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.

james-joyce

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 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.

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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

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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.

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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.

dg

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.

Capture

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.

\\

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)

Capture

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.

Capture

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)

 //

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.

//

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.

.

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

.

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.

.

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

.

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.
Apr 132014
 

Heaney paintingCatherine Edmunds’ 2013 sketch of Seamus Heaney painted by Patrick J. Keane

Today would have been Seamus Heaney’s 75th birthday and to celebrate that celebrated absence we offer an essay by Patrick J. Keane who does what the best critics do: he goes straight to the heart of the man through the poems and thence to the poems again. In 1972, Heaney famously and controversially moved from the bloody ground of Northern Ireland to Wicklow in the Republic, abandoning outright political action and commitment for a more contemplative and poetic life. He did not make this decision easily, and out of his personal struggle came the poems in North, what Keane calls his “most powerful and controversial collection.” Keane takes us through Heaney’s discovery of the famous “bog people” and the mythic method of poetic argument, his identification with the dispossessed peoples and the people of the earth, into the complex battle between Hercules and Antaeus (whose strength was always renewed by contact with mother earth) and finally to crucial culminating poem “Exposure,” a poem that begins

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

dg

 

1

H

ad he lived, Seamus Heaney would have been 75 on April 13, 2014. For poetry lovers and, even more, for those who came to know him as a warm and generous human being, it’s hard to believe that that magnanimous presence is gone. Hard to believe, too, that it is almost 40 years since the publication of his most powerful and most controversial collection. When North appeared, in 1975, it was greeted enthusiastically by major critics as varied as Helen Vendler, Conor Cruise O’Brien, John Jordan, and Christopher Ricks. But strong reservations, politically-related and having to do with Heaney’s use or alleged misuse of archeology and myth, were expressed by Ulster writers Edna Longley and Ciaran Carson, among others. The hostility of some poets and critics in Northern Ireland was influenced, or at least complicated, by the fact that Heaney had left his native province in 1972, just as the sectarian conflict was intensifying.

In the wake of Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, when British paratroopers fired into a crowd of Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, killing twelve and wounding thirteen, a consensus had understandably solidified among the Catholic minority in the North. In one of their sustained interviews, conducted over a half-dozen years, Heaney told Dennis O’Driscoll that one of the reasons he moved from Belfast to Wicklow in the Republic was precisely to “get away from the consensus culture that had built up among us.” That culture would be reflected a few years later in the response from the North to North. “I’d left the party,” as Heaney put it to O’Driscoll, “and that complicates things for everybody, for the one who goes as well as the ones who stay. You get my side of that in the last poem of the book, ‘Exposure’.” [1]

The present essay takes its thematic and structural cue from Heaney’s specific response to a question. Asked about the “new direction” his poetry had taken after the “archeological and mythological” emphases in North, Heaney observed that such a “new direction is already being followed in North, in poems like ‘Hercules and Antaeus’ and ‘Exposure’” (SS, 162). The former, which closes Part I of North, revisits and revises “Antaeus,” the poem that had opened Part I; and the reconsiderations, or second thoughts, implicit in that revision prepare us for “Exposure,” which brings to a close the volume as a whole, including the more discursive and directly political poems of Part II. In Heaney’s canon, from the beginning through his death in August 2013, there is no more crucial text, personally and politically, than “Exposure,” not only the final poem in North, but the one poem he chose to stress—quoting it almost in full (OG, 419-20)—in “Crediting Poetry,” his 1995 Nobel Prize Acceptance speech.[2]

Heaney was very conscious of “the artistic doubleness,” the “double aspect,” of North.  He continued, in the Stepping Stones interview, to say that “the Hercules poem” is, “for all its mythy content” (characteristic of Part I), expressed in “plain speech”—the language of Part II. (SS, 160, 162). Yet “Hercules and Antaeus,” a literally pivotal poem, remains “mythy.” Like “Antaeus,” the poem it echoes in order to alter, it derives, obviously, from Greek mythology. In general, however, Heaney famously drew in North on a mythology and archeology rooted in Northern Europe. In order to address the horrors unfolding in his native province in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Heaney in effect played a variation on what T. S. Eliot had called, in his cogent 1923 Dial review of Ulysses, “the mythical method.” Joyce had paralleled Homer’s Odyssey with the events of his own pedestrian epic of Leopold Bloom, and so taken, said Eliot, “a step toward making the modern world possible for art,” a step toward “order and form.”

In using “myth,” Eliot went on, “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” Joyce was “pursuing a method which others must pursue after him,” not as “imitators,” but as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”  Eliot was keenly aware (as was Joyce himself) of his debt to Ulysses in The Waste Land. He was also aware that Yeats had reanimated Cuchulain, made his Maud Gonne a modern Helen of Troy, set his apocalyptic rough beast slouching toward an anything-but Christian rebirth in Bethlehem, and had, in his great poetic sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” juxtaposed the Persian destruction of the “ingenious lovely things” of Athenian civilization with the eruption of modern barbarism. Eliot was right to note: “It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious….Instead of a narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.”[3]

In North, Heaney uses the mythical method to engage the anarchic panorama presented by the sectarian, political, and deep-rooted cultural conflict in Northern Ireland that erupted in the late sixties and continued well beyond the publication of North in 1975. Though a lapsed Catholic, Heaney continued to identify with those in his tradition, “my wronged people.” But he realized, as he says in the second half of North, in the poem “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” that the “liberal papist note sounds hollow,” and that “the ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse” (OG, 123). Clichéd rhetoric at the journalistic level of daily reportage, or echoing (or bemoaning) the simplifications imposed by rival sectarian ideologies, was inadequate to the atrocities occurring on the ground. In a dramatic move, Heaney set the contemporary Troubles in the deep historical context provided by P. V. Glob’s text and “unforgettable photographs” in The Bog People, a book that deeply moved Heaney as a man and creatively galvanized him as a poet.

BogPeople

Attracted by its title, he’d bought The Bog People as a Christmas present for himself in 1969, the year the book was published. A “line was crossed,” he told O’Driscoll (SS, 157), with “The Tollund Man,” published in Wintering Out (1972), the collection immediately preceding North. When he wrote that poem’s first line, “Some day I will go to Aarhus” (OG, 62), he felt that he was in “a new field of force.” He compared Glob’s book to a gate. “The minute I opened it and saw the photographs, and read the text, I knew there was going to be yield from it.” Even, he insisted, if there had been no Northern Troubles, he would still have been drawn to the stunning pictures and descriptions of the Iron Age bodies exhumed from the peat. There was a hiatus, but he knew that he was not finished with The Bog People. “I didn’t really ‘go back’ to the book,” he said in 2006 or so, “because it never left me. And still hasn’t” (SS, 157-58).

Glob2

Heaney later wished that, in public readings, he had played down his application of the bog material to the political situation in the North. It “would have been better…for me and for everybody else if I had left [the poems] without that sort of commentary.” Above all, it “would have been better for the poems,” which had their own “biological right to life.” That was the “point and remains the point and I never had the slightest doubt about them in that regard” (SS, 159). Nevertheless, Heaney obviously saw current atrocities mirrored in the preserved bodies of those murdered Iron Age victims (the Bog Queen, Tollund Man, Grauballe Man): all part of the blood-saturated, “skull-capped ground” of the “old man-killing parishes” of the Scandinavian and Irish North; while the adulteress of “Punishment,” unearthed from a bog in Germany, was even more controversially identified by Heaney with his tribe-betraying sisters, heads shaved and “cauled in tar” for fraternizing with British soldiers in contemporary Belfast. (OG, 62, 113)

Tollund Man

As deployed in North, Heaney’s archeological-mythical method was unquestionably powerful and attention-getting. But the primary challenge remained: to concentrate on getting things right, not in deeds, but in words and images—befitting emblems of adversity that would record what happened, bear witness without exploiting the tragedy of the Troubles, and remain true to oneself. This demanding task, confronted in the bog poems and in the more immediately political poems of the “Singing School” sequence in North, culminates in “Exposure.” But the trajectory begins (once we are past the two exquisite dedicatory lyrics) with the first of the two poems centering on the mythic and symbolic combat between Antaeus and Hercules.

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Some familiarity with these titular figures from Greek mythology is required to grasp what Heaney retrospectively came to regret in the case of the bog poems: the application to the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time. The Hercules-Antaeus conflict is also relevant to his own position at the time, which was anything but static. During the Troubles, quoting Czelaw Milosz’s Native Realm, Heaney said of himself, in his poem “Away From It All”:

I was stretched between contemplation
of a motionless point
and the command to participate
actively in history.[4]

It was a variation on an old theme. As Henry Hart has observed, “at the root” of the work of this “poet of contrary progressions” is a “multifaceted argument with himself, with others, with sectarian Northern Ireland, with his Anglo-Irish [poetic] heritage, and with his Roman Catholic, nationalist upbringing on a farm in County Derry.”[5]  In that dialectical context, the perennial combat embodied in the mythic wrestling match between Hercules and Antaeus becomes emblematic of the dynamic between the first and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney himself, “stretched between” contemplation and the pressure to participate actively, a man of “two minds” both poetically and politically. In “Terminus” (from The Haw Lantern, 1987), Heaney, graphically illustrating his double-mindedness, says he “grew up in between,” describing himself in Part 1 of the poem as suspended between past and present, between the native earth of the Derry farm of his childhood, and the machinery of the modern world:

When I hoked there, I would find
An acorn and a rusted bolt.

If I lifted my eyes, a factory chimney
And a dormant mountain.

If I listened, an engine shunting
And a trotting horse.

Is it any wonder when I thought
I would have second thoughts? (OG, 272)

Both in her 1998 book, Seamus Heaney, and in her not-yet-published 2014 obituary, Helen Vendler emphasizes these “second thoughts,” even going so far, in the book, as to have a “Second Thoughts” section as a sort of postscript or coda to each chapter. The theme of reconsideration is embodied in Heaney’s two treatments of the Hercules-Antaeus story, and their placement. Readers of Opened Ground, the poet’s own selection of verse from 1966-1996, will be misled by the Contents page, which indicates that “Antaeus” (the only poem in Opened Ground parenthetically dated) appeared in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. It didn’t. Though it was written in the year that inaugural volume was published (1966), it first appeared in print in 1975 in North, immediately following “Mossbawn,” incorporating the two introductory ut pictura poeisis (Vermeer and Brueghel, respectively) poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary.

That warm domestic and pastoral preamble (OG, 93-94), twinned poems of love (“like a tinsmith’s scoop/ sunk past its gleam/ in the meal-bin”) and benign communal activity (potato seed-cutters in a Brueghel-like “frieze/ with all of us there, our anonymities”) is in striking contrast to the violent subject-matter of most of North: violence introduced by the poem that opens Part I of North, “Antaeus.” Heaney’s second poem on the struggle between the two Greek heroes, “Hercules and Antaeus,” closes Part 1. In Opened Ground, Heaney evidently wanted to put some distance between “Antaeus” and the poems he selected in 1998 to represent his work in North—understandably, since there had indeed been second thoughts. “Hercules and Antaeus,” in which the poet grudgingly recognizes the inevitable triumph of the Hercules figures of the world, not only revisits but in part reverses the 1966 poem in which he clearly identified with “Antaeus.” Before proceeding, we should pause for a backward glance at both Greek heroes.

Hercules and Antaeus

The son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal woman, Heracles (Hercules is the Latin form of the name) was intended by his father to lord it over all others. Though he became the greatest and most popular hero in Greek mythology, renowned for both brawn and brains, he had obstacles to overcome from the outset. The jealous wife of Zeus, Hera, unsuccessful in preventing Heracles’ birth, tried (Pindar tells us) to destroy him as an infant, sending two snakes to strangle him in his cradle. Little Heracles strangled the snakes instead. Hera later contrived to have the destiny Zeus intended for his son conferred instead on the king of Argos, Eurystheus, to whom Heracles would eventually become subject, forced (as punishment for the murder of his wife and children during a Hera-inflicted fit of madness) to perform the famous Twelve Labors.[6] In Book 11 of the Odyssey, the ghost of Heracles tells Homer’s hero of his suffering: “Son of Zeus that I was, my torments never ended,/ forced to slave for a man not half the man I was:/ he saddled me with the worst heartbreaking labors.” Those labors included, among others, killing the Nemean Lion, cleansing the Augean stables, and (the task he specifically mentions to Odysseus), retrieving the three-headed hound Cerberus from Hades; “no harder task for me, he thought,/ but I dragged the great beast up from the underworld to earth.”[7]

Prior to hauling Cerberus up from Hell, Heracles had been tasked by Eurystheus to find and bring to him the golden apples originally given (by Ge, mother of Antaeus) to Hera to celebrate her marriage to Zeus. The apples were secreted in the distant Garden of the daughters of Atlas, the Hesperides, where they grew from a Tree guarded not only by these three singing nymphs, but by the hundred-eyed serpent Ladon, coiled protectively about the trunk. In the most prominent variation on the legend, Heracles, wandering about seeking advice on the location of the Garden, encounters Prometheus, chained to the rock in the Caucasus, waiting by night for the eagle that returned daily to feed on his liver. When Heracles shoots and kills the eagle with his bow, a grateful Prometheus advises his savior to enlist his brother Atlas, who knows the location of the Garden. Atlas was also being punished by Zeus, condemned to support the sky on his back forever in order to keep heaven and earth apart. When he finally finds cloud-mantled Atlas, Heracles asks for his help in getting the apples. The Titan agrees, providing that Heracles, in exchange, will shoulder his burden. Heracles agrees. But when Atlas returns with the apples, clever Heracles tricks him into resuming his burden and departs with his prize.

In his long and meandering journey to the remote Garden of the Hesperides, Heracles, in addition to helping Prometheus, engaged and conquered two dangerous enemies in Northern Africa: the king of Egypt, Busiris, and the less tyrannical but even more formidable king of Libya. This was the invincible wrestler, the giant Antaeus, son of the Earth-goddess Ge and the sea-god Poseidon. Antaeus was always victorious in his matches because, when he was thrown to the ground, the Earth, his mother, renewed his strength. In their famous match, Heracles, unaware at first of that special relationship, started by wrestling Antaeus in the normal way. But, smart as he was powerful, he quickly realized what was going on. Lifting the giant up, Heracles held Antaeus aloft in the air, weakened him, and slowly crushed him to death with his bare hands. In his two poems on the subject, double-minded Seamus Heaney identifies in the first with with the earthy Antaeus, then, reluctantly, acknowledges the power and intelligence of Hercules.

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The 1966 “Antaeus” begins with a probable echo (one among several, to which I’ll return) of Heaney’s predecessor and fellow Irishman and Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats. Heaney would seem to have in mind as well lines from Robert Frost—his “favorite poet,” he later confided to a surprised Helen Vendler. In the two concluding quatrains of “To Earthward” (1923), Frost yearns for an Antaeus-like relationship with the earth, a joyous contact so intense as to include pain and tears, “the aftermark/ Of almost too much love.”

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length. [8]

And here are the opening lines of Heaney’s gravitational poem, also written in quatrains:

           When I lie on the ground
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning,
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring
………..To rub myself with sand

           That is operative
As an elixir.

Antaeus’ earth-connection is chthonic and natal. “I cannot be weaned/ Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins,/ Down here in my cave,” he says. “Girdered with root and rock/ I am cradled in the dark that wombed me,/ And nurtured in every artery.” The final two quatrains introduce Heracles—supposedly just one of many challengers (“Let each new hero come…”), but identified by the references to the golden apples, to Atlas, and to the fatal wrestling match:

           Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas.
He must wrestle with me before he pass
………..Into that realm of fame

           Among the sky-born and royal:
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
………..My elevation, my fall.  (OG, 15)

It is hard to gauge the tone (pride, bravado, fear, petition?) in the punning and paradoxical final lines, in which Antaeus envisages and yet resists Heracles’ victorious strategy in the received myth. Let my opponent “not plan,” says Antaeus, even in elevating me off the earth, “my fall.”

Renewal in descent is a Yeatsian theme as well. In his late, summing-up poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the “foul” heart in which the ladderless Yeats at last “must lie down” is the fecund source of the artist’s creativity, enabling him to be, as Heaney’s Antaeus puts it, “nurtured in every artery.” But the closer Yeatsian parallel to Heaney’s “Antaeus” occurs in a related summing-up poem, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” (also written in 1938). Yeats had identified (in the Preface to A Vision) with another Greek hero, terrestrial Oedipus, who “descended into an earth riven by love,” rather than with celestial Christ, who ascended into the abstract heaven. (Yeats is recalling his “translation” of the Messenger’s speech in Oedipus at Colonus; Heaney has described as one of “the things I’ve done with most relish,” his own version of the Messenger’s account of Oedipus disappearing, “assumed into earth rather than into heaven” [SS, 472]). In the Municipal Gallery poem, Yeats, asserting the gravitational pull of his art and cultural nationality alike, alludes directly to the Antaeus myth, applying it to himself and his principal Abbey-Theatre co-workers. Along with that earthy aristocrat and collector of Irish folklore, Lady Augusta Gregory, and “that rooted man” John Millington Synge, Yeats thought

All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.[9]

Early Heaney would agree. Like Antaeus, son of Mother Earth, the poet of Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) seemed an instinctual and earth-centered child of the natal soil. In an essay published in 1980, five years after North, he, too, like Yeats, described Synge as one who, Antaeus-like grew strong, having discovered in his experience on the Aran Islands a tangible “power-point.” Like Heaney himself in his archeological digging into the remote pre-Christian past in North, Synge, “grafted to a tree that had roots touching the rock bottom, …had put on the armour of authentic pre-Christian vision which was a salvation from the fallen world of Unionism and Nationalism, Catholicism and Protestantism, Anglo and Irish, Celtic and Saxon—all those bedevilling abstractions and circumstances.”[10]

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But, however bedeviling and abstract, those antithetical forces could not be ignored or wholly transcended, and Heaney’s proclivity toward “second thoughts” would not allow him to rest with a too-easy “salvation” in the form of empathetic alliance with one side of the agon. As his cherished Robert Frost acknowledged, “I have been pulled two ways and torn in two all my life.”[11]At the time he wrote that, in a 1915 letter, Frost was just five years older than the author of North. Though Heaney was similarly torn, Antaeus—his alter ego in the 1966 poem—was, for all his myth-defying insistence or petition, still a defeated figure. When he takes up the theme again, in the wake of the renewed violence in Northern Ireland beginning with Bloody Sunday in January 1972, Heaney concedes in advance the defeat of Antaeus at the hands, and head, of Heracles, a figure of superior strength and “intelligence.”

In the earlier poem, Antaeus had boasted that the challenger must wrestle with him before he could “pass/ Into that realm of fame//Among sky-born and royal.” That successful passage is acknowledged (repeating the very phrase) at the outset of the new poem—which is written in the third person and whose opening lines go on to allude to Heracles’ feats: from the precocious choking of the snakes sent to strangle him in his cradle, through his ingenious cleansing of the accumulated cattle-dung in the Augean stables, and his successful quest for the golden apples, culminating in his apotheosis, laden with earned prizes:

Sky-born and royal,
Snake-choker, dung heaver,
His mind big with golden apples,
his future hung with trophies,

Hercules has the measure
of resistance and black powers
feeding off the territory.

The forces of resistance whose “measure” has been taken—doubly “grasped”—by intelligent Hercules, a violent light-bringer, are primordial, instinctual “black powers/ feeding” off the nurturing soil, the native “territory.” Antaeus himself is introduced as “the mould-hugger.” In the earlier poem he had claimed, “I cannot be weaned off” the earth and its “cradling dark.” Now he is described as “weaned at last” from his Mother-Earth. In the past,

a fall was a renewal
but now he is raised up—
the challenger’s intelligence

is a spur of light,
a blue prong graiping him
out of his element
into a dream of loss

and origins—the cradling dark,
the river-veins, the secret gullies
of his strength
the hatching grounds

of cave and souterrain,
he has bequeathed it all
to elegists. Balor will die,
and Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull.

“Light”—masculine and intellectual—defeats the cradling “dark” that had, in the earlier poem, “wombed” and “nurtured” Antaeus. Now the intelligent but phallic and brutal “spur” and “prong” of Hercules has succeeded in “graiping” (an obscure but forceful Scots verb for lifting, perhaps derived from William Dunbar) Antaeus “out of his element” into a dream of “loss” and nostalgia for his chthonic “origins” in the mothering soil: the hidden river-veins, gullies, caves and underground networks that once nourished his strength, and over which Heaney lingers.

Heaney’s lingering identification with Antaeus and the poetic, cultural, and nationalist dimension of this poem are confirmed by a 1979 interview, in which he recalled a conversation with a “fine” British poet, but one with a “kind of Presbyterian light” about him, “essentially different from the kind of poet I am.” The “image” that came into Heaney’s mind after the conversation “was of me being a dark soil and him being a kind of bright-pronged fork that was digging it up and going through it.” In “Hercules and Antaeus,” he continued, “Hercules represents the possibility of the play of intelligence,” resembling the “satisfaction you get from Borges,” so “different from the pleasures of Neruda, who’s more of an Antaeus figure.” Such thinking, he says, “led into the poetry of the second half of North, which was an attempt at some kind of declarative voice.” In that voice, the victory of the trophy-laden conqueror, his “light” too Protestant and “Anglo” for Heaney to ever endorse, is registered, but with reluctance.[12]

Forcefully severed from contact with the dark soil that is the source of his strength, Antaeus must lose, bequeathing his legacy to “elegists” lamenting the death of other indigenous fighters defeated and dispossessed by invaders. Heaney singles out mythic and historical losers, united by fate and alliteration: the one-eyed Irish god-king Balor, killed by the Tuatha de Danaan, the legendary invaders of Ireland; the Anglo-Saxon earl Byrthnoth, slain by Vikings in the massacre of his forces at the Battle of Maldon (991); and the chief of the Lakota Sioux, Sitting Bull, victor at Little Big Horn in 1876, but shot and killed by Indian police when, a decade and a half later, his followers tried to rescue him from reservation captivity. Transatlantic, but emblematic of all the native peoples overwhelmed in the inexorable advance of whites colonizing the American continent, Sitting Bull belongs in this trinity of the dispossessed and defeated—principal among whom are Heaney’s own “wronged people,” driven out or subjugated by the English invaders and planters, and still subject to violence and discrimination.

