some perplexity between 2 7s too in prison for Lord knows what he does that I dont know and Im to be slooching around down in the kitchen to get his lordship his breakfast while hes rolled up like a mummy will I indeed did you ever see me running Id just like to see myself at it show them attention and they treat you like dirt I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldn’t be in the world at all only for us they dont know what it is to be a woman and a mother how could they where would they all of them be if they hadnt all a mother to look after them what I never had thats why I suppose hes running wild now out at night away from his books and studies and not living at home on account of the usual rowy house I suppose well its a poor case that those that have a fine son like that theyre not satisfied and I none was he not able to make one it wasnt my fault we came together when I was watching the two dogs up in her behind in the middle of the naked street that disheartened me altogether I suppose I oughtnt to have buried him in that little woolly jacket I knitted crying as I was but give it to some poor child but I knew well Id never have another our 1st death too it was we were never the same since O Im not going to think myself into the glooms about that any more . . . (778)

This 392-word excerpt depicts the silent, unmediated self-communication of a fictional mind saturated with thoughts that transition associatively with dizzying speed. She is annoyed at Bloom for hogging the bed; she compares his wheezing (or perhaps snoring) with a song called “The Winds That Waft My Sighs to Thee” (remember, she is a professional singer; she doesn’t “say” to herself “His snoring sounds like X, rather the association pops into her consciousness as she listens to him breathe); she invents an epithet for Bloom; she thinks about the card reading she did for him; she’s aggravated about agreeing to fix him breakfast; she philosophizes about what a better world it would be if “governed by the women”; she reflects that men are ungrateful and then thinks of Stephen, whom she worries about in a maternal way; she speculates that Stephen’s parents don’t appreciate him and that they are ungrateful which leads to her thoughts of her dead son Rudy and that she should have given the coat she knitted for him to a needy child; and she reflects that she and Bloom haven’t been intimate since Rudy’s death, which she then resolves not to be depressed about. She uses the imperative (“O move over”), indicative (“I dont care what anybody says”), and subjunctive (“if he knew”) mood. She uses the past, present, and future tense. And all of these grammatical forms are switched between with the fluid rhythmicity of thought.

The first and most obvious feature of this excerpt that adds to its verisimilitude as internal monologue is the fact that it is uninterrupted; there are no gaps in the text as there are no gaps in our thoughts. Another feature of “pure” internal monologue that makes this example (and the entire “Penelope” chapter) successful as speech-for-oneself is the use of non-referential pronouns, i.e. “he” refers to Bloom, Stephen, and Rudy at different places in the stream of thought, and, significantly, there is no immediate reference to whom of the three she is thinking about. After all, Molly knows who she is thinking about and doesn’t need to explain it to anyone – this isn’t a soliloquy, this isn’t a speech, and this isn’t dialogue. Finally, the thought mimesis isn’t disrupted by Molly reporting her actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. This last quality doesn’t apply particularly to this passage, but it is important to the success of the chapter as a whole. The only action she takes is to use the chamber pot and Joyce is careful to address her kinetic perceptions without action verbs (q.v. sub).

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Mathias Énard’s Zone, published in France in 2008 and in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell in 2010, is a novel that parallels Ulysses in many ways. Like Joyce, Énard borrowed his structure from Homer, this time: The Iliad. Also like Joyce, Énard explores consciousness with internal monologue. With Zone Énard follows the tradition of novel-length sentences such as those by Bohumil Hrabal, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Camilo José Cela. Zone is presented as a single-sentence internal monologue by the protagonist Francis Servain Mirković, a former spy for French Intelligence, now fleeing to a new life aboard a train from Milan to Rome. However, the sentence is interrupted by twenty-four, numbered chapter divisions (loosely reflecting Homer’s epic), and three chapters are devoted to a tale-within-the-tale (a book Francis is reading in which the plot parallels his own). Neither the parallel story, nor the chapter breaks detract significantly from the continuity of Francis’s roaming thoughts, and the stylistic choice of an internal monologue allows Énard great freedom in creating an intricate network of associated images.

The novel begins in media mentum in Francis’s mind as the train is leaving the Milan station: “everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser a little metallic like the sound of two bronze weapons clashing . . .” (Énard 5). Two bronze weapons clashing. Énard’s war imagery begins immediately and doesn’t relent. Francis, Croatian veteran of the Bosnian War, amateur historian, spy, has fled France with a suitcase full of war crimes information. He plans to sell the documents to the Vatican for $300,000, his nest egg for retirement under an assumed identity. The story of a man trying to escape his past, Zone is told from Francis’s point of view in internal monologue, but with the psychic distance shifted toward autobiography and reportage, i.e. with thoughts organized more logically than Joyce presents Molly’s meditations. Francis, in his recollections, tells a story, or many stories, during his trip. Francis never leaves the train, although the locations he passes serve as segues for his mental peregrinations through history (personal and otherwise), especially of wars in the Mediterranean region.

Dorrit Cohn, in her 1978 seminal work Transparent Minds, notes that “unity of place . . . creates the conditions for a monologue in which the mind is its own place . . .” (222) and compliments Joyce on his decision to place Molly in bed where she doesn’t need to address her kinetic perceptions. Of course, that isn’t entirely accurate since Molly does get out of bed to use the chamber pot. Énard also places his character in a position of stasis, the train seat he occupies for the trip, and, like Molly, Francis will get up and move about only briefly. However, Énard gets to have it both ways: yes, Francis is static (most of the time) but he is also on a moving train passing through the Italian countryside and through Italian cities – opportunities for Francis’s thoughts to segue between subjects. Sometimes Francis only notes the city without comment, such as when he passes through Parma and Reggio Emilia, but other times he uses the location as a platform to digress about history, or to facilitate his meditations. As the train pulls out of Florence, Francis thinks:

I’m facing my destination, Rome is in front of me, Florence streams past, noble Florence scattered with cupolas where they blithely tortured Savonarola and Machiavelli, torture for the pleasure of it strappado water the thumb-screw and flaying, the politician-monk was too virtuous, Savonarola the austere forbade whores books pleasures drink games which especially annoyed Pope Alexander VI Borgia the fornicator from Xàtiva with his countless descendants, ah those were the days, today the Polish pontiff trembling immortal and infallible has just finished his speech on the Piazza di Spagna, I doubt he has children, I doubt it, my neighbors the crossword-loving musicians are also talking about Florence, I hear Firenze Firenze one of the few Italian words I know, in my Venetian solitude I didn’t learn much of the language of Dante the hook-nosed eschatologist, Ghassan and I spoke French, Marianne too of course, in my long solitary wanderings as a depressed warrior I didn’t talk with anyone, aside from asking for a red or white wine according to my mood at the time, ombra rossa or bianca, a red or white shadow, the name the Venetians give the little glass of wine you drink from five o’clock onwards, I don’t know the explanation for this pretty poetic expression, go have a shadow, as opposed to going to take some sun I suppose at the time I abused the shadow and night in solitude, after burning my uniforms and trying to forget Andi Vlaho Croatia Bosnia bodies wounds the smell of death I was in a pointless airlock between two worlds, in a city without a city, without cars, without noise, veined with dark water traveled by tourists eaten away by the history of its greatness . . . (330-331) [Énard’s italics]

 One of the first things to note is that the internal monologue is more conversational, more dialogic than Molly’s internal speech. Joyce’s style eschews active verbs and punctuation, giving it a less edited and more organic feel. But such a style would be difficult to maintain for the 517-page journey Zone follows; “Penelope” is just over 40 pages. Énard’s more coherent syntax is more readable and more forgiving. Nevertheless, the sentence (fragment) succeeds in capturing the flowing thoughts of the character using many of the same techniques used by Joyce including: omitting punctuation (in places), rapid and spontaneous free association, staccato rhythms, and poetic imagery.

Francis’s thoughts flow in free association when the thought of torture triggers a list of torture techniques including strappado, the use of water, and thumb-screws; here the absence of commas, definite articles, or other grammatical devices helps create the stream of consciousness effect. In this 286-word excerpt Francis then: generalizes ironically about the past (“those were the days”), has doubts, observes his fellow travelers, thinks of the languages he knows and once spoke with a friend and his ex-girlfriend, reflects on the present in generalizations, and finally returns to his past where the names of his fellow soldiers and friends run together with locations, trailing off in poetic imagery.

menardMathias Énard

There are three notable differences between this monologue and the type of pure internal monologue seen in the Joyce example. First, it is broken up with punctuation. Second, Énard uses referential pronouns, e.g. Xàtiva/his and pontiff/his, and people have proper names. Third, the thought mimesis is interrupted by Francis’s declaring his perceptions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun, e.g. “I hear Firenze Firenze” – Molly hears a train, but she never tells the reader. This last difference is significant for action depiction as well.

Both Molly and Francis act in their memories, whether it is Molly musing about her first sexual encounter in Gibraltar or Francis reliving the horror of watching his friend get shot in Bosnia. But for movement in the narrative’s present, internal monologue can be difficult to manage without disturbing the reader’s perception, i.e. if the reader has accepted that they are “listening in” to someone’s thoughts then describing external events can be as jarring as changing the point of view. For example: one of the distinctive features of pure internal monologue is that thought isn’t disrupted by characters reporting their actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. In the following excerpt, Molly gets out of bed to urinate and find a sanitary napkin, but we only read her impressions:

O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh sweets of sin whoever suggested that business for women what between clothes and cooking and children this damned old bed too jingling like the dickens I suppose they could hear us away over the other side of the park till I suggested to put the quilt on the floor with the pillow under my bottom I wonder is it nicer in the day I think it is easy I think Ill cut all this hair off me there scalding me I might look like a young girl wouldnt he get the great suckin the next time he turned up my clothes on me Id give anything to see his face wheres the chamber gone easy Ive a holy horror of its breaking under me after that old commode I wonder was I too heavy . . . (769)

In the first line, where we expect the word “bed,” we find the interjection “pooh” – a word that has spontaneously popped into her consciousness. There is a missing copula in “this damned old bed too jingling.” She never “thinks” she is walking to the chamber pot, only wonders where it has gone. Compare this with the following passage from Zone where Francis describes going to the toilet:

I’d like to go have a drink at the bar, I’m thirsty, it’s too early, at this rate if I begin drinking now I’ll arrive in Rome dead drunk, my body is weighing me down I shift it on the seat I get up hesitate for an instant head for the toilet it’s good to move a little and even better to run warm non-potable water over your face, the john is like the train, modern, brushed grey steel and black plastic, elegant like some handheld weapon, more water on my face and now I’m perked up, I go back to my seat . . . (54)

Note the first-person pronoun and action verb use: “I shift it,” “I get up,” and “I go back.” There are three constructions using copulas (or implied copulas): “it’s too early,” “it’s good,” and “the john is.” As a result of the action verbs and copulas, what should be internal monologue feels like reportage.

Nevertheless, Énard demonstrates the versatility of a long sentence internal monologue. I agree with Mary Stein, who wrote in her 2011 review of Zone: “Énard’s ambitious prose functions as a structure necessary to and inseparable from Mirković’s narrative identity.” The stream of consciousness fluidity of the long run-on sentence mimics Francis Mirković’s disturbed mind, and if some verisimilitude of consciousness mimesis is sacrificed, his narrative identity still supports a web of imagery that rises to the level of great art.

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Altered States

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s sprawling 1996 novel, opens during the Year of Glad (ca. 2008) in an imagined future where the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have been combined into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) and corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year. Three interwoven plots follow separate groups of characters, including: the protagonist Hal Incandenza and his schoolmates at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, a group of men and women in a drug rehabilitation house nearby, and a Québécois terrorist group.

Most of the action of the novel takes place one year prior to the opening scene and is narrated in the past tense by, arguably, Hal. The novel, told primarily from a third-person point of view, has numerous examples of first-person intrusion, and it is always Hal. Hal is a linguistic prodigy, and his way of interpreting the world is revealed in a stylistic manner consistent with his consciousness, i.e. with elevated diction and complex syntax. Hal is also a drug addict. In fact, many of the characters have substance abuse issues and Infinite Jest is in many regards the epic of addiction. During Hal’s senior year at his private high school he struggles with marijuana addiction while, simultaneously, Joelle Van Dyne struggles with cocaine. Joelle is the ex-girlfriend of Hal’s older brother Orin and, after her near-fatal overdose, becomes a resident of the rehab house near Hal’s school.

dfwDavid Foster Wallace

Although Wallace depicts the consciousness of his characters almost exclusively using third-person narration, he still achieves a stream of consciousness effect in many scenes. The problem with first-person presentation of characters in drug-induced states of altered consciousness is that, as readers, we neither expect them to speak in coherent language, nor can we imagine any coherence to their thoughts at all. Thus, Cohn writes that “the novelist who wishes to portray the least conscious strata of psychic life is forced to do so by way of the most indirect and the most traditional of the available modes” (56), what she terms “psycho-narration” (or third-person narration). Wallace makes effective use of long sentences to depict altered conscious states in the scenes of Joelle’s overdose and Hal’s nightmare.

Joelle, who has a late-night radio show, was disfigured some years before when acid was thrown in her face. She now wears a veil and is a member of the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.” Early in the primary timeline, Joelle[5] returns to the apartment she shares with Molly (who is throwing a massive party), locks herself in the bathroom, and proceeds to commit suicide by smoking freebase cocaine. The following 449-word long sentence is from her point of view and takes place after her second dose from her homemade pipe:

The voice is the young post-New Formalist from Pittsburgh who affects Continental and wears an ascot that won’t stay tight, with that hesitant knocking of when you know perfectly well someone’s in there, the bathroom door composed of thirty-six that’s three times a lengthwise twelve recessed two-bevelled squares in a warped rectangle of steam-softened wood, not quite white, the bottom outside corner right here raw wood and mangled from hitting the cabinets’ bottom drawer’s wicked metal knob, through the door and offset ‘Red’ and glowering actors and calendar and very crowded scene and pubic spiral of pale blue smoke from the elephant-colored rubble of ash and little blackened chunks in the foil funnel’s cone, the smoke’s baby-blanket blue that’s sent her sliding down along the wall past knotted washcloth, towel rack, blood-flower wallpaper and intricately grimed electrical outlet, the light sharp bitter tint of a heated sky’s blue that’s left her uprightly fetal with chin on knees in yet another North American bathroom, deveiled, too pretty for words, maybe the Prettiest Girl Of All Time (Prettiest G.O.A.T.), knees to chest, slew-footed by the radiant chill of the claw-footed tub’s porcelain, Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue, lacquer, she’s holding the bottle, recalling vividly its slogan for the last generation was The Choice of a Nude Generation, when she was of back-pocket height and prettier by far than any of the peach-colored titans they’d gazed up at, his hand in her lap her hand in the box and rooting down past candy for the Prize, more fun way too much fun inside her veil on the counter above her, the stuff in the funnel exhausted though it’s still smoking thinly, its graph reaching its highest spiked prick, peak, the arrow’s best descent, so good she can’t stand it and reaches out for the cold tub’s rim’s cold edge to pull herself up as the white-party-noise reaches, for her, the sort of stereophonic precipice of volume to teeter on just before the speakers blow, people barely twitching and conversations strettoing against a ghastly old pre-Carter thing saying ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ Joelle’s limbs have been removed to a distance where their acknowledgment of her commands seems like magic, both clogs simply gone, nowhere in sight, and socks oddly wet, pulls her face up to face the unclean medicine-cabinet mirror, twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner, hair of the flame she’s eaten now trailing like the legs of wasps through the air of the glass she uses to locate the de-faced veil and what’s inside it, loading up the cone again, the ashes from the last load make the world’s best filter: this is a fact. (239-240)

Joelle’s overdose results in an altered state of consciousness. Wallace begins the descent into her mind with a complete sentence of indirect internal monologue: she hears someone asking if the bathroom is occupied The voice . . . in there”). Rather than ending this sentence with a period, Wallace creates a run-on sentence with several clauses that describe her perceptions using vivid imagery (e.g. adjectives like beveled, warped, steam-softened, raw, and mangled). About halfway through the sentence she thinks of the nickname Orin gave her. The next clause is a complete sentence and internal monologue: “Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue,” followed by a single-word thought (“lacquer”), and then the narration shifts back to third-person (or perhaps indirect internal monologue) with “she’s holding the bottle.” There are memories, then more sensory descriptions (sound is now white noise); she regards her limbs as distant, has lost her shoes, is lost in hallucination (“twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner”), and finally reloads her pipe for another dose. The long, run-on nature of this sentence; the free associations; the irrational switching between perceptions, actions, and thoughts; and the poetic imagery all contribute to creating a stream of consciousness effect in this passage.

Conveying a dream state presents the writer with the same problem of drug-induced states: it is subliminal thought. Hal’s nightmare of finding “Evil” in his dorm room is a tour de force of long-sentence syntax engendering suspense and depicting the process that takes place in a dreaming mind.

A subchapter begins with first-person narration during an indeterminate time, i.e. it could be outside the narrative while the implied author is writing. The narrator feels he is coming to a realization about nightmares. After letting this thought trail off in ellipsis, the narration resumes in second-person (heightening our identification with the character) as Hal (“you”) dreams that he is lying in bed in his pitch-dark dorm room. In the dream, Hal pans the room with a flashlight, listing what he sees:

The flashlight your mother name-tagged with masking tape and packed for you special pans around the institutional room: the drop-ceiling, the gray striped mattress and bulged grid of bunksprings above you, the two other bunkbeds another matte gray that won’t return light, the piles of books and compact disks and tapes and tennis gear; your disk of white light trembling like the moon on water as it plays over the identical bureaus, the recessions of closet and room’s front door, door’s frame’s bolections; the cone of light pans over fixtures, the lumpy jumbles of sleeping boys’ shadows on the snuff-white walls, the two rag throw-rugs’ ovals on the hardwood floor, black lines of baseboards’ reglets, the cracks in the venetian blinds that ooze the violet nonlight of a night with snow and just a hook of moon; the flashlight with your name in maternal cursive plays over every cm. of the walls, the rheostats, CD, InterLace poster of Tawni Kondo, phone console, desks’ TPs, the face in the floor, posters of pros, the onionskin yellow of the desklamps’ shades, the ceiling-panels’ patterns of pinholes, the grid of upper bunk’s springs, recession of closet and door, boys wrapped in blankets, slight crack like a creek’s course in the eastward ceiling discernible now, maple reglet border at seam of ceiling and walls north and south no floor has a face your flashlight showed but didn’t no never did see its eyes’ pupils set sideways and tapered like a cat’s its eyebrows’ \ / and horrid toothy smile leering right at your light all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face misses it overcorrects then centers on what you’d felt but had seen without seeing, just now, as you’d so carefully panned the light and looked, a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong and was evil: Evil. (62) [Wallace’s italics]

The five words “the face in the floor” (following “TPs”) are embedded 26 items into the list of things Hal sees in his flashlight beam. The reader is bored when they reach “the face in the floor,” i.e. they pass right by it – as Hal does – only for it to dawn on them later (at word 224, the italicized “no”) that floors don’t have faces. Just as Hal “sees without seeing,” we read without reading. When it dawns on Hal that he has seen something that doesn’t belong, the narration shifts to a fast, frantic pace using polysyndeton and no commas (in stark contrast to the long list of comma-delineated items) as Hal searches the room for what he thinks he saw, and when he finds it, he recognizes it as “Evil.” A pictorial representation of the cat’s eyebrows adds to the subliminal quality of this part of the sentence. A short, eight-word sentence set off as a separate paragraph follows: “And then its mouth opens at your light.” The emphasis placed on this short sentence mimics the shock of being attacked in a nightmare; it is the climactic moment when dread finally becomes acute horror. Again, Cohn reminds us:

the language of . . . psycho-narration is meant to elucidate rather than to emulate the figural psyche. The narrator builds a symbolic landscape as a kind of theoretical correlative for a subliminal stratum that can never emerge on the conscious level or the verbal surface of the figural mind. (55)

Wallace shows that either the third-person or the second-person narrative mode is effective for depicting consciousness; perhaps even more so than first-person, for those modes can stretch to subconscious altered states.

***

Are long sentences necessary for every work of fiction? Absolutely not. There are many examples of beautifully written stories containing only short, simple sentences; however, the power of long sentences is undeniable when you consider the numerous ways they can be effectively applied. Capturing the rhythm of motion – whether of actions or thought or speech – using linear prose presents a challenge for every writer. Virginia Tufte and David Jauss describe an elegant solution: use syntax symbolically; allow the syntax to mimic the rhythm. Faulkner, Hrabal, Joyce, Énard, and Wallace, achieve subtle and poetic effects through the syntax of their long sentences. But their achievements with long sentences, and those of writers like Nicholson Baker, also extend to character elucidation and conveying emotional content.

In my search for examples of long sentences, I found sentences greater than 150 words in the work of over fifty authors. Some of them stay within conventional grammar (like Baker and Faulkner), while others depart from those conventions radically. The standard rules of grammar are followed for a reason, they bring coherence to our prose; too severe a departure from these rules and the text’s meaning is lost. Nevertheless, there are justifiable reasons for coloring outside the lines; especially if, in the end, you can create sentences as effective and poetic as those by the writers I’ve surveyed. Jauss counsels that “the more we concentrate on altering our syntax, the more we free ourselves to discover other modes of thought” (68), and building long sentences is certainly a dramatic way to alter our syntax.

Looking back on my meditation on the long sentence, I find it remarkable that I didn’t find a place for the writer who set me on this path, M. Proust. Turning the pages of the volume of À la recherche I’m currently rereading, Proust’s narrator describes the musician Vinteuil as:

drawing from the colours as he found them a wild joy which gave him the power to press on, to discover those [sounds] which they seemed to summon up next, ecstatic, trembling as if at a spark when sublimity sprang spontaneously from the clash of brass, panting, intoxicated, dizzy, half-madly painting his great musical fresco . . . (Proust 233)

A fitting description for the wild exuberance some writers seem to have for their long, “panting,” “intoxicated,” “dizzy,” and sometimes fully-mad sentences – writers like Proust. Too bad I didn’t have more space to write about him. Perhaps next time.

—Frank Richardson

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. New York: Grove Press, 1988. Print.

Bernhard, Thomas. Correction. New York: Vintage-Random, 2010. Print.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP., 1978. Print.

Énard, Mathias. Zone. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Rochester: Open Letter, 2010. Print.

Faulkner, William. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage-Random, 1995. Print

Hrabal, Bohumil. Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011. Print.

Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1959. Print

Jauss, David. On Writing Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2011. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Ed. Christopher Prendergast. Trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier. Vol. 5. London: Lane-Penguin, 2002. Print.

Sǩvorecký, Josef. “Some Contemporary Czech Prose Writers.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4:1 (1970): 5-13. Print.

Stein, Mary. “This Ancient World, A Review of Mathias Énard’s Zone.” Numéro Cinq 2.18 (2011): n. pg. Web.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire: Graphics Press, 2006. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Print.

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Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Jauss’s italics.
  2. Despite wanting to divest himself of childhood memories, he never does; even the last page includes a reference to “when I was little.”
  3. Q.v. The Mezzanine excerpt wherein eleven present participle action verbs describe the motion of the various systems of local transport.
  4. Reference to a song: “The Winds that Waft My Sighs to Thee,” by W. V. Wallace.
  5. She is known also by the epithet “The Prettiest Girl of All Time” or “P.G.O.A.T.,” a nickname given her by Orin.
Nov 032014
 

Collages1

Six Russian soldiers. Young, maybe nineteen. One of them is calling for his mum, all of them are begging for their lives. They are butchered one by one. The way one of them twitches when the blade cuts his neck, the sound of the blade sawing through bone and artery. Or Mihai Antonescu, facing the firing squad in 1946, turning around to get rid of his hat, to throw it behind the pole where he will be shot – a man about to die and yet worried about his hat. Hussein not finishing his rant. The anonymous guy in a hanging video, shitting himself. An American’s politician’s brain dripping through his nose. It’s always in the details, the details always catch you unaware. The punctum of these moving images, the things not necessarily anticipated by the camera. The ones that stay with you.

*

A
short sequence in Antonioni’s The Passenger stands out from the rest of the film. Shot on 16 mm, in saturated colours, the grainy footage depicts a public execution on a faraway African beach. We see the prisoner handled by guards, then tied to a pole by the sea, a priest having his final say, locals gathered to witness the spectacle, a coffin waiting. A firing squad is in charge of taking this man’s life and soon the first volley of shots hits his body. The camera zooms in, to an out of focus close up of his face. In comes a second burst of fire. Clearly in pain he raises his hands, slowly, perhaps trying to stop the bullets. His body shakes, departs. A jump cut takes us away from his death and into a convertible with Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, the main characters in the film.

stillStill from the execution scene in The Passenger..

YouTube Preview ImageAntonioni’s The Passenger: The execution clip begins at 2:24.

The Passenger, from 1975, is a work of fiction. Yet this scene has all the hallmarks of the mondo film: brutality, a black body dying on camera, Africa. This genre – quite popular at the time thanks to films like Mondo Cane[1] and Africa Addio[2]– is renowned for its constant flirting with death (forged and real), sensationalism and erotic exoticism. The black body, semi-naked, in pain, dying, already dead, in all its alienness, perceived brutality and essentialist sensuality is one of its main attractions. Perhaps Antonioni was criticising the genre, yet in narrative terms this execution is introduced in The Passenger with the intention of providing a realistic seal and a geopolitical context to the main character’s misadventures during the tumultuous process of decolonisation in Africa. That said, what makes this sequence stand out from the rest of the film is that it is indeed documentary. This is no fiction, this is the real thing, the execution of a Nigerian petty thief fictionalised as the execution of a political leader[3]  – not that it is possible for an execution to be apolitical. Antonioni puts reality in the service of fiction in order to deliver a realistic narrative. It is complex, and problematic.

I have long been haunted by this scene, and not only by the ethical implications of turning death into entertainment. There’s a mechanics of dying on camera that keeps my mind busy. This man is alive, he is being killed, his death is being captured frame by frame. He is always still alive and always already dead. As every photograph, as every film, it reminds me an oft quoted moment in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, when upon looking at the image of Lewis Payne – sentenced to death for his part in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, Seward and Johnson –  he claims: “He is dead and he is going to die”. In the case of film we could perhaps say “he is dead, he is going to die, he is constantly dying”. For as long as there remains a physical copy of the film, every time we press play we kill this unknown Nigerian man. Twenty-four frames per second we kill him. We stretch his unnatural death over time and repeat it at will. Yes, every image is sooner or later the image of death, but there are proximities and intersections – it isn’t the same to film a baby than a man being shot. An image of actual death has a power that no other image can claim for itself. Bare life (Agamben) doesn’t get any barer than this..

pic 2 deathtubeLewis Powell, Lincoln assassination conspirator.

1024px-Execution_Lincoln_assassinsExecution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on July 7, 1865. Via Wikipedia.

And how is a celluloid death different from a digital death? I think about film and those twenty-four frames per second. I think about a particular frame in which the victim is still alive. There is a frame afterwards in which the dying person is already dead. If we had the actual film roll in front of us we could easily mark these moments, we could easily perform a cinematic autopsy. Frame 374, the subject is still alive; frame 375 the subject is now officially deceased. Nothing of this sort can be carried out on video. Digital death is a more ambiguous transition, harder to locate. You can freeze the image, yes, but how do you know how many pixels of death and how many pixels of life there are? Digital death is confusing, immaterial therefore deadlier – and yet more common. I guess something of this happens with analogue death transported to digital as well. Adopted by a new medium it becomes ungraspable. One more thing to lament from the digitalisation of everyday life

*

You wouldn’t bump into death on the screen by chance, not too long ago. I had heard about the mondo films and there were rumours of snuff flicks doing the rounds, supposedly shot during the – dictatorial –70s in Latin America, but I had never seen any of these. I had also heard about Vic Morrow, who used to play Sergeant “Chip” Saunders in the series Combat!, about his death on camera together with two child actors, shooting a dangerous scene for a John Landis’ movie, the three of them torn to pieces by a helicopter blade. I used to watch Combat! with my grandpa in the mid 1980s – Morrow’s death was the stuff of legend. For years the thought of his head flying in the air tormented me, and the lack of closure – the lack of an image – was disturbing. All these moments of celluloid were mythical, for death on camera was invisible. I was born before the VHS, cable TV, and the internet; I was born even before colour TV in Argentina. Now you can find Morrow’s death on camera with a simple Google search..

pic 3 deathtubeVic Morrow in Combat.

The execution scene from The Passenger was my first. I might have been fourteen or fifteen when I saw the film. It was a rare, raw, and quite unique experience. Particularly because I saw it at an underground cineclub in my hometown Rosario you couldn’t press pause back then. You never fully owned the image; you were always lagging one step behind, constantly losing your grip over what was playing out on the screen. Was it a real execution or just a very well performed fiction? It was impossible to tell. I trawled the local library trying to find information about this scene; I interrogated my cinephile friends. Yes, it is; no, it is not. The uncertainty remained for a while and then, yes, it was real, some scholar discussed this scene in an obscure film journal. Supposedly Antonioni had decided to use it after receiving some film rolls through the post, sent by who knows who. Patrice Lumumba’s execution was mentioned in the text – apparently the “educated” viewer would connect this murder with that other one. I often wonder if anyone ever made that connection.

It would be years until I saw another death on camera. This time it was an American politician shooting himself in the mouth. It had happened in the 1980s, but in Argentina we only learned about it in the 1990s – death on camera, when visible, used to be a delayed spectacle. This one didn’t take me by surprise, for it came with all the warnings and at 9pm on a very popular caught on camera show. Death on camera was making its first steps into primetime television and then along came the internet. Is there a medium more inhabited by death than the world wide web? You don’t need to stray too far from your familiar territory to dive headfirst into death. The internet is the deathtube. The images are up online while the body is still warm – digital death is immediate. Digital death is also death on demand: you can order a pizza or someone’s beheading, but only the latter is free.

CaptureStills from a video no longer available at islammemo.cc.

pic 4 deathtube

Death documented, filmed, scripted. There’s an aesthetics of digital death born out of repetition: different angles, the recurrence of certain facial expressions, animal howls, pixelation, camera jumps. Different genres: people filming other people being killed for the camera, people killing other people, people filming already dead people, people filming their own deaths. A register of every wound, every shot, every severed head or limb removed from its trunk. Mass produced and streamlined for the audience, who have grown so accustomed to these necroaesthetics that they barely even flinch when someone’s brains end up against a wall. Experts: read the bottom half of any of these videos, the detachment, the lack of empathy, the dark jokes, The Ranking of Shocking Deaths. We haven’t all been that audience but we have all been loitering around the dark side of the internet, asking ourselves how far are we willing to go? How much curiosity is too much? How much can we desensitise ourselves? There you go, someone else has just been beheaded. Are you willing to watch?

From Ciudad Juárez to Raqqa, from New York to South Africa, the corpus of death on camera expands day by day. It would be possible to write an alternative history of the 20th and 21st centuries just by looking at its evolution, at the way its aesthetics have been bumped with the arrival of digital technologies, the way each one of these moments of death are received.  As the cameras multiply, as the catalogue of the visible extends to the infinite, the victims continue to walk into the spectacular abattoir. We are destined to reach the moment where every death has its visual counterpart. Until even digital images turn to dust, or until there is nobody else left to watch.

 —Fernando Sdrigotti

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Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Jacopetti, Cavara & Prosperi, 1962
  2. Jacopetti & Cavara, 1966
  3. Walsh, M.(1975) The Passenger: Antonioni’s Narrative Design, Jump Cut, 8, pp 7-10.
Nov 012014
 

Gonzalez Park

 

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The season of scrambled eggs came upon us on January 6, Three Kings Day. Perhaps it was the holiday spirit–the gifts, the piñata, the candy–that reminded my mother’s younger sisters that it was time to start planning for Holy Week, only three months away. Their appeal, made just when the day’s excitement quieted down over dinner, made my body stiffened because it was an announcement of the labor to come.

“Don’t forget everybody,” tía Luz said. “Start saving eggshells.”

“Please,” tía Chata added.

A few heads nodded in acknowledgment and this seemed to satisfy my aunts. The evening’s meal progressed as if nothing had changed, but in fact it had changed breakfast every morning. No more hard-boiled eggs or eggs served sunny side up until enough shells had been collected for the cascarón sale. My fingers twitched because they still carried the memory of the times the sharp edges pricked their tips.

On the way home I held my bag of candy, too distracted to eat any of it. My mother walked in front of me with a plastic bag over her shoulder, my toys inside. I pictured her standing at the stove, tapping the end of the egg in order to make an opening large enough to coax the contents out yet small enough to insure that the egg preserved its oval shape. Once we had enough of them, my aunts would come over with the art supplies: scissors and construction paper to make the confetti that would be stuffed inside the shell; tissue thin paper to glue over the opening; and food coloring to paint the shells pink or blue or green. Each of the tasks demanded patience and skill that I was too young to handle, but my aunts insisted–cascarones were an Alcalá family tradition, and although I was actually a González first, I was the only grandchild on the Alcalá side so far. My father had objected in the beginning, on the grounds that this was woman’s labor, but my mother didn’t take long to remind him that until I became a man I was under the care of the Alcalá women, who seemed to come around too often and stayed too long–so I heard my father mumble many times.

Making cascarones was just one of the Alcalá women enterprises. In the summers they made bolis–flavored ice, in August they made paper doves for the church’s celebration of the Virgin Mary, in the winters they made tamales and champurrado, a hot cornmeal drink. All of these items they sold at the town plaza, where citizens of Zacapu, Michoacán converged in the evenings, particularly before and after church. My aunts sometimes made commemorative keepsakes for birthday parties and weddings and brought over the materials to our house then too. I half listened to them giggling and gossiping with my mother while I played at their feet. They didn’t ask me to be part of the circle of bodies around the kitchen table and I didn’t miss it. I knew my time would come, and when it did, I wouldn’t like it.

What was more maddening than cutting paper into tiny little pieces to make confetti and then sticking them into the tiny little holes, which is how I hurt myself on the pointy edges, was adding the signature detail to the Alcalá cascarones: at the intact tip of the eggshell, I would have to dab a little drop of glue and then sprinkle just the smallest amount of glitter. Many of the clients who bought cascarones missed this detail because they were so anxious to break them on top of someone’s head–which is why they had been made in the first place. No one held the cascarón in his hand and admired the artistry, the tell-tale signs that this was an Alcalá cascarón, not just one of those sloppy ones that had obviously been made in a rush. I think this is what upset me most of all. That it took so long to make one of these and in one fell swoop it was gone–turned into trash in an instant.

I remember starting to color an eggshell once and tía Luz ordering me to stop doing so immediately.

“Why?” I asked.

“The opening is too large,” she explained. “Throw it away.”

“Who’s going to notice?” I said.

“We will. It’s going to look vulgar and cheap. We don’t make vulgar and cheap.”

I looked closer at the opening. Compared to all the others, this one looked like the egg had been cut in half, not carefully tapped open by my mother’s hands. The tissue covering would have to be wide. More glue would have to be used. She was right. It was going to look vulgar and cheap. I set it aside and moved on to another, which now looked elegant with its smaller opening.

I suppose that my aunts were also teaching me pride in my work. And although I still wasn’t looking forward to months of scrambled eggs, I was more comfortable with the idea. By the time my parents and I got home on Three Kings Day, I had all but convinced myself that I couldn’t wait to make cascarones.

/

A few weeks passed and the eggshells were accumulating in a small box next to the stove. I caught a glimpse of it once in awhile when I played near my mother when she was cooking. When my aunts arrived they always entered without knocking, so I was never caught off guard when the front door suddenly flew opened and they burst in with their art supplies.

“We’ve got a cute order, Avelina, wait until you see this,” tía Chata said.

“I’ll help you mop so that you can sit down with us,” tía Luz said.

And in no time the three sisters were sitting around the table, giggling and gossiping like usual.

This time, however, my mother brought the reverie to a halt when she made an announcement about my father that even made me stop to listen.

“Rigoberto’s going to the north to work,” my mother said.

“Really?” tía Chata said. “Leaving you and the babies all alone?”

I only became the baby when someone wanted to highlight my vulnerability. At seven years old with a bicycle that had no training wheels I hardly felt like a baby anymore. My little brother Alex, who still ate from a high chair, was the baby.

“Do you want one of us to move in with you to keep you company?” tía Luz suggested. But I knew even then that this would never happen. If my father tolerated the long visits by my mother’s family, he would definitely not tolerate any of them moving in. It wasn’t so much his objection but pressure from the González side of the family, who didn’t seem to take a liking to the Alcalás–they were too religious and too forthright. The Gonzálezes were drinkers and cussers.

“I’ll be fine,” my mother said. “It’s better this way.” And we all knew what she meant.

In the coming weeks, I didn’t really notice my father’s absence too much, perhaps because I rarely spent any time with him. Once in a while I would dream about him and I would casually ask my mother where he was and what he was doing.

“Working,” is all she would answer.

What I did notice was that my aunts stopped coming around. Suddenly the house did appear too empty and quiet without their laughter. When I asked about them, my mother would look away and make some dismissive remark. But most noticeable of all was that we had stopped having eggs for breakfast. My mother started feeding me farina, which I didn’t like much because it tasted gooey and grainy.

“I want eggs,” I said to her in protest one morning. And so my mother burst into tears.

I didn’t know how to respond. So I ate my farina without further complaints and each morning after that I was careful not to let her see how displeased I was with my breakfast. I caught a glimpse of the box of eggshells and thought longingly about those days when the dreaded scrambled eggs graced my plate. What I wouldn’t give to have them again.

