Aug 062017
 

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The Tin Palace was a seminal place for jazz in the 70s and many well known figures today came up from the grass roots of that space. Paul Blackburn was a core figure in the poetry world of that time. The essay doesn’t belabor those points, but is focused on the mystery behind the history.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx—Paul Pines

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1. Intimations

Along with Dick Tracey’s two-way wrist radio watch, and Captain Midnight’s decoder ring, invisible ink highlighted the mysteries of my Brooklyn boyhood. The idea that unseen writing might surface with the heat of a flame held under the page was irresistible. I experimented with different solutions, like milk and vinegar, in an attempt to duplicate the process. Unhappily, little more came of these experiments beyond the flaming napkins in my hand.

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

Luna Park by Mark ShankerLuna Park by Marc Shanker

Nowhere more so than at Brighton Private, a pay-to-play beach club bordering Bay #1, one of fifteen numbered sandy plots along the Coney Island peninsula. Brighton Private aspired to the kind of exclusivity prized by the elite in Long Island or Atlantic City, but on the more modest basis of a daily entrance fee, as well as by subscription for those who rented lockers by the season. It offered a pool, steam room, cushioned lounge chairs and a superior cruising ground for boys in heat. Those inside could come and go to the ocean through a beach-side where the gate-keeper stamped the hands of members with a waterproof mark visible under a black light.

My crew from lower Flatbush devised a strategy for entering from the beach. We put together enough money for one person to get in, change into a bathing suit, and exit on the beach, his hand freshly stamped to validate re-entry. His mission was to reach the rest of us waiting out of sight, under the boardwalk, in time to impress the still wet stamp on our hands. This was not without an element of risk. Just as often, the mark got smeared or devolved into a smudge. At one time or another, we all had experienced the humiliation of being unmasked by the black light, and fleeing the consequences if caught.

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2. The Call

Before I opened the doors of my jazz club, the Tin Palace, the situation rang a bell that raised the memory of Brighton Private. I realized that there had to be a way of marking the threshold between that interior space built so lovingly and the war zone outside. Bowery and Second Street had been a no-man’s-land inhabited by winos, fleabag hotels, and those who spilled out of the Men’s Shelter on 3rd Street every morning. Then there were the predators who preyed on them, jackrollers from Alphabet City drawn by the monthly mailing of welfare checks, as well as junkies looking to score. It was also a deep underground network of creative energy. Artists’ lofts lined Bowery all the way to Chinatown, poets occupied the tenement hives and storefronts on the Lower East Side, and jazz lofts seeded by musicians sprang up like wildflowers on the side streets. My partner and I staked out our territory for the Tin Palace on the corner of Bowery and 2nd, transforming the burned-out husk of a bar into an oasis. Our interior featured walls taken down to the brick under a pressed tin ceiling, an art deco mahogany and rosewood bar, cocktail tables and a small stage for musicians. In the years that followed, I heard nightly improvisations that transported the entire room into another dimension, unfolding at the outer boundary of the cultural mainstream where survival is often “writ in tooth and claw.” From the start, I understood that such a space as we had made required its own rules and rituals, a way to make the mystery of its existence palpable to those who entered it. I settled on the idea of a rubber seal dipped in invisible ink made visible under a black light.

Tin Palace entrance by Ray RossTin Palace entrance by Ray Ross

In August, 1972 there was only one listing in the Manhattan Yellow Pages for Invisible Ink. I traveled up to 23rd Street and walked that long stretch between Third Avenue and the tenement facing Madison Park in the shadow of the Flatiron Building. An elderly male voice responded to my signal on the buzzer asking what I wanted.

I answered, “Invisible Ink.”

The face that greeted me at the door at the top of six flights of stairs filled out the picture.

 

The Invisible Ink Man had been taller in his youth, his back now bent at an angle that reduced him by a couple of inches. A cloud of white hair circled his head, and frown lines framed a kind but expressionless face, as though hinting at the unseen interior. He wore a white shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows and brown pants. The room I entered was dimly lit, flanked by long tables cluttered with newspapers and magazines. There was a living space at far end, a round table circled by folding chairs, a couch behind it. He apologized for the appearance of his digs, letting me know the obvious, that he didn’t receive many visitors these days. His face brightened, and he seemed to straighten out when I told him why I’d come.

“I can customize the stamp to your design,” he told me. “Do you have something in mind?”

I emphasized that this stamp would operate at the gateway of two worlds, and wondered if something Egyptian, The Eye of Horus, or maybe Hermes’s winged sandals that allowed him to move between worlds. The Invisible Ink Man nodded, thoughtfully, before saying he had books of designs if I wanted to look through them. He then went on to reminisce, letting me know that his had once been a burgeoning business. The call for his product had kept him busy with orders from all over the world. He had been a craftsman, reaching for a high bar with the quality and power of his designs. Now, he was the last of his breed.

Apollo pouring a libation to a blackbirdApollo pouring a libation to a blackbird

“Let me think about what I want,” I hesitated.

The Invisible Ink Man replied that would be fine. When I asked if there was a bathroom I could use before I left, he pointed to a door behind one of the long tables. It was a small room with a pull chain bulb that illuminated a veined marble sink and a vintage toilet crowned by a wooden thunder box. Tucked behind the pipe leading up to the box, a poster with the Day-Glo figure of a man half-way into a toilet, his hand on the pull chord of a chain such as I held, spoke through the inscription, “Goodbye cruel world.” I pulled my chain to the thunderous applause of water from the tank above the toilet. The Day-Glo figure remained. I wondered if he expressed something unseen in the Invisible Ink Man, what would emerge from my host’s interior under the appropriate x-ray.

The Invisible Ink Man walked me to the stairs. He assured me that if I got back to him in time, he would make me a stamp for the ages and provide me with a generous supply of ink in the invisible color of my choice.

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3. Collapsing time

Walking on 23rd towards 5th Avenue, I stopped at an empty parking lot. On another mission, a few years earlier, I had seen the poet Paul Blackburn standing in that lot, head tilted, looking at something that had caught his eye.

“There was a building in front of this one.” Paul said when I joined him. “Sarah and I lived in it.”

“And now it’s gone.”

“I can still see the room where we made love, the view from the window.”

Cornelia Street 1922 by John SloanCornelia Street 1922 by John Sloan

He stared intently, as though what he described was still going on in that space, time out of mind. There were few poets more alive to the sights, sounds and feelings rising from a unseen source, images becoming clear under the ultraviolet glow of his imagination. Paul moved between visible and invisible worlds, like Hermes, but wearing a cowboy hat instead of a winged helmet. Through him I became aware of poetry not only as art but as physics—or in the words of Ervin Laszlow, a place where field precedes from. His poems formed themselves on the page like the incarnate nervous system of the experience he brought to light, a design specific to it, but inevitable. Paul’s fields invited oracular, synchronistic, spooky action at a distance, while cleaving to the physical details. As he wrote in his poem “The Net of Place,” The act defines me even if it is not my act / The hawk circles over the sea / My act

When I encountered Paul in the parking lot gazing at the invisible space which once contained the apartment where he and his second wife, Sarah, had made love, I was reminded of the mystery that sustained him and his work, to which I aspired in mine: to capture in that net the energy patterns that are so immediately present to the senses, but exist outside of time as well. The net of place contains both visible and invisible worlds. Or, as Paul put it at the conclusion of his poem: When mind dies of its time / It is not the place goes away.

Angel, New Orleans by Paul PinesAngel: New Orleans by Paul Pines

Clearly, Paul, who died in 1971, had also been my Invisible Ink Man.

My desire to realize the forms inherent in the field of my own experience, moved me to ask him if he would write an introduction to my first collection, Onion, forthcoming from Mulch Press. I’d already encountered resistance from the literary gatekeepers. They would not stamp my hand. I felt so much rode on Paul’s blessing.

He wrote three introductions, which I rejected. Each one fell short of what I had hoped for, something worthy of what I reached for. I had counted on a certain gravitas that was not there. One of his introductions described me as a small man walking a large dog down Second Avenue, reveling in his world. It was full of an affection I didn’t get at that time. The image of me as presented was accurate, even vivid. I may have glimpsed as much, but couldn’t bear it.

Onion came out the year Paul died, 1971, with no introduction.

Twenty years later, preparing to read at a tribute to Paul in St. Mark’s Church, I searched his Collected Poems for a poem I loved, “Cabras,” about goats in the next field hobbled because they are otherwise difficult to catch, but remain “so quick, stubborn / and full of fun.” It reminded me of Mallorca, where we had both lived at different times. And about ourselves, in the respective fields of our callings. As I leafed through the thick volume of Paul’s collected works I stumbled on lines from his Journals that sent a shock through my system, and then left me in shaken. They had been sent silently years earlier, but heard first in that instant. Paul’s final message to me once again collapsed time.

xxxxxxxxHow can we
offer it all, Paul? How
ignore the earth movers . will
take it all down?

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4. On the threshold

I never saw the Invisible Ink Man again. I did manage to get a stamp, invisible ink pad and a black light stationed at the entrance to my Bowery jazz club. There was nothing designed to order, and after a while the process became too slow and unreliable. But I did come away from my journey to 23rd street that day with a greater appreciation for the mystery I felt on the threshold of that door separating the interior of the Tin Palace from the world outside of it, what I thought of as my Camelot, a moment of light in the dark. The fact that that my light burned brightly for the decade, then went out, gave me a deeper understanding of the field from which such forms arise and dissolve.

Outside the Tin Palace, 1976 by Amos RiceOutside the Tin Palace, 1976 (courtesy Patricia Spears Jones) clockwise: Stanley Crouch, Alice Norris, David Murray, Carlos Figueroa, Patricia Spears Jones, Phillip Wilson, Victor Rosa and Charles “Bobo” Shaw

Invisible Ink is a metaphor for a narrative already written that in the heat of time will emerge to be read as destiny, history, or memory. I track this in my own experience to the Invisible Ink Man and his thunder box toilet, Paul Blackburn reliving his intimacy with Sarah in the empty parking lot, and my moment beside him wondering at the invisibility of it all. The Greeks thought of their underworld as a place where hidden treasures were stored, and it is easy to conflate those with memories that are eternal and continuous.

What I contemplate still at the entrance to my own underworld.

All thresholds are essentially boundaries between the known and the unknown. One enters a jazz club from the street to call forth invisibles not available elsewhere to the eye and ear, the audible changes that disclose hidden places. Often these are places known and forgotten, and now known again in a way that changes everything.

Paul Blackburn by R.B. KitajPaul Blackburn by R.B. Kitaj

I am certain that there is a connection between the moments in my life when someone stamped my hand with invisible ink that can be seen under a black light, and the initiation into a mystery as old as Eleusis—the veils of Persephone, and Isis. I consider what took place at the Tin Palace, beyond the big oak doors on the Bowery, and why Paul Blackburn haunted The Five Spot, followed the improvisations he heard, and reproduced them on the page. I remain fascinated in a childlike way; I wanted to possess Captain Midnight’s decoder, the latent, undisclosed landscape of potentials, things in their nascent state on the way to being realized. In this pursuit, earlier guides like Toth, Hermes, and Telesphoros, now have names like Monk, Mingus, and Coltrane. Paul Blackburn died before I opened the doors to my club, but I’d like to think he would have been at home there. We shared a desire to hold the heat of our attention to the page of a given moment and watch what had been written there unseen, emerge into plain sight. It draws me still. And Paul, as I imagine him, tuned to what emerges from the implicate order on the other side of that threshold. He was, after all, no stranger to the kiss of invisible ink.

—Paul Pines

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Paul Pines grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early ’60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August ’65 to February ’66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published eleven books of poetry: OnionHotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, Breath, Adrift on Blinding LightTaxidancingLast Call at the Tin Palace, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, Divine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros and Fishing on the Pole Star. The last collection won the Adirondack Center for Writing Award as the best book of poetry in 2013. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia appear on the Summit label. He is the editor of the Juan Gelman’s selected poems translated by Hardie St. Martin, Dark Times/ Filled with Light (Open Letters Press, 2012). Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend.

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Jul 042017
 

Mary, the summer before the big talk.

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he day my mother taught me about sex, she sat me on the end of her bed and explained that within the next couple of years, I’d hit this thing called puberty. I was a very undeveloped ten-year-old, and earlier that day had asked why, since the six of us kids had all been potty trained for years, my mother still had diapers sitting on top of her dresser. Now, I could not take my eyes off those diapers, which I was learning were not diapers at all but my own mother’s panty liners, and they loomed in front of me, a dark foreshadowing of my own impending puberty.

I should have known, when she called my name from the top of the stairs and asked me to join her in her bedroom, that the news wouldn’t be good. In past years, being summoned thus had meant that Santa wasn’t real, or our pet rabbit Cadbury had died of heat stroke, or she’d found out that I’d stolen my younger sister’s money to buy a Trapper Keeper from the school store. But nothing could prepare me for this latest revelation.

“You will start to see some changes,” she said. She pulled out a yellowing booklet titled What’s Happening to My Body? A Girl’s Guide to Puberty (a book, I was starting to realize, that must have once belonged to one or both of my older sisters) and took me through a smiling cartoon girl’s journey to womanhood.

It all seemed terrible: the sprouting hairs, the budding breasts, the blood that one day would just start gushing out of a hole I didn’t even know was there. And then there were the things you couldn’t see: eggs dropping, menstruals cramping, hormones pulsing through my body like an incurable illness. My life as I had known it for the past ten years was over. Once the process started there was no turning back. And all for what?

“So you can experience the gift of children,” my mother said. To this point, she had been all it’s-just-as-natural-as-waking-up-in-the-morning, and now she tried to make it sound pleasant, special, exciting even.

“It goes where?” I asked in horrified disbelief when she got to the part about penises. “But how does it get in there through your pants?” You would think I’d have seen at least one sex scene in a PG-13 movie, or at the very least, heard rumors about sex from my peers. But my parents had a gift for making me believe that if it wasn’t Disney, it wasn’t worth my time, which meant sex as a concept was completely off my radar and playground whisperings about it fell on deaf ears. So, I couldn’t imagine how, in Jesus’ name, two perfectly grown adults (my parents among them) would find themselves naked at the same exact time, and long enough for him to put a baby inside of her.

I knew my parents slept in the same bed, this bed, in fact. But by my calculation, even when they were changing from day clothes to bed clothes, there was about a ten second window between taking a dirty pair of underwear off and putting on a fresh pair to get the whole thing over with. The way my mother described the process, ten seconds would barely get him in. It must happen, I reasoned, on mornings when the man can’t find his jeans, and the woman realizes her skirt is wrinkled and has to pause mid-change to iron it. This would give them at least two minutes without pants. I’ll always have my clothes pressed in advance, I promised myself. To my mother I said, “I don’t think I want kids.”

“You will,” she replied. “That’s what happens when you get married.”

Once the mystery of life was out there for me to dread, my mother sought out further teaching moments, usually centered on the idea that having a baby was a miracle, a God-given gift. To prove her point, she led me out to the doghouse one hot summer day where my cat, Waffles, was giving birth.

Waffles had come to me in a laundry basket as a gift from my parents for my eleventh birthday. She was all fluff and gray eyes and tiny little raspy meows. We’d had cats before, but not one of them had belonged to me, and all of them had died in various tragic ways: an owl, a shovel, a speeding car. Waffles was mine and I, like my own parents had done, would shelter and protect her from the evils of the world.

I spent my birthday weekend with Waffles, teasing her with balls of yarn, carrying her around in the pocket of my overalls dressed in doll clothes, and subsequently coaxing her out from under my bed. Then Monday rolled around and the birthday fun was over. Time for Waffles to move outside with the dog. “What if it gets cold?” I protested.

“That’s why pets have fur,” my parents explained.

It did not take long for Waffles to become street-wise and pregnant. The first summer, she gave birth to three kittens, then four more the following spring. This was her third litter, and my mother thought this would be a fun mother-daughter-cat bonding moment. We knelt in the grass, braced our hands against the frame of the doorway, and pushed our heads into the doghouse to get a good look. “Isn’t it beautiful?” my mother asked as the cat tensed, emitting a strange, guttural moan. Her legs parted and a slimy, matted, rat-like baby forced its way out and fell into the widening pool of stickiness beneath her.

We watched five more born this way, my mother marveling at the wonder of nature, me trying not to vomit into the cat’s placenta. The last kitten that had come out was stillborn, and the cat pulled it gently from the group of newborns nuzzling into her belly, and licked it clean. “Incredible,” my mother whispered, just before Waffles widened her jaw and sank her teeth into its neck.

I didn’t feel the same love for Waffles after that. Not because she had devoured one of her own kittens, as cats will do, but more because she was the very vivid answer to my speculations about what birth was like, the final nail in the coffin of my innocence. In truth, we’d been growing apart for a while. Her life outside had turned her somewhat feral, and we saw her only when she stopped by to drop off another litter of kittens (some litters striped, others, calico) before disappearing again.

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Now, when my classmates talked about sex, I tuned in. “Do you know what Ian said on the bus?” Courtney asked me at an overnight birthday party. “He said you have to have sex twice for every kid you have, and that your parents have had sex at least twelve times.” Ian had a knack for turning anything into a sexual innuendo I didn’t understand. Bragging about being the ball girl at your older brother’s soccer game, or asking a classmate to borrow his pencil, or saying your favorite character from Toy Story was Woody—it was all fair game, and I had to watch what I said around him. I hated him for always targeting me, and now, for targeting my parents.

“That’s not true,” I replied to the group of giggling girls. “My mom said you’re only supposed to have sex when you know it’s going to make a baby. So, they’ve only done it six times.” It seemed better, somehow, to think that my parents had conception down to a science, that their little bedroom game of looking for jeans and ironing skirts had happened only once in my lifetime before my younger sister was born. Still, I feared Ian might be right, and started to wonder about Waffles. If humans had to have sex twice for each kid, what about cats? By this time, she’d given birth to a total of eighteen kittens and was likely to have another litter before my fourteenth birthday. I began to suspect that Waffles had another life beyond our front yard—an indecent one.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, a girl in my older brother’s high school class got pregnant. Until now, I had assumed it was impossible to get pregnant unless you had a husband or were the Blessed Virgin Mary, an axiom both my parents gladly reinforced. It coincided nicely with my theory about how sex worked: if they weren’t married, why would a man and woman possibly be getting dressed in the exact same bedroom at the exact same time? It had seemed I was safe from sex until I was married.