The final two stanzas present the victor in an iconic pose (archaic, but repeated from Churchill to “Rocky”), along with the transformation of the defeated into the topography and mythology of resurrection so often resorted to by the vanquished: arrogant “Hercules lifts his arms/ In a remorseless V,” his “triumph unassailed/ By the powers he has shaken,”

And lifts and banks Antaeus
High as a profiled ridge,
A sleeping giant,
Pap for the dispossessed.  (OG, 121-22)

The defeated Antaeus is lifted, crushed to death, and banked, his profiled corpse becoming part of the ridged landscape. In both Native American (Ojibway) and Celtic mythology and popular legend, a Sleeping Giant will one day awaken to lead his defeated and disinherited people to triumph. This desperate cultural-political wish-fulfillment, applied to his own tribe in Northern Ireland, is spurned by Heaney, brutally and caustically, as “Pap for the dispossessed”: the sentimental mythology of false hope that simultaneously sustains and deludes an uprooted and oppressed people. Later, in Station Island, the ghost of James Joyce himself will advise Heaney to stop “raking at dead fires” and “rehearsing the old whinges at your age./ That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,/ infantile” (OG, 245).  Though Heaney is not dismissing the reality either of oppression or of the need to rectify injustice, he is harshly critical of what Neil Corcoran succinctly describes as a subject people’s “hopeful but puerile” mythology. Yeats, too, in Celtic fin-de-siècle poems like “The Secret Rose” and “The Valley of the Black Pig, and, more obliquely in “The Second Coming,” had reminded us that oppressed people always dream apocalyptic dreams of deliverance, of what the distinguished Quaker philosopher Rufus M. Jones has memorably called “the fierce comfort of a relief expedition from the skies.”[13]

In that climactic line, “Pap for the dispossessed,” Heaney, conceding victory to Hercules, refuses to dwell on either the nostalgic “dream of loss/ and origins,” or the apocalyptic pipedream of the projected awakening of a “sleeping giant.” In Greek myth, Heracles will himself eventually be defeated, poisoned by the toxic shirt of the centaur Nessus. Though that dark future offers no comfort in this poem, it is also true that the combat between what is antithetically represented by Heaney’s Hercules and Antaeus (a spur of light/earthy darkness, “male” reason/ “female” instinct, victory/defeat) is itself a transitional phase, a “stepping stone” in a larger and more complex dialectic, both poetic and political. The forces symbolized in “Hercules and Antaeus” will wrestle again, and on a far more nuanced level, in the culminating poem in North, “Exposure.” By “bidding farewell to the chthonic elegiac myth of Antaeus, by finding something to praise in the ‘spur of light’ in ‘the challenger’s intelligence,’ Heaney,” writes Helen Vendler, “opened himself to the more authentic—if more dubious and shifting—figures animating “Exposure”—figures of exile, of flight, of sequestration and, above all, of second thoughts, ‘weighing and weighing,’ as he says, ‘my responsible tristia’.”[14]

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Seamus Heaney began his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, just as he had begun “Terminus” eight years earlier, by presenting himself as having grown up “in between”; “in suspension,” he says in the speech, “between the archaic and the modern.” His life as a “pre-reflective” child safely insulated from the outside world in a crowded traditional thatched farmstead was “an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled” with other sounds—“rain in the trees,…a steam train rumbling along a railway line one field back from the house.” This was during World War II, and so, conveyed by the wind-stirred wire leading from atop a chestnut tree to the family radio, the sounds included the voice of a BBC newsreader announcing in “resonant English tones…the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions,” and intoning as well “those other solemn and oddly bracing words, ‘the enemy’ and ‘the allies’.” (OG, 416)

That child in the bedroom listening simultaneously to sounds of the pastoral and modern worlds was “already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament”: a future involving the conflict between the Provisional IRA, British troops, and loyalist paramilitaries during the renewed Troubles, centered in Northern Ireland but radiating out to bombings in Dublin and London. A no-longer “pre-reflective” child, Heaney was now an adult who would, as he told his audience in Stockholm, have to “adjudicate” among “promptings” that were

variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, skeptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, quite impossible. So it was that I found myself in the mid-nineteen-seventies in another small house, this time in County Wicklow south of Dublin, with a young family of my own and a slightly less imposing radio set, listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home…feeling challenged yet steadfast in my non-combatant status when I heard, for example, that one particularly sweet-natured school friend had been interned because he was suspected of having been involved in a political killing. (OG, 418)

In August 1972, the year that had begun with the second Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers killed and wounded the Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, Heaney resigned his teaching post at Queens University in Belfast, moving with his wife and two young sons to Wicklow in the Republic. It was, he has acknowledged, the “most intense phase” of his life, “and not just of the writing life.” Referring to his family as well as himself, he told O’Driscoll, “we were at a turning point,…exposed and ready in a new way.” He had “no more alibis. That much was clear the first morning I took the children” to their new school “and the headmaster wrote ‘file’ [poet] in the column of the rollbook where he had to enter ‘Occupation of Parent.’ No more of your ‘lecturer’ or ‘teacher’” (SS, 156).  They settled in “Glanmore,” a cottage (formerly the gatekeeper’s on the Synge estate) rented to them by their friend, the Synge scholar Anne Saddlemeyer. As noted earlier, the decision, much commented on in the media, was criticized by some Northern Catholics, including fellow writers, who felt that the poet best equipped to be an engaged spokesman for “their side” had abandoned them. In these circumstances, says Heaney in the Nobel Prize speech, what “I was longing for was…a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology.” It was then, he says (OG, 419), that “I wrote a poem called ‘Exposure’.”

Aside from “Punishment,” in which he accuses himself of complicity and passivity in the tribal vengeance exacted against his “sisters” brutally punished for fraternizing with British soldiers, “Exposure,” the sixth and final poem in the sequence “Singing School” in North, is the most controversial poem in Heaney’s most controversial and powerful collection. Epitomizing the rival claims of the private and public voice, of art and action, of poetry and political engagement, “Exposure” traces several “exposings.” The first is to the natural elements in a rural environment. The poem, written, like “Hercules and Antaeus,” in unrhymed quatrains, begins:

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

In this damp, darkening, low-wicked end of the year, there were other cold looks. The second “exposing” was to the unaccustomed criticism already mentioned, both private and in terms of the media publicity occasioned by the decision to move to the Republic. The poet is critical himself—at least, as in the case of Horatio on the battlements in Hamlet, “a part of him.” In an image that will recur in the poem’s final line, he refers to the opportunity to possibly make a difference at home as “A comet that was lost,” and should at least

                             be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

Instead of a wrestling Antaeus, we have a stone-slinging potential Cuchulain or David defending his people against physically superior (Goliath-like) strength. Heaney’s “gift,” though weapon-like, would be (as in his canon-opening poem, “Digging”) that “pen” mightier than sword or gun (or slingshot). But the “desperate” here are the same “dispossessed” battening on “pap” in “Hercules and Antaeus.” In any case, it is all a fantasy. The million-tonned luminous comet is already “lost,” its glimmering roseate track not even “visible at sunset”; the lesser “falling star” is glimpsed only “sometimes”; and the recluse self-exiled in the Wicklow woods is, in this declension, reduced to hoping for the diminished excitement of coming upon “meteorite.”

Walking through “damp leaves,” the husks of an “autumn” as “spent” as the meteorite, and merely “imagining” himself a potentially salvific “hero,” Heaney sounds remarkably like the middle-aged Yeats of The Wild Swans at Coole, shuffling among the littering autumnal leaves and burning “damp faggots” while, in contrast, a man of action—Irish Airman Robert Gregory, driven by a lethal and “lonely impulse” to hurl himself into combat—“may consume/ The entire combustible world” in the “flare” of a single courageous if reckless decision. Like Heaney, who presents himself in this poem “weighing and weighing” options, Yeats’s Airman claims to have “balanced all, brought all to mind.”  But the fighter-pilot impulsively leaps into his “tumult in the clouds,” while Heaney and Yeats “sit,” or walk through “damp leaves.” And yet one senses, at the deepest level, that for both poets, however they may momentarily envy and even glorify it, the role of the combustible “hero” is, in the final weighing, just more infantile pap.[15]

In the next two stanzas, the media exposure attending Heaney’s controversial move to the seclusion and safety of the Republic is made more intimate by the many-faceted “counseling” of friends  (whether well-intentioned or the equivalent of Job’s comforters) and the more blunt hatred of ideological enemies, whose “anvil brains” generate more heat than sparks of light:

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind backs?

The Latin word signals a double-echo: an allusion to another internal émigré, Osip Mandelstam in the Stalinist Soviet Union, whose poems in exile, titled Tristia, in turn echoed the Tristia of Ovid, exiled by Augustus from Rome. But “for what,” Heaney asks himself, does he sit weighing and weighing incompatible responsibilities? He momentarily casts doubt even on the claims of poetry, in terms both of its adequacy in the face of the atrocities in the North and in purely aesthetic terms: the artistic labor required to create sounds to please a discerning “ear.” Feeling, as he said in the Nobel Prize speech, “challenged yet steadfast,” he implicitly resists as well civic responsibility in the form of politically engaged labor on behalf of “the people,” and spurns, though acutely sensitive to it, the sniping of those who talk behind one’s back.

But there remains self-criticism and the final and most important “exposure”: the revelation of his own deeply-conflicted feelings and thoughts. He hears, in the symbolic utterance of the rain through the alders (the familiar rain-in-the-trees image with which the poem had opened), self-accusation and a nagging fear—since each raindrop recalls the “diamond absolutes” beyond endless weighing of alternatives—that he may be a less-than-noble escapist whose quietist quest has caused him to dodge the violence and miss a momentous chance:

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.  (OG, 135-36)

.

6

“Exposure,” in which Heaney puts extraordinary pressure on himself, is an intimate self-examination and meditation on what Robert Frost famously called “the road not taken.” But against the vacillation and conflicted thoughts that led him both to self-protectively escape “the massacre” and to miss the not-taken and once-only opportunity to stay in the North and perhaps even make a difference politically, we have to weigh, as Heaney may well have, not only the nuanced subtext of sedentary Yeats’s ostensibly unflattering contrast of himself to heroic Robert Gregory, but the older poet’s insistence, in “The Second Coming,” that it is the “best” who lack conviction, while “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (YP, 235). In addition, though they give off but “meagre heat” compared to the comet’s “million tons of light,” the “sparks” to which Heaney refers in the final stanza are poetic sparks.

According to Heaney in a 1997 interview with fellow poet Henri Cole, what he was asking, with “anxiety,” in “Exposure” was: “what am I doing striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?”[16] But those little sparks were still inspired sparks, blown by the “wind” Heaney  feels as a “wood-kerne” hidden and camouflaged—like the Irish soldiers Spenser had described in A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596)—by protective bole and bark, the autumnal woods surrounding Glanmore Cottage. To my ear, “these sparks” evoke Shelley’s final petition to that “breath of autumn’s being” in the “Ode to the West Wind”:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth,
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In the end, Heaney, neither informer nor internee, confirms (though not without misgivings) his decision to become an internal émigré and noncombatant. In moving to Glanmore Cottage, a secluded retreat and place of writing he came to love and eventually to purchase, Heaney committed himself full-time to poetry, recognizing—as had Wordsworth, in an earlier time of political “catastrophe” and with the support of his sister Dorothy—his “true self” as “Poet,” file. In the third of the “Glanmore Sonnets” (in Field Work, 1979), Heaney starts to compare himself and his wife to “William and Dorothy,” only to be interrupted by Marie (OG, 158)—who may, however, have played a role not unlike that of Dorothy. Asked by Helen Vendler about separations and other difficulties, Marie insisted that “all I want is for Seamus to be able to write his poems.” That was what mattered as well to Dorothy, that “belovéd woman” and “companion” who had, in a time of political and emotional turmoil, Wordsworth insisted,

Maintained for me a saving intercourse
With my true self…preserved me still
A Poet, made me seek beneath that name,
And that alone, my office upon earth.[17]

But “poetry,” as Auden famously insisted in his elegy for Yeats, “makes nothing happen.” Even (OG, 102, 103) lying “down/ in the word-horde” and “jumping in graves” (as Heaney, a self-mocking “Hamlet the Dane” does in the “skull-capped ground” of North) cannot effect political change any more than the imaginative “flames” of Yeats’s “Byzantium” (YP, 298) can “singe a sleeve” in the material world.  As Heaney says, echoing Auden and Yeats: though poetry is “unlimited” in its capacity for “pure concentration,” “no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” [18] Nor, in “Exposure,” can “meagre sparks” outweigh the comet’s million tons of light.

As man and poet, Heaney had to acknowledge the passionate intensity and terrible beauty of that climactic comet’s “pulsing rose.” But there is an implicit caveat in that very image, a reservation taking the form of repetition and rondure. For this final image in the final poem of North—the “comet’s pulsing rose”—not only echoes the absent afterglow of the comet’s tail,  imagined resembling the fruit of the rose, the ripe seed-receptacles that remain after the petals have been removed (“Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips”); it also curves back to “Antaeus,” the opening (post-Dedication) poem in the volume, and to what proved to be the earth-renewed wrestler’s over-confident and punning assertion: “When I die on the ground,/ I rise flushed as a rose.” The internal “rose”-echo is obvious, and I take the oblique allusion to “Antaeus” also to be deliberate, an echo adding to the undermining of the pulsing comet’s combustible political force.

For in the trajectory of North, atavistic Antaeus had been forced to yield. Not, finally, to the strength and spurred light of hubristic Hercules, but to the responsibility-weighing tristia and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney, acting in his true office upon earth: that of Poet. A poet may make, as Heaney often has, public statements; but a poet’s resistance to pressure to become overtly “committed” is usually accompanied, as in the case of Wordsworth and Coleridge (disenchanted by the course of the French Revolution), by a belief that the authentic agent of change is not political activism but the creative imagination, with its implicit assertion of the essential autonomy of poetry. This is a claim certain, in a time of troubles, to frustrate readers who want their poets to “engage” rather than fiddle. And yet we find, at the end of “Exposure,” a poet, or file, scattering, not the spent ashes of partisan politics and sectarian hatred, but those vestigial yet undying “sparks”—his inspired words—among us all. Seamus Heaney’s four decades of creativity following North, defending and reaffirming the central value of poetry, have amply vindicated the pivotal decision publicly wrestled over in “Exposure.”

— Patrick J. Keane

 

Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and 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).

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 159-60. (Henceforth cited parenthetically as SS).
  2. “Crediting Poetry,” in Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 415-30. Opened Ground is cited parenthetically throughout as OG.
  3. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” The Dial 75 (November 1923); cited from Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 175-78 (177).
  4. Station Island (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 17.
  5. Hart, Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992), 2.
  6. Among his many heroic exploits, Heracles led the Theban army to victory in battle, and was rewarded by the king, Creon—the tyrant who has rebellious Antigone buried alive (Heaney would later publish a version of Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone under the title The Burial at Thebes). In gratitude, Creon gave Heracles in marriage his daughter Megara, with whom he had three children. When he regained his senses after killing his family, Heracles was commanded by the priestess of Apollo to obey Eurystheus, who assigned him the Twelve Labors (athloi: contests undertaken for a prize).
  7. Homer: The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (NY: Viking, 1996), 269-70. Book 11: 621-24.
  8. The Poetry of Robert Frost (NY: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 227.
  9. W. B. Yeats: The Poems [henceforth, YP], ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992), 367-68, and  395, for “The Circus Animal’ Desertion”);   A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1962 [1937]), 27-28.
  10. Heaney, “A Tale of Two Islands: Reflections on the Irish Literary Revival,” in Irish Studies 1, ed. P. J. Drudy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980), 1-20 (9).
  11. The Letters of Robert Frost, vol. 1 (of a projected 3), 1886-1920, ed. Robert Sheehy, Mark Richardson, and Robert Faggen (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013).
  12. John Haffendon, “Meeting Seamus Heaney,” reprinted in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation. (London, 1981), 57-75. My colleague David Lloyd rightly insists that Hercules is “too Angloish for Heaney to get too near.”
  13. Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1986), 100. Jones, The Eternal Gospel (NY: Macmillan, 1938), 5. For the Yeats poems, see YP, 87, 83, 235.
  14. Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1998), 89-90.
  15. Ostensibly pure hero worship, both “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” (YP, 181-85) hint at subversive caveats.
  16. Cole, “Seamus Heaney: The Art of Poetry No. 75.” The Paris Review 144 (Fall, 1997).
  17. For Marie’s comment, see Vendler, “Seamus Justin Heaney 13 April 1939-30 August 2013” (2014), p. 2. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), XI. 340-47. In North, in the sequence “Singing School” (its title taken from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”), Wordsworth figures as well as Yeats.
  18. Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 107-8. “In one sense, the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited.” Though not politically “instrumental,” it functions “as pure concentration.
Apr 122014
 
Julian and Vidal
Gore Vidal and Emperor Julian the Apostate

 

The Roman Emperor Julian lived in the 4th century C.E., ruled the late empire for three years, during which time he tried to turn back time and reinstitute the ancient pagan gods, and then died (possibly murdered by a Christian) on a military campaign in Persia. Orphaned at an early age, Julian was raised as a Christian (this was just short decades after the Emperor Constantine converted, embraced Christianity and promoted it throughout the empire), but he spent a large portion of his early adulthood in Greece where he studied Neoplatonism and the old Greek mystery cults. Unusual for a Roman emperor, he was an intellectual. Then, as Emperor, he turned against Christianity, thus earning himself the famous epithet: the Apostate. A complex and fascinating character, Julian has always attracted commentary. And it’s fascinating and instructive to contrast the way authors bend the same facts (s0-called facts) to present differing themes and agendas. 

Ammianus Marcellinus, a fourth-century Roman historian, also probably a soldier in Julian’s army, wrote about Julian’s imperial career in a book called Res Gestae (literally, Things Done).[1] Ammianus only really mentions Julian’s apostasy once; he is much more concerned with the imperial qualities and legitimacy of Julian’s rule than his religious feelings. By contrast, 1500 years after Ammianus, the American novelist and political gadfly Gore Vidal, using Ammianus’ work, wrote a novel called Julian, which focuses almost entirely on Julian’s apostasy.  Both Vidal and Ammianus deploy roughly the same facts toward decidedly different ends. Vidal torques his facts, even his reading of Ammianus, to create a complex heroic figure bent on holding back the Leviathan of Christianity (which, unfortunately, as far as Vidal is concerned, prevailed). Ammianus focuses on Julian’s participation in the grand meta-narrative of the late Roman Empire, the succession of emperors, the rise of Christianity and the church. Vidal’s novel is about an individual. Ammianus’ history is not about Julian specifically but his part within the larger tapestry of his period.

Capture

Vidal was raised in the midst of an old American political family in Washington D.C. He never attended university but nevertheless published his first novel, Williwaw, at 21. He wrote Julian while visiting Rome in 1964. When talking about his reasons for writing the book, Vidal said:

As for the age of Julian, it is fascinating. In fact without some understanding of what happened it is impossible to have a clear idea of what Christianity is and how it came into being. And if we do not understand Christianity then we cannot make much sense of the world we live in.

Vidal, who delighted in being outrageously critical of Christianity, seemed to have found a kindred spirit in Julian.

…had [Julian] lived there is no doubt that Christianity would have been but one of several religions in the West. And this diversity might have saved the world considerable anguish. But one must again make the point that until the Christians appeared no one was ever persecuted because of his religious beliefs.[2]

This single man could have changed the world for the better. But he failed, mostly by dying too early for his policies to succeed. And Vidal’s novel reflects how Christianity, by betraying Julian (it was rumoured that a Christian soldier assassinated him), betrayed the future.

Ammianus’ account is written from a historian’s perspective. He occasionally interjects a first-person comment. But he will go off on tangents about rainbows or palm-trees or offer delicious aphorisms like: “no wild beasts are such enemies to mankind as are most of the Christians in their deadly hatred of one another.” [3] Ammianus attributes this particular gem to Julian, but it is almost certainly a rhetorical flourish and the author’s own sentiment.

Vidal’s novel differs a great deal from Ammianus. Julian begins with a series of letters between Libanius (a Greek rhetorician who was a friend of Julian in Greece) and Priscus (a Neoplatonist philosopher who studied with Julian under Maximus of Ephesus). Libanius opens the novel by asking Priscus to send him copies of Julian’s memoirs. The novel is mostly the manuscript of Julian’s memoirs written from Julian’s perspective. Priscus and Libanius, however, offer their own thoughts in the margins of the memoir. Often these side-bars are presented as conversations between the two men. Occasionally, either Priscus or Libanius takes over narration to fill-out the details or give context. This back and forth effectively creates the illusion that you are reading both the raw drafts and the polished version of Julian’s memoir (which is fictional). It enhances the depth of story by turning it into a critical edition.

The texts Vidal and Ammianus produced are fascinating set side by side for the way each author treats similar material with different thematic torques. They moot the question: How does a thesis determine the way an author crafts his work. We can look at just two sections of text to see how this works. Both Vidal and Ammianus write about Julian’s speech just before the crucial Battle of Strasbourg in 357, and both also deal with the revelation of his apostasy and its aftermath.

500px-Battle_of_Argentoratum1.svg

Battle of Strasbourg

The Battle of Strasbourg occurred before Julian became emperor, but his victory over the German tribes was immensely important in his career. His army was outnumbered; he had little experience as a general. But victory re-solidified Rome’s presence in Gaul and set Julian firmly on the path to the imperial throne.

Ammianus’ account of the battle can be divided into three sections: the first is Julian’s speech before the battle, in which he suggests that the troops rest for the night rather than attack right away; the second is the solidiers’ rejection of Julian’s speech; and the third section is the battle itself. In Res Gestae, Ammianus spins the historical and political tensions surrounding this battle and its relation to past events and its implications for the future. In Julian, on the other hand, Vidal is less concerned with the battle’s political implications; he uses it as a characterizing moment to help the reader understand Julian as a man.

Ammianus’s account emphasizes the contextual social dynamics in the moment. First, it’s surprising that Julian makes a speech at all. It was the custom only for emperors to make such speeches. Peter O’Brien writes: “Unlike all the other battlefield speeches incorporated into his narrative, this is not, strictly speaking, an adlocutio. Such speeches, presented according to a specific protocol before an assembled army either in camp or on the field, were in Ammianus’ day the sole prerogative of the Augustus.” (Augustus here refers to an emperor.) [4]

Such speeches were also usually accompanied by a customary set-up, a ceremonial preliminary. For example, O’Brien points out that in description of other scenes in which the Emperor Constantius II or, later, Julian as an Emperor, makes a speech, there is always a description of his posture in relation to the men or the structure which elevates him above his men. In contrast, Ammianus introduces the speech in Strasbourg with the words: “indictaque solitis vocibus quiete, cuneatim circumsistentes alloquitur, genuina placiditate sermonis” (with the usual words quiet was indicated, and he spoke to those standing around him in wedge-formation in his genuine soothing manner of speech).[5]  Julian is among his men, at their level (circumsistentes cuneatim contrasts the usual elevated position of the emperor).

Ammianus is foreshadowing future events by omitting these customary speech/scene contextual tags and by implicitly contrasting Julian and the Emperor Constantius, a rather murderous character whom he eventually succeeds. This contrast serves as a kind of ex post facto campaign biography demonstrating Julian’s fitness to become emperor. This is Ammianus’s thematic agenda.

Gore Vidal’s version, in contrast, emphasizes Julian’s character rather than his political destiny. The entire battle scene is written in Priscus’s (Julian’s Neoplatonian student friend) point of view. The choice of Priscus allows Vidal to talk about Julian objectively and even critically. Priscus describes the speech as follows:

Julian made a good speech to the army. His speeches, though never particularly brilliant, did have the gift of striking precisely the right note with the men…His cultured voice would become harsh, his manner royal; the content modest, the effect inspiring… Julian sat on his horse… Trumpets blared in unison. Squadrons of cavalry, cuirassiers and archers moved in from the left and right until Julian was surrounded. [7]

Vidal misses the subtlety of Ammianus, who consciously avoids painting Julian as more than a general. Words like “royal” and “trumpets sounding in unison” are more applicable to an emperor than a general. In fact, Ammianus does include trumpets sounding in unison in his book but only when Julian finally rises to imperial power.

Vidal conveys the sense that the troops surround Julian, but for a different reason than that of Ammianus. Vidal’s Julian is cagey, politic and manipulative. In Vidal’s account we get motive. Priscus writes that “[Julian] wanted to persuade [the soldiers] to fight immediately, but knowing that they were tired and hot from the sun, he realized he would have to trick them into wanting what he wanted.”[8] Vidal’s assumption that the speech is an attempt at reverse psychology is not wildly inconsistent the historical facts and fits the man who will later sew confusion among the Christian bishops. But it very much contrasts with Ammianus’ imperial Julian, the emperor-in-the-making.[9]

CaptureJulian proclaimed Emperor in Paris, 360 C.E., via Wikipedia

The Speech

Ammianus’ version of Julian’s speech emphasizes that the odds are against the Romans. He gives several reasons why it would be foolhardy to attack precipitately and wiser to rest for the night. Julian offers an aphorism: “Ut enim in periculis iuventutem impigram esse convenit et audacem, ita (cum res postulat) regibilem et consultam” (Indeed, usually young men are energetic in danger and daring, but (as the situation suggests) they also ought to be restrained and forward-thinking). [12] This sentiment seems to reflect the way Julian sees himself, a young man in dangerous situation, who is both cautious and brave. But the aphorism is also a foundation for the rest of his argument. Ammianus wants to suggest that Julian’s subsequent military success is grounded in cautious bravery. The aphorism characterizes Julian, not as an anxious young man fearful of attacking a larger army, but as a cautious and experienced leader who can implement universal principles in practical situations. Throughout Ammianus emphasizes qualities, like cautious bravery, which demonstrate good leadership potential thus justifying Julian’s eventual accession to emperor.

Vidal uses the same aphorism but splits it into two parts in two different sentences. The opening of Julian’s speech in Vidal’s novel is: “The thing we most care for is the safety of our men, and though we are eager to engage the enemy, we also realize that rashness can be dangerous and caution a virtue. Though we are all young men and inclined to be impetuous, as Caesar I must be the one to move warily, though—as you know—I am far from being timid.”[13] Vidal’s version changes the emphasis from one which demonstrates Julian’s growing maturity and leadership ability to one which groups Julian in with the rest of the men and highlights his youth and bravery. Vidal here as usual is looking to analyze the specific person of Julian, whereas Ammianus is concerned with a much broader historical project. Vidal uses this speech as an opportunity to show Julian the young general relation to his men. And Ammianus, conscious of this historical momentousness of this battle, recognizes this speech as deeply important in the rise of Julian, so he crafts a speech which reflects imperial qualities in the young Caesar.