And then the farina ran out and I longed for it as well because now my mother was feeding me tortillas and salsa.

I understood the word “poverty” but I had never experienced hunger. I didn’t realize they came hand in hand. At school, I recognized children who had less than I did. I could tell by their shoes, their notebooks, which were always smaller than mine. But so too I recognized children who had shinier shoes than I did and even thicker notebooks. Suddenly it made sense why my aunts and my mother would gather to make their arts and crafts–they were not just entertainment or excuses to socialize, they were economic necessities, proper ways for god-fearing women to make a little extra money. All those coins in the can they brought back from the plaza paid for staples like bread and milk and eggs. Now that my aunts were not coming around for some inexplicable reason, now that my father was gone, it was just my mother, my baby brother and me, consuming very little or nothing at all. And when something is gone it is eventually forgotten and no longer missed.

/

A group of boys started playing marbles in front of the house one afternoon after school and that was my cue to run into my room to grab my cache. I eased my way into the next round. I played with my lucky white cat’s eye, which other boys coveted. Half way into the game, one of them wanted it enough to cheat, so I called him on it.

“I’m not cheating,” he said. “The cat’s eye is mine now.”

“You leaned in too far,” I said. “You didn’t shoot behind the line.”

“Yes I did,” he insisted.

I picked up my cat’s eye and pocketed it. “I’m not letting it go.”

“Oh, now who’s the one cheating?”

The other boys didn’t step in to defend either one of us. This was the law of the game. Contentious calls had to be resolved by the two parties involved. I held my stance, remaining motionless until his next move, which seemed to be evidence enough of my accusation because the boy withdrew but not before letting out a cruel remark.

“I’m letting you have it,” he said. “Because your father left you.”

I looked around at the other boys’s faces. They seemed to be complicit in this knowledge that up until that moment I didn’t have. Red-faced I ran into the house. By the time I reached my mother, I was in tears.

“What happened?” she said. “Did someone hit you?”

“Where’s my father? Did he leave us? Did he really leave us?”

My mother’s eyes began to water immediately. She had this devastating ability to cry instantly and it bothered me because that excused her from verbalizing her pain. There was nowhere to go but into silence after that. I was seven years old. What did I have to know about our broken home except that it was now as empty as my stomach, something else to get used to.

/

And then my father reappeared. It could have been a few days later or a few weeks, maybe months, certainly long enough for me to push him out of my mind. But there he was, smiling down at me as if he had only gone to town for an errand. And just as easily as I had buried him I unburied him, pleased that his absence could not be used against me on the streets or at school. My mother must have felt the same because she paraded him down the block, their arms locked, for all the neighbors to see. Even the kitchen went back to normal. Even my breakfast plate because there, glorious as gold, were my scrambled eggs again.

No one mentioned my father’s disappearance or subsequent reappearance–not in front of me anyway, and I didn’t ask about it. The more it remained unsaid the more it became undone this painful period of my childhood. And cascarón season came to a close with a successful sale at the plaza during Holy Week. It seemed everything was back in its place, and I even set a few cascarones aside for myself, which I had never done before. I broke one on my father’s head and he laughed as the confetti rained over him. I gave him my second one and he broke it over my mother’s head. At the end of the night I remember my little brother sleeping over my father’s shoulder as I fought drowsiness to watch the highlight of the festivities–the burning of el Castillo de Chuchurumbé, an intricate fireworks structure with firewheels and sparklers that was all whistles and explosions, a castle that shrieked and cried on our behalf so that we didn’t have to.

If happiness had come back to our house it didn’t last longer than three years. Three years later the González family was living in California, squeezed into a single house with our grandparents, my uncle’s family, and my aunt’s–19 bodies in one tiny space–a complete shift from our household arrangement in Mexico, where the possibility of having tía Luz or tía Chata move in with us for a spell was not even an option. But as usual, there was no questioning the why or how of things, there was just surrender and moving forward with the decisions of the grown-ups.

Unlike my older cousins, I was having an easier time adapting, probably because I enjoyed school and learning English. One of my first friendships was with a girl named Eve. She was half-Panamanian, and her mother spoke fluent Spanish, but Eve was monolingual. She also had a little dog named Peanut, which they kept in her backyard.

One summer, Eve went on vacation with her family, so she enlisted me to feed Peanut once a day. All I had to do was unlatch the gate, scoop half a can of dog food into the plastic dish and fill the second dish with fresh water. I accepted the responsibility, not because I cared much for Peanut, who barked too much, but because I liked the idea of a pet. We had dogs in Mexico, but they had functions–to guard the house from the rooftop–Peanut was a fat little critter who couldn’t even guard her own dish. It was an entirely different relationship with animals that intrigued me, yet I had no fantasies that we would ever have a pet, and we never did.

Eve gave me two cans, and Eve’s father gave me money to buy more dog food later in the week. I waved at the family as they drove away and then I sauntered back home. I announced to everyone in the kitchen that I would be storing the dog food in the refrigerator and no one batted an eye.

A few days later, Abuelo opened the refrigerator and asked about the can. I explained my role as animal caretaker and he simply shrugged.

“What’s it made of?” he asked, inspecting the can.

I was surprised by the question. “Meat, I guess,” I said. I read the ingredients more closely and translated what little I could.

“Meat,” Abuelo repeated. He placed the can back into refrigerator and went about his day. As did I.

The next time I took a can over to Eve’s house, I became curious about the dog food. It didn’t smell like any meat I had ever tasted, but this was the U.S., there were foods here I had never smelled or eaten before. As Peanut ate her fill I dared to take a pinch of food out of the can and place it into my mouth. I didn’t swallow it, but the taste lingered. My curiosity satisfied, I knew I’d never do that again, yet I still blushed, embarrassed at my own bravado.

/

Months later, as Christmas season approached, I recognized something familiar was happening in the kitchen. I knew that hollow sound of pots and pans ringing without purpose, of the refrigerator light glaring at its ribs, of the desperation in the voices of the grown-ups as they fought over supplies to feed their young. For dinner Abuelo cooked these greasy stews that filled us up with hot water, but later that night my mother called my brother and me into her bedroom and she sneaked a slice of Spam into our mouths. On those occasions, I only pretended to brush my teeth. I looked forward to going to bed with that taste locked in my mouth, swirling my tongue around and around until sleep defeated me.

School lunch was another reason to look forward to school days, and I don’t remember if we were coached or not but we didn’t reveal to anyone that we showed up without having breakfast. It was all temporary–that’s what we were told at home. No sense letting anyone else in on our shame. It was the same silence we had to keep about how many people were actually living at home. Since many of us were undocumented, we didn’t want to invite any scrutiny from neighbors, teachers, post office workers–any one of them was a phone call away from the immigration authorities. We allowed no one to look in and we certainly didn’t leak anything out.

At about this time Abuela started feeding us vitamins, huge red pills the size of a toy car–or so we joked. It was also a thing of humor to stand in a line with my brother and my eight cousins, each one of us taking our turn as Abuela shoved that monster pill down our throats. “Don’t choke, don’t choke!” the others chanted as Abuela made sure the pill was swallowed.

I can only imagine what the grown-ups went through to protect us children from really seeing what was happening in that household. If my older cousins understood they didn’t share it with us younger ones. And when I figured it out, I also went to lengths to keep my knowledge a secret from those younger than me. That moment happened when Abuelo prepared a casserole he called lasagna. It was an Italian dish, he bragged, and he was particularly proud of this because he used the oven, which was a feature of the stove none of the women in the family had occasion to operate.

As we gathered in the living room to watch TV the smell wafted among us and that made our mouths water. I thought that perhaps this might be the turning point we had all been waiting for, the sign of better times to come. It was customary for the children to eat first, so all ten of us squeezed around the table to receive a serving of this fancy lasagna dish Abuelo had made.

I didn’t admit it to myself at first but there was a familiar smell on my plate. I couldn’t quite place it so I thought that perhaps it was my mind reaching back to a flavor I had not had the pleasure of enjoying since the kitchen went bare. But when I took the first bite, I remembered: it was Peanut’s food from the can. The others didn’t know this. Their responses to the food were mixed. Some took a few bites and then started to eat around the meat, and others ate the meat willingly. It was lasagna, it was Italian food, it was supposed to taste funny. But the pasta was soft and the tomato sauce was tasty. It would do.

The sound of chewing around me was deafening, and it took me back to that moment I had experienced hunger once before, when my father disappeared. Suddenly it all came back to me–how it felt as if my guts were tying knots around each other, how I came across a candle on my mother’s bureau, the one that released the scent of cinnamon, and how I couldn’t figure out how those teeth marks had gotten there, but now I did. I had always heard the grown-ups say that I would never be able to tell when my body was stretching because it happened gradually. But something inside me grew in an instant and I felt like shattering.

Abuelo was standing at a distance. His face appeared pleased somehow, maybe curious about how effectively he had deceived us. I wanted to detect some cruelty in his gesture but I didn’t find any. Instead, I saw sadness in its pure form for the very first time. It was a look of defeat, as if he had wanted us to reject this food, to spit it out and cry foul, to accuse him with fits of anger that he had fed us dog food. It would be a moment of truth for all of us, to finally admit that this moving from one country to another had not solved our problems, had not delivered on a promise to lift us out of poverty, to satiate our hunger. And that would have meant that all this sacrifice, all this hope we had packed into our bags, all this hiding and secret-keeping, had been for nothing. I could either rip this whole theater apart and end the dream for all of us, or I could triumph over the test that had been set before me. Eat it or beat it back to Mexico.

“Are you going to eat your food?” one of my cousins asked.

I looked down at my plate. I had scarcely touched it. My fork was still buried in the entrails of the dog food lasagna. The moment of reckoning was in my hands. I was no longer the boy who belonged to the Alcalá women, I was now a young man who had joined the hardscrabble lives of the González family. Yet I knew that I had abandoned the stage of innocence even before I left Mexico, I just wasn’t ready to see the impoverished world as it really was, as it would continue to be. And so, without any further fear, I scooped out a generous portion of the lasagna and stuffed it into my mouth.

—Rigoberto González

/

Rigoberto González is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He won the 2014 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his book Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013). He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

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Oct 312014
 

Richard Farrell

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There was no indication that day would be the one, no sign that I was ready, no ceremony or ritual to mark the passage, no warning, no karmic winds blowing, nothing to differentiate the routine of that particular flying lesson from any other. We were forty-five minutes into the hour-long flight, shooting touch-and-goes into a small airfield, when Mark—my taciturn three-pack-a-day instructor pilot, who heretofore had betrayed no confidence in my ability to handle an airplane alone—ordered our next landing to be a full-stop. Under Mark’s watchful eye, I lowered flaps, flared the nose, and squeaked the tires more or less on centerline. We taxied off the runway and onto a parking apron. Mark opened his door and a rush of cool air filled the cockpit. He grinned, slid from his seat, and with one foot on the wing strut, leaned his head back inside and asked if I was ready to try one on my own.

I thought he was joking. I’m quite sure I didn’t answer. I worried that I’d misheard his question. But I must have nodded, or blinked my assent, because a heartbeat later, Mark had closed his rickety door, stepped from the wing’s shadow, and walked away. And for the very first time in my life, I was utterly alone inside an operational airplane, sputtering at the end of a taxiway in Marlboro, Massachusetts. It was 1986 and I was a sixteen year-old boy who did not yet drive a car. I was still a virgin, and would soon likely die as one. I had not, in fact, even kissed a girl yet, but I’d just been handed the controls of a sixteen-hundred pound Cessna, and told to take ‘er up. I’d been put in charge of its ailerons, engine valves and avionics. I’d been given permission to haul it aloft and bring it back to the ground, with the tacit understanding that I wouldn’t kill myself or anyone else along the way.

The Cessna-150 cockpit was thirty-five inches wide and less than five feet front to back. Crammed into a space smaller than an average dining-room table were two sets of flight controls, engine throttle, fuel mixture valve, and an array of instruments, fuses, navigation equipment, radios, lights and compasses. Not an inch of space was wasted. Only moments earlier, I’d sat knee to knee with my flight instructor, whose nicotine and stale-coffee breath provided a comforting if somewhat nauseating reminder that I had competent company. With the sudden absence of a man whose thousands of flying hours were meant to counteract my insipid twenty, that cramped space felt downright lonely.

The cockpit air smelled of low-lead gasoline and panic. I held the plane’s brake pedals with rigid feet. My biggest fear was that the plane would careen off into frost-browned fescue grass that bordered the taxiways. Dotting the surrounding hillsides, sugar maples and Dutch elms had already dropped their leaves and stood bare and gray against the late autumn sky. I pressed harder against the brakes.

~

Earth-bound for some fifty-thousand years, modern man is a recent habitué of the skies. The rapid advancement of flight, from Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral, occurred in a flash, though perhaps the real curiosity hides behind how quickly we adapt to such miracles. Hardly anyone notices airplanes zooming overhead, whereas a hundred years ago, such sights would have been a dazzling spectacle. To me, it was still a spectacle. I was a gazer. Countless hours of my youth were spent staring at vapor contrails scratching the sky, or identifying airplane silhouettes, or listening to the bassy whir of a turboprop descending into Logan Airport on a winter’s night. With a lover’s desire, I had dreamed of that moment when I would join the marvelous procession of machines and pilots.

The physics of flight is relatively simple: as an airplane gains speed, pulled or pushed along by an engine, a decrease of pressure builds along the upper surface of curved wings, the famous Bernoulli’s Principle. In a sense, flight is achieved by suction, by a force of low pressure over the wings siphoning the airframe aloft. Given enough wing-surface area and enough speed, a football stadium could fly. The pilot’s job, simplified to its barest bones, is to maintain the right mix of airspeed and attitude. Transitions are the most critical: earth to sky, sky to earth. The greatest danger in flight occurs closest to the ground, during takeoffs and landings.

It is hardly surprising that aviation invented a mythology that evolved alongside its technology. Even the earliest depictions of aviators showed swashbuckling men with scarves, leather jackets and adoring females draped on their shoulders. I admired these mythical heroes growing up, and internalized depictions of pilots in a profound albeit overly romantic way.

In the summer of 1986, when my flying education began in earnest, Top Gun shattered box office records across America. But Tom Cruise’s portrayal of the man I dreamed I might one day become was far from confirmatory. Rather than inspiring me, the movie violated the sanctity of my most private dreams. Flying for me was soul-work. I had wholesale invested my identity and my future in the notion of pilot-hood. Then, overnight, pop culture co-opted my deeply revered ambitions. Thanks to Tom Cruise, everyone wanted to be a pilot, and I felt violated.

Capture

I didn’t realize at the time why I resented that movie so much. But looking back, I see that the movie commercialized and distorted many of the spiritual aspects of my dream. Top Gun also amplified the pilot stereotype. Flying looked glamorous, easy. Jets zoomed against brilliant blue skies without effort or strain. While Maverick and Ice Man dueled across silver screens in their sleek F-14 Tomcats, I spent the summer of ‘86 coming face to face with my own ineptitude as a pilot-in-training.

Though I’d been a diligent student, no amount of book learning could make up for what, in aviation lore, is called a seat-of-the-pants feel for the sky. When I started taking flying lessons, I had imagined I’d be a natural from the get go, a student so adept at the skill of flying that I would zoom through the curriculum and immediately be recognized as the heir apparent to Lindbergh, Yeager and Armstrong. Instead, I struggled with even the most rudimentary of skills. I couldn’t keep the plane straight-and-level. My airspeed control was for shit. I landed long, struggled when pulling the plane out of a stall. My steep turns were never steep enough and my lazy-8’s resembled an asymmetrical snowman in the sky. The only thing I felt in the seat of my pants was clenched terror.

My original goal, to solo on my 16th birthday, the earliest legal age, had come and gone six months before. While teenage boys donned flight jackets and Ray Bans and serenaded teenage girls with “You Lost that Lovin’ Feelin,’” and while Tom Cruise buzzed the tower fifty feet off the deck, I came to the clear understanding that I wasn’t much of a pilot.

A previous flight instructor, a grumpy aviator with a fu-manchu mustache, once told my mother that I flew like a doctor. The only thing I gleaned from this strange violation of teacher-student trust was a veiled reference to sloppy handwriting.

Rich Pilot1

Of course I wasn’t supposed to be a good pilot with fewer than twenty hours of flight time. The stumbles, setbacks and mistakes were supposed to teach me. But in the pilot myth, as well as in the movie, difficulties were glossed over. The legend left no room for failure, no room for growth or learning or progress. So every miscue, every clumsy maneuver and failure felt keenly personal. Surely the great pilots didn’t start this way, I told myself, not realizing that they most likely had.

Mark stood on a nearby grassy hillock, smacking a package of Marlboros against his wrist. I waited. I prayed. Climb back into this Cessna and tell me it’s all a big joke. Ha ha, kid, I’ve got the controls. Go back to algebra class. But he didn’t move. In fact, Mark lit up a cigarette, his sandy hair flapping a bit in the breeze. A breeze? Where did a breeze come from? I checked the windsock again, which stretched out into the shape of a Day-Glo ice cream cone, indicating the wind had increased and swung around a bit from the southwest, adding a complicated crosswind to my still-not-so-imminent takeoff. Any attempt to leave the earth just became that much more difficult.

I tried to wrap my head around what was happening while searching for the before takeoff checklist. I pulled the laminated sheets from a door pocket, only to fumble the checklist between the seat cushions. My hands were shaking.

“Jesus,” I said out loud, more curse than prayer. How long had I been sitting there? I needed to act, to do something. The longer I waited, the worse my fear became.

As I fished the checklist from a between the seats, a thought slammed through my brain: I’m going to die. The only question was how, not when. From incompetence? From shame? From failure? With every second passing, the certainty of my untimely end came nearer. I worried I might drop from sheer terror right there, idling on the taxiway. The other possibility seemed to involve a blazing ball of fire at the runway’s end.

Needing to resuscitate my brain, I tried to recall the plane’s takeoff procedures. The checklist was useless now since on top of everything else I’d lost the ability to read. It appeared to tell me that I needed to adjust the trim, set the fuel mixture, and somehow force my hands to push the throttle forward, dumping 80-octane fuel into the plane’s normally-aspirated, direct-drive, air-cooled, horizontally-opposed, four-cylinder engine, thereby accelerating the McCauley fixed-pitch propeller to 2,500 RPMs. If I could manage to free my hands to perform these tasks, if I could follow all the steps, in more or less the correct sequence, and release the breaks and speed down the runway without veering off into the grass, if I could summon the strength from my flaccid arms to pull back on the control column, all while tapping rudders to keep the plane coordinated, and if I could remember to check the airspeed, the wind and the engine oil pressure, then, in theory, the plane would fly. I would fly. I would solo.

The first solo is a consecrated ritual—a baptism and wedding rolled into ten minutes of sheer terror a thousand feet over an airfield. Some thirty years have passed and I still remember the disintegrating sensation somewhere southwest of my heart. The fear hollowed me out, an erasure that scoured the insides of my body, leaving only a shell. My skin became acutely sensitive. My mouth went chalk dry.

I remember the way light fell on indifferent hillsides. I remember spinning propeller blades, whirring gyros, a tremble in the wings, perhaps caused by my shaking hands reverberating back through the flight controls. Face to face with reality, the magnitude of fear surprised me. The heroic architecture, so long associated in my mind with brave pilots laughing at danger, came crumbling around me.

A gray cloud deck scattered above the airfield. The runway, scuffed with rubber skid-marks and brake dust, tumbled off into the somber horizon. Behind the controls of that Cessna, alone and uncertain, I searched desperately for a way out.

Once more, I glanced at Mark, hoping for a reprieve. He took a long drag on his cigarette.

I hated him. I hated his parents for bringing him into this world and hated mine for doing the same. I hated Isaac Newton and Daniel Bernoulli and the Wright brothers and Clyde-fucking-Cessna too. The universe had ripped open a hole into eternal darkness, manifest in an empty seat where my instructor belonged. Like in a falling nightmare, the emptiness of that seat, the haunted, horse-without-a-rider sense of a pilot-less plane—unoccupied rudders, uncontrolled control column, unlatched seat belt—these things most surely represented my imminent demise. Except that airplane had dual controls, and my feet rested on the rudders, and my sweaty hands clutched the control column. I was the one strapped into that saddle, a bucking bronco of wires and avionics assembled in Wichita, Kansas, waiting for me to spur it into the air.

The runway was clear, almost mocking me with its emptiness. Fly or don’t fly, the asphalt seemed to say. Live or die. It makes no difference.

For a moment, I thought I might throw up, not an uncharacteristic response from my body when faced with stressful situations (like asking a girl out for a date). The propeller twirled and the fuselage rattled. Only two choices remained: grow a pair and get going or pull the parking brake, open the door and run screaming for the woods. Gasping for breath at the end of the runway, this couldn’t have been how Yeager got started.

Where once strength and bravery seemed embodied in the very word, pilot, the word and the act suddenly lacked meaning, because I could not remember how to do the very thing the word implied, which was to fly the airplane.

Time elongated. Each propeller revolution re-radiated doubt and fear. It felt like an hour passed while I decided. But Mark’s cigarette had barely burned down. I reflected on the absurdity of the scene, my instructor pilot watching me do nothing, the engine whining, position lights blinking, the whole airport on hold, waiting for me. At the same time, there came an awareness that I was not cut out for this sort of thing. Better to survive a coward than die a fool. But what choice did I really have? The way out certainly was no less complicated than the way through.

The metamorphosis that was about to occur was entirely lost on my teenage brain. I didn’t realize what a privilege I was being granted. On that November day, there was no way to foresee the future, or to comprehend how life decouples, like ill-fated box cars, throwing certainty and meaning off a track that then seemed iron-clad. I had no way of knowing that seven years later, my wings would be clipped for good, and that I’d be diagnosed with epilepsy and told I could never pilot an airplane again. I didn’t realize that deep fear often accompanies life’s most extraordinary moments. I had no way to realize that the minutes that terrify and most rattle us are the ones that will stand out. Like a bas-relief of memory, those moments become enshrined by their height and importance: the first girl I would eventually kiss, the first time I would fall in love, the birth of my children, and the so-many unimaginable losses and joys that would mark the path. How could I have even glimpsed a hint of that on the tarmac?

Finally, something inside flickered. The hollow sensation of fear gave way. My body and brain stirred back to life. Was that sensation what bullfighters call the moment of truth? If so, the feeling was not a triumphal one, more like resignation combined with a pinch of anger. Fear yielded to reluctance which surrendered to inevitability. Hardly a heroic procession.

I lowered a notch of flaps and picked up the mike. I called out the plane’s tail number and announced an intention to fly.

“Marlboro traffic, November-seven-one-four, Charlie Pop, ready for departure.”

The intent was for my voice to sound defiant and serious, but the words came out as a barely-whispered squeak, a child’s final desperate plea for help. Then, after a glance heavenward, and one last check of the wind, I advanced the throttle and released the brakes. The engine whirred louder. With a press of right rudder, the plane twirled around and lined up with the runway centerline. My breathing evened out. On the windscreen, the compass lagged before it confirmed my heading. This next part may not have happened, but my memory registers a shaft of sunlight piecing through cloudy autumn skies.

I pushed the throttle to the firewall and the engine revved. Torque drove the nose wheel into the ground and the plane lurched forward. The nose yawed left, which I counteracted with more rudder as the semi-monocoque fuselage reverberated atop rough asphalt with echoes and thumps.

The plane accelerated and the abyss receded. Where did the fear go? What replaced it? I don’t understand how I climbed inside the moment. I don’t quite comprehend how a timid, frightened teenager managed to fly.

I pulled back on the wheel and the wings began to generate lift. The plane entered its transition to flight, where gravity succumbs, a transition not only of the physical machine but also of the body. I may have even felt that sensation in the seat of my pants.

After that, I continued to climb out, the needle steady at 70 knots. My gut wobbled as I pushed the nose over and gained speed, a thousand feet of altitude, the propeller high against the gray horizon, trees and hills falling away. The world shrank. The runway appeared small and distant, the clouds large and close. The temperature cooled. Downwind, I aligned the port wingtip perfectly with the runway margins, and I recognized calmly, in an almost holy way, with a certainty and confidence that was entirely new, that I was actually flying, alone, no longer terrified, ass-unclenched, hands dry and not choking the wheel, and how in those few minutes of flight, all the fear and confusion receded into the background, and all that remained was flight, the pure dream man had yearned to achieve for millennia.

The transcendental feelings ended quickly. There was work to be done. A moment later, abeam the numbers, I lowered the flaps like a real pilot, and throttled back, slowing, descending. I checked the windsock and announced my intentions again—this time with a voice a sixteen year-old boy borrowed from the gods—that I was coming in to land. l turned to base and then to final, scanning airspeed and altitude, nudging the plane’s nose to line up with dashed white stripes painted down the runway, anticipating wind vectors, adjusting for turbulence, steadying the wings. Just over the numbers, I pulled back gently on the controls and cut the throttle. The nose lifted. The plane floated a second or two, caught in the magical buoyancy of ground-effect, that final transition, just before the main landing gear returned to earth, two shudders beneath me, two chirps of rubber kissing earth. Then I caught the plane’s yaw, holding the nose straight and true, and in that final moment, before the nose wheel touched down, in that final instant when the transition from air to ground remained ever so slightly in jeopardy, I realized that I’d done it, that I’ve soloed, and that nothing would ever be the same again.

172-landing

—Richard Farrell

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Rich Gun-001

 Richard Farrell is the Creative Nonfiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

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Oct 092014
 

Biscevic MostarSamir Biščević “Mostar”

In 2004, my first trip to Bosnia wrecked and remade me in a matter of days, altering forever the rhythm of my heart. When I returned to the States, I began immersing myself in Bosnian literature and visual arts, and I began seeking the company of Bosnians in the diaspora, in places as far-flung as Boston, Charlottesville, Atlanta, Chicago, and Salt Lake City.

This is how, in Chicago in 2008, I came to find the extraordinary abstract expressionist painter Samir Biščević, who saw the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) terminate his formal training at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. As much as anyone, he has helped me understand that Bosnia’s loss is our loss. Years later, on YouTube, I came across the brilliant concert accordionist Merima Ključo and soprano Aida Čorbadžić, performing live in downtown Sarajevo, poignantly marking the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the siege. Their art, their voices, and their stories accompanied me from afar when I traveled to Bosnia in the summer of 2012 and conceived of this essay. When I read the piece publicly for the first time early in 2013, Merima was there, in person, offering opening and closing music with soprano Ariadne Greif. It was one of the great moments of my life.

This essay is dedicated and addressed to one of my dearest Bosnian friends (you in the essay, unnamed), a fiercely private soul trying desperately, in exile, to put the pieces of his life together again. By implication and extension, it is also for all the Bosnians who have welcomed the stranger, who have sheltered and known me in the darkness. For their unflinching solidarity, for their unfiltered love, I am eternally grateful.

(A quick Bosnian pronunciation guide, oversimplified but providing enough, I hope, to help throughout the essay: for consonants that have a diacritical mark, add an “h” sound to make a soft “ch,” “sh,” or “zh.” A “c” without any diacritical mark is pronounced “ts,” as in “hats.” Each “r” is rolled like a soft “d,” each “j” softened to a “y.”)

—Thomas Simpson

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Merima Ključo

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Sarajevo RoseSarajevo Roses

Springs
Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2012

The steep, narrow streets of Sarajevo are the only way to get to you. I stop at the base, where the cold spring water flows, and it feels like redemption before it evaporates in the summer valley heat. I join the old women walking up slow, their thick forearms carrying fresh bread. Somehow they’re impervious to the traffic that barrels down, past your mother’s roses, your brown metal door.

You say this is how you got fast, running this hill in the siege, your wheelbarrow shuttling jugs of water up from the brewery below. Sweating, heart pounding, flashing in and out of the sniper’s sights. His comrade’s shrapnel had already lodged in you, that first October, inches from your spine. The time you were in a neighbor’s field, snaking just to glean a few potatoes or pears that might have secretly come to term.

Thank God for the brewery, pumping fresh water from the underground, where the earth whispers its resistance: Take. Drink. And come back later, because we’ve got a little beer. Take a bottle down to the nightclub. Pass it to your brothers and sisters, the chalice, a couple of cigarettes the body broken for you.

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Ash

My first time in Bosnia, ten years ago, I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke. Ashes to ashes, the relentless headache, hack, wheeze in a fog of second-hand truth. It was worst in Mostar, the desert-dry city with the old stone bridge, the sparkling green river, and the battling sounds of the muezzin, the church bells, and the thumping dance beats pouring out of the riverside cafés.

Stari MostStari Most, the old Ottoman bridge at Mostar.

Now, at Ilidža, at the source of the river Bosna, you light the first cigarette, and I brace myself for a second respiratory hell. Desperate, I wonder if Sarajevo can help me overcome another deep aversion. I remember my smug contempt for the accordion vanishing in a heartbeat last spring, when Merima first got hold of me. She was on streaming video, playing a love song for Sarajevo: Što Te Nema, “Why Aren’t You Here?” Merima on a makeshift, outdoor stage, cradling and wrestling life from the accordion, before an audience of 11,541 empty red chairs. I traveled four thousand miles to follow that sound, all lungs and tears and love. So now, I let the smoke wash over me. It fills my lungs, older, suddenly not afraid anymore, lungs that know love is everything and it will kill you quick as hate.

Tunel Spasa InteriorTunel Spasa interior.

We go to the tunnel museum, Tunel Spasa, your only way out during the siege. You tell me that English-speakers get it wrong when they call it the tunnel of hope. It’s the tunnel of salvation. Salvation for the few, crouch-digging underground in the hungry damp cold, trying to survive only for exile, trying to survive only for salvation from the ultra-nationalist Christians who burn, shell, murder, and rape. I think: Jesus, maybe we’re hopeless.

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Salt

We drive north to Tuzla, the city of salt mines and salt lakes. Mima and Zilka meet us at Vive Žene, the center where women counsel tortured, shell-shocked sisters. We sit in a circle, taking small comfort in coffee, fresh cherries, and wordless understandings. It conjures a line from Žalica, the filmmaker: the microsurgery of the soul.

In the evening, we feast with a family preparing to send a son to Phillips Exeter Academy where I teach. On the back patio, the bread of life—burek, ćevapi—the stunning flowers, the setting sun. Then we walk to the town square. It’s sinking—watch your step—there’s been too much extraction and now the salt of the earth is gone. We come to the memorial, where Edina draws me close and translates the poem for the night in May, 1995, when shelling hit the square and cut down seventy-one, mostly youths. We cry. Yet it is beautiful here tonight, the teenagers striding through the square. We start to walk again, and Edina’s baby lets me hold her a little while. She seems to know I need to hold her a little while.

Tuzla Square 1

I remember a tip from a friend back home: go to the Phillips Exeter school archives, he said, and get the transcript of a talk that a young Bosnian, Vedrana Vasilj, gave in the chapel back in 1997. We were transported, he said. I find it, Vedrana in late spring, revealing that she was there that awful night in Tuzla, working at the hospital, receiving the bodies of her friends. She said, in perfect and plain English, that it was the night Tuzla’s hope died. And the crowd cried, my friend told me, a little salt from their souls for Tuzla.

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Grounds

I tell you I have to tour Srebrenica. You must wonder what I want to do with ghosts—you want to live. We make the slow drive from Tuzla, hugging the Drina, that river of blood. You’re as tough as they come, but when we arrive the tour guide’s talk, all those names carved in stone, it’s all too much. You have to leave. I go on earnest, reverent with the tour, the talk, the film, the photographs, the hush, the sacred remains, the thousands of graves. I fight the hallucinations: all the Muslim men and boys running for their lives, there, through those forests, over those hills, trying to make it, somehow, to Tuzla. The hallucinations that Samir still paints in Chicago—their nightmares, their steps, their path. His Guernica.

Fritz at SrebrenicaSrebrenica Genocide Memorial

When I have seen everything, I find you. You’re back from the dead, sipping coffee and charming the old widows who run the little souvenir stand at Srebrenica, in head scarves and long skirts, the women who endure only to mourn. You’ve been sitting with them for hours, enfolding them with your eyes, letting them remember their sons and grandsons a little, strong, funny, fierce, tender. They’re in love. They help us find a gift for my wife, Alexis, a scarf, dazzling pink set against pure black. We thank the women, choking back tears, and we get the hell out of Srebrenica.

When we arrive Sunday in Bihać, on the other side of the country, Zehra and Almir are waiting for us with the same coffee, the good, strong Bosnian coffee, Turkish like espresso in small cups with the grounds thick and dark as tar. The apartment building is tall, socialist grey, and all these years later you, Zehra and Almir, you still have to live within the shelled walls and cracked glass, and it makes me hate them so much. But you don’t want to talk about that—the flowers in your window box tell me all I need to know. You have kept watering the soil. It is so clear I am lost.

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Ink

A couple of days later Almir notices, over coffee at the sidewalk café. He says I should stay longer, that I’m just a few days away from being a real Bosnian. He means it, and I think I know what he means. The night before, we stayed up for hours at the neighborhood pub and tattoo parlor, joking like idiots, throwing darts. But by two in the morning, I was exhausted. I really wanted to leave, but you were my ride, and you were already home. So I started imagining myself stretched long on the tattoo bed by the bar, knowing that to be a real Bosnian I’d have to do some time there, and in that haze getting a tattoo started to seem like a fantastic idea. But soon we left, I slept, and it was gone.

Back in Sarajevo, we sit by the river Bosna, at the source, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, feta, and beer, Sarajevsko, straight from the brewery. You laugh at me when I tell everyone I fell in love with Bosnia the first time I tasted the garden tomatoes, but I swear it’s true, you have no idea what the American tomato has become. Then I flash to that feast eight years ago, with Jasmina’s aunt, up near Banja Luka in the house the Chetniks had occupied and trashed during the war. It was restored now, and there we gathered, fifteen of us, the heavenly banquet, everything fresh. I was falling in love with it all when I noticed Jasmina’s uncle wasn’t saying much. Then I remembered he had been in the camps, where someone’s needled concentration left numbers on his arm. And hate was seared to the skin of my love.

We were supposed to meet Nermina, the art critic, Samir’s friend, but it’s almost 100 degrees and it’s too hot for anyone to walk to us. So we go for a drive up Mt. Trebević, one of the Olympic mountains, where bobsledders once screamed down a track that’s already in ruins. The graffiti is spellbinding. We keep going, all the way to the top, and up there what must have been a beautiful restaurant is wrecked, burned out, graffiti-tagged, no hip urban art just the scattered signatures of death.

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Tile

When I look all the way down Trebević, I finally see how easy it was for them, fish in a barrel, firing down at the millions of terra cotta tiles, roofs burnt orange against blue summer sky, those perfect illusions of shelter.

Sarajevo Terra CottaSarajevo Terra Cotta.

Trembling, I step back from the edge. You’ve taken a phone call, so I’m on my own. I decide to head into that restaurant, shards of tile and brick crumbling under my feet as I move with my camera toward shafts of warm sunlight. When I come back, you hang up and say shit, man, stay out of the shadows, there could’ve been landmines. I lose my breath, thinking of the killers’ deranged hospitality. Killers high like gods with artillery made to take planes out of the sky, but they, they liked aiming it down at the city that has always been a place for travelers to rest.

Trebevic Restaurant

Back in your apartment, where your father laid red tile for you, I toe a depression in the kitchen floor. I ask if I did something wrong, and you say no, that’s where a little while ago your ex-wife dropped a heavy pot. Crash, the pot falling, your wife falling so out of reach and shattering the tile of your heart. You tell me that was rock bottom, and it was peacetime in Sarajevo.

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Pulse

You want to live. And if you know anything in Bosnia it’s that we can’t be afraid to be alive. So we talk, listen, laugh, cry and crank the music loud—Dubioza, EKV, Kultur Shock—yes, we rock and groove all over Bosnia in Sasha’s beast of an old red Ford station wagon that tells the mountains to bring it on and says who’s the stupid American always in the passenger seat who can’t drive a stick?

And the young women stride through Sarajevo with their eyes on the latest fashion, their hair highlighted smooth bronze, blonde, or indigo against brown. I remember Zehra telling us where to get some of that dye for Alexis, whose hair is dark like Zehra’s, her favorite color purple. So we walk into a pharmacy and I grab the box before I realize how ridiculous I’ll look holding this stuff in line. You say give me a break, just be confident, so I do it, and like magic, the American woman next to us starts to flirt with me a little. She says wow, that’s gonna look great on you. I look at you, and we laugh like we’re seventeen.

Then we step out into the mid-afternoon sun, and I see my God, we’re on the street where Merima played her song for Sarajevo, last April, twenty years since the beginning of the siege. Merima’s accordion and her inexhaustible, sweet embrace of the survivors, the sorrow, and our broken, beautiful lives, our lives with all we have left.

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Merima Ključo & Miroslav Tadić

—Thomas Simpson

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Simpson author shot

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.

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Oct 062014
 

Author Pic

The_Obituary-Front_Cover-web

 

“We wait for a thing, and when we come upon it, it is already in the process of turning.”