But when I heard about the pregnant girl, I burst into my mother’s bedroom, where she was getting dressed, and threw myself down on the bed in despair. I had not seen this latest pubertal hazard coming. There was something she wasn’t telling me about how it all worked.

“I’m going to get pregnant when I’m seventeen!” I wailed.

“No you won’t,” she replied calmly, the same way she had when I said I was probably going to contract pinworms after I heard about an outbreak in a family of cousins I hadn’t seen in months.

“But how do you know?” I cried. “If it can happen to Shannon, it can happen to anybody!”

“Because,” she said, attaching fake pearls to her earlobes. “We’re not those types of people.” I assumed she meant people who watched R-rated movies and skipped church on Sundays.

Despite her confidence in me, I felt the best way to protect myself from an early pregnancy was to avoid puberty altogether, and I spent the next two years doing what I could to fight it. I traded in my dresses for tee shirts and wind pants, played soccer with the boys at recess instead of standing off to the side giggling at them, and I ignored the existence of deodorant until my mother came home with a stick one day, all pink and flowery and smelling like powder, and told me I could just put it on my dresser until I was ready to use it. When I started to get some tenderness in my chest, I worked up the courage to ask my mother for a bra. “But I only want sports bras!” I shouted. It was, after all, her fault I even needed one.

As I approached high school, I felt the dark pubescent forces making their advance. I noticed some small changes, but nothing that couldn’t be concealed behind loose-fitting athletic wear. And sure, I thought some of the boys in my class were funny, but I didn’t like them like that. Just to prove it, I avoided all middle school dances, because dances were for people who wanted to flirt. Those were the types of people, I bet, that got pregnant at seventeen.

I got through junior high with little more than a pair of small, flattened breasts and shaved armpits. But the worst, I knew, was yet to come. I woke up every morning in a panic, rushing into the bathroom to check for blood, relieved each time I saw I had yet another day to live without a panty liner.

Of course, puberty did come, sometime between eighth grade and high school, and I sat my mother on the end of her bed and told her I would need to borrow some of those diaper things, and I guessed I should get one of those bras with the hooks in the back. She was less devastated than I thought she would be. She didn’t put on black and mourn the loss of yet another child to adolescence. Instead, she stood up and said matter-of-factly, “Well, that’s what happens when you turn fourteen,” and handed me the pack on her dresser. I shoved it under my sweatshirt, pressing hard to hide the bulge.

“Don’t tell Dad!” I yelled before slamming the door on my way out.

Dad, I knew, would mourn the loss of his little girl. Maybe he found out, or maybe he’d just assumed it had happened, but suddenly, the bedside chats with my mother turned into passenger seat chats with my father when he picked me up at 11:58pm from Molly Stanton’s adult-supervised, co-ed, alcohol-free, cross-country team sleepovers. I wondered what he thought went on after midnight.

“It’s just not appropriate,” he tried to reason with me when I whined that everybody else’s parents let them stay overnight. “We’re not everybody else’s parents!” He was right about that. Nobody else’s father was the coach of the cross country team. Nobody else’s father knew better than everybody else’s father that the nerdy boys on the team were the least of the threats to my girlhood. I glared at his reflection in the passenger side window so that he’d know just how cruel he was. When I felt I’d made my point, I whipped my head around and said, “You’re so unfair!” then turned again to watch the guardrail whiz by.

“That’s what happens when you have a daughter,” he replied.

Despite hating him for making me the only kid who had to leave the co-ed sleepovers early, I worried he might be right about other boys. They were all out to get me pregnant, or at least to second base—whatever that was—and it was best not to date at all.

I completed Freshman year without so much as a group date to the movies. My father seemed content with my apparent aversion to boys, so had no reservations about me taking my first job at an all-boys summer camp. I would work in the dining hall as a sort of sous-chef: emptying vats of peanut butter into smaller vats of peanut butter and vats of mayonnaise into smaller vats of mayonnaise, and serving English muffin pizzas and Jell-O to boys half my age. The camp was across the lake from our summerhouse, a rustic getaway just a few miles from our real house, so my father could easily patrol the waters until I boated home.

But what he didn’t know, and neither did I, was that a boy named Tim Fox would be there. Tim was the bronzed sailing instructor from New Jersey, and I caught him looking at me from his dinner table while I served sloppy joes one evening. Another night he lingered a few seconds after I unloaded a scoop of macaroni and cheese onto his plate to ask me how my day was. The morning he came into the kitchen where I was emptying a vat of blueberry yogurt into a smaller vat of blueberry yogurt was the morning I decided he’d be my first kiss, my prom date, and probably, my husband.

He inhaled deeply as he walked in, paused at my workstation, and whispered breathily, “That smells good.”

“The yogurt?” I asked.

“No, you,” he replied, even breathier than before.

I began spending the hour before my shift in our bathroom applying mascara and sparkly eye shadow, doing and redoing the bun on the top of my head until I had achieved the right balance of tight and messy, then walking out in a spaghetti strap tank top and swirl of “Simply White” GAP body spray. Between shifts, I stretched out my two-piece like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model as the sailing class floated by, peeking out from behind an outdated copy of Cosmo I’d borrowed from a friend to see if Tim had noticed me. One day, during a lunch shift following a morning on the dock, he asked me from across a tray of chicken patties, “Did you enjoy the sun?”

I handed him a sesame-spotted bun and replied softly, “I did. How was sailing today?”

“Beautiful,” he said, pausing just long enough to let me know he wasn’t talking about the lake. “I’d like to take you some time.”

Unfortunately, my father had noticed too: the hair, the makeup, the hours spent sunning on the dock. “I’m not letting you go sailing with some guy I don’t even know,” he said. The discussion ended there, but the romance did not.

It was a drawn-out affair—four summers—that ended each August when Tim went back to New Jersey and I went into my bedroom to cry, and began awkwardly again the following June when he strolled into the camp kitchen, already tanned. Those first two summers we stole glances in the dining hall and passed whispered words of disguised flirtation across the serving counter. I was sure that if I was ever going to kiss anyone, it was going to be Tim. I’d earned a reputation at school as an un-dateable non-partier, but at camp, where no one knew me, I played up the mystery of my off-season life. I didn’t lie about the fact I’d never had a beer or a boyfriend, but when other counselors asked me (on Tim’s behalf) to party with them in the evenings, I said I had other plans. “Too cool for us,” they teased. I smiled and shrugged, and let them believe that I was.

In truth, I was still too scared, and too mystified about what happens or what’s expected when you kiss someone. The camp counselors, Tim among them, were not like the cross country kids I hung out with at school. They smoked cigarettes, drank beer after the campers went to bed, and had probably been around a couple of bases, the actual details of which I had never worked out. Besides, Tim and I were rarely alone. He was surrounded by campers during the day, and I was forbidden from hanging out with the camp guys in the evenings.

Twice, though, I had my chance at that first kiss. The first time came late one night under the deck in the rain, three summers into our suppressed romance. After the kids were in bed and my parents asleep, Tim canoed across the lake to my house. We sat together exchanging hesitant touches and few words (we preferred basking in our true love to speaking.) When it started to downpour, we tiptoed under the house where my parents lay sleeping upstairs. Rain dripped between the cracks of the deck above us, and we huddled together, Tim occasionally commenting on how nice I smelled while I held my breath so I wouldn’t choke on the scent of a thousand stale cigarettes. When the rain slowed, the quiet highlighting the silence between us, he leaned in, and I panicked.

“How’s that crack you patched in the sailboat holding up?” I improvised. Something told me that kissing under a deck in the rain while your father slept upstairs—that’s what got you pregnant at seventeen, and at seventeen, I couldn’t risk it.

The second chance came the following summer. My parents agreed to let my cousin Hannah and me spend the night on the lake alone while they stayed at home. Hannah was my age, a good girl like me, and together we decided to break that habit, just this once. We invited Tim and another counselor, Evan, to come by. They arrived by canoe again, this time with a backpack of beer. I sat on the deck railing as Tim leaned his rock-hard abs against my bent knees. He pulled a PBR from the backpack and offered it to me. I took it from him, casually, I hoped, and cracked it open. If they could see me now, I thought, “they” being my classmates and “now” being me drinking alcohol and hanging out with the hottest guy at camp. I took a long sip of beer and forced back a gag reflex.

“What do you normally drink?” Tim asked.

“This, mostly,” I said. It was true, of course. That one sip was the most I’d ever had in my life. When I was halfway through, he asked if I was ready for another. “Yeah!” I said, and set the half-empty can aside.

Meanwhile, Hannah had disappeared inside with Evan and the backpack. Tim sat beside me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders, which were tightening with that feeling I was in too deep. His voice was soft again, his head bending to reach mine.

Suddenly, I was tired. More tired, in fact, than I thought I had ever been before. I yawned and stretched my arms up, loosening his grasp, and declared I should go to bed. He called to Evan who emerged from the house with a giggling Hannah. Tim grabbed my hand and promised to see me tomorrow, and the two boys canoed off into the night.

That was the last summer I saw Tim, a summer that ended with a mysterious girlfriend from New Jersey coming for a visit, a shattered heart, and my father finding out about the beer-drinking and the almost-kiss and summoning me to the end of the dock for a chat.

“I don’t even know who you are anymore!” he grieved. My tears splashed into the water below as I tried to explain everything to him, from the two half-drunk PBRs to the shoulder hug, but he held his hand up and said accusingly, “I don’t want to know what happened that night.” I begged him to tell me how he knew what he thought he knew, but he refused. I hid my diary between mattresses after that.

My mother was away at the time, and I met her at home two days later, prepared for a second blowup. Instead, she called me into her room where she sat up in bed reading her morning prayers, her back against the headboard, and gently patted the spot next to her, the spot where my father slept each night, and reached out to stroke my hair. “I know how it is,” she said sympathetically, and I burst into tears.

I didn’t really blame my father for his overreaction. Who knows what might have happened that night had I taken my first kiss? I certainly didn’t. Despite legally being an adult, I was still my father’s little girl, still more clueless about kissing and dating and sex than the rest of my peers. But I was no longer the little girl with the fluffy kitten who was afraid of puberty. I’d practically kissed a boy. As for Waffles, she had gone missing that first summer I worked at the boys’ camp, only to be found months later, alone and flattened in the middle of the road.

I didn’t cry when my mother broke the news to me from the foot of her bed. I suppose I’d been dealing with the loss for years. And while I knew Waffles wasn’t held to the same standards as I was, I couldn’t help but feel there was some larger moral lesson in her fate. “You see,” I sensed my mother saying, concealed by words of comfort “that’s what happens when you have sex before you’re married.”

— Mary Brindley

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Mary Brindley grew up in Orwell, Vermont, spent her twenties in Boston, and recently moved to San Francisco where she works as a freelance copywriter. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in creative nonfiction, and is indebted to her large family for providing her with the fodder for most of her essays.

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Jul 032017
 

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The narrow windows had black-leaded panes, you could see the tombstones of the cemetery through them. The sky lowered, and greyed, and the houses huddled with their small chimney pots, crooked; all covered, it seemed to me, in soot, in centuries of old black soot.

It was 1978, and I was a new immigrant with my family in London. I was eighteen years old. Instead of life speeding up and becoming more exciting though, as I had thought and imagined it would, it seemed to be slowing down. Things around me slowed, and seemed to have darkened and closed in, while I felt myself with a centre that grew more and more still.

I felt my perceptions to have altered, so that I saw everything through a grey veil, that nothing, no tossing of my head, no long sleep, could lift or shake. I thought I would go on a tropical holiday to Kenya, to feel better: I leafed through travel brochures about Kenya. Why Kenya? Because it wasn’t South Africa, that deeply loved place we had left: my home, which we had left behind.

Our left-behind home.

So, Kenya. Kenya didn’t have apartheid. Kenya wasn’t my deeply loved, deeply anguished home. I could go to Kenya.

Meanwhile, I lived, perched precariously it seemed to me, with my parents and brothers in a house in a suburb of London. The house overlooked Golders Green cemetery, the white and grey tombstones were visible from our windows, our narrow, old-English windows with leaded glass.

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A friend I made was working as an usher at the Young Vic theatre. He said he wanted to be a director, a theatre director, a distant category of person in my mind: an unimaginable ambition to me, at eighteen years old (although he was eighteen years old too). He got me a job ushering at the Young Vic with him. I was happy to have a job: to have something to do I might like, to earn a few pounds for something, I couldn’t imagine for what.

My studies had been proceeding on Frognal Avenue in Hampstead, we waded through Homer’s The Odyssey–such a long, long journey, with no end. Later those studies would falter too. The Odyssey, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, and all the other books I was reading, became too much, too much to read, by far.

My job as a theatre usher began. Each evening my mother drove me to Golders Green tube station, near the end of the black Northern line. There was a wait, always a wait, then I’d get on a train, which travelled, through tunnels and tunnels, south, past stations I soon knew and could anticipate by heart. Hampstead; Belsize Park; Chalk Farm; Camden Town; Mornington Crescent; Euston; Warren Street; Tottenham Court Road; Leicester Square; Charing Cross; Embankment. Waterloo.

That was my stop. Waterloo, grey and gloomy, and tunnels to walk through, twenty minutes of walking, to the theatre, in its unassuming home on the South Bank, dark also and gloomy in my memory.

There was a black-coal overpass, I remember it.

The Young Vic was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s second home (Stratford-on-Avon was its first). That season, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen were starring in Macbeth, with Trevor Nunn directing. I was an usher for the season.

My job was to stand at the doors, take tickets, and direct people to their seats. Then I could stand inside and watch the play, or stand just outside, in the lobby, and talk with the other ushers. When I left each evening, I was paid a few pounds, in cash. I would talk with Michael, my usher friend, for a few minutes, about nothing I now remember, we probably discussed the play, or some gossip about the other ushers. Michael lived in south London, in Dulwich, where I’d never been. I tried to imagine it. There must be an expanse of low chimney pots in Dulwich, narrow houses, windows with leaded panes too. Michael had longish, dark hair, and a pale English skin. I thought he might be gay. Perhaps he suggested having a drink sometime, but I don’t remember.

I’d start on my journey home.

There was the twenty-minute walk again through tunnels: the black turnstyles; the odd people about; the concrete and echoes in the tunnels; sometimes happy theatre-goers going home; other people, even crazy, or homeless ones; and sometimes, in my memory, no-one about at all. Just me, and my thoughts, which seemed very slow, and slowing, then. And then the long train ride home, through all the stations. This time, in reverse, like a familiar song, with its chords rearranged. Embankment; Charing Cross; Leicester Square; Tottenham Court Road; Warren Street; Euston; Mornington Crescent; and onwards, north.

The black Northern line split in two, so sometimes I took the wrong train, and passing through Bank, Moorgate and Angel stations, I’d know it was wrong. I’d imagine the City at those stations, the financial centre of London, deserted now, at night. I’d have to get out and wait again, for the right train, the right Northern line, the one that ended at High Barnet, with Golders Green, my stop, on its way.

The tube stations had machines dispensing Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut bars, and Bounty bars, and I’d buy one, the twenty-five-pence coins in my palm, so vividly remembered, now. The sweetness of the dense-white coconut in the Bounty bars was a counterweight to the grime and lateness and solitude of the night train.

There would still be the dim night bus from the station, or my mother picking me up, to get home, to our house of the leaded panes, its chimney pot like all the thousands over London: distinctive London chimney pots, dark and small and old.

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Nowadays if you Google the 1978 Young Vic production of Macbeth where I worked as an usher, and in which a young Ian McKellen and Judi Dench played the leads, you will read that it was a defining production of the play: a glittering and historic theatrical milestone. There was no scenery, the backdrop just a black curtain, and the set just a few black boxes which were moved around when needed, as chairs, or steps. There were no costumes: the actors wore black, and nothing else, no adornment. There was no time or place reference, so the story of the play could be occurring anywhere, at any time. The only prop was a dagger–the crucial dagger.

Come, let me clutch thee.

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The Young Vic was a small, in-the-round theatre. The effect of this and the sparse set was that you felt as though you were in personal communion with Ian McKellen as Macbeth, or Judi Dench, as Lady Macbeth. Just a spotlight on their faces as they spoke. The words the most important thing: Shakespeare’s words, alone.

There were perhaps sixteen performances of that play. As the lights went down each evening and my work was done taking tickets and directing people to their seats, I didn’t go out into the lobby to talk to Michael, or do nothing, as I was free to do. I stood inside at the back, and watched the entire play of Macbeth, from beginning to end. Sixteen times, as I said.

I knew Macbeth as I had studied it in high school. I also knew, in my dim awareness–so many things not clear–how rare it was, to watch these actors, this play, in such proximity. So I watched, in darkness. Sixteen times. Ian McKellen’s spotlit face, night after night.

By the end of the run, I knew every breath of every single word that Ian McKellen spoke, every gesture he made, every nuance or quaver in his voice. I could predict in exactly what tenor or tone he would say something, and detect tiny changes he might make. I spent daylight hours, at home, repeating lines to myself, as the music of them gave me so much pleasure. I seem to think my sleeping hours must have been filled with that music, those cadences, too. And I’d repeat words, simple words, as Judi Dench’s voice, her black-garbed figure, carried through my days.

Will all the oceans of Arabia sweeten this little hand?

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There was nothing in the dark play of Macbeth that related in an obvious way to the life experience I had had, and my life experiences at that moment were full of other concerns: concerns about being alien and alone in a new and foreign place. My home–as I said–left behind.

No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green, one red

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Many years later I understood that the darkness I experienced was not only London in winter, a northern European winter that was so alien to me, a South African. It was also a paralysis in myself that had started quite suddenly, then seeped further, and further, almost into my body.