We turn now to examine how Ammianus and Vidal each describe the army’s response to the speech. These descriptions contain some of the most telling differences between the two authors. Ammianus’ account:

Nec finiri perpessi quae dicebantur, stridore dentium infrendentes, ardoremque pugnandi hastis illidendo scuta monstrantes, in hostem se duci iam conspicuum exorabant, caelestis dei favore, fiduciaque sui, et fortunati rectoris expertis virtutibus freti, atque (ut exitus docuit) salutaris quidam genius praesens ad dimicandum eos (dum adesse potuit), incitabat.[14]

They interrupted, not letting what was being said to finish, and gnashing and grinding their teeth, and showing their readiness for fighting they struck their shields with spears, and they exhorted him to lead them against the enemy in sight, by the favor of heavenly gods, and their own self-confidence, and their lucky and experienced leader, and (as events had taught) a certain genius was present urging them to the fighting (as long as he was nearby).

Interestingly, Ammianus diminishes Julian’s agency in this excitement. The soldiers are exhorting (exorabant) him, and there is a genius or spirit that is inciting them toward battle. Ammianus’ intent in this scene is to play on the tensions surrounding the historical and political importance of this event and to demonstrate Julian’s troops’ confidence in him and his abilities. O’Brien writes:

Ammianus undermines the forthright opposition of the army to their leader’s request by implying that their motivation was not based solely on their self-confidence, but on both the skill and fortune of their leader and the protective interest of heaven. The language of fortune and divine interest runs through these claims like a thread, binding the purported words of the soldiers in a typically Ammianean formulation of Julian’s particular aptitude for imperial office.[15]

For O’Brien Julian’s failure to persuade the troops is more than compensated for by their approval of him and the spirit he inspires.

Vidal shortens the response of the soldiers a great deal and, in fact, alters the tone entirely. He reuses the lines: “But the legions interrupted him. They gnashed their teeth, a terrible sound, and struck their spears against their shields.”[16] But he jumps over the secondary justifications for the soldiers’ approval and moves right to the lines:

Then one of the standard-bearers shouted, “Forward, Caesar! Follow your star!” He turned dramatically to the legions. “We have a general who will win! So if it be God’s will, we shall free Gaul this day! Hail, Caesar![17]

We find these lines in Ammianus’ as well, but the difference between the two versions lies in Vidal’s implication that this soldier was planted and coached. This follows from Vidal’s earlier claim that this speech is supposed to be a form of reverse psychology, but there is nothing in Ammianus to suggest that the soldier who cries out is not doing so on his own accord. Rather, for Ammianus’ purposes, this soldier must represent the voice of the soldiers in general.

The Battle

Ammianus’ account of the battle itself is lengthy and includes several digressions while Vidal’s version (still told by Priscus) is short and does not linger on the gory details. The differences between the two descriptions of the battle depend on Vidal’s disinterest in the war-craft of Julian which he clearly holds as secondary to his rhetorical, philosophical, and religious aspirations. In contrast, Ammianus’ desire to justify the imperial Julian leads him to dwell longer on his good generalship.

For example, near the end of the battle while the Germans are retreating to the Rhine at their backs, Julian recognizes that if his “indefessus” (indefatigable) soldiers follow too closely they will fall into the river as well. Ammianus writes: “Qua causa celeri corde futura praevidens Caesar, cum tribunis et ducibus clamore obiugatorio prohibebat, ne hostem avidius sequens, nostrorum quisquam se gurgitibus committeret verticosis” (For this reason, Caesar, with swift-thinking, foreseeing coming events, with his tribunes and generals prohibited with a large clamor of shouts, lest in eager pursuit of the enemy, our soldiers committed themselves to the eddying rapids).[18] Here Ammianus, as he is apt to do, points out Julian’s mature rationality in the field of battle. He also, once again, demonstrates Julian’s right use of caution for the sake of his troops — all to emphasize Julian’s imperial nature.

Vidal, on the other hand, eager to leave the description of the battle behind, does not even mention Julian’s quick thinking here. He skips over Julian’s commanding moments and simply segues to the famous description of the river turning red with blood, which, he assures us, “is not chronicler’s exaggeration.”[19] This is no doubt an ironic nod to Ammianus who is the source for the river turning red, though, even more ironically, Ammianus’ red river is itself no doubt not a historical fact but a literary allusion to both Homer and Virgil.

Edward Armitage - Julian the Apostate Presideing at a ConferenceJulian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875, via Wikipedia

Apostasy

At XXII.5 in Res Gestae, Ammianus describes Julian’s apostasy, the moment when he reveals his belief in the old gods. He writes:

Et quamquam a rudimentis pueritiae primis, inclinatior erat erga numinum cultum, paulatimque adulescens, desiderio rei flagrabat… Ubi vero abolitis quae verebatur, adesse sibi liberum tempus faciendi quae vellet advertit, pectoris patefecit arcana, et planis absolutisque decretis, aperire templa arisque hostias admovere, et restituere deorum statuit cultum…

And from his early boyhood, Julian had been inclined toward the cults of the gods, and as he matured a little, he burned with the desire for them… And when truly those things which he feared were abolished, the time had come when he could freely do what he wanted, he revealed the secrets of his heart with plain and formal decrees, that the temples be opened and victims brought to the altars, and he instituted the return to the cult of the gods.

This text is Ammianus’s most explicit reference to Julian’s apostasy. It is important to note that even though Ammianus is talking about Julian’s religious and philosophical ideas, he frames them terms of politics. Julian waits until his fears, i.e. the political effects of his self-outing as a pagan, subside before he issues his imperial edicts. Julian turns his will into policy. The verb statuit, which I have translated as “instituted,”  emphasizes the political aspect of Julian’s religiously-motivated behavior.

Vidal, in Julian, extends this moment in order to allow Julian to reflect (it is his memoir after all) on the difference between his religion and Christianity, in fact, to allow for a dramatic critique of Christianity. This section of the novel is full of examples of Vidal’s apostatic thematic coming to life. For example, when Julian arranges to have the bishops meet with him, he writes:

At the beginning of April, for my own amusement, I summoned the bishops to the palace. After all, I am the Pontifex Maximus and all religion is my province…

Julian then incites the bishops by insulting them and calling them hypocrites.

You have been taught to consider nothing your own, except your place in the other and better world. Yet you wear jewels, rich robes, build huge basilicas, all in this  world, not the next.

 After the “fine Galilean eruption,” Julian  writes: “Finally, like the bull of Mithras, I bellowed, ‘The Franks and Germans listened when I spoke!’”[20] This line is arguably the most telling when we contrast Vidal and Ammianus. Vidal takes this line directly from Ammianus but changes one thing. Ammianus writes: “Saepeque dictitabat: ‘Audite me quem Alamanni audierun et Franci,’ imitari putans Marci principis veteris dictum” (Often he would say: Listen to me whom the Alamanni and the Franks gave ear,” thinking he was imitating a dictum of the old emperor Marcus (Aurelius).”[21] Vidal’s substitution of the Bull of Mithras for Marcus Aurelius in Ammianus’s simile is pointed. Vidal emphasizes Julian’s religiosity and his animosity toward Christianity whereas Ammianus clearly wants to present Julian’s behavior on the imperial model exemplified by his great predecessor.

—Jacob Glover

 

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Jacob Glover is a graduate student in the Classics Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Thanks to Dr. Peter O’Brien of Dalhousie University for his helpful comments on an early version of this essay.
  2. Books and Author Luncheon , November 30, 1964
  3.  Res Gestae, XXII.5.4
  4. O’Brien, 11.
  5. Res Gestae, XVI.12.8
  6. Julian, 222
  7. Julian, 222-3
  8. O’Brien, 21 (fn. 29)
  9. Res Gestae, XVI.12.10
  10. Julian, 223 (My italics where the aphorism appears.)
  11. Res Gestae, XVI.12.13
  12. O’Brien, 24
  13. Julian, 223
  14. Ibid
  15. Res Gestae, XVI.12. 55
  16. Julian, 224
  17.  Julian, 337
  18. Res Gestae, XXII.5.4
Apr 102014
 

author photo 2013

The moral overhang of plants, in the present case a disregarded bonsai, is the notional subject of this deft, intricate essay (with photographs) by Shawna Lemay, an essay that is also an anthology of quotations (about plants, art and people) and gnomic phrasing, an essay that almost seems to unwrite itself as it is written. “…we understand each other illegibly.” “In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them.”

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The bonsai, now. Purchased years ago from the hardware store. A wish, a pretension, a desire for peacefulness, with an envious thought to the serious practitioners, precipitated its purchase.

Relegated to the basement when it sensed I was not living up to its requirements for emptiness, calm, and a true tenderness. It became too lush and I could not be severe in bringing it back to balance. Years later, it re-emerges. Parts of it have died, irretrievable. Unbalanced but splendid and we understand each other illegibly.

At the stage where she was dreaming, conjuring, The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “A lamp and a flower pot in the center. The flower can always be changing.” There would be, “…a perpetual crumbling and renewing of the plant. In its leaves she might see things happen. But who is she?”

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Quickly followed by the wish she remain unnamed. The leaves would most certainly see things happen.

I forge a plan which I quickly abandon, to ask women I know about the plants they have on their windowsills, kitchen tables, desks. I imagine receiving answers about geraniums being overwintered, about African violets, and about bouquets of grocery store tulips and about long stemmed, candy coloured daisies, and roses that deliberately open. Once, someone told me about the aloe vera plant she has on her desk  which has vast properties of healing and with which she conducts séances and hearing this made me too delicate.

We breathe the plant in and the plant receives our exhalations and our chakras align accordingly.

Of course, with Clarice, I’ve been thinking about the sadness of flowers in order to feel more fully the order of what exists for a very long time.

As Cixous said, we have all lived one or two flowers. We have felt the light of them, the light they attract and which goes right through them, and also the heaviness, the gravity, and we have known, perhaps, as the painter Francis Bacon called it, the violence, of roses. Not just the thorns, but the colours changing and bleeding and seeping out of those generous, soft, petals. The way our souls might rise up and speak to flowers, met by flowers, their breathing, the faint breath of them. The pain of finding we can’t quite sip, can’t quite internalize the answers, to the question of scent.

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I imagine the pots and vases of flowers on a table near a window in time lapse photography, one that encompasses several years. The first day emerges deliberately. It begins in a veil of morning light, I place a vase of garden roses on the weathered table. The pink-orange petals are so various, each one a slightly different combination of pink fluttering into orange. They have opened under the sun, been changed by breezes gentle and ardent and arduous. Insects have nibbled and continued on their way. And now the light becomes more diffuse, evens out, brightens, declines again, and then moonlight comes in and bathes the roses, they soften and at the same time become more radiant, full. The leaves droop a little, curl, the water clouds, the edges of the petals wither, turn a greyish brown, and the pinks become less vibrant, and the orange deepens, lessens. They begin to look tattered in the repetition of this cycle, more graceful, more noble. At one point a hand comes into the frame, and shoves the vase from the center of the table to the edge, to the far end.

In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them. We learn opening, opening. And then empty, drunk, we succumb to their heavenly sadness. It is the sadness of flowers that reminds us to keep the secret.

The table is empty for several days. The time lapse speeds up. A geranium arrives in a terracotta pot. The stems are thick and gnarled. The plant has lived and lives on in the slips that have been taken. It grows, leaning toward the light through the day, a slow dance. And then the cuttings are removed, and it must grow more leaves, and it does, small sprouts emerge. At which point someone takes it to make room for a gift, a vase of flowers. A ghostly image enters the frame and leaves, which reminds one of security camera footage.

An arrangement, a gift. A florist’s concoction. Tulips, roses, hydrangeas, snapdragons, bits of greenery in a  rigorously balanced and visually interesting triangle. Light pink, fresh green, and lavender. For days they stay as placed, rather too perfect. But then the tulips begin to droop through the course of a single day and are nearly done in.

The time lapse slows and then speeds up, and this feels alarming, how the flowers move as though in a deep conversation, the intensity of their gestures, leanings, listings, to and fro, petals drop in what could be happiness one moment, anger the next, then resignation.

Those which have perished are removed, and the bouquet is awkward, strange. A hand removes the bouquet, the arrangement returns in another form, the remaining flowers cut down and placed in a water glass. They last a day or two more. And at this point, the light in the room becomes grainy, and I can’t help but think about the clouds which must be responsible for this effect.

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It goes on like this. Long periods where the space is empty. Shadows of people pass over the table. A bird flies by and casts a low and fleeting shadow. Snow falls so the window resembles a 20th century television screen at three a.m. The window is opened and the curtains blow into the frame, ever so gently. Punctuated by moments of flowering. Flowers changing. And changing.

It goes on like this. The fragrance. The colours. The fading. The beauty of decline, the simplicity. All of the attendant moods arrive and pass in waves, swelling and subsiding, at dawn, at dusk.

While I’m imagining the flowers on a table I’m also thinking about 17th century Dutch flower paintings. The way that artists would make and collect studies of  flowers so that they could paint them into lush floral bouquets that couldn’t really exist as the specimens wouldn’t naturally bloom at the same time. Sometimes an artist would share a particular study they’d made, so that another artist would have the exact same rendering of a flower in their own floral painting.

I also remember the painting by Remedios Varos called Still Life Reviving, which is the last thing she painted before her unexpected death. At the center of a small round table with a tablecloth draped on it is a lit candle. Swirling around and hovering above the table are plates, and above them various fruits which at times collide and explode, all of this witnessed by dragonflies. Seeds drop from the colliding fruits, and plants are being born from them before they hit the ground.

I remember the way things appear to lose their magic, and later regain it.

Paper whites in winter. An amaryllis bulb, forced. Spring plum blossoms. Forsythia. Peonies. Roses. Tiger lilies.

The flower is always changing which is dizzying. Which is why, still life.

—Shawna Lemay

Shawna Lemay is a writer, blogger, editor, photographer, and library assistant. She is the creator and co-editor of the website, Canadian Poetries. She has written five books of poetry, All the God-Sized Fruit, Against Paradise, Still, Blue Feast and Red Velvet Forest, a book of essays, Calm Things, and a work of experimental fiction, Hive: A Forgery. A book of poems and poem-essays, titled Asking, is forthcoming in April of 2014. Her daily blog is Calm Things.  She resides in Edmonton, Canada, with her partner, Robert Lemay, a visual artist, and their daughter, Chloe.

Apr 032014
 

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Why do we write? Why bother to write? I remember the advent of Game Boy, the beginning of the current culture wherein the signal gesture is eyes downcast concentrating on some hand held device, and thinking, well, it’s all over now. Readers gone, illiterate sons, no point. But then my sons grew up to be writers and one persists. And we started the magazine (so that now, when I see someone bent over a phone, I think, ah! another reader — okay, wishful thinking). But the question persists, always persists — why write?

Genese Grill, who in February contributed to Numéro Cinq her insightful and erudite essay on Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, herewith delivers an apologia (ancient form — nothing to do with apologizing) for writing, a passionate, persuasive, eloquent (not to mention well-written) defence of the realm of writing. Read it and rush to the barricades (or get out your laptop and start writing). This essay is the preface to a book of essays in progress. Genese (have I mentioned that she is an artist, also a scholar and a translator of Musil?) also created a room-sized hand-painted accordion book with one of the essays painted on the panels; we’ve included images of that as well (photos by Rebecca Mack). Because in this day and age, as we see over and over in Numéro Cinq, the word is art.

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When so many others have written before us, illuminated, explained, shown, arranged, described the world and human existence, when so many others more eloquent, more learned, more witty, more poetic have polemicized and preached about what is important, about how we must live, about what is wrong with society, with our lives, with our thinking, when the world is arguably in countless ways even worse now despite all the words, when it is even less humanistic, more materialistic, less poetic, more utilitarian, when humans seem even less connected, more isolated, even after generations of  writers have toiled to share their insights and to inspire to a better existence —we persist in writing, in feeling that writing might be a meaningful way to save the world, save our souls, to right the wrongs, make up for  disappointments, overcome alienation and despair.

In addition to all of these common complaints lodged against writing, there are even people who believe that reading and writing belong to a hopelessly corrupt past, that they are the tainted remains of a paternalistic Enlightenment attempt to control people’s thoughts by an elite which, the theory goes, misguidedly or even treacherously posed as reformers, teachers, fellow human beings. Such theorists, in the spurious interest of freeing mankind from the discipline, authority, and standards of the old world, have contributed greatly to the denigration of so much which makes life worth living. They have aimed—when they aimed at culture—at the wrong enemy; and if today’s citizens are more free than they were two hundred years ago, we need only ask, as Nietzsche did: free for what? To go to the mall whenever they please? To never challenge themselves at all? To live lives where natural and artistic beauty, reflection, relative silence, awe and wonder are present in only the scantiest proportion compared to the fragmented technocratic busy-ness and consumerism that has become the norm? Is there no other way to get free?

Are great books really something to defend against, to ridicule, to knock off a pedestal? Or have they not always, mainly, been a powerful force of liberation, often a critique, often a means toward humanizing, toward inspiring tenderness and compassion? Ironically, the great books of the past seem to have increasingly induced a sort of revolutionary fervor which has itself taught people to doubt, to deconstruct, to denigrate books themselves. The educated Marxist professor snarls at the great works of the past like an ungrateful cur or a parasite who has forgotten who first taught him the word freedom. Like Caliban, who complains that Prospero taught him language, the ingrate only knows how to curse the magic of culture. But poor Caliban, the reader may object, is Prospero’s colonialist slave, so he may well begrudge his master’s “kindness”. Quite right, my skeptical post-modern reader, quite rightly read. Yet who but Shakespeare taught us this?

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Now that people read so little it is even more difficult than ever to measure the “use” or benefit of writing (leaving aside for just a moment the all-important  non-utilitarian aspects of writing). We might even ask why, if writing is efficacious, it has not succeeded in ensuring a practicable love of reading in our society, where, apparently, the average person reads but one book a year—at most. If we really want to change the world, if we really want —indeed, even in a maligned Enlightenment tradition—to inspire reform, reach people, impart urgency, does writing a book make sense?  Who will read it? What will it do? Won’t it just be ignored?

Do words and ideas impact the world at all, or are we raising our voices like that passionate orator Mynheer Peeperkorn in The Magic Mountain, howling at the edge of a riotously loud waterfall, our words hopelessly drowned out by the spray and sensation of a force — in our case of media, convenience, technological  sensationalism, consumerism, novelty and speed—a force far stronger than all our dusty fusty intellectual intensity and our airy ideations?  Why do we persist in writing when writing seems sometimes to make so little palpable difference?

Do we continue out of a self-indulgent personal love of a way of life that has now become solipsistic or stubbornly antiquarian? Because it is what we like to do or because it is the only thing we know how to do?  Or can it be that the act of writing itself—yes, real writing, inscribing, on paper, with ink, for printing  in books that one can hold in one’s hands—is now something of a revolutionary act in itself, an act that is more than just an empty fatalistic last gesture in honor of some lost world?

 I wager that, yes, to write books, to read and treasure books and ideas and intellectual discourse is a revolutionary act (if somehow simultaneously reactionary).  I might even venture that one of the reasons reading is so out of fashion is not that it is boring and ineffectual but because it has the power to function as a sort of flaming conscience illuminating the “bad faith” of a general state of denial and a neglect of higher ethics and spiritual aesthetic values.  As Kafka suggested, a really great book is like an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.  Do today’s humans care to be thus destroyed, broken down, burnt up, challenged? Whether they do or no, it is imperative that we strain and strive to rouse to wakefulness whoever is still even the least bit conscious, even if it means pouring a bucket of cold water upon our fellow humans and, yes, even upon ourselves in  our most comfortable and ethically lazy hiding places.  To write is to challenge the negligent, disinterested, laissez-faire status quo.  Culture, in the coinage of my friend Stephen Callahan, is the new Counter-Culture.  We may not win the war, but we have no choice but to fight, or write, as the case may be.

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But let us return to the aforementioned non-utilitarian aspects of writing and reading. These aspects are inextricably bound up in everything which is to be gained or lost along the way.  Outside of the content and import of what there is to be said and argued and persuasively insisted, the experience of writing (reflective, committed, difficult, grappling, ruminative, essayistic, careful, aesthetic, emotional) and the experience of reading (in relative quiet, with respect to the considered ideas of another human being,  critically, with margins, with emotion and inter-subjectivity, with devotion) bears its own weight and its own significance in the context of today’s fragmented and casual society. In other words, the way in which we read and write is directly commensurate to the way in which we construct meaning and measure value in our lives, our world, our history, our future, our fellow beings.  Reading and writing are two very representative practices that demonstrate the essential dynamic relationship between spirit and matter.  Ideas and words, living and breathing in books and sentences, synthesizing, dissecting, and re-animating realities, influence and engender our physical world. By altering these practices or marginalizing them, we are, in essence, altering the very way we conceptualize, share, proffer, process and manifest ideas. Thus I begin with an underlying assumption about the ability of spirit to matter in questions of matter and in hopes of breaking internal frozen seas on an individual and universal level, one reader at a time, one tiny fissure, one tiny idea at a time.

Writers all sometimes believe that they have something new and important to say that has not been said in quite the same way and quite the same context as before.  Other times they fear they have absolutely nothing at all of value to add. Even our own “freshest” ideas are but reanimations and reworkings of mostly the same things that have fascinated us since the beginning of our personal consciousness. We think we have come upon something new only to find it in much the same words in a notebook from a decade ago. Yet the slight variations of syntax, the context into which we have now placed an idea, may make worlds of difference, may be the small strand of hay that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.  A small idea may be waiting, hidden in a large book, for the right reader, just like a despairing romantic inside a country house deep in the woods, with just a candle in the window, is waiting for a surprise visitor.

Something another writer has said may make us furious, or egg us on to verbally spar; we may be exhausted by received ideas, by the sort of questions which seem to leave only two possible and unsatisfactory possibilities as answers. We may think we know how to pose a new question altogether or provide a third or fourth answer which, as Cummings hoped, asks its own new question and so on and so on. I am reminded of the utopian visionary Charles Fourier, whose preface to his opus The Four Movements claims that he alone, finally, after so many centuries, has discovered the single most important secret to human happiness that no one, not one person ever, has even begun to imagine before him.  An outrageous, majestic, beautiful and absurd claim! Nevertheless, it is true that each new voice may add something invaluable to the conversation. Imagine how bereft the ensuing centuries would have been had Fourier not had the courage of his crowing and had kept his revolutionary ideas to himself?!  This French visionary is an apt exemplum of the way in which spirit works on matter, because his ideas were, in fact, directly influential on actions. The words that he committed to paper in a tiny room in Paris formed a good part of the basis of American utopian communities (like the late Brook Farm), even if a slightly puritan-tinged interpretation of his phalansteries and phalanxes left out some of his wilder and more improbable imaginings (the sea that would turn to lemonade, the evolutionary development of human tails, the benefits of unhindered passional attractions).

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On the train to Concord Massachusetts to attend a transcendentalist conference, I met a fellow scholar and we fell quickly into a surprisingly heated argument about whether or not the intellections of the abolitionist movement had had anything significant to do with the ending of slavery. This fellow maintained that all the ideas, all the writing, all the speechifying, all the newspapers and broadsheets of the period had really had no significant influence on the success of abolitionism  in comparison to that effected by the Northern soldiers’ experience going into Southern states and seeing the horrors of slavery with their own eyes.  While it certainly makes sense that this real life experience was revolutionary, it seemed rather odd to me to deny that ideas and words had contributed to changing things.  The eye-witness experiences of these soldiers were, in fact, written down in letters home or in essays for Northern journals; and other first-hand accounts, by escaped slaves, penitent owners, or in fictional accounts, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, surely crystalized vivid experiences into words, ideas, and theories.

Why then did my fellow traveler want so much for it to be so that words did not do anything, that ideas were ineffectual in history?  I knew why I wanted the opposite to be true. I needed, with every fiber of my being, to believe that ideas changed the world, for better or for worse; and he, whose dislike of Emerson turned out to be no accident, needed to believe the opposite. He wanted to take the power out of the hands of the educated classes, and away from the individual, self-reliant, supposedly elitist genius, and place it in the many hands of the illiterate soldiers, or into the slippery hands of fate, as Tolstoy tries to do in War and Peace, where he argues, implicitly in his story and explicitly in his essayism, that history is not made by individual choices or heroes, but by the random forces of accident.