                                                         —Nathalie Stephens, At Alberta

 

 

Introduction

 

How to do justice to a text so rich that I could only do justice to it, as Charles Bernstein says, by repeating it exactly? The Obituary (2010/12) is the most challenging and enigmatic of Gail Scott’s works to date. It borrows a little something from each of her previous works, exhibiting an array of experimental techniques that are visible in her earlier work back to her first novel, Heroine:

The Obituary incorporates multiple perspectives, or multiple speakers which merge with one another (the protagonist and speaker R—or ‘I/R,’ or ‘Rosine,’ or ‘Rosie’—is both continuous and discontinuous, for example, with I/th’ fly, another speaker, and with ‘The Bottom Historian,’ yet another speaker). The subject, or self, The Obituary depicts is in this way porous; it is not unlike the protagonist of Scott’s Main Brides (1993), Lydia, who, as Jennifer Henderson points out in an insightful analysis, is never rendered in any depth, but is only accessible through the portraits she provides of the other women at whom she gazes, portraits ‘she,’ as a self presented, ultimately blends with (Moyes 72-99).

The self The Obituary depicts is also obviously fragmented (it splits off into multiple perspectives), a fact that is enhanced by Scott’s use, in the novel, of the sentence fragment as a main building unit. Scott’s use of the present participle—“Increasingly I am slipping. Yesterday, riding bicycle down sidewalk…sticking middle finger straight up…Trying by slightly bending th’ digital…Turning right + driving, still on sidewalk…” (7)—is intended to serve the same end: to allow the subject, literally absent from many of the fragments, to fritter away. These techniques become visible in Scott’s oeuvre with My Paris (1999).

The jarring syntax in both My Paris and The Obituary takes effort to acclimatize to; the language making up Scott’s prose in these two works actively draws attention to itself. Because it takes getting used to, it delays the reader’s—depending on the reader—absorption into narrative (though not forever).

Scott’s novels have all, in one way or another, attempted to reinvent narrative; they can be said to exist as part of the rich and motley tradition of so-called non-narrative.[i] The Obituary, in particular, reimagines narrative structure as an improvised structure which exhibits recurring elements (in this case, tropes and specific questions) without seeming to head anywhere (while keeping a running commentary on the fact that it seems only to meander): Plot—at least understood in conventional ways: promise and the deferred fulfillment of promise; desire, thwarted, then navigated; conflict and the unfurling of its consequences—has a minimized place here and, as a result, the book does not lend itself to blow-by-blow summary.

‘What happens’ in the first section (“R, Negative”) continues to happen in each of the text’s remaining major sections (“The Triplex,” “Venetians That Even Private Eyes Have Trouble Sleuthing,” and “A Clue in R Case”), though of course not in the same way:

A face peers from the window in her Montréal, upper-floor apartment (her city is a fictional Montréal that, in many ways, has real-world resonance); the face is noted by different passersby, whom the narrative voice describes in excessive detail (conceptually-motivated excessive detail). Sections in which the face is present, gazing out, are intercut with sections in which R/protagonist, who is both continuous and discontinuous with the face, is moving through the city streets, either by bike or by bus, or is lying on her bed in the middle of her dark-centered apartment. In the sections in which she is described as lying on her bed, R might be dead, a corpse, or she might be masturbating, or she might be reflecting upon her family history (or on her lover, the absent addressee ‘X’): each of these possibilities is suggested. The Obituary refuses to decide between them.

The sections in which R is actively traversing the city occur in the fall, whereas those in which she is bed-bound tend to be set in the winter (there is ice on the sidewalks, for example). By the winter, specifically by November 2003, the face in the window, R, has been reported missing; two cops—a young, Québécois aspiring-actor who can’t seem to handle his food (he is highly flatulent) and an older Parisian virtuoso—have set up inside the stairwell outside her apartment. The Parisian peers in through her peephole and can perhaps see her there, on the bed; the younger gendarme sits a few steps down with a computer; at different moments he seems to succeed at hacking into her files. I/th’ fly is also in the stairwell, flitting about on the old cop’s shirt collar (“essayin’ little samba…I/th’ fly stickin’ backside out + swivellin’ to left, pirhouettin’ to right…” [76]). This fly/speaker is nearly omniscient: able to “see” into the apartment with the recumbent Rosie, or R, notwithstanding the apartment’s walls and closed door, and is also able to narrate the cops’ backstories.

The rest of the text in which the above ‘set-up’ is embedded, and repeated, reads like a collage of memory and history (the prose is densely reminiscent). As R rides about, either by bike or by bus, or simply reflects, the speaker, at times coincident with her, documents the city’s current process of transformation, the people in its buildings and streets, the hybrid languages and politics found there, as well as the play of events which helped shape the city into what it is (the labouring ‘Shale Pit Workers!,’ a smallpox epidemic, and the conflagration of the historical Crystal Palace building are recurring points of focus). As the narrative voice roves, it also documents the more encapsulating history of a country founded on genocide. Creative footnotes contribute to The Obituary’s historical enterprise, supplementing the main text with critical reflections, questions, and counter-memories (from “the margins of perception” [55]) which give the lie to dominant historical narratives. A footnote in the voice of The Bottom Historian reads, “What leads generation after generation of new arrivals in the Americas to endlessly iterate that everyone here an immigrant? From earliest fresh-faced settler boys enlisting, for economic reasons, soon leaning over pits + bayonetting every copper skin that moved…” (82).

R finds that the violent effacement of the Indigenous population is not even noted in the supposedly comprehensive Book of Genocides (on loan from her landlord), which she subsequently rips up, allowing the yellowing pages to scatter on the streets below her window (they become a recurring motif). Whether she is out and about or on her bed, R is haunted by this violence, particularly insofar as it permeates her personal and familial history: She herself is Indigenous, but her ancestry is spotty: it has been downplayed and, in some cases, actively concealed; she is unsure of the details. In the final section, “A Clue in R Case,” R addresses an absent grandfather with a few of the questions which agonize her:

Grandpa: on the subject of marrow. Was your paternal grandma Maria’s lack of family name meaning she Indigenous? Was the Canuck Maria marrying somewhere au nord du Québec mixed? Or pure laine? Was your father the Shale Pit Worker! fleeing smallpox epidemy, really marrying an Ojibwa somewhere in Ontario? Whose offspring [you, Grandpa] marrying [but why only saying after she dying?], the Métis, Pricilla Daoust… (158; brackets in the original)

These questions are not answered; they exist as instances or examples of hauntings and elaborate on the novel’s central preoccupation: R tells us early on that she is posturing as a woman of “inchoate origin” (we might read: an origin not formed, but forming and hence unknown) in order to “underscore how we are haunted by the secrets of others” (6). The text proceeds as a sort of sustained meditation on this subject: R, returning again and again, in different contexts, to the question of her origin, is not the only one haunted in the text: The passersby are haunted by R’s face in the window; the cop’s in the stairwell and her psychiatrist are haunted by the fact of her absence; those who have qualms with R, her neighbours, including her landlord—the latter because R set her sex toys out on the balcony one day, where they were plainly visible to children—“Dildo like a stallion’s!” (89)—are antagonized by the secret of what she gets up to in the privacy of her own home.

Scott has used the metaphor of ‘the spiral’ or of ‘roundness’ to describe the structure of her novel Heroine (1987), which proceeds in a similarly repetitious, meditative way (with the protagonist returning again and again to the question of whether her creative practice should be subordinated to political engagement, and to the somewhat masochistic ‘open’ relationship she is engaged in with a political leader, which is deteriorating). Heroine, as Scott discusses in her collection of essays, Spaces Like Stairs (1989), is supposed to enact a feminist politics of form while gesturing through its content and structure toward a conception of the self as, not only fragmented, but unfixed (the self could be or become anything). The Obituary enacts a similar politics and gestures toward a similar conception of the self, or subject. And yet it is also a text which actively resists reductive interpretations. It may seem impossible to have it both ways: to both inscribe the novel with a politics and to shun the idea of fixed meaning (this is one of the reasons postmodernism, a champion of unfixed meaning, has seemed so incompatible with, and has even seemed like such a threat to, feminism). In what follows, I examine the ways in which The Obituary, continuous, as a text, with other texts outside it, treads precisely this hard, paradoxical line. It is a feminist, postmodern novel if there ever was one.

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A Politics of Form versus the Dead Author

It will be helpful to examine Scott’s poetic, as well as the feminist politics it implies, and the problem this politics might be said to pose for postmodernism, in greater depth before exploring the respects in which it plays out—in a way that is actually compatible with postmodernism—in The Obituary (at the level of the novel’sthemes, as well as at the level of its structure).

A poetic is typically understood as theoretical writing pertaining to an actual poetic practice, though poetry and poetics can intersect at times. Scott’s works have been marketed for the most part as fiction (novels, stories), though perhaps this term, in Scott’s case, is best reduced to a marketing label. Elsewhere she refers to her works as ‘prose experiments,’ and, in general, her writings refuse the sort of dichotomized mindset that would sever fiction from poetry. Why, Scott asks, quoting Ann Lauterbach, “should only poetry [be]…about the way language works (rhythms and sounds and syntax—musical rather than pictorial values) as much as it is about a given subject?” (The Virgin Denotes). In her collection of (at times also structurally and linguistically innovative) essays, Spaces Like Stairs, Scott expresses a desire for both poetry and the cultural legitimacy bestowed by ‘story’; at no point does she forsake fiction, though she does reconfigure it in order to better create, as she says, “stories ‘shaped’ like me” (67).

Her desire in this regard—to create stories “‘shaped’ like me”—is deeply indebted to the communal feminist/aesthetic practices that were specific to late twentieth-century Montréal. These practices, in which Scott herself participated, were informed by European French feminist philosophy and what we might call postmodern writings (writings by thinkers like Foucault and Barthes), which, given the absence of a language barrier, could find their way into that context independent of translation and mediation via academia. La Théorie, un dimanche (Theory, A Sunday) is a collection of essays by the writers working in that context and imbibing these European writings (Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, Louise Cotnoir, Louise Dupré and Scott herself contribute essays). Its content reflects the conversations that transpired between these writers in a formal discussion group initiated by Nicole Brossard in 1983: meetings on different topics were held every two months, and the fruits of this sustained form of thinking were published in French in 1988. The English translation, Theory, a Sunday was only recently published—2013—by the American experimental press Belladonna.

There are several themes which recur in this text and which carry over into Scott’s Spaces Like Stairs, which was published a year later (in 1989). The possibility of a ‘feminine subject’ is a central concern. For these thinkers—though we can see the idea in the French feminist writings which were influencing them, particularly Hélène Cixous’ influential essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa”—“the feminine” expresses a gap, or black hole in patriarchal culture: it is something that has been misrepresented, distorted, and even actively occluded in a patriarchal setting, particularly by language as it is deployed according to the (patriarchal) norms and conventions (including literary norms and conventions) that govern this setting. The question for these writers is then how to score “the feminine” in culture through creative work that does not use the very language and literary forms that are deployed to obstruct it. This is a difficult task because, as they say, the patriarchal imagination not only governs the way in which women are represented (say, within works of fiction, or even within cultural narratives), but also preserves for itself the power to either validate or discredit works of literature—praising those which conform to its aesthetic and consigning those which do not to the proverbial gutters as either ‘green’ or ‘garbage,’ effectively exiling the author from prize culture and other avenues of legitimation.

The critique here is deep: It challenges the very criteria of literary valuation, which it recognizes is not neutral, demanding that its governing conception(s) of excellence be reassessed, and that we allow a descriptive rather than a prescriptive ethos to inform our engagement with new texts. As Louky Bersianik points out in her contribution to Theory, A Sunday, “a number of critics seem far too busy telling authors, especially female authors, what they should be doing instead of taking an interest in what they are actually doing” (64).

Scott’s Spaces casts light on the functional conception of the patriarchal aesthetic that serves as a backdrop for these writers’ thinking: In it, she suggests that linear narrative (with its linear time and cause-effect logic) and conventional sentences (which hammer subjects to verbs—in a later interview she also suggests that they “sentence” in a juridical sense, deciding things, definitively [Moyes 221-2]) may hinder the expression of “the feminine.” She also articulates a suspicion of the value of ‘action’ in narrative and conventional (possibly anti-intellectual) notions of accessibility, favouring writing which follows the ear, or lets language, lets poetry specifically, “take the lead in making ‘sense’ of the socially fragmented female ‘core’” (67). Those who care deeply about creating linguistically interesting sentences, or, even more generally, linguistically interesting text, may be more likely to appreciate the tension that exists between language that titillates the ears and is visually pleasing on a page and a focus on language as communication: It is hard to both control the direction of the prose and resist falling into ‘language as usual.’ As Nicole Markotic says, speaking as a writer of prose poetry, “[a]s soon as I take a step toward the horizon, the horizon reconfigures—itself and me” (“Narrotics” par. 5).

Consistent with this, some of Scott’s early critics claimed her prose consisted merely of “a whole lot of images going nowhere,” or, if they acknowledged a through-line in a given piece, claimed it was too distracted (Spaces 67). These qualities, of course, are not inherently negative (though the claim that Scott’s images go nowhere is overstated). Nothing in art is inherently negative, and these qualities in particular make sense within Scott’s theoretical framework, which suggests that “the feminine” might be best achieved in writing through the pursuit of poetry and the temporary suspension of plot, character, form, and “reasonable” writing more generally (reason has historically been associated with masculinity—femininity, conversely, has cultural associations with madness, chaos, emotion and puerility). “The more one transgresses,” Scott writes, “the more one distances from law and order” (73).

As I mentioned earlier, Scott has used both the metaphor of ‘the spiral’ and the metaphor of ‘the sphere,’ or ‘roundness,’ to speak of the structure of this alternative mode of writing she is engaged in, which, as she sees it, is conducive to creating stories ‘shaped like her.’ A story shaped like her, a particular female self who exists and writes from within a community of other critical female selves with whom she is not exactly uniform (since no self is), is, according to the theoretical framework she is working in, a story which bears the imprint of “the feminine” (“the feminine” therefore admits of no generic template). Scott’s politics of form—which is committed to bringing “the feminine” into view in a culture which has covered it over—insists that this imprint should be present: “the writing subject is not neutral, gender coding cannot be absent from the text” (Spaces 49).

This insistence on the trace of the author on the text at first seems to stand in opposition to a postmodern way of thinking—Barthes concluded his infamous essay “The Death of the Author” with the claim that the text (namely, the postmodern text) and the birth of the reader would have to come at the expense of the author: To attribute the text to an author in terms of whom the text could be read—the text could be read as a manifestation of the author’s psychology, or history, or could be read in the way the author ‘intended’ it to be read—was seen as a gesture which limited the number of ways it could be read: the meanings linked to an Author-God, rather than existing alongside other meanings, would eclipse all other possible meanings—they would, in other words, ‘close’ the writing. The postmodern mindset, reflected in pieces like Derrida’s “I have forgotten my umbrella,” is one, conversely, which values the proliferation of meaning, encouraging readers to promote this proliferation and to eschew reductive readings by relating to words, sentences and texts in a way which does justice to the nature of language—a system of signs whose meanings, according to this mindset, are always potentially infinite and have more to do with the way signs, or words, mingle with each other than they have to do with connections between words and the things in the world, to which they are usually said to refer.

This being said, the trace of “the feminine” can be thought in relation to the postmodern in a few ways: As the insisted-upon trace of the author (a gender coding which cannot be absent), it might be thought to threaten the text’s capacity to ‘mean’ in an unlimited number of ways (it might be thought to provide a lens for the text which, treated as the exclusive lens through which the text can be explored, will hinder a reader’s exploration of the work’s myriad other possible significations ). Alternatively, the trace of “the feminine” might be conceived as a harmless pseudo, or merely supposed, trace, since fixing “the feminine” as an imprint on the text would be, according to a certain postmodern way of thinking (there are, in fact, a few different postmodern ways of thinking), an impossible task to begin with:

This postmodern mindset insists on understanding the text as a network of words which not only do not gesture to a world beyond language, but also, in mingling with each other in an infinite number of ways, perpetually posit meaning, “but always in order to evaporate it” (Barthes, DA par. 6). The text, viewed from within this mindset, cannot actually possess an ultimate meaning, let alone an ultimate feminist meaning. Because the language that makes a text up is not supposed to refer to an outside world and the things within it (words merely refer to other words), it is supposed to be impossible to discover “society, or history, the psyche, or freedom” behind it (Barthes, DA par. 6). This particular postmodern mindset also makes the more extreme suggestion that there is in fact no society or psyche (let alone a feminist psyche) behind the text: All is text. Simply. As Christian Bök puts this in “Getting Ready to Have Been Postmodern,” “the play of the postmodern goes on to display a new atopia of humanist cancellation in a world without any certified existence” (89-90; in Stacey).

I would like to defer discussion of whether “the feminine” as a fact of existence “beyond” the text is actually incompatible with a postmodern perspective (a kind of postmodern perspective) until the final section in this essay. For now, I would simply like to examine the ways in which the thinkers of Theory, A Sunday are dwelling within and acknowledge the postmodern perspective as outlined above, while also exploring the respects in which “the feminine” as an imprint on a given work may actually be compatible with this perspective.

For one thing, the thinkers of Theory acknowledge that it is impossible to limit what a text can mean; they profess a desire to create works which refuse singular meanings, as well. Louise Dupré writes that “[t]exts written by women cannot be reduced to a feminist reading, even a well-intentioned one. They constantly resist such a process” (Theory 101). Even Scott is explicitly devoted to creating texts that remain ‘open.’ In Spaces Like Stairs, she insists that “[w]here there is closure (firm conclusions) in ‘straight writing’ there are spaces, questions in hers. Even her anecdotes point to other possible representations, leave themselves open for reader intervention” (102)—‘her’ in this instance refers to a writer of “the feminine.”

As far as “the feminine” goes, moreover, it is in many ways bereft of content. True, expressed as a gap in patriarchal culture, something covered up or distorted, the term seems to point toward something pre-existing, specific and perhaps ‘essential’ (an ‘essence’ usually implies content of some kind: it is the key trait or set of traits that makes something what it is). In Spaces, Scott recounts, for example, how at a colloquium a writer asked her what she meant in using the language of “listening to the animal inside her” (presumably while speaking about how “the feminine” might be accessed): “I had to admit I meant listening to something essentially ‘feminine’—perhaps to a part of ‘self’ (i.e., self-as-woman) not quite integrated into the law, closer to ‘nature.’ In [postmodernist] terms this was heresy” (52). Yet elsewhere in Spaces, she describes “the feminine” as having a changeable meaning: it could be or become anything (47). This shift in Scott’s vocabulary speaks to a kind of intellectual flexibility and provisionality on her part; it is also in keeping with the idea that the thinkers of Theory, A Sunday are consciously engaged, not in an act of making feminist ideology—they are not telling a story about an essential “feminine”—but in an ongoing, open-ended, critical process of thinking:

Taking risks. That’s what fiction does when in uncovers a woman-consciousness that goes beyond the feminist superego. In this moment when it seems that theory is spinning its wheels, when young girls see feminism as a form of ideology, a strict doctrine that accuses them for what is actually imposed upon them from the outside, writing allows for a conception of feminism that would be a space of discussion, questioning, change. In short, a conception of feminism as it actually is: a territory in motion, open, polymorphous. A movement. (Louise Dupré, Theory 101)

“The feminine,” like the feminine subject, or self, and like the thinking that takes her as a subject, or topic, and that articulates her in different ways, is difficult to pin down in terms of content precisely because it is always “in process.” It does not necessarily find expression in female characters as they are represented or in feminist themes, and, as a result, as Scott points out, writing which inscribes “the feminine” may not necessarily lend itself to “content-focused” feminist analysis: its feminism, in keeping with a literary tradition particular to Québec, instead plays out more as a “radical contestation of language and form” (Spaces 39). I would add that, if it is registered on a thematic level, it is registered more during those meta-moments when a given text (we will see that this is true of The Obituary) has the opportunity to explicitly reflect on what it is doing (compare Spaces 47).

What is “the feminine” then? If it is, in the ways I’ve been describing, content-less, it is not clear in what sense, inscribed in the text, it would limit, like the looming Author-God Barthes criticizes, the field of a given work’s possible meanings. We still might ask how “the feminine” might be understood. I stumbled upon a passage that is illuminating in this regard while reading Rob Halpern on the topic of New Narrative. ‘Community’ as Halpern discusses it—as a concept which denotes a content that is only ‘potential’—is in some ways analogous to “the feminine” in the sense that we’ve been discussing it:

[P]otentiality characterizes New Narrative’s approach to community not as something replete with self-present or transparent content, but as a set of lacunae, blanks, opacities that propose the collective as a question, a negative, a place-holder for something in excess of what it is given…This suggests the temporality of the future anterior…In other words, what will the present’s incoherence look like from the vantage point of the transformed future our story will have ushered into being…” (89)

Interestingly, the future anterior does crop up as a theme in The Obituary—perhaps it is the trace-mark of a larger conversation, since Scott does have ties to the New Narrative tradition in the States (they developed after she became established as a writer through her initial engagement with Québec’s writing scene in the seventies and eighties), or perhaps it is not. Regardless of whether it is or isn’t, the future anterior, as a tense that is a metaphor for a future vantage point, helps us make sense of “the feminine” as something which might be both politically effective (it may usher in a new way of thinking, a new world because, proposed as a ‘blank’ or ‘opacity,’ “the feminine” poses the gendered social world as a question, suspending its assumptions) and non-ideological and in this sense non-reductive: Hindsight may show it to have a discernible content, but until then, it is without one (unless its content is its dearth of content), and by then the world and “the feminine” within it will once again be transforming.

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The Feminine Subject-in-Process in The Obituary’s Themes and Structure

 “A sphere: a nice feminine shape to take off from, a shape that gives us the latitude to avoid linear time, that cause-and-effect time of partriarchal logic. Yes, the sphere is precisely the kind of shape, of movement, that permits us to leave reasonable prose behind. It’s a shape that abets (my) departure from a horizontal plane of writing, the better to decipher a memory blocked by silence, to leap from my discoveries towards a future not yet dreamed of. Twisting, altering in the process, the sphere itself…” — Gail Scott, Spaces 73

The prose making up The Obituary seems to meander. The text, which proposes a mystery and in many ways incorporates the tropes of film noir and the detective novel—we have R in the center of her dark apartment (though she may also be missing) and the two cops in her stairwell, who may see her or may not, and who are trying to solve the case of her disappearance, her possible murder—also gestures toward a direction the prose could take: It could move toward demystification, a denouement, toward the case resolved. And yet the novel only gestures toward this direction in a superficial way: it gestures toward the detective novel, toward crime fiction as a genre, only in order to subvert its conventions (particularly ‘the reveal,’ as well as the underlying assumption that there is a truth to be obtained); in doing so, the novel defines itself via a negative model (this is what I am not). Recurring themes and questions (which themselves are subject to variation as they are iterated) lend the text a degree of constancy without furthering the text along the path of knowledge. In this sense, the text’s structure is circular rather than linear (events do not unfurl and characters are not shunted along towards an endpoint, or the realization of a goal).

“The feminine,” I suggest, manifests in The Obituary, not only through the novel’s various repetitions, but also as a kind of digressiveness: as what seems at times to be the text’s improvised or haphazard, as opposed crafted, structure. ‘Digression’ takes the text afield of what is conventionally understood as good (reasonable) writing, in which all elements are supposed to serve some function (though it is never the case that every element in a text serves a function, and though it is always the case that every element, whatever it is, can be read back into a text so that it seems to). The Obituary’s seemingly improvised structure is also framed, in the text’s running commentary on itself, as an intentional and hence crafted structure, and the coexistence of these two possible meanings (such that the text can be read as both ‘improvised’ and ‘crafted’) functions to ‘open’ the text in a way that is consistent with a postmodern framework.

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The Novel as Improv

The Obituary is typographically unconventional and a reading which focused on its visual presentation—a reading which paid attention, for example, to its plus signs and brackets, the line breaks which at times interrupt prose paragraphs, reconfiguring the space on the page, as well as the text’s playful lapsus linguae (its reference to Breton’s “great novel Najda” [100], among many, many others)—attempting to articulate its implications for the set of the novel’s possible readings would be valuable. Here, I will only point out that the inconsistency of its visual presentation—frequently varied spellings of “identical” words, the line-breaks I mentioned, the novel’s irregular abbreviations of ing- to in’-endings, and its irregular use of the hyphen along with the plus sign (as in “hurrying blue- + white-collar workers” [37] compared to “filth-+-vice-ridden city” [13] compared to more regular, unhyphenated combinations, as in “switching back + forth” [60])—seems to support the idea that there is no rule to this text, that it follows the idiosyncratic impulse of the moment (or that, more specifically, its “writer”—the writer the text implies, if not its actual author—was following the idiosyncratic impulse of the moment and for some reason chose to forgo editing).

Some of the text’s stricken words also belie the idea that there is any necessity behind its narrative direction: “Reeef, smiling rakishly, alongside Veeera his precocious little beauty Rosie. Already showing more leadership in her little finger than most” (121). ‘Veeera,’ the initially proposed focus, being Reeef’s wife. Rosie, swapped in, being his daughter. The text could have gone one way, but it went another. If we were to interpret the text’s omnipresent plus sign, which frequently takes the place of the conjunction ‘and,’ as a literal addition sign, then we could take its presence to suggest that the narrative progresses additively and is able to append whatever it happens to encounters to itself:

We are informed repeatedly, in different ways (which, taken together, make up the text’s meta-commentary) that the novel’s ambulation is and will continue to be that of the flâneur: random and indiscriminate, “subject to countless deviations” (25). In a footnote, the voice of The Bottom Historian tells us that, “Little by little revealing why we meandering in speaking. As disparate in associations as a voyageur on a train”; then, leaping off from her mention of the voyageur on a train, goes on in the same self-consciously meandering, free-associating way: “Hallucinating on various angles of the sunset, unless distracted by fussy table linen, or fancy brickwork or stations of the early era. When this still new, therefore allegorical, mode of transport advancing in winter night over ‘empty’ prairie…” (33).

Similarly, the “future novel space” is said to be opening “[w]ide as the legs of a porn queen” (24)—perhaps this can be taken to mean that it will admit much and admit anything.On page sixty, the novel absorbs and details a Cuban it confesses has “no future in R story.” Even one of the text’s major motifs, Hitchcock’s film Dial M for Murder, is introduced, or is presented as introduced, to the text in an aleatory manner:

A nobody in a bar R frequents notes that the washroom is “right out of Dial M for Murder” (24). The narrative voice goes on to describe his observation as “A serendipitous error. To use to our benefit,” then claims “Peter has served his purpose: / Dial M for Murder” (24). In other words, Peter, initially introduced, like the Cuban, haphazardly, and not because he had use-value, has come, it just so happens, to have use value: he has inadvertently provided The Obituary with a frame that it may now roll with; he has sparked an idea. It is illuminating, for example, to watch the film and to hear Mark Halliday, the crime-fiction writing character, explain to both Margot and her murderous husband why he believes in the perfect murder, but only on paper: “Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to and in real life they don’t—always.” And, in the film, of course, the husband’s plan goes wrong, and Margot destroys her would-be assassin with a pair of scissors. The Obituary chooses to shirk Halliday’s claim about stories and the relation authors bear to control and proceeds, conversely, as life in the film does.

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The Novel as Crafted

If The Obituary does in some ways identify with Hitchcock’s film, however, it also collides with it, or contests it. The novel may suggest that it proceeds, not in the way of a novel, but as life does, and yet it also unsettles this idea: As much as the Dial M for Murder motif seems to be introduced haphazardly, it is also the case that it is presaged: it appears, dripping with intentionality, six pages before Peter in the bar, when R suggests that her apartment is “awkward as 3-D set of Dial M for Murder” (18).

The Obituary, moreover, despite its labyrinthine way of proceeding, despite its indiscriminate curations, its descriptive excesses and digressions, also remains puzzlingly on task. At least compared to a work like Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence. Dies is anchored with a basic, recurring narrative frame—in this case, two people in different ways limbless, in a trench, awaiting onslaught, preparing soup—which, as Susan McCabe points out in her introduction to the work, freely recedes so that all manner of events and language can surge up, over and around it (xvii). The work lends itself to comparison with The Obituary because it, too, is a poetic experiment with narrative and is in similar ways friendly to digression and excess. However, whereas Dies tolerates sea-beasts bursting from ‘sea-sacks’ (see 43) and epic dungeon battles, The Obituary refrains from straying into the (overly) implausible or phantasmagoric. And yet The Obituary is, like Dies, intensely linguistic, sonic, odd: It is more than realistic (it is so linguistically specific it is less than realistic), only, unlike Dies, it is so without ever quitting a world whose historical and political valences resonate, uncannily, with our own. The following excerpt is in this way illustrative. ‘The face’—which is both continuous and discontinuous with R—has just streaked by the apartment’s peephole. It is

Ancilliarily coated in same dusky, near horizontal light penetrating inner stairway. Via Bottom oeil-de-boeuf door. Rendering our surveillants as splotches of miasma in corrupted stairwell air. Nitrogen. Methane. Ammonia from stagiaire J-F Jean’s [the young cop’s] steamy hotdog lunch. Dust mites. Scattered neurons. Dead ketones. Whorling swarms + electrons. Odour o’ p-p-p-patchouli from neighbouring sex trade worker. On whose scarlet salon wall hookers in blouses, long skirts, wooden trunks held over heads, themselves on way out West, ca. 1910. Crossing rocky steam in little boots. Walking walking toward red disc of a timepiece perched atop a craggy peak… (53)

The text suggests that this seemingly all-encompassing resonance, the way the novel, digressing, as towards the prostitutes above, remains so puzzlingly on-task, results from the fact that experience itself is over-connected (66). The novel, like the city in which its happenings are anchored, is saturated with history; any digression into history or memory, very capacious categories, moreover, is no digression at all, but aligns with the novel’s preoccupation with origins and genocide. In one possible reading, then, it is history, particularly but not exclusively the history of Indigenous erasure, which ‘over-connects’ experience, thereby giving rise to “th’ paranoia any citizen by definition trying to deflect” (ibid.). R/protagonist is, conversely, not a “citizen”; she is paranoid: She is trying to resist assimilation into a society of ‘better lawns’ and willed-ignorance, and, finding everywhere the traces of an undocumented genocide, goes missing herself. “Are not all paranoids,” her psychiatrist says, “self-fulfilling prophecies?” (ibid.).

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A Gap in Lieu of Truth

R, as a character, is fractured; as a narrative voice, she blends with other narrative voices: those of I/th’ fly and The Bottom Historian, for example. She is also fractured in the sense that the novel refuses to make a decision about whether she is living and present, living and missing, or dead (murdered). She is also, like “the feminine,” or the feminine subject as we discussed her above, in her own way content-less. The mystery of her ancestry, of her origin, is at times presented as a major obstacle to identity (see 52). And yet ‘the truth’ regarding her ancestry, like ‘the truth’ regarding her disappearance, is tied, on a thematic level, to the novel’s (seemingly) improvised structure: the truth (whether regarding her ancestry or regarding her disappearance), the novel seems at times to suggest, is a mere improvisation as well.

I mentioned above that The Obituary subverts the conventions of the detective novel and the film noir, particularly by doing away with the requirement of a denouement; doing away with denouement is one way the novel subverts the premise that there is actually a fact about, for example, what happened, or about who murdered whom, or who attempted to murder whom (in Hitchcock’s film, the husband attempts to have his wife murdered), or even about R’s ancestry. The text is consistently ambiguous in this regard; different possibilities surface as R ruminates, but they are always framed in a way which calls their accuracy into question: “I/R [angry]: — I’m more Autochtone [exaggerating peut-être]. Than anything!” (59-60; brackets and italics in the original; “peut- être” meaning “a little”). Later, R states that, in school, “[n]o one teaching anything Algonquian.” (153).

The novel leads the reader on, perpetually making promises of a denouement (of answers) and gesturing toward a mode of arriving at it (them) which seems more suspect, more whimsical and jubilantly ineffective, every minute: “For a story, to be feasible, must be moving forward. Which is why I/R daily boarding avatar of public transport” (48). “Reader, in interest of dénouement, let us follow silhouette dégageant from wind-battered crowd” (125). Again and again, the text seems only to posit narrative direction as a pretext for its own persistence: “Is not our future narrative to keep us moving forward?” [9]yetwhatever it decides to say or turn its eye on, no matter how tangential, will sustain the forward motion. Oh! it seems to say, in its various addresses to the reader, ‘Let’s do this because we can. I mean, trust us, we are heading somewhere.’ At various points in time, a voice surges up and claims to be setting the novel back ‘on track’ (“But let us stick to the path of our intrigue” [28]; “Here, it behooves I/Basement Bottom Historian, to surface. Encore. For purpose of resetting intrigue on path to dénouement” [115]); the novel’s meta-statements concerning its own self-reflexive aimlessness, however, work tirelessly to corrode a reader’s faith that this is actually what’s happening.

The recurring, repeatedly re-contextualized, somewhat enigmatic idea that “we are moulded by circumstantial evidence” also vexes the idea that, in the novel, there is a truth to be had, specifically a historical truth beyond history’s various tellings, which are themselves sculpted by the vagaries which weave the context from which they issue: “But we are moulded by circumstantial evidence, so for th’future…no visible dénouement [again, no interval during which truth will be ousted]” (55). “R little surrogate,” moreover, is at a loss to “secrete th’Méta Physique under th’ Topo Logic of reality [or, we might say, though there are multiple ways the phrase might be interpreted, the (non-extant) truth under a linguistic surface]” (144).

Even the young cop—a knowledge-constructor—sitting, once R has gone missing or has been murdered, or has simply barricaded herself in her apartment, a few steps down from her keyhole, working away on his computer, decides to assemble his final police report—the hard evidence, as it were—using a “hazardous selection method” inspired by Breton’s “Najda” (100). He collects: E-mails. Word Doc diary entries. “Chat logs. Police cams in trees. Phone tabs. Whatever. Gleanings he ideally formatting into little rotating loops, disappearing/appearing in no fixed order. Creating nifty multi-flash effect” (ibid.). Truth here is merely the clash of random documents, which, taken together, remain enigmatic and uninformative.

We could read the young cop’s random assemblage, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the novel’s penultimate section, as a mise en abyme, a small-scale version of what is going on in the novel on a larger scale: The Obituary in this way insinuates that its parts have likewise been haphazardly selected, while rendering the idea that we might glean from it, from them, through our readerly efforts, any kind of knowledge or clarification concerning R—that is, knowledge which exceeds the idea that she is a missing center—suspect.

The text’s final section (where its denouement would be placed, if there was one) takes a similar form: it is a motley gathering of flashbacks, epistle-form reminiscences, and sharp, sometimes sad images (I am thinking of an image of Veeera, R’s mother, who is dead; R remembers her “expiring on divan. Tummy swollen from sugar + wheat. Very pale from refusing in summer to let tanning sun fall, even on back of little finger” (162); she refuses to be dark, and there is a racial meaning here, since the text also suggests that she was raised unaware of the fact that she was iBndigenous.)

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The Future Anterior in Poe’s “Ligeia” in The Obituary: Two Readings

To be sure, The Obituary is not a lighthearted novel. It depicts a self, a subject, with a gap at her core. It deftly confuses the truth of the subject with its own ludic way of unfolding, proposing, perhaps, that there is no truth below the surface of a narrative that just happens to happen as it happens. In a sense, it favours the reach toward knowledge (the act of questioning) over the possibility of attaining knowledge (the answer). The former, it sustains; the latter, it suspends indefinitely. At the same time, it showcases other ideas and features (like its meta-commentary) which trouble this reductive reading. Perhaps, it suggests, for example, the text’s structure is not improvised after all.

In a sense, the novel also suggests that R’s history, far from absent, is lodged in her in a way that is so concrete it could actually be related to her eventual murder. I would like to trace this tension in the text between the thought that R is, like “the feminine,” content-less and the thought that she is overdetermined by her history (the thought that her ancestry determines her destiny). The Obituary refers to many outside texts—among these: Breton’s Nadja, Hitchcock’s film, which we discussed, Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well as Romeo and Juliet, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia.” It uses these texts to frame its own preoccupations. It is “Ligeia,” in particular, that can be read alongside Scott’s novel in a way which brings out the idea of an oppressively present past, or origin.

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First, A Note on the Ghost of the Author

So far, I’ve been reading The Obituary largely in terms of the framework provided in Scott’s Spaces Like Stairs and in the collaborative work Theory, A Sunday, so I provide this new reading (making use of Poe’s “Ligeia”) partly as a way to deviate from that framework. Contra Barthes when he claims that “[t]o give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing” (DA par. 6), I want to examine the way in which the thought of a feminine-subject-in-process, possessing a content which might only come into sight retrospectively, exists as only one lens among others through which the work might come into focus. Yet, I want to insist that, in this case, a reading that hews (in a way certain postmodernists would find dubious) to what Scott, or The Author, has said about her own work is a necessary supplement to the alternative reading I outline below: it keeps this alternative reading from having what postmodernists should find even more dubious: a monopoly on meaning (the text’s possible meanings are supposed to be infinite).

As far as the question of whether “the feminine,” which I have suggested is inscribed in various ways in The Obituary,[ii] refers to something “beyond” the text goes…The extreme version of postmodernism suggests that everything is text, that there is no world and no self “outside” of the text, never mind a feminine subject which might be inscribed in the text for political purposes, namely, in order to bring that subject into view in a culture which has ignored it. And yet postmodernism is also a perspective that refuses hard and fast distinctions between opposites; it is in this sense a way of thinking which in theory should actually resist the idea that texts and selves, or even texts and the world, could be thought in any way other than in relation to each other: The thought that ‘all is text’ is too one-sided for this way of thinking.