My clearest memory of that time might be the black tale of Macbeth. Standing in a darkened room and hearing Shakespeare’s words was a profound solace to a young person floundering: it was an assurance, I now recognize, that art can offer, an assurance of beauty in darkness, of beauty that might transcend things, of a beauty that might last.

I had lost family and friends, a sense of connection and belonging, and a landscape—strange and wide and sun-drenched— that was mine. There was the injustice in South Africa, and the possibility of doing something about it: the moral clarity of something I could do, even a sense of duty about what I must do. I had lost that, as well.

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It was a long time before I took full measure of that loss. It was a long time before the grey veil began to lift, before I found and made a new home, before I found the beginnings of clarity.

I live in a new city now, not an old one. I love leaded glass windows. I also like stained glass, but only old—especially antique—stained glass. Alongside the blackness of the veins, there are the colours: blood-red, or ruby-red, and grass-green, and blue, like the sky. But which sky? Not an African sky, and not a faded English or European one. It is some other sky: a sky that exists only in the window, and is a deeper blue than all the other skies.

Macbeth keeps its hold. I have an idea that its words and music exist in me, like bones. Ineradicable. I have an idea they made me a writer.

Blackness exists and lives alongside colour and beauty–and truth. I intuited that in that long-ago theatre, although I only dimly understood it, then.

—Dawn Promislow

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Dawn Promislow is the author of the short story collection Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), which was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada). Her poem “lemon” was short-listed for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. She lives in Toronto.

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Jun 032017
 


Mark Foss being tickled by his brother.

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Jesus Understood

In 1961, my parents buy a split-level, four-bedroom house in a new subdivision in the west end of Ottawa called Pinecrest, a middle-class suburb where none of the mothers work (outside the house), and the kids walk home for lunch to find the front door unlocked. They are creating more space for their unexpected third child — me — although I never seem to find it.

I learn to tell time by the kitchen clock, which is seven minutes ahead so my father won’t be late for work. In the morning, I sit on his knee and eat half his breakfast grapefruit. In the afternoon, I kneel on the pink chesterfield, staring out the living room window for a sign of his imminent arrival on the horizon. I am in the crow’s nest of a ship, a pirate suffering from scurvy desperate for nourishment.

Like all of our neighbours, my family is white. Like most of them, we are vaguely Protestant. I have no religious instruction other than Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, which haunt my dreams. In one, a young boy is hit by a car. In the hospital, the boy in the next bed teaches him to hold his arm up at night to accept Jesus as his saviour. But the boy in the accident is pretty beat up. They have to prop up his arm on some pillows. The boy’s arm collapses when he dies overnight, but Jesus understood. I long to be understood too.

My father fears break-ins at the house during weekends to the cottage. Unsolicited, I pray the way I’ve seen on television with both hands folded to my chin. Fearing that Jesus will not understand, I cite a thesaurus of property crimes to ensure our house is not burgled, broken-into or robbed. Is it “A-men” or “Ah-men”? I hedge my bets, saying it both ways. A few times even, with variations, so that Jesus does not feel slighted and punish us for bad grammar or syntax.

A week after the minister from the United Church visits our house, my father drops me off at the church to join a friend in the choir. But my friend is not there. I am ten years old, too shy to put up my hand, too afraid to make waves. I sit alone, listening to the hymns in tears, waiting to be saved.

My mother doesn’t answer when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to the door. She stays in the kitchen, and tells me to hide behind the pink chesterfield so they think no-one’s home. I wait forever, worried they will simply try the knob and find it unlocked. I want to understand who they are, but accept at face value the need to fear them. I lay low.

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Ghosts

My father takes up so much space that, like my mother, I feel the only option is to be smaller-than-life. At a friend’s birthday party, I win the balloon for staying quiet the longest. It’s no effort at all since being well-behaved is my default position. It makes me invisible and, paradoxically, gives me the attention I crave.

Even my Old West action figures are unfailingly polite. Johnny West and Captain Maddox take turns watering their horses out of the back of the humidifier on top of the landing beside my parents’ bedroom. While my mother has one of her many five-minute rests, they tiptoe around the mesa and bring their mares back to the corral before my father gets home at 6:07 p.m. expecting dinner on the table.

My parents eat upstairs, while my brother and I dine in the rec room in front of the television. He’s ten years older and gets final say on shows, but allows me to switch during commercials. With all the back and forth, the channel selector on the Zenith starts to go, allowing ghostly images from one show to cross into another. In his workshop, my father files a groove into the broken shaft of a Sherwood hockey stick so it fits perfectly over the channel selector. A firm push — a poke check, really — sends the phantoms back to the world where TV shows live when you’re not watching them.

The stick demarcates space between channels, but also between the two of us. We keep it handy on the coffee table, a desk my father got surplus from work. He cut the legs in half, and my mother varnished the oak surface in a deep red. The TV Guide, our sacred text, is on my brother’s side. He forbids me to draw moustaches, beards, and eye patches on the celebrities featured on the covers until the week is over, and of course I comply.

My older sister is long gone and, after my brother moves out, I eat downstairs alone. I can watch what I want now, but sometimes I watch his shows to pretend he’s still sitting beside me. I respect his rule for defacing the cover because he might visit from Winnipeg and I don’t want to disappoint him.

There are so few rules in my family that I need to make my own. On Christmas morning, I open my stocking and one present before waking the household. When I come home with a friend after school, the two of us play with my chemistry set on the deep freeze in the garage until my mother returns. I long for bigger rules and firmer principles. Unlike my action figures, I am malleable in all directions.

I don’t care for superheroes, identifying instead with the tormented vampire of my Dark Shadows comics. He pretends to be writing a book to cover his absence during daylight hours. I like how he flits between human and bat, how he moves between the past and the present, how he hides in plain sight. Now you see him, now you don’t.

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Baby

In sixth grade, I start a five-year diary that gives four lines to take stock of the day. Not much room to express feelings, but that suits me fine. I look for them instead in the lives of others.

I hatch a plan to sneak into our classroom after school to flip through Nicole’s little black book. I fear the cleaning lady will see through me or that Nicole has not seen me at all. The best I can manage is writing her name in my diary that night. A few choice words.

Nicole disappears with the other cool kids at recess while I play a ball game called “Baby” with my nerdy friends. Since players can twist their bodies but not move their feet, I roll the ball strategically to tag them out. I win a lot except the last game of the year. Because it is my last recess — the beginning of the end of childhood — my feet are glued to the earth, but my head is somewhere else. I am busy recording what to remember.

As the calendar year draws to a close, I am restless. Not for the excitement of a new year, but rather so I can repeat the description of last year’s “yummy dinner” in the space allotted for January 1. Echoes and symmetries. The promise of the familiar offers comfort I can find nowhere else.

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Summers

One of my first books is Tommy Visits the Doctor, which offers a reassuring picture of a middle-aged male physician with greying temples who gives his child patients a lollypop when they leave. A parallel story shows a young bunny going to the rabbit doctor who receives a fat carrot on the way out of the burrow. I do not think to be afraid before reading the story.

I do not visit the doctor when the dead limb falls off the tree, carrying me to the ground. I lose my wind, look around for it in panic. How does my mother hear my gasps? I am in the woods, far from the cottage. She bids me rest in bed with the blinds closed, as if darkness itself will stop the new route my spine plans to take.

I live at the cottage with my mother all summer, dreading the arrival of my father on weekends. He is the great surgeon and I the nurse, expected to hand him the instrument required — a Phillips screwdriver, a square of coarse sandpaper, a pair of sidecutters or needle-nose pliers — before he himself knows it’s needed.

The tools are a mystery to me, much less interesting than the stories of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. As I eliminate murder suspects, the troublelight droops in my hand, throwing my father’s work under the car into shadow. I have no defence, no alibi. But even as he chastises, I am secretly pleased since my guilt means he sees me.

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Social Studies

I invite different friends to the cottage for a week at a time, but never Allan, one of my Chinese friends. I am not even sure we are friends at all. I share lockers with him from fifth to eighth grade. I play foot hockey with him at recess and when I curse for the first time at a bad play he enthuses that I’ve finally become one of the gang. The sense of belonging this creates makes me want to swear for joy.

I go to Allan’s birthday party every year, which is managed by his older sisters. We play hockey on the rink in back of the Catholic school near his home, and then play more games in his basement. I win first prize one year — a can of lychees in syrup. I feign appreciation, but it’s a strange reward, especially when the runner up gets a hockey puzzle in a can. It must be a Chinese custom, one more thing I don’t understand or question.

When Allan gets sick in eighth grade, I am the one who delivers a cassette tape of limericks recited by the class as a get-well-soon gift. My classmates record it dutifully, and I resent being picked as the messenger. The class knows without knowing this is no ordinary illness and no-one wants to get too close.

I visit Allan in the hospital where he wears a baseball cap. When he returns to school, he ends up on the “skin” team in gym class, and we all see the marks on his chest. He doesn’t seem to be the same. Even his hair is different.

He disappears again from school, and I deliver another tape of dumb poems. I bring him homework, too. Maybe his backdoor is unlocked, even if he lives on a less desirable street. But I don’t check. I don’t want to get trapped into spending time with him, of witnessing his decline. So I leave the books on the barbecue in the carport outside the door and call him from home. After all, I only go to his house on birthdays and he’s never been inside mine at all.

Allan misses graduation and the chance to leave five words to be remembered by in a cheap photocopied keepsake the teacher makes for all of us. So she writes something for Allan, making a joke based on his last name which rhymes with “wrong”. Like the limericks, it’s not so funny.

I wear brand new white wide-legged Howick jeans with four stars on the back pocket to the graduation party. Unlike everyone else who eats KFC, I get a plate of cold meat, which provokes many questions. Ask and ye shall receive. I want to be seen, and yet don’t stay for the dance, running home, faster than when I feared the bullies in third grade. Nicole will be there, and all the other girls I pine over and can’t approach.

The summer before high school I am up at the cottage, which is a good reason not to visit Allan in the hospital again. I don’t know whether he propped his arm up the night he died.

It’s a Chinese custom, I’m told, for the older children to handle the funeral. Same goes for the square of white paper containing a quarter and a candy they hand me at the wake. A candy to sweeten my loss, and money to buy more sweets.

He looks less real than ever, lying there, the first dead body I’ve ever seen. Our teary-eyed teacher hands out a tissue to everyone, a little melodramatically, but my own tears won’t come. Neither will words. Not here.

Ready or not, my childhood is over. What I have left is my desire to keep him alive. I hang onto the wrapped up sweet and the quarter, and the single page in Allan’s hand from Social Studies class. I must have borrowed it from him one day when I was sick and he got sick before I could give it back.

We were learning about Australians, how they have many of the same things we do in Canada. Most live in the cities. They enjoy life. These are the things worth remembering.

— Mark Foss

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Born in Ottawa, and now living in Montreal, Mark Foss is the author of three books of fiction and numerous short stories. His most recent novel, Molly O, appeared in 2016. Spoilers, his first novel, was partly inspired by his radio drama, Higher Ground, which was broadcast on CBC in 2001. A collection of linked stories, Kissing the Damned, was longlisted for the ReLit Award in 2005. His stories have also appeared in such literary journals as The Fiddlehead and The New Quarterly, as well as in Canadian and American anthologies. He is currently completing a new novel. Visit him at www.markfoss.ca.

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Jun 022017
 

Trinie Dalton, 15 years ago, with Dennis Cooper and his then partner, Yuri.

 
Echo Park, CA, 1990s

That day, we received a Fedex from Brazil for Alprazolam and a Fedex from Spain for Absinthe; we had a nice slotted spoon and sugar cubes to melt through the spoon to sweeten the absinthe; from our house we had a good view of downtown at sunset from the hill right above my favorite pink museum, the one where the diorama tunnel of Chumash Claymation dolls being epic in nature burrowed almost all the way up to our basement; therefore we had everything we needed for a nice night.

Somewhere in there, our hamster went missing. She just attached a tiny pink bow to her ear, applied lipstick, picked the lock on her metal cage with a teeny tiny paper clip and excused herself to go observe the great outside, perhaps the front yard pond where I was cultivating pickerel, duckweed, and water lettuce like Frida Kahlo tending her water gardens at her Casa Azul. Beckoned by the shiny full moon, high above the bay laurel tree, our hamster started her spirit journey. At least she was safe in her Lucite ball, the kind that rolls around the room, which I’d placed her in after she escaped her cage earlier. But all the doors were open, it was so warm that night, and she rolled down the steep back hill towards the black walnut gulley where the skunk nest was.

Or so I thought when I hadn’t seen her for a couple hours. Turns out the dog rescued the hamster in her ball, from rolling down the outdoor deck’s stairs. Where was I going with this? Oh yeah: The deck stairs were pink and there was a witch cave in the basement below it (as well as our laundry room). The dog had the Lucite hamster ball, clamped in his mouth when he came back inside, the plastic globe reminded me of a cheesy crystal geode, and the little panicky tan hamster was still in there, totally fine, just jittery and fixating on a sunflower seed. It was a miracle to witness animals saving animals, a memorable interspecies moment. I had a shot of Jack to slow the two glasses of absinthe down. The rodent’s transportation bubble gave it all an intergalactic feeling, like the dog had dug up a thousand year-old alien egg, and E.T. was about to pedal by on his dirt bike through the sky, en route to find his boy master. I remembered hamsters lived wild in Germany and figured ours had merely wanted to smell night air, completely innocent, which I can for sure understand. In fact, this whole melodrama inspired me to set her free a couple weeks after that—just took her out to the bushes and kissed her head and pet her with my index finger very gently, admiring her peach fuzz one last time, and put her down under the oleander. Thinking back on it now, that was unwise because oleander leaf is deadly to mammals and if she got hungry she probably stocked her cheek pouches up with it before her quest for Valhalla. Uh oh.

The eastside at that point was still graphite friendly, lots of doodlers and jammers lived there. The Jimi Hendrix wannabe next door woke me up every Sunday morning as he weekend-warriored his Stratocaster, before hangover brunches at Millie’s; the scrub jays were so cranky and loud some afternoons you wanted to get them stoned to shut them up; the pirate radio station was one canyon over; and a badass gang defended my street with meritorious efficacy. I could have an iguana pal anytime I wanted by just walking next door and petting one, and cumbia boomed on the weekends. Two doors down was a communal hammock that everyone in the hood stopped to swing in: rich and poor, tall and short, young and old, singers and creepers, anyone who wasn’t into corporate shit was welcome in it. The equality hammock. Up towards the top of the block, guys who dressed up like British Dandies with ascots smoked heroin and made bad music, and up at the very tippy top of the block where the houses dead-end into Chaparral, the high priest of dandyism decided to strut his black potbellied pig on a leash all the way down past all of us, to get a ground-level boulevard ice cream cone mimicking us commoners. The pig and the absinthe made a solid team, in terms of image building. I walked down to the bodega to get smokes; a crack dealer was working the storefront pretty hard and I felt right at home. I was past crack by then, way more into getting mellow and archiving the present tense with collage making, alphabetizing the record collection, and admiring our black and white kitchen linoleum, which resembled a chessboard.

Well anyway, I pet the dog’s head and said “good boy” and gave him some chicken in exchange for the hamster ball. I put some pantyhose on. I might have got sidetracked reading a book about gems & minerals. I made a beaded necklace. The neighborhood owl came out, freestyling like an alarm for smog levels. A uniquely striated Sphinx Moth flitted across our picture window outside, and the way it left a neon trailer in the air across the black night horizon reminded me of that David Lynch movie Mulholland Drive. Going outside to get a breath of fresh air myself, I decided then and there I loved street lamps.

The city is not a bad place to live, if you dial certain things in: wall to wall soundproofing so you enjoy the 3am vibe when the stars are aligned, a readiness for your intricately carved jack o’ lanterns to get smashed by buffoons, a canteen to walk with. The city is for people who get happy when they see vomit in the gutter because something real has gone down in that same spot. You’re like an archeologist giddily digging up dinosaur bones, relishing the filth of others. You’re like a stoner who just got his brown bag with a warm burrito in it, and you’re choosing which salsas to dump on it. You’re a green dragon slithering though life, noticing the Victorian lampshade trend evolving in your neighborhood and not minding a bit. It’s not a bad trend, with its low-light and fringe cloth lamp coverings. Kind of Jack the Ripper, but with a peaceful, opiated vibe. There have been worse looks in domestic lighting practices.

—Trinie Dalton

 

Trinie Dalton is author/curator of six books, and teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Forthcoming texts of hers can be found in monographs about Mark Grotjahn (Anton Kern Gallery); Chris Martin (Skira); Sam Falls (JRP Ringier); Cristina Toro (LaCa Gallery); Jessica Jackson Hutchins (CCAD Gallery); and Tannaz Farsi (Linfield College Gallery).

 

 

Apr 022017
 

roberta-levine-with-cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

roberta-levine-outdoors

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

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

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

roberta-levine-in-kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

roberta-levine-putting-on-boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Roberta Levine

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

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Mar 012017
 

Amanda Bell

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When my grandparents retired they built a house in Mayo. It was tucked into the purple-veined crook of Lurgan’s elbow, gazing down over Lough Conn, with Nephin Beg rising up to the left – its mist-swathed summit a reasonably accurate gauge of the weather sweeping down towards the lake. If the top third of the mountain was hidden in cloud or mist it was a sure sign of good weather. ‘Good’ weather was showery and overcast, with a stiff but not too strong breeze – perfect fishing weather. Bad weather, on the other hand, was hot, still and sunny, peachy-scented with blossom, the air full of the sound of grasshoppers scraping and the sporadic popping of dry sun-ripened gorse pods spitting their black seeds outwards in ever-increasing circles. On bad weather days even the dogs were too hot to go rabbit hunting, instead throwing themselves down in exhausted hairy heaps in the shade of the porch with their pink tongues melting in coils beside them.