But this dualistic split between the elite educated classes and the illiterate masses is, to my mind, a dangerous and largely unexamined construct that demands unpacking and re-visioning.  Is it really necessary to throw out culture and intellect because one portion of humanity has traditionally had a unique access to it? Would it not be better to work toward providing more members of society with the skills and the agency to critically consider philosophical, social, and aesthetic ideas and to participate in a meaningful and reality-relevant conversation about how we are best to live and function as a society? Anti-intellectualism seems to be a persistent American trait which somehow is inextricably bound up with the mythology of democracy. But is the vilifying of culture really a helpful response to our current problems?

My desire to believe in the efficacy of ideas and writing combines a commitment to the preservation of high culture and committed scholarship with a conviction that the realm of ideas and words should never be something to which only one class of people has access.   I am also certain that such culture is best, most lively, most meaningful, when kept in the closest possible contact with our real lives and experiences, not separated into mere abstractions or de-contextualized from social practices or the lives of others. I believe that almost anyone can learn to read, write, and think and that the insights and depth of consideration to be gained through the process of wrangling with the written word is a richer and fundamentally different process than that to be acquired through the more casual and relatively non-committal process of conversation (though speech might also meaningfully aspire to more careful and sacred consideration). I also maintain that almost anyone has the power to change the way the whole world sees and acts and lives, with little more than curiosity, some learning, and some passionate discipline, and that the words and ideas of any one individual can and do and will move others immeasurably.

In my years as a community college instructor I have seen with my own eyes how even those students with little to no academic preparation, students who are struggling to hold two jobs, go to school, and raise children on their own, can and do become immediately passionately engaged in the philosophical, social, and aesthetic questions which need to be considered before beginning to live a considered, ethical, and socially-responsible life. While it is of course easier by far to engage in philosophical and poetic activity when one is not under the constant strain of putting bread on the table or buying a new pair of shoes for one’s children, to thus conclude that only those who have easy access to leisure can participate in reflection, critical thinking, and spiritual aesthetic experience is really the worst form of cynicism—one which hides a treacherous snobbery under its supposedly compassionate condemnation of the alleged elitism of culture.

For to deny anyone the right or responsibility to participate in the communal reflection on and creation of the world is to me a crime. To do so is to deny that person his or her humanity. Instead of silencing further those whose concerns and ideas have all-too-often been traditionally undervalued, this is a call to innovative and  positive inter-action rather than continual  complaint about the restrictive and technocratic megalithic structures and systems that seem sometimes to confine and define us; a call to utilize the language and the raw material given to us instead of stubbornly calling foul and refusing to participate in a system, history,  and culture that are, indeed, deeply flawed and haunted by ghosts and demons of all kinds. This communally created labyrinth of oscillating desires, repressions, rebellions, resistances, and generativity remains, despite or even by virtue of its darker shadows, also a culture rich in beauty, humanism, tenderness, striving, passionate inquiry, imagination, and myriad evidences of the most ecstatic forms of life and love.

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The conflict between intellectual culture and popular action had of course been rehearsed before we 21st century humans repeated it on the suburban train out of Boston—by former now-famous Concordians. The transcendentalist movement notoriously split off into two factions comprised, on the one hand, of individualist thinkers and writers, and, on the other, of engaged activists and communal utopians.  But this narrative of a clean split is quite misrepresentative of the complexities and overlappings that really obtained.  Bronson Alcott, possibly the least grounded of all the Concordians, felt impelled to actually experiment with his ideals in the real world, and founded the Fruitlands community, which eventually foundered on an unworkable proportion between the physical and the spiritual realms.  George Ripley founded Brook Farm, which made a formidable attempt at bridging the gap between ideal and reality.  Both utopian communities featured excellent progressive schools and were fundamentally attempts to give working people access to higher learning and to give the all-too dainty middle and upper class intellectual the chance to get his or her hands dirty. Hawthorne quickly learned that he could not get any literary work done after a day’s toiling in the fields; but others found the combination of matter and spirit salutary if not precisely conducive to the creation of great works of literature. Finding the right balance of body, mind, and soul is never easy.

Hyper-educated “bluestockings” like  Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller (who claimed she had the headaches of a genius)  suffered myriad physical pains in their striving for intellectual transcendence (but Margaret, at least, finally ran off to fight a real revolution in Italy and take on her first lover, supposedly an Adonis with limited intellectual talents). Elizabeth educated herself prodigiously, wrote, edited, taught, and ran the most intellectually exciting bookstore in Boston, while simultaneously supporting and caring for a large and unruly family of siblings and various unstable and sick relatives. Her two sisters, Mary and Sophia, won away from her the only possible suitors she entertained (Nathanial Hawthorne and Horace Mann).  It may be difficult to measure the effect of her genius (despite her own share of headaches) on the real world, but I think, although largely unappreciated, it was not minor after all was said and done.

The abolitionists (spear-headed by fiery women strategists) kept spreading the word, with and without the intellectual authority of rousing speeches by Emerson and Thoreau; Thoreau built a real house in the woods, instead of just writing about an imaginary one, but scorned the jailers who tried to imprison his soul within the walls of the Concord jail one night (because his soul, his conscience, his mind was free) ; committees and clubs were founded; gardens were  planted; journals begun, printed, proliferated, and abandoned; walks were taken; hands were grasped;  love was and was not consummated;  letters were written and sometimes not sent; and, as Emily Dickinson cryptically noted from nearby Amherst, “people must have puddings”.

Bronson Alcott’s inability to take the physical world into consideration (exemplified by his comic attempt to move his family home without putting a foundation under it) was counteracted by his daughter Louisa’s intense focus on ensuring material security (with Little Women, she earned more money from her pen than any other writer of the period, with the possible exception of  Harriet Beecher Stowe); but her traumatic experience with an inept spiritualist father may have kept Louisa from ever daring to enter into conjugal relations with a man. When a visitor asked if there were any animals laboring on the farm at Fruitlands, Louisa’s mother famously answered, “Only one woman,” but of course there were more women than one: the daughters helped too.   Ironically, Louisa’s practical innovations were all in the interest of avoiding more physical labor by providing herself and her family with the financial support necessary to dream and imagine. In a similar strain, Thoreau began his peon to transcendence with a chapter entitled “Economy”—an economy calculated to afford its readers with a  model most conducive to musing, intellectual activity, aesthetic experience, walking and communing with Nature, the World All, and the timeless reverberations of morning moods.

The painted trays, quilts, and pies made by abolitionist women supported the more ineffable traveling lectures given by escaped slaves as well as the writing and publication of propaganda journals and the legislative process of lobbying and advocacy.  The theories and words of social intellectuals were answered by the actions of smugglers on the underground railroad and even more violent physical acts of daring such as the raid on Harper’s Ferry—or perhaps the actions inspired the words;  quilts and pies and gunpowder and risked lives worked in tandem with ideas, words, and ideals.

The idea craves and creates action and manifestation; the experience and the action are object lessons, rituals, or manifestations that inspire ideas and fresh conceptualization.  The experimental enactment is spurred on, checked, re-evaluated, and given meaning by the idea, the vision, the transcendental imagination.  Material choices are made on the basis of spiritual values and spiritual values must be made on the basis of certain unavoidable material realities. Of course there are times in history or in one’s personal life when actions may be taken that fly in the face of physical practicality and prudence, when a person literally sacrifices his or her bodily comfort, convenience, or even existence for an idea or ideal. For ideas and values that are not lived or have not touched and changed or colored our lives and perceptions may as well not have been thought or written down at all.

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We write in the hopes that our words could mean something to someone, somewhere, across time and space. Has Walden made a difference in the world? Have Thoreau’s words been heeded? On the one hand, when we see the mass of men and women in quiet desperation who prefer to go on with their accumulating and wage slavery rather than consider living a different way, his words certainly do not seem to have mattered much. When we see the persistent and total destruction of the ecosystem, we may wonder about the power of his statement:  “Thank God they cannot cut down the clouds”.  For, as if in refutation of a cryptic oracle, they (or is it even we?) really have managed this seemingly impossible feat, as clouds are visually cut down by skyscrapers, airplanes, and countless towers of technology.  On the other hand, we know “many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” as Thoreau himself noted in his chapter on reading.  We ourselves know how much certain books have meant to us, how they have changed our lives both materially (in terms of conduct of life) and spiritually (in terms of directing how we see the world).

Like the awkward anti-heroes of a fairy tale, like Dumb Hans or the Goose Girl, we write as if we were attempting to complete some impossible task against all odds. We are climbing the mountain of glass, separating the millions of lentils from the millions of stones, weaving gold out of straw before dawn, trying to guess the magic word in three days, and scooping the ocean out with a leaky thimble, day after day, decade after decade, on the chance possibility that some drop, some one word or phrase of what we write, will get through to someone, make us, make a possible reader feel less alone, confirm our own suspicions, solicit a response, an echo, a challenge, across the watery abyss.  And if it sometimes seems as if writing has made no impact at all on the rushing, raving world, let us at least consider that it might have been an even uglier, an even colder, an even more callous world still, without the absurdly Sisyphean labors of writers and thinkers who have constantly brought all their small weight to bear against the weighty downward slide, who might, in fact, be the ones responsible for keeping total chaos, destruction, and utter indifference at bay—just until now.

 If we were to let up at long last, give up, resign ourselves to silence — I dare not even suggest what might happen, what horrific indifference and simulated emptiness might ooze into every last crack and bury  us alive, unable to remember the slightest thing, unable to form sentences or consider our actions, unable to value, denounce, celebrate, or dream.  We may never know what nasty nightmare our often thankless little efforts keep at bay.  But let us, at the very least, write in thanks and tribute to those who have persisted in the past, against such odds, in believing that writing, that ideas, that visions and images, do matter.  One thimble-full of salvaged words, one pearl of sweat or salt tear, one drop of ink, made of belief, commitment, made of love of humanity, of history, of culture, and of nature, no matter how humble, no matter how seemingly quiet, inarticulate, or out of tune, no matter how seemingly unheeded, may be precisely the enlivening, moistening alchemical liquid needful to keep the well of inspiration from going dry once and for all.  Was it in despair or in hope that Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy counseled thusly: “Writers! Open the vein!”? Did he mean we had better end it all? I like to think, rather, that he meant we ought to write as if our own life blood, all our experiences, thoughts and feelings, were flowing onto the page, that we might die even in the midst of writing—in making visible and hopefully intelligible— whatever it is we have within us.

—Genese Grill, with photographs by Rebecca Mack

.G photo for BBF

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, and translator living in Burlington Vermont and the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012). “Apologia” is part of a collection-in-progress entitled, Keepsakes: On Matter, Immateriality, and the Making of Meaning. She currently is pursuing the mad task of possibly re-creating the world through metaphor by building and inscribing a giant room-sized hand-illuminated accordion book portal containing an essay from this collection, and by working on a series of translations of previously unpublished Robert Musil writings (to be published by Contra Mundum Press beginning in 2015).

Mar 182014
 

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In the heart of Tuscany the age-old rite of the hunt for wild boar rages long and lethal. Every Saturday and Sunday from November through January hunters converge in the hilly country spreading beyond the shadow of Siena’s Duomo. Men gather—no women in their number—with dogs and rifles, knives and bullets, walkie talkies and cell phones. Outfitted with modern equipment, today’s hunters are but a few in the long line that stretches back through the Renaissance and the Middle Ages to the days of Caesar and Odysseus. Ancient Roman reliefs depict boar hunts, while one tale recounts how the ancient Greeks baptized an island in honor of the beast; this was Kapros, now called Capri.

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This morning, to one side of Monte Maggio, or May Mountain, men section off fields and cassocks, swells and dips. They pull numbers from a bag, assigning post to pursuant. Then the fifty or more shooters, tiratori in their camouflage, wind through the woods. For kilometers they tramp, then for hours they wait in their appointed spots along one side of the drifts and dales, rifles skyward. When a boar draws near they shoot ahead, never sideways, where fellow tiratori hide. No friendly crossfire tolerated. Meanwhile, twelve canai, doghandlers with their packs of sniffing hounds and growling terriers, park their jeeps on the far side of the woods and set off across the expanse toward the line bristling with tiratori. Scouring and routing, the men and their dogs startle and flush the boar, propelling them forward.

Boar Hunt Underway
Boar Hunt Underway

On the periphery of this elaborate orchestration today: my father-and law and I. I’m armed with my camera and am tolerated only because my father-in-law is a hunter of long standing. “We don’t want to end up on the front page of the animal rights group paper,” his comrades say in jest, but just barely, when they learn that he’s brought me here to take photos of the hunt. Siena with its Palio where horses are often injured in the famous race around the square in town already attracts a fair share of unwanted attention by animal rights advocates.

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Today the canai’s dogs rootle through the woods above Celsa castle. The owner is an Aldobrandini prince who lives in Rome. Weathered marine pine line the avenue to the entrance. Someone has opened a couple of windows facing the sun. In the summer the castle is open to the public but now I wonder if the prince has come to his country estate for Christmas vacation. Or perhaps a maid is simply airing mildew out of the stony rooms on a bright and sunny winter’s day.

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Hounds howl and bark and then several shots ring out. One who has lost the scent emerges onto the road near the abandoned carabinieri station that once controlled the area. When Monte Maggio was a tougher place, three-quarters of a century or more ago, bandits lurked here and the carabinieri chased them. After that, during the war, partisans hid in the caves. The Black Shirts and Germans hunted them.

The dog runs in circles, nose to the pavement. A woman in a Jeep spots it. She tries to lure it into her vehicle with a length of jerky.

“Scandalous,” she says. “Poor dog could get hit out here on the road.”

My father-in-law suspects she’s part of an animal rights group. He thinks she’s trying to sabotage the hunt by rounding up the dogs.

“But I bet she eats meat,” he says. “Probably pappardelle with wild boar. Take a picture of her license plate.” Then he pulls out his phone and calls il duca—the duke—one of the canai. The man’s not really a duke; it’s a nickname he’s earned one way or another. I suspect it has something to do with his less than genteel ways.

“A lady’s trying to lure one of the hounds into her car,” my father-in-law says. “Over here, on the road by the carabinieri station. We’ve got her license plate number. But maybe you should send someone over.”

I can hear il duca cursing into my father-in-law’s ear. No run of the mill obscenities though; he insults saints and the Virgin. Then he wants to speak to the lady. My father-in-law passes the phone over. It turns out that il duca and the lady know each other.

“Okay, I won’t. But get it off the road,” she says into the phone. In the meantime, the hound has already run off, back into the woods, having found the scent.

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My father-in-law started hunting here when he was eighteen. Sixty-seven years he’s been hunting. At first, he hunted for hare and pheasant. He kept his own bird dogs—Jack and Tom, English names for Italian hounds—in a pen behind an old stone farmhouse. Then in the sixties when boar populations grew and overran the woods, he gave up Jack and Tom and turned to boar hunting. He loves the woods out here on Monte Maggio. He knows every centimeter. He comes when it rains, when it snows, when it’s warm and sunny like today. He’ll still keep coming as long as he’s able. He’s not sure how much longer that will be. He won’t think yet about when the hike, the interminable wait, the bad weather and the mountain itself will conspire to keep him home.

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He goes to the woods for the peace, he says, and for the camaderie after. But best is when he’s the one to bag the prey. You can tell when the boar approaches. The dogs’ howling grows loud, the brush and bramble tremble. You take up your gun and aim, but only when you see the boar’s dark eyes. If you shoot into the waving thicket you risk killing a dog. You face that beast—black and fierce and angry, ringed by thirty or more frenzied dogs.

I imagine the jolt. I think the hunter’s heart must whip like pine boughs in a windstorm.

“No,” says my father-in-law, “it’s not like that. At least not for me anymore. You feel a strange sensation, but it’s more wrapped up with blood and life, the ebb and flow.”

“I see,” I say even if I don’t quite.

We find a break in the woods. “Here,” my father-in-law says. The hunters will pass by on their way back to their cars, parked on the rim of the road behind us. “We’ll wait here. Then you can shoot them as they hike through.” He grins. He likes how we’ve turned the tables on the hunters. I grin back.

We wait. Then we wait some more. While we wait we pull ivy off old oak and pine. Bark flies, red bugs scuttle, the air fills with sap, the sun shines through branches in filmy snatches. “Is this what it’s like,” I ask him, “when you’re a tiratore? Do you tend to the trees then too?”

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“No,” he says. “Not when you’re stalking boar. You can’t make noise. You can’t smoke. You can’t eat. You can’t even pee. You wait ever so quietly for that one brief moment when you squeeze off a shot.”

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After an hour or more, we hear voices. Men surge forward. One short, chubby hunter, a middle-aged man nicknamed Smilzo, or Skinny, drags a small boar up the path. My father-in-law thinks Smilzo’s boar may weigh 30 kilos—if that. Since Smilzo shot it, he will get the ears, tail, heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and tusks in addition to his share of the meat which will be divided equally among all hunters present. “In Tuscany,” he says “no part of the boar goes to waste. Make sure you write that.”

We follow the hunters to their shack in the woods. They roast sausage and steaks they brought from home, drink Chianti and exchange tall tales. My father-in-law recounts how we rescued several dogs from an army of animal rights do-gooders. Listening, il  duca insults several more saints. Smilzo describes how his boar almost tore his leg off. Feroce, or Ferocious, a small man whose real name no one remembers, scoffs. Burlacche, or Wiseass, jokes about Smilzo’s small boar and how it couldn’t have torn off a toenail.

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Butchers gut and section the carcasses. Hunters light cigars, cigarettes and pipes. Hounds wait in small trailers, their noses poking out through bars. Two canai discuss returning to the woods with their dogs to look for a boar that someone swears is wounded.

My father-in-law’s cell phone rings. It’s my mother-in-law. She’s been keeping lunch for us even though it’s almost 4 p.m.

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“You get what you need?” my father-in-law asks. I nod. We say goodbye to il duca, Smilzo, Feroce, Burlacche. On the way home he tells me the menu. Polenta with stewed wild boar that he shot last season.

“Okay,” I say. I realize I’m hungry after hours of tramping through the woods. Eating the kill is part of the ritual. And my mother-in-law is an ace at stewing boar. It’s fiery and rich; red pepper in the sauce is one of her secret ingredients, a tribute of sorts to the animal itself.

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When my father-in-law and I first met, he wasn’t sure how he felt about having a foreigner in the family. I wasn’t sure how I felt about someone who thought killing was a sport. Over the years we’ve gotten to know each other. Now he’s warm and proud to show me where he loves to spend his weekends from November through January. And I’m glad to have had the chance to witness this chapter in his life, one that won’t go on forever.

 —Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy and the United States.

 

Mar 112014
 

Djimon Hounsou in the Julie Taymor film adaptation of "The Tempest" (2010), starring Helen Mirren as "Prospera." Hounsou also played the leader of the slave mutiny in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film "Amistad."Djimon Hounsou as Caliban

Pat Keane’s casual and encyclopedic erudition has become legendary on the pages of Numéro Cinq; he’s an eloquent magician who can pull an apt argument or a lengthy quotation out of his hat as if he were ordering breakfast at a diner. After reading one of his essays, I am always asking myself, Does he ever look anything up, or does he just remember it all? It doesn’t really matter how he does it; Pat’s years of reading and writing, his vivid recall of same, are his gift to us, his readers.

This time, following his essay on Keats and identity in our January issue, Pat goes after Defoe’s Crusoe (Friday) and Shakespeare’s Caliban, also Bloom, Coleridge, and Aimé Césaire, and fashions a dense, exhaustive (he rather cutely says it’s not exhaustive at the end, but you can see him trying to get everything in) and brilliant ramble through the arguments of identity criticism of, say, the last fifty or one hundred and fifty years. This is an essay bursting its seams with ideas and fine degrees of discrimination, a book-in-an-essay, as it were, explosive, wise and generous. And it all starts with Pat simply wondering why the anti-slavery Coleridge, who loved Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, never seemed to mention the fact that Crusoe is a slaver, odd oversight.

All this is fascinating to me personally because, of course, my novel Elle is, in part, a revision of Crusoe (like Crusoe, my heroine is an agent of colonization and she finds a footprint, first sign of the Other, first inkling that she is not living in a solipsistic, all-white universe).

One small thing that I admire excessively in this essay is Pat’s habit of clearly untangling influence and school of thought. In an essay about identity, he carefully parses identity and point of view (perspective) for each of his litigants. As you will see, he begins by telling you who he is.

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As we have become increasingly aware, we all have multiple identities, a plurality of affiliations, depending on context. I am a male white heterosexual American senior citizen of Irish heritage fascinated by literature in the Romantic tradition, the racehorse Secretariat, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, film noir, women with aquiline noses, and the absurdity not only of the excesses of political correctness but of the even greater excesses of the extremist wing of the contemporary Republican Party. These and similar “identities” are mostly benign, overlap with little or no friction, and are subsumed within my sense of shared membership in the human race. The danger comes when affiliations become exclusionary and fanatic, and thus subject to ideological manipulation. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, who personally experienced the transformation of “within-group solidarity” into “between-group discord” during the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1940s India, demonstrates, in Identity and Violence (2006), how, in this and similar cases, “Violence is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people, championed by proficient artisans of terror” (2).

“Identity politics,” whether in the form addressed by Sen (a sectarian Islamist violence we now see threatening much of the Greater Middle East, Africa, and beyond), or in its less lethal but still problematic and potentially destructive electoral forms, is distinguishable from but often necessarily overlaps with religious, sexual, cultural, and racial “identity.” Our gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and race, though they need not be wholly determinative, obviously play an enormous role both in how we conceive of ourselves and how we respond to the world around us. That world includes, along with the sociopolitical realm, the world of art: the world artists create or reshape, and the art to which the rest of us respond.

The past four decades or so have witnessed the rise of “cultural studies,” in which attention has been focused on works marginalized or excluded by the dominant political and aesthetic ideology: white, male, and European. The more recent marriage of “new historicism,” “multiculturalism,” “postcolonial studies,” and “identity theory” has bred many books and articles urging readers, not only to expand their sense of the literary canon, but, in reading traditional canonical texts, to shift their sympathy, whatever the original author’s intentions, from the dominant to the subversive characters in literary works of art, especially novels and plays. The various agendas range from aesthetic “correction” through a humane rebalancing, to overt calls for political action to redress injustices.

Like traditional humanists, these theorists place the human subject at the center of the scene of writing, interpretation, and political action. However, the humanistic emphasis on universalism is replaced by an insistence on one’s identity as part of a specific group: as the member of an ethnic, racial, or sexual minority. In this counter-narrative to the “master-narrative” of Western hegemony and imperialism, the “subaltern” (suppressed, different, “other”) is privileged over the “master.” As early as 1950, when French colonial civil servant Octave Mannoni published Psychologie de la colonization, but increasingly in the wake of Edward Said’s influential Orientalism (1978), postcolonial writers and theorists have resisted both overt oppression and the more insidious forms of “internalization” that infect the very discourse of colonized peoples, upon whose indigenous culture has been superimposed the culture of the conquerors.

When I was recently invited to participate in a two-day panel discussion of “Identity” (the proceedings will be published later this year in Salmagundi), I found myself, now retired, casting a retrospective cold eye back on my professional life as a literary critic. When I did, I benignly envisioned a person—myself—attempting to be open and receptive, trying to discover rather than impose, even striving to be “objective”: an impossible goal, but one worth aiming for in the attempt to at least approximate what can never be fully attained. Though a practitioner of intrinsic criticism, “close reading,” I did not slight history and the sociopolitical world in which literary works were embedded. In discussing the great first-generation Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge), I always placed their texts in the inevitable context of the French Revolution—which Shelley, a second-generation Romantic, rightly designated “the master theme of the epoch in which we live.” No less obviously, in discussing in the classroom works of literature in which, for example, race or Western imperialism was an element, I stressed those dimensions in trying to illuminate the text. But in my published work, I belatedly realized, I had only occasionally engaged issues of race and identity.