In writings like Of Hospitality and “Violence and Metaphysics,” for example, Derrida collapses ‘self’ into ‘other’ and ‘inside’ into ‘outside’—he writes these concepts out in a way which allows us to see that these so-called opposites actually participate in each other, and that they wouldn’t be what they are if they didn’t. The subject, or self, that Foucault theorizes (from different angles in his early and late works) is likewise saturated with what is sometimes conceived as its “outside”: cultural norms as well as the writings and categories which make up the available means of self-interpretation. Foucault’s subject is, in many ways, just this “outside” in the sense that such texts make up what Foucault wouldn’t but what we might call its psychology.

This idea does not have to be taken to imply that the self is “only” text. The philosopher Seyla Benhabib goes this route when she argues that the self cannot be understood as both language, or text—as part of “the chain of significations of which it was supposed to be the initiator”—and as a political agent: If the self is only a “position in language,” then, she supposes, it cannot reflect on and alter language, let alone the world through language (a situation which leaves postmodernism and feminism looking pretty irreconcilable). Judith Butler’s works Giving an Account of Oneself and The Psychic Life of Power, conversely, encourage us to rethink the self, and its ability to act, as a paradox: as consistent with the idea that the social world’s normalizing categories and practices make up the self’s proverbial tissue, while at the same time making agency (mainly in the form of self-change) possible.

Postmodernism’s “dead” author can be thought of, then, in a way that is perfectly consistent with postmodernism, not as an instance in which the writer, or self, and world are abolished, but as just another instance in which self and other, and inside and outside, blend. When Barthes claims, for example, in “The Death of the Author,” that if the writer “wants to express [read: insists, naively, on expressing] himself [sic], at least he should know that the internal ‘thing’ he claims to ‘translate’ is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum” (par. 5), this claim in itself does little to discredit the idea of a feminine subject (rethought), in the world (rethought) beyond (even the idea of ‘being beyond’ must be rethought) the work. It also does little to discredit the idea of a feminine subject, leaving a trace on the text, or participating in the work as a frame which sits alongside and only sometimes inflects its many other meanings: Writing, as Barthes says, “ceaselessly posits meaning but always in order to evaporate it” (Barthes, DA par. 6)—why couldn’t a novel, then, posit “the feminine” in the way it posits any other kind of meaning: ephemerally?

All this being said, I should acknowledge that “the feminine” I’ve read into The Obituary has been relayed through another text (a book of Gail Scott’s theory): All I’ve truly done is read one book in terms of another by the same author. The above discussion has not been fruitless though, because, having read the “novel” in terms of the “theory,” we would still have to wonder whether a form of culturally-downplayed feminine experience could be said to exist “outside” of these paired works,and we would still have to wonder if articulating the feminine, whether in theory-form or fiction-form or via some inter-genre, such as Scott tends to work in, is both, even from within a postmodern way of thinking (since I am attempting to read The Obituary as a specifically feminist postmodern novel), possible and meaningfully political. If all is text, brute text (as opposed to text as the nuancing folds of Judith Butler’s mind make it out to be: text can take the form of a living self), then it is hard to see how anything other than the “new atopia of humanist cancellation” Christian Bök associates with postmodernism could be possible.

Reading The Obituary alongside Scott’s Spaces is a (postmodern) fair move. Any piece of writing is an entity with questionable boundaries, after all (remember that strict distinctions like ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ lapse from within a postmodern perspective). To speak metaphorically, a book extends into, or takes in, the other works to which it refers. It can also be joined, through a reading, with any number of other texts. (And the author is perhaps just a text of a different sort.)

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“Ligeia” (R/protagonist as Rowena)

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” is a more conventional sort of text embedded in The Obituary. The young Québécois cop siting in R’s stairwell is also a drama enthusiast and is planning to audition for a night-school performance of a play based on Poe’s story. Other details strewn about The Obituary also serve to connect it to “Ligeia.” A brief summary here, so that I can draw these connections out:

In the tale named for her, Ligeia is a woman of angelic beauty and unsurpassed intelligence; her dark eyes, “orbs [of] the most brilliant black” (570) (which pop up at various places in Scott’s novel), according to her husband, the narrator, are her defining features. She falls ill, then passes. After losing her, the narrator purchases a gloomy abbey in England, where, in one of its decadently ornamented, though strangely moribund, chambers—perhaps it is the presence of vertical sarcophagi that does it—he takes another wife: Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine, though he continues to suffer his memories of Ligeia, mourning what, to his mind, had been an ideal marriage.

After their second month together, Lady Rowena takes ill. She summons her husband to her bedside on the night she is sure to die; she appears to be fainting, and so the narrator leaves her side to procure, from elsewhere in the chamber, the same chamber in which he had married her, “a decanter of light wine which had been ordered by her physicians” (576). But as he goes to fetch the wine, he feels “some palpable although invisible object” pass lightly beside him and notices “upon the golden carpet, in the very middle of the rich lustre thrown from the censer, a shadow—a faint, indefinite shadow of angelic aspect—such as might be fancied for the shadow of a shade” (ibid.). He also becomes aware of “a gentle footfall upon the carpet” (ibid.). He returns to Rowena and gives her the wine, but as she drinks, he notices a few drops of ruby fluid spring, “as if from an invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room” (ibid.) into the goblet. Rowena’s condition immediately worsens.

Soon afterwards, she dies. Around midnight, the narrator, who has stayed with the body, hears a sob. In fact, Rowena is not dead, he determines: there is colour in her cheeks; he hastens to resuscitate her. But all is in vain, for the colour drains off and a “repulsive clamminess and coldness” (577) colonizes the body. The narrator returns to his wake, sitting in the ambient dreariness, eyeing the corps. The clock rolls on and once more he hears something: a sigh, this time. The corps nearly grins: the lips disclose “a bright line of pearly teeth” (ibid.). There is “a slight pulsation of the heart” (578). The narrator responds again with all of his impotent urgency, but the corpse, once more, becomes corpse-like. Until the grey dawn, we are told, the narrator navigates, again and again, this “hideous drama of revivification” (ibid.)—until, finally, the corpse is committal: Its stirrings become more vigorous than previous stirrings; it stands and advances “boldly and palpably into the middle of the apartment” (ibid.). The shrouds loose off, and the narrator knows, by its indisputable eyes, that it is Ligeia.

In The Obituary, mention of ghosts is frequent. Early on, R, during one of her excursions into history, speaking of British officers, tells us that “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians. / This is better documented. / By the end of our tale, we may likewise be dead” (7). The stricken word ‘dead’ is, of course, because stricken, ambiguous, but the novel also suggests, at various points, that R might return as a ghost (47 and 115) (at any point in time, it is unclear, of course, whether she is dead or alive). At one point, as the young cop hunches in the stairwell, working on his computer, a “[w]hite light spot bob[s] back out 4999 Settler-Nun casement” (150)—4999 is R’s apartment number. Ligeia’s disembodied shadow on the carpet in Poe’s tale, as well as the narrator’s ghostly rubbing and the soft patter of footsteps he mentions, resonate with The Obituary at this moment in particular.

A few of The Obituary’s subtitles as well as the title given to the novel’s last section also link Poe’s dreary bridal chamber, which is also a death chamber, to R’s shadowy bedroom (the center, we are repeatedly reminded, is dark, and that is where she, or possibly her corpse, lies). These are “The Crypt’s Tale,” “Her Little Shelf a Cemetery,” and “A Clou in R Case,” respectively (“a clou in R case” sounds like “a clue in our case,” and can take on that meaning, but once the French word “clou” is translated, it literally becomes “a nail in R case,” which might be taken to mean something like “a nail in R’s coffin”). The “hideous drama of revivification” Poe’s narrator witnesses, moreover, finds an echo in The Obituary’s back-and-forth between autumn scenes in which R is out, roaming about the city, and winter scenes in which she is (possibly) dead in her apartment.

The most striking connection between Scott’s novel and “Ligeia,” however, is the absence of R’s shadow in a vision her fortune-reading grandfather somehow conjures in a teacup: “Black eyes [remember Ligeia’s], blonde curls, skating on future ice of big dark city. Something happening but winter keeps her warm. Entirely my sentiments, old man thinking. When beholding, in bottom of cup, time going on back. Out Room door. Stairs. Yellow leaves, also exiting court. What alarming Grandpa most: his little Rosie casting no shadow” (119-20). R’s absent shadow is, of course, the inverted figure of the shadow Poe’s narrator observes on the carpet, which is not attached to a body (but which may be attached to a ghost), yet both details stand out because they are curious. R’s absent shadow is suggestive of Ligeia’s unaccountably-present shadow because it is equally curious.

In all of the ways just outlined, The Obituary self-consciously aligns itself with “Ligeia”; because it does so, it becomes possible to read “Ligeia” in terms of The Obituary’s themes; it also becomes possible to read The Obituary in terms of the “Ligeia” which emerges when Poe’s text is read in terms of The Obituary’s themes: The Obituary, relayed through “Ligeia,” embellished there, returns to The Obituary. The character Ligeia can be read figuratively, specifically as a representation of R’s history, ancestry, or what she terms her origin, and this reading has consequences for the way we might read The Obituary.

Ligeia, the narrator’s former wife—her life has, quite literally, passed, such that she, and the narrator’s former life with her, are things of the past—readily lends herself as a figure for the past, or history. In Poe’s tale, however, she is fully restored, if the narrator is to be believed, to the present through the body of the hapless Rowena. It is possible that she even destroys Rowena or abets her illness so that she can take her place (red drops spurt, as if from an invisible spring, into Rowena’s cup, and we might associate this event with Ligeia, whose presence as a ghost has just been implied, and conclude from the fact that Rowena’s condition, once she has had her drink, immediately worsens, that the drops were a poison of some kind.)

Linking this reading back to The Obituary, we can note, once more, that R, noticing everywhere the traces of an undocumented genocide, herself goes missing. “Did not Auntie Dill,” R ruminates, “sitting on her scooter outside Starby’s in Kelowna…reply when asked what colour Grandma’s hair was, hint of panic beneath her perfect curled lashes:/ —N-O-T N-O-I-R [not black, or not dark]” (16). The fact that R’s is Indigenous, though she does not know the particularities of her ancestry, is significant. When speaking of the British officers mentioned above, she says, “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians.” Of course, ‘girls like me’ could, given what we know about R, also mean girls who happen to be Indigenous. This interpretation makes sense in light of the way R finishes her thought/verse: “They were rumoured not to like girls like me very much. / They also hated Indians. This is better documented. / By the end of our tale, we may likewise be dead” (7). The pronoun ‘we’ in this last sentence is ambiguous, however it does include R: if R is Indigenous, then the British (a figurative stand in for a more general cultural force perhaps) will kill her like they killed the other “Indians” they hated.

The origin which obsesses R, in a sense, and on a figurative level, in the way Ligeia overtakes Rowena, does her in. She cannot escape it: “Do not skyscrapers bear, deep within, straw huts? The person, her ancestors?” (115). She perhaps, the novel insinuates, in the past, even attempted to escape her origins (she has a dream about her mother, who is accusing her of lying about her origins [ibid.]; in the text’s final section, in an address to her grandfather, she also explains a move across the country as a way of attempting to become authentic, a state of being she associates, with having origins, with being either able, or willing, to remember them, all of which implies that at some previous point in time she was ‘inauthentic,’ either unable or unwilling to affirm them [see 152]). In the end, however, R does not escape her ancestry: she still goes missing, as if her Indigenous blood has marked her, such that she cannot be an exception to the genocide she has trained her eye on. “It is so easy to be murdered” (157), she tells us.

Read against the backdrop of Poe’s story, R’s ‘origin’ comes into sight, not as a gap, but as a concrete, future-determining presence. As such, it gives us an alternative way to understand ‘the future anterior’ at those moments it surfaces in the novel (we already encountered Rob Halpern’s version). ‘The future anterior,’ as a grammatical tense, signals the idea of a past which is not yet a past, but will be a past at a future point in time (‘she will have returned by tomorrow’). In other words, it is a future past, or, stretching things (figuratively again), it is a past lodged in the future (like Ligeia is lodged in Rowena’s body). (In the novel, the future anterior is presented as the figurative location at which “all stories are told” [46], a domain which is, according to R, “the realm of the ancestors” [152].) But this past lodged in the future is also described as a monstrous one: R refers to “th’ future [+ th’ anterior within it]” as a “monstrosity” towards which she is “obliged to keep movin’” (145; brackets in the original). The fact that it is described as monstrous is consistent with and supports a reading in which “th’ anterior” within “th’ future” is understood as one representation of R’s origin, or ancestry, which, pitted against an enduring cultural hatred, ensures her annihilation. Again, it is no coincidence that she goes missing: she is Indigenous, and her ancestry haunts, and governs, her future, which it expunges, much like Ligeia blots out Rowena. Her ancestry, on this reading, both provides and exhausts her ‘content.’

This take on the future anterior is, of course, markedly different from the one Halpern provided us with in suggesting that the ‘community’ New Narrative writing sometimes takes as its focus is always only a potential community: it is posed as “a set of lacunae, blanks, opacities that propose the collective as a question, a negative, a place-holder for something in excess of what is given,” rather than inscribed with a specific content. Above, following Halpern, I took the future anterior to imply that retrospection from a not-yet-existing (future) vantage point alone can make sense of what, at present, may seem to be a given novel’s chaos or nebulous ambiguity. “The feminine,” in Scott’s work, like New Narrative’s community, might come into sight as having a specific content from this vantage point, but, until then, remains a gap. Of course, ‘the future anterior’ might be interpreted in a more extreme way as well: It can be taken to mean that what a given novel—and whatever it preoccupies itself with, whether a community, as in Halpern’s case, or “the feminine,” in Scott’s—never means anything (any one thing) in particular and always only will have taken on a particular meaning, since a future tense remains a future tense (it does not, like the non-grammatical future, become the present, and then the past), and since this implies that the future vantage point the tense implies, not to mention the ‘content’ visible from that vantage point, is one which never arrives.

The future anterior, a theme in Scott’s novel, taken in this last way, dovetails with the idea of a (content-less) feminine-subject-in-process expressed in the work, where it is manifest partly as a structure that seems to wander, repeat itself and, ultimately, head “nowhere”—a structure which is the possible effect of an unconventional and, perhaps in many contexts, culturally disavowed approach to writing—a “feminine” approach, to use Scott’s terminology—which eschews logic linearity, knowledge and fixed endpoints, and instead pursues poetry in a way which allows the writer “to leap from [her] discoveries toward a future not yet dreamed of” (Spaces 71). It also resonates with the postmodern attitude which understands a given work’s meanings as open-ended and infinite (meaning only congeals at a never-arriving vantage point). It is in this strange way fully compatible with the alternative interpretation of ‘the future anterior’ which emerges when we read The Obituary alongside “Ligeia,” though the reverse is not true, since the version that emerges through this joint reading points towards the thought of an origin as the self’s—as R’s—fixed content, and also as a guarantor of death (her fixed end), which itself would depend on a fixed interpretation of the work.

Yet both meanings (and many more) emerge in the work, where they trouble each other. In fact, many of Scott’s sentences and sentence fragments have been crafted in such a way that they maximize possible interpretations and minimize situations in which one interpretation could become dominant: “By the end of our tale,” R tells us, “we may likewise be dead” (7). The word ‘dead,’ stricken, I mentioned above, is ambiguous. Because “dead,” in this sentence, is stricken (not absent, but still implied under the strike mark), the sentence might be read conventionally: “we may likewise [like the “Indians” the previous sentence refers to, and whom the British officers despised] be dead” (my emphasis; “may,” here, introduces another element of ambiguity, since it indicates a possibility, not a necessity). Or it might be understood in an opposite way (since ‘dead’ is, for all that, crossed out): “we may not be dead” or, more specifically, we may not, like the “Indians” the British officers despised, be dead: in one sense, they are not dead because they continue to haunt R. And a ghost—which R may or may not be—is itself an ambiguous figure: it is both dead and present, both dead and, in a sense, living.

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The Obituary posits meanings constantly, but only to evaporate them. Interpreting the novel is part of the pleasure of engaging with it, and because of the way the novel is written, it will remain perennially interesting. The first time I read this book, about two years ago by now, I read it quickly, and not for meaning at all: it was poetry, sound, weird, refreshing language I was after. My particular reading here has depended on many other essays and creative pieces I was reading while encountering the novel for a second time: encountering it as a reader hoping, also, to write an essay—hoping to lock myself into a deeper kind of engagement with the work, hoping even, maybe, to ‘get something’). The Obituary absorbed these other texts, but it is not limited by them. It is forever a work that will have been. You must read it now. And forget everything this essay claims.

—Natalie Helberg

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Selected Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill & Wang. Print.

_____. “The Death of the Author.” Aspen (No. 5 + 6) (UbuWeb). Web. June 4. 2014.

Benhabib, Seyla. “Feminism and Postmodernism: An Uneasy Alliance.” Marxist Internet Archive. Web. July 1. 2014.

Bernstein, Charles. 1992. A Poetics. Cambridge; London: Harvard UP. Print.

Bersianik, Louky, et al. 2013. Theory, A Sunday. Brooklyn: Belladona. Print.

Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham UP. Print.

_____. 1997. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford UP. Print.

Dial M for Murder. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Warner Bros., 1954. Film.

Halpern, Rob. “Realism and Utopia: Sex, Writing, and Activism in New Narrative.” Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1 (2011): 82-124.

Poe, Edgar Allan. 2002. “Ligeia.” Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems. Edison: Castle Books. 569-79. Print.

Markotic, Nicole. “Narrotics: New Narrative and the Prose Poem.” Narrativity: A Critical Journal of Innovative Narrative (Issue One). Web. 10 July. 2014.

Moyes, Lianna, ed. 2002. Gail Scott: Essays on Her Work. Toronto; Buffalo; Chicago; Lancaster: Guernica. Print.

Place, Vanessa. 2005. Dies: A Sentence. Los Angeles: Les Figues. Print.

Scott, Gail. 2012. The Obituary. Callicoon: Nightboat. Print.

_____. 2002. “The Virgin Denotes:Or the Unreliability of Adverbs To Do with Time.” Narrativity: A Critical Journal of Innovative Narrative (Issue Three). Web. 10 July. 2014.

_____. 1999. My Paris. Toronto: Mercury. Print.

_____. 1993. Main Brides. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

_____. 1989. Spaces Like Stairs. Toronto: Women’s Press. 65-76. Print.

_____. 1987. Heroine. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

_____. 1981. Spare Parts. Toronto: Coach House. Print.

Stacey, Robert David, ed. 2010. Re: Reading The Postmodern: Canadian Literature and Criticism after Modernism. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P. Print.

Stephens, Nathalie. 2008. At Alberta. Toronto: Book Thug. Print.

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Gail Scott is one of Canada’s most eminent experimental writers. Between 1967 and 1991, she worked as a journalist and eventually as an instructor of journalism in Montréal; during this time she also participated in Anglophone and Francophone feminist circles which deeply influenced her writing practice. She is the author of four novels, or ‘prose experiments’—Heroine (1987), Main Brides (1993), My Paris (1999), The Obituary (2010)Spare Parts (1981), a collection of short stories, and Spaces Like Stairs (1989), a collection of essays. In 1979, she founded the French language cultural magazine Spirale; in the eighties, she co-founded and worked as an editor for the bilingual journal Tessera. More recently, alongside Mary Burger, Camille Roy and Robert Glück, she founded and edited the online journal Narrativity, whose express purpose was to supply a form of “missing nutrition” in articulating “ideas about theory-based narrative”; she co-edited the experimental narrative anthology Biting the Error (2004; shortlisted for a Lambda award in 2005) alongside the same writers.

Scott’s French to English translation of Michael Delisle’s Le Déasarroi du matelot was shortlisted for the Governor General’s award in translation in 2001. The Obituary was a finalist for the Montréal Book of the Year (Grand prix du livre de Montréal) in 2011. Her own work, the sentences which make it up, make much out of the bilingual and even multi-lingual language-contexts out of which they arise—they are clamorous, unique for their musicality. Scott has lived in a variety of places, including Paris, Grenoble, New York, and Stockholm, but her base continues to be Montréal.

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 helberg pic

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is working on a hybrid novel.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Scott’s writing grew out the experimental feminist writing scene localized in Montréal in the seventies and eighties; in Canada, around that time, bpNichol and Steve McCaffery were also toying with the idea of non-narrative narrative through their work on the book as a machine. This work emphasized the book’s materiality (some dimensions of which would be the look of words and letters used in a work and the use of white space on a page—the presence of suspect smirches on a particular copy’s page would count as well) and also attempted to dismantle the hierarchy between writer and reader, since the sort of texts they were theorizing were supposed to promote the reader’s participation in ordering the text—in choosing the sequence in which the text is read—among other things.
  2. Through its structure, when that structure seems improvised, through the running commentary it keeps on that structure, which gives the lie to the idea that it is fully improvised, and through the novel’s repetitious concern with what it means to be haunted, as R is, by the secrets of others, which I mention in the introduction.
Sep 092014
 

Fernando Sdrigotti Fernando Sdrigotti at Shakespeare and Co, Paris

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When you are re-born in this manner it is as if all the possibilities are open; you are given a chance to re-fashion yourself into whatever shape you choose. You are your own demiurge: out of nothing, as it were, you can become everything.”
Costica Bradatan,
Born Again in a Second Language

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In his film Tangos: El exilio de Gardel, Argentine filmmaker Fernando Solanas narrates the misadventures of a group of Latin American exiles in Paris during the early 1980s. They are a motley crew of musicians, dancers, and intellectuals. They want to put on a tango-ballet-opera about their plights, the people they have left behind, the political situation in the continent that expelled them, their present in an alien place. To sum up (albeit abruptly) a remarkable film, it could be said that their project collapses when they fail to find an artistic language that is authentic yet legible enough to garner the interest of the French public. I have no knowledge of any other film that captures the situation of the displaced Latin American intellectual or artist better than El exilio de Gardel. And the film’s characters are in Paris, in a city that due to cultural affinities, and a common history of movement in both directions, is familiar with Latinamericanness. And what if this story had taken place in London? I am of the impression that in this city Latin Americans are even more illegible. Illegible, for it is always about reading—about reading and writing, and about literature. Not that I was always aware of this. It took some time for me to realise it. And it took displacement.

When I moved to London, ejected from my country by an economic crisis (and not by a dictatorship), an entire literature to which I had previously related became nonsensical. Until then I had a very clear impression of who I was and how to read myself—or so I thought. My biography was clear: Argentinean, middle-class, of European descent like many of my fellow-countrymen, one more book among others, easy to read. Changing my surroundings to an alien place involved a process of becoming unfamiliar, of becoming illegible to myself and others. In this new context I realised the falsity of my biography, the artificiality of myself. And writing became necessary and unavoidable. If your biography is revealed as a fallacy, then why not write yourself anew? Not to arrive at any truth, but to feel in command, to exist on the safety that a gerund provides: writing, becoming, becoming through writing. Every biography is a forgery. You might as well be the author.

It is always about literature, yes. About histories, documents, application forms, legal documents. They provide you with a personal narrative or they deny you one. Back in Argentina I was (I embodied) a major literature. Soon after arriving in the UK, I was written as an immigrant and a white, other—I was minored. This was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and the most perplexing too: a whole set of certainties came crashing to the ground. What does it mean to be a white, other? Can it really explain my experience of displacement? How is an Argentinean perceived abroad? Are we really perceived as white, others by the other whites who are not others? Does it matter? How do other cultures perceive us, the others who aren’t white? And more importantly, how do we—Latin Americans—perceive ourselves—our different cultures—here? How do we read ourselves here? Do we read ourselves with the bullet points that we passively receive? I hope that we don’t. For none of the narratives that aim to crystallise reterritorialised people are in place to help them read themselves. They are in place to facilitate readability by others, a bit like a footnote in a literary translation: “X in this context means Y”. Processed or illegible—translatable or authentic.

It is always about literature. And when it comes to writing literature my experience is always the same, it is about juggling legibility and authenticity. How can I write for people who can’t pronounce my name? Should I write from the point of view of an immigrant, a white, other? An other, non white? Should I write from the point of view of one of them, those who are not others? Who am I? Where am I when I am writing? Who and where are they? How legible and authentic should my characters be? What would be the right balance? And so on. It is always about that process of negotiating authenticity and legibility and it is always most certainly a failure, because the seminal question at the end of the day is always “who is writing?”. I can’t answer this question. And that makes me feel a bit like a ghost.

Because I am a ghost myself I get the impression that I am writing for a ghost readership…“The people are missing,” says Deleuze of modern political cinema, minor cinema. For Deleuze the problem faced by postwar auteurs is that the idea of a people collapsed—postwar auteurs don’t have the safety net provided by a people, they have to invent them one frame at a time. This applies to minor literature too. The people are missing, the people as readers, the people as writers. The invisibility of the people persists, even today. And the people are not there yet, they are being written, one paragraph at a time. Maybe some people have been invented while I wrote these paragraphs. Maybe I have invented myself in these paragraphs. Maybe I am already a bit here now, a bit less of a ghost. Or maybe I erased myself even more. I can’t tell.

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Some form of biography, something forged, any forgery that grants an illusory form of self-identity, is necessary. Forgery. It is always a creative process and my way of partaking in it has always been through writing. I know of much more creative people than I: those who choose to come up with a whole different persona; those who need not explain themselves-in-displacement to anyone; those happy to become a carnival, nomad chameleons, always ready to change for the audience. They are their own works of art, their own Elmyr de Hory—the uberforger—and no less of a fantasy than any of my words. I see them clinging to this or that other stereotype. I see them rejecting stereotypes. I see them tactically shedding skins. And this is no criticism. For it is possible to live in a state of fantasy, to rewrite oneself completely anew, forge oneself as many times as required. Being a good forgery is always better and more honest than being a mediocre original. It is always more desirable than assuming some of the identities you are forced into.

I was reading the paper yesterday when I accidentally fell head-first into a football article. I am not interested in sports, nor in the genre of sports journalism. Sportsmanship bores me to death and sports journalism—most of the time—confirms that it is perfectly possible to put words on a sheet of paper whilst remaining quite distant from thinking. In this article the author was “analysing” regional idiosyncrasies whilst providing a pop-anthropological account of the phenomenon of Argentineans travelling en masse to Brazil during the World Cup. The thing was a rehash of many recurrent stereotypes: that Argentineans are arrogant, that they are hated all over Latin America, that they are belligerent, that they envision themselves as more European than the rest of Latin America, and so on. Stereotypes might be popular because they contain an element of truth, however diminutive it might be. But more often than not they just provide an empty vessel, a lazy signifier through which to misread the stereotyped party (through whichever lens the reader might have at hand). It went on and on and I kept reading because I wanted to figure out whether I was reading an article written by someone incredibly myopic or cynical—it is of course possible to be both. The piece ended with full colours: “For the time being, the Argentines are making the most of what is their most emphatic annexation since Goose Green.” This line made my blood boil: I never felt like launching a naval war in the South Atlantic.

Is this the idea the British have of Argentineans? Are we perceived as a bunch of violent warriors? Is it fair to reduce a culture to the delirium of a military junta that ruled the country over 30 years ago? (This is the same junta that killed thirty thousand Argentineans, by the way). Perhaps these kinds of mindless statements shouldn’t be taken seriously. Perhaps. But we can’t deny that many people swear by this kind of essentialism. This is the type of narrative that the mass media excretes on a daily basis. The only antidote, I believe, is to balance things out, to reject any imposed biography in order to forge our own identity, however artificial and Quixotesque this endeavour might be. To write a literature of oneself and in that way to summon the people who are still missing. To bring them one step closer. To hope that, in the act of writing ourselves, we will also write readers able to read us on our own terms. The alternative is leaving the gaps open for anyone to write us into this or that reductive stereotype.

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One of the most interesting effects writing in a second language has had on my life is that of English dripping into my mother tongue, affecting the way I write in Spanish, the way I think in Spanish, the way I talk. I haven’t become legible in two languages—my relationship with the word is now accidental even in the language I call my own (not that I ever really owned it). In other words, I am never at home anywhere—other words, other words. It is always about those other words that can’t be summoned when you need them. How can I explain the insulting familiarity of the Argentine word boludo to a British person? How can I explain the insulting distance of mate to an Argentinean? The page of myself is full of footnotes. And nobody reads footnotes.

Going back home also demands that I become readable. It entails that I take notice of parts of my own biography that I have deleted or edited. It entails that I acknowledge the existence of pages that have been ripped, rewritten, or written over. Back home I am always a translation of a translation, an existential palimpsest, a mess of a text. I imagine that if I ever resettled back home permanently I would have to erase and rewrite myself all over, that I would be intervened and questioned by a completely new literature, read by different eyes, and that I would write and edit myself again and again, to the point of exhaustion. And perhaps even to the point of silence.

What is it like to always live, write, think, exist in the same language? Is this even possible? Are there people out there who are always legible? Perhaps it is about different modes of illegibility—perhaps we are all illegible to an extent and for a certain audience. Aren’t we all writing ourselves all the time? Aren’t we all failing all the time? For writing is always impossible, and if it is not it might as well be unnecessary, and we should get rid of all the typewriters, word processors, and use pens and pencils only to scratch our ears or fill-in our Lotto tickets. Screw all literature—screw everything ever written. Nothing but sorrow comes from all these documents, books, application forms. Why do we insist in writing when the reader is missing? The ghost readership gets to me.

Deep inside I know that I write these words in order to bring the people to come a step closer. But I also know that I write them for myself. Not to understand myself, but to become myself, to produce myself, to keep on living, to forge myself into another forgery, the gerund I was speaking about above. Writing, becoming, becoming something through my writing, forging, fabricating, and fabulating.

— Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti: is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Sep 082014
 

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The Austrian novelist, Robert Musil (1880-1942), who was trained as a mathematician, physicist, and behavioral psychologist, spent most of his career working on his magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, which, despite the thousands of pages completed, remained unfinished at his death while in exile in Switzerland. But he also wrote many essays, a few plays, a good deal of criticism, many philosophical and sociological essays, and many shorter prose pieces, including a novella and a number of longer short stories, published during his lifetime in book form and in numerous journals and newspapers, not to mention endless unpublished drafts of his novel, and for other literary, essayistic, and theatrical projects. Musil’s short prose pieces, which are a mixture of different sorts of experimental stories, of period vignettes, feuilletonistic sketches, and glosses on social and cultural issues, situate Musil within the literary, social, and philosophical concerns of his times, and show him struggling with incomparable wit and insight with problems, such as the commodification of art and culture, the sloppiness of language, the tension between individualism and conformity, and the decline of critical thinking, still very much unsolved today. These two short glosses, from the mid-twenties, which were published in 1926 and 1927 in a number of journals and newspapers, address the question of modern art, commodification, and the imprecision of metaphoric language. They are part of a collection of translations of previously untranslated Musil stories, glosses, and literary fragments I will be publishing with Contra Mundum Press in 2015.

This excerpt has been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

—Genese Grill

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Speed Is Witchy!

It is always good to use words as one should, without thinking about it, that is. One can easily go on for ten sentences before a word pops up that needs to be thought about. This is doubtless a freewheeling kind of style that has about it an air of speeding traffic over long distances, and it seems that the intellectual tasks of the day can only be mastered with its assistance. But if one pays niggling attention to details, one will go flying into a hole in the language. Language no longer ambles along like it did in the days of our ancestors.

Consider for example the phrase, “head over heels”; what an important and much used phrase in a time which depends so much on tempo! How many people use this phrase in a rush without considering how many difficulties it creates for speed? For to fall head over heels toward somewhere would be to develop such a frantic acceleration that your body would seem to be wheeling over your feet, and your feet over your head; speed grabs you by the cuffs of your pants, the law of inertia shuts down in your head, and you are torn out of yourself like a rabbit out of his hide. But when was a person ever in such a mad rush? God yes, as a child, when one ran with unsteady legs. As a boy when one rode one’s bike down a steep hill. Maybe as a knight when one didn’t really know how the quest would end. At a paltry speed of ten to twenty miles per hour! If a car or a train wanted to drive head over heels they would have to creep!

Head over heels does not express a speediness then, but rather a relationship between the quickness and the danger of the conveyance or between the quickness and the excitement of extreme exertion. The streamers have to fly, the eyes have to lather, and the flanks must cramp. But then even a snail rushes along head over heels, in an utterly accelerated snail tempo, mad cap, in peril. Secondary observations are once again always the decisive ones. It is said that a small car speeds faster than a large wagon, and the more worn down the rails are, the faster a train speeds. Even romping is a matter of habituation. We have neighbors who think it means carefully gliding along through life as if on waxed floors.

One looks around in language for more solid expressions. How would it sound, for example, if one said: “He stuck the dagger in her heart head over heels?” Even the most daring novelist wouldn’t bring that over his quill. He doesn’t know why. But he makes the dagger thrust like lightning. Quick like a thought would not quite be the correct speed for it. But a lover is with his beloved as quick as a thought and never suddenly like lightning. These are mysteries.

A general always charges in forced marches. Someone who has finally been found falls into your arms, but runs to greet you. A general director storms around; his office employee, on the other hand, enters breathless; the speed of movement has, for each of them, the opposite effect on their breath. Perhaps it also should be mentioned that one always comes flying, but is gone in a flash.

One can see that these are difficult problems. But the worst of it is that modern life is filled with new speeds for which we have no expressions. Remarkably, speeds are described using the most conservative expressions that exist. Despite the train, the airplane, revolutions per minute, slow motion, the outermost limitation of speed expressions is the same today as it was in the Stone Age; nothing in language has gotten any faster than a thought or lightning or any slower than a snail. That is a devilish situation for a time period that has no time and that believes itself called to give the world a new speediness; the apples of quickness are dangling in front of us, but we cannot seem to open our mouths.

But maybe the future will be totally different. Classically experienced speeds still do exist today, but only in places where one would least expect them, like for farmers in the country. There lightning still flies through the air, the passing car blasts through the chickens, and there are paths where one can fall on one’s nose for rushing. In the city, the only speed one still senses is that of the connection that has to be made, the haste of disembarking and the uncertainty about getting somewhere at the right time. Without the blessing of neurasthenia we would have already lost this kind of speed too, since, in the worst case scenario, the person in a hurry, instead of wheezing and perspiring vapors, relinquishes a buck fifty for a car that will do this for him. And the higher one rises in the realms of power, the quieter it gets. A turbine factory with fifty thousand volts of horse power hums almost silently, and the most monstrous speeds of technology are still only a gentle rocking. Life becomes more prosaic and practical the larger it gets. A boxing match between two masters makes a lot less noise than a street fight between two laymen, and an explosion is not as dramatic as a knifing. The great new intensities have something that our feelings cannot grasp, like rays of light for which an eye does not yet exist. But it won’t be very long before we say relaxing-train instead of express and only use the phrase head over heels when we want to describe or depict something like the evening stillness, when far and wide nothing stirs, and the rare quiet rushes over us like an ocean.

(1927)

 

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Intensivism

Don’t waste too much time on art! Find yourself without further ado on the pinnacle of expertise! All you need is two rules.

Always declare that a picture that does not please you or that you do not understand is old-fashioned. Don’t include anything that will let on whether you have taken it to be second or twentieth century, a watercolor or a woodcut. For one can argue about those things.

Secondly, maintain, if people ask you for the reasons for this judgment, that the painting style of the future is Intensivism. And if they ask you what this is, refuse to answer and say, that’s self-explanatory.

This is, after all, how it is always done. This is how Impressionism did it and Expressionism. I will not tell you, of course, what these two words mean; happily, that no longer concerns you. And if I tell you a bit more about Intensivism, it is not with the intention of giving you an idea of it—because, if the adherents of a movement had a clear conception of it that would paralyze their momentum —, but so that you can get a feeling about how this coming art will become the nerves, the will, and the vitality of painting; stick to this resolution, forget everything else.

In the old days people painted larger pictures than today. That was because the living areas were larger. You see how simple the rules of art are.

When we lived in castles, we covered whole walls with a single picture. Later, when we lived in a house, the pictures were 5 x 6 ½ feet at their largest. Today even massive people can only afford apartments with a few rooms, rooms only half as high as they were before, and the pictures correspondingly have a format of only 3 ¼ feet; and if, as is to be expected, the building activity in Europe stagnates for much longer, the pictures will get even smaller.

But they have not become correspondingly less expensive. From this follows that the ground and surface of the picture has gotten more expensive, the ground rent of the canvas per square inches has become larger and the same spiritual profit requires an intensivist economizing. That is the root of Intensivism.

Secondly, it demands psychic energy. Look at a landscape, and you will usually find a third, if not a half of the picture covered with air or water. Such pictures are more or less fallow land. It cannot be contested that a quarter inch of painted blue or an explanatory note are quite sufficient to let us know whether sky or water was meant; every person knows what they look like, there is nothing new about it to depict, it is just a matter of habitual waste of going through the motions. Naturally, you discover the same thing when you look at a portrait. The painter does not fill the whole picture with it, but spares himself with a background, which fills at least half of it.

I could, for example, paint you two times, or you and then after you your rival while you step on his neck, the great day when all paper securities skyrocketed, or the black day when everything collapsed. Don’t be afraid of such demands; all truly original epochs of art came about quite naturally. Consider that one can paint many pictures inside each other; but I won’t jump ahead, this art is already developing on its own. Just keep a firm hold on the wish that painting will soon turn to race horses, hunting scenes, automobiles, airplanes, and whatever you find truly beautiful, and tentatively demand that we put an end to all these underutilized spiritual surfaces.

Intensivistic life in the smallest portion of a picture, nervous surfaces, introduction of the victorious energy of modern life into the frame of the picture: that is Intensivismus! If you see something that already seems to tend toward it, then say nothing more than: but is that ever intense! If this is too hard for you, then bring your wife along, she will get it right.