1. Nephin MountainNephin mountain 

‘Try and make those stupid dogs drink’, my grandmother would say. ‘They’ll get dehydrated’, and I would sprinkle drops of water onto their tongues for a while, watching their sides heave and their tails wag languorously. Because bad weather days were good for nothing else they were usually designated work days – days for brambling in the herb bed where my grandmother grew parsley and dill, cutting wood to thin the surrounding hedgerows, stripping and painting boats, or raking the gravel around the house. Such days usually ended in a barbecue. When evening fell we would congregate at the back of the house, sit on seats made out of old wine casks, and boast about our aching muscles, smearing ourselves with midge-repellent, and my grandfather, in his blue and white striped apron, would cook the dinner. Usually he barbequed steak, which he served with mushroom sauce – ‘grandpa’s special’. The recipe was a secret and only I, his pet lamb, was allowed to accompany him to the kitchen and watch while he sliced little piles of mushrooms, turned them in buttery meat juices in a pan, scraped the bottom with some brandy, and added a stream of cream and some white wine; other times he cooked fish, pink trout wrapped in tin foil. Mine would always be opened for me, the firm flesh peeled away from the bones and the steaming slippery skins thrown out onto the grass for the dogs.

Amanda Bell and daughter near summit of Mount Nephin_1Amanda Bell and daughter near the summit of Mount Nephin

One bad weather day, tired of brambling and of splashing water onto the dogs, I decided to help my grandfather, who was building a boat-house. This boat-house was to be built half-way up the lane, and would have a lean-to shed at the side for stacked logs and turf. I had watched my grandfather drawing the plans for it himself. Now he was working on the foundations, and would have to go down to the boat bay. The boat bay was where we kept our two boats – the blue one and the orange one. The women preferred the orange one because they could see it easily through the window with binoculars, and know when to put the dinner on. The men preferred the blue one because the fish couldn’t see it from the bottom of the lake, and so they caught more.

The boat bay was fringed with hazel scrub and thorn trees, and purple loosestrife and blue scabious grew in the coarse yellow sand. It was a very good place to catch grasshoppers and daddy-long-legs for dapping, and because I was small and moved quietly I was the champion hopper-catcher.

‘Mummy’, I called, running to where she lay reading in a deck chair, ‘I’m going down to the boat bay with grandpa, can I wear my yellow dress?’ The dress had been a present from my brother when he came home from the hospital, a thank you for letting him be born and an apology for distracting my parents’ full attention from me. It had a flared skirt and the bodice was ruched with elastic cross-stitches and dotted with tiny rosebuds of pink and green cotton. For a second the thought of washing the dress yet again flickered in her eyes, but Dr Spock’s advice about not alienating your first-born won out and she came into the house with me, leaving her book spread-eagled on the dusty canvas of the striped deck chair. I wriggled as she pulled the dress over my head, blinked while she caught my hair back in a slide to keep it out of my eyes. Then I tore up the drive, gravel shooting up from beneath my feet, shouting ‘I’m ready now, let’s go.’

Author 1971-72 doorway 480pxAuthor 1971 or 1972 

My grandfather opened the car door and I climbed in gingerly, careful not to let the sun-heated leather car seats burn my thighs or crease my skirt. I loved sitting in the front of the car – they never let me do it at home, only on holidays, because everyone drove slowly and there were no other cars around, only old tractors, rusty red with no safety frames. When we arrived at the boat bay I did a tour to see if I could find any dragonflies, then came back to supervise my grandfather as he threw shovelfuls of sand into the trailer, stopping occasionally to light a Players from the butt of its predecessor. My grandfather even smoked in his sleep. His pillowcases were patterned with brown-rimmed holes from the occasions when he’d failed to wake up in time to take the narrow pillars of ash from his lips and extinguish them in the scorch-marked scallop-shell on his bedside table. My grandmother had long since moved into a separate bedroom for fear of being set on fire. This year, I was allowed to share my grandfather’s bedroom because the baby was in with my parents. I loved it. We stayed awake late to listen to the long-range weather forecast and I watched him blow slow, looping smoke-rings towards the ceiling without taking his eyes off his book. He was a better smoker than my uncles, and his hands were yellower. I preferred cigarettes to cigars, or the cheroots my father smoked.

The author Pontoon 1972The author at Pontoon, 1972

They made his breath sour when he kissed you good night, and in the car it made you sick – worse than reading. My grandfather always asked about what you were reading. Our beds stretched out side by side with the bedside locker and his scallop-shell in between. I went to bed before him, because the grown-ups stayed up after dinner to play bridge, but I always stayed awake waiting for him. To undress he sat on the side of the bed furthest from me, his back turned, and slipped off his trousers and long white drawers while still seated, then pulled on his baggy pyjamas and buttoned them up before turning around and getting under the covers. The blankets smelt musty sometimes, if it had been cold and the radiators weren’t on, but in summer they were fine. I lay in my bed just like he did, with my book leaning on my thighs, and concentrated very hard on watching him smoke. I loved to watch the ash slowly lengthening and bending in his lips, waiting until it was just about to fall. ‘Grandad’ I’d whisper, thinking he was asleep. Then his eyes would snap open, watery blue without his glasses, and he’d take the butt between finger and thumb and lower it to the shell. An inch of ash usually fell on the carpet. ‘Just having a little think,’ he’d murmur, ‘not asleep yet. Good night pet lamb.’ Then he’d turn off the bedside light and we’d go to sleep.

Author's grandfather and brother collecting turfAuthor’s grandfather and brother collecting turf

When the trailer was fully loaded and the sand slid in tiny streams over its edges we got back into the car and drove back onto the road and up the lane towards the house. ‘Let me out here – I’ll race you.’ The hot leather scorched my legs as I slipped down and out the door. The lane was planted with tiny gorse bushes to either side, which my grandmother had transplanted from big thickets in the field – they were small enough to jump over. The blossoms smelt like peaches but they were too thickly surrounded by prickles to pick, unless you had gardening gloves and secateurs anyway. My mother said that we were lucky to have orchids in the field, but we mustn’t pick them because it took four years for them to flower again. I skipped along beside the car, hopping in and out of the field, singing to myself ‘red and yellow and pink and green…’ I leapt high into the air with each word to see my skirt balloon out around me as I descended, jumping higher each time to see how full I could make it spread. I could see my father’s bare back over the hedge where was sawing planks for the boat-house. It was shiny with sweat. In the car my grandfather had begun to gain on me now – even the trailer was ahead. I stopped my leaping and ran as fast as I could, till I was even with the end of the car, overtook it, strained to run faster still, then my shoe hit a stone and I fell headlong over the tow bar. The lane was bouncing up towards my face – baked clay to either side, clover in the middle, sheets of dried and flattened cow dung matting blades of grass together.

The author and her brother_1The author and her brother

I hung on tightly – my ribs crushed against the bar. I heard my father roar, then the car stopped and everyone came running, their sun-pink flesh bouncing, their mouths big black Os. I felt my grandfather catch me under the armpits and lift me off the bar but without looking at him I broke away and ran, over the gorse bushes, around the cattle-grid, and into the house. The tangle of dogs in the porch scattered, yelping in surprise, as I ran through them, down the corridor, not into our bedroom but into my parents’ room. I slammed the door behind me and crawled in under the cot with my eyes closed and my heart racing until I heard voices in the corridor. They murmured for a while, then the door opened and my father came into the room, eased me out from under the cot, lifted me up, and held me gently against his shiny shoulder. The hairs on his chest were matted with sweat and the cheroot smoke smell was hardly noticeable. He sat down on the bed and rocked me for a while, then took off my hair slide, which hung loosely near the end of a strand of hair, smoothed my hair behind my ear and replaced the slide. Then he asked me to come with him and apologise to my grandfather for frightening him. But I was the one who was frightened, so frightened that I didn’t want to see anyone, just stay in the bedroom until bedtime and then it would be tomorrow and it would be a good weather day and the men would go fishing and I’d stay in and watch the rain patterns on the window and do jigsaws with my mother, or we’d put on wellies and go out looking for flowers to pick, or maybe collect some eggs from the neighbour in my little blue bucket, and everything would be the way it always was.

4. Mayo roadMayo Road

But no, I had to go to the living room, because my grandfather was very, very upset, and I had to say sorry, so he’d know that I was alright.

We went to the living room hand-in-hand. My grandfather was in his chair by the fire – it was a tall-backed easy chair with a badly strung seat, and a little tray with spring-fasteners attached to the arm for balancing glasses and ashtrays. The fire wasn’t lit because it was bad weather. My mother smiled at me from across the room – she was pouring him a gin and tonic. My father pushed me gently forward and I climbed onto my grandfather’s knee, mumbling a barely audible apology with my chin down on my chest. I could see the rusty mark the tow-bar had left across the middle of my yellow dress. ‘There there pet lamb, that’s alright now,’ he said. But his blue eyes were looking out the window towards the lake, and that night in bed he kept them open while he thought, and he listened to the radio way after I’d fallen asleep, tipping his ash on the scallop shell.

—Amanda Bell

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Amanda Bell’s collection Undercurrents, a psychogeography of Irish rivers in haiku and haibun, was published by Alba Publishing in 2016. Her illustrated children’s book, The Lost Library Book, will be published this spring by The Onslaught Press, and a debut poetry collection, First the Feathers, is forthcoming from Doire Press. She is the editor of The Lion Tamer Dreams of Office Work: An Anthology of Poetry by the Hibernian Writers (Alba Publishing, 2015) and Maurice Craig: Photographs (Lilliput, 2011). Amanda is currently completing a middle-grade econovel. She works as a freelance editor and indexer. www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie/publications/

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Jan 052017
 

lmdfamily-croppedAuthor with parents

 

About the time when my father, Abraham Morganstern, started to lose his memory, he began to sort through the household trash on a daily basis, picking out with surprising care bent hangers, sole-less shoes, cracked mirrors, unattached buttons, and other items he deemed worthy of resuscitation. His triumphant scavenging at first irritated my mother, Hadassah Morganstern, and me when I happened to return for a visit to the ever-more-cluttered house of my childhood, but after a while we both accepted it as a permanent facet of his new personality. I suppose if you are falling away into some sort of mental darkness, you hold onto anything concrete, even if it’s broken. It may also be his instinct to broker junk into something useful, now gone awry. My father is a self-identified junkman, the son of a junkman, himself the son of a Russian shoemaker, and before that who knows–the ancestral line lost in the rough and decisive Atlantic crossing. And Abraham Morganstern, in his heyday, was the King Midas of east coast junkmen, a working-class boy who, having lost his father as a teenager and finding himself responsible for a widowed mother and two brothers, had wheeled and dealed in paper, rags, cans, and cigarettes on the docks by the Chesapeake Bay and in the printing presses and paper mills of east Baltimore, until he assembled a small fortune. How massive his fortune, I couldn’t say, as he always retained a deep-seated sense of his lower-class origins and a childlike awe of those whom he considered truly wealthy. “That’s a self-made man, right there,” he would gush about the father of one or the other of my classmates at the Bryn Mawr School for Girls, a private school loosely affiliated with the college, both having been founded in the late 1800s by M. Carey Thomas, a cross-dressing philanthropist with a passion for female education. “He’s made of money. And you know what–you couldn’t ask for a nicer guy. That’s the whole package. Me, I’m barely middle-class.” If his progeny, my sister Eloisa Isobel and me, applied themselves then, with the benefit of postgraduate education, we could ascend into the heights of upper class, and, he always added, take care of him in his old age. That old age confronted him far sooner than I had expected, as before his sixtieth birthday he commenced the torturous process of drifting away from himself. At sixty-seven, his mind seemed increasingly defenseless against the waters of Lethe, which flushed out all traits of tenderness and humor but somehow left the stubborn hell intact.

King Lear, which used to be my least favorite Shakespeare tragedy, began making sense to me after witnessing my father’s decline. He seemed to be lost perpetually in an erratic storm I couldn’t see. Sometimes he jumped back and shielded his eyes, as if in the wake of a lightening flash. And while he instantly forgot the anger that thundered through his body at unpredictable moments, it left us all awestruck at the strength still lingering in his failing body. The stress of soothing him through moods alternatively volatile and timorous became too much for my mother. She retired from her job as an English teacher to care for him but even then she needed to take breaks. During the winters she absented herself in Florida for as long as she could prevail upon my sister or me to take over as companion for him. A desire to relieve her for a bit, along with the lengthy vacations endemic to an academic career, has led me to spend increasing amounts of time with him. I spent nearly a month at home during my sabbatical, during which we fell into an unaccustomed intimacy, without the buffer of mother and sister and apart from the rhythms of work and school that had always held us in check from each other.

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newyearsatthedinerAt the diner, New Years Day 2016

When my father, Abraham Morganstern, was fifteen, a Baltimore city bus rode over his right foot. He lost three toes, missed four months of his freshman year of high school, and was subsequently ineligible for the Vietnam draft. Being what he has always termed derisively a bleeding heart liberal, I can hardly regret that he didn’t have to suffer unendurable horrors for inexplicable reasons like many of his contemporaries and most of his high school friends, yet I’ve always thought he would have thrived in the army. He enjoys uniformity, regularity, conformity, and consistency. He is a man who possesses a deep-seated suspicion of the abstract, preferring newspapers to books, Norman Rockwell to Pablo Picasso, print to cursive, and dogs to cats. He has worn Docker slacks and Redwing loafers for forty years and only stays in Hampton Inns regardless of whether he is visiting Tuscaloosa or Paris. Alzheimer’s has only intensified the comfort he finds in the habitual. And thus, every night I stayed with him during my sabbatical, we ate dinner at The Acropolis, a twenty-four hour diner run by kind-hearted Greek emigres accustomed to my father’s habits.

Every night, we enacted the same rituals. My father introduced me to the waitresses and busboys, all congenial offshoots of the Greek diner familia, and we all acted as if it were the first time, as if we too had fallen into the minuscule eternity of a perpetual moment. “This is my daughter. She’s the professor,” he announced in delight, as we took our seats in the red leather booth next to the jukebox. The waitresses and busboys would wink at me and exclaim how smart I must be, how I looked just like my mother, and shake my hand to introduce themselves.

I always ordered for both of us. I varied my order between various breakfast foods but without fail he ate a turkey burger with onions but no lettuce and tomatoes and a side of waffle fries. Whenever the waitress brought us our drinks (Diet Coke for him, glass of slightly dreadful house red wine for me) I always watched him carefully fold up his straw wrapper with studied concentration. Only after he had placed it carefully in his back pocket would he turn to me, his face bright, shining, excited, expectant.

“Tell me what’s new!” he said to me one night at the diner. “I haven’t seen you in almost six months.” I didn’t protest although I had been home for about a week at that point.

“Well, I do have some good news, actually. I found out that I have tenure now.”

“That’s wonderful,” his smile split open his long freckled face.

“Thanks! Check out my business card.” Before leaving home I had stuffed a stack of business cards in my purse for precisely this purpose. He turned it over in admiration and asked if he could keep it. I had given him dozens over the two years since I had actually gotten tenure.

“Well, I am really proud of you. You are so smart.” He shook his head. “You must get that from your mother.” That was the wrong word at the wrong time. It triggered a reverberation of memory and betrayal. His face reddened and his voice grew thick with menace. “Where is your mother? I know she’s not here. Did she go away? Why didn’t she take me with her?”

I was afraid of him in those moments. Because I like things to be polite and calm and peaceful. Because he was still my father, and his flares of temper reminded me of the days when he and my mother had arbitrated morality, judgement, and penance, when I talked back, when I lost my retainer, when I announced I was majoring in medieval studies instead of something they deemed practical. Because his voice thundered too loud for polite conversation, and at that moment in the diner, people were starting to turn around, and I didn’t want him to reveal his weakness to a world that had always shown him deference.

“She just went off for a few days. But I’m here. And I’m here for almost a month,” I said quickly and brightly.

“Well, I didn’t know that. A whole month.” He shoulders relaxed and he opened up his copy of the Baltimore Sun. “Do you want the sports section?”

“Yeah, right.” I grimaced and held up a book on French convents I was meant to be reviewing for a tiny feminist medieval journal. I was relieved. If unchecked, his anger could flail out limitlessly. Last winter, he had chased my mother and sister into my old bedroom and punched a hole through the door. Now he wanders by the room in surprise, puzzling at the gap in the wood.

He held up his newspaper to the fluorescent lights, squinted, and then brought it close to his nose to sniff, as if he could smell the oil on the machines that pressed out the pulp and before that, the perfumes the wood had exuded at the moment of splitting. I had seen him repeat this action a thousand times over the years. Most of his business had come from buying and selling paper, and he understood and respected its shades and varieties. At my childhood birthday parties, he would carefully unfold all the wrapping paper I tossed aside in an ecstasy of anticipation and lovingly examine it like a Vatican official authenticating a sacred relic.

Despite that brief moment of calm, his body would stiffen again and again that night and each night, and I would watch his internal temperature drop or rise into anger, I was never sure which one. Anything could provoke the outbursts–the lack of industry in America today, his french fries touching his cole slaw, the price of gas. Regardless of the issue, his voice thundered like a minister denouncing Satan. I would speak in soothing tones, handing him my business card, creating word games to play on the place mats, pulling out my phone to show him pictures of my dogs, anything to coax him back into tranquility.

***

It seems to me that humans are obsessed with imposing order onto the rhythms of earth. Do we follow the pull of the moon, the cycles of the sun, calculations Julian or Gregorian? Is it a day of rest or a day of work? How do we steady ourselves upon this spinning world? Some internal clock had shattered in my father; all the calendars in the world couldn’t seem to ground him in time. He still knew who he was, and as long as he was somewhere familiar, where he was, but he could not grasp when he was and the impulse to remember left him frantic.

“What year is this? How old am I?” he asked me plaintively, on a loop, in the morning when he first awoke, during meals, during drives. If I was in the same room, I would watch him count the years on his fingers, his ring finger scarred from when it once caught on the roof of a truck he was loading with paper rolls.

“Am I sixty-six?”