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They did come up some twenty years ago in a book titled Coleridge’s Submerged Politics. Though my focus in that book was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I devoted some initial attention to Coleridge’s later marginalia on a novel he had loved from boyhood on, Robinson Crusoe, whose isolated protagonist was kin to his own Mariner, “alone on a wide, wide sea.” In  reading those annotations, and at the risk of swelling the ranks of poststructuralists given to scratching their knowing heads about “not saids,” “gaps,” and “significant silences” in texts, I was puzzled that a man on record as being morally, intellectually, and emotionally appalled by slavery and the traffic in human flesh should not only say nothing about Crusoe’s slave-trading activities but should actually propose him as the “Universal representative” of humanity: an Everyman whose actions, thoughts and emotions we can all, according to Coleridge, imagine ourselves doing, thinking, and feeling (Marginalia, 1:165-67). We “get” the gist of what Coleridge is saying, but it does not take a contemporary Identity theorist to resist the elevation of Defoe’s flawed Crusoe to the stature of a representative of universal humanity.

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Of course, those annotations were jotted down,  not in, say, 1795, when a revolutionary and egalitarian young Coleridge had written “On the Slave Trade,” his searing assault on the moral atrocity of slavery, the horrors of the slave trade and the Middle Passage. Nor in 1798, when he wrote The Ancient Mariner (in which for some readers, beginning with William Empson, the curse and eventual shipwreck hint that the Mariner’s ship was a slaver). He annotated Robinson Crusoe half a lifetime later, in 1830, by which time the former radical, no longer egalitarian though still an advocate of abolition, had turned culturally and politically conservative. Nevertheless, even given Coleridge’s socio-political shift, and taking into account the exercise of historical imagination by a sophisticated reader perhaps unwilling to condemn Crusoe and his creator for a sin more obvious in his age than in Defoe’s, I remained puzzled by the absence of even a passing reference to slavery and the slave trade. Of course, I realized that to push this theme exclusively would itself be a sin: a sacrifice of the splendor of Defoe’s achievement in giving the world an iconic book and popular myth that has fascinated children and adults ever since it was written. For Coleridge was surely right about a major aspect of Crusoe as “Universal representative”; though, in an age of specialization, few of us could match his ability to adapt, we all respond to Crusoe’s “practical-man” energy and inventiveness in surviving, even thriving in the course of his quarter-century on the island.

Yet I remained troubled by the seeming lacuna in the marginalia when it came to Crusoe’s slaving activities, as well as his subsequent relationship with Friday. After all, under all the shifts and oscillations in Coleridge, there seemed to me to be an abiding, and deeply moral, identity. I still think so, though the question of identity now seems to all of us, and certainly to me, far more perplexed and perplexing than it did twenty years ago. Back then I wanted to make a sharp distinction between Coleridge the political and moral Man and abolitionist, and Coleridge as a supposedly apolitical appreciator or literary Critic, sitting down to re-read a much-loved work of literature, a fable that had always fired his own creative imagination. Without succumbing to any politically correct urge to beat Coleridge about the head and shoulders for his failure to so much as mention slavery in his extensive Robinson Crusoe marginalia, I’m less able now to sustain that sharp distinction. Will the real Coleridge stand up? And he will, claiming, not without considerable justice, that there is consistency beneath the difference, an underlying identity. Yet that claim is more justifiable, and more palatable, in terms of his political shift than any Coleridgean claim to an underlying continuity regarding his shifting position on race.

Like his friend and “fellow-laborer,” Wordsworth, Coleridge always maintained that the French Revolution betrayed itself, and that their move from radicalism to conservatism reflected that Gallic betrayal. To employ E. P. Thompson’s terms, “disenchantment” rather than “default” explains their disillusionment and reactionary shift to quietism. That shift— accompanied by their insistence that the authentic agent of change was not political activism but the creative Imagination—will perhaps always inspire mixed feelings on the part of their readers, readers who are themselves politically divided. But it is almost unrelievedly painful to witness the regression of Coleridge on issues of race, from uncompromising advocate of egalitarianism and liberation to a defender, on the basis of pseudo-science and the need for societal stability, of white superiority. And yet, since he remained an abolitionist, there is still a continuum between early and later Coleridge, his identity somehow subsuming antagonistic perspectives.

Variations on that dualistic theme may obviously be found in many writers. I recently published in Numéro Cinq an essay titled “Keats and Identity: The Chameleon in the Crucible,” in which I try to reconcile Keats’s two apparently antithetical conceptions of “identity.” To name just three other peripherally interrelated cases: there is self-divided Sam Clemens/ Mark Twain, whose masterwork, Huckleberry Finn, at once reflects and opposes racism; that Mark Twain enthusiast, Friedrich Nietzsche, a relentless seeker of the very truths he did more than anyone else to undermine; and  W. B. Yeats, who found in Nietzsche a “strong enchanter” whose aristocratic brio, employment of masks, and “curious astringent joy” (Letters, 379) propelled the Irish poet out of the Celtic Twilight into modernity and political conservatism. Yet there is a continuum here as well, and Richard Ellmann was right in both titles of his pioneering studies: Yeats: The Man and the Masks, followed a decade and a half later by The Identity of Yeats.

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In brooding over Coleridge’s marginalia on Robinson Crusoe, I eventually gave up trying to bridge the gap separating the author of “On the Slave Trade” from the annotator who had nothing to say of slavery and the slave trade in celebrating Crusoe as a universal representative of all mankind. Some years after publishing the Coleridge book, in the course of re-reading The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, I found myself unwilling to follow the vast majority of Defoe critics who insist on another sharp distinction: in this case, between author and character. Defoe, we are told, was “ambivalent” about slavery and “ironic” in his fictional handling of the subject. He may be elsewhere; he is neither ambivalent nor ironic in his most celebrated novel. Playing off Coleridge’s claim that Robinson Crusoe is a “Universal representative,” I published an essay titled “Slavery and the Slave Trade: Crusoe as Defoe’s Representative.”

Interior of a Slave Ship. This detailed drawing shows how the “cargo” was arranged to maximize capacity.

There I argued, to the annoyance of some prominent Defoe scholars, that while Crusoe (as mercantilist and imperialist as his creator) may not be, strictly speaking, identical to Defoe, on the issue of slavery and the slave trade there seemed little to choose between them. Crusoe, newly engaged in slave-trading when he is shipwrecked, never, in his many years of hand-wringing religious rumination, thinks to attribute his calamity to the sin of buying and selling human beings. Nor does it occur as a possibility to Defoe, who, after all, had the option of enlisting Crusoe in another line of work. Though slavery and the slave trade become tangential once ship-wrecked Crusoe has been marooned on his island, they nevertheless, as Michael Seidel observed in 1991, “hover like something of a curse” over the entire novel (Robinson Crusoe, 106), re-emerging in a more benign but persistent and unironic Master-Slave relationship once Crusoe has saved from cannibals the near-victim who will become his Man Friday.

Robinson Crusoe, chapter 23: “At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know he would serve me as long as he lived…I began to speak to him and teach him to speak to me; and first, I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life;…I likewise taught him to say ‘Master,’ and then let him know that was to be my name.”

Though most Defoe scholars insist on their author’s double-mindedness on these issues, many who emphasize his ambivalence mistake Defoe’s criticism of the cruelty inflicted by traders and owners for condemnation of the institution itself. Writing in the 22 May 1712 number of his Review, Defoe had this to say about English slaveholders in Barbadoes:

The Negroes are indeed Slaves, and our good People use them like Slaves, or rather like Dogs, but that by the way: he that keeps them in Subjection, whips, and corrects them, in order to make them grind and labour, does Right, for out of their Labour he gains his Wealth: but he that in his Passion and Cruelty, maims, lames, and kills them, is a Fool, for they are his Estate, his Stock, his Wealth, and his Prosperity. (Review, VII, 730)

Having mistaken utilitarianism for altruism, many apologists for Defoe then compound the misperception by translating his alleged ambivalence into authorial “irony” when slavery and the trade feature in the fictional works, including The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and the later Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Whatever his divided, even contradictory, feelings regarding the slave trade (expressed, for example, in his 1702 poem, A Reformation of Manners, or in such novels as Captain Singleton and Colonel Jack), Defoe adamantly defended the trade in essays, especially the series published in his Review between 1709-13. He considered the slave trade a perfectly respectable business, bought stock himself in two companies engaged in the traffic, thought it indispensable to British colonialism, and most certainly admired the profits to be made from it. Most Defoe scholars notwithstanding, when it comes to Daniel Defoe and Robinson Crusoe on the issues of slavery, the slave trade, and white superiority, there seems less distinction, let alone difference, than identity.

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This remains essentially true even when it comes to Crusoe’s relationship with Friday: a relationship, in most readers’ memories, preserved in amber, aureoled by a soft, nostalgic glow. Though Defoe’s realism breaks through some barriers of racial prejudice and notions of primitive man, that breakthrough is severely limited by Defoe’s, and Crusoe’s, historical time and temperament. The “quest for the white man’s burden tends to end,” as Ian Watt remarked in The Rise of the Novel, “in the discovery of the perfect porter and personal servant.” The relationship between Crusoe and Friday, often touching, is hardly sentimental, and it remains as it was established from the outset. As a “first” step in communication, Crusoe, having let the man he rescued “know his name should be Friday, …likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my name” (Robinson Crusoe, 209). The iconic Crusoe-Friday image is that of the master’s foot on the bowed head of the grateful but abject slave.

In their Farther Adventures, in Lisbon and London, Friday is either forgotten by both Crusoe and Defoe, whose memory of off-stage characters is notoriously short, or is reduced (as in the lengthy and gratuitous episode in “the Pyranean mountains,” where Friday clowns with the bear for the diversion of the white folk) to a comic entertainer. In his final role as “white” interpreter to the natives, Friday, having returned with Crusoe to their now populated island after an eight-year absence, is in the process of becoming just another in a crowd of native faces when he is singled out for one last task by his master. Answering, as always, the call to duty, he dies—heroically, to be sure, but more in keeping with Crusoe’s requirements, “useful, handy, and helpful” to the end. He has, in keeping with Crusoe’s imperative, proven loyal “to the last Drop.” The Master’s characteristically restrained grief is focused on the loss of a valuable servant. Revealingly, with Friday almost instantly eclipsed from his memory, Crusoe thinks at once about capturing another cannibal as a substitute slave (Farther Adventures, 73, 74).

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The cost (cultural, emotional, and at last existential) to the perfect servant—never inquired into by either Crusoe or Defoe—has been imaginatively explored by such twentieth-century anti-Robinson French novelists as Jean Giraudoax, Suzanne et le Pacifique (1921) and  Michel Tournier, in Vendredi: ou Les limbs du Pacifique (1967), and by South Africa’s J. M. Coetzee, in Foe (1987); as well as by poets: Derek Walcott, in “Crusoe’s Journal” (1970), Elizabeth Bishop, in “Crusoe in England” (1976), and A. D. Hope, in “Man Friday” (1985). The most sustained reworking of the Friday-theme occurs in Charles Martin’s remarkable 14-part poetic sequence, Passages from Friday (1983), in which Friday not only speaks, but writes. And the sequence ends in an astonishing semi-fusion of identities between Master and Slave.

As we move toward the conclusion of the book-length poem, Crusoe and Friday together build a means of escape: a great canoe, wrecked before it can be launched. The loss of the canoe and thus of “Deliverance,” prove “1 Disaster/ too many” for Crusoe, who grows absent-minded, and given to wandering off with his jug of raisin-wine. On one drunken expedition, he falls, eventually succumbing to his injuries—despite Friday’s nursing and prayers, notably including a repetition of Christ’s words at the Last Supper, “Take ye & eat/ of my owne flesh in the Remembrance of me” (XI).  Martin may be remembering that Derek Walcott’s Crusoe, seen through the eyes of a descendant of Friday’s, is said to have altered “us/ into Good Fridays” who pray, “parroting our master’s style and voice…converted cannibals/ we learn with him to eat the flesh of Christ.” Having presumably (though we are never quite sure) reverted to cannibalism, a barbarous version of identity, Martin’s Friday, alone and without orders to obey, turns artist, carving wooden figures, both European and cannibals. But soon, suffering another and proto-Marxian crisis of identity, he grows alienated from the artifacts he has created, finding “no place for Friday in what Friday made; /then I was suddenly stricken….” (XIII)

First in feverish dreams, then in apparent reality, self-divided Friday, rigged out in Crusoe’s goatskin and hat, carrying “his Rifle & his Powder-Horn,” and “his Umbrella,” approaches that point on the island where his former Master had originally saved him from the cannibals. Friday is on a quest, but why and whither he cannot say:

For it was not I who set owt, nor was it him,
Nor was it the both of us together;
I know not who it was; but, as in my Dream
Of the Night befor, when I was neither

Master nor Friday, but I partook of each,
So was it that Morning. Whatever my Intention
I find myself walking on that Beach
to-ward that Poynt which I have earlier mention’d

and when I pass it by un-harmed, I collaps
upon the Sand    I lay ther in great Fear
for a good long Time   no savage Shapes
assail mine Eye   no screeching payns mine Ear (XIV)

Though, as the poem had confirmed from the outset, there is no hope of returning to his true “home,” Friday, at poem’s close, at last takes imaginative possession of the “inchanted Island” formerly ruled by Crusoe, of whom Friday would seem to have “partook” in more senses than one. Appropriately, his passing of the critical Point “unharm’d,” and his final assertion of liberation from savage sights and colonialist sounds (“no screeeching payns mine Ear”) signal Charles Martin’s thematically-related allusion to Caliban’s imaginative possession of his enchanted island in Shakespeare’s Tempest: his enjoyment of the sounds that “hum about mine ears” in the exquisitely un-savage passage in Act III of The Tempest, beginning, “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (III.ii.131-32).

Title page of "The Tempest," the first play in the "First Folio," 1623Title page of “The Tempest,” the first play in the “First Folio,” 1623

And Caliban knows the isle, knows it as his own. As he had earlier cried out to Prospero, his initial liberator become his tormenter after the attempted rape of Miranda, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother,/ Which thou taks’t from me/…Which first was mine own king” (I.ii.331-42). One might point out, accurately, that Sycorax originally took the island from Ariel, a delightful and freedom-loving spirit hardly likely to stake out, as Caliban does, a possessive, indigenous claim. Thus Caliban’s claim has merit; but while Charles Martin’s Friday takes possession of the island, Shakespeare’s Caliban will again be dispossessed, carted off with the others to Milan, where he will perhaps resume his interrupted tutelage under Prospero: a prospect less incongruous when we put aside for the moment his brutish gabble and recall the beauty of that speech which not only describes but exemplifies the beauty of the island’s “Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” Like Martin‘s Friday and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, Shakespeare’s Caliban has a touch of the artist about him. He will, to be sure, cut a very strange figure in Milan, but, as Shakespeare may hint in the final words he gives to him (“I’ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace”[V.i.294-95]), the half-human, even “demi-devil” Caliban may be both educable and, unlike the incorrigibly villainous Antonio and Sebastian, redeemable.

However we judge Prospero’s tone, he does say, “This thing of darkness, I/ Acknowledge mine” (V.i.275-76): an observation taken up and amplified by Aimé Césaire in perhaps the most striking of the many postcolonial Latin-American and African re-envisionings of Shakespeare’s play, one in which the cleavage between Master and Slave, Prospero and Caliban, is replaced by Identity. Writing in 1990, Stephen Greenblatt noted that it would take different artists from different cultures to “rewrite Shakespeare’s play and make good on Caliban’s claim” (“Culture,” 232).  He was thinking of the Cuban critic Roberto Fernandez Retamar’s Caliban and Other Essays (trans. 1989), and of other cultural critics who, contending with Shakespeare, choose Caliban over Prospero and Ariel. Greenblatt may also have had in mind, along with other postcolonial re-writings, Césaire’s reimagining of The Tempest in a play in which the identities of Caliban and Prospero are fused into a unity resembling yet different from Friday’s hallucinatory “partaking” of both himself and Crusoe in Charles Martin’s Passages from Friday.

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Like Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest has become a critical and cultural battleground, perhaps the most prominent site for combat between aesthetic and historicist readers. Exercising the hermeneutics of suspicion, many New Historicists depict intrinsic readers who insist on giving priority to what is actually there in a text—say, the text of this Shakespeare play—as both knowing and sinister: “hegemonic” reactionaries conspiring to keep the text’s “real,” if unintended, political meaning from being uttered. That “real” meaning, usually conveyed inadvertently by a politics-effacing author, typically has to do with the dominant (Western) culture’s sexist, classist, and racist suppression of its victims. Even more than Defoe’s novel, The Tempest has been the prime text for postcolonial theorists to insist on a shift of sympathy, whatever Shakespeare’s own intentions, from the dominant to the subversive character, from master Prospero to the enslaved Caliban. For decades now, The Tempest has been criticized, revised, and politically re-envisioned by directors, cultural critics, and creative writers. Last year, the Theater Department at my own college mounted a production of the play in which Caliban’s mother, the evil hag-witch, Sycorax, referred to but absent from Shakespeare’s play, was a central on-stage figure, the practitioner of a sorcery indistinguishable from Prospero’s!

Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban “The Enchanted Island: Before the Cell of Prospero” (Henry Fuseli, 1797)

In the case of The Tempest —its island set in the Mediterranean but reflecting Shakespeare’s reading of Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” and of contemporary accounts of shipwreck and salvation in the Bermudas—Latin-American writers have been particularly active pro-Caliban revisers, beginning with Nicaraguan Rubén Dario’s 1898 essay “The Triumph of Caliban.” (Two years later, Uruguayan statesman José Enrique Rodó identified Latin American culture with Ariel.) As early as 1904, W. T Stead had objected to the imperialism represented in the play and sided with indigenous cultures; but a resurgence of interest in anti-colonial readings followed Octave Mannoni’s influential Psychologie de la colonization (1950), earlier mentioned, which was translated more pointedly into English six years later as Prospero and Caliban. Most notably, Aimé Césaire of Martinique in 1969 rewrote The Tempest in his own play, Une tempête, adapted for a Black Theater, and first performed in Tunisia (where Alonso’s daughter Claribel became queen in the wedding that set Shakespeare’s court party to sea in the first place and so subject to the magical storm conjured up by his magus). Césaire’s Prospero is a white master, Ariel a mulatto, and Caliban a Black slave; while Echu (named for the Yoruba god) threatens to “smite with his penis.” In Une tempête, Caliban, unlike resistant but non-violent Ariel, is an advocate of revolution, a Malcom X to Ariel’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Declaring that “now it’s over,” Césaire’s Caliban rebels against the hated “image” imposed on him by Prospero, and finally threatens that “one day,” he will raise his “bare fist” against his Shakespearean master.

Aime CesaireAimé Césaire

In Césaire’s revision, a fusion of Western surrealism and his own vision of négritude, master and slave end up trapped on the island when the others have left. After many years together, indicated by the curtain’s being lowered halfway, then raised, Prospero appears in semi-darkness, “aged” and weary. “Ah well, my old Caliban,” says he, “we’re the only two left on this island, just you and me. You and me! You-me! Me-you!” In having Prospero suddenly think of himself and Caliban as indistinguishable, Césaire at once (as we’ll see in a moment) echoes Shakespeare’s play, and, as Joan Dayan suggested in her 1992 essay “Playing Caliban: Césaire’s Tempest,” undermines the idea that either the “original” Shakespeare play or his own  have priority. In his Prospero’s “You-me! Me-you!” fusion, she argues, Césaire “recognizes the force of mutuality, the knot of reciprocity between master and slave, between a prior ‘classic’ and his response to it.” This “labor of reciprocity” accounts for “the complexities of Césaire’s transformation: a labor that defies any simple opposition between black and white, master and slave, original and adaptation, authentic and fake.”

At the same time, Césaire, who, for all his postcolonial revisionism, seldom loses sight of the play he is adapting, may be recalling those lines already quoted from the final moments of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Indeed, Césaire’s “You-me! Me-you!” fusion may also have influenced Charles Martin’s later variation on the theme, when, at the end of Passages from Friday, the speaker-writer tells us that he is neither himself nor Crusoe, nor both together; “neither/ Master nor Friday, but I partook of each.” Martin’s Friday and Césaire’s Caliban might seem to flesh out, even fulfill, the reluctant concession of Shakespeare’s Prospero: “this thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine.” But Martin’s Friday seems to have literally consumed Crusoe, and by the time Césaire’s Prospero finally claims identification, Caliban himself has disappeared. The last word the audience hears—echoing and altering Caliban’s delusory and ignominious cry of “Freedom!” at the end of Act II of Shakespeare’s play—is the genuinely triumphant offstage cry, “LIBERTY!” (in Philip Crispin’s translation) or (in Richard Miller’s) “FREEDOM!!”—the distinctive Western value, as Orlando Patterson demonstrated at length in his award-winning two-volume Freedom.

The factors informing such rewritings—ethnicity, economics, social class, colonial history—are among the historical and perspectival elements that condition our responses to the world, and to texts. It is hardly surprising that some readers—politically engaged postcolonial readers of The Tempest, for example—will want to creatively fill in perceived absences and silences in ways that remold the text nearer to their own heart’s desires. In the Age of Theory, a poststructuralist era largely shaped by Nietzsche, most of us will agree that literary texts are not verbal icons hermetically sealed off from the world. They reflect and are influenced by the social and historical contexts in which they are complexly anchored, and they require readers, similarly influenced, to “actualize” them in what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls a hermeneutic or dialogic “fusion of horizons” (Truth and Method, 320). The danger is that in in “recontextualizing” a work of art, we may temporally limit it to its own, now “outdated,” historical moment; or that, in properly asking questions from our present socio-economic horizon, we will also impose answers on the past. Either way, we can hardy avoid inflicting aesthetic injury in the process.

Often, New Historicist readings, whatever their many illuminations, are closed monoreadings that risk losing the palpable poem in the attempt to recover sociopolitical realities the original author supposedly tried to evade. Marxian theorists—for example, Pierre Macherey in A Theory of Literary Production—insist that these silences and absences are inevitable, ideologically predetermined. Deconstructionists invariably find text-unravelling aporias; what many New Historicists must look for, and invariably find, in “privatized” poems is the effaced “public” dimension, the vestigial politics still lurking in the unspoken but no longer quite inaudible subtext. The claim that often follows, whether explicit or implicit, is that, having ferreted out these buried meanings, we have succeeding in “decoding” the poem, revealing its “absent” and therefore primary level of meaning—the interpretation having the highest priority. In the case of The Tempest, the admonition of Frank Kermode (one of the play’s two best editors, the other being Steven Orgel) is pertinent. Even when the political dimension is actually there, in Shakespeare’s text—however blind earlier readers seem to have been to the layer of meaning often over-emphasized in our own age—these relations, though they exist in the play, should be “secondary to the beautiful object itself” (Shakespeare’s Language, 300).

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In concurring with Kermode that our actual “highest priority” should be aesthetic, I am not suggesting a simplistic return to the art-for-art’s-sake school of rarified, Paterian “Appreciation.” In the specific case of The Tempest, I would not go as far as one of my own cherished mentors, Harold Bloom. Inveighing against the contemporary critical trends he dismisses (deliberately echoing Nietzsche’s famous condemnation of ressentiment) as “the School of Resentment,” Bloom declares: “Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the two visionary comedies—A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest—these days share the sad distinction of being the worst interpreted and performed. Erotomania possesses the critics and directors of the Dream, while ideology drives the despoilers of The Tempest.” These characteristically judgmental sentences open the chapter on The Tempest in Bloom’s 1998 study, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. He goes on to make it clear that he is open to such creative re-visitings of the play as Robert Browning’s remarkable dramatic monologue, “Caliban upon Setebos,” and W. H. Auden’s prose address, from The Sea and the Mirror, titled “Caliban to the Audience,” which, though “more Auden than Shakespeare,” catches, as Bloom acknowledges, much of Caliban’s “dilemma” and his “pathos.” What stirs Bloom’s Nietzschean wrath are the political reconfigurings I’ve already mentioned, specifically the transformation of Caliban, “a poignant but cowardly (and murderous) half-human creature,” into “an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter,” a move Bloom dismisses as “not even a weak misreading.”

Djimon Hounsou in the Julie Taymor film adaptation of "The Tempest" (2010), starring Helen Mirren as "Prospera." Hounsou also played the leader of the slave mutiny in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film "Amistad."Djimon Hounsou in the Julie Taymor film adaptation of “The Tempest” (2010), starring Helen Mirren as “Prospera.” Hounsou also played the leader of the slave mutiny in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film “Amistad.”