(1926)

—Robert Musil, Translated by Genese Grill

These short essays have been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

All original texts taken from Die Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition): Annotated Digital Edition of the Collected Works, Letters and Literary and Biographical Remains, with Transcriptions and Facsimiles of All Manuscripts. Ed. Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino. Robert Musil-Institut, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, 2009.

Intensivism. “Intensismus”. Berliner Tageblatt (1926), Der Tag (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1978), pp. 681-683, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte Kleine Prosa.

Speed is Witchy! “Geschwindigkeit ist eine Hexerei”. Vossische Zeitung (5.28.1927), Prager Presse (7.6.1927), Magdeburgische Zeitung (7.29.1927), Der Tag (9.20.1927), Vierzehn Federn (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1957), pp. 542-544, Frisé (1978), pp. 683-685, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte: Kleine Prosa.

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Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, German scholar, and translator living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), explores the aesthetic-ethical imperative of word and world-making in Musil’s metaphoric theory and practice and celebrates the extra-temporal moment of Musil’s “Other Condition” as a transformative aesthetic and mystical experience informing a utopian conduct of life.

 

 

Aug 072014
 

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The sky is all taunt and taskmaster, even though I’m closer to it than I’ve ever been. Or maybe because I’m closer to it than I’ve ever been. The air is thrilling, illusive, a blade that sings without a sound. I and my sister trekkers gulp it down as we climb well before dawn—4 a.m., to be exact—to reach the highest point of our eight-day trek and be rewarded, hopefully, by the most spectacular in a week of spectacular views before the day’s usual clouds set in.

We camped last night at over 14,000 feet, after five days of almost steady climbing, although we took one day off to rest and acclimate when we reached 12,500 feet. We made our way through dense vegetation at first, tall trees lining our paths and the rivers we crossed. Then rhododendrons, a whole day of them, their leaves deep red in the early October sun. Plant life thinned as we climbed, trees turning to bush which then turned to scrub. The tree line is very high in this part of the world, Sikkim, a little sleeve of India, once a separate country tucked between Bhutan and Nepal.

When the sun peeks through the almost constant cloud cover, especially in early mornings, we are surrounded by white peaks, whole walls of white  that make me feel I’m at a remote northern reach, even though Sikkim lies at a latitude similar to that of central Florida, closer to the equator than most of the United States. Now, as we trek through the dark in our good hiking boots and headlamps, there is scant vegetation to interfere with our climbing. But the step-like rocks give us enough to work with, as does the air itself, an odd mixture of presence and absence that keeps me focused on my breathing the way I’ve never managed to do in a yoga class.

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I have skied and hiked in high places, but this is the first time I’ve experienced the altitude as a personality, as something to negotiate. I’m not uncomfortable, exactly; rather in something of an altered state, aware of what every muscle is doing, and focusing on one rock at a time. I place my each foot just so, not wanting to waste any energy regaining my balance. And then there’s the fatigue, a feeling of being packed in cotton, all excess tamped down. For once, none of us have social energy to spare, even though we are eight women from Moab, Salt Lake City, and Taos, middle-aged athletes and power-shoppers who normally have plenty to say.

We climb silently through darkness that begins to lift now, only to reveal thick mist and cloud cover. Not a good sign. Normally dawn is clear in this part of the Himalayas, and already we have gotten a few early-morning glimpses of Mt.Pandim, the third highest peak in the world, a mass of blinding white that is sacred to the Buddhists of Sikkim and said to be unclimbable. Our goal today, and perhaps the goal of our entire eight-day trek, is to get an unprecedented view of this mountain whose presence all week has beckoned and then disappeared into mid-morning clouds.

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The dawn grows brighter, but not bright enough. We have arrived at our lookout point at 16,500 feet, the light grey around us and rain beginning to sprinkle, then fall with conviction. Our guide Namgayl pulls on a bright blue poncho, and our Sherpa helpers don their own red, yellow, grey, and blue rainwear before handing around mugs of tea, hardboiled eggs, apples, and brown breadlike slabs of something thick, sweet, unrecognizable and sustaining, which they baked the night before. Never has an egg tasted so good. And the tea, lemony and sweet. As for the apple—by now I trust that it has been washed in thoroughly boiled water, and I take a huge, thirsty bites, feeling none of my earlier fears of contracting something ugly.

We are all bent over our breakfasts like this, chattering again, energized and even happy while the rain pelts down, when one of the women suddenly gives a cry and points behind us. The clouds have broken just over Mt.Pandim, and now it hovers larger than I could have imagined, so close it seems to be breathing over us. We feel held in something like a kind hand made of air and sky, a hand that has parted those clouds just for us, just for these moments, as we stand in the rain three miles above the earth’s floor. The mountain seems to bless us, dwarfing us and then offering all of its calm self, its whiteness, its unconquerable splendor. We offer back our silence. And our tears.

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—Leslie Ullman

 

Leslie Ullman is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Progress on the Subject of Immensity published by University of New Mexico Press in 2013. Her awards include the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the Iowa Poetry Prize, and two NEA Fellowships. Now professor Emerita at University of Texas El Paso, where she taught for 27 years, she continues to teach in the low-residency MFA Program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. For the past eight winters she also worked as a full-time ski instructor at Taos Ski Valley in northern New Mexico.

 

Jul 102014
 

Robert Graves, Poet and Novelist…and Playwright…and Scholar

Some writers who gain fame as novelists continue to write poetry “on the side,” not unlike the little smear of cream cheese offered up with a bagel. Some writers quite sensibly refuse to be labeled; they write whatever they please, whenever they please….And some writers who are truly talented poets get shanghaied by the success of their fiction and never regain the courage or the emotional space to re-establish themselves as poets. The categories are many.

 

“I am a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” So said a fine novelist you might have heard of: William Faulkner. He knew a thing or two about writing, but his sense that every writer longs to be a poet can’t possibly be true, not if MFA programs around the country are any indication. The fiction track students hoot and holler at poets and mock them at every turn. The poetry track students do the same right back. At one reading, the poets might emote earnestly while the fiction writers snore; at another, the fiction writers read on and on and on while the poets pass around derisive notes in the form of double dactyls. Looking down on the proceedings, the gods would never guess there were prose writers lusting after poetry’s compression, nor poets longing to try out a novel’s expansive narrative thrust.

That said, there are a surprising number of novelists who started out as poets. Thomas Hardy wrote poetry throughout his life and considered himself a poet despite the fact that he published no poetry until he was 58 years old, having gained fame with his novels – Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure – long before that. After the publication of his first collection of poems, he did not write another novel. James Joyce first published poetry; some might even make a case for sections of Ulysses and all of Finnegan’s Wake reading more like poetry than prose. D.H. Lawrence was a poet before he turned to fiction. Vladimir Nabokov published four books of poetry before ever attempting a novel. John Updike’s first book was a collection of poems, as was one of his last, published posthumously. In between, he published six other volumes of poetry, a fact which surprises quite a few of those MFA students mentioned earlier.

The list of poet-novelists is a long one and includes Rudyard Kipling, Robert Graves, Muriel Spark, Randall Jarrell, Czeslaw Milosz, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Anne Michaels, Fred Chapelle, Russell Banks….I’m sure you can think of more. Some writers who gain fame as novelists continue to write poetry “on the side,” not unlike the little smear of cream cheese offered up with a bagel. Some writers quite sensibly refuse to be labeled; they write whatever they please, whenever they please. Some continue to think of themselves as poets first, novelists second, no matter what the sales figures or their publishers tell them. Some are definitely better fiction writers than they are poets and admit it, but continue to write poems; some are in denial and their publishers don’t want to antagonize them by saying, “Enough” – those poems get published despite their poetic failures. And some writers who are truly talented poets get shanghaied by the success of their fiction and never regain the courage or the emotional space to re-establish themselves as poets. The categories are many.

Both Robert Graves and James Dickey fall into the troubling category of poets whose reputations rest on a single novel that the wider public embraced – Deliverance for Dickey, I, Claudius for Graves. These men considered themselves primarily poets, but today few people read their poetry. It’s not just time and changing taste that accounts for that.  Maybe Hollywood contributed to the switch – it’s hard to fault Sir Derek Jacobi for delivering Graves’s Roman emperor to us in a way that burned him into our consciousness forever. Ditto the talent of director John Boorman when taking four men on a fictional hunting trip down a river in Dickey’s northern Georgia.

James Dickey at his desk…

There’s no doubt at all that James Dickey deserves to be remembered as a poet. After a late start with his writing (he worked for an advertising agency until he was thirty-seven), he produced five books of poetry in just five years (1960 to 1965), won a Guggenheim Fellowship, won the National Book Award and was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (equivalent to today’s Poet Laureate.) But his reputation now seems to rest on dueling banjos, Georgian hillbillies, and a down-on-all-fours-pig-squealing rape scene in his novel-turned-film, Deliverance. The novel was a bestseller and the film brought national attention to Dickey (who made a cameo appearance in it as a Southern sheriff.) His adapted screenplay of the story even brought him a Golden Globe. But Dickey’s accomplishments as a poet suffered for it (he never again had a collection of poems that was a critical success, despite more than twenty volumes of poetry in the three post-Deliverance decades before his death.) The New Georgia Encyclopedia says “His misbehavior at public events, his disorderly personal life, and his self-destructive alcoholism only enhanced his public image as a masculine, burly poet and man of American letters,” but it’s more likely that Dickey’s wonderful work as a poet will get dusty on academic library shelves, and Burt Reynolds will take home the honors for masculinity.

…and on the set of Deliverance with Burt Reynolds

Dickey’s style involves a precise ear for the rhythm of the words – his poems might not adhere to rules of form, and there is no formalized rhyme in the poem that follows, but Dickey definitely constructed it with a spoken cadence in mind. Reading it aloud, you hear the often eight- or nine-syllabled lines distinctly, you hear their three strong beats carried through to the final line. As the poet and Orange-Prize-winning novelist Helen Dunmore said, “Maybe it’s because the first things I wrote were poems – and very likely the last things will be poems too – that I’m convinced work has to grow into its own rhythm, inside the head.” Dickey, too, as a poet first and last, hears the rhythm of words. His sometimes violent imagery (in his poetry as well as in his novels) made many people squirm – it engaged “nature,” but not Mary Oliver-style, not as a source of inspiration and self-awareness; rather, Dickey’s nature (both poetic and – from what I can tell – personal) was primitive, full of blunt force, and sometimes theatrical. He once said, “I want a fever, in poetry: a fever, and tranquility.” The fever more often than not trumped the tranquility, but I think he managed to capture both in my favorite Dickey poem, “In the Tree House at Night.”

In The Tree House at Night

And now the green household is dark.
The half-moon completely is shining
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;
I am deep in them over my head.
The needles and pine cones about me

Are full of small birds at their roundest,
Their fist without mercy gripping
Hard down through the tree to the roots
To sing back at light when they feel it.
We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,

In mid-air huddled beside me.
Dark climbed to us here as we climbed
Up the nails I have hammered all day
Through the sprained, comic rungs of the ladder
Of broom handles, crate slats, and laths
Foot by foot up the trunk to the branches
Where we came out at last over lakes

Of leaves, of fields disencumbered of earth
That move with the moves of the spirit.
Each nail that sustains us I set here;
Each nail in the house is now steadied
By my dead brother’s huge, freckled hand.
Through the years, he has pointed his hammer
Up into these limbs, and told us

That we must ascend, and all lie here.
Step after step he has brought me,
Embracing the trunk as his body,
Shaking its limbs with my heartbeat,
Till the pine cones danced without wind
And fell from the branches like apples.
In the arm-slender forks of our dwelling

I breathe my live brother’s light hair.
The blanket around us becomes
As solid as stone, and it sways.
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.
Wind springs, as my dead brother smiles
And touches the tree at the root;

A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?
When may I fall strangely to earth,

Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?
My green, graceful bones fill the air
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

As for Robert Graves, how sad it will be if his poetry fades into the background and the light only shines on his fiction.  Yes, he wrote plays, he wrote literary criticism, he was a consummate scholar, he wrote I, Claudius, but he was also a poet’s poet, with a command of so many formal poetic devices that reading his poems is akin to alchemy – base metal into gold.

robert graves 1A young Robert Graves

The best example of his thoughts on the nature of poetry is found in his poem, “Flying Crooked.”   Substitute “poet” for “butterfly” and you’ve got a perfect description of what a poet does.

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has- who knows so well as I?-
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the acrobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

I hope you will go back, read the poetry of Dickey and Graves, read the poetry of  Atwood, Carver, Hardy, Nabokov, Ondaatje or any of the others I mentioned. There is something addictive about flying crooked, that’s for sure. And the plain truth is that few writers with a knack for it ever stop.

—Julie Larios

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Author Photo

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.

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Jun 152014
 

DublinersAuthor and the First Edition

Bloomsday is tomorrow, June 16, a day of literary legend, which may also commemorate James Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle. But today is very special as well. It’s the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, which appeared on June 15, 1914. It took ten years for Joyce to get the book published. Sending an early version to his eventual publisher Grant Richards in London, Joyce wrote perhaps not the best cover letter ever composed but one of the truest. According to Nora’s biographer Brenda Maddox, Joyce told Richards he thought “there might be a market for ‘the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories.'”

As Bruce Stone explains in his luminous essay here published, Dubliners was “a revolution without fanfare.” Joyce’s grim naturalism, his disposition to document the underside (not to mention the underclass) of Edwardian Dublin, has inspired much of what we call realistic and even minimalist fiction today. When I attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1980s, I had classmates who swore that “Araby” was the best short story ever written. Conversely, since it somewhat cants against the naturalistic grain of the stories, that word “epiphany,” used so often in the discourse of contemporary American letters, also derives from Joyce’s technique in Dubliners. But for Joyce, who couldn’t get out of Dublin fast enough when he was 22, who felt betrayed by city, family and literary culture, the book was a squaring of accounts. Bruce Stone writes, “Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind.”

Bruce Stone has published essays, book reviews, and fiction in Numéro Cinq, including “Nabokov’s Exoneration: The Genesis and Genius of Lolita” and “Viktor Shklovsk’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar,” two bedrock texts in terms of the aesthetic behind the magazine. “Dear Dirty Dubliners, Revisited: James Joyce’s Classic at the Century” is the third in this string of exemplary texts, erudite, insightful, surprising, and straight — not the sentimental celebration of the great Irish writer but a re-Joycing of Joyce, the writer returned to us.

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“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Stephen Dedalus,
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In June of 1914, after an agonizing labor fraught with complications—marriage, emigration, the births of two children, some unusually vexed negotiations with publishers, to say nothing of a rapidly crowning first novel—James Joyce saw his Dubliners delivered into print. The collected stories were written primarily between 1904 and 1906, and though several had appeared promptly in The Irish Homestead, the book would have to wait almost a decade for publication. The breakthrough came only after Joyce engineered a publicity coup, with the help of Ezra Pound. In an essay called “A Curious History,” Joyce aired his publication woes, naming names of fickle publishers and citing a disputed passage from the text. When Pound ran the article in The Egoist, the public shaming apparently did the trick, because Grant Richards, whose imprint had reneged on a contract in 1906, agreed to give the manuscript a second chance.

Early readers balked at the book’s then-scandalous content, which was enough to cause printers, fearing lewdness and libel charges, to break up the type. But even if we no longer share those period qualms, the collection’s arduous journey into print still seems inevitable. Perhaps no other great book can match in drabness, meanness, or deliberate ungainliness the fifteen stories of Dubliners. Turn-of-the-century Dublin, in Joyce’s lens, is a hard-scrabble place, shabby and penny-pinching, gas-lit and chill. There, alcoholics arm-wrestle for the national honor and lose, children suffer abuses both physical and spiritual (pedophiles prowl the public greens), marriages are joined out of necessity and spite, sex is mercenary, work routinized and alienating, life nasty and bleak, if rarely brutish or short (passivity and inertia are the rule). Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind. And a few months after the book’s publication, all hell broke loose: the Archduke was shot, the European countries charged variously to war, and the course of civilization warped in proportion to the scale of the carnage. Against this backdrop, the tenor of Joyce’s book, its systemic anhedonia, its grim determination to record the blemishes and mange of the human populace, might have seemed oddly prescient, the only fit appraisal of our domestic condition. Maybe it’s less surprising then that this quiet, unprepossessing little volume, this revolution without fanfare, should continue to haunt us today, its blighted populace still animate, immune to the passage of time.

For most readers, if the collection’s title is familiar at all, it remains so largely because of its most toothsome parts: “Araby” and “The Dead” have been obsessively anthologized over the years, to the perennial chagrin of high school students and undergraduates. The rest of the book, like the inedible parts of the fish, is reserved for the inoffendable palates of scholars. This ghettoization of the stories has given rise to some serious misconceptions about Joyce’s achievement in the genre—which is no small matter since “Araby” and “The Dead” have conspired to establish perhaps the dominant paradigm for modern short fiction. On the strength of those two stories, generations of readers have been conditioned to think of Joyce as the progenitor of a photographic realism in literature, and of the epiphany—the sudden flash of insight, a burst of self-knowledge—which still ranks among the favored plot devices in contemporary short fiction.

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In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Bennett captures indirectly the popular view of the book: that Dubliners represents Joyce’s flirtation with naturalism, an artistically conservative prelude to those later mad-scientist experiments of Portrait, Ulysses and the illegible Finnegan’s Wake (which Nabokov called a “petrified pun”). Bennett describes how this style took root at the Iowa Writers Workshop and rose to prominence in North American letters in the latter decades of the 20th century. He also conveys, in the same breath, his personal distaste for this programmatic realism and its blanching imperatives: to “carve, polish, compress and simplify: banish [oneself from the text] as T. S. Eliot advised and strive to enter the gray, crystalline tradition of modernist fiction as it runs from Flaubert through early Joyce and Hemingway to Raymond Carver (alumnus) and Alice Munro.” In Bennett’s view, Joyce’s aesthetic, subsequently institutionalized, equates to the triumph of showing over telling—and showing of a particular cast, call it literary asceticism. Bennett continues:

Frank Conroy [director of the Iowa Writers Workshop from 1987-2005] had this style down cold—and it is cold. Conroy must have sought it in applications, longing with some kind of spiritual masochism to shiver again and again at the  iciness of early Joyce. Such lapidary simplicity becomes psychedelic if you polish it enough. Justin Tussing (class ahead of me) mastered it in his prismatic novel, The Best People in the World. I myself, feeling the influence, revised sentences into pea gravel.

For a long time I shared Bennett’s aversion to this artistic parsimony, its vows of linguistic chastity and metaphysical silence, that parched clarity and bitter taste, but I’ve since come to appreciate its limited charms. In “The Sisters,” for example, Joyce depicts the boy-narrator’s distraction as the kid prays in the mourning house of his dead mentor (a bent priest); unable to concentrate on the profundities of death and godliness, instead the boy observes the homely details of the priest’s sister kneeling beside him: “how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back, and how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down to one side.” The details, for all their meanness, constitute an artistic revolution that still seems radical: the moment reads like a rebuke to the notion that literature should concern itself with melodrama or metaphysics, that the human comedy can be portrayed or conceived in such high-flown terms. Yet, the passage is played with monstrous restraint, as if nothing much is going on.

This low-mimetic drift of the art in Dubliners often approaches the sublime. In “An Encounter,” for example, another boy-narrator, this one playing hooky from school, offers in passing this line of description: “The day had grown sultry and in the windows of the grocers’ shops musty biscuits lay bleaching.” A throwaway moment, but the drabness of the image and the economy of the phrasing yield a magnesium flash in the consciousness (maybe this is the psychedelia that Bennett mentions). Such passages abound in Dubliners, but what most recommends Joyce’s naturalistic mode is the fact that his characters, as a consequence of this scrupulous accounting, are perfectly incarnated, fully realized if not always exactly alive.

Consider this description of the drunk Freddy Mallins, a bit player in “The Dead”: “His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavylidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy.” Freddy shows up at the Morkans’ party already soused, with his fly open, eager to share a bawdy story with anyone who’ll listen. When a Mr. Browne interrupts Freddy’s story to alert him to the “disarray in his dress” and give him some lemonade to sober him up, the vignette concludes with this little tableaux, forever inscribed in my memory:

Freddy Mallins’ left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress. Mr. Browne, whose face was once more wrinkling with mirth, poured out for himself a glass of whisky while Freddy Mallins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of highpitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to rub the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of the last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him.

There are characters in Shakespeare who have the same effect on me—like the flea-bitten ostlers in Henry IV, Part One who spend the night in a room without a chamber pot and resort to pissing in the fireplace. I think I went to high school with those guys—that is, such characters feel as alive to me as those in my own lived memories. And Freddy: that bronchitic laughter, that gesture of rubbing a fist into an eye itchy with tears of mirth. The feeling the passage evokes for me can only be described as love. Admittedly, Freddy is a gregarious anomaly among the cast of Dubliners. A more typical city denizen would be James Duffy, who lives in Chapelizod, on the outskirts of town, under self-imposed quarantine, his blood as congealed as the white grease on a plate of corned beef and cabbage. (He’s like one of those monks, mentioned in “The Dead,” who sleeps in his own coffin.) And Freddy Mallins himself isn’t exactly admirable. I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him, or spend time with him, or be responsible for him. I suspect that sometime soon he will do something stupid, maybe unforgivable (though not tonight—see how dutifully he tends to his aging mom and gets her settled in a horse-drawn cab at the party’s end). But that he exists at that moment, as he is, scanty hair and open fly and all, makes him lovable.

Even from a vantage point as jaundiced as Bennett’s, Joyce’s dreary collection retains a hard-earned luster. But this view of the book, as a forerunner of minimalist realism, is limited, as boxed-in as the blind end of North Richmond Street. Scholars have suspected as much (albeit contentiously) for decades, yet the memo seems not to have reached creative writing circles, or the heavily trafficked annexes of contemporary anthologies. What better way to observe, then, the collection’s centennial birthday than with a close examination of one of its forgotten stories, one which might begin to rectify those well-meaning misconceptions. For best results, I would submit for your perusal “A Little Cloud,” Joyce’s parody of the artist as a no-longer-young man. This little story, muted, discontinuous, captures the essence of the collection. It both revises our doctrinal assumptions about epiphanies and reveals how Dubliners anticipates Joyce’s later innovations, the book of a piece with, not other than, Portrait and Ulysses—in its own way just as momentous.

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“A Little Cloud” Atlas

James Joyce pictured in 1934

Like many of the stories in the book, “A Little Cloud” is an oddly warped, broken-backed affair. From start to finish, the plot spans only a few decisive hours in the life of Little Chandler, a milksop law clerk who dreams of becoming a celebrated Irish poet. We first meet him daydreaming at his desk, idling away the last of the workday in anticipation of his evening plans: his longtime friend, Ignatius Gallaher, now a journalist in London, has returned for a visit to “dear dirty Dublin,” and the men have arranged to grab a drink at a posh bar with a Continental vibe. Chandler envies Gallaher and tries to talk himself into believing that Gallaher deserves his good fortune, but after a few whiskeys at the bar, when the conversation turns to manners and sexual mores in Paris (a sore spot for the untraveled Chandler), Chandler’s resentment for his friend starts to manifest. The men jokingly disparage each other’s marital status—Chandler a husband, Gallaher a confirmed bachelor who vows to settle down only with a rich Jewish woman—and they part on uneasy terms, a pantomime of friendship and fellow-feeling.

At this point, the story cuts to Chandler’s house, and the conflict centers not on his stymied artistic career, but on his stultifying marriage (which is never mentioned until Gallaher raises the subject, and then himself disappears: the story fluidly shifts thematic focus—thus, the broken-backed feel of the narrative). Chandler has forgotten to bring home his wife’s tea, and though she claims not to mind the oversight, at the last minute, before the shop closes, she rushes out to get the tea, leaving Chandler, probably still buzzed from the alcohol, alone with his infant son.

Cue the epiphany. Chandler stares at a picture of his wife and discovers in her still-life eyes the truth about his marriage: “They repelled and defied him: there was no passion in them, no rapture.” The recognition sparks a wave of “resentment” for the whole of his life, and he longs to escape. For solace he opens a book of Byron’s poetry and tries to comfort himself with illusions of his own poetical nature, but just then, the baby starts crying, disrupting Chandler’s reading, and he snaps: “It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life. His arms trembled with anger and suddenly bending to the child’s face he shouted:–Stop!” Of course, this only makes matters worse. The baby begins to cry so hard that it struggles to breathe, and just in the nick of time, Chandler’s wife comes home and brutally relieves Chandler of his childcare duties. The story ends with Annie, the wife, soothing the child and a broken Chandler feeling “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes.”

Because the third-person point of view closely simulates Chandler’s perceptions, and because Chandler pretends to have a poetic cast of mind, “A Little Cloud” lacks some of the emphasis on naturalistic observation that makes “Araby” and “The Dead” famous. Instead, we get trace amounts of the musky humanity from those stories. See Gallaher, as he doffs his hat when he greets Chandler and acknowledges the toll of time on the body: “He bent his head and felt with two sympathetic fingers the thin hair at the crown.” In a similar spirit, Chandler’s house feels lived-in precisely because it’s so sterile in its staging, carefully curated—equipped with the nice, but not too nice, furniture that his wife picked out and which Chandler has bought “on the hire system” (a sort of rent-to-own arrangement). But given its comparative lack of physical details, “A Little Cloud” relies on dialogue to bring the characters to life, and it does. That dialogue is, to my ear, dullish, maybe too lifelike in its fidelity to the conversational conventions of the time, but when the talk turns acrimonious, Joyce captures indelibly Gallaher’s contempt for Chandler and his marriage:

I don’t fancy tying myself up to one woman, you know.

He imitated with his mouth the act of tasting and made a wry face.

Must get a bit stale, I should think, he said.

The words limn the gesture in only the barest terms, yet I can’t help but fill in the gaps, imagining Gallaher with scrunched lips, fussily mincing the rank idea. I can smell the smoke from the cigars that the men have been puffing.

Nevertheless, if this is all there is to Dubliners, if such moments are both part and parcel of Joyce’s achievement, I think the collection would survive for us largely as a footnote to the monumental novels, and it might be justifiably parted out for the assembly of a crash course in narrative design. But the lifelikeness in Dubliners is mere prelude to a more complicated and more compelling agenda, as even the enigmatic title of “A Little Cloud” attests. To what does this title refer? The Little clearly evokes Little Chandler’s name, but the Cloud is curiously opaque. Does it refer to the cigar smoke wafting around the men’s conversation? Is it a Biblical reference, as the Norton Critical Edition scholars suggest? Is there a typo perhaps: should the title have read “A Little Clod”? Is the plot crisis here tantamount to a cloud passing over Chandler’s existence (or burning off in the sunlight of epiphany)? Might the Cloud denote the ungrounded quality of the narrative, its relative lack of physical description? The text never explicitly confirms any of the reader’s suppositions. What the title does make clear is that the story’s vision doesn’t promise or aspire to perfect clarity—however harsh, grainy and overexposed a “realistic” clarity might be. No, this story, like the book to which it belongs, trades in equal measure, perhaps primarily, in obfuscation.

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Narcissus and Echo

The fluent banality of the dialogue, for example, its plodding mimesis, doesn’t define the story’s tone; rather, it sharply contrasts with the lyrical timbre of Chandler’s poeticizing mind. As Chandler sits at his desk, staring out the window, he narrates, indirectly, the scene, a little landscape sketch:

The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures—on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens.

The irony in the sentence is hilarious: Chandler believes himself to be experiencing a beautiful moment of melancholic communion, as natural beauty gilds the urban scene. Yet, his mean-spiritedness, his contempt for his fellow Dubliners, punctures the graceful illusion at every turn: those untidy nurses, decrepit old men and screaming children belong to a different genre than the sunset’s kindly golden dust. (Even the phrase golden dust can be pressed to yield an oxymoron). Chandler is oblivious to the tone-deafness of his narrating consciousness, but the word choices reveal his true colors to the reader.

Later too, as he walks to meet Gallaher, he experiences another even more self-consciously poetical moment (later in the story he will try to recall the poem taking shape here):

For the first time [not quite true] his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street. … As he crossed Grattan Bridge he looked down the river toward the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses. They seemed to him a band of tramps [Chandler discovers metaphor] huddled together along the river banks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of the sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves and begone. He wondered whether he could write a poem to express his idea.

Lest you have any doubt that the intention here is parody, a caricature of the poet, consider that, as Chandler continues walking, the poem still unwritten, he fantasizes about the reviewers’ praise that might follow his performance, a passage too rich to truncate:

He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems, perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics perhaps would recognize him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of the poems; besides that, he would put in allusions [here, I laugh out loud]. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notices which his book would get. Mr. Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse. … A wistful sadness pervades these poems. … The Celtic note. [Guffaw!] It was a pity that his name was not more Irish looking.

The tone is so deadpan, unobtrusive, that we might miss the withering irony. That is, the parody doesn’t make a lot of noise; Chandler remains, throughout, pathetically human, not a cartoon. But the verdict is clear: Chandler’s trademark timidity (he carries a shyly scented handkerchief) gives the lie to these delusions of grandeur, and it seems especially damning that he abandons the poem to craft the praise, which is itself airily patronizing (or sentimental rot, to use a period term).

In a similar fashion, the fact that Chandler turns, later, to Byron’s poetry to escape the reality of his chintzy apartment, cold marriage and demanding child also exposes him as a poser, not a poet. Byron, as the exemplar of the Romantic era, is English, and in the nationalistic milieu of Dubliners, Chandler’s taste in poetry marks him with a self-destructive servility to British rule. Further, the poem Chandler reads (unnamed in the story, but printed in full in the wonderful Norton Critical Edition), is called “On the Death of a Young Lady, Cousin of the Author, and Very Dear to Him.” The first stanza sets a scene in which the writer visits the “tomb” to “scatter flowers on the dust [he loves],” and he notes how “Not e’en a Zephyr wanders through the grove.” Compare the tone of the poem, with its tombal sonority and absent zephyrs, with that of the conversation between Gallaher and Chandler, or even that of the immediate context of the room in which Chandler is reading, with a bawling infant and layaway furniture. The incongruity here, the dissonance, amounts to an indictment of both Chandler’s tastes and the Romantic project: this sort of art is cast as precious and dated, out of tune with contemporary reality. If a story like “The Sisters” exposes the bankruptcy of metaphysics, “A Little Cloud” turns its eye overtly on aesthetics and likewise splashes cold water in the face of the hallowed tradition.

The problem with the naturalistic view of Dubliners is that it’s blind to the irony that pervades the text. As I understand it, photographic realism is, by definition, unequivocally tone neutral and impersonal: the language captures and records, reliably, the real (sounds like an impossible project to me). In Dubliners, everywhere characters are, like Chandler, victims of their own delusions, and this discovery emerges obliquely in the text, in the ironic distance between the characters’ and the readers’ perceptions.

What makes us see a work like “A Little Cloud” or, more famously, “Araby” as naturalistic is precisely the way in which mundane description comes to eclipse the protagonists’ lyrical fantasies, couched in poetic language. Early in “Araby,” for example, the boy-narrator carries his love for Mangan’s sister like a “chalice” through the storm of hectoring reality: his love is existentially girded in metaphor. By the story’s end, he boards a sluggish tram, self-consciously pays his admission fee, peruses the underwhelming staging of the workaday “bazaar,” gets slighted when trying to pick out his gift for the girl and pauses, in the story’s last line, to survey the ruins of his romantic imagination. But it’s an oversimplification to call this naturalism (as Edmund Wilson did in 1958). Instead, Joyce’s stories, as a rule, record a conflict between literary styles; if a pitiless realism tends to come out on top, this doesn’t mean that the war is over. The next story will reconfigure the conflict in another manner, play it in a different key. Even the most resolutely pragmatic stories, those most immune to the spirit of “poetry,” feature characters who could hardly be called visionaries (see Mrs. Mooney in “A Boarding House,” or Mrs. Kearney in “A Mother,” both hell-bent on balancing ledgers). Rather, these apparently objective views of reality are at odds with other presumably objective views, and we never reach an artistic or existential high ground. Absent this conflict, this endless tilting of voices and visions, the art would be drab, indeed. Moreover, and perhaps more alarmingly, that bedrock of reality, when it does obtrude in the stories, often proves to be hollow and porous—particularly on the matter of Joyce’s vaunted epiphanies.

To see how, and to catch the full measure of “A Little Cloud”’s contribution to Dubliners, and of Dubliners’ contribution to world literature, we need to acknowledge the inadequacy of reading the stories in isolation. If we fillet the collection, extract its most succulent parts and toss the rest, we miss the deliberate artifice that binds the stories together: they’re all interwoven, with almost subliminal recurrences of images and motifs, each part an essential contributor to the collection’s larger design (Dubliners is a story cycle inclining to a novel). “A Little Cloud” reveals this intertextual patterning from its first lines, when Chandler recalls seeing Gallaher off at the “North Wall,” the Dublin dock favored by emigrants of the period. It’s at the North Wall that Eveline, the title character of the book’s third story, refuses to budge one inch further, recedes into an animal stubbornness, and watches her lover depart for points distant while she remains behind in paraplegic Dublin. And like the self-stranded Eveline, Chandler is prone to sitting idly and gazing out the window while his mind travels, not freely, but inside its self-made cage.

The prominent male duo in “A Little Cloud” also evokes comparison with the two gallants of “Two Gallants” who manipulate and use callously a wealthy family’s servant girl. At that story’s midpoint, Lenehan, the unsightly wing-man of the gallants, dreams epiphanically of middle-class comforts with a reliable wife; in Chandler’s predicament, we see the puncturing of that illusion: Lenehan’s sentimental dream is a dead-end vision. Chandler’s rough treatment of his child also prefigures the conclusion to “Counterparts,” the collection’s next story, in which Farrington, an alcoholic scrivener, blows his money on drink, embarrasses himself in an arm-wrestling match and heads home to take a strap to his son. (The story’s last line belongs to the boy, his disembodied voice pleading for mercy, “I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me … I’ll say a Hail Mary.”) Even the Byron poem in “A Little Cloud” serves to decode the cryptic title of “Clay,” which concerns an aging cleaning-lady named Maria, a woman prone to self-delusion who becomes the butt of a morbid joke during a Hallow’s Eve game (involving blindfolds and divination). As Byron writes of “the clay” that he loves, we grasp clay’s associations with death, a connection essential to a reading of “Clay,” but never made explicit in that story. For one last example, consider that Chandler’s fantasies of generous reviews point to Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of “The Dead,” and his part-time job as a literary columnist for the Daily Express.

The whole of Dubliners works like this: the details of the stories call out to each other at a distance, yielding an echo chamber of motifs, a plexed matrix of correspondences. Perceiving this patterning in Dubliners is a bit like creating a cat’s cradle of the mind; one can only marvel at the artistic intelligence that fashioned it, and maybe share in some of the wonder by seeing it for oneself (sort of like visiting the Grand Canyon). When I first discovered the intricate design in Dubliners, the effect was dizzying; though I continued breathing normally, in a spiritual sense it left me gasping. The only metaphor I could supply was that it felt like staring directly into the sun. That is to say, in isolation, the stories in Dubliners are often less than scintillating; in many ways, the book shows Joyce’s determination to drive a cleaver between the notions of art and entertainment, aesthetics and enjoyment. But maybe as a whole the collection does supply, in its interlocking craftsmanship, an experience of joy; against the pervasive chill of the collection, for those of us who need it, we might find a contravening warmth in the artistry.

Maybe. The discovery of the patterned surface (or depths) in Dubliners sounds itself like the experience of the epiphany visited upon so many of the collection’s characters. And in fact, this intertextual patterning yields some startling revelations about the nature of those epiphanies, both in isolation and in the aggregate.

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Has No One Learned Anything?

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Charles Baxter represents the orthodox view of the Joycean epiphany, in his otherwise heretical essay “Against Epiphanies.” Baxter begins by acknowledging the cultural baggage that attends this artistic device: the epiphany doesn’t originate with Joyce but dates back to the rhetoric of religious revelation (see, for example, the conversion experience of Saul of Tarsus). When I consider the roots of epiphany, I think less of saints and more of heroes, as in the anagnorisis, or recognition event, from classical drama and epic poetry. In that tradition, the revelation was directed outward, more public than personal, a recognition of a truth about somebody else (like the incognito Odysseus being spotted by his servant, or Oedipus Rex solving the riddle of his life). The epiphany, by contrast, is anagnorisis turned inward—you recognize at last the face in the mirror—and this attainment of knowledge often supersedes the importance of any action that might follow. Thought trumps plot.

Baxter also shows how Joyce’s epiphanies, contra Bennett, have a metaphysical thrust; he cites the lines from Stephen Hero (the prototype for Portrait) in which Stephen Dedalus describes the epiphany of the object, a perception of its genuine essence. You might call it a transfiguration of the commonplace, a moment that lights up trivialities with transcendental significance. As Baxter summarizes the upshot of the device in Dubliners,

The stories […] are astonishingly detailed, but they continually aim for a climactic moment of brilliant transforming clarification. The clarification happens on the page, even if it doesn’t become visibly apparent to the characters. The stories aim for this effect because the lives Joyce is putting on display might be insufferable to contemplate otherwise, or rather, they would exist in a condition of unimproved Naturalism.