“You are sixty-seven, Daddy,” I would call out, while brushing my teeth, or reading, or running the water for dishes.

He would launch into a lengthy explanation about how even though he was already eligible for social security he was planning to wait so that he could increase the amount so my mother would have more when he died. I always agreed with him although I never really listened. I probably should have paid more attention. He had always understood how to invest, how to profit, whereas I could never save a cent. But my attention always wandered, out of habit, as if he were instructing me about stocks and bonds and I was still a bored teenager nodding to keep him happy.

He was able to sustain the conversation for about five minutes before the cycle began again. In mid-sentence, suddenly, he would pause and ask what year it was, how old he was.

Why were we both stranded on different planes? I could move through the day as if through a museum, with paintings and sculptures by different artists from different ages, from golden icons to rotund Madonnas, changing from room to room. He saw each day, each cycle of a few moments, as one painting in a series of the same object, like Monet’s water lilies, going increasingly out of focus in an afternoon of lengthening shadows.

***

allandianecroppedAuthor’s mother and father

On the outside, the house my parents had moved us into when I was three years old still looks like a respectable suburban split level, but on the inside, it is decaying. The water from leaking pipes has bruised the first floor ceiling with purple water stains. A giant hole above the stairs exposes the skeleton of the house, aging and failing no less so than its inhabitants. Until sympathy for my mother’s cares had overcome my hygienic scruples, I had avoided staying at the house more than once or twice a year.

The house had always been cluttered, although generally sturdy. For years it was the repository of familial possessions from both sides. When my father’s uncle Sheldon had a heart attack at the Pimlico racetrack, his Dinah Shore records, his roll top desk, and his threadbare plaid suits infused with cigar smoke, all ended up in our living room. Esther Collector, my mother’s mother, couldn’t abide possessions, and over the years she had sent her diminutive good-humored husband to our house laden with Wedgwood sets, teak end tables, and porcelain planters, all of which had ended up in the hallway in wobbly stacks. These shabby heirlooms gathered dust side by side with sheets of bubble wrap, disembodied and translucent like antique wedding veils, cans sticky with soda, my sister’s college futon, outdated copies of the Baltimore Jewish Times in tenuous heaps. The clutter had built over the years, forming archaeological levels–Level 1 1980-1982 AD, Level II 1982-1984 [early, middle, late], each level built on the rubble of the previous years. The present level existed in some late decadent age from a civilization in decline, fraught with invasion and decay. Of course, I thought wryly, even the Germanic barbarians had maintained the Roman baths. Out of three bathrooms in the house, only one still has a flushing toilet and running water in the sink. The shower is entirely off limits. If you turn on the water, it runs through the floor into the living room below. My father and I conducted our ablutions as best as we could in the one sink, which drained poorly and bore a lingering patina of hair and soap suds. The other two bathrooms had become glorified storage closets, full of mildewed towels and empty bottles of anti-aging creams.

I had avoided coming home for years because I had found my efforts to fight the chaos continuously frustrated. It was far easier, I realized, to accept the reality–the hordes of newspapers and old litter boxes and the styrofoam cups towering unsteadily to the ceiling. With no working showers, I just gave into the grubbiness and settled in among the disarray. It was glorious, in a way, to simply become the body I already was, without fighting the daily onslaught of effluvium and odors. My pillows smelled sour from my hair, and when I sunk into the sheets at night I breathed in a nutty fragrance, as if I was stretching out on a forest floor. What did it matter, really? I drove to the library each morning and then accompanied my father to the diner each night. I moved through the grocery store and the post office anonymously. My rhythms were entirely his. I half slept at night, alert for his turnings and grumblings, his faint sleepy cries in the early morning– “Hadassah, I hurt so bad.”

I slept in my sister’s old room, since she had rendered my own uninhabitable when she moved home two years ago, moved in her kitten, and promptly moved out my old bed, ripped off my Pre-Raphaelite posters and playbills from high school triumphs from the wall, and then moved back out, leaving behind the detritus of a shopping addiction and a cat with a urinary tract infection. She was two years younger than me, a short plump brunette who had recently moved to Boston with grand promises of becoming a freelance fashion writer.

My mother kept the door to my old bedroom closed, so Capricious the cat didn’t disappear inside. I did venture in one time. The light bulbs had burned out, leaving the ridges of possessions cast in grey light through the shuttered windows. My sister had left in a hurry, as if fleeing a war zone, abandoning piles of shoes and leather purses. The dresser was stacked with towers of Starbucks cups with lipstick rims and half-filled water bottles. An acrid smell in the air indicated that she had left a full litter box under old boxes spilling over with tissue paper. Somewhere beneath all that were my old dolls and books. She had attacked the room with a certain hostility indicating she had never forgiven me for existing, for enjoying the bigger room throughout childhood, and for resembling the fair-haired slender Collectors rather than the stocky Morgansterns.

She possessed far less patience for my father now than I did, which was surprising, given that she had always been the Daddy’s girl growing up. They rode bikes together, shot baskets for hours on end, told jokes and sang song lyrics in the car. Their clamorous antics embarrassed and annoyed me. I was very much my mother’s daughter, which meant I was quiet and absorbed in my own world. My father and sister were more sociable creatures. They possessed matching unpredictable tempers and were partners in rage as well as play. I knew I loved him (I wasn’t so sure about her) but I did spend a lot of time wishing him away, willing the house into quiet and calm. “You’re too loud with her. She doesn’t like it. Can’t you see that?” I remember my mother chiding him over the years.

In return, he courted me, stilling his loud, clumsy attentions and approaching me with a kind of reverence. He presented me with small offerings of books and ideas, usually age-inappropriate, gleaned from conversations and articles and radio shows so that at six and seven I read Clan of the Cave Bear and War and Peace and a scintillating host of Jackie Collins novels. I remember one glorious yard sale where he bought me a biography of Anne Boleyn, a biography of Queen Victoria, and a battered copy of a book about girls who went to summer camp and learned how to make voodoo dolls, and after reading all of them in furious delight, I decided that I was going to become a writer, and a historian, and go to camp the next summer. He watched me fill up a series of floral-covered bound notebooks with fledgling biographies of queens and stories about girls going to summer camp, and then he brought me home a gleaming electric typewriter.

“And why does a ten-year-old need a typewriter?” my mother had demanded sharply, but fondly.

“You’ll thank me when she gets into Harvard,” he responded smugly, watching me enthusiastically hunt and peck on the shiny black keys. “She’s smart, like you.”

I didn’t get into Harvard, but like almost all graduates of the Bryn Mawr School for girls, I ended up at a reasonably rated four-year college, and my father spent a sticky August afternoon in upstate New York moving endless boxes into my fourth-floor dorm room. After a trip to Kmart to buy an area rug, a mini-fridge, the dorm-authorized sticky gum that wouldn’t leave marks on walls, and all the other forgotten extras, my mother headed to the car, exhausted, for the seven-hour drive back to Baltimore, and he stayed behind for a moment. I had been nervous and impatient all day, by turns clinging to them and encouraging them to leave. We stood looking at each other in this room newly hung with specially purchased Pre-Raphaelite posters, and surrounded by standard wooden furniture into which I had to unpack all my clothes and books and suddenly, with his eyes still fixed on me, his body sagged and slumped and finally ruptured into sobs such as I had never heard before. Spontaneously, as if mirroring him, I cried furiously, hot with resentment at this assault on my shaky confidence in my new life. After a few moments, he gasped in a way that was almost a wail, and then turned on his heel and stumbled out of the room, and I didn’t see him again until Thanksgiving.

***

Every night, blue light flashed from the TV down the hall, and I fell asleep listening to the spluttering and popping of gunshots. My father watched old cowboy movies late into the night. He found comfort in the familiar plots and the simplistic binaries of good and evil without any moral ambiguity. In between the shrieks and the shots I could hear him murmur to the cat, “You’re my favorite daughter. I hope you know that.”

One night after I had been home for about a week, as I rolled up in an old bathrobe and a crocheted coverlet, drifting off to sleep, I heard his bed creak. The floor groaned as he made his way to Eloisa Isobel’s old room. He lingered in the doorway, his tall body drooping, his face growing so long and thin it seemed to disappear into the hollows of his throat.

“What’s going on, Daddy?” I murmured, sleepy, but alert.

“What do you think of that cat? She’s really something, isn’t she?”

I agreed with him, somewhat irritably. No one would believe it, but he had never even liked cats until a few years ago. My sister and I had begged him for a pet for most of our childhoods, to no avail. Now Capricious had become the one creature to whom he was always kind, to whom he always spoke softly. He stood in the doorway and kept talking while I wished he would go away so I could fall asleep. When I think about these moments, I wish I could have been more patient, the way he must have been with me when I was a baby and interrupted his sleep with my nonsensical noises.

He came and sat on the bed and groaned. “I’m falling apart,” he proclaimed. He wore a frayed yellowing undershirt and underpants full of holes that hung off his hips, heedless of modesty. I wondered at this frail failing body, and I thought how impossibly strange it was that he had once been a young man, that this body had once conceived two children in desire and raised them up in hope. This whole thing baffled me—the way the image that sprung into my mind when I summoned the word “Father” had shifted over the years from a red-headed giant who could repair, lift, or solve anything with which the world confronted him to a shadowy being who I needed to protect from that same world.

***

lmdallan-cropped

There is one picture of my father and I taken when I was about five, that remains my favorite. It’s a close-up of the two of us, his arm is around my waist. I’m in a blue checked dress with a white lace collar. My hair was lighter and his was darker, so we both have matching copper curls. His face is unlined, heavier, his smile is so wide it practically splits open the picture. I remember that day in diffused dreamlike scenes. He had taken me to a house where there were girls my own age. I think they were the daughters of his college friends visiting from out of town. I was supposed to be playing with them, and for some unknown reason, a sense of dread palpable even today, I refused to leave his side. I clung to him all day long, despite his attempts to nudge me in the direction of the other girls. It may have been a dream I imagined to explain the picture. But what I remember is this desire for him to shield me from the unknown. Somehow he had become the unknown, with his quicksilver moods and his storms of anger. That father to whom I had clung with such adoration was gone already, lost to the shadows that pulled him further into another world. It was as if he was stuck between those two planes of existence, and the result was mental and physical chaos. What I couldn’t decide was whether I still wanted to cling a little bit longer, how quickly I hoped he would disappear entirely into wherever he was meant to go.

Laura Michele Diener

 

Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

 

 

Dec 102016
 

karen-mulhallen-undated

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Karen Mulhallen age two with her parents

This is a photograph of me at about two years of age. I have been looking at this picture for the past year or so, while I was working on a collaborative essay, a chapter on twentieth-century fashion in literature. It was impossible for me to reread so many early twentieth-century books without thinking of my own mother, and her clothes and the way in which clothing was a bond between us. My mother was always fashionable, and briefly was a model for Max Factor, while she was freelancing as a journalist in the first years of her marriage, before I was born. My father was fat, very fat, as you can see, and was very lucky to have her. She is chic in her slender yellow dress, appliqued with brown velvet leaves on the chest. Her hair partially rolled in a chignon. Two things strike me about my role in this picture. I am dressed, as I was for years, in a handmade dress, this one with sweet cross-stitching. I seem oblivious to my clothing, although that might not be true. And of course my stuffed animal is a horse, which resonates with the fact I have written many poems about horses, including an entire book, Sea Horses, about the wild horses of Sable Island. Was my identity being forged even then by my dress and my accessory, a stuffed horse?

karen-mulhallen-in-crepe-dress-1942-44The author in crepe dress, with stuffed horse, 1942-44

My youngest brother David has, by default, become a sort of archivist of the family photographs. He observes that most of the pictures in the nuclear family collection were of me. I am the eldest of four siblings and the only girl. Is the preponderance of pictures of me because I am a girl? Because girls get dressed in pretty dresses? Because I am pretty? Because I was first born? These are all seemingly innocuous and even commonplace questions. But what do they mean?

karen-mulhallen-childhood-photos“[M]ost of the pictures in the nuclear family collection were of me.”

Like many women of her generation, my very beautiful and intelligent mother was an excellent seamstress. And so she dressed me, made my clothes, as a baby and a little girl. That stopped when I was an awkward and highly emotional teenager. Then, eventually, I had part-time jobs, and began to buy inexpensive and standard clothes for myself: saddle shoes, poodle-cloth skirts, white sharkskin blouses. But when I got my first real job, as a teacher in a university, my mother spent months with me going to the fabric mills, just east of Kitchener-Waterloo, and then making me suits and dresses, some from elaborate Vogue patterns. Was this because I was gainfully employed and needed to present a professional appearance, or was it because I became beautiful for the first time since I was a little girl? Now I could be a brooch on my mother’s lapel. Or, as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own remarked, women are the looking glasses who enlarge men at twice their size. Did I become again, perhaps for the first time since childhood, the looking glass enhancing my mother, after such a long wait?

karen-mulhallens-motherThe author’s mother

Here is a photograph of me at the age of 13, with my adored baby brother David on my lap. I am wearing a sharkskin blouse and a poodle-cloth skirt. David is too young to worry about how I look, to wonder whether I am pretty, or why I am not as pretty as the other girls in our small town. He loves me because he knows I love him passionately and I spend all my waking hours thinking of him, rushing home from school to take him for walks, feeding him, changing his diapers, even sharing the bed with him and his many stuffed animals.

karen-mulhallen-with-brothersThe author, age 13, with baby brother David

Here is a photograph of David sixty years later. His expression is the same, although now, like our father, he is wearing a suit and tie.

brother-david-60-years-laterThe author’s brother David, 60 years later

In the first few years of my teaching, and my brief marriage, I too began to sew. Sew independently, of my own volition, that is. Of course I had to take Home Economics in high school, although I had asked to take Shop, and sewing was part of the Home Economics curriculum. Most of my sewing, and my knitting, I took home to work on, which really meant that my mother could rip it out and redo it and advance a bit on it for me for the next day. I certainly learned to vacuum and to make tomato juice from scratch, and to embroider tea towels, all activities I have not continued. However, when I came of age the hippie era had begun. I began to sew kaftans, my mother was making macramé jewelry, and I began to sell my work and my mother’s in the various head shops, like Tribal Village, which sprang up in the city. I put away my Vogue pattern-St. Laurent suits, and my bra, and followed the trend, vintage clothing, much from my mother’s wonderful stock of 1940s and 1950s coats and outfits from Creed’s, an elegant high-end Toronto store, and 1920s and 1930s dresses from London’s vintage shops in Chelsea and the Portobello Road markets, and from my friend Mary Fogg’s Oxfam shop in Reigate, Surrey.

Here is a picture of me in a luminous green robe trimmed with fake fur, made for me by my mother. I am sewing a kaftan, the fabric featuring an overall geometric silver design, intended for sale at a local head shop.

Karen Mulhallen sewing a kaftan 1974The author sewing a kaftan, 1974

Young designers had begun to open shops in Toronto, and in London, England, in Chelsea and High Street Kensington. Those clothes too were part of my wardrobe, clothes from The Unicorn, and Dr. John’s and the Poupée Rouge in Toronto, and from Biba’s in London and from Ossie Clark.

Toronto wasn’t as swinging as London, with its mod wear for men, but Toronto did have several designers’ shops in Yorkville, on Cumberland and on Yorkville and on Bellair, and even on Avenue Road, and in the Village on Gerrard Street, and in Honest Ed’s Village on Markham Street. And the city was buzzing with the marvelous energy brought to it by the American draft dodgers. Clothing became fun, and a direct expression of the sexual revolution.

I got married in London in Trafalgar Square in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in a Unicorn orange velvet dress, its hood and hem trimmed in red fox fur. My husband wore a black velvet suit and my brother Robin, who was best man, wore one in green velvet.

There are few photographs of me in this period in these clothes; in many I am naked, as befits the sexual revolution, but here is one where I am wearing an outfit from Dr. John’s on Gerrard Street, a grey jersey top and short grey flannel skirt with gored panels in it, topped by a fake suede vest which I had sewn myself. The rather rough stitching on my vest might or might not have been intentional.

Karen Mullhallen in handmade vest and Dr Johns jerseyThe author wearing an outfit from Dr. John’s (photo by Jay Cohen)

karen-muhallen-naked-in-the-late-60s“I am naked, as befits the sexual revolution…”

So my life as a student and a teacher of literature has been from the beginning intertwined with my changes in costume and with the way in which my clothes not only signaled my identity, but also were active in its construction.

I remember even as a young graduate student visiting my parents and putting on fashion shows with my mother for my father as he sat in his armchair reading the daily newspapers. It never occurred to me then that this might be an unusual activity. While some graduate students were attentive to what characters in novels were eating, the boeuf en daube, for example, that Mrs. Ramsay serves for dinner in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, I was more interested in what the characters were wearing.

When I look again at that early picture of myself with my parents, I notice my father’s green tweed suit and his paisley tie. It is a uniform, one commonplace enough since suits became standard for menswear, after what culture critics have called the “Great Male Renunciation” in the nineteenth century. What this rather rotund phrase acknowledges was the fact that men had stopped wearing high heels and elaborate and luxurious clothing, including voluminous lace cuffs and powdered wigs as well, for a sort of uniform which has more or less persisted through the twentieth and even into the twenty-first century. Swinging Chelsea and the Haight-Ashbury hippie era and punk culture being notable exceptions.

Although my father was always rather formally attired, including English brogue shoes, shirts and ties, as was his generation, he did express himself in his choice of headgear. Here he is in a straw hat, dancing with one of my brother Robin’s girlfriends…

father-dancing-in-straw-hatThe author’s father dancing in straw hat, 1980

…and here he is celebrating St Patrick’s Day, with a hat of his own devising. He did enjoy costume opportunities.

father-with-st-patricks-day-hatThe author’s father in St. Patrick’s Day hat

In this picture, he appears to be walking a catwalk. He has an audience and is prancing in his shorts. My father often wore shorts in the summer time when he drove into Toronto to do film bookings for his cinema. He considered the wearing of shorts in the city to be a bit rebellious and in line with some aspects of his character. He also wore an Odd Fellows Lodge ring, although he never belonged to the Odd Fellows Lodge.

father-parading-with-cigar-and-shortsThe author’s father parading in shorts, with cigar

General male sobriety in clothing highlights profoundly the moment in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) when Daisy and Gatsby gather at his two wardrobe cabinets, where his shirts are “piled like bricks a dozen high . . . shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue” and Daisy begins to weep at the beauty of his many different coloured shirts.