This condemnation is less political (Bloom is on the permanent Left) than an allusion to his own long-held literary theory, which celebrates strong, but decidedly not weak, “misreading.” From The Anxiety of Influence on, Bloom has famously apotheosized the “strong reader,” one who brings to bear his own personality, and reads the work of others above all to stimulate his own creativity. Bloom has repeatedly acknowledged that his theory and practice derive primarily from two exemplars: Emerson and his disciple Nietzsche. Emerson insists, in “The American Scholar,” that there is “creative reading as well as creative writing,” and announces, in “Uses of Great Men” (in Representative Men), that “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.” At the very outset of Ecce Homo (in the chapter “Why I Write Such Good Books”), Nietzsche claims that, “Ultimately, nobody can get more out of things, including books, than he already knows.” (He then goes on, perhaps “inconsistently” but certainly prophetically, to complain that anyone who claimed to understand his work “had made up something out of me after his own image.”)

This Emersonian-Nietzschean line of revisionary reading Bloom labels “antithetical,” this time borrowing his term from Yeats, who famously contrasts an italicized and preferred  antithetical to the primary; who called Nietzsche his “strong enchanter”; and who declared in his 1930 diary, “We do not seek truth in argument or in books, but clarification of what we already believe” (Explorations, 310). Bloom champions “strong” misprision (misreading), repeatedly asserting, from The Anxiety of Influence on, that “really strong poets can read only themselves,” indeed, that for such readers “to be judicious is to be weak.” Bloom’s dismissal is therefore all the more damning when he insists that the post-colonial reinterpretation of Caliban “is not even a weak misreading; that anyone who arrives at that view is simply not interested in reading the play at all. Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists—the usual suspects—know their causes but not Shakespeare’s plays” (Shakespeare, 622).

One of many sinister Calibans

Without rejecting it, I would qualify the indictment. Those “suspects” are reading the play, but reading it badly, allowing their political “causes,” which really are implicit in Shakespeare’s text, to become primary rather than remaining, in Kermode’s term, “secondary.” The stock of Prospero, that valorized magus and Shakespeare-surrogate of much of the earlier criticism, has fallen in the twentieth century. Postcolonial critics have charged that the admiration of Prospero so prominent in the nineteenth century reflected a willful evasion of crucial aspects of the play. Though Prospero retains majority support, his (often justified) harshness, always there in the text, has become more evident, both to readers and, depending on the director, to theatergoers. Having become more sensitive to the irascible, bullying aspects of Prospero, many have consequently become more sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed, subjugated, and always fascinating Caliban. Bloom himself describes Caliban as “poignant” and applauds Auden for stressing his dilemma and pathos. What Bloom resists is the determinism, ideological and theoretical, of the political readers and re-writers of The Tempest. For them, Caliban, suppressed not only by Prospero, but by Shakespeare as well, must be the play’s hero. Here, the return of the repressed takes the form of Identity politics, returning with a vengeance.

Detail from Henry Fuseli's engravingDetail from Henry Fuseli’s engraving

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It is, in general, an intriguing poststructuralist phenomenon that so many who theoretically pronounce texts indeterminate—bereft of authorial meaning, with text and interpretation alike determined by the inevitable linguistic gap between signifier and signified, by temporal limitations, by political ideology, class or gender bias—also, in practice, repeatedly claim to have decoded, “unmasked” or “exposed,” what is “really” going on: what a play such as The Tempest “conceals” as well as what it “reveals,” even to “correct” what has been “distorted.” As Richard Levin asked in 1990—cocking a mischievous eye in his PMLA article “The Politics and Poetics of Bardicide”—who is more guilty of what the indeterminists dismiss as “hubristic objectivism.” Is it those who believe that literary works are written by actual authors whose meanings (intention having become achievement) are there in the text, to be interpreted? Or is it those for whom the “hermeneutic vacuum” left by the Death of the Author must be filled by “a universal law” that “dictates what one must look for, and must find, in every [text]?”

I would add, in the case of The Tempest, what may be too obvious to need saying: that Aimé Césaire has every right to recreate Shakespeare in forging his own work of art, especially since Une tempête, as Malcolm Bowie noted in reviewing the 1998 Gate Theater production in London, “is not simply a new reading of Shakespeare but an original play of astonishing power.” But for the most part we are dealing with cultural revisionists who, having not found the political subtext of The Tempest adequately expressed, are compelled to “foreground” or “privilege” it in ways which—however creative,  illuminating, and even liberating—inevitably distort the original play. Both as an “immoralist” moralist and as a philological “good reader” able to “read off a text as a text” without “falsifying it by interposing an interpretation,” Nietzsche (going, in this passage from The Antichrist §52 and its original formulation in The Will to Power §479, against his usual insistence on “perspectivism” and “interpretation”), would approve of Bloom’s enrollment of such revisionists in “The School of Resentment.” For the crucial Nietzschean concept of ressentiment—stemming from the contrast introduced in Beyond Good and Evil §260 between “master morality and slave morality,” and fully developed a year later in On the Genealogy of Morals—has to do with frustration, psychological and political, arising from a sense of inferiority inseparable from subjugation. Of course, to again state the obvious, this is precisely what postcolonial “appropriations” of The Tempest set out to rectify, focusing inevitably on the subjugated figure that seems to embody both the plight and the hope of the victims of colonial oppression  To quote Cuban Fernández Retamar’s famous and defiant rhetorical question: “what is our history, what is our culture, if not the history and culture of Caliban?” (Caliban and Other Essays, 14).

Finally, in terms of the revisionist act of creative reading performed by Césaire in Une tempête: the philologist in Nietzsche would probably concur with Milton’s famous distinction in Sonnet XII: there are those  that “bawl for freedom” and “still revolt when truth would set them free./ License they mean when they cry liberty.” FREEDOM/ LIBERTY! cries Césaire’s Caliban. The cry is thrilling as an expression of belated, if incomplete, postcolonial liberation; but it “means” (not as a legitimate act of creative rewriting, but as a dubious act of literary interpretation) “License” in regard to the original Tempest. To be sure, as New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt remarked in 1990 (the year he borrowed from Caliban the title of his collection of essays, Learning to Curse), Shakespeare’s imaginative mobility, genius, and empathy enabled him “to display cracks in the glacial front of princely power and to record a voice, the voice of the displaced and oppressed, that is heard scarcely anywhere else in his own time.” If, Greenblatt concludes, “it is the task of cultural criticism to decipher the power of Prospero, it is equally the task to hear the accents of Caliban” (“Culture,” 232).

And that’s true, too. But nothing is got for nothing. One version of what Amartya Sen titularly juxtaposes as Identity and Violence is the textual violence that can be done, and increasingly has been done, to the last masterwork completely written by Shakespeare, of whose authorial death rumors have been greatly exaggerated. Just as he went against the prejudicial grain of his age to enable us to hear what is most moving in the speeches of Othello and Shylock, Shakespeare intended that we should hear the authentic accents of Caliban. But even in a play as mysterious as The Tempest, we can detect an overarching authorial intention. Intentional fallacy notwithstanding, an author’s intention is not dismissed even by such radical linguistic skeptics as Nietzsche and Derrida. The latter, founding father of deconstruction, refers to authorial intention as an “indispensable guardrail…protecting” readings from going over the cliff, into that abyss of wild excess otherwise sanctioned by his notorious term “freeplay” (Of Grammatology, 158).

We want and need to hear the accents of a disinherited and exploited Caliban, as Shakespeare clearly intended we should. But not if amplifying Caliban’s voice through the filtering ear-trumpet of modern Identity politics comes at the cost of distorting the play Shakespeare actually wrote. I may find more difference than identity between early and later Coleridge in dealing with race, and more identity than difference between Defoe and Crusoe on the issue of slavery. Though Césaire’s “Adaptation for a Black Theatre” may be “based” on Shakespeare’s play, we are obviously intended by its author to find more difference than identity when it comes to the treatment of Caliban in Une tempête, a revolutionary text that is at once an adaptation and a despoiler of The Tempest. We will be moved and instructed by both plays; but, in the end, we should render unto Césaire the things that are Césaire’s, and unto godlike Shakespeare the things that are Shakespeare’s.

N.C. Wyeth illustration of Robinson CrusoeN.C. Wyeth illustration of Robinson Crusoe

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Afterword

This brief essay, as personal as it is “scholarly,” makes no attempt at an exhaustive examination of the vast body of modern criticism that has focused on the cultural, historical, and political aspects of The Tempest. For those who wish to pursue the subject, the following provide excellent starting points.

The Tempest and Its Travels, ed. Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman (Reaktion Books, 2000), brings together specially commissioned critical essays on the play’s various contexts and intertexts; the volume also includes poems and visual images. Along with excerpts from Césaire’s play, the editors include excerpts from two other stage versions: Raquel Carrió and Flora Lauten’s Otra Tempestad, put on at The Globe (London) in 1998, and Tempest(s), staged at the Terra Nova Theater Institute in Copenhagen the following year. Arguing against the dismissal of anti-colonial readings and “appropriations” of Shakespeare’s text, Peter Hulme insists that such readings and stage-performances “do, actually…speak to the real text.” We should “listen to them and write a place for them in Shakespeare criticism” (233).

In a study illuminating the “New World” aspect of Caliban, Hulme had earlier explored that historical context, discussing colonial encounters between Europe and the Native Caribbean from 1492-1797. See Hulme, Prospero and Caliban (Routledge, 1986). The origin of the figure of Caliban and his disparate metamorphoses in stage history through 1993 is expertly examined in Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan (Cambridge UP, 1993), and in Constellation Caliban: Figurations of a Character, eds. Nadia Lie and Theo D’haen (Amsterdam, 1997).

A year earlier, Jonathan Hart, going beyond both an ideal Prospero and a heroic Caliban, and attending to the play’s various genres, explored the interaction of the “political themes” of authority and rebellion (or freedom and slavery) with “the romance themes of survival, regeneration, and wonder.” See Hart’s “Redeeming The Tempest,” Cahiers Elizabethains (April, 1996): 23-38.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead, 1998.   

Bowie, Malcolm. “Island Infamy” [review of Une tempête] TLS (9 October 1998), 22.

Césaire, Aimé,  Une tempête, “Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest—Adaptation for a Black Theater.” Translated by Richard Miller (Online: firstyear.barnard.edu/Shakespeare/tempest/tempete), and by Philip Crispin (in 1998, for the Gate Theater production, and published by Oberon Books).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Marginalia, vol. 1, ed. George Whalley. Princeton UP, 1984.

____________________. “On the Slave Trade,” in Lectures 1795: On Politics and Religion, ed. Louis Patton and Peter Mann. Princeton UP, 1971.

Dayan, Joan. “Playing Caliban: Césaire’s Tempest.” Arizona Quarterly 48 (1992), 125-45.

Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. Angus Ross. Penguin, 1965.

__________. The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, in vol. 3 of the 14-volume Shakespeare Head edition of Defoe. Basil Blackwell, 1927.

__________. Defoe’s Review, ed. Arthur Wellesley Secord. Facsimile Text Society, 22 vols. Columbia UP, 1938.

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak. Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar” and “The Uses of Great Men” (Introduction to Representative Men ), both in Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. Library of America, 1983.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. [1960] Seabury Press, 1975.

Greenblatt, Stephen , “Culture,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, pp.225-32. U of Chicago P, 1990.

________________.  Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. Routledge, 1990.

Keane, Patrick J.  Coleridge’s Submerged Politics. U of Missouri P, 1994.

_____________.  “Slavery and the Slave Trade: Crusoe as Defoe’s Representative,” in Critical Essays on Daniel Defoe, ed. Roger D. Lund, pp. 97-120. G. K. Hall, 1997.

Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2000.

Levin, Richard. “The Poetics and Politics of Bardicide.” PMLA 105 (1990): 491-502.

Mannoni, Octave. Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. Praeger,1956.

Martin, Charles. Passages from Friday. Abbatoir Press, 1983.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. pp. 565-660. Viking Press, 1968.

________________. The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. Random House, 1967.

Retamar, Fernández. Caliban and Other Essays, trans. Edward Baker. Minneapolis, 1989.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest, Arden Edition, ed. Frank Kermode. Routledge, 1964.

__________________. The Tempest, Oxford Edition, ed. Steven Orgel. Oxford, 1987

Seidel, Michael, “Robinson Crusoe”: Island Myths and the Novel. Twayne, 1991.

Sen, Amartya, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Norton, 2006.

Stead, W. T. “First Impressions of the Theatre.” Review of Reviews (October, 1904): 360-67.

Thompson, E. P. “Disenchantment or Default: A Lay Sermon” [1969], reprinted in Thompson, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age. Free Press, 1997. pp. 33-74.

Walcott, Derek, The Gulf: Poems by Derek Walcott. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. University of California Press, 1957.

 Yeats, W. B. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade. Rupert Hart-David, 1954.

__________. Explorations. Macmillan, 1963

 — Patrick J. Keane

Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and 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).

 

Mar 032014
 

Kay

Kay Henry was also a student in that (now famous) cnf workshop during the winter Vermont College of Fine Arts residency (see my introduction to Melissa Matthewson’s essay yesterday) in January. Both Kay and Melissa responded to the writing prompt: think of lists as a device, as a structure, and read Leonard Michaels’s story “In the Fifties” as a prompt. My co-leader, Patrick Madden, and I were both interested in nudging students away from narrative and into a focus on form. As Viktor Shklovsky, the great Russian Formalist, said, art is a device; literary writing is content filtered through a set of structures. Proto-writers tend to have one structure firmly and somewhat unconsciously (to them it appears intuitive) fixed in their minds. It’s fun and enlightening to try a different form; sometimes the effect is like a lightning bolt.

Kay Henry’s essay, “In Dubai,” hews, in tone and sentence structure, to the Michaels’ model. She throws in a nice list in the third sentence (suddenly we’re in the land of detail piled upon detail). She eschews narrative connectors and simply presents a series of quick mini-stories. The stories are about people, the surprise and warmth of contact. In a brief space, she describes the human relationships that give the lie to the stereotypes and the racist assumptions that litter public debate.

dg

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In Dubai we belonged to the 85%. Only 15% of the population was Emirati. The rest came from South Asia, mostly; also the Philippines, and a few from other Gulf countries, Europe, and Australia. Not many were Americans. The high-end malls were peopled by shoppers in saris, kurtas, robes, jeans, full burkas, business suits, tank tops, sundresses, shorts, sweatsuits, and, at the indoor ski slope, parkas. Once on the beach near the sail-like Burj al Arab hotel, I walked by a woman in a full black abaya, complete with face veil, standing in conversation with a blond woman in a string bikini. The blond was smiling. The veiled woman pointed to something in the water. The blond shaded her eyes to look and nodded her head.

My husband Nas speaks fluent Arabic, but most people on the street and in shops did not. More spoke Hindi than English. Still, we figured out how to rent a house, set up utilities and phone service, and pick up mail at the Post Office.

Zayed University gave us a furniture allowance. We frequented sales in the homes of departing expats and bought heavy armoires and a chest of drawers carved with camels and painted gold. We felt like newlyweds.

At first my students all looked alike in their nearly-identical black robes. I tried to identify them by handbags and jewelry, but they all had several handbags and a lot of jewelry. After six months, I knew them all, and could recognize even the veiled ones, even across the courtyard.

I bought liquor at a government shop behind a blank storefront, browsing the dark aisles with my cart and, at the register, presenting my state-issued liquor permit to the Filipina check-out girl.  I was allowed 40 litres a month.

I walked the dog in the early morning as the muezzins sounded the first calls to prayer. Workers in white kurtas rode their bicycles to the mosques, gliding by soundlessly, half asleep. Sometimes thick fog covered the desert.

One student invited me to a family wedding. The women and men celebrated in separate rooms, and the band was on a stage in the middle, hidden by curtains so the performers couldn’t see the women. The women took off their abayas and danced in their jeweled dresses. A young woman in a tight beaded gown, hair in an up-do and make-up thick and precise, came toward me and kissed me three times on my right cheek. I didn’t know her. Then I did: it was my student, dressed for a party, not for school.

The founder of the country, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, died during Ramadan. His citizens mourned, truly mourned. The government shut down for three weeks. Not many months later, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, died in Australia of a heart attack. Once again, the people were in deep mourning. “This is new to us,” an Australian colleague told a local woman in our office. “We hate our leaders.” George W. Bush was in his second term as President.

We got time off for all the Muslim holidays: the Prophet’s birthday, the Prophet’s ascension, National Day, the Eid holiday following Ramadan, and 8 weeks off in the summer. At Christmas, hotels erected lavish trees and choirs sang carols from the balconies.  We worked on Christmas Day.

Nas negotiated with purveyors in the gold souk, noting the posted market price per gram, weighing his possible purchases on the jeweler’s scale, and rarely paying more than 5% above the cost of the metal no matter how ornate the workmanship. Sometimes this required repeated visits. He bought me earrings and necklaces and a new wedding band early in our stay, before the price of gold rose nearly 20-fold, so high that even the wealthy locals were complaining. We became friends with a jeweler in the Sharjah souk, 11 miles away. Altaf would load his briefcase with gold and diamonds and come to Dubai once a week to inspect his workshop, walking through the crowded lanes of the old city as if he carried a sack of cabbages instead of a fortune in jewels.  The streets were safe then.

We hired a maid and a gardener. We didn’t need either, and we didn’t pay them very much. Our maid, Mala, taught me to cook fiery Sri Lankan dahl into which she would crumble handfuls of dried chilis.  Our gardener spread a vile-smelling paste on the ground between the bougainvillea plants. “Municipality fertilizer,” he said. Raw sewage, I thought.

I fell in love for a while with a date farmer whose fringed dark eyes regarded me frankly from beneath his keffiyeh. I found milkweed on his farm and he told me the butterflies liked it. The milkweed made me homesick and I fell in love with the man who understood why. We never touched, not even when he brought me a parting gift of dates.

On the day my husband and I left Dubai I took a book about dogs to the 12-year-old Emirati boy who lived down the street. He was afraid of dogs until he met ours. I handed the book to the family’s maid, the same one who fed the boy platefuls of fat white macaroni in the late afternoon. Often when I walked by, he would put down his plate and come to pet the dog, careful to extend his hand first as I had taught him.

We arrived in New York and drove in a rented van across the country to Missouri. The second night, while passing through Ohio, we saw a camel silhouetted against the setting sun. We really did, both of us. For weeks after our return, the headlines warned of Dubai Ports World and their bid to take over the management of six U.S. shipping hubs, previously run by the British. Debate raged over whether our national security would be compromised. The Emirates had become an enemy. People said to me, “You got home just in time” and “Wasn’t it awful being a woman over there?” And especially, “You must be so happy to be back where it’s safe.” On television, members of Congress detailed the horrors of what would happen if “the Arabs” took over our ports. In my living room, friends admired my gold jewelry, but asked no questions about my students.

—Kay Henry

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Kay Henry studied French and English literature in college and then embarked on a long, left-brained career in executive education.  She recently retired as Associate Dean at Washington University’s Olin Business School.  Her profession enabled her to travel widely, and she has lived and worked in France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.  Kay and her husband Nas divide their time between Missouri and Spain. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

Mar 022014
 

Photo on 2-19-14 at 1.35 PM
During the last winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Patrick Madden and I co-led a creative nonfiction workshop. Besides the usual group discussion of a student manuscripts, we found time to do some teaching as well, focusing on trying to nudge the class away from the general student obsession with narrative, with just getting the true story down. We tried to get them to think about something else while they were writing, things like technique, genre, and tradition. In the first (of six) workshops, we talked briefly about the use of lists in composition (lists in sentences, lists in paragraphs, and list as structural devices). Then we directed the class to read Leonard Michaels’s short story “In the Fifties,” an autobiographical story (might as well have been called an essay), plotless, apparently, a list of events and characters he met. Then we invited the students to write an imitation, or at least use the idea of a list and the Michaels story as a springboard for launching themselves into their own material.

After a week, in the last workshop, the students read out their  essays, cobbled together in a few days interrupted by workshops, lectures, readings and revelery. The results were spectacular, beyond expectation (it was an unusual class to begin with). Two seemed eminently publishable. Today I am publishing the first (the second, Kay Henry’s “In  Dubai,” is here), “Ten Ways to Leave” by Melissa Matthewson, a lovely, poignant evocation of a relationship in the leaving of it, charmingly written, rich with detail (in so brief a piece), startling  and profound in its emotional honesty. And, of course, you can barely see the influence. Such is the nature of influence; good writers take an influence and make it their very own thing.

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I.

She could go out the back door and down through the yard marked about in roses with hips and the overgrown grass, the juniper slope, the limestone soil and past the jungle gym where the children play out their dreams of kings and queens and kingdoms ruled with swords, fire, dragons, and sometimes happy endings.

II.

She hears a story one afternoon and can’t forget the image of a woman walking the highway at night, alone, having left her husband standing in the parking lot of a store where he has chosen smoke instead of love and so she thinks she could leave with that same kind of drama: treading the turnpike while he watches her from a convenient store window, the road spread out before him like a long strung out piece of thread that will unravel the more you fuss with it, the more you tear at it with your fingers.

III.

She could go while he is sleeping, but she thinks that would be unfair and doesn’t he deserve just a little bit of reason? If she did leave that way, she could sit on the bed first, the children sleeping in the other room, and watch his chest swell to the night, put her hand on his mouth, see every part of him move in dreams or nightmares, something she’s never done, never even been curious about, which makes her wonder. So maybe when the ice thaws, she’ll sneak from the bed tiptoeing through the house to the door and exit into a landscape of disquiet, apprehensive of the choice to go, but surely confident in the fantasy she holds in her mind.

IV.

She left him once for Montana, driving up the north highway and over the mountains into the snow and that was it for awhile. She lived alone in a new place and she thought this was life chosen well, but she missed him remembering when they drank beer on porches while watching cars and bicycles and stars heavy with sky. From there, she went on talking to her sheets at night, grabbing the pillow for his absence.

V.

Maybe they could go for a hike, climb to the top of a mountain and look out from there, the way they did with their children once, the spread of all that grass and rock and peak, the wildflowers just then a new thing. They ate lunch: cheese, chocolate, salami, crackers. On top of that mountain, the wind picked up and it blew their children’s hair and they pointed their fingers to their house in its blue painted wood, just over the three ridges to the west where they could barely make out its slant and hold in the distance. They picked ticks from their hair because they lay in the grass laughing at the sky and it was spring remember. Yes, she thinks they could go for a hike and she could leave him there with the children on the mountain. She could remember him cutting cheese into slices on his knee listening for any movement in the manzanita.

VI.

Or maybe that’s too dramatic. Maybe they should just be straight about it—sit on the couch together over coffee, or more likely, a drink: bourbon, ginger, bitters, a little lemon, the kind she always makes for him in a small glass with ice. She might sit with him and look out the window and over all that they’ve done together, everything they’ve created, and still know it is all lost to the past anyway. Maybe she would cry. Maybe he would too. Or maybe there would be no tears. Maybe they would have used up everything they had in the build-up to that moment, so that at that point, the fatigue of a relationship overcomes them and they are quiet in their chairs in that room when the shadows take over the floors and the walls and all that is heard is the empty burden of what is absolute then: the love having gone a long time ago slipped from them when they weren’t paying attention.

VII.

She could remember how they never did take a honeymoon. She could remember how they watched a sunset over the water in Baja one time when they thought they knew love. She could go like a butterfly. Or the coyote they saw in a field, trotting in from a distance and surely the postman would stop in his wagon if he came along. They watched from the car, the animal poised in dangerous pursuit of its prey, all of it in the last flicker of day until the coyote ran up into the frustrated hills without dinner, without anything to take his hunger away.

VIII.

Or she could remember how they left Homer’s tomb one morning in Greece, the Aegean spread out behind them like a blue map made up of what they couldn’t know. She could remember how they brushed their teeth on his grave. She could remember how they spit. She could remember how they held hands. She guesses that staying is a probability because of just these memories, that story, those moments. She considers their weighted history over and over again and really, she thinks the complicated details of leaving are the only things that keep her there still. It’s the mechanics, she’ll say.

IX.

She thinks then about the train she once took through France, through Switzerland, through Spain. She rode the early rail and left him in Brussels, though she lingered in the entry to the hostel before she left, sat down on the couch, pulled him to her, let his head fall into her lap, their cheeks flushed from pints of beer. He walked her to the station through a storm and when he left, she sat on the depot floor wishing for coffee and one last night next to him in bed naked and in love. She can’t recall that feeling now. She can’t conjure it in this tired, cold place of leaving.

X.