Despite (or because of) this grand inheritance and aim, Baxter complains that epiphanies have become too pat to be convincing anymore; they’re tropes, not genuine transformations of character. And he ultimately argues that writers need to shake up their notions of epiphanies, perhaps showing us how an epiphany can be treacherous: “the insight, if it does come, [need not] be valid or true.” He’s right, of course, but he holds up Joyce’s “Araby” as a shining example of the classic epiphany, the epiphany played straight. When that story’s narrator peers up into the darkness and sees that he’s a “creature driven and derided by vanity,” his eyes burning with “anguish and anger,” he seems to have discovered the essential truth about himself, his folly in romanticizing his budding relationship with Mangan’s sister. This puncturing of a literary illusion is in fact the signature gesture of Dubliners, and maybe this explains why “Araby” has survived while the other stories have faded: the part stands for the whole here. But the local observation needs stressing: for Baxter, the boy-narrator’s conclusive judgment, while somewhat self-destructive, is reliable and truthful. “He has become visible to himself,” Baxter writes.

David Jauss, in “Some Epiphanies about Epiphanies,” holds a view similar to Baxter’s in that he too urges writers to experiment with the device. Relocate it in the narrative, he suggests (among other things), rather than reserving it for the dubious and tired fireworks-of-insight finish. However, unlike Baxter, Jauss is critical of the epiphany at the close of “Araby.” He finds a disproportion between the “showing” of the narrative up to that point, and the glib “telling” of the epiphanic moment: “the final sentence,” Jauss argues, “knocks the story off balance.” He also notes how the boy’s epiphany is couched in the language of religious revelation (vanity, anguish) instead of clear-eyed self-awareness. For Jauss, this fault in the epiphany is the crucial weakness in the story; he isn’t, as a result, “convinced the epiphany is incontrovertibly true, much less permanently life-altering.”

Jauss is right to suggest that the story’s last sentence invites and requires a double take, but what if the doubtful nature of the epiphany is precisely the point? That is, the pseudo-religious tenor of the epiphany might mark it as another form of self-delusion; the boy doesn’t progress, then, from blindness to insight, but rather exchanges one astigmatism for another: exalted romanticism for hair-shirt contrition. In fact, the interconnections among the stories help to confirm this “suspicious” reading (as Margot Norris, author of the superb Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners, might call it).

Consider that in “An Encounter,” when the boy-narrator gets drawn into conversation with a pedophile on the public green, the guy’s speech is incantatory, mired in the repetitions of a one-track mind:

He began to speak to us about girls, saying what nice soft hair they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair. He gave me the  impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. … He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice.

Repetition, a verbatim recycling of words and phrases, is here the stylistic marker of a sinister self-delusion. In some ways, incantatory repetition is similar to Romantic poetry: both offer a linguistic experience that calls attention to artifice, a sense of words being “magnetized” (repetition is the slovenly cousin of rhyme and alliteration). In the world of Dubliners, any act of dressing up language in artificial clothes scans as a symptom of error, an epistemological failure: see again, for example, Chandler’s description of that kindly golden dust and the lyrical parallelism (repetition) in his syntax. So when the narrator of “Araby” adopts that poeticized and quasi-religious rhetoric, the alliteration is the giveaway that he is girding himself in a defective system: his newfound self-knowledge is driven by the same delusive impulse as his love. Objective reality doesn’t carry the day, after all.

Read in this light, Joyce’s text was already practicing what Jauss and Baxter recommend for contemporary writers. And in every instance, I think, the epiphanies experienced by the characters in Dubliners prove to be forked, flawed, existential false positives.

The epiphany in “A Little Cloud” is, on this point, typical. Chandler’s discovery of the “hatred in his wife’s eyes” appears to represent an arrival of authentic knowledge. Yet, the initial trigger for this devastating insight is Chandler’s glimpse of the lack of “passion” in those same eyes (in the photograph). In other words, what Chandler laments in the scene is Annie’s failure to measure up to his Romantic ideals, which we’ve already seen are ridiculously inflated and artistically bankrupt. So how much truth can be said to inhere in Chandler’s judgment? The very foundation of the epiphanic scene is dubious.

The conclusion to the sequence further aggravates the ambiguity. As those “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes,” the text doesn’t specify the thing that Chandler regrets. He might regret his treatment of his son; however, this would make for a pretty hollow ending to the tale, as the minor failure eclipses the major crisis and a mood of conventional sentimentality prevails. At best, it would signal, implicitly, Chandler’s recognition of the hurtful selfishness of his artistic dreams. But because the scene appears to confirm the irreconciliability of Chandler and his wife (of Chandler to his life), it seems more likely that Chandler regrets his decision to marry the woman with the passionless eyes. In this reading, the story concludes with an access of self-pity: Chandler has learned the truth (maybe) about his marriage, but nothing about the error of his ambitions. His abusive behavior pales, for him, in comparison to his own suffering. In either case, the epiphany is ruinous, not exalting. And because the epiphany conceals within it this crucial misdirection, this potential for a forked reading, the gambit, while promising a neat resolution to the story’s conflict, cagily withholds the very closure that authentic self-awareness would supply.

With its ironic ending and parodic disposition, “A Little Cloud” also proves crucial to our understanding of the collection’s crowning epiphany, at the close of “The Dead,” possibly the most famous paragraph in all of world literature. Recall the scene: Gabriel Conroy, in the aftermath of his discovery of his wife’s private emotional world, stares out the window and observes the snow, falling softly and softly falling, faintly falling and falling faintly, “like the descent of their last end on all the living and the dead.” The prose is magnificent: lyrical but not overwrought (though the verb “swooned” hasn’t aged well), simple but not anemic (those “dark mutinous Shannon waves”), the whole charged with an existential urgency. Mundane experience is here transmuted into credible transcendence. Yet, having observed the function of stylistic artifice (repetition) elsewhere in the collection, it’s hard not to think, “Uh-oh,” when Gabriel’s meditations wax poetic, as if he’s hearkening to the false counsel of literary language.

The consensus reading (see SparkNotes, for example) catches the essential ambiguity in the passage. On one hand, Gabriel seems invested with a fresh understanding of his shortcomings, and newly resolved to embark on a journey with his wife to make amends. On the other hand, he doesn’t move a muscle in the scene, but remains spellbound, even paralyzed, by the experience of observing the snow, and as he burrows into his imagination, his thoughts tend toward the ultimate inertia of death. This paradox is almost identical to the predicament of the poetic speaker in the last stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the rimy sleigh driver with promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps. As Terry Eagleton expertly parses Frost’s stanza, he might be speaking equally of the conclusion to “The Dead”:

There is much recurrence and repetition in [the poem’s] rhyming pattern, which brings with it a curious sense of stasis. By the time the last verse arrives, we have the mesmeric, incantatory repetition of a single rhyme (‘deep’ … ‘keep’ … ‘sleep’). There is no longer any progress or modulation in the rhyme scheme, even though the speaker is reminding himself to move on. The effect is rather like someone trying to shake himself out of the paralysis of sleep with the thought that he should get up.

Style and content are likewise at odds in Gabriel’s epiphany, the stasis in the language nullifying the promise of profluential transformation. In Gabriel’s case, the content is further at odds with itself, as he appears simultaneously to embrace his Irish identity (his journey westward) and to obviate the difference between life and death (the last words unite “all the living and the dead”). His destination with Gretta is either Galway or Hades. Here, redemption is indistinguishable from doom. This paradox is in its own way brilliant, even perfect, but we understand the passage incompletely if we ignore the signposts elsewhere in the collection, and these further unsettle the passage’s already unsettling equipoise. In particular, the precise echoes between Chandler’s window-side view of the golden dust and Gabriel’s view of the falling snow—both scenes featuring atmospheric cascades—make me doubtful of the authenticity of Gabriel’s vision, as if it too, while seeming more humane and genuine, is just another kind of self-delusion, Chandler’s foolishness played in a more sympathetic key.

Or is Chandler’s vision a parody of Gabriel’s view, serving to contrast with, not sabotage, the epiphany in “The Dead,” the one bathed in the sunlight of stupidity, the other cloaked in the darkness and frost of a paradoxical truth? In either case, some readers would bridle, understandably, at the notion of deriving the meaning in one story from motifs in the others, as if each story requires and deserves an interpretive isolation. But even within the confines of “The Dead,” I do worry about the quantity of snow. At the hotel window, Gabriel imagines how the snow lies “thickly drifted” over everything, over all of Ireland, down to the crosses on the tombstones, the thorns of the trees, even the spear points on a cemetery gate (a neat trick that would be). Yet, a few pages earlier, as the Conroys are leaving the Morkans’ party en route to the hotel, we find this description of the snow event: “It was slushy underfoot and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings.” This sounds like something more than a dusting, but hardly a blanketing. The contrast between these perceptions of snowfall is startling, and suggests that Gabriel’s meditative epiphany carries perhaps a greater portion of error and overstatement than of genuine insight. The moment might be not only ambiguous, but, like the epiphanies in “Araby” and “A Little Cloud,” in some measure bogus.

And what of Michael Furey, Gretta’s teenage sweetheart, with the bad lungs and the job at the gasworks? Remember, he courts his own death when he stands out in the rain under Gretta’s window, a desperate (and pointless) show of devotion. In the act, he seems more like a stock character from a sentimental Irish ballad (like “The Lass of Aughrim,” sung at the Morkans’ party) than like an infatuated teenager. More pointedly, isn’t Furey basically the boy-narrator of “Araby,” minus the bubble-bursting epiphany? Yet Furey’s example is what exposes, by contrast, the flabbiness in Gabriel’s character. So when Gabriel reflects, “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age,” isn’t he invoking the same ideal as Little Chandler and the love-blinded narrator of “Araby”? That is, here, on the epiphanic precipice, Gabriel is buying into the very illusionment that the stories repeatedly dispel; he hasn’t reached a summit of wisdom, but stumbled into a cul-de-sac. Rather than attaining a glimpse of objective reality, Gabriel instead fades out “into a grey impalpable world” “where [dwell] the vast hosts of the dead,” a recession into the mythic, the mystical and the supernatural. Maybe the surest evidence that the collection’s epiphanies are inherently and endemically problematic is that the two most famous examples, in “Araby” and in “The Dead,” are incompatible, even perfectly contradictory.

It isn’t quite accurate to think of Dubliners as the epitome of conventional realism, or an incubator of genuine epiphanic insight. The stories are crooked and warped, rife with voices and modes, often brutally evasive, the whole wracked by confounding involutions. If this is naturalism, we should probably revise our definition of the term because, in order to capture life as it is, Joyce repeatedly depicts characters who have, at best, a loose acquaintance with reality. And if the book has a grand epiphany, it might be that all epiphanies are suspect, self-knowledge inevitably compromised by literary wishful thinking, human folly endlessly renewable. These thoughts have led me to reconsider my estimation of the collection’s meta-patterns. Isn’t this just another dimension of artificial repetition? And as such, isn’t it, by the collection’s aesthetic logic, suggestive of an epistemological error, something to be corrected rather than cultivated? Or is this the only kind of artifice that can transcend the immediate and purblind human context, and thus prove durable (stand us now and ever in good stead) precisely because it defers meaning and avers nothing? Or is this artificer’s impulse anyway ineradicable, an inescapable part of the human condition? You tell me.

Maybe there is an element of masochism in revering an art that would disabuse readers of all notions of reverence, but this is the legacy of Dubliners. With its blinkered populace, its warped and harshly truncated narratives, all shot on the fraying black-and-white film stock of Joyce’s most miserly style, the book can seem off-putting in its relentless mundanity, Joyce’s art merely commensurate with his subject (this composite portrait of curdled human potential). But Dubliners does indeed model a radical consciousness of craft; it previews many of the most powerful strains of the Modernist revolution. For writers of the next century, it remains required reading.

— Bruce Stone

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Bruce Stone

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

 

Jun 132014
 

with grand daughter coraSydney Lea with Cora, his granddaughter

Let’s not mince words. Sydney Lea is a masterful, passionate, eloquent writer, just getting better with age. He can do about anything he wants with a sentence, corral any emotion, evoke mystery, rail, weep, mourn, confess, ponder, berate, and rejoice. He works in image and memory with an audacity that is breathtaking, all the more so because it seems both effortless and utterly in  control. His essays read like long complex sentences, surging forward, splitting and converging and splitting and converging, incomplete until the last period after the last word, when, as Yeats is supposed to have said, they snap shut with the click of a well-made box. I won’t say more. The middle essay will break you heart.

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The Serpent on Barnet Knoll

The young retriever noses a frozen snake across the rain-glazed snow. The creature should long since have wriggled deep into mulch in some granite fissure, so that when it died, it would do so down there, in secret. That it didn’t seems odd.

But my mind’s still odder, having followed its own inward paths from that coiled corpse to a moment this morning before I set out: at the mirror, greasing lips against the cold, I inspected myself. The age-lines, the puckering mouth, the thin gray hair—all still surprised me. I also studied a wen, the permanent swelling that puffs my left eyebrow into a small horn. It’s the frozen snake that has reminded me of that passing moment, though how it did so I can’t explain.

Out here, I encounter the morning’s savage gusts. The spruce-tops thrash and complain. When there’s a lull, I hear the ceaseless and meaningless scolding of red squirrels, the grating of ravens.

One day, in my third grade year to be precise, I knocked off Joe Morey’s hat on the playground, taunting him for a sissy, even though he and I were friends for the most part. Nearly weeping with frustration, he reached down for the hat at the same time I did. Our heads clapped together, my brow swelling slightly but, as it turned out, forever. I’d meant to be cruel that day, I was, and I got my long-lasting due.

In life, the snake was a mere, harmless garter. Today it’s something else, and makes me quit my hike for a while. I stand and wait, but nothing comes to change me. Why would I dream it would, no matter my unvoiced, uncertainly directed, all but unconscious pleading?

It’s almost Christmas, a holy time for many. Through decades of northern winters, I’ve never seen a snake at large in December. But however I strive to discover something significant in the event, nothing reveals itself except what I’ve long known about snakes—mere facts, devoid of meaning, versions of reality that seem only somehow to discredit me.

Was this the creature’s first cold season? Who knows? A snake doesn’t count or reason. But I do; I know there are just so many moments in anybody’s life. Why do I stand here statue-still and fritter a single one away? And yet what else should I be thinking about?

I have wife, children, grandchildren, along with a host of lesser earthly attachments. I clench them tight to my heart, but there come times when a sort of unattached self prevails. Left at large too, I know, that other self might contemplate violence or crime. Also, of course, it doesn’t. I daily, dutifully, and gladly return to a bourgeois life. Am I not therefore absolved? But what in me requires absolution anyhow? I simply feel this unsettledness, ungovernable, random, opaque.

One day my head struck a temporary enemy’s head, but even before that, surely, something had slithered into my soul. It would linger lifelong, making subsequent, unwelcome forays up to the cool surface, whenever, however it might.

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Catch

Whoever you may be, stop reading now if too much sentiment, no matter how genuine, makes you uneasy or angry or whatever else. If you do hear me out, however, I hope you’re not the sort who’d say that my good wife throws like a girl, as my Little League baseball coach once claimed I did, the moron. I threw just fine until my arm got robbed by age. That happened some time back, to be sure.

You don’t have to remind me I might have known worse losses.

Whoever you are, go stand beside my wife, at exactly sixty feet, six inches from some target, and then by God we’ll see how many times she can take a ball or even a stone and hurl it, and how often she’ll hit the can, the post, the tree– and then we’ll see how often you do. Good luck, sucker.

No, wait a minute. There’s little reason to start all this in anger at you, whom I probably don’t even know. I won’t pretend I’m not angry, but why lash out at a stranger? It’s doubtless only despondency that makes me talk this way.

I’ve now and then pictured my wife playing catch with the one boy in her five-sibling family, the one who fought cancer for twelve years and died this past December. I loved him, which is no doubt a crucial factor in my behavior here, my rhetoric.

I’ve seen photographs of those two kids, gloves on left hands, half-smiling, squinting under a summer sun, decades and decades ago. They were a good-looking pair in those days, and both were handsome into late adulthood, no matter most of his hair had been robbed by the vile, stinking chemo, and some of his teeth.

My wife recalls how, in the warm months, when they got home from school, the two would head right out to their yard to toss the baseball around and chat away the afternoon. For me, that’s the very picture of innocence and affection, and if you, anonymous you, consider it the stuff of Norman Rockwell or Hallmark, just haul your sorry self off.

There I go. Forgive me. I’m just uncertain which emotion is which here. For all I can really say, you were innocent too, and still may be, or at least known as a decent, caring person, and it’s not after all as if I have some corner on innocence myself. Sometimes I reckon I’ve never been any better than I have to be.

For one thing, I probably should have been paying closer attention to my wife’s brother—and to my wife as well, come to think about it. Not that it does anyone a bit of good when I beat myself over the head for my omissions. That doesn’t change a thing. If it could, I’d keep at it forever, as in some respects I suppose I have.

On those long-gone afternoons, my wife learned to throw like a man. Instead of moping and cursing, I wish I were man enough to report all this and not break down. But do I really? Do I want to be manly by that definition—furious, fearless, unwilling to take any quarter or give any? There are better things to wish for. I know that these days.

My brother-in-law and I used to go down and watch our Red Sox play at Fenway Park. After a while we had daughters and sons, and we’d take them along. Home runs, triples, double plays: we roared approval at these and more; but we all, child and grownup alike, especially loved those bullet throws that Dwight Evans delivered to cut runs off at the plate.

Too soon, it seems, our lives just seemed to get too busy for Fenway. Then the god-awful cancer showed up. Starting in my brother-in-law’s colon, it got to traveling elsewhere afterwards, and the whole time I only sat here and typed words, as I’m doing even now, weeping. Meanwhile my poor wife is sick with sadness, and I wouldn’t blame her if, thinking back to those old summers, she picked up something and threw it dead-center between God’s eyes.

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The Couple at the Free Pile

Autumn’s church bazaar is over, all the stalwart, weathered tents of the vendors struck except the one over the White Elephant table. Early this Sunday morning, such tatty wares as went unsold still sprawl on the plastic tablecloth or on the ground, but the sign up front reads FREE.

No car approaching or following, I brake to a crawl so I can observe a man and woman making their deliberate ways through the jumble. I naturally notice that their goods are gathered in the rusted bed of the wheelbarrow my wife and I donated to the event, which nods on its fat, limp tire like a weary draft animal.

For me to stop completely might be to embarrass this couple, who covet what we congregants had considered encumbrances. And yet, however it shames me, my curiosity—like desperate thirst, or lust—also impels me. I’ll drive on, circle the village common, and pass back this way again from the other direction. After all, the two scavengers seem devoted to their scrutinies; I doubt they’ll notice my second inspection.

I turn by a picket fence enclosing a big house’s tidy lawn at the south end of the common. The owners held a well-attended garden tour there last June. Then I swing right again, north, going by the famous corner elm, which residents agreed at town meeting to save, approving a line item that funded the tree surgeons’ services.

During the festival, I visited the White Elephant booth myself. As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and you never know. As I predicted, however, nothing appealed. Among other bits of uselessness, say, I found a basketball so worn it had lost all traces of its original, pebbled orange; three recumbent, saucer-eyed ceramic deer; a few chipped plates, inscribed Disneyland, 1974 and showing portraits of Mickey, Goofy, Donald; raveled rugs; tarnished lampshades and sconces. So on.

Passing the elementary school, I make a right again, and, before the turn that will take me to another view, I stop at the intersection, just opposite the village store. My wife and I will be having lunch there in an hour or so. Its deli is the best-stocked one for miles, the staff all cheerful.

As I drive, even more slowly than before, past the White Elephant display, I see a car seat in a Bondo’d pickup’s cab. It holds a child, and he or she—it’s hard to tell through the windows’ grime—must have been sleeping a few minutes ago, but now I can just make out a mouth, gaped in a yowl I can’t hear, even if I can imagine it. Surely one of the parents, or both, will step out of the tent to tend the toddler. For now, though, they stand motionless, one on either side of the wheelbarrow, eyes on me. Their stares are furious.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.

 

May 162014
 

Desktop52W. G. Sebald

The movie writer/director Ron Shelton once told me he figured he had enough material for a movie when he had enough for twelve movies. Something like that must be at the back of Patrick Madden’s essays because he will wander and digress and quote and ponder and talk about himself and reflect and quote again. This essay is notionally about W. G. Sebald’s discursive, essayistic novels, especially The Rings of Saturn, but then Patrick wanders off and talks about the nature of the essay itself, the nature of creative nonfiction, the fictional aspects of nonfiction and the nonfictional aspects of fiction, and the way he likes to write his own essays (maybe a dozen different topics—you count). In effect, he incarnates the form (of the essay) in his discussion of the essay and Sebald as essayist in the most amiable and slyly convincing manner. “Walking, Researching, Remembering” is, yes, an extremely amiable and charming tour de force, which, to me, also has the advantage of drawing attention to one of the differences between North American and European fiction — the Europeans (see Kundera’s The Art of the Novel) have never been averse to mixing their essays with their novels, whereas North Americans have been stunned into minimalism by that show-don’t-tell nonsense. Don’t get me started.

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In his book Understanding W. G. Sebald, Mark McCulloh contends that “Even more than The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn defies description; it does not seem to fit into any conventional prose or fiction category.” This sentiment has found its way into praise and criticism from the beginning, ever since Sebald’s books began to appear in English. Yet I disagree; unless we remove the essay from the ranks of “conventional” genres, it fits what Sebald wrote very aptly. But I would do well to begin by defining terms.

The word essay has been misused and abused for long centuries since Montaigne appropriated it to describe his writings. School teachers and children use it to mean a written test of knowledge, usually with an expected correct answer. Colleagues of mine use it to refer to academic articles, which may have somewhat in common with essays, but which are quite different in direction and intent. In fact, the best theoretical works on the essay, including those written by Georg Lukacs, Theodor Adorno, and William Gass, pit the essay in opposition to this very thing. This is how I’ve grown to think of the essay, not as non-fiction, but as non-article. It is a malleable literary form that admits experimentation and imagination. More on this in a minute.

It is not usually my nature to make arguments. I’m more likely to content myself with leisurely explorations that churn up questions but not answers. So I expect to go back and forth, circle around my claim, perhaps contradict myself (it was Walt Whitman who declared it so memorably, but we should remember that Montaigne made a genre out of it). And, speaking of Montaigne, here’s his justification for drifting, rambling a bit:

It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I. Some word about it will always be found off in a corner, which will not fail to be sufficient.

In any case, before I get lost in the branches, let me return to the trunk of my argument: Sebald was an essayist. I’ll focus my here today on my favorite of his books, The Rings of Saturn, but not only on that book. I’ll divide my argument into two considerations: Fiction vs. Nonfiction and The Essay as Form.

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Part I: Fiction v. Nonfiction

Although it’s rarely professed explicitly, far too many of my academic colleagues seem to espouse a one-drop theory of creative nonfiction: if a writer invents even a small detail, the prose is deemed fiction. Of course, this view immediately becomes problematic, as any nonfiction writer will attest to inventing dialogue, or crafting it to recall approximately what was said, not offer a verbatim transcript. A more theoretical view argues that all writing is fiction, either because it is a made thing or, more in line with our colloquial definition, because it is a recreation in words of an exterior reality. This is sometimes fun to ponder, but I think we’re arguing about the wrong thing. After all, poetry is not divided along factual lines; it is a literary form that admits invention as well as re-creation.

Nevertheless, the essay as a literary genre has been swept up in the current trend of “creative nonfiction,” and as it has traditionally been a nonfictional genre—one that utilizes real-life experience as a springboard to thinking—this has come to be a sort of requirement or expectation. I am not saying that this is always a bad thing—in my own writing I make it a point to stick to the facts as I remember or can discover them—but that the essay form is big enough to admit some fictionalizing.

CaptureVirginia Woolf

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Fictionalizing essayists

An easy case may be made for essays that use fiction in a way that is not deceptive. Take, for instance, Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” whose plot is utterly undramatic—she goes in search of a pencil—and yet whose technique is highly imaginative—she invents thoughts and backgrounds for the strangers she encounters along the way. No critical reader believes that Woolf knows the details she writes. She obviously makes them up. Similarly, no critical reader believes every detail in a James Thurber essay, or a Christopher Morley or Robert Benchley or David Sedaris. And what can we make of Joseph Addison writing in the voice of a shilling that has traveled the world or of George Orwell perhaps borrowing the haunting central scene of “A Hanging” from a comrade’s recollection? What of Ian Frazier writing as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s ex-husbands? Or as a coyote captured in Central Park!? Essayists have been utilizing fiction for as long as the essay has existed.

There is also the question of an essayist’s persona. Much is made, directly and indirectly, of Sebald’s narrators. Critics are careful not to associate author and speaker, to make such an amateur’s conflation. Yet, I would argue that an essayist always speaks through a persona, at least through a necessarily partial version of him- or herself. Was Sebald as neurotic or morose as his narrators? No, say those who knew him. Was he as interested in history and biography? He must have been, to write his books. Martin Swales assures us that “the persona clearly overlaps with the author…there is a good deal of shared identity between the narrative voice and the person who wrote and published the text.” Mark McCulloh assents: “The self-references, the literary references, the references to art and music, and the seemingly tangential digressions are indeed drawn from the author’s life and researches” (82). Most readers I know seem to agree and accept this notion. But again let’s look at a few examples of old to trouble this question:

Charles Lamb wrote his essays under the pen name Elia, an Italian immigrant, a clerk, a person very much like “the real” Lamb, but not entirely. To complicate matters further, “Charles Lamb” appears as a third-party in some of Elia’s essays, including “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago,” written by Elia to debunk an overly sunny Lamb composition on the same subject. A third level of difficulty arises as Elia appropriates Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s troublesome experiences as a youth at the boarding school both Coleridge and Lamb attended. This resembles very much the nature of Sebald’s ficionalizations: conflating two acquaintances to create the painter Max Ferber (whose name was changed in the English translation to be less recognizable), and two others to create Austerlitz, changing the names of certain characters, moving buildings, rearranging events, etc. There are other examples, too, of essayists trying on fictional personas, perhaps most notably Oliver Goldsmith, an Irishman posing as a visiting Chinese man writing about eighteenth-century England. Edith Maude Eaton performed a similar self-revision, writing as Sui Sin Far. Violet Paget wrote her essays as Vernon Lee, and other women likewise wrote as men. And while critics may argue the literary merits and meanings of their works, the question of their genre seems to have been settled. They wrote essays.

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Sebald’s nonfiction

Still, lots of us want to know what really happened, whether Sebald wrote true to life. On the one hand, it seems naïve, unsophisticated, to wonder if or to hope that Sebald’s books are nonfiction. On the other hand, this very question has given a number of academics projects to investigate and write about. And they seem to enjoy their quests. Certainly I enjoy reading Jo Catling’s revelation that the Eccles Church Tower Sebald places in Dunwich is really far north of there; Silke Hostkotte’s puzzlement at the library date-stamp on the newspaper that Sebald supposedly bought in Switzerland; Adrian Daub’s conclusion that the Eastern Daily Press article about Major George Wyndham LeStrange must be a forgery created by Sebald. These researchers seem genuinely pleased with the treasure hunt Sebald has left them. I myself have twice set out on my own brief treasure hunt, a tour of some of the places Sebald (and his narrator, if you prefer) visited in The Rings of Saturn.

Thankfully, then, a lot of interviewers were interested in just this very subject, and Sebald was never coy. Carole Angier, in an interview for the Jewish Quarterly, asks about the real people behind the four narratives in The Emigrants. They were real, says Sebald, “with some small changes.” He explains these changes, adding that “What matters is all true…The big events…you might think those were made up for dramatic effect. But on the contrary, they are real.” He adds “The vast majority of factual and personal detail that I use is very viable.” Nevertheless, Angier has her answer: the book is fiction.

Very well, the books fit that bill, but it is still heartening to hear Sebald detail the nonfictional elements of his books. Ninety percent of the images are authentic (41), he says. His narrator’s travels mirror his own travels. He does a great deal of historical research, searching for connections. Sometimes these connections present themselves from the long shadows of memory. Certain epiphanies “can be achieved only by actually going to certain places, by looking, by expending great amounts of time in actually exposing oneself to places that no one else goes to” (85). “The changes that I made, i.e., extending certain vectors, foreshortening certain things, adding here and there, taking something away, are marginal changes, changes of style rather than changes of substance” (38).

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Part II: The Essay as Form

There must be something, then, that distinguishes the essay as a genre. In terms of form, the simplest way to distinguish genres is by their shape on the page. My children can tell a poem from a play from prose. They can also tell country music from jazz from rock-n-roll. This is where the essay differs from the short story or the novel.

Theodor Adorno, as I have mentioned briefly, begins his “Essay as Form” railing against the tendency of humans to categorize, compartmentalize, and therefore cage. He singles out what he calls a German binary: art is irrational, science is knowledge. This is not only a German tendency, nor is it relegated to the past, of course. Adorno returns regularly to this dichotomy: on the one hand the systematic article, on the other, art, and in the middle, the confluence of the two, in good deconstructivist style, is the essay, free of restraint or obligation to either camp. The “intellectual freedom” here symbolized by the essay seems as much praise and rebellion as description, and Adorno’s tone is often exasperated, his words a counterattack on those “enemies of the essay” who “hire out to stupidity as a watchdog against the mind” (4). Central to Adorno’s idea of the essay form, then, is its fragmentariness (a mirror of fragmentary reality), its intuitiveness, its “luck and play” (4), its individuality, its uncertainty, its incompleteness, its focus on the “transient and ephemeral” (10), its dealings in experience, its contingency, its situatedness within culture, its immediacy, its skepticism, its non-linearity, its direct treatment of complexity, its resistance to reduction, its grounding in language, its musical logic, its self-reflexivity, its heresy. He is often quoted for this last sentiment, with which he ends his essay on the essay: “The essay’s innermost formal law is heresy” (23). He means, I think, a rejection of the norms of thought, of the fear of thought, of the fear of losing the solid ground created by the illusion of objective knowledge. The essay is cast in relief (perhaps with a double meaning: “standing out” and “refreshing”) against the rigid systems of science, positivism, the reification of methodical provable truth. An essay, in this sense, is a kind of anti-genre, or at least, in O. B. Hardison’s words, a “protean” form.

Georg Lukacs, who preceded Adorno and who offers many similar statements, seems to deal specifically with an essay that begins with an external, not a personal subject, much as Sebald’s work is derived from studies of other people, places, and events. Lukacs’s rendition of the science/art split hinges on his statement that “science offers us facts and the relationships between facts, but art offers us souls and destinies” (3). He justifies the need for essays in contrast with drama (or, I imagine, fiction) by pointing out that some reactions can be shown visually and aurally, but thought is invisible. Thus the essay deals with the inner workings of a mind. The essay is needed also as intermediary between concepts (abstractions) and things (concretions), between image and significance. For Lukacs, then, the essay form is marked by its questioning, its avoidance of didactic or simplistic answers, its fragmentariness, its humor, its modesty, its consideration of the quotidian, its irony, its fight against tradition, its visionary nature, its friction with fact (perhaps this is key), its interruptions, its primacy of point of view over feeling. He sees the essay as process, not product, journey, not destination. The essay, according to Phillip Lopate [Against 75], “allows one to ramble in a way that more truly reflects the mind at work,” struggling, grasping, circling, but never preaching.

Adorno deals with the misguided view of essay as simply nonfiction when he writes, “The bad essay tells stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand” (6). Lukacs would seem to agree: “Every event [is] only an occasion for seeing concepts more clearly,” he writes (14), and “The idea is the measure of everything that exists….Only something that is great and true can live in the proximity of the idea.” (16). Both writers stress that the essay is an ordering of things already present, not a creation ex nihilo. This calls to mind an Sebald interview with Michael Zeeman, [Netherlands TV, 12 July 1998] in which he says, “Making in prose a decent pattern out of what happens to come your way is a preoccupation, which, in a sense, has no higher ambitions than, for a brief moment in time, to rescue something out of that stream of history that keeps rushing past.” To Zeeman’s amazement, Sebald claims that as he’s writing, necessary and fitting items seem to present themselves to him. He quotes (he thinks) Adorno: “If you’re on the right track, then the quotations come and offer themselves to you; you don’t have to look for them.”

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Others’ statements about Sebald’s form

I hope you have read some of Sebald’s works, have marveled at their complexity and swooned in their beauty. If you’re like me, you’ve noticed that the traits Adorno and Lukacs (and others) attribute to the essay fit Sebald. Critics and academics have made similar statements to describe Sebald’s strange prose.

Susan Sontag said The Emigrants was “like nothing I’ve ever read…an unclassifiable book, at once autobiography and fiction and historical chronicle. A roman d’essai?” Margo Jefferson of the New York Times wondered about categorizing Sebald’s books: “What does one call them? meditations, elegies, mutations grown from memoir, history, literary biography and prose poetry.”

W. S. Merwin said that Sebald’s writing conjures from the details and sequences of daily life, and their circumstances and encounters, from apparent chance and its unsounded calculus, the dimension of dream and a sense of the depth of time that makes his books, one by one, indispensable. He evokes at once the minutiae and the vastness of individual existence, the inconsolable sorrow of history and the scintillating beauty of the moment and its ground of memory.

Michael Silverblatt, in a radio interview, comments that “The wandering that the prose does, both syntactically and in terms of subjects, reminds me a bit of my favorite of the English essayists, de Quincey: the need, in a sense, to almost sleepwalk, somnambulate from one center of attention to another, and a feeling in the reader that one has hallucinated the connection between the parts.”

J. J. Long, in W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity finds in The Rings of Saturn an anti-Cartesian parallel between the narrator’s ambling and the narrative’s form: “He wanders with no ostensible purpose or goal, following the dictates of the land, inadvertently doubling back on himself, inexplicably tracing out the same route time and again, and striking out only to end up back where he started…The Rings of Saturn, like the journey it recounts, is filled with diversions, recursions and a refusal of teleology.” The book, he says, “consists almost entirely of digressions.” The narrator’s walking “is deliberately inefficient and, one might say, anti-disciplinary. This tendency to explore byways rather than make beelines goes hand in hand with a narrative technique that is multiply digressive: it repeatedly shifts focus, as each digressions is soon abandoned in favour of another digression or a brief return to the story of the journey itself; it frequently changes the context within which phenomena are understood, evoking a parallel mythic temporality that transfigures the quotidian object-world and produces a split attention, a kind of distraction, in both the narrator and the reader; and it frequently gets sidetracked into length enumrations of physical objects” (140).

Mark McCulloh, in Understanding W. G. Sebald, makes similar claims about Sebald’s digressiveness, adding that The Rings of Saturn declares its subject from the outset, another essay commonality, thus eschewing suspense and drama, that it, like Thomas Browne’s work, pursues enigmatic interconnections, “casting doubt on virtually anything that is readily apparent” (61). “The book is thus an associative, digressive, and allusive journey through East Anglia,” he concludes.

Charles Simic notes that “[Sebald] never hesitates to interject some interesting anecdote or bit of factual information arrived at by some not-always-apparent process of association. He does this without forewarning, transition, or even paragraph break” (146)

Or hear Martin Swales [“Intertextuality, Authenticity, Metonymy? On Reading W. G. Sebald” from The Anatomist of Melancholy ed. Rüdinger Görner]: “Random meetings, memories involuntarily triggered, chance thoughts—these are the stuff of his imaginative universe.” And “In a curious way, the Sebald text stays where is has been from the outset; it does not quite go anywhere, in other words.”

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Sebald’s statements on his method of writing

It’s not only the critics who see Sebald’s books as digressive, associative, logically non-linear. When Sebald discussed his writing style and methods, he likewise seemed to be describing essaying. Consider what he told Joseph Cuomo:

I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. … So you then have a small amount of material and you accumulate things, and it grows, and one thing takes you to another, and you make something out of these haphazardly assembled materials. And, as they have been assembled in this random fashion, you have to strain your imagination in order to create a connection between the two things. If you look for things that are like the things that you have looked for before, then, obviously, they’ll connect up. But they’ll only connect up in an obvious sort of way, which actually isn’t, in terms of writing something new, very productive. You have to take heterogeneous materials in order to get your mind to do something that it hasn’t done before. That’s how I thought about it. Then, of course, curiosity gets the better of you.

Later in that same interview, he describes his “escape,” as it were, from the demands of academic life: “The preoccupation with making something out of nothing, which is, after all, what writing is about, took me at that point. And what I liked about it was that if you just changed, as it were, the nature of your writing from academic monographs to something indefinable, then you had complete liberty” (99). His dichotomy seems to be the same as Adorno’s: article vs. essay.

In “An Attempt at Restitution,” published in English in Campo Santo, Sebald describes his method or procedure as “adhering to an exact historical perspective, patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still life” (200). To Arthur Lubow, he once explained, speaking specifically of a 1918 German army map: “I don’t think I shall be able to understand it, but I want to marvel at it,” which seems to me the fundamental impulse behind the essay.

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Textual evidences from The Rings of Saturn

The plot of The Rings of Saturn is the author takes a series of walks in the countryside of southeastern England. Not much really happens to invite drama or excite our sense of the exotic, but this book is not about plot, it’s about keen observation, happenstance research, memory and meditation. One need only turn to the book’s contents page to get a sense of the breadth and depth of the subjects it mulls. Take, for instance, chapter 3: “Fishermen on the beach – The natural history of the herring – George Wyndham Le Strange – A great herd of swine – The reduplication of man – Orbis Tertius.” Already the work displays its digressive, meandering nature.