Shirts seem to be essential masculine garb throughout the twentieth century. As a teenager I remember well ironing and folding my father’s shirts. This was a task I enjoyed and the smell of them while ironing and then the folding them gave me great satisfaction. My father wore a fresh shirt each day and had a chest of drawers, a highboy in green lacquer, built in the art deco style, something like a pyramid, dedicated to their storage.

Unlike my father’s shirts, however, Gatsby’s shirts signal his immense wealth and therefore his attractiveness. Clothing has always been a crucial signifier. The literary depictions of women’s clothing in the first half of the twentieth initially signal primarily their class, often their age, and eventually their occupation, as the roles of women, and the presence of women in the workplace, change.

In erotic fiction, of course, little changes, as the fewer the clothes, the more so-called “erotic” the portrait. When I was a graduate student everyone was reading Pauline Réage’s wildly popular novel, The Story of O (1953), which could be considered the standard for women engaged in erotic behaviour, a short skirt, no underwear, long gloves, and, in cold weather, some sort of fur coat. By the end of the twentieth century, underwear becomes outerwear, as Madonna’s Sex (1992) book amply illustrates. The question of undergarments is in itself of some interest, since, except for nightgowns, very little of these essentials make a fictive appearance.

When I began to teach in the late 1960s, there was a major shift in Western clothing and some of these shifts appear in well-known authors. The hippie movement, the rise of feminism, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and London’s Chelsea, all see male and female clothing coming closer to one another, as do hairstyles in general. The punk movement of the 70s in a sense repeats this trope, as girls dress like boys, and a little bit contrariwise. I remember when I was working on a project centred on the Palais Royale in Paris wandering through its garden and being delighted at spying a young man in a sarong topped by a tweed sports coat and shirt and tie. He turned out to be a clerk in the Jean Paul Gaultier shop nearby. Returning to London, I noticed for the first time in Chelsea men also wearing skirts with sports jackets.

karen-mulhallen-wearing-mans-cap-1974-75The author wearing a man’s cap, 1974-75

For the next twenty years or so, the reverence for couture, and the use of dressmakers who might imitate couture, also begins to erode, as fashion is democratized, male and female clothing blends, and branding takes priority, initially as a reaction to democratization. The wide availability of high street knock-offs of expensive runway creations does mean that authentic luxury brands are increasingly valued as signs of status, and their logos are worn on the outside of many garments and accessories. However, a proliferation of copies of luxury brand items, both labels and logos, ensues, and all attempts to police and patent couture and luxury design, while continuing into the twenty-first century, are more or less ineffective.

As television and film become primary channels of expression for clothing as iconic, I think a good case might be made that literature turns inward, the interior life of characters becomes central, and their external appearances, and particularly their clothing, play little part in who they are and what they do. This was a shift signaled as early as 1924 by Virginia Woolf in her pamphlet “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” where she argues against stressing the fabric of things in order instead to depict human nature. The interior life, argues Woolf, is what the novelist should focus on.

A classic and spectacular example of the rise of couture in popular media is Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York (2002)—loosely based on Herbert Asbury’s 1927 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld—where the gangsters are dressed brilliantly and memorably; male clothing dominates the screen. The costume design won an Oscar award for British costume designer Sandy Powell. The cut of the male costumes seems to reference the men’s wear of Italian designer Giorgio Armani, who has himself designed clothes for more than two hundred films including American Gigolo, The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall StreetBy 1981, Giorgio Armani had become the rock star of fashion, appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Scorsese’s own father was a clothes presser, so Scorsese’s emphasis on male clothing and fashion in the film, about to be a TV series, has intriguing autobiographical roots.

My own return to designer clothing began about this time in the late 1970s–early 1980s. I was earning a living as a lecturer, and I was constantly in the public eye. Japanese and Italian designers were shaking up the runways in Paris.

The use of actors, and most often actresses, in advertisements for major luxury fashion companies in the later twentieth century, shows just how much fashion and clothing have become an important component of the commercial presentations of self, linked to class and prestige. Not that this is new, but the use of models whose financial lives are made by impersonations, in essence improvisational identities, does emphasize the importance of clothing in the construction of the public self.

In the nineteenth century, descriptions of the wearing of used clothing, what we call vintage, seemed to be confined to rent girls, who rented attractive clothes in order to sell their bodies. In the later twentieth century vintage carried with it a number of charges, a turning away from the contemporary, from luxury, from commodity culture, but also a way of taking on the past in all its guises. A deliberate looking backward, with the freedom that this engenders.

Here is a late-1970s photograph of me, taken by photographer Michel Verreault, in a vintage lace dress from the 1930s. This dress was given to me by my mother, although it is not a dress she ever wore. She had simply collected it as an antique.

author-wearing-1930s-vintage-lace-dress

karen-mulhallen-photos-by-michel-verreault-1980Photos of author by Michel Verreault, 1980

Although my doctoral dissertation finally was on William Blake’s illustrations, I spent several years in graduate school working on what is known as modernism. Two modernist writers who had a major impact on my own sense of costume were D.H. Lawrence and Djuna Barnes. In both writers the putting on of costume is a colourful putting on of identity. Each frames a scene and sets it up as in a painting. Each uses colour as well as texture to convey class, emotion, and occupation. Each has a direct relationship to the world of painting—Lawrence was an exhibited painter, and Barnes had studied at the Pratt Institute.

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D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930)

The body and its clothing are crucial tropes in Lawrence’s work. In the opening chapter of Women in Love, “Sisters,” Gudrun stands out from the ashy, dark Midlands colliery town to which she has returned from art school and her life in London:

The sisters were women. Ursula twenty-six, and Gudrun twenty-five. But both had the remote, virgin look of modern girls, sisters of Artemis rather than Hebe. Gudrun was very beautiful, passive, soft-skinned, soft-limbed. She wore a dress of dark-blue silky stuff, with ruches of blue and green linen lace in the neck and sleeve and she had emerald-green stockings. Her look of confidence and diffidence contrasted with Ursula’s sensitive expectancy. The provincial people, intimidated by Gudrun’s perfect sang-froid and exclusive bareness of manner, said of her: “She is a smart woman.” She had just come back from London, where she had spent several years, working at an art-school, as a student, and living a studio life. (page 4)

d-h-lawrence-women-in-love collageD. H. Lawrence

The girls, whom Lawrence in this passage casts as incarnations of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, walk by rows of dwellings of the poorer sort: everything is ghostly. “Everything is a ghoulish replica of the real world, a replica, a ghoul, all soiled, everything sordid.” Gudrun is aware of “her grass-green stockings, her large grass-green velour hat, her full soft coat, of a strong blue color. . . .‘What price the stockings!’ said a voice at the back of Gudrun. A sudden fierce anger swept over the girl, violent and murderous.” (pages 8–9)

The sisters are both school teachers, and Ursula will become involved with a school inspector Rupert Birkin, while her sister Gudrun will become the lover of Gerald Crich. When Gudrun first sees Gerald (page 11) we are told he was “almost exaggeratedly well-dressed.” But no details of his clothing are given. His mother is described as wearing a sac coat of dark blue silk and a blue silk hat (page 11). In this scene at the church we first see Hermione Roddice, a friend of the Criches. Hermione is the wealthy daughter of a baronet; she is Rupert Birkin’s long-time lover, and a woman of intellect and culture:

Now she came along, with her head held up, balancing an enormous flat hat of pale yellow velvet, on which were streaks of ostrich feathers in natural and grey. She drifted forward as if scarcely conscious. . . . She wore a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow color, and she carried a lot of small rose-colored cyclamens. Her shoes and stockings were of brownish grey, like the feathers on her hat. . . . ( pages 11-12)

Lawrence compares her to a woman in one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings with her heavy hair and long pale face, and drugged look.

Later, at the school, Hermione appears “a vision . . . seen through the glass panels of the door” (“Class-Room,” pages 34-35). She has come for a surprise visit, while Birkin is giving instruction about the sex life of plants. She speaks in a “low, odd singing fashion”: Her manner is intimate and half bullying:

She was a strange figure in the class-room, wearing a large, old cloak of greenish cloth, on which was a raised pattern of dull gold. The high collar and the inside of the cloak was lined with dark fur. Beneath she had a dress of fine lavender-colored cloth, trimmed with fur, and her hat was close-fitting, made of fur and of the dull green-and-gold figure stuff. She was tall and strange, she looked as if she had come out of some new bizarre picture.

In a scene in a London café, “Crème de Menthe” (chapter 6), where artists gather, an artist’s model called “Pussum” Darrington presents herself :

At Birkin’s table was a girl with dark, soft, fluffy hair cut short in the artist fashion, hanging level and full almost like the Egyptian princess’s. . . . She had beautiful eyes, dark, fully opened, hot, naked in their looking at him. . . . She wore no hat in the heated café, her loose, simple jumper was strung on a string round her neck. But it was made of rich peach-colored crepe-de-chine, that hung heavily and softly from her young throat and her slender wrists. ( pages 60-63)

The architecture and the setting of “Breadalby” ( chapter 8), Hermione’s family home, also provide a frame for dramatic presentations: “Breadalby was a Georgian house with Corinthian pillars, standing among the softer greener hills of Derbyshire, not far from Cromford.” ( page 82)

As Ursula and Gudrun arrive the house appears “like an English drawing of the old school . . . women in lavender and yellow moving to the shade of the enormous, beautifully balanced cedar tree.” ( page 83)

Hermione takes in the two sisters’ appearance:

She admired Gudrun’s dress more. It was of green poplin, with a loose coat above it, of broad, dark-green and dark-brown stripes. The hat was of a pale greenish straw, the color of new hay, and it had a plaited ribbon of black and orange, the stockings were dark green, the shoes black. It was a good get-up, at once fashionable and individual. Ursula, in dark blue, was more ordinary, though she also looked well.

Hermione herself wore a dress of prune-colored silk, with coral beads and coral colored stockings. But her dress was both shabby and soiled, even rather dirty.

To entertain themselves the various characters form Biblical tableaux of Naomi and Ruth and Orpah, in the fashion of the Russian Ballet of Pavlova and Nijinsky, with a panorama of costume and emotion. (page 92)

As they all go up to bed, Hermione brings Ursula to her bedroom.

They were looking at some Indian silk shirts, gorgeous and sensual in themselves, their shape, their almost corrupt gorgeousness. And Hermione came near and her bosom writhed, and Ursula was for a moment blank with panic. . . . And Ursula picked up a shirt of rich red and blue silk, made for a young princess of fourteen, and was crying mechanically: ‘Isn’t it wonderful—who would dare to put those two strong colors together—’ (pages 93–94)

fashion-timeline-1910-to-19191910s fashion timeline (via Glamour Daze archive)

In the chapter entitled “Rabbit” (chapter 18), Gudrun is hired to teach art to Gerald’s young sister Winifred at his family home of Shortlands. Gerald waits in the garden to catch sight of Gudrun. Gerald is described as “dressed in black, his clothes sat well on his well-nourished body.

Gudrun came up quickly, unseen. She was dressed in blue with woollen yellow stockings, like the Bluecoat boys. He glanced up in surprise. Her stockings always disconcerted him, the pale yellow stockings and the heavy heavy black shoes. . . . The child wore a dress of black-and-white stripes. Her hair was rather short, cut round and hanging level on her neck.

As she and the child move away to see the child’s rabbit, Bismarck, “Gerald watched them go, looking all the while at the soft, full, still body of Gudrun in its silky cashmere.” He is in love with her, but he is also annoyed “that Gudrun came dressed in startling colors, like a macaw, when the family was in mourning. . . . Yet it pleased him.”

He contrasts her with Winifred’s French governess’s “neat brittle finality of form.” “She was like some elegant beetle with thin ankles perched on her high heels, her glossy black dress perfectly correct, her dark hair done high and admirably.” (pages 245–247)

In Chapter 28, “In The Pompadour,” it is Christmas time, and Rupert and Ursula are now married, and the two couples are travelling to the continent. Gudrun and Gerald travel via London and Paris to Innsbruck, where they will meet Ursula and Rupert. Gudrun and Gerald go to the Pompadour Café after seeing a show at a music-hall. (page 397)

Pussum approached their table: “She was wearing a curious dress of dark silk splashed and splattered with different colors, a curious motley effect.”

As Gudrun flees the café, the far end of the place begins to boo “after Gudrun’s retreating form”:

She was fashionably dressed in blackish-green and silver, her hat was a brilliant green, like the sheen on an insect, but the brim was a soft dark green, a falling edge with fine silver, her coat was dark green, brilliantly glossy, with a high collar of grey fur, and great fur cuffs, the edge of her dress showed silver and black velvet, her stockings and shoes were silver grey. . . . Gudrun entered the taxi, with the deliberate cold movement of a woman who is well-dressed and contemptuous in her soul. (page 401)

Women in Love was written during the first World War and its characters reflect some of the bitterness of that time. Nonetheless, the women’s strength is portrayed in their choice of clothing. Their artistic and intellectual nature is expressed in their elaborate and individual choices of dress.

Another development in Lawrence’s work is his depiction of women in men’s roles and in male clothing. The collection of stories in England, My England take us close to the changing social status of working class women who take on men’s jobs and their clothing and male attitudes.

In “Tickets, Please,” girls work on a single line tramway in the Midlands during war time. The countryside is black and industrial. The drivers are men unfit for active service, cripples and hunchbacks. It is “the most dangerous tram service in England,” as the authorities declare with pride, “entirely conducted by girls and driven by rash young men, a little crippled, or delicate young men who creep forward in terror.

The trams are “packed with howling colliers.” “The girls are fearless young hussies”: “In their ugly blue uniform, skirts up to their knees, shapeless old peaked caps on their heads, they have all the sang-froid of an old non-commissioned officer.” “They fear nobody—everybody fears them.

tickets-please-illus-from-strand-magazine-1919“Tickets, Please” illustration from Strand Magazine, 1919

The female protagonist in “Tickets, Please” is Annie. She incites the other girls to beat up on one of the male inspectors, John Thomas, who has dated each of them. They are depicted by Lawrence as furious Maenads. Annie takes off her belt and hits John Thomas on the head with the buckle end. They tear off his clothes, kneel on him, beat him, forcing him to choose one of them.

In “Monkey Nuts,” two soldiers are loading hay. The older one, about age 40, is Albert, a corporal, the younger Joe, about 23. They are not in Flanders so life seems good. Into their activities, driving a wagon pulled by splendid horses, comes a land girl, Miss Stokes. She was a buxom girl, young, in linen overalls and gaiters. Her face was ruddy, she had large blue eyes.”

land-girls-1915-1918Land girls, 1915-1918 (courtesy Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network)

The men begin to flirt with her, and she is attracted to Joe. She begins to make advances, to insist he meet her. The most memorable scene is where she arranges to meet Joe and has changed out of her men’s clothing. Now she is wearing “a wide hat of grey straw, and a loose, swinging dress of nigger-grey velvet.” This is when Albert is able to defeat her, when she is clothed as a woman. Joe doesn’t want her and she doesn’t want Albert, but Albert appears in Joe’s stead.

There is a suggestion of a homoerotic relationship between the two men, but it is not developed. Lawrence intimates that men are becoming less male and women are becoming masculine. War is a disorder in many ways. Once Albert humiliates Miss Stokes, they jeer at her, and begin to call her Monkey Nuts.

The trope of the female in male clothing continues into the novella The Fox (1918), which went through several revisions, until its final form in 1923. A young soldier Henry Grenfel, who has been living in Canada, returns to his grandfather’s farm and finds two women, Nellie March, and Jill Banford living there, running the farm inefficiently. The women call one another by their last names, in masculine fashion. March dresses as a man, a tightly buttoned workman’s tunic, a land girl’s uniform, and she does the heavy work. Banford wears soft blouses and chiffon dresses. Henry decides he will have March and he comes into the women’s relationship like a fox into the hen house. One day he enters the house and March is wearing

a dress of dull, green silk crape. Her dress was a perfectly simple slip of bluey-green crape, with a line of gold stitching round the top and round the sleeves . . . She had on black silk stockings and small, patent shoes with little gold buckles. (pages 48–49)

Seeing her always with

hard-cloth breeches, wide on the hips, buttoned on the knee, strong as armour, and in the brown puttees and thick boots it has never occurred to him that she has a woman’s legs and feet. Now it came upon him. She had a woman’s soft, skirted legs, and she was accessible.

The story has a dramatic and tragic end, but the fox does get his hen in the end.

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Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)

After studying at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League, Djuna Barnes lived from 1913 in Greenwich Village, New York, and worked for several newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair and The Morning Telegraph, as a journalist, illustrator, and short story writer. Poetry and plays were also published over the next fifteen years, but most of her time in the 1920s was spent in Paris where she was part of a vibrant circle of expats, including James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. She moved to London in 1931, but then returned to America in 1941, and died in New York. Today Barnes is best known for her novel Nightwood, which was first published in England in 1936 with the strong support of T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber.

djuna-barnes-nightwood-collageDjuna Barnes

Nightwood defies the conventions of the realistic novel; its characters are all deracinated; its settings of Berlin, Vienna and Paris, and somewhere in the country in New York state, provide mise en scène for highly charged emotional encounters, presented in dense poetic language, a language so metaphorical it creates in its readers a narcotic effect. The reader moves in a vivid haze, part dreamscape, part interior landscape. One’s memory of the book is not confirmed by rereading, but what remains resonates and grows in the mind.