She could leave by writing the departure. Maybe that’s the best way. Like here. There could be any number of scenes: stomping out of the restaurant throwing her napkin on the floor; sneaking out through the window too late when another man waits in an idling car; running away as if in pursuit chased by children or thieves or…; in the car early in the morning with just the sprinklers and newspaper man; or a surprise retreat when he returns from an errand, the house packed up, or just her things packed up, the door slightly ajar, her coat waiting on the couch, hands fumbling with the zipper of her sweater or her earrings and she thinks perhaps this is the most obvious choice, the most conventional and unoriginal of all departures, the one and only way she can retreat and leave behind the safest thing she’s ever had, this story that was never supposed to end in this way, at this point, in this now.

—Melissa Matthewson

Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in TerrainUnder the Gum Tree, Literary Mama, Prime Number, Hothouse, and Camas, among other publications. She holds an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

Feb 142014
 

sl, bird dog pete and sharptail, Montana

On Valentine’s Day, of all days, a beautiful, yes, and uncannily disturbing short essay from Contributing Editor Sydney Lea that approaches the sex & death theme not in any trite pop-phil way, no, but in the way of poetry, juxtaposing two porcupines fucking (oh, man, the teeth chattering of two porcupines going at it) and the author’s rage and also the author’s own youthfully naive “savage romance” and the squalid death and the Wagnerian rise of “the deafening whistles of great churning trains; the shrieks of taloned raptors; the clamor of enraged men” at the end. Life is savage and strange. Something here of the ancient hunting myths: you kill (out of rage, out of necessity) and call down the curses of the dead upon your head for you have stretched your hand into the bitter lands. But brief, flashing, language that explodes. Also a story of love gone tragically bad.

May I draw your attention to Syd’s new author photo, which delights me. Author, gun, bird and dog. Bird dogs come into the essay. Ekphrasis. (Well, almost.) The author’s essays on bird hunting and dogs are among the best pieces of nature writing/observation I have ever read.

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I hesitated, doubtful I really wanted to learn just what that racket could be, mere yards into the woods behind our house. Hilarity seemed to blend with loud despair in that caterwaul, a mix somehow expressive, though of what I couldn’t have said.

Uncanny. The word flew into my thoughts unbidden. Once you dig up its roots, of course, it really means nothing more than unknown, yet in common usage it often holds some hint of horror.

I longed to go indoors, unhorrified, where fall’s first fire waited in the woodstove. Now that the house had lost its children, I looked forward as well to a romantic, last-of-the-workweek meal with my wife. I wanted to get away from … what? a windigo? a lycanthrope? a djinn? Nothing ordinary, at all events. I couldn’t associate that clamor with any local fauna, which I’d always thought I knew so thoroughly.

My flashlight found two forms, not big, not small, the size perhaps of new fawns, but far darker–dark as dark ever was. I saw an eye-gleam, then another, and finally four, each the color of a coal: two porcupines, carnally clinched, hooting and cackling. I still can’t think quite how to describe those squalls.

My childhood hero Frankie de Angelis once showed his own eyes’ glint and, laughing meanly, proclaimed he wanted to die at what these beasts were so roughly up to. I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant, though I recall managing a comradely, pseudo-manly chuckle.  Frankie, twice my age, could knock men out. He could walk on his hands forever. He could do a back flip from a standstill.

A porcupine is not even good at climbing the trees that make up his diet, so these two looked awkward in their noisy act of sex. Or maybe just careful, as in the lame old joke. Indeed, they chattered their teeth and tittered as if their behavior were just that, a sort of petty farce.

But then they’d hiss like bobcats, or scrabble or bark. Graceless, ugly things. I considered the hours I’d spent over the past summer, pliers in hand, plucking quills from my swift but stupid bird dogs, all yelp and twitch and tremble, their blood flecking our mudroom. So perhaps it was simple rage that drove me now, though surely that’s too simple a description.

When I got a little closer to Frankie’s age, my very first sweetheart and I would chafe and scrabble at each other’s bodies, as if we meant to do each other harm. Ignorant, savage romance.

I ran to the shed, grabbed a shovel, rushed back, and clubbed that pair of animals dead. It takes some doing to murder creatures with brains the size of warts, and it’s not as though I wanted violence anyhow, only peace and calm.

As I quelled one set of noises, however, others rose to mind: the wails of sirens; the deafening whistles of great churning trains; the shrieks of taloned raptors; the clamor of enraged men. I heard them all, uncanny.

— Sydney Lea

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.

Feb 132014
 

Ronald JohnsonPhoto courtesy of Robert Glenn Webb, who writes: “It dates from 1984 and was taken by Mario Pirami (who died not long after) and was given to me by Jodi Johnson Panula, Ron’s sister.”

In the spirit of our Undersung series on the great-but-somewhat-unnoticed poets, Denise Low, former poet laureate of Kansas, pens here a passionate, erudite essay on the late Kansas poet Ronald Johnson, as she says, a second-generation Black Mountain poet, who invented a brilliant “cascade” structure for his poems. I love this essay for its close reading of the text, its technical expertise and for its consciousness of tradition and influence. It seems to me that unless you have read for years and studied hard the territory of poetry can seem dauntingly homogeneous. But an essay like this sets out a part of the map. It’s also a part of the map with which I feel an affinity, the San Francisco poets (I practically memorized Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiographical Novel at one point) and the Black Mountain poets (reading Charles Olson taught me about place and the economy of the parenthetical). I even brushed up against this world (which still seems distant) personally having once had the opportunity to interview the poet Robin Blaser. In any case, what I mean to say is read the essay! Think about the traditions, the landscapes and the form.

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In the mid-1990s I saw poet Kenneth Irby at the Lawrence public library, a brief encounter over book shelves, and he mentioned the Kansas poet Ronald Johnson had moved to Topeka. This was the first I heard of Johnson, who had just returned from the San Francisco Bay Area. This lumberyard worker’s son, born in 1935, is one of the most influential second-generation Black Mountain poets. Indeed, he and Irby (born in 1936) both were influenced by Charles Olson’s geography-informed poetics; Robert Duncan’s experience of occultism; and the synergy of the Bay Area during the 1960s-70s.

Johnson wrote one of the first and most influential erasure poems, RADI OS, in 1977 (Sand Dollar Press). For this project, Johnson found copies of Paradise Lost in used bookstores and erased words on each page to create his own text. He experimented with concrete poetry, and he wrote the epic ARK (Northpoint Press, 1980, and Dutton, 1984) in the tradition of Ezra Pound, H.D., and Louis Zukofsky.

His influence is considerable, and as his work becomes more widely available, it will grow. Peter O’Leary, his literary executor, has edited new editions of Shrubberies (2001), RADI OS (2005), and most recently ARK (2013). All of these are from Flood Editions. Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas houses the Ronald Johnson archives, where first editions and journals are available.

Johnson’s last work, The Shrubberies, has apparently modest dimensions, short poems of two to fourteen lines. Nonetheless, the collection innovates a poetic form influenced by botany and optics.

This last work, written from 1994 to 1998, is Johnson’s “own elegy,” his final project, written with full awareness of his own mortality (Naylor 507). He had returned in 1993 to care for his father, but within months he collapsed with symptoms of his own final illness (O’Leary 128). He worked part-time as a groundskeeper and handy man at a public garden in Topeka, and so plants were in his daily sight. The Shrubberies grew to “perhaps 300 poems” (O’Leary 128). The resulting posthumous book, “pruned” by his friend and editor O’Leary, is 125 poems, arranged chronologically for the most part (128). I am most interested in the optics, especially mirrored binary structures, in the poems. Binary couplings appear throughout the work, including life / death, natural / cultural, light / dark—“oscillation between light and dark” (Naylor 513)—and belief / disbelief—“stanzas of belief / strewn with disbelief” (Shrubberies 55).

Johnson does not declare his overall arrangement for the book-length collection of poems in explicit terms, and Naylor see the book as “a long, unfinished series” (507). O’Leary selected a poem from the middle of the manuscript for the opening poem, following Johnson’s own direction: “I have not altered the order of the poems in the manuscript, with the exception of the first poem, which is to be found in the middle of the manuscript. Although it was not the first poem composed, Johnson marked it with the marginal notation: ‘beginning’” (130). The rest is a chronological sequence, with some references to seasons and garden tours, so some temporal and spatial ordering do occur (O’Leary 128).  However, because Johnson gardened, I believe he set a master plan, probably in his mind as gardeners plot out their beds before sketching them on graph paper. Johnson structured all his major works deliberately, like the concrete poem projects or the RADI OS erasure based on Paradise Lost. His open-ended plan for Shrubberies is a deliberate if not closed system. He understood the organic composition of a garden and its imperfect symmetries.

The poem Johnson chose to open the book creates a template for physical construction of the rest of the book’s poems, at micro- and macro-levels. Here is the first The Shrubberies poem in its entirety:

mostly circadian rhythms
“and words to jointly knit”
a series of circumlocutions
eye in the eye of things
mirror cascade of asphodel
yet delight in spectacle   (1)

The most important trope is “mirror cascade.” This splicing of two similar but unlike things joins opposites—human-constructed “mirror” and the parallel term “cascade,” a natural water feature. This parallels how a mirror reflects a Plato’s cave dyad: flat cave wall reflection and its intangible and complex physical form.

The opening two lines set the pattern of balance between natural and imaginative qualities: “Circadian” references human measurement of daily cycles, in latinate vocabulary—Johnson used European tropes as the deep text within his writings. “Rhythm” is abstraction of time intervals, vague and unquantifiable. The quotation “and words to jointly knit” is from Richard Tottill’s description of Queen Elizabeth I’s acceptance speech for a gift, a purse of gold, presented in a public procession. This was just before her coronation, January 12, 1558-9. Tottill described the great woman’s rhetorical craft:  “. . . if it moved an extraordinary shout [from the crowd] and rejoicing, it is not to be marvelled at, since both the heartiness thereof was wonderful, and the words so jointly knit.” Johnson “jointly knits” his own procession through a rhetorical garden of delights.

Nature and culture interweave in the work and in this poem, with language as the medium. Johnson’s choice of “circumlocutions,” in the third line emphasizes speaking around meanings, as in riddles, and the concise poem-lets are indeed like word games. This set of poems is a “series,” writes the poet, not just isolate occurrences.

Next, the poet is the human “eye” or “I” or “aye” within “the eye of things”—and despite his dire health, Johnson, found affirmation, and indeed “delight,” through his inner- and outer-directed sight.

But most important are the last two lines. The “asphodel,” or white asphodel, is a plant associated with death in Greek mythology. Robert Glen Webb agrees that Johnson felt his mortality as he opened The Shrubberies with this flower symbol: “I’ve always felt the asphodel had the echo of the Greek Asphodel Meadows and thus his foreknowledge of death.” The spectacular spike-like asphodel has myriad small blooms, each with five sharp petals. Their translucent, white texture would reflect that hue intensely in direct Kansas summer solstice sunlight, with sap visible through the light-colored petals. The effect would be a clump of prisms, so indeed asphodel is a “mirror cascade.”

So the entire The Shrubberies cascades, one page after another. Poems are similar but not identical, like Kant’s mitten pairs. Johnson himself writes of his use of accretions and  bricolage. He described Sam Rodia’s building Watts Towers, as “realm of mosaic” and used it as a model for his deliberately built ARK (311-2). But cascading tiles are linked even more closely to each other than mosaic pieces. They have intentional overlaps and reflections of parts. They create a more liquid effect, like waterfalls. To emphasize this fluidity, the poet uses no line capitals or end punctuation, so the individual verses read as a continuous sequence, all parts of the whole stream. Poems were interchangeable parts because of their shared structures. Johnson did not know the final make-up of the book, but any assembling order would create his “cascade” effect.

The poetics itself is mirror-based. The lines have a binary, reflective quality within themselves, and the sequence from one line to the next is a continuum. This entire opening poem has a doubled quality, a mirrored symmetry. At each level—from line to couplets to entire poem—the composition is like paper snowflake cutouts, made by folding paper in half to create repeated patterns. This initial poem has three beats to the line, asymmetrical, with perhaps the fold in the middle of the line.

Match-ups within lines are: “circadian” and “rhythms”; “’words’” and “’knit’”; “series” and “circumlocutions”; “eye” and “eye of things”; “mirror cascade” and “asphodel”; “delight” and spectacle.” The pairs repeat each other, and the lines, one after another, re-contextualize the ideas and sounds of the line before. Lines one, three, and five, use latinate terms—circadian, circumlocution, “cascade of asphodel.”Even-numbered lines two and four have one-syllable Anglo Saxon words like “words,” “knit,” “eye,” and “things.” The poem ends with a rhyming couplet, end-words being “asphodel” and “spectacle.” Latinate and Anglo Saxon words balance in the first four lines, and the ending couplet is its own sets of more cultivated Graeco-Roman-based words.

Another couplet illustrates this bisymmetry, not quite half-way through the collection: “a plummet depth / death plumed / heights prized / into Empyrean” (60). Here deep earth—the site of graves—couples with flames of the Greek heaven, where fire originates. “Plummet” is a fall, while plumes are agents of flight. Indeed, the next poem takes up the mirrored themes of human and natural, with the opening line “tigered orange & black / a gathering of Monarchs.” The themes of “spectacle” and royal procession overlap this as well.

And so the cascade moves forward, from one sight to the next, from one dance of verse to the next. The entire poem is overlapping, paired lines, stanzas and individual poems. Bradin Cormack describes the mirror-like quality of lines in a later The Shrubberies poem: “The way that one body mirrors another is an instance of the repetition whereby the singular moment or event is preserved even as it is woven into a complete and recursive whole” (521). Each poem is an individual reflecting tile, assembled into a spire of a larger aggregate. The model of the asphodel spiked blooms is both regular and irregular, an overlapping of natural and cultivated geometries. Kenneth Irby did visit with Johnson briefly, during the composing of The Shrubberies, and they had brief correspondence. From both Kansas-by-way-of-Black-Mountain poets I learn to look closely at each word, how each evokes etymological lineages, other imperfect and overlapping sequences.

Based on comments presented on the occasion of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library- Special Collections exhibit of Ronald Johnson manuscripts, 16 April 2013.

—Denise Low

WORKS CITED

Cormack, Bradin. “A Syntax of Vision: The Last Poems of Ronald Johnson.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 517-528.

Johnson, Ronald. ARK. Chicago: Flood Editions, 20013.

—–. The Shrubberies. Edited by Peter O’Leary.  Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001.

Naylor, Paul. “After ARK.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 505-516.

O’Leary, Peter. “Afterword.” The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001: 127-31.

Tottill, Richard. “The Passage of our most drad Sovereigne Ladye Queene Elyzabeth through the Citie of London to Westminster, the day before her Coronation, Anno 1558. Imprinted at London in Flete Streete, within Temple-Barre, at the Signe of the Hand and Starre, by Richard Tottill, the WWIIII day of January, quoted in John Gough Nichols’s compilations of  accounts of royal processions – 1837 – City of London (England) p. 57

Webb, Robert Glenn. Personal correspondence. 1 April 2013.

 

Denise.12.insight.blackdirect

Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 25 books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010; Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Sayler writes: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. A critical article on the poetics of Kenneth Irby is forthcoming from Jacket 2. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Rev., Virginia Q. Rev. New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time (rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), I-70. You can find Denise Low on the web at http://deniselow.blogspot.com and  www.deniselow.com.

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Feb 102014
 

Diane-Lefer

Diane Lefer’s essay about Northern Ireland now, in the after-glow of the Troubles that began nearly half-a-century ago, is a cunning amalgam of observation, intervention and charming self-deprecation. It reads conventionally enough till you get to the seventh paragraph where she writes: “Before I say more, let me acknowledge that everything you hear from me may be a load of shite.” At which point you suddenly realize that you’re in the hands of a world-traveler, an activist and a person who knows herself and her perspective. By telling the reader not to trust her, she manages to make the reader trust her (and like her) even more. Oh, such a tricky thing the language is.

Diane Lefer is an old friend, a Numéro Cinq stalwart (a member of what I call the unofficial masthead). She has written a series of essays for NC on subjects varying from abandoned nuclear sites in Los Angeles, to half-way houses for convicts to folk festivals in Colombia. And now she’s been to Northern Ireland. See also Diane’s essay about the Ballymurphy massacre families, “Hunger for Justice,” in the current issue of New Madrid, their special issue on The Great Hunger.

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If you fly to Dublin on Aer Lingus, you’ll see that Belfast, Northern Ireland—my destination—is listed as a city in Ireland, not in the UK. Taking the bus north, I must have blinked and missed the border altogether. There’s no checkpoint, no control. Quite a change from The Troubles that erupted in the North in the late 1960′s: 30 years of bombings and shootings. Loyalist paramilitaries killed Catholics, IRA splinter group volunteers killed Protestants and killed police of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and killed British soldiers who did their own share of torture and killing. Ordinary people were caught in the crossfire.

These days, the first time you realize you’re in another country is when you need pounds sterling instead of euros (though if you change your dollars at a branch of the Bank of Ireland, you’ll get perfectly legal pound sterling notes that don’t bear the image of the Queen.)

I went to Northern Ireland in October 2013 to join my frequent collaborator, Hector Aristizábal, and his nonprofit organization, ImaginAction, dedicated to the idea that accessing our imaginations and envisioning alternatives can lead to transformative social change.

Hector grew up in Medellín, Colombia, when it was the most dangerous city in the world. “Theater saved my life,” he says. While his friends in the barrio were recruited by the guerrilla movement, right-wing death squads, or the drug cartels, Hector found his gifts and a wider world through art. After arrest and torture by the military—but also after extensive training and practice both as a theater artist and a psychologist–he ended up in exile in Los Angeles where we met.

Just as psychotherapy aims to heal individual trauma, Hector believes that theater—a form of ritual—can offer communal healing. “Without healing not much social justice is possible.”

The past few years, Hector has offered theater workshops in Belfast and Derry to support peace building by bringing Catholics and Protestants together in joint creative projects. This time I wanted to be there.

Before I say more, let me acknowledge that everything you hear from me may be a load of shite. How does someone enter someone else’s world and in three weeks have the nerve to think she knows it all? Especially when that someone only recently offered a benign picture of life in South LA, including the ice cream truck that made the rounds through the neighborhood. Two weeks after that piece appeared right here in NC, I attended a community meeting where people complained about the ice cream truck that makes the rounds to sell drugs and guns.

This same someone once tried to say Thank you in the Zapotec language to the people who’d welcomed her to their village. Everyone laughed. My bad pronunciation, they said, resulted in my saying Monkey’s bellybutton. It was only years later, visiting again, that a friend said they hadn’t known me well enough in those days to be honest. It wasn’t a bellybutton, it was a penis.

So now that you know I can’t be trusted, let me tell you about Northern Ireland.

make love not war

I’m glad you’re reading this online. Too many trees have already died for the many hundreds of thousands of pages that tell how ever since the 12th century the Irish have tried to drive the English conqueror from their island. In modern times we eventually ended up where we are now: with the south as the Republic of Ireland and the six northern counties still part of the UK.

If you want a full history, please look it up. Instead, I’ll try to give a brief oversimplified account of what made the North different.

Irish chieftains in the North offered the most resistance to English rule and enlisted military assistance from Catholic Spain. To pacify the region–and we’re talking a long time ago, a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock (or wherever they actually made land)–England created the Plantation of Ulster. Land was confiscated from the indigenous Irish Catholics; Protestants from Scotland and England were settled there, trusted to be loyal to the Crown. The first plan was to get rid of the Irish altogether, but someone was needed to work the farms. Catholics were consigned to inferior status not only socially but by law.

Flash forward to The Troubles.

At last the paramilitaries began to demobilize. With the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the governments of Britain and Ireland along with the main armed groups agreed on basic principles that guaranteed Catholics in the North equal access to education, housing, employment, and the vote, along with a share of political power. For people around the world, including me, the 1998 accords represented what was possible. Northern Ireland was the model: in spite of hundreds of years of hatred, distrust, and violence, two peoples could say enough, and live in peace.

In Belfast I join up with several other artist/activists who use theater arts to empower vulnerable communities. They are young and eager to learn from Hector and to experience work in a post-conflict society. Anna was born in Poland and raised in The Netherlands which is also home to Evanne who has worked in post-conflict Uganda. Tania was born in El Salvador, raised in Australia. Tamar is from New York but has lived most recently in Germany and Tunisia. Jeroen is an activist from Belgium who knows more about radical politics in the US than I do. The Europeans are all fluent in English though all of us struggle to understand the Northern Irish accent.

So this essay isn’t really about Northern Ireland. It’s about a group of people landing in someone else’s country imagining they have something to offer.

Hector thinks when you are working in your own city or country, you tend to believe you know all about the community. In fact–and I’m living proof–you may be quite ignorant. “People are the experts about their own lives,” he reminds us. In a foreign context, we are less likely to think we know best. Aware of our own ignorance, he says we’re more likely to remain humble and see the workshop participants in an authentic way. Ideally, this will carry over into our work when we return home.

We share a house, shopping, cleaning, and cooking–the latter turning out to be less of a challenge than expected considering our group includes a few omnivores, a couple of mostly-vegetarians, one dedicated vegetarian, and one raw foods vegan. The group dynamic affords Hector a chance to use the skills he developed over decades as a psychotherapist though, personally, I find nothing smooths over tension like the shared viewing of online cat videos.

peaceful coexistence

For me the work starts right away when I meet with the Ballymurphy Massacre Families. Their loved ones were gunned down by British paratroopers in 1971, the killings justified with false claims that the dead were all IRA terrorist gunmen. Forty-two years later, the families are still seeking an official government apology. They want to see the names of their parents and brothers cleared.

There’s already been a documentary about the killings and a stage reenactment but additional ImaginAction artists, led by Alessia Cartoni from Spain, have been helping the families create something different: a play they will perform themselves focused on how they, as surviving family members, were affected. Their stories of trauma and grief should resonate on both sides of the sectarian divide. By evoking shared pain, maybe it’s possible to bolster the shared desire for peace.

Instantly I conclude this is the reality of Northern Ireland today, a place conversant with the language of human rights and the demand that there be no more culture of impunity. It’s not just the Ballymurphy families. Adults who were abused as children in Catholic orphanages and state institutions demonstrate in front of Stormont, the Parliament building, demanding an investigation. People are filing claims for compensation for their torture years ago by the British.

Soon after, though, I conclude that while people are more than willing to air grievances from the past, they won’t face up to problems in the present day.

Then, as the weeks go by, I meet people who don’t want to bring up past grievances at all. Pain is still there, but they want to put it all behind them. “Some people are just obsessed,” I hear. Or, “What do you expect from the lower class?”

People tell me it’s not the same for the younger generation. There’s a frenetic club scene, Protestants and Catholics seeking release, outrunning and out-dancing the past together, fueled by alcohol and ecstasy. But a municipal employee at work in a Protestant neighborhood lowers his voice when he says, “I’m from the other community.” And when I ask a mixed group of university students whether sectarian division is a thing of the past, I get a resounding No.

Causeway for NC

We have time off for sightseeing. Evanne catches me with her camera as I hike the Red Trail at Giant’s Causeway. Tourists wander over the flat stones that were laid down, according to legend, by Finn MacCool so he could cross the North Channel to Scotland without wetting his giant feet.

The next day we tour the two famous working class neighborhoods in Belfast: the Falls Road (Catholic) and the Shankill (Protestant). Belfast now has a tourist trade which seems to be based on being the birthplace of the Titanic–a ship that went down; Milltown cemetery where you can lay flowers on the grave of IRA hunger-strike martyr Bobby Sands; and the sectarian murals that serve as constant visual provocations.

Yes, there are also murals with messages about safe driving and climate change and nonviolent action but for the most part, they honor the martyrs and promise that resistance (on both sides) will continue. “Peace walls” keep Catholics and Protestants apart and allow foreign visitors to scrawl Kumbaya sentiments on whatever blank space can be found. At night, steel doors close off the road between The Shankill Road and The Falls.

Peace Wall

closed road

So much for peace. Of course, as I–and everyone–should know by now, governments and leaders can make all the agreements they want, but real change has to start at the grassroots.

And I shouldn’t be surprised that Loyalist extremists reject any political settlement as a sellout and betrayal. They rioted in 2013 when Belfast City Hall began to fly the Union Jack only on state occasions instead of every day. The IRA still murders—”executes”—prison guards. “Just the screws that abuse us,” a prisoner tells me, but I also hear any guard can be killed if his home address becomes known. Splinter groups continue the armed struggle. Teens and adolescents still enjoy recreational rioting–throwing rocks and bricks over the walls at each other’s communities. Loyalists swear they’ll never surrender their allegiance to Britain. Nonviolent Republicans believe it’s only a matter of time till Ireland is united.