I read The Rings of Saturn as I was living for a year in Uruguay, riding the buses downtown each morning, finding books in the National Library and the used book shops, interviewing former revolutionaries about their pasts. I found in Sebald a tempered, beautiful prose that swept me up in its rhythms and convolutions, that seemed to perfectly reproduce the author’s mind processing the accidental sights and insights that crossed his path. Along for the journey with Sebald are Thomas Browne, Rembrandt, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, the Dowager Empress. Underlying the meandering (on land and in mind) are considerations of the strange geometric form called a quincunx, the intrigue behind the coming of silk worms to the West, the strange resonances between Sebald’s life and the life of one Michael Hamburger, the unstoppable decline and decay of cities and lives and all that man may hope to build up, the shadow cast by death.

One of my favorite passages, one that made me laugh out loud, is this: Sebald is very tired after a day of traipsing about, so he falls asleep in an armchair watching a BBC documentary about Roger Casement. He is left with only vague, ethereal notions of what he had heard as he drifted off to sleep, but he’s interested enough to want to write about him. He says, “I have since tried to reconstruct from the sources, as far as I have been able, the story I slept through that night in Southwold.” Then he goes on to tell the story of Casement at great length.

And here is a Sebaldian moment for you: When I first wrote the above passages, for a brief book review, I repassed the section of the book in which Sebald parallels his life to Michael Hamburger’s, but I could not find the name Hamburger, only Michael. I thought I remembered Hamburger in any case, so I did what any self-respecting twenty-first-century essayist would do. I googled “Michael Hamburger.” The top results were all obituaries. I clicked on the one from the Guardian. Sure enough, this was the man I was looking for. He had just died that very week.

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Fin

I am self-aware enough to recognize that part of my drive to see Sebald’s writing as essay is selfish, a wish to claim him as part of my tribe, so that maybe some of his glory will shine on me. But weren’t more prominent critics performing a similar feat by claiming genrelessness for Sebald? Wasn’t their real message that “Sebald is great”? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with participating in a genre, especially one as malleable as the essay. And after all, genre definitions are more like recommendations or descriptions, not prescriptions. So when I say that Sebald works for me as an example of an essayist par excellence, that his works serve as models to scores of nonfiction writers as well as fiction writers, all I’m really saying is “Sebald is great,” a rather unacademic thing to say, but I wager it’s what we’re all saying, underneath it all.

—Patrick Madden

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Madden_Num5Patrick Madden walking

Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, won an Independent Publisher Book of the Year award, and his essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies. He’s completing his second book, Sublime Physick, and an anthology, with David Lazar, called After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays.

 

May 152014
 

 Wayne Grady in SMAAuthor photo by Merilyn Simonds

Wayne Grady just last month won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award for his book Emancipation Day, the amazing story of an African-Canadian man who passes as white his whole life long, to his work-mates, friends, wife and son (even more amazing is the fact that the novel is based on Grady’s own family). Prior to this, Wayne Grady was best known as a Governor-General’s Award-winning translator, nonfiction writer, editor and anthologist, an author with a lengthy pedigree of fine writing and a list of books as long as your arm. In “Tragedy Postponed,” Grady looks at the mystery genre, from Agatha Christie to Ian Rankin, through the lens of Shakespeare’s comedies, finding therein broad similarities, parallels and resonances, not the least of which is a classic U-shaped plot pattern: social order, followed by upheaval, chaos, crime and corruption (not to mention mistaken identity and inappropriate love choices), leading to, yes, a reconstitution of the social order (relief, laughter, and sometimes marriage). Think: Prospero as Detective Rebus.

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“That’s all comedy is, a tragedy postponed.”
—Reginald Hill, Bones and Silence

In the city of Toronto, in 2004, criminal charges were laid against five officers of the metropolitan police force’s drug squad. The Crown claimed that, going back to 1997, the officers “showed a pattern of violent shakedowns, beating up drug dealers, stealing their money and then lying to cover their tracks.” Specifically, they were alleged to have pocketed $10,000 seized as evidence during a non-warranted raid on the home of a small-time heroin dealer. At the trial, which dragged on until 2013, all five were acquitted of charges of assault, extortion and theft, and found guilty only of attempting to obstruct justice, for which they were sentenced to forty-five days’ house arrest. In justifying the light sentence, the judge cited the “pain and humiliation” the officers had already undergone during the lengthy trial. Toronto city councillor Michael Thompson said he was “astonished” by the outcome: “It’s very unfortunate,” he said, “and sends a message that leaves a lot to be desired.”

A classic Shakespeare comedy starts with social order, proceeds to something happening that upsets that order, and ends with order being restored. It’s the last bit that matters. A lot of other things happen along the way – when social order is upset, lovers quarrel, kingdoms are usurped, ships are reported sunk, men are turned into donkeys – but when the curtain goes down, everyone is happy again, the audience goes away reassured that the sun will rise in the morning and good government has been reinstated. As in a good lovers’ quarrel, there may be some crying in the middle of it, but by the end everyone is laughing.

“Comedy,” as Shakespeare scholar E.K. Chambers put it in 1916, writing about A Comedy of Errors, is “a criticism of life, which is at heart profoundly serious, and employs all the machinery of wit or humour, with the deliberate intention of reaching through the laughter to the ultimate end of a purged outlook upon things.”

Sometimes the original social order is implied or recalled, as in The Tempest and As You Like It. A little plot summary here: As You Like It begins with a newly established regime (which is really disorder) in an unnamed French duchy: Frederick has usurped his older brother’s dukedom and banished Duke Senior to the forest of Arden. Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, has been allowed to remain in court because of her friendship with Frederick’s daughter Celia. However, all is not well with in new scheme of things: Oliver persecutes his younger brother Orlando, who then flees; and Rosalind, also suddenly banished from court, sets out with Celia (disguised as Ganymede and Aliena, respectively) to Arden to join her father in exile. Chaos ensues, as everyone falls in love with the wrong people, trysts are missed, false weddings performed, until in the end the masks are off, the wrong people turn out to be the right people, and a mass wedding takes place. The old order is restored, symbolized by the brothers: Orlando saves Oliver’s life and their bond is reestablished; Frederick repents and restores the duchy to Duke Senior. The Tempest has almost the identical plot, with Prospero’s island standing in for the forest of Arden.

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A classic mystery novel follows a similar pattern. Think of Agatha Christie’s country cozies, let us say her first, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1916. Everything takes place in that most stolid of British bastions, the country manor house, in this case Styles Court, with the family, a few guests and ancient retainers in residence. A wealthy widow, Emily Cavendish, has recently married the young Alfred Inglethorp. When Emily is murdered (poison), the new order is broken and chaos ensues. Everyone is found to be hiding something, everyone suspects and accuses everyone else. Enter Inspector Hercule Poirot (a Belgian refugee of the First World War). Fingers are pointed, threats are made. Eventually, the chaotic dimensions of the crime are sorted out in Poirot’s “little grey cells,” the suspects are gathered in the drawing room (originally in a courtroom, but Christie’s publisher insisted on the drawing room, which became her trademark scene). The crime is explained, the perpetrator identified and arrested, and order is restored. (There isn’t murder and mayhem everywhere, people, it’s just this one isolated case, and now it’s been cleared up. Everyone can go home, nothing more to see here.)

This basic plot was repeated by nearly all the writers of the Golden Age of Mystery Writing, which lasted from about 1916 to the beginning of the Second World War: E.C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Marjory Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh. And well into the post-war period, such English writers as Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Ruth Rendell, and P.D. James followed the same pattern: order disturbed by chaos, and order restored by the intervention of a figure representing the apotheosis of decency and social order, the intelligent and urbane private detective (descendents of Sherlock Holmes: Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsy, Gervase Fen) or the intelligent, urbane Chief Inspector (John Appleby, Reginald Wexford, Adam Dalgleish).

The attraction of the classic mystery novel to contemporary readers is similar to that of Shakespeare’s lighter comedies to his Elizabethan audiences: they affirmed that we were okay, that despite temporary setbacks, someone was in charge, setbacks would be overcome, order would be restored. As P.D. James put it in her memoir, Time to Be in Ernest, “The detective story is, after all, one way in which we can cope with violent death, fictionalize it, give it a recognizable shape and, at the end of the book, show that even the most intractable mystery is capable of solution, not by supernatural means or by good fortune, but by human intelligence, human perseverance, and human courage.”

And not just violent death, but any disturbance of social order. Corruption in high places, governmental perfidy, corporate greed, anything that upsets the apple cart. We needed to know that these were disruptions that could be overcome, not permanent paradigm shifts that signaled a new, unwanted order. We looked to fiction to reassure ourselves that chaos was real but temporary, and that order would be restored in time for the late train on Sunday night.

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In Los Angeles, in 1991, after an eight-mile, high-speed chase through residential areas, four LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King, a black construction worker who was on parole after serving a sentence for robbery, nearly to death. They laid into him with tasers, batons and their feet. All four officers were charged with using excessive force, and at trial all four were acquitted. There was general outrage at the verdict. Even then-president George H.W. Bush found “it hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video.” The court’s leniency triggered riots in L.A. during which 53 people were killed and 2,383 injured. Smaller riots erupted in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Toronto. Rodney King went on television and called for an end to the violence: “Can we all get along?” he asked. He then sued the City of Los Angeles and was awarded $3.8 million. At a second trial, two of the officers were found guilty of violating King’s civil rights, and were given jail terms of 32 months. The other two were again acquitted. Of the thirty-three baton blows delivered to King’s body, the judge decided, only the last six were unlawful.

When did intelligence, perseverance and courage no longer triumph over anger, hatred and evil? When did continuing to believe in justice, however harshly meted, begin to feel a little naïve, a little behind the times, even a little laughable? When did our laughter at the human comedy begin to sound hollow and forced?

As Yeats might have put it, when did things start falling apart and staying that way?

It’s never easy to fix a date to a paradigm shift. George Packer, in The Unwinding, his recent analysis of the sub-prime mortgage debacle and the decline of the American Dream, somewhat arbitrarily points to 1978 as the year in which it became hard to continue to teach our children that honesty, hard work, and financial responsibility were the keys to “getting ahead.” There was no long an ahead to get to. There was only back. Orwellians might fix the date as 1948, when Big Brother began infiltrating our private lives, and the state became powerful enough to quell protest and deny citizens their democratic say in how they were to be governed.

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Mystery writers might split the difference. In 1964, the Swedish detective novelist Per Wähloo published Murder on the Thirty-First Floor. Wähloo, with his partner, the poet Maj Sjöwall, were well known to mystery readers in the 1960s as the co-authors of a brilliant but short-lived series of ten crime novels featuring Swedish detective Martin Beck. The series ended with Wähloo’s death in 1975.

The couple also published novels separately, and Murder on the Thirty-First Floor is one of those. Like 1984 and Brave New World, it is set in a futuristic dystopia in which the three traditional defenders of social order – the government, trade unions and the media – have come together to rule Sweden under something known as “the Accord.” All social unrest has been outlawed by official edict. Alcoholism, for example, was socially disruptive, and so drinking alcohol has been made illegal (although there still seems to be plenty of alcohol around). Anyone reported having even a glass of wine in the privacy of their own home can be arrested, and if caught at it three times are sent to a mandatory rehabilitation centre. All magazines, newspapers, radio stations, television channels and printing presses are owned by a conglomerate known as the Skyscraper Group, whose four thousand employees work in a thirty-storey building in Stockholm, and nothing that appears in any of its publications is of the kind that would disturb the public. It’s all good news all the time. Bad news has been totally replaced by entertainment: “eight-page horoscopes, cinematascope picture stories and real-life stories about the mothers of great men,” film-star bios, tips on interior decoration, healthful recipes, regenerative exercises. Sound familiar yet? Don’t forget sports. Meanwhile, alcoholism is rampant, and the prisons are jammed with drunks rounded up off the streets; the suicide rate has tripled; the birth-rate has plunged. None of this, of course, is reported in the press. Everyone in Sweden is either too emotionally and intellectually dead to object, or else are seething with suppressed, helpless rage. The latter are deemed criminals, to be locked up, given pointless tasks, kept out of harm’s way. Besides, most of them are given to drink.

In other words, the old social order has been replaced by the new Accord, only this time there is no forest of Arden, no Duke Senior waiting in the wings to return us to our senses. When the Skyscraper Group receives a bomb threat, Inspector Jensen is assigned to find out who sent it. Chaos doesn’t ensue: this is chaos. And it is Inspector Jensen’s job to maintain it. Jensen is conscientious to a fault. He is a good cop. He may sympathize with those who rail against the new order, but he has a job of work to do and he does it, even if he does keep a bottle of whisky hidden behind the Corn Flakes and suffers from acute acid reflux. Faint flickers of hope in an otherwise dark Scandinavian landscape.

How close are we now to having something like the Accord take control? Again, mystery writers offer a few unsettling suggestions.

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In Bad Debts, a recent mystery by the Australian crime novelist Peter Temple, the narrator is a defrocked lawyer named Jack Irish, who sets out to find why a former client of his has been murdered shortly after serving a lengthy jail sentence. (Order disturbed.) His inquiries eventually disclose shady dealings involving the Australian government, a large real-estate developer, and the Catholic Church. (Chaos.) Here’s a newscast Irish listens to that more or less sums up the mess he has helped uncover: “Tonight, this program deals with allegations about the involvement of a Cabinet Minister, public servants, a clergyman, trade union leaders and others in an under-age sex ring. It also alleges police involvement in the death, in 1984, of a social justice activist, and massive corruption surrounding Charis Corporation’s six-hundred-million-dollar Yarra Cove development.”

Although the corruption has been exposed in the media (the collusion of media with the federal government and union leaders that Wähloo depicted in Sweden hasn’t yet spread to Australia, apparently), Irish is under no illusion that order will be restored. “It came to me with absolute certainty,” he realizes, “that my little inquiry into the lives and deaths of Danny McKillop and Anne Jepperson was of no consequence whatsoever. Nothing would change what had happened, no one would be called to account for it.” (Order unrestored.) The novel ends with Irish going to a horse race and making a lot of money on a tip-off, and we are left to wonder how that differs from life under the Accord. The comedy, if it can still be called that, has become dark.

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With his $3.8 million, Rodney King bought a large home in Rialto, a suburb of L.A. His cash award was supplemented by $1.7 million to cover legal fees, and King sued his own lawyers for that amount, claiming legal malpractice presumably because they failed to nail the four police officers. He lost that suit, and his life from then on resumed its downward spiral. In 1993, he was arrested for drunk driving after crashing his car into a wall in downtown L.A. Two years later he was charged with hit-and-run after knocking his wife down with his car. There followed more convictions for driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license. In 2007, he checked himself into the Pasadena Recovery Center, where he took part in the television program Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and, later, a spin-off called Sober House, and declared himself cured of his various addictions. In 2010, he became engaged to Cynthia Kelly, who had been one of the jurors in the civil suit against L.A. that awarded him the $3.8 million. On the morning of June 17, 2012, his fiancé found his body at the bottom of his swimming pool; an autopsy disclosed that the alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and PCP found in his body “probably precipitated a cardiac arrhythmia, and the subject, thus incapacitated, was unable to save himself and drowned.” Earlier, the BBC had quoted King as saying, “Some people feel like I’m some kind of hero….Other people, I can hear them mocking me for believing in peace.”

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According to many mystery writers, elected government officials, civil servants, the church, unions, and the police, the very institutions that we have traditionally relied upon to maintain and restore order, have turned against us and are now perpetrating the crimes from which they were designed to protect us. It’s difficult to write a comedy in which everyone is corrupt. The American gumshoe-detective novelists of the 1930s and ‘40s tried it, and ended up creating private detectives who were seedy, dissolute, violent, and seriously flawed, but – unlike the police and public servants – were basically honest and genuinely interested in restoring some rough form of social justice. They were villains, but they were on the right side. It’s impossible to imagine a hero of the Golden Age, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, for example, beating witnesses, sleeping with suspects, destroying evidence incriminating someone he likes, and drinking himself into oblivion in order to forget his personal and professional failures. Yet that’s all in a day’s work for Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or for Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (who says, in The Maltese Falcon, “My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery”). John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee is neither a police officer nor a private detective, but a person who recovers other people’s lost or stolen property, which my be the American version of restoring order. But even in these hard-boiled stories about the decline of the American ideal, the detective rises above his environment. Here is Chandler’s view of the detective, as expressed in The Simple Art of Murder:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

A version of this ideal detective crossed the Atlantic in the 1980s, showing up in such brilliantly flawed English and Scottish policemen as Colin Dexter’s E. Morse, Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel, and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, all of whom are prodigious drinkers (even when on duty), are always more or less at odds with their straighter-laced superiors, have difficulties with women, especially female police officers, and yet are honest, hard-working, and almost always solve the crime and restore order. A classic example outside Great Britain is the Norgwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo, whose Detective Harry Hole is more than a prodigious drinker, he’s is a falling-down alcoholic who has been dismissed from the force and who, at the beginning of Nesbo’s 2003 novel, The Devil’s Star, the fifth in the Harry Hole series, is working out the last few weeks of his employment. Hole is described by his fellow officer and arch-enemy Tom Waaler as having “a work record with notes on drunkenness, unauthorized absences, abuse of authority, insubordination to superiors and disloyalty to the force,” none of which Hole denies. But Waaler also notes that Hole is “goal-oriented, smart, creative and your integrity is unimpeachable.” Hole also has the best record for solved cases on the force. Things haven’t permanently fallen apart yet, and there is still hope that order will be restored by the end of the novel, or at least the series. Which is all we ask.

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We don’t get it at the end of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (2001),with the detective knowing about a murder but not reporting it. Nor do we get it in the 2002 movie Insomnia, in which Al Pacino (who two years later will play a brilliant Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) is Will Dormer, a Los Angeles police detective under investigation by Internal Affairs for dubious conduct during a previous investigation (he allegedly secured a confession from a suspect by hanging him by the neck in a closet, not one of Hercule Poirot’s preferred methods). On a new case in Alaska, he shoots his partner, who is to be a witness in the investigation by Internal. In the original 1997 version of the film by Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjærg, the shooting is clearly accidental; in the American version it is not so clear. As if to underscore the point I’m trying to make about crime fiction as the canary in the social-dissolution mineshaft, the chief suspect in the Alaska case is a mystery novelist, Walter Finch, played by Robin Williams, who witnesses Dormer shooting his partner and offers to help him cover it up in exchange for his freedom. Dormer finds a neater solution. Dame Agatha must have been spinning in her grave; except, don’t forget, it was the good Dame who wrote Who Killed Roger Akroyd?.

In Bad Debts, police corruption is also the subject of an internal investigation. The intention of the official inquiry is to reassure the public that the police are as pure and honorable as they were in Dame Agatha’s day, but of course the officers under suspicion don’t see it that way. They interpret it as an attempt on the part of the “new culture,” which relies on statistics and psychological profiling, to oust (or banish) the instinctual, seat-of-the-pants methods employed by the “old culture.” The new dukes see no reason why a police department should be run differently from any other branch of the government: Internal Revenue, for example, which also goes after miscreants. Why should murder be treated as a more serious crime than, say, tax fraud? Here is one of the old culture complaining to Jack Irish:

“You hear him [a younger cop] sprouting all that shit about getting rid of the old culture in the force? Mate, I’m part of the old culture and proud of it.”

“What exactly is the old culture?”

“The dinosaurs left over from when it didn’t count if you took an extra ten bucks for the drinks when you put in for sweet for your dogs. When you had to load some cockroach to get it off the street. Public fucken service. We’re the ancient pricks think it’s okay to punch out some slime who dob in a bloke who’s walked out on the wire for them to fucking Internal Affairs. That’s us. That’s the old culture.”

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Ian Rankin makes this kind of Internal Affairs purge the main focus of several of his most recent novels. In The Complaints, for example, which features Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox, the Complaints and Conduct Department is investigating an officer suspected of being involved in a child-pornography ring. Fox clears the officer, but only by proving that he was framed by an even higher-ranking member of the force. At least the corruption is rooted out and order is restored, after a fashion. Rebus, when he comes back from his earlier, somewhat forced, retirement, is constantly at daggers drawn with Fox, whom he sees as a cancer within the department. “John Rebus should be extinct,” Fox says in Standing in Another Man’s Grave” (2012). “Somehow the Ice Age came and went and left him still swimming around while the rest of us evolved.” Which makes him not a dinosaur, I suppose, more like a Giant Ground Sloth, but certainly belonging to the old culture, the one in which the ultimate goal was actually catching murderers. “I know a cop gone bad when I see one,” Fox continues, incorrectly. “Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line he’s managed to rub it out altogether.” Not true: we have seen, the line began to be smudged around 1930, and disappeared in the mid-1960s. Mystery writers knew it all along and tried to warn us but, well, we were too busy reading something else.

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Rebus and Fox square off again in Rankin’s most recent novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible. The Saints of the title were members of the Summerhall Criminal Investigation Division, the murder squad, thirty years before, including the then-young John Rebus. The Saints are being investigated by Fox for possibly destroying evidence that would have convicted a certain Billy Saunders for the murder of “a scumbag” named Douglas Merchant. Saunders was a snitch for one of the CID officers, and the suspicion is, as Rebus puts it, that “we banjaxed the Saunders case to keep a good snitch on the street.” That would be chaotic enough, but it gets worse.

“How dirty was Summerhall?” Rebus’s mentee, Siobhan Clarke, asks him.

“Dirty enough….” says Rebus.

“Beating a confession out of someone? Planting evidence? Making sure the bad buys get done for something?”

“You thinking of writing my biography?” says Rebus, who rarely says anything without being sardonically evasive.

In real life, as in detective fiction, forced confessions, planted evidence and trumped-up charges are old hat. They belong to the Los Angeles of the 1940s, before corruption went systemic. It’s become a lot worse since Philip Marlowe slapped a few suspects around and bought drinks for their girlfriends. Police officers in the good old days broke the law only when it was necessary to catch the bad guys. They weren’t themselves the bad guys. They were still attempting to restore order. Now, it seems, the police break the law simply to protect themselves.

Is it naïve to think that corruption at the highest levels of society has destroyed any hope we might have that order will eventually be restored, if not by the end of the weekend at least in our lifetime? Are politicians in the pockets of developers? Do they sometimes risk hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in order to lessen the chances of another politician being elected? Do entire police forces take money from drug cartels? Does the church cover up evidence of sexual abuse in residential schools? Do corporations own university departments? Have prison authorities lied about the deaths of inmates? Do governments employ tax audits to rid society of groups that oppose their policies? Do banks issue fraudulent mortgages in order to squeeze money out of a middle class that now believes in the quick buck instead of hard work and frugality?

These have all become rhetorical questions. The press hardly bothers to report such abuses anymore. Investigative journalism is “too expensive,”  mainly because news outlets that publish them would lose advertisers. Disrupted social order is so ubiquitous it has become a kind of white noise on the Internet, humming away behind the pornography and the mindless social networking. If you Google “police corruption,” you’ll get 159 million hits in 0.31 seconds. Try “political corruption” and you get 283 million in 0.33 seconds. One of them, the website for Transparency International, a global coalition dedicated to exposing misconduct by politicians, begins: “It’s natural to think of elections when we think of political corruption.”

All of this is still grist for the mystery writer’s mill, however. It just doesn’t seem as comical as it used to. Or perhaps we’ve lost our collective sense of humour.

In London, England, on September 21, 2012, the ruling Tory party’s Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, was stopped by police while riding his bicycle through the gates of 10 Downing Street after a meeting with the prime minister. There followed a forty-five-second altercation, during which Mitchell allegedly swore at the police officers and called them “plebs.” The offended officers leaked the story to the press, and there was a flurry of calls for Mitchell’s resignation. Mitchell apologized for swearing at them, but denied calling the officers “plebs.” What he claimed to have said was: “I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us.” But he resigned as Chief Whip. In December, Scotland Yard’s Complaints department mounted “Operation Alice,” assigning thirty police investigators to undertake “a ruthless search for the truth.” After a half-million-dollar inquiry, eight officers were arrested; four of them were charged with “gross misconduct” for lying about what Mitchell had actually said. He never called them “plebs.” Apparently, the officers were targeting Mitchell because of his support for his party’s plan to cut police budgets. “We must now consider,” Henry Porter wrote in The Guardian last October, “that the rot has spread, that the police service in England and Wales is so infected by a culture of dishonesty, expediency, and outright corruption that radical reform is the only answer.”

It’s enough to drive a good cop to drink.

—Wayne Grady

.
Wayne Grady is a Canadian writer of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction works include The Bone Museum, Bringing Back the Dodo, and The Great Lakes, which won a 2007 National Outdoor Book Award. His travel memoir, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, co-authored with his wife, novelist Merilyn Simonds, appeared in 2009, and his novel, Emancipation Day, was long-listed for the Scotiabank-Giller Prize in Canada and named one of the ten best books of 2013 by the CBC. He and his wife divide their time between their home near Kingston, Ontario, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

 

 

May 082014
 

A. AnupamaA. Anupama

A. Anupama, one of our regular contributors, dusts off her translating skills, bringing us hilariously sexy, curiously modern couplets from the classic Tirikkural, a vast book of over a thousand rhyming couplets written in ancient Tamil and dating from about 2,000 years ago. They run the gamut from agricultural advice to law to flirting couples (the most charming).

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

A. Anupama gives us a rare glimpse into this ancient world, also providing us with a brief gloss on the difficulties of translation and her modus operandi, plus, joy of joys, some sound files with the original Tamil verse (beautiful liquid sounds) and the English translation.

This is not her first translation effort. See also her “Poems from Kuruntokai” and “Sweet to my heart | Translations of Tamil Love Poems.”

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Tirukkural is a collection of 1,330 rhyming couplets (called kural) written by the Tamil poet-saint Tiruvalluvar perhaps around 30 BC (dating is vague). The verses were meant as a comprehensive portrait of Tamil culture, a description but also an epigrammatic guidebook in verse to the formulas of this south Indian civilization. The poems cover every aspect of society and right living from the conduct of kings to the sowing of fields, from aspects of ascetic virtue to the intricacies of lovers’ quarrels, and from the art of friendship to dire warnings against vice.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?

The couplets are organized into chapters of ten each, and the entire work is divided into three sections, Virtue, Wealth, and Love. Tirukkural differs from other classical Indian philosophical literature (e.g., the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) by not including the fourth section of traditional teaching on spiritual release. Tirukkural emphasizes domestic life over ascetic or religious practice.

Tiruvalluvar_statue_LIC

The colossal statue of Tiruvalluvar built on a small islet at the meeting of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea, just offshore from the town of Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India, represents the poet’s legendary status. Designed by sculptor V. Ganapati Sthapati, this granite monument stands 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of Tirukkural. The height of the statue’s base, at 38 feet, represents the 38 chapters of the first section, Virtue, symbolically setting the foundation of the other two sections, Wealth and Love. The poet is depicted holding up three fingers, a stylized and definitive gesture of Tirukkural’s three sections.

According to tradition, Tiruvalluvar lived in about the first century BCE (though estimates vary by a few hundred years) and was a weaver from Mylapore, near present-day Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil culture and language are the oldest of Dravidian heritage, originating in the southern tip of India.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil is the oldest living language in the world, with a rich classical literary history. Tiruvalluvar’s work dates from the period of the classical Cankam, a famous gathering of poets, scholars, and sages in the ancient city of Madurai. His poetic couplets are the shortest verse form in Tamil literature, and his work was known and referred to by the writers of classical Tamil epics like Cilappatikaram and Manimekhalai.

If you search YouTube for “kural recitation,” you’ll find videos of young schoolchildren reciting memorized couplets, sometimes with a little prompting, but mostly with ease and confidence. The boy in this video recited chapter 40 from Tirukkural, a set of ten couplets on learning.YouTube Preview Image

On the other hand, centuries of erudite commentary on Tirukkural have revealed its subtlety, and its influence on modern thinkers and writers has been significant. Leo Tolstoy quoted several couplets from it in a letter to an editor at Free Hindustan, a letter that was later translated into Gujarati and published by M.K. Gandhi. Albert Schweitzer said about Tirukkural, “There hardly exists in the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find so much of lofty wisdom.”

I couldn’t find a tougher or more rewarding translation challenge than this. Arthur Schopenhauer in his essay “On Language and Words” remarked, “Take translations of authors from antiquity: they are as obvious a surrogate as chicory for coffee. Poems cannot be translated; they can only be transposed, and that is always awkward.”[1] W.S. Merwin in the prologue to his collection Selected Translations, cites advice he received from Ezra Pound: “He spoke of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language… Pound also urged—at that point and to me, at least—the greatest possible fidelity to the original, including its sounds.”[2] Tirukkural is a particular gift to the translator because in addition to offering fresh mental vistas, it invites one to stricter attention through the voice and the ear.

The couplets, like most proverbs, are designed to be easy to remember and repeat: the alliterative and assonant strength of the compositions aids memory, and tight line-length keeps each verse within a single breath. These same qualities make the couplets difficult to translate, requiring the translator to create equivalencies in sound and sense in a very tight space. Kural 12 showed me quickly how impossible it might be to honor the sound of the original. “Living” sounds nothing like “thupakith,” and yet, the poem in English requires the repetitive transformation of the single word for the purpose of the poem’s sense. The Tamil “Thupaarkuth thupaaya thupaakith thupaarkuth thupaaya” turns into “living,” “live,” “life-giving,” and “life” in my translation.

Still, I found that evoking the original’s sound was possible in many places, with some effort and luck. For example in Kural 18, the “s” sounds in the first line and the “v” sounds in the second line were reproducible, though they lack the alliterative effect of the original. In Kural 20, I added the words “nearness” and “farthest” at the beginnings of the lines to mimic the sounds of the Tamil words “neerindru” and “vaanindru,” which altered the sense only slightly by emphasizing the nuance of distance in the poem’s imagery.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.

Word order and integrity of the poetic line are another challenge, because Tamil syntax runs in the opposite direction from English. Subject-verb-object in English often translates to object-verb-subject in Tamil, and even prepositions become postpositions. Sometimes, I could maintain word order, as in Kural 19: “Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world, / sky unyielding.” In Kural 20, however, I had to flip word order for sense, translating the two phrases “all worldly work ends” and “all natures end” exactly inverted. The rest of the word order, as well as the couplet’s line integrity, I carefully maintained.

I learned my method of line-by-line translation in Richard Jackson’s translation workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2011 when Patty Crane showed us her work translating poems by Tomas Tranströmer. For each line of poetry, I add directly underneath it a literal translation, maintaining the syntax of the original. Alternative word choices are included in this step. Then, directly under that is a first draft of my literary translation of the line. I continue in this way, adding lines for each line of the original poem. I keep everything, every attempt to translate stays in the document. If the lines of poetry get too far away from each other in the process to look at on the computer screen, I copy and paste what I want to work with on a new page in the same document.

Kural 11 in Tamil
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Kural 12 in Tamil

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In this work with Tirukkural and in my previous translations from Kuruntokai, I relied on my co-translator B. Jeyaganesh for literal translations and recorded readings of the original poems. B. Jeyaganesh is a native speaker of Tamil, the son of a scholar with a Tamil PhD, and a fellow self-described non-expert in this classical literature. For this selection from Tirukkural, we spent over three hours coming up with alternative word choices in English and discussing the relative emphasis of words in the couplets. I listened to the recording over and over to gain a familiarity with the poems’ sounds. I used the recordings again to check my work, often reading my drafts aloud for comparison. Another helpful tool was an English transliteration of the full text online along with the original Tamil and the classic translation by Rev. Dr. G.U. Pope from 1886.

Palm-leaf manuscript

I chose this particular set of couplets to translate (the second chapter and the penultimate chapter) from Tirukkural partly to keep this first try easy for me and easy for a reader unfamiliar with this work. The poet intended these very specific moral edicts and proverb-like statements for people living in a certain cultural and philosophical context, making translation for a contemporary reader in English difficult. The universality of the need for rain and of quarrels between lovers is obvious, and I found this a generous place to begin. My idea was to bracket the work as a whole, but also to bring its didactic verse and its elegant love poetry close together in this small set. The couplets in the third section on love are beautiful, witty, and very different from those in the preceding chapters. In words, sounds, and imagery, however, the thread of the work from beginning to end is wonderfully consistent. The recent drought in South India, and its continuing effects in the region, also inspired me to bring this poetry off my shelf and to translate the chapter on rain.

Tiruvalluvar statue and Vivekananda memorialPhoto by Bennet Anand

In two instances in these couplets, I departed slightly from the literal meaning in order to evoke the sense of the whole work. In couplet 17, my eco-poetic commentary in the addition of “those who don’t give from within” reflects Tirukkural’s moral standard of generosity and right action, as in Kural 211: “Duty expects not anything in return / just as rain expects none.”[3] The literal translation of the line is roughly “gives not, if that’s the state of things.” The state of things today is marked by the urgency of eco-conscious moral imperatives. I found in this a beautiful opportunity to investigate how Tirukkural in translation might evolve in order to retain its original function, which was to describe the cultural, ethical ideal. My initial idea for the change in this line, however, came from the poem’s sound: the end-word “vitin” sounds like my “within.”

My second departure from the literal translation is in Kural 1323, the couplet taken from the last chapter of Tirukkural. My version ends “with earth and water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart,” while the literal includes no mention of a clay water vessel. My addition of the object attempts to bridge the distance between that specific culture and universal understanding. While this image would hover in the subconscious mind of a Tamil reader 2000 years ago and offer another level of mystery to the poem, a contemporary reader from another culture might miss it.

These departures from the literal in my translation are experiments based on an essay by David Damrosch, titled “Translation and World Literature.”[4] In writing about the problem of translating one of the oldest known lyric poems—an Egyptian poem inscribed in 1160 BCE—he observes, “Some literary works, indeed, may be so closely dependent on detailed culture-specific knowledge that they can only be meaningful to members of the originating culture or to specialists in that culture; these are works that remain within the sphere of a national literature and never achieve an effective life in world literature.” In regard to the Egyptian word mss in that poem, which has been variously translated as tunic, dress, loincloth, and clothing, he writes,

…however mss may be translated, most readers will be unable to visualize the ancient garment in all its authentic particularity. Yet as long as the translation doesn’t impose a wholesale modernization, we won’t assimilate the mss directly to our modern experience, as we remain aware that we’re reading an ancient poem: whatever we think a mss is, we won’t envision it as a Gore-Tex windbreaker, though this might be a modern equivalent of the original item. All the same, we can never hold the poem entirely away from our own experience, nor should we. As we read, we triangulate not only between ancient and modern worlds but also between general and personal meanings: however the mss is translated, different readers will visualize it very differently, and this variability helps the poem to resonate with memories from the reader’s own life. (Italics mine.)

In my translation, adding the material object of a water vessel creates a specific resonance and aids the reader’s associations within the ancient world of the poem. Adding the phrase “or if by those who don’t give from within” aids the reader’s associations in the modern world, simultaneously awakening moral consciousness, which is the original objective of Tirukkural. Though I initially felt awkward treating translation as a sort of geometry problem, I felt that the result brought me closer to the text. The availability of many complete translations of Tirukkural also lessened my concern over maintaining literal exactitude in every line. I hope that my work inspires more readers to take a close look at this ancient literary treasure.

—A. Anupama

 

Translations from Tirukkural

 

Chapter 2: On the excellence of rain

The sky, so distant, gives to our living world
rain, its own self, living essence.

The living live by the life-giving gift of the seed of life itself:
nourishment spraying down, this rain.

The sky, yielding no rain in spite of these steep surrounding seas,
will bite you from inside your hunger.
.

.

The plow won’t plow if the farmer’s awaited downpours, which sow
and grow their wealth, ebb.

Drought’s devastation crushes lives and brings ruin, while its reverse is
restoration in rain.

The sky’s quell of falling raindrops upsets
the lush grass, whose heads will then hide from sight.
.

.

The enormous sea, voluminous and teeming, will diminish if not diminished by clouds,
or if by those who don’t give from within.
.

.

Grand rituals and extravagant offerings will end if the sky is
rain void, serving the little gods no festivals.

Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world,
sky unyielding.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.
.

.

Chapter 132: On pretending to sulk

I—She

Women’s eyes savor your every line,
but mine won’t embrace your broad chest.

Our silent spat dragged on, so he sneezed on purpose, so that I would say
“bless you.” So he thought.

II—He

A whole branch of blossoms for a garland, and you accuse me of wearing it to catch another woman’s glance,
showing off how I’m dressed.

I love you more than anyone, I said. She sulked,
demanding more than whom, whom!
.

.

In this life, we will never be apart, I said.
Eyefuls of tears, she replied.

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

She blessed me when I sneezed, then altered, asking
Who thought about you to make you sneeze?

My next sneeze I quelled, but she cried, someone is thinking of you,
I know, you’re hiding it from me.

She spurned all my assurances, imagining the other women for whom
I’ve offered the same.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?

 

from Chapter 133: On the pleasures of lovers’ quarrels

Inside this lyric sulk, a heaven nears, with earth and
water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart.
.

—A. Anupama

.

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

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Peter Mollenhauer, transl. “On Language and Words,” in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  2. Merwin, W.S. Selected Translations. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2013.
  3. Rajaram, M., transl. Thirukkural, Pearls of Wisdom. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2009.
  4. Damrosch, David. Translation and World Literature: Love in the Necropolis,” in The Translation Studies Reader, third edition, Lawrence Venuti, ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.
May 062014
 

Trinie Dalton Trinie Dalton in Teotihuacan on her birthday in sunglasses courtesy of Mary Ruefle

Camden Joy (aka Tom Adelman) is a rock star music journalist, fictionalist, and musician, something of a legend and a verbal riot and it needs a writer like that, with some voltage of her own, like Trinie Dalton, in fact, to take his measure. Trinie is a music journalist, also story writer, artist, collagist, book assembler, a generally high-energy dynamo of vertiginous genre mixing, an incredibly perceptive reader and eloquent decoder of form, also a friend and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. What you get here is not just an essay on Camden Joy but also an essay on form, on the consciousness of form and variation that makes art, not just one subject but five, deftly interwoven and self-demonstrated. See also Trinie’s amazing story “Escape Mushroom Style” published earlier on these pages.