In addition to the vital carnivalesque role of a group of circus performers, there are six characters in the book. The guide to its world, the Virgil in this Purgatoria and Inferno, is an American named Dr. Matthew O’Connor, an impoverished transvestite whose medical bona fides are suspect; yet he is in some way a doctor of the soul, and Nora Flood seeks him out for healing.

The character who is the focus for the action of the text is a young American woman of twenty, Robin Vote. She is the lover of Nora Flood, who is twenty-nine, and of Jenny Petherbridge, a wealthy American divorcee whose four husbands have made her exceedingly rich. Robin has myriad lovers, but she is eternally questing for herself in the night and in the arms of someone new. She is described as a boy in a woman’s body.

The book opens not in the Paris of the 1920s, but in another place and time with the birth of Baron Felix in 1880. We discover him as a man obsessed with the past and with validation through the past. He wears spats and cutaway jackets and clings to the pageantry of kings and queens. In a moment we are in Paris, forty years later, where Felix meets Robin, marries Robin and brings her back to Austria where she gives birth to a child Guido and then deserts the Baron and her newborn child.

It is Robin whose appearance, whose boyish body and clothing, suggest the alterity of this night world of outcasts. We see her first in the Hôtel Récamier, where Dr. Matthew O’Connor, accompanied by Baron Felix, is summoned to attend a young woman who is not well: she lay

heavy and disheveled. Her legs in white flannel trousers were spread as in a dance, the thick lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step, her hands long and beautiful lay on either side of her face. . . . Her flesh was the texture of plant life. . . . About her head there was an effulgence of a phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water . . . the troubling structure of the born somnabule, who lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado.

Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room.

If Robin with her shocking blue eyes appears like a wild beast, her first appearance also conjures a history of painting, in the portraits of Madame Récamier, which were still scattered through this hotel at 3 Place Saint-Sulpice in 1990 when I stayed there, and might still be there to this day. Récamier was famously painted by Jacques-Louis David (1800) and by le Baron Gerard (1805), while posing barefoot, on a chaise longue, in a soft white chiffon dress, enhanced under the bosom with a simple ribbon, her hair in a soft chignon.

portrait-of-madame-recamier-by-jacques-louis-david-1800Portrait of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David, 1800

karen-mulhallen-in-slip-dressThe author wearing a summer dress, Montreal 1968

Robin’s appearance evokes this and confutes it, since she is wearing white flannel trousers and thick lacquered dancing pumps. If Madame Récamier’s bare feet, and her wearing of an undergarment as outer garment, the light muslin slip dress, symbolized the end of the ancient regime and an elevation of nature, Robin’s appearance does the opposite. She is transgendered and encased, and yet she is a danger to all. “The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a ‘picture’ forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger.” (page 41)

The Baron’s fascination with Robin comes in part from her appearance:

Her clothes were of a period that he could not quite place. She wore feathers of the kind his mother had worn, flattened sharply to the face. Her skirts were moulded to her hips and fell downward and out, wider and longer than those of other women, heavy silks that made her seem newly ancient. One day he learned the secret. Pricing a small tapestry in an antique shop facing the Seine, he saw Robin reflected in a door mirror of a back room, dressed in a heavy brocaded gown which time had stained in places, in others split, yet which was so voluminous that there were yards enough to refashion. (page 46)

Robin is both a modern girl and an ancient being. Her wearing of vintage clothing is transformative, as she crosses sexual, historical and vestimentary lines. Applying Kaja Silverman’s phrases from “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” we can see how Robin’s recycling of fashion waste denaturalizes her own specular identity.

Other characters also participate in this crossing of genders and epochs, even in dreams. Nora Flood’s grandmother will appear to her in fantasy as a cross-dresser, leering and plump, but also echoing the world of children’s fables like Little Red Riding Hood (pages 68–69), with the Wolf as Grandmother in her nightgown in bed. The doctor is also seen (page 85) in makeup and a woman’s flannel nightgown.

Love of the invert, we are told (page 145), is a search for one idealized gender in another, the girl lost is the Prince found, the pretty lad is a girl. And even one life form in another: Robin “a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin” (page 155), “the third sex” (page 157).

In the final scene (pages 178-179) at a “contrived altar,” “Standing before them in her boy’s trousers was Robin,” and she slides down and begins to bark and crawl after the howling biting dog.

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Jean Rhys (1890–1979)

I was spending a lot of time in England in the early 1970s, while I worked on my dissertation on William Blake’s paintings, and it was there I discovered the novels of Jean Rhys, shortly after the publication of her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Looking back I have often wondered whether some of my own feelings about clothing and security, about fitting in, and being both invisible and visible, didn’t come directly from Rhys’s heroines, especially from Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie.

jean-rhys-after-leaving-mr-mackenzie-collageJean Rhys

Did my own desire for a mink coat come from my reading of Rhys’s novels, or from looking at many Blackglama mink ads in the American edition of Vogue magazine, featuring beautiful young actresses and singers at the height of their physical power?

I remember my mother asking my father to buy her a black mink coat for Christmas one year, which he did, of course. And my own acquisition of a mink coat was purchased with my share of our sale of my mother’s house after her death. I remember carrying my dog Lucy up the escalator to the Holt Renfrew fur department on Bloor Street one early winter day. I had decided that if my dog was unhappy among all those dead animals, then I would abandon my plan for a mink coat. Lucy was fine, and I purchased a Gianfranco Ferre mink coat; the Italians were still dominating the fashion runways in the 1990s. My glorious mink coat now sits abandoned in the closet in my guest room, but whether this putting aside bespeaks a new sense of security on my part or simply a shift in fashion trends it would be hard to say.

As a model and an actress Rhys was attuned to the zeitgeist. Women’s confidence and acceptability was embodied in their dress. And she knew about poverty and issues of race firsthand. The BBC documentary on Rhys’s work revealed that while she had been forgotten, like many artists, she was indeed still alive, living in poverty, in the west of England. Educated in Dominica and England, after a brief stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Rhys worked as a chorus girl, was a nude model, and lived as a mistress of a wealthy stockbroker. Eventually, she had three marriages and two children, a son who died young and a daughter. Although she had lived in London, Paris and Vienna, she died in Devon, England. Her trajectory is in many ways akin to that of Canadian author Elizabeth Smart.

Rhys’s work, written in a spare, clear style, focuses on and takes the perspective of rootless, mistreated women, who are frequently down and out in London and Paris. With her BBC-inspired rediscovery, Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) where she rewrites Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, from the point of view of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife imprisoned in his attic. Set on a small Caribbean Island, Rhys’s book addresses the European man’s fear of and attraction to a Caribbean woman’s sensuality. Locking up the woman, rejecting and humiliating her, reaffirms his power and puts to rest his fear and repulsion of his own desires.

Rhys’s ongoing concern was the political inequality of women, their powerlessness in a man’s world: “The life of a woman is very different than the life of a man,” observes Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930). It is clothing which confers power and prestige, clothing which is transformative.

At the age of 36, Julia Martin returns to London in search of money, and perhaps love, and also a home, after she has been left in Paris by her lover Mr. Mackenzie. She is careful in her clothing, hoping to make a good impression on her family and she buys a second-hand coat, regretting the sale of her fur coat which would have conferred not only warmth but status.

Julia waited for her uncle

in a large, lofty room crowded with fat, chintz-covered arm-chairs . . . .She was cold, and held her coat together at the throat. The coat looked all right, but it was much too thin. She had hesitated about buying it for that reason, but the woman in the second-hand shop had talked her over.

She thought: “Of all the idiotic things I ever did, the most idiotic was selling my fur coat.” She began bitterly to remember the coat she had once possessed. The sort that lasts forever, astrakhan, with a huge skunk collar. She had sold it at the time of her duel with Maître Legros.

She told herself if only she had had the sense to keep a few things, this return need not have been quite so ignominious, quite so desolate. People thought twice before they were rude to anybody wearing a good fur coat; it was protective coloring, as it were. (page 57)

Julia visits her sister in Acton who lives with their mother and a nurse called Wyatt. Wyatt’s clothing, her wearing a tie, her use of her last name, and her hair cut, plus the severity of her dress suggest she is the lover of Julia’s sister:

The door on the second floor was opened by a middle-aged woman. Her brown hair was cut very short, drawn away from a high, narrow forehead, and brushed to lie close to her very small skull. Her nose was thin and arched. She had small, pale-brown eyes and a determined expression. She wore a coat and skirt of flannel, a shirt blouse, and a tie. (page 68)

Julia is in London for ten days. When she returns to Paris, she is expecting a lover from London named Mr. Horsfield. When he doesn’t turn up, he sends her 10 pounds. Walking along the Seine, Julia imagines

Happiness. A course of a face massage. . . . She began to imagine herself in a new black dress and a little black hat with a veil that just shadowed her eyes.

In her mind she was repeating over and over again like a charm: ‘I’ll have a black dress and hat and very dark grey stockings.’

Then she thought: ‘I’ll get a pair of new shoes from that place in Avenue de l’Opera. The last ones I got there brought me luck. I’ll spend the whole lot I had this morning.’ . . . A ring with a green stone for the forefinger of her right hand.

She spends the whole afternoon in the Galleries Lafayette choosing a dress and a hat. Then she goes “back to her hotel, dressed herself in her new clothes, and walked up and down in her room, smoking.”

In Rhys’s work, the themes of suitable clothes, respectable clothes, and of the little black dress, recur over and over.

The little black dress as a fashion accessory emerges in the 1920s as an essential element of a woman’s wardrobe, with the designs of Coco Chanel and others. Simple, elegant and affordable, it can be dressed up or down with accessories. Before the 1920s, black was the color of mourning, and its stages allowed black and grey. Tints of purple were also popular.

Throughout the twentieth century the charge on the LBD ( Little Black Dress) changed. All of Rhys’s female characters identify the black dress as a powerful and sophisticated symbol of success. It is simple in cut and fabric. In many ways it is classless.

My own clothes closet is brimming with black clothing. This is both symptomatic of an urbanite in Western culture in the later twentieth, and twenty-first century, and also a testament to Coco Chanel’s liberation of women. Here is a portrait of my mother from the 1940s in an iconic LBD. Notice her simple accessory, a necklace with multiple strands of pearls.

karens-mother-in-lbd-and-pearlsAuthor and father with mother in little black dress and pearls

In Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight (1939), Sasha Jansen in her forties comes back to Paris, a place where she once found love and then disaster. She gets a job in a fashionable dress shop as a receptionist. The shop has a branch in London and is owned by an Englishman. He comes over every three months or so, and she is told “he’s the real English type . . . Bowler-hat, majestic trousers, oh-my-God expression, ha-ha eyes—I know him at once.” (page 19)

An old English woman and her daughter come into the shop. The old woman wants to see hair accessories. When she removes her hat, she is completely bald on top.

She tried on a hair-band, a Spanish comb, a flower. A green feather waves over her bald head. She is calm and completely unconcerned. She was like a Roman emperor in that last thing she tried on. (page 22)

Her daughter condemns her mother and says she has made a perfect fool of herself as usual. But Sasha feels the old lady is undaunted.

Oh, but why not buy her a wig, several decent dresses, as much champagne as she can drink, all the things she likes to eat and oughtn’t to, a gigolo if she wants one? One last flare-up, and she’ll be dead in six months at the outside. (page 23)

Sasha rushes

into a fitting- room. . . . I shut the door . . . I cry for a long time—for myself, for the old woman with the bald head, for all the sadness of this damned world, for all the fools and all the defeated. . . .

In this fitting room there is a dress in one of the cupboards which has been worn by a lot of the mannequins and is going to be sold off for four hundred francs. The saleswoman has promised to keep it for me. I have tried it on; I have seen myself in it. It is a black dress with wide sleeves embroidered in vivid colors—red, green, blue, purple. It is my dress. If I had been wearing it I should never have stammered or been stupid. (page 28)

Like her clothing, which is acceptable or not, empowering or not, Sasha says there are locations which are accepting and those which are not:

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly and streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on. (page 47)

Sasha is picked up by two Russians; “one is impressed by my fur coat.” It is all about appearance. A prosperous appearance gives a woman the strength to go on. Aging is hell, because youth is the key to attractiveness, and attractiveness means men will give a woman money. Hence greying hair must be dyed:

Again I lie awake, trying to resist a great wish to go to a hairdresser in the morning to have my hair dyed. (page 48 )

I must go and buy a hat this afternoon, I think, and tomorrow a dress. I must get on with the transformation act. But there I sit, watching the same procession of shabby women wheeling prams, of men tightly buttoned up into black overcoats. (page 63)

1927-fur-and-fur-trimmed-coatsFashionable fur coats, c.1927

Mavis Gallant (1922–2014)

I met Mavis Gallant in the late 1980s and her conversation through the hours we spent together was of a piece with her depictions of women’s roles, and oppressions, in her fiction. My account of my time with Gallant was published in Numéro Cinq Magazine in September 2014.

Gallant’s From The Fifteenth District (1978) is a series of stories set during and after the Second World War. Their primary focus is a community of expats. Many of the scenes unfold on the border between France and Italy. In the first story, “The Four Seasons,” we find a young Italian servant girl named Carmela, her employer, a parsimonious English woman, Mrs. Unwin, and, next door to them, a Marchesa.

Mavis Gallant from-the-fifteenth-district-book-coverMavis Gallant

Gallant presents the contrast between these characters in her description of their dress. Carmela wears

A limp black cardigan. . . . She did not own stockings, shoes, a change of underwear, a dressing gown, or a coat,. . . . Carmela’s father was dead, perhaps. The black and the grey she wore, speculates the narrator, were half-mourning. (page 5)

As the time is just before the Second World War, there is an ongoing feud between two neighbours, the Unwins, who are Mussolini sympathizers, and their next door neighbour, the Italian Marchesa. This feud is encapsulated in the narrator’s description of Mrs. Unwin’s smock and her cigarette-stained and freckled hands, in contrast to Mrs. Unwin’s description of the Marchesa’s clothing:

Mrs. Unwin suddenly said she had no time to stroll out in pink chiffon wearing a floppy hat and carrying a sprinkling can; no time to hire jazz bands for parties or send shuttlecocks flying over the hedge and then a servant to retrieve them; less time still to have a chauffeur as a lover. Carmela could not get the drift of this. She felt accused. (pages 4–5)

Although the entire collection of stories is sensitive to the nuances of clothing, my own favourite is perhaps “The Moslem Wife” which uses a single item of clothing, a shawl, as metaphor for a wife’s apparently submissive role.

Shawls have often been associated with elderly women, with aging, and with the cold the aged feel. In Gallant’s story, the heroine Netta is young, but has begun to wear her mother’s shawl as she works with a modern adding machine at the books for her hotel. I myself began to collect shawls in the 1960s, but I have no idea how my own preoccupation came about. I still own my first shawl purchase, a purple silk Indian shawl trimmed in silver.

Here is a picture of me wrapped in this purple silk shawl but wearing a long black linen dress by Canadian designer Brian Bailey. The photograph was taken in the late 1990s.

karen-mulhallen-in-purple-silk-shawlThe author in purple silk shawl, late 1990s

My mother did not wear shawls, except occasionally as part of a specific outfit, nor did my grandmother own any shawls whatsoever. Over more than forty years my own shawl collection has grown, although I do give some away occasionally. However, I find it painful to let even one go. The shawl is a powerful symbol, and seems not to be connected with any masculine clothing symbols. There is no question in my mind that my own collection represents some important aspect of my identity, but which identity?

In Gallant’s “The Moslem Wife,” the chief characters are a second-generation expat English family who run a hotel which continues during and after the war. Netta is married to her first cousin Jack. One day she overhears an English doctor refer to her, to Netta, as “ the little Moslem wife.” Soon the idle English colony is calling her by that phrase.

Among the hotel guests are three little sisters from India:They came smiling down the marble staircase, carrying new tennis racquets, wearing blue linen skirts and navy blazers.”  Mrs. Blackley “said, loudly, “They’ll have to be in white. . . . They can’t go on the courts except in white. It is a private club. Entirely in white.” (page 59)

Gallant gracefully sketches English racism in this small moment about the colour of appropriate tennis clothes. In the end, the little girls continue to wear their blue clothes, but they stay at the hotel for their tennis lessons, rather than go to the English Lawn Tennis Club. (pages 58–59)

A shawl enters Gallant’s narrative when Jack’s mad and imperious mother comes to live with them: Netta began “wearing her own mother’s shawl, hunched over a new modern adding machine, punching out accounts” (page 60). The shawl is Netta’s protection and comfort, and it is her conduit to a sort of power line. Others however see it as a sign of submission.

After Jack leaves her alone in the hotel, and runs off with another woman to America, abandoning her and the hotel during the war: “The looking glasses still held their blue-and silver-water shadows, but they lost the habit of giving back the moods and gestures of a Moslem wife.” (page 76)

The shawl and Netta’s title as the Moslem wife, competent as she is running the hotel, overseeing the entire operation, are the symbols of her passivity in the face of her husband’s profligate behavior and her subservience to men. However, she later insists to Jack that when the Italians took over the hotel and the Germans left she was no longer the subservient female: “When the Italians were here your mother was their mother, but I was not their Moslem wife.” (page 78)

North American women’s clothing and the image of the New World girl changes dramatically in life and in Gallant’s stories. The story “Potter” is set after the Vietnam War (1975), that is in the later 1970s, in Paris. So Gallant, in this astonishing collection of stories, runs through five decades in the clothing of her characters. Blue jeans, and long shiny hair, have become part of the uniform of the American girl. Piotr, a Polish immigrant in Paris, falls in love with an American girl living off men.