Even away from the working class neighborhoods where the conflict has long been centered, we see curbs painted red, white, and blue in the colors of the Union Jack, high rises where the Irish flag flies, portraits of the martyrs, plaques on buildings everywhere memorializing the dead.

I wonder if the backdrop has become so normalized that no one who lives here even notices the hostile defiance. But I don’t believe that. We return to our house and I feel weighed down with a heaviness I can’t shake.

Protestant farmers wife

All of us who’ve been involved in community work have been told at one time or another not to get emotionally involved, it’s a surefire path to burnout. But Hector says you have to bring your heart to the work The real cause of burnout, he says, is repressing emotion, being unwilling to acknowledge and face what we feel.

I feel fear. I’m not afraid to be in Belfast. The continued violence from extremists and the dispossessed terrifies me because of what it suggests about the US. Don’t these things ever end? I was never so naive as to imagine racism and bigotry were gone from America where we like to imagine that our history–genocide and slavery–no longer count. That can piss me off, but the virulence of the race hate evident since Obama’s election goes further. It shakes me to the core.

Obama disappoints me but sometimes I suspect he’s overcautious because he, too, is afraid. Not just for himself, though rightwing groups have indeed issued their fatwas, making him a legitimate target for assassination. Does he tread so carefully because of a well founded fear of armed insurrection? If you bother to look, you’ll find the threats out in the open, from the most extreme “patriot” websites to Sarah Palin’s Facebook page.

I think I’ll shake off my depression once we get to work. I can’t wait to meet Protestant extremists–the more extreme, the better. I’ll allow myself to get involved. I’ll connect. I figure I can feel for them without having to agree with them. No Surrender, they say, but as far as I can see, they’ve already lost if their cause was to preserve the status quo. The police force is now integrated with Catholic officers and can no longer be a purely sectarian arm of repression. Catholics have a share in–at times dominate–the government.  Loyalists must be scared wondering how they’d fare in a united Ireland.

I can see how the loss of privilege would feel–no matter how irrational the feeling–like violent dispossession. I see that at the same time that Catholics were gaining equal rights, Belfast companies and factories were closing and moving overseas. Working class neighborhoods where good manufacturing jobs were once reserved for Protestants now face massive long term unemployment. These days, to generalize, Catholics blame globalization and capitalism for job loss; Protestants blame the Catholics. And I tell myself if I can empathize with Loyalist extremists and treat them with respect, maybe I’ll do better at recognizing the humanity of angry white men back home.

But it turns out we won’t be working on sectarian reconciliation after all.

We’ve been asked to work with other groups: The Playhouse in Derry is connecting us to low-income youth (vulnerable to recruitment by the paramilitaries), and the LGBT community. The Prison Arts Foundation has invited us to offer workshops in correctional facilities.

Hector’s workshops draw on the techniques of Theater of the Oppressed, developed by Augusto Boal, the late Brazilian theater artist and activist. In fact, Hector and I met more than a decade ago when people in Los Angeles interested in Boal’s methods got together to share techniques. For several years we brought the master himself to town to teach us about using theater arts with vulnerable communities.

Like most Boalians, Hector starts his workshops with games to provoke laughter and loosen inhibitions. Games create a sense of community and also demand focus and concentration. Where Hector is different from most facilitators is that he pushes the group to play at lightning speed. When you move fast enough, there’s no time to feel self-conscious. Everyone is bound to make mistakes and each mistake is celebrated. He wants to get participants past the fear of being wrong.

In Los Angeles, we’ve worked and played with torture survivors who needed the chance to experience their voices as something other than what got them in trouble, their bodies as something other than a site of pain. We’ve played with gang members who needed a chance to be children again (or for the first time). We’ve worked–not as much as we would have liked–with prisoners. In California, it’s very difficult to get permission to bring an arts program into correctional facilities. In Northern Ireland, this turns out to be relatively simple.

It’s not the only difference. I meet a man in maximum security whose baby was born while he was behind bars. He was given a 6-hour leave to go home and hold his son before being returned to custody. I can’t even imagine that happening in California. (At the same time I can’t forget that during the Troubles, torture of prisoners was standard procedure in Northern Ireland.) Inmates in California who want to take college courses have to come up with their own tuition money. In the UK, a free university education is available to at least some prisoners.

We, however, have been asked to work in Hydebank Wood Youth Prison with young men, ages 17-24, who’ve refused to participate in any educational or therapeutic programs. They are, however, intrigued by Hector who comes from the land of cocaine. So they show up, sort of. They squirm in their seats, get up and walk around, don’t make eye contact, talk among themselves, ask for smoking breaks and tea breaks (or take these breaks without asking), turn their heads aside and laugh heh heh heh from the sides of their mouths, and even when they do speak, most of us can’t understand their accents.

Back at the house, we’re discouraged by the lack of participation.

“Then you have a narrow idea of what participation looks like,” Hector tells us. “They are always participating, even when rolling cigarettes, leaving the room. They are being who they are.” We should be learning about them, taking the temperature of the room, and understanding they have no reason to open themselves up to a bunch of strangers who suddenly show up in their lives.

I think I’ve experienced this before faced with a student who seems entirely unresponsive, with whom I am completely unable to connect. Until I realize she or he is paying very close attention–to me. Studying me, figuring out if I’m someone who can be trusted. I have to go on the assumption that this is exactly what’s happening. Stay calm, stay present, remain engaged as if there is a connection.

“We are our own worst enemies because we create our own stories of what we should accomplish,” Hector says. “Get out of your own fucking way.”

Eventually some of the young men talk to us about how they can’t see a future. With or without an education, there are no jobs. The only hope is emigration but with their criminal records they believe the necessary visas will be denied them.

I’m seeing an aspect of Hector’s work I never witnessed before: teacher, mentor. Teaching “is not a process of vomiting information or how well I can talk about topics.” He challenges each one of us. What are the voices inside our heads that block us? Where and when does our energy flag? He probes us, looking at what’s going on inside each of us that may affect our work. “Don’t expect to be handed a curriculum with different techniques spelled out step by step,” he warns us. We will live the technique but what we must do is enter the space fully present, aware, our hearts open. “Learning is an act of love, there’s no other way to learn.”

Am I thinking through an ideological lens rather than with my heart?

I feel…what? Naive. Responsible. I dwell on the American propensity to export war, whether it’s ordinary people in New York and Boston funding the IRA, weapons manufacturers and dealers arming drug cartels in Mexico (and anyone else willing to pay), our support for repressive armies in Latin America, our military interventions around the globe, our drones dropping death from the sky. Yes, we mourn our servicemen and women who die and those who are maimed in body and spirit. But what do most of us, safe at home, know about the killing we pay for?

We’re supposed to be here giving people tools to claim agency over their own lives, while I feel…guilty, and helpless.

UVF paramilitaries

Hector finds it strange that the IRA martyrology bothers me more than the aggressively violent imagery of the UVF Loyalists. It troubles me that political tours and Republican museum exhibits are available in the Basque language. I’d like to believe it’s just that people whose own Irish language was in danger of dying out believe in preserving another rare tongue. But I can’t help but suspect collaboration between the IRA and the ETA. You can choose the label yourself: freedom fighter or terrorist.

I’m not Irish American by descent and can claim kin only through extended family, but I grew up in New York hearing–and not always understanding–the songs of the Irish struggle for freedom. They’re hanging men and women/For the wearin’ of the green. I took those lyrics to heart. When I started kindergarten–my first venture outside the safety of home–I checked my plaid skirt carefully for any trace of the dangerous color.

The Irish Republican Army freedom fighters were heroes of my childhood. Later, it was second nature to support anti-colonial struggles.

When I packed to go to Northern Ireland, I knew I had to be (or at least appear to be) neutral. I was cautious again, choosing clothing with no hint of green.

Which side are you on? was the unspoken–and sometimes spoken–question I faced over and over again. And I was ready with my carefully prepared answer: “It all turns out to be more complicated than it looks from the other side of the pond.”

The Irish Civil War…The Troubles. When is enough enough?

In Belfast, a woman sighs and says no cause in the world was worth all the suffering.

One of the Ballymurphy family members tells me, “The Protestants from up on the hill were shooting through our windows. The British killed my father. The IRA killed my brother.”

Hector, it’s not just ideology. My heart is indeed in this place, and my heart is troubled.

Blanket man and Palestine

We get ID cards and escorts when we enter Maghaberry, the maximum security prison. Then it’s pat-downs and multiple checkpoints with biometrics and down hallways and across yards where guards patrol with dogs.

Most prisoners here spend 23 of 24 hours in their cells. Some have revived the old IRA “dirty protest”–refusing to wash or shave and smearing their cells with their own feces. But we are working with prisoners in “Family Matters”–men who are fathers, and drug-free. They have privileges and are able to move about freely in their own part of the prison as long as they maintain good behavior. They participate in programs meant to reduce recidivism by strengthening parental skills and family ties. Our theater workshops are now part of the program.

We invite people to explore difficulties in their lives by creating scenes for each other. Then we invite participants to reflect on what they’ve seen and improvise alternative scenarios. Theater becomes a rehearsal for life. Improvisation shows you can change the script. People who can’t envision any other path than the one they took can begin to explore other choices.

So: We walk into the room where more than twenty men await us. We have to set the tone right from the start and so we circulate, greeting each individual, introducing ourselves by name, smiling, shaking hands. After fast-paced games and a lot of laughter, Hector continues the workshop with another of Boal’s techniques, Image Theater. Me, I always want to fall back on words, but Image Theater is wordless. We are invited to express emotions through our bodies or, in pairs or in groups, we create random images that are open to multiple interpretations. What you see tells a lot about who you are.

With all this talk about expression through the body, and considering we’re in a prison, it’s no surprise that sexual imagery shows up. One man positions himself in front of Hector who is kneeling. No ambiguity here: everyone sees blowjob. Hector laughs it off and goes on to the next exercise. As he tells us later, he’s glad the subject of sex came up right at the start so we could get it out of the way and move on. I’m impressed with the prisoner, astute enough to test the boundaries with Hector and not with one of the young women.

We break up into small groups to create scenes about problems. But everything’s all right, the men say. They have no concerns.

Of course they have reasons for not speaking openly. One man comes right out and says, “The enemy is here.” They may fear retaliation from the guards. Or, as Hector reminds us, “Why should they open up to you? They don’t know you.”

I try to explain to my group, “For the scene to be dramatic, we need a difficulty or a conflict.”

“No complaints.”

“It’s all right.”

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” one man suggests.

Why do you look outside, at somewhere else? I wonder.

Then I have to wonder who I mean by “you.” Back home in Los Angeles County over the course of 30 years, 25,000 lives were lost to street gang violence–more than in Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine combined. And why was I saying we needed conflict?–an idea that, as a writer, I always resist. Even Hector has needed to seek alternatives. When he was in China, people insisted conflict could not exist in their society. They structured scenes instead around a dilemma. Maybe a question would work.

“Do you worry about your kids?” I ask.

“Naw. Their mother takes good care of them.”

“Is it difficult for them to come for visits?”

“Naw. No problem.”

“Be ready in five minutes,” Hector says.

Under pressure, we start to role-play a family visit. The father is besieged by his children and his wife all wanting his attention at once. He is stressed and miserable and doesn’t know who to turn to first.

“Time’s up.” Hector wants to see each group’s piece. He adds, “Whatever you do is perfect.”

In the scene we present, the father is reluctant to leave his cell. He wants to see his family, but he hangs back. As he walks at last to the visiting room, Tamar shadows him, speaking aloud the words in his head. During the visit, his two kids and his wife all clamor for attention. By the time the guard tells them to leave, he’s exhausted and depressed, feeling inadequate. Now he opens up about his feelings: As long as he’s in prison, he can’t give them what he wants to give and that they need.

None of the scenes that day looks like professional theater but so what? Hector is right: each one is perfect because it provides fertile ground to ask What do you see? Does this really happen? How might it be different?

Another man tells me later that watching these scenes teaches him empathy.

Mandela

Every time we drive back to the house, the good feeling of human connection dissipates. I feel assailed by the sectarian slogans and the flags. People tell me no one talks about conflict resolution anymore, but rather conflict transformation. It’s not peace, they say. It’s just a lull. This one context–Northern Ireland–tells me a larger story about wounds that don’t heal. Hatred like a virus lies dormant between deadly outbreaks. The violent troubles throughout the world never seem to end.

I walk in the park behind our house to clear my head. I remind myself that among the Falls Road murals, there’s a portrait of a Nelson Mandela. He smiles down at everyone who passes, symbol of reconciliation and hope. Inspiring, but the South African story isn’t done. And to use one of Hector’s favorite words, images are “polysemic”–having multiple interpretations. The mural artist included a quote: In my country we go to prison first and then become President.

The writing on the wall: was the artist thinking of forgiveness, or of power?

Before you can forgive, do you have to win?

What a person sees in an image can reveal who she is.

We go to the beautiful city of Derry (also known as Londonderry if you’re a Loyalist or Derry/Londonderry–”Stroke City”–if you’re hedging your bets). The 17th-century city walls stand complete and intact. Catholics, once forbidden to live inside the walls, created the Bogside neighborhood which became the center of the nonviolent civil rights struggle and its own kind of walled city. “Free Derry” lasted from 1969-1972 when residents of the Bogside and Creggan neighborhoods put up barricades to keep the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army out.

The armed wing of the IRA was active in Derry too. The famous Bogside murals memorialize the innocent civilians gunned down on Bloody Sunday but also honor the Irish heritage of Che Guevara and the iconic Petrol Bomber of Free Derry, throwing Molotov cocktails at the Brits.

Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch

These days, the Derry police station has a security perimeter worthy of a U.S. Embassy and the police do an excellent job of defusing live bombs before they explode.

A Protestant university student tells me, “I’m a Hun.”

“A what?”

“That’s what they call me. A Han. Like in China.”

The Han Chinese were sent to colonize Tibet, to break the back of Tibetan culture and make the region loyal to Beijing.

How long can Protestants in Northern Ireland be considered colonizers and interlopers? I think of Southern California where I live, land that was taken from the Chumash and Tongva and then from Mexico. The descendants of those early inhabitants are still struggling for an equal place.

“I’ll say it about myself,” says the Han. “But don’t call me that.”

[SPACE]

Derry was designated the UK City of Culture for 2013. Dozens of cultural events and celebrations would, in the words of the organizers, provide “a new story for the city to tell to the world.”

In the Neo-baroque Guildhall, Anna and I find an exhibit about the Ulster Plantation and learn some new facts: Scottish settlers were sent over in part to break the power of the Highland chieftains who also resisted English rule. Many were Presbyterians who–Protestant but not Anglican–sought to escape religious persecution. The laws that limited the rights of Catholics in Ulster were applied against Presbyterians too. Anna and I watch a series of panel discussions and debates on video, with actors in period garb offering different perspectives on the Ulster experience. The monologues are carefully scripted so that after each debate when the visitor is asked to push a button to say, for example, whether the sectarian divide is surmountable or insurmountable, almost anyone relying on the video presentation would be likely to choose “surmountable.”

The Bogside artists whose partisan Republican murals draw visitors from around the world were excluded from the City of Culture program.

Mandela also said, “Let bygones be bygones.”

But what if what’s going on hasn’t yet gone by?

Sometimes I think those who remember history are doomed.

I think about that silly book, The End of History, that people unaccountably took so seriously a few decades ago. Fukuyama argued that history had ended with the triumph of Western liberal democracy. I never noticed any such triumph or that humankind had reached a utopian end of the road. But now I begin to wonder if what we’re really seeing is the triumph of the Market. Not the free market, of course, but the rigged market, signaling the End of Society–something Margaret Thatcher famously declared did not exist. With the End of Society, we face the End of Civilization.

Hector takes me to task over my pessimism. If I bring that energy into a group, people will feel it. “Especially when working with young people, it is a huge responsibility to bring medicine. Otherwise you just contribute to hopelessness and apathy.”

And we do work with kids in an afterschool program in an impoverished community–though Hector and I see no homeless people, no burned-out lots filled with trash, no derelict buildings, no graffiti (except on one wall, a phrase people either agree with or fear to paint over: JOIN THE IRA). In spite of decades of Thatcherite austerity, maybe there’s still more of a safety net in the UK. Tania, on the other hand, recognizes signs of deprivation invisible to us. “This is what it looks like in Australia.”

With these kids–a couple of quiet girls, a lot of very jumpy adolescent boys–we start off by playing soccer so they can burn off energy, have some release after hours of sitting in school, and get ready to focus. We also bring them snacks and sandwiches. We have a chance to get to know each other before starting the theater games. And we learn the area is indeed deprived. The kids can’t remember a time when their parents were employed. Families live on government assistance and the adolescents expect they’ll grow up to stay home receiving government checks and playing video games or else they’ll go to jail. There are no jobs.

Their scenes portray teachers blaming kids for offenses they didn’t commit; parents unconcerned when their kids are suspended from school; kids getting into fights and then facing their fathers’ wrath.

The kids are so lively, the love between the older boys and their little brothers so evident, it’s easy to dismiss their realities, the “hopelessness and apathy” that shadow them. I like them so much I want to believe they can step out from under that shadow. I want to believe my pessimism doesn’t show.

Anyway, there’s a difference between rejecting optimism and being a pessimist. Years ago, at the start of the AIDS epidemic when it seemed like everyone who contracted the virus would die and die soon, an activist explained the difference between optimism–blind faith that everything is for the best and will work out just fine– and hope, which keeps you going regardless. He said he’d learned this from Vaclav Havel. Years later, I heard that Havel learned it from B.B. King. Whoever should get credit, I embraced the idea years ago of commitment without any guarantee as to outcome.

The UK no longer recognizes people arrested for sectarian violence as political prisoners. Some political groups have indeed devolved into ordinary thuggish street gangs. (Is that what’s meant by conflict transformation?)

At Maghaberry, some men do consider themselves politicals with the Republicans more outspoken than the Loyalists. One day the men improvise another Visiting Day scene. The young son tells his jailed father he is ready to join the IRA. The father expresses pride.

“What else could the father say?” Hector asks. “Does he really want his son to end up in prison?”

This is how Forum Theater works: people in the audience have the chance to replace a character onstage and try out different words, different behavior. But it seems no one wants to contradict the committed Republican.

I can’t stand it so I volunteer to take the father’s role. “I’m proud of you, my boy,” I say, “for your commitment to our cause. But you don’t want to end up here like me.”

“If it’s where I end up, it’s where I end up.”

“I don’t want that for you.”

But the son is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“All the bloodshed and the time in prison,” I say. “What good has it done? It hasn’t brought us closer to our goal.”

“We have to keep fighting.”

“The fighting hasn’t been effective. It hasn’t gotten us anywhere. There has to be another way.” Idiot American, I think. Keep preaching.

“I’m joining the IRA,” says the son.

“There has to be a better way,” I say. “At least, tell me you’ll think about it.”

I do believe in their cause. But what I’m thinking about is the well intentioned exhibit in the Guildhall. Am I equally guilty of using culture to manipulate?

The father who is playing his son lowers his head and studies the floor. He accommodates me: “I’ll think about it,” he says.

Our last day with the recalcitrant young men at Hydebank Wood, we’re scheduled to present a performance for other prisoners and the staff. We’ve developed and rehearsed a script but our lead actor disappears. The other men don’t want to perform.

Hector actually seems pleased. He’s been trying to teach us that when you work with vulnerable communities, people have very complicated lives. You don’t complain about who’s missing; you work with whoever shows up. You can plan an elaborate production, but you always have to be ready to shift gears. Offer something that engages the audience even if it’s very different from what you planned.

So we foreigners get up and improvise scenes starting with a girl telling her teenage boyfriend she’s pregnant. His response is to walk away.

Hector extends an invitation to the audience. “What else could he say? What else could he do? No, don’t tell me. Come up here and show us.”

All of a sudden we have volunteers. Maybe the guys just want the chance to play at being Evanne’s boyfriend. But one by one, they step up. Telling her to get an abortion. Telling her abortion is wrong. Asking her to marry. Denying it’s his baby. Saying his parents will help. Promising to get a job.

The audience is rapt.

“Now they have the baby. What do you think happens next?”

The baby is crying, the wife is desperate, the unemployed husband comes home drunk and angry. He looks for work. He goes back to selling drugs.

The young men who never sit still, never listen, never “participate” have their attention riveted. They all want to have their say. The prison staff has never seen them like this. One after another they improvise alternatives to the situations they’ve seen in their families, experienced in their own lives, or feared.

“If someone sees you,” says Hector, “it saves your life. You may recognize a gift in a young person who has spent his life misunderstood and stigmatized.” Modest expectations, I think, reaching one person out of many, one at a time. But believing as we do that every human being is of inestimable worth, it should be enough. “By truly seeing him, you give him the experience of seeing himself in a new light, and the strength that comes from this mutual recognition can last a lifetime.”

I’m frustrated by how much people don’t want to see. They are supposed to be the experts in their own lives.

A 12-year-old girl in Derry tells me she can’t wait to get out. Her dream is emigration to Australia. (Australia seems the destination of choice these days. People say they’d love to visit relatives in Boston and New York, but to live in the States? Too violent, too much inequality, not enough opportunity.) She talks about the constant bomb threats, the grenades, and the shootings but assures me, “No, I’m not scared. I’m not nervous. I’m not troubled.” She says everything’s all right, but she can’t wait to leave.

Members of the LGBT group blurt out their concerns: how a lesbian mother has no parental rights and can lose her child if she’s not the biological mother. But when it comes to dramatizing the situation, “No, it’s negative.”

We try a different approach and ask for coming out stories. Of any sort. Tania tells how for years she didn’t want to identify herself publicly as a “refugee.” One man insists he never had to come out because he was always out. Later in the conversation he tells me he was married for years. When his wife learned he was having sex with men, she exposed his secret and he was promptly fired from his job.

I don’t get it. Why all the denial?

One evening a gay man offers a scene in which he goes to donate blood and is turned away. He sits, wordless, head down.

“What is he feeling?” Hector asks.

Sad. Depressed. Humiliated, people suggest.

“What else could he do?” Hector asks.

No one in the LGBT group reacts so members of our group take turns replacing the actor. I ask whether the blood is screened. It is. So there is no medical reason to refuse anyone. I threaten a lawsuit. Jeroen replaces me and, instead of threatening, asks the doctor to sign a letter and petition agreeing there is no medical reason to discriminate. Another member of our team talks about wanting to give blood because a family member was saved by a transfusion. In this scenario, the doctor still can’t change the policy but responds with human empathy instead of putting up a cold bureaucratic wall.

The gay and lesbian members of the group seem to me speechless with surprise. As though it hasn’t occurred to them before that you don’t have to accept things as they are. You don’t have to take it and absorb the hurt. You may not be able to change law or policy right away, but you can assert your humanity. You don’t have to accept discrimination as inevitable and normal.

One day at Maghaberry the prisoners show their scars and merrily reenact the form of street justice called “the six-pack”–as though it’s normal to shoot someone in both knees plus a bullet in each elbow and each ankle. As normal as the murals and the flags. And I think again of the 12-year-old girl. Violence will drive her from her birthplace but at the same time, she won’t admit it bothers her. It’s such an accustomed part of daily life.

It’s her life, their lives. I shouldn’t judge people who are just trying to get by the best they can in a world not my own.

petrol bomber

I return home and land at LAX the day before the terminal is invaded by a young man who shoots to kill. A couple of days later, another young man takes his rage to the shopping mall in New Jersey near where my sister lives. The Sandy Hook school site is being demolished. There’s a mass killing in a Detroit barbershop. And another mass shooting and another. I sign a petition or two and go on with my daily life. The 12-year-old girl wants out. I’m not going anywhere. What do I feel? Sad. Depressed. Ashamed.

And I remember the day in Maghaberry Prison when I was paired with a man I could barely understand. He didn’t seem to get what I was saying either. But what with the Irish and Yankee accents, incomprehension had become entirely normal to me. It took two hours till I realized the prisoner was an immigrant from Lithuania with limited English.

Don’t trust me.

— Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include a new novel, The Fiery Alphabet, and The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit,awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor toCounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” a play God’s Flea and an earlier “Letter from Bolivia: Days and Nights in Cochabamba.”