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Camden JoyCamden Joy from Presidential Coins (2012) Album Cover

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All through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.

— LOU REED, Rolling Stone, 1987

In music feature/biopics, the pressure to dramatize every microscopic detail of a short visit with a total stranger is inherent to creating story—what editors want. In my own experience of music journalism, this contrivance began as a fun challenge and has come to drive me nuts. I’d rather just invent stories of my own. This is where my appreciation for Camden Joy begins. In light of the prerequisite that one must pressurize nonfiction to establish somewhat artificial tension up front to carry intriguing and suspenseful delivery of “facts,” a piece of good music journalism can come to feel like a Jane Austen novel—that is to say fictional. With any subjective interpretation of the mise-en-scene, genre boundaries slip away—this is what invites me as a reader into the excitement of the “story,” and what attracted me to music journalism in the first place. But I find that need to deliver facts or an “angle” according to some other person restrictive & repellent, too prone to misrepresentation and divergence from the artist’s POV.

The musician performs for the journalist, the journalist describes it; there’s a voyeuristic dance devoted to writing music features, power dynamics clearly defined from the get-go, in which the writer/recorder/observer adopts the swagger of the star for a few thousand words while informing the readership about where the artist has been and is going. Somehow, however, good writers manage despite this form’s predictability, to transform it into lasting art by showing, paragraph-by-paragraph, how discoveries and revelations (the unexpected) spring from a simple meeting, a single ecstatic listen to a record. This is the art of the variant. Maximizing a writing form and making it yours can be poetry, can be in this case a transliteration of rock and roll.

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Post-swagger in New Journalism is where Tom Adelman, aka Camden Joy, finds lineage, namely with the Manifestos and personal essays collected in Lost Joy—with the impetus to 1/ depressurize reportage in favor of author’s lived adventure driving story, and 2/ insertion of author as character into the storytelling; both in the vein of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test. Next, to disconnect from the narrativity of actual event completely in favor of total artifice, loosely constructed upon heaps of pop cultural reference. Adelman’s novels do this. But historical fiction does this, too—nevertheless it typically doesn’t deal so much in contemporary cultural referencing. Fictocriticism, or fiction that develops setting and character through musical referencing—in the vein of Joan Didion, Michael Taussig, Lynne Tillman, Dana Spiotta, Dana Johnson, Darcy Steinke, Ben Greenman, Jonathan Letham, Dennis Cooper… Joy’s brand of irony finds architecture here, but pushes even this trajectory. His novels are closer relatives to countercultural dystopian satire—think Ken Kesey—contaminated with what Raymond Federman in 1973 called Surfiction: conceptual projects that seek to expose the artifice of fiction as a process. In both genres, the politic is not simply implied in the content—it’s engrained in syntax, sentence construction, concept. Joy’s critiques of music in the novels aren’t explicit, then, but embedded in their reclamation of pastiche and in the seamless dedication to the conceits he sets in each story. The concept is high artifice, possibly camp per Sontag’s definition, crossbred with the exploitation of transparent metaphor.

To underscore irony, though, is the sincerity evident in the accuracy of the music lore, the obvious fandom implicit to each text’s concept. In Joy’s work, music journalism saves the day. Gathering facts and slavery to veracity—odious, dull, and rote back then to burgeoning New Journalists—what compelled rebellion and invention of new genre—experiences through Joy’s writing a fiery reversal. Weirdly, the more conceptual Joy’s novels are, the more journalistically accurate they feel to me. Maybe it’s because they convey, through the juxtapositions of hyper-specific (journalistic) musical fandom with poetic license to fictionalize—what Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth.” I’d call this “ecstatic truth” poetry through allegory, after Goethe’s adage that links allegory to poetry by differentiating them:

It makes a considerable difference whether the poet seeks the particular as a function of the universal or whether he sees the universal in the particular. In the first case we have allegory, where the particular is valid only as an example, as an emblem of the universal, whereas in the second case the true nature of poetry is revealed: the particular case is expressed without thinking about the universal or alluding to it. (Goethe, quoted by Umberto Eco)

In the novels, musical heroes are humanized, portrayed as flawed characters—not just because flawed characters are necessary to real stories; Joy’s journalistic style proposes that the best way to tribute a hero is to retain and uphold their humanity. (Ironically, though, since they’re fictional characters whose identities Joy has co-opted.) In this, they’re allegorical and poetic, ironic and sincere.

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I was introduced to Camden Joy’s work through Dennis Cooper’s assignment of my first book review for the LA Weekly Literary Supplement, on the release of Joy’s novella trilogy: Palm Tree 13, Hubcap Diamondstar Halo, and Pan. In re-reading, I still find this triptych appealing and brilliant—back in my original review I wanted to offer a tribute even more metafictional & sincere than Joy’s ultra-meta treatments of Mark E. Smith & Glen Frey—an impossible task. Joy’s metafiction is absolute in those stories—his conceits unwavering and apparent, the satire loud and clear. So much so that he furthers the declarative style from his Manifesto series by transforming the declaratives into revelations that admit the aim of the books’ themes and conceits…for example in Palm Tree 13, Joy admits how easy (and predictable) it is in fiction for the reader or author to search for and to grasp metaphorical & allegorical intent:

After all, it took little brainpower to grasp that the department store was, in truth, a livery stable, and that the firehouse and the bank and the liquor store were all much older than they first appeared. They would simply travel the whole town, walking backward to a hundred years ago. They would defrock the present and will themselves into the frontier period that patiently awaited. (74)

This “defrocking” is exactly the project in all three books; Frey’s cowboy frontier as metaphor for the music industry, in this case, takes the notion of Swagger literally as Frey moves through a frontier that is tough for those in it (artists) and a seemingly glamorous, nostalgic stage set for those looking in from the outside (fans).

Here is the scene from on-lookers’ POV:

On hot summer days, everyone left their doors wide open. There was always music playing. Women wearing aprons peddled corn on the cob from tamale steamers. Men in sequined sombreros rested on corners practicing mariachi tunes. JD leaned out of the window and fired his capgun to delight the neighbors. Mahogany beauties sat on porches with grandparents in rockers, eyeing the world with suspicion. It was a place of crude language and cheap liquor. (63)

And here is Frey’s worn and tarried cowboy vision of it:

Melcher’s words slowly sunk in. They confirmed something Frey had long suspected to be true. The frontier was dying. Frey suddenly saw that it wasn’t just him who was looking to settle down, but the whole darn country. The spirit had gone out of the open prairie; the frontier was dying. (47)

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It’s interesting to me how during the moments of epiphany allegory is double-edged, acquires double meaning because of the journalistic, essayistic undertones. Frey’s frontier parodies the music industry, sure, and does so through pastiche: by mashing “frontier” themes into a study of LA in the 70s. But more importantly, this impetus & narrative strategy belies a deep dig into the “stories” of Glenn Frey, Neil Young, David Geffen, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and others who populate this book…to tribute by humanizing them through the reinvention of story that fiction allows. Similar strategies were employed in James Schuyler’s What’s for Dinner, in which the characters from a Norman Rockwell painting come to life and run amok; or Ted Berrigan’s Clear the Range, a pastiche as tonally swaggery as Palm Tree 13, but made literally from cut-up cowboy novels.

Music journalism (or art criticism in Schuyler’s case) as nonfiction for magazines perhaps couldn’t previously accommodate this kind of effort, especially given the necessary wall erected between journalist/critic and artist—that is, conflict of interest rules. Conflict of interest rules are important, but on the flipside they breed journalism that perpetuates myth and rumor; which again ironically, is what transforms a musician into a rockstar.

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Joy’s overt myth-making is a radical bifurcation, or maybe tributary, of music journalism’s habit of mythologizing musicians. Mythologizing is a main function in fiction too, of course; and Joy acknowledges this throughout the trilogy. In Hubcap Diamonstar Halo, the protagonist constantly considers how to turn his lived experience of a car accident into song:

G’ll be working on a song when acutely he recalls a detail of the accident. The windshield buckling, for example, disassembling as it gushes back to shower him in a great many pebbles and splinters of grass. How to make that into music? (19)

This serves as allegory that transcends journalistic scrutiny—every creative person can relate to compulsion to make art from experience. In Hubcap, the allegorical aim is so inclusive, inviting all artists as readers in on G’s efforts to musically catalog his near-death car crash, that Joy switches occasionally to usage of 2nd person POV:

You inform him his system is undergoing a condition of extreme shock. He nods as if sympathizing with the complaints of a stranger, then gives a shudder and goes limp. For some reason this does not stir your concern. You find yourself without the urge to go for help. (25)

The usage of 2nd person obliterates boundaries between observer and observed—inviting the reader into the artist’s mind. This sets up sympathetic relationship for later in the story, when G. broaches larger philosophical questions about the nature of stardom and creativity:

Do you think any star can still derive even the most basic ego pleasure from expressing themselves artistically? The coordinator shakes his head. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it. (37)

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I’ve made much of the differences between writing critically and writing fiction here, in an effort to delineate what genres are capable of and how Adelman combines them to expand their possibilities, but ultimately I think working in any genre or medium is about discovery of authorial opinion; all creative processes clarify and organize experience. My favorite aspect of Camden Joy novels is—just as Goethe found poetry in specificity—that they reiterate the compatibility of genres through highlighting distinctions between them.

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ENDNOTE—SWAGGER in OED, as dating back to 1600:

a. intr. To behave with an air of superiority, in a blustering, insolent, or defiant manner; now esp. to walk or carry oneself as if among inferiors, with an obtrusively superior or insolent air.

b. spec. To talk blusteringly; to hector; †hence, to quarrel or squabble with; also, to grumble. Now only (directly transf. from prec. sense), to talk boastfully or braggingly.

In my usage, I shuffle past superiority to reclaim the proactive, confident aspects of the term: to promenade, to revel, to take possession or to own, to pimp, to create dizzying pageantry. Swagger can be unassailable, magnificent, rebellious, durable, and alluring (opposite of punk in historical/original usage = punching bag, man-toy, whore).

—Trinie  Dalton, adapted from a paper delivered at MMLA 2013, Milwaukee.

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Trinie Dalton is the director of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing and Publishing Program. She has published six books, most recently Baby Geisha (Two Dollar Radio). She teaches fiction and critical writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Art Center, and USC. She has forthcoming fiction and poetry in Santa Monica Review, The Austin Review, GAG (Capricious Publishing), The Milan Review; she has art writing forthcoming in books about David Altmejd (Rizzoli), Laura Owens (Rizzoli), Dorothy Iannone (Siglio), Dorothy Iannone’s Retrospective (Berlinische Galerie/Migros Museum), and Abstraction in Contemporary Video Art (UC Press). Visit her at sweettomb.com.

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May 052014
 

Darfur, Minnesota - Birthplace of Adrien Stoutenburg Darfur, Minnesota – Birthplace of Adrien Stoutenburg

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The goal here is not really to determine the why
behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership.
But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise –
that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background.

—Julie Larios

 

I often begin my treasure hunts for Undersung authors by looking for just the right author photo – one that will gaze back at us while we gaze at it, one that will allow the poetry to radiate out through the eyes, the smile, the averted glance, the stare. The treasure hunt this time around was for poet Adrien Stoutenburg, born Darfur, Minnesota, 1916; died Santa Barbara, California, 1982, aged 66. I had only two photos, both low-quality, both from the back jacket flaps of her books. The one below is on the flap of Heroes, Advise Us – her first poetry collection.

From Jacket Flap of Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964)

From Jacket Flap of Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964)

In terms of author photo categories (author as seductress, author as girl next door, author as bad ass, author as somber academic) this author photo of Stoutenburg might be placed in the “author as Republican great-great aunt” file. In it, the poet looks mild mannered but tightly coifed (her father was a barber, her mother a hairstylist.) Possibly a 1950’s country-club member and/or a Faculty Wives’ bridge player. But not even remotely the poet that critics once described as “ferocious” and “terrifying.”

So I looked for another picture. No luck. I couldn’t find a single photo of her on the Internet. I couldn’t find much at all, in fact, about the poet Adrien Stoutenburg —one quick Wikipedia entry. A few mentions as an author of children’s books. But little else. Below is the poem that made me stop in my tracks several years ago when I first read it in a used book store:

Rhinoceros

I have never seen that beast
with his snout bearing a pagoda
and his eyes like little fragments
and his haunches carrying hills
with them. His teeth, I have read,
are monuments, and his heart colder
than a key in winter,
though he sweats from pores round as goblets
and full of swamps.
The white hunters have killed him
a thousand times over.
I think of myself walking toward him
and preaching a love of creatures,
leaves in my palm, or a loaf of sugar,
and his great horn still,
the knees waiting,
and between us, like birds,
a twittering hope,
or merely the pause
between monster and monster.

—from Heroes, Advise Us

I’m not sure Stephen King ever wrote a more ominous line: “…his great horn still, / the knees waiting….” Ready to charge, that’s what’s implied. What poet, I wondered, looks into the face of a rhinoceros and sees a fellow monster? 

"...his great horn still, / his knees waiting....

“…his great horn still, / his knees waiting….

On the basis of that poem alone, I bought the book, then proceeded to hunt down every other one of her four books that I could find. But finding Stoutenburg takes some doing.

It’s not easy to suffer obscurity or anonymity  (or achieve it, depending on your point of view) on the Internet these days, not with the decades of digitally archived material available, and it’s certainly not common if the object of the hunt is a prize-winning author. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find a photo of Adrien Stoutenburg anywhere online— not a professional portrait, not one of her at a lectern, nor one in a professorial workshop pose, and not even one where she stands at the elbow of – or peeking out from behind – a more famous poet at a conference somewhere.

Was I missing some key word to type in that would get me to a photo? Might there be a photo of her in a literary journal or academic review in a narrower database? I checked, but no. Next I tried to find images online of the covers of her books of poetry – there were four titles to post pictures of – Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964), A Short History of the Fur Trade (Houghton Miflin, 1969), Greenwich Mean Time (Univ. of Utah Press, 1979) and Land of Superior Mirages (Johns Hopkins, 1986.) Again, I came up empty – other than an unusable 115×115 pixel photo somebody posted at a used book site, there are no pictures of her poetry books online, not even via the increasingly amazonian Amazon. Apparently, the poet Adrien Stoutenburg is not only undersung, she’s invisible.

How is that possible? Heroes, Advise Us won the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1964; her second poetry collection, A Short History of the Fur Trade, won a California Commonwealth medal and was under serious consideration (a “close competitor”) for the 1970 Pulitzer Prize (Richard Howard won, but one of the judges – James Dickey – declared later in a letter to Stoutenburg that he believed her book should and would have won had not W.H. Auden insisted on Howard – and, as the poet David Slavitt said, “Auden… prevailed—he was Auden, after all.”) Joyce Carol Oates praised the book, calling it “brilliant” and referring to Stoutenburg as “a really striking artist.”  Poet Henry Taylor helped get Greenwich Mean Time published at the University of Utah Press, saying “[Stoutenburg] has a wonderful eye for the right detail, and the tact to arrange observed details toward deep conclusions.”  Consider this poem:

On the Wagon

In between drinks I go on the wagon
which is sometimes a sleigh
and always filled with children,
the ears of horses like furred leaves,
the reins black over rumps
that resemble gray, cleft apples,
the smell of leather strong as brown medicine.

It is sometimes summer
and my cousin and I
actually ride the horses
and feel their backs—
broad, alive, and separate—
under our legs
thrust out, spraddled,
like short tan oars.

Sometimes there is hay in the box,
and that is a wood-sweet, wild-smell,
hot-heady bundle
of what was rooted, clovered, seasoned,
and sickled into a great, riding pillow
where we can roll under the passing sky.

It is at other times winter
and the smoke of the horses
is like the breath of fires,
and if I could, even now,
I would sneak inside,
stow away and lean against those hearts
stroking above every kind of ice and sweat
and desire.

Filled, furred, straddled, rooted, clovered, seasoned, sickled – just the sound of the words furls you and unfurls you, as do the unexpected comparisons – those horses’ rumps as cleft-apples, the smell of the leather like brown medicine, the children’s short legs sticking out like oars. It’s a passionate poem that goes deep, certainly not one that stays at the level of surface “glitter.” It throws off the same heat as Rhinoceros, and I could post another twenty here that do the same.

How invisible are other Lamont Poetry Prize winners from the 1950’s through the present day? The list includes poets Kay Ryan, Adrienne Rich, Czeslaw Milosz, Philip Levine, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Hass, Carolyn Kizer, Jane Hirshfield, Kim Addonizio, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth – stars in the poetry firmament, with abundant photos of each one online.  But Adrien Stoutenburg – author not only of award-winning books of poetry but of forty well-received books for children – can’t be found. One-time editor of Parnassus Press. Frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Saturday Review, the Nation, Yale Review, Commonwealth, and Accent. A Poetry Society of America’s Michael Sloane Fellowship winner. Winner of nine Borestone Mountain poetry awards  – yet not one photo.

Heroes, Advise Us contains a 39-page multi-sectioned poem /narrative (“This Journey”) focused on the tragic Scott expedition to the South Pole, as well as another 70 pages of strange and powerful stand-alone poems. The collection won prizes, but the Kirkus review of it at the time said the following: “Although the poems sometimes glitter, they lack a basic warmth.” For me, the poems have such heat that I feel like moving slightly back from them for fear of getting scorched at the edges. I love Stoutenburg’s work with its startling metaphors and convergences, its physicality, its dark imagination and heat.

But no one I’ve ever asked has  heard of her.

There is a second photo, this one from the jacket flap of her posthumously-published fourth collection, Land of Superior Mirages:

Jacket Flap from Land of Superior Mirages

Jacket Flap from Land of Superior Mirages

This photo shows what might be a younger Stoutenburg, despite the later release date (posthumous, actually) of that book. Younger or not, she appears more approachable and relaxed – like a kind, small-town librarian, which she actually was for awhile.  Stoutenburg, like another of our Undersung poets, Marie Ponsot, earned much of her income over the years by publishing work for children, with Ponsot translating French fairy tales and Stoutenburg interpreting American tall tales and publishing historical fiction and non-fiction for middle-grade school children. Several of her kids books were published as collaborations with the woman Stoutenburg lived with for almost twenty years, Laura Nelson Baker; the books were well-reviewed but not award-winners. Stoutenburg’s writing for children put food on the table just as medicine did for William Carlos Williams, insurance for Wallace Stevens, mortuary work for Thomas Lynch and Brooks Brothers clerking for Spencer Reese. Many of Stoutenburg’s children’s books were published under a pseudonym (most commonly “Lace Kendall,” the first and middle names of her father) – it doesn’t take too large a leap to reach the conclusion that a pseudonym was used because she didn’t want to be known primarily as an author of children’s books.

The reference book Contemporary Authors Online lists Stoutenburg’s authorial status as “Juvenile Writer” despite the fact that all the honors described in the CAO entry are for her poetry for adults.  First comes the long list of not particularly stellar children’s books, then comes the category “Other,” under which her poetry titles rest, like afterthoughts that don’t quite count.  The category itself –“Juvenile Writer” – is that a kind of ghetto-ization? And is that part of the reason readers of poetry have not heard of her?

I’m thinking right now of the photographer Vivian Maier, whose boxes (and boxes) of negatives were purchased by several people at a public auction (the most well-known of the three serious collectors was John Maloof, whose film, Finding Vivian Maier, is currently in release around the country.) Maier worked for forty years as a nanny to private, wealthy families; the fact that seems to surprise people most is that she supported herself by working with children. “A nanny? Really?” is the common reaction, and it comes out with a kind of derisiveness (am I projecting?) that sounds different than it would if people said, “A car salesman? Really?”  Photographers like Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark now say Maier was one of the great street photographers of the 20th-century, on a par with Weegee and Garry Winogrand. Maier, however, never published any of her photos, nor did she share them with anyone. Eventually, she descended into mental illness and true self-neglect. Maier was determined to remain anonymous, Stoutenburg was not, and Stoutenburg did achieve some recognition during her lifetime. But the paradox of being undervalued (people failing to be curious enough to find out who they actually were) due to work with and for children lingers around both these artists.

Two Girls, France - Vivian Maier

Two Girls, France – Vivian Maier

Perhaps it was difficult for Stoutenburg to present herself in a coherent way professionally, with feet in both the adult and the children’s worlds. Her final book talks about mirages:  “All images are bent / through time, and some most prized are fraudulent— / as mine may be.”  I wonder how clearly we can see a writer who moves between stories about Paul Bunyan and John Henry for six-year-olds and a poem like the following:

Acclimation

After my cousin, the choir boy,
murdered his mother with bitter candy;
and after my brother, the air force hero,
ruined his wife with a linoleum cutter;
and after my neighbor ignited his house,
and my best friend took a child to his room,
their gentle faces hung like jerky
from the live ceiling my bed looked up to.

Facts seemed fatal, at the beginning,
as the raw world must have
when it was imagined
with all its teeth and dung and passion.

Time tranquilizes, and bedrooms are cozy.
I rest most nights in the fearless moonlight
as well as the choir boy or the major
in their deep cells, or the child (grown-up now)
or the empty mothers.

Each day the pound master records the dead.
Bones of kittens burn like ignorant trees.
Headlines blur after too much reading
and the patched-up ceiling turns to mist.
I am chilled by the cold blue lisp of mice
hunting for traps arranged in my closet.
One grows accustomed even to this.

It’s hard to imagine a woman writing and publishing that poem if she wanted to be remembered for her children’s books. And since there is little to no critical writing about her, it’s hard to get a picture – both literally and figuratively – of who this woman was. Clear definitions of artists makes things easier for people who like to  pigeon-hole their art.

The goal here is not really to determine the why behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership. But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise – that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background. Maybe it comes down to what the photographer Saul Lister (himself unsung) once said about his own reputation:

I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason — maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did — in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success…My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out the window.

Fascinating – that something as simple as indifference (is it a character flaw or a character blessing?) or ambivalence (ditto) determines whether a writer’s work will or will not be read by subsequent generations of readers. Success obviously has many definitions, but isn’t it universally accepted that the trajectory should be, must be, consistently upward? Maybe the whole vertical model is wrong, and by reading poets like Adrien Stoutenburg we have a chance to restructure things, make our understanding of “success” more horizontal, less competitive, find those artists whose work we love but who were “indifferent to opportunities” and share their work with each other.

I look at Adrien Stoutenburg’s books on my shelf and feel lucky to have them. All four are out of print, and the used hardcovers (none went to paperback) online usually number in the half-dozen or so per title.  Who can explain this kind of obscurity for a poet described by James Dickey as having “an imaginative energy matched by few poets at any time, in any language” and who David Slavitt called “the toughest, most unrelenting, most terrifying poet I can think of.”  Slavitt, in fact, for an essay included in his book Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets, addressed the way success eluded Stoutenberg. He reached this conclusion:

…as I now see, there were two things happening in the po’biz that were adversely affecting Adrien’s chances. One was that most trade publishers were abandoning the enterprise entirely, leaving the activity to the University presses. The other was the feminism had hit, and certain female poets had figured out that there were more readers for politics and protest than there were for poetry. If the likes of Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Denise Levertov were in fashion, then Adrien Stoutenburg wasn’t, and the publishing houses are always sensitive to that kind of trend. They don’t know about literature, and they don’t know about business, but they do know about lunch, and they are good about picking up what’s out there in the air, which is a vulgar knack, but then publishing is, in the root sense of the word, vulgar….If you’re not a member of one club or another, it’s mostly a crapshoot, and not always an honest one, either.

Greenwich Mean Time, Stoutenburg’s third collection is dedicated to Slavitt.  I’ll leave you with a poem from that collection. It’s a fairy tale, yes, but hardly for children.

Riding Hood, Updated

There had to have been a wolf that night,
alive in his rank fur and throat,
ears twigged, wild feet leaving flowers
on spring-deep earth. The howl was there;
his shadow kept house behind every bush.

Remember, dead grandmother,
me in my hood, and the old rifle swinging
between us, ready for that hot tongue’s flash?
There was a moon, too, skull-shaped but red.

Clouds leaned against it,
and the pines were windy harps.
A lake beckoned blue somewhere
like sky at the end of a downhill road.

There must have an owl, as well,
feather-corseted, hinged with claws;
and a bobcat’s cry.
Who knows what other things
lurked there?

It is nothing now to you
snug in your bonnet of earth,
out of the howl, forever wolf-free.
Here, where the hunt goes on,
and unimaginable beasts are loose,
it’s different for me.

I encourage you to try to find Stoutenburg’s books. It’s worth the search. Then sit down with them and wonder why this poet – her poems precise, white-hot and fierce – is not more celebrated.

—Julie Larios

 

Julie

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.

 

Apr 162014
 

dms 2

Where is poetry? the poet asks at the beginning of this poem/essay — call it an epode, call it an extended epigram, a form that somehow contains balanced contraries in dynamic tension, the heart of metaphor, of art. Written in response to an essay by Ralph Angel that we published in January last year, D. M. Spitzer’s “Mythology” oscillates between monster and marvel, labyrinth and sanctuary, fragment and whole, tapping ahead with his words for solid ground and offering, yes, a mythology of the poem, of the imagination (dangerous, contained within a force field — form). Beautiful to read, surging and lapidary in its rhythms, erudite and cunning in  its weaving together of legend, text, word play and reference.

Also one of the best author photos in ages.

dg

 

part 1:  (muthos) labyrinth & sanctuary

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

—Ralph Angel, “The Exile and Return of Poetry:  Essay
Numéro Cinq vol. vi, 1 (January, 2013).

Unspool the thread given by Ariadne, in whom the ecstasy of oblivion awaits the coming of Dionysos. The end precedes the beginning and a certain movement of form collects both. Dionysos already presents himself in the form of desire. Unspool the thread down narrowing and widening passages. Daidalos, poet-exemplar, modulates light and darkness, clarity and obscurity in the labyrinth. To isolate the final cause of this structure, peel away at the Minotaur: Minos and shame, Pasiphaë and desire, desire and the god of translation (Zeus). Dionysos stands at the threshold of the labyrinth and in the mind of the poet-architect. Into the sacred labyrinth let thread follow. Thread protects against loss and wandering and a hungry monster inhabits the structure.  Monster is monstrum, something that elicits wonder, a marvel.

Risk:  to be consumed by the hunger and isolation that motivates wonder.

Where is poetry?

A poet designs a sanctuary into which imagination—a genuine monstrum—is led.  Fear of the creative imagination in the full range of license, and a shame, rooted in modality, of the creative imagination’s potency, force the creative imagination into the sanctuary—that is, a world-making creativity will also be world-devouring. Shelter it within sanctuary. Labyrinth is sanctuary.

Sanctuary:  a forbidden vein of dark blood writing the holy secrets across its innermost holy place, a place of healing.

Into the labyrinth unwind thread. Poetry is labyrinth, but a poem takes flight from the surrounding walls. Ikaros too with wings of syllables and breath lifts himself out of the sanctuary’s enclosure unto the bright morning air, the island’s craggy shoreline diminishing. Into the open.

Or sing the poem from the open place near the labyrinth’s center. Write poems on papyrus scraps and send them to the skies on wings of smoke and flame. Too near the sun they have already burned to ash and their flight continues. Poem needs no ground save the whole of things; air discloses the whole.

Unwinding thread towards the interior of labyrinth, find the shield of Achilles blazing in midday light. Everything reflects there. It burns the eye and the mind falls to its knees.  A fire-god rends the metal earth into folds that look just like earth and the poet’s god is the god of fire. There on the shield read one’s own face in bronze embossed where the surface is whole. Everything there terrifies. None dares to look.  Begins the fire-god a poetry of metal fragged from deep veins beneath the surface of earth. Tear open the surface of things and make beginnings in the dark material hidden there. A whole rent down to the interior of fragments stripped and reshaped in time-present’s forge where everything else collapses into forgetting. Unmake whole make fragment into whole in which a face echoed recalls its fragmentation. Tragedy builds its shield from the shield of fire given from god to man. Poet beneath it all, blindness shielding from the tragedy of wholeness. Where whole forms itself into stability there loses all into unself. Whole will encapsulate in its message of bronze the perishing of what you want:  the city of gold, walled with lapis tesserae and medallions of everything precious, gods’ hands pressing stone towards the sun into a wall impenetrable. Down tumbles wall and the quiet household gods into flame of the poet’s limping god. A fierce jaw breaks spear after spear into the torso of a warrior who is also a son, a father watching unable to look away. Down tumbles what the whole speaks in its ekphrastic visioning. Down.

At the labyrinth’s center, Minotaur shakes loose his must-covered voice:

mind sleeps and wakes and stirs and rests and poetry cycles

turning & turning the spirit moves as it cycles once more into itself[i]

Fragmentary remains in the manner of the cycling going-under of things.  Take it up from the ruins, or from the labyrinth where it was found lying in midday sun.  Out of a ruined whole brings forth the poet a second world that looks out upon another contained within itself.  The thread leads deeper into labyrinth’s ordered chasm.  Light is channeled into momentany into dark by the architect of moving-images[ii] and prisons.  The poet chains everything in artifice, released in the mouth and ear of the reader.

Back to sanctuary only ever half-finished, abandoned when tyranny fell. Footsteps glish in blood and stain the foundation.  The wonder is, after all, only half human.  The rest is untranslatable.  Leave the traces of holiness along the eastern wall where temple and labyrinth are one.

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part 2:  (logos)  literary dynamism

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

This sentence traces the belonging-together of whole and not whole. The sentence says:  if a subject is able to produce a sanctuary out of literary wholeness, that subject must produce a sanctuary of the fragmentary.  It says, in fact, nothing about the making of a literary sanctuary, but rather about the power to make such a sanctuary and the necessity, because of that power, to create a sanctuary for the fragmentary.  Accordingly, the fragmentary involves a dynamism that exceeds and excludes the whole.

However, wholeness comes first.[iii] Only after the presencing of wholes to consciousness do the fragments begin to appear, light-catching as glass-shards. To be sure, wholeness as a concept both precedes and precipitates a notion of the fragmentary; coming across a potsherd on the island of Delos, for instance, one immediately recognizes the fragment of pottery as having been a part of a now ruined whole.  The sentence above, the starting point of this brief inquiry, on one level simply asserts that, since the production of a sanctuary for wholeness can be carried out, wholeness exists in some way, and then what applies to the whole applies necessarily to the parts.  Yet, this assertion is complicated by the idea that the sanctuary produced for wholeness exists in modality, while that produced for fragmentariness exists as a dynamic and necessary movement towards a whole.  It is further complicated by the notion that such a whole, as the sanctuary seems to describe, takes place as not only whole, but also fragmentary.  For, a sanctuary marks off an area that is described by its boundaries and is a kind of whole, yet one which also explicitly does not contain the wholeness for whose praise and worship it has been created.  In principle, that which is limited, while perhaps whole in itself, is nevertheless fragmentary insofar as it has been segregated from all else.  Emerson communicates something like this principle in the essay “Circles,” writing that “around every circle another can be drawn.”[iv]

Fragments exemplify the coexistence and belonging together of whole and fragmentary while also pointing to different ways in which the fragmentary is related to the whole.  A literary fragment, such as those attributed to Sappho, leans toward the imagination as a medium in which the dynamism of fragmentariness delivers itself and raises itself and exceeds itself into a poetically engaged wholeness.  This entails a dialectic, an inter-activity, a potent engagement of the imagination with the poetic fragment. “[N]ot everything can be given straight away to the understanding through the work of art,” as Schopenhauer noted, “but only what is needed to set the imagination on the right path; it must always leave out something—indeed, the final thing—for the imagination to produce for itself.”[v] Out of this engagement the fragmentary poem overcomes itself and reaches its latent wholeness, which consists in the belonging-together of literary art and the thoughtful auditor or reader.  All strives for wholeness.[vi] Imagination reaches out for the dynamism inherent to phenomena, as phenomena strive towards an outside-of-themselves that completes them. The ancient Greek epic phrase kluthi moi…ophr’ eipo (listen so that I might speak) expresses this cycle.[vii] Without the correlative of an outside-of-self listening, speaking cannot take place; the being of each depends on the other.

The Sapphic fragments also reach in the direction of the lost whole; splintered from that whole, the fragments bear an enhanced attitude of longing.  This raises the relation of fragments within a context of wholeness.  In complete works lines, phrases, and episodes exhibit a kind of ecstasy of their own whereby each part as a fragment overcomes itself by semantically stepping beyond and outside itself when taken independently, which is how the reader or hearer initially perceives them while also assembling these, by means of the memory and imagination, into and towards a wholeness.  Each phrase can be experienced both in its fragmentariness and in its condition of literary ecstasy:  a stance thrust beyond the self into and towards the self—the whole—it has power to become. The outside-of-self, however, can only emerge into being from the self’s unfolding, such that the outside-of-self towards which a thing strives consists within the self itself as a power to be that which the self not yet is.  A work’s literary dynamism in this sense takes place as its movement towards itself—its latent wholeness—through continuing its self-overcoming.  That is, the whole gains itself through each phrase-as-fragment overcoming itself, gathering and overflowing into the next and the next.  Each fragment inheres to the literary dynamism and does so because of a work’s wholeness.[viii]

Ecstasy—standing beyond self—shows itself as an essential feature of the relationship between wholeness and fragmentariness. This is at the center of literary dynamism, at once ecstatic in its reach for the ever-outside-itself and rootedly inward, inherent.  The shadow of this thought also comes forward:  in striving towards wholeness, fragments move away from a previous condition, fragmenting themselves in the very moment of overcoming themselves into wholeness. Herakleitos speaks this movement:

out from the teeming plenitude of all things one

out from the quietus of unity all things[ix]

The Herakleiteian double-move takes place in the manner of Angel’s articulation of the belonging-together of whole and fragment.

In the end, Angel’s “exile and return of poetry” traces the movement of entities coming-forth from wholeness into fragmentation and returning, in their time and by means of dynamism, from fragmentation into wholeness.  Relations with other entities provide the context and ground for the actuation of this dynamism and may point to an underlying unity of those related entities.[x]

n.b.  All ‘translations’ given above are original by the author.

— D. M. Spitzer

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After undertaking graduate studies in liberal arts, philosophy, and classics (each at different institutions), D. M. Spitzer completed a Master of Fine Arts in writing (poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is currently working on a number of poetic projects:  eurydike relapse, a performance-poetry event that will incorporate choreography, large-scale mask/puppetry, and transfigurations of poems by Rilke, Goethe, and Ovid; a hybrid literary work tentatively titled Genealogy of the First Person; and another performance-poetry piece that transfigures the ancient philosophical poem of Parmenides.  In addition, Mr. Spitzer is developing an essay that explores the use of hyphenation in the work of the late American poet Gustaf Sobin.  Some of his work can be heard at exaudes.wordpress.com.  Mr. Spitzer lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their three children.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Transfiguration of Ecclesiastes 1:6.
  2. Plato uses as a simile the moving statues of Daidelos in the Meno [97d.6-10].
  3. Aristotle likewise observes, at the outset of Physics, that “for the most part to our sight and taste first arise things in a mixed-together state, and then later, from things of that sort, the elements and the sources (arkhai) that set things apart are discernable.  In light of this, inquiry should proceed from the wholeness of things (to katholou) towards each separate thing, since, aesthetically, the whole is more knowable and the wholeness of things is a kind of whole” [184a.21-25].  
  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson:  Essays and Poems, ed. Tony Tanner & Christopher Bigsby (J. M. Dent:  London; Charles E. Tuttle:  Vermont, 1995), 146.
  5. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol. 2, ch. 34 (Stuttgart, Frankfurt am Main:  Cotta-Insel, 1960), 523:  “…durch das Kunstwerk nicht alles geradezu den Sinnen gegeben werden darf, vielmehr nur soviel, als erfordert ist, die Phantasie auf den rechten Weg zu leiten:  ihr muß immer noch etwas, und zwar das letzte zu tun übrigbleiben.”  
  6. Compare Aristotle’s thought at Physics A.9 [192a.16-25] that hule (typically translated as “material”) yearns for eidos (“form”).
  7. See, for example, Hesiod, Theogony, 644-645:  keklute meu…ophr’ eipo ta me thumos eni stethessi keleuei.  The last part of the expression emphasizes the impulse to reach beyond the self.
  8. For example, Robert Creeley’s poem “Fragment,” in Echoes (New York:  New Directions, 1993), 67 achieves its art through appealing to the reader’s sense and expectation of wholeness, even if it intends to show the radical absence of a whole.  Similarly, Sappho’s poems are so alluring on one level because they never attain themselves, they leave in play the desire for wholeness, a taut bow never released.  
  9. This is a transfiguration of the last section of Herakleitos, fragment 10 (Deils-Kranz).
  10. The image of literary dynamism may work to understand the more practical problem of “writer’s block,” which I take to be at issue in Angel’s “exile and return.”  If the practice of what is called “writing” can be thought in terms of a dynamic interplay of fragmentariness (or silence, or a period without writing) and wholeness (productivity, writing), we might make a sanctuary of the whole process that includes periods of speaking and hearing, of writing and reading, of reading and quiet, a process that is inherently fragmentary in its wholeness.