The girls were Danish, German, French, and American. They were students, models, hostesses at trade fairs, hesitant fiancées, restless daughters. Their uniform the year Piotr met Laurie was blue jeans and velvet blazers. They were nothing like the scuffed, frayed girls he saw in the Latin Quarter, so downcast of face, so dejected of hair and hem that he had to be convinced by Marek they were well-fed children of the middle classes and not the rejects of a failing economy. Marek’s girls kept their hair long and glossy, their figures trim.” (page 219)

Laurie Bennett has “blue eyes, fair hair down to her shoulders, and a gap between her upper front teeth.” (page 220) She is refreshingly and casually well-groomed and makes fun of the stuffy Canadians in the form of her own sister-in-law from Toronto who “wears white gloves all the time, cleans ’em with bread crumbs—it’s true.” (page 221)

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Alice Munro (1931– )

I have never met Alice Munro, although I have seen her onstage and I once wrote a radio program for the Toronto radio station CJRT on her work which is so ironic and nuanced. Like Gallant, Munro is certainly an avatar of my own coming-of-age and costume. You never come to the end of a Munro story. Once while I was lecturing on her work in Italy, I suddenly could hear her regional cadence, which is from my own area of the country, in Canada’s deep south, southwestern Ontario. And yet of course her voice is universal.

Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) consists of ten linked tales which together constitute a bildungsroman of the protagonist Rose. Although eight of the stories were published separately in various magazines, when they were placed together Munro wrote two especially for the collection : “Simon’s Luck” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” In adding these two, she reconstituted the book in the form of an experimental novel.

Alice Munro who-do-you-think-you-are collageAlice Munro

In time span, the stories run from before the Second World War until the early sixties, although time frames are embedded in the details, rather than in specific references to historic events. Rose’s clothes in part mimic her class, and her poverty; she comes from the poor part of town, where the divide between East and West Hanratty is not only a bridge, but also what people eat for breakfast and where their toilet is located. In Rose’s house, the toilet is in the kitchen where farts can be heard as the family eats its meals.

In “Wild Swans,” on her first trip away from home, Rose comes to Toronto by train. As Rose walks through Union Station, she is remembering a friend of her stepmother Flo. Flo’s friend is Mavis who looks like the movie star Frances Farmer and so she “bought herself a big hat that dipped over one eye and a dress made entirely of lace. . . . She had a little cigarette holder that was black and mother-of-pearl. She could have been arrested, Flo said. For the nerve.” (page 69)

Mavis in her clothing mimics the appearance of the film star she resembles and goes to a resort on Georgian Bay in the hopes folks will think she is Francis Farmer herself.

Celebrity clothing, the appearance of film stars, sets one model for women. Glamour and sexuality are what it is really about, the cigarette holder and the lace and the hat dipping over the eye. They are desirable and to be avoided, perhaps even unlawful. Similarly in “The Beggar Maid,” Rose has come to London, Ontario, to university. She has the local dressmaker in Hanratty make her a suit for her new life, but the dressmaker, who is a friend of Flo’s, refuses to make it tight enough. The chapter opens with a glamorous purchase; Rose and her friend Nancy sell their blood for $15 in order to buy fashionable shoes: “They spent most of the money on evening shoes, tarty silver sandals.” (page 70). Later we see Rose wearing the green corduroy suit which was made for her in Hanratty:

The skirt of her green corduroy suit kept falling back between her legs as she walked. The material was limp; she should have spent more and bought the heavier weight. She thought now the jacket was not properly cut either, though it look all right at home. The whole outfit had been made by a dressmaker in Hanratty, a friend of Flo’s whose main concern had been that there should be no revelations of the figure. When Rose asked if the skirt couldn’t be made tighter this woman had said: “You wouldn’t want your b.t.m. to show, now would you?” and Rose hadn’t wanted to say that she didn’t care. (pages 76–77)

Rose gets a job in the college library and a wealthy graduate student named Patrick Blatchford falls in love with her. He compares her to the Beggar in Edward Burne-Jones painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Class is writ large in the clothing in the painting, the poor beggar girl in a slip and the king in armored clothing. The courtiers looking down on the girl caught within the picture frame.

Patrick says to Rose:

“I’m glad you’re poor. You’re so lovely. You’re like the Beggar Maid.”

“Who?”

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. You know. The painting. Don’t you know the painting?”

Rose studies the painting in an art book. The girl white, “meek and passive,” the King “sharp and swarthy” and “barbaric.” “He could make a puddle of her, with his fierce desire” (pages 81- 82).

In “Mischief,” Rose, now married to Patrick, begins an affair with her best friend Jocelyn’s husband Clifford, a musician. Rose has ambitions to be an actress. Patrick expects her to dress conservatively, but she wants to wear toreador pants (page 111). It is the Beat era, so black is becoming the fashionable colour for artists:

A few of the girls were in slacks. The rest wore stockings, earrings, outfits much like her own. . . . And most of the men were in suits and shirts and ties like Patrick. . . . A few men wore jeans, and turtle necks or sweatshirts. Clifford was one of them, all in black. (pages 112–113)

Rose goes to Powell River to meet Clifford. There is no bus depot and the only place to wait is on the porch of a loggers’ home for old men:

There was no place to loiter. She thought people stared at her, recognizing a stranger. Some men in a car yelled at her. She saw her own reflection in store windows and understood that she looked as if she wanted to be stared at and yelled at. She was wearing black velvet toreador pants, a tight fitting high-necked black sweater and a beige jacket which she slung over her shoulder though there was a chilly wind. She who had once chosen full skirts and soft colors, babyish angora sweaters, scalloped necklines, had now taken to wearing dramatic sexually advertising clothing. The new underwear she had on at this moment was black lace and pink nylon. In the waiting room at the Vancouver airport she had done her eyes with heavy mascara, black eyeliner, and silver eye shadow; her lipstick was almost white. All this was the fashion of those years and so looked less ghastly than it would seem later, although it was alarming enough. (page 127)

beat-girlBrigitte Bardot wearing Beat clothing in Le Mépris, 1963

Rose’s clothing, that of the emerging artist and of her own sexual liberation, contrasts dramatically with her friend Jocelyn who wears her husband’s old clothes. But Jocelyn comes from a wealthy family and has nothing to prove.

In “Simon’s Luck,” Rose, who is now a professor at Queen’s University, takes up with a man at a party. The host is wearing a “velvet jumpsuit” (page 167). This was the hippy era, late sixties: “He was looking very brushed and tended, thinner but softened, with his flowing hair and suit of bottle-green velvet.” A costume which resonates with those velvet suits of my brother and my soon-to-be husband at my own wedding in London in this era.

Novelists’ alertness to dress as exemplifying and creating character interacts with questions of commodification and branding. It’s hard to say what exactly branding is. Easy to point to the display of the logos of designers, but something else is surely afoot. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which are structured like the tales of Tolkien and the schema of Joseph Campbell, medieval grail knights’ tales, have over time and immense popularity become branding opportunities. These opportunities were certainly set in place by Ian Fleming himself, as a look at Fleming’s texts, even before the James Bond films, demonstrates.

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Ian Fleming (1908–1964)

Set during “a new era of fashion and prosperity,” Ian Fleming’s bestselling tales of Secret Agent 007, James Bond, have sold more than 100 million copies. There are 14 Bond books—12 novels and two short story collections. Films continue to be made with the central figure, Secret Agent 007, and always with at least one beautiful woman, and lots of technology—flame throwers, guns, cameras, cars, and the like. These books are one bellwether for changes in fashion in literature. Their proliferation of luxury commodities signal the shift in popular media to all sorts to branding.

The first Bond book, Casino Royale (1953), sets the template of branding, of consumer culture, of luxury goods evoked and validated by name, which accelerates through the next half century. The book is set in the Hotel Splendide, and at the Casino Royale-les-Eaux in France, at the mouth of the Somme, in south Picardy. The location is a watering hole, as Fleming describes it, in a “new era of fashion and prosperity.” This is the 1950s, the1930s depression is over, as is the Second World War.

ian-fleming-casino-royale-colIan Fleming

Everything in Bond’s world is bespoke, specially chosen, specially constructed, and expensive. Bond’s cigarettes are “a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor street” (page 22). He keeps them in “a flat gunmetal box,” which holds “fifty of the Morland cigarettes with the triple gold band” (page 49). Bond’s French aide smokes Caporals. Bond’s radio, personally delivered by a salesperson from Paris—who is in fact another secret agent—is a Radio Stentor, and his car is a 1933, 4 ½ litre battleship-grey convertible coupe Bentley ( page 30).

In the Hermitage bar, Bond sees men drinking champagne and women dry martinis made with Gordon’s gin (page 31). One man is in a tweed suit with a shooting stick from Hermès.

Bond’s first meeting with his female assistant for this mission, Vesper Lynd, displays her in a

medium-length dress of grey “soie sauvage” with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts. The skirt was closely pleated and flowed down from a narrow, but not a thin, waist. She wore a three-inch, hand-stitched black belt. A hand-stitched black “sabretache” rested on the chair beside her together with a wide cartwheel hat of gold straw, its crown encircled by a thin black velvet ribbon which tied at the back in a short bow. Her shoes were square-toed of plain black leather. (pages 32–33)

Bond meets his CIA counterpart who drinks Haig and Haig scotch (page 43). Bond drinks a dry martini, shaken not stirred, in a deep champagne goblet—“three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold and then add a large slice of lemon peel. Got it?” (pages 43–44) He prefers his vodka made with grain rather than potatoes. His cigarette lighter is a Ronson; his weapon of choice is a .25 Beretta: “a very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip” (page 49). Bond’s clothing is as carefully detailed as his accessories: “single-breasted dinner-jacket, over his heavy silk evening shirt, with a double silk tie” (page 49).

Vesper Lynd’s clothes are from Paris; she has a friend who is a vendeuse and so, in the casino itself, she is wearing a borrowed black velvet Christian Dior dress. Dior had shown his first collection in Paris only in 1947, establishing Paris as a centre of fashion. The choice of Dior demonstrates just how attentive Fleming was to the luxury items of the moment. Later Vesper will say her grey dress was also a borrowed Christian Dior (page 56).

Her dress was of black velvet, simple and yet with the touch of splendor that only a half a dozen couturiers in the world can achieve. There was a thin necklace of diamonds at her throat and a diamond clip in the low vee which just exposed the jutting swell of her breasts. She carried a plain evening bag. . . . Her jet black hair hung straight and simple to the final inward curl below the chin. (page 50)

When Bond has dinner, he is precise in his order. Initially he orders the Taittinger 45 champagne, but he allows the waiter to suggest a Blanc de Blanc Brut of 1943.

“You must forgive me,” he said. “I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from the habit of taking the trouble over details.” (page 53)

Near the end of the narrative, Vesper and Bond are at a family-run seaside inn. They have both changed their style of clothing.

He is

dressed in a white shirt and dark blue slacks. He hoped that she would be dressed as simply and he was pleased when, without knocking, she appeared in the doorway wearing a blue linen shirt which had faded to the color of her eyes and a dark red skirt in pleated cotton. ( page 158)

Dr No (1957), the sixth of the Bond thrillers is set primarily in the Caribbean, in Jamaica and on a small island off shore. The central female, “Honeychile” Rider, appears naked on the beach, like a Girl Friday to Bond’s Robinson Crusoe. An innocent, a sort of noble savage, she is the sole survivor of an old Jamaican family which has lost its money. Her dream is to become a New York call girl. As a child of nature, she is every man’s dream child/lover.

The villain of the text is Dr No, a recluse with a fascination with pain and a pair of pincers for hands. Most of the men on Dr No’s off shore island wear Chinese kimonos. The food in his hideout is perfect, and all the bath accessories are brand names.

Bond went to one of the built-in clothes cupboards and ran the door back. There were half a dozen kimonos, some silk and some linen. He took out a linen one at random. . . .

There was everything in the bathroom—Floris Lime bath essence for men, Guerlain bathcubes for women. He crushed a cube in the water and at once the room smelled like an orchid house. The soap was Guerlain’s Sapoceti, Fleurs des Alpes. In a medicine cupboard behind the mirror over the washbasin were toothbrushes and toothpaste, Steradent toothpicks. Rose mouthwash, dental floss, Aspirin and Milk of Magnesia. There was also an electric razor, Lentheric aftershave lotion, and two nylon hairbrushes and combs. Everything was brand new and untouched. (pages 182–183)

Confronting Dr No, the imprisoned Bond keeps his aplomb and orders “a medium Vodka dry Martini—with a slice of lemon peel. Shaken and not stirred, please. I would prefer Russian or Polish vodka.” (page 203).

The Bond novels are charming, brilliantly constructed adult fairy tales, but like all fairy tales they carry important cultural-political lessons.

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Truman Capote (1924–1984)

For me, and for many of my generation, the 1961 film of Truman Capote’s novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), starring Audrey Hepburn, captured the era. In retrospect, it seems to me like a summation of the trends found in the earlier fictions from Lawrence to Gallant. While the film is a romantic and memorable adaptation of Capote’s novella, the novella itself is a sophisticated investigation of class and character. And it is a perfect work of art. The prose is exquisite, spare, clean and evocative, and designed to foreground its central figure, Holly Golightly, a nineteen-year-old starlet, on the lam from Hollywood and her older widowed veterinarian husband with his four children, a man whom she had married at the age of fourteen.

truman-capote-breakfast-at-tiffanys collageTruman Capote by Jack Mitchell (Wikimedia Commons)
Image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly courtesy Grace Hamilton

The novella unfolds through retrospective action—a call from a bar and the barkeep Joe Bell leads the narrator to recall his life in an apartment in a brownstone, where Holly Golightly was a tenant in 1943. Joe Bell’s bar on Lexington Avenue was often used by both Holly and the narrator to make telephone calls.

Although Capote’s novel has lived on in popular mythology through the film adaptation, it is in the novel that improvisational identity is tied to clothing. And in Capote’s narrative, it makes perfect sense. Holly, after a stint in Hollywood where she was being groomed for stardom and saw the opportunity as a way to vamp herself, including learning some French, understands that dressing will be the way she rises above street prostitution. Clothing will enable her to present herself as a girl who should be given a handsome amount of money to go to the powder room.

The little black dress becomes Holly’s costume of elegance, refinement and versatility. Throughout, Capote contrasts Holly with the men she hangs out with—youth and age, innocence and experience. The men are cartoons, caricatures, criminals, bounders, chubby in buttressed pin stripe suits, sexually unrealized heirs who yearn for a spanking, skinny rich conventional South American diplomats, Hollywood agents with the money and the power and the big cigar, soldiers in uniform.

Holly wears simple understated clothes, plays old show tunes, rides horses, wears gloves. Although her living quarters are messy, like a teenager’s, she always emerges unscathed. In the opening scene in Joe Bell’s bar, the narrator looks at what Joe Bell has handed him:

In the envelope were three photographs, more or less the same, though taken from different angles: a tall, delicate Negro man wearing a calico skirt and with a shy, yet vain smile, displaying in his hands an odd wood sculpture, an elongated carving of a head, a girl’s, her hair sleek and short as a young man’s, her smooth wood eyes too large and tilted in the tapering face, her mouth wide, overdrawn, not unlike clown-lips. On a glance it resembled most primitive carving; and then it didn’t, for here was the spitting-image of Holly Golightly, at least as much of a likeness as a dark still thing could be. (page 6)

Joe Bell, the bartender who, like the narrator, is in love with her, sees “pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight . . .” (page 8 )

The narrator had lived in New York in the same brownstone on the upper east side as Holly. He notices on the mailbox, in the name slot for Apt 2, a formal printed card which reads: “Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling.” Later, he learns she had purchased her card at Tiffany’s, and he also will learn what Tiffany’s represents for Holly.

He first sees Holly late one warm evening:

She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.

She was not alone. There was a man following behind her. The way his plump hand clutched at her hip seemed somehow improper, not morally, aesthetically. He was short and vast, sun-lamped and pomaded, a man in a buttressed pin-stripe suit with a red carnation withering in the lapel. . . . his thick lips were nuzzling the nape of her neck. (pages 10–11)

Holly’s clothing presents her as demur and innocent and refined:

She was never without dark glasses, she was always well-groomed, there was a consequential good taste in the plainness of her clothes, the blues and grays and lack of luster that made her, herself, shine so. One might have thought her a photographer’s model, perhaps a young actress, except that it was obvious, judging from her hours, she hadn’t time to be either. (page 12)

One evening on his way home, the narrator noticed a cab-driver crowd gathered in front of P.J. Clarke’s saloon, apparently attracted there by a happy group of whiskey-eyed Australian army officers baritoning “Waltzing Matilda.” As they sang they took turns spin-dancing a girl over the cobbles under the El; and the girl, Miss Golightly, to be sure, floated round in their arms light as a scarf.” (page 13)

Holly smokes “an esoteric cigarette,” charmingly called by Capote, Picayunes; she “survived on melba toast and cottage cheese”; “her vari-colored hair was somewhat self-induced. . . . Also, she had a cat and she played the guitar” and had “white satin pumps.

He often hears her playing her guitar while she dries her hair sitting on the fire escape.

She played very well, and sometimes sang too. Sang in the hoarse, breaking tones of a boy’s adolescent voice. She knew all the show hits, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill; especially she liked the songs from Oklahoma! which were new that summer and everywhere . . . harsh tender wandering tunes with words that smacked of pineywoods or prairie. (page 14)

She chooses older men, established men, with money: “I can’t get excited by a man until he’s forty-two. I was fourteen when I left home” (page 16). Although all the men around her are unlike one another, none is young. Rutherford “Rusty” Trawler is “a middle- aged child that had never shed its baby fat . . . his face had an unused virginal quality . . . his mouth . . . a spoiled sweet puckering” (pages 28–9).

Holly’s place of peace is Tiffany’s whenever she is down, whenever she gets “the mean reds,” not the blues but worse.

What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. (Page 32)

Holly’s world is her absent brother Fred, who is a soldier, and the men, including O.J. Berman, who was her agent when she was in training for film, along with her model friend Mag Wildwood and Mag’s South American boyfriend.

He’d been put together with care; his brown head and bull fighter’s figure had an exactness, a perfection, like an apple, an orange, something nature has made just right. Added to this, as decoration, were an English suit, and a brisk cologne and, what is still more unlatin, a bashful manner. ( page 39)

Holly keeps her room like a girl’s gymnasium, but always emerged “from the wreckage pampered, calmly immaculate with her lizard shoes, blouse, and belt.” (page 43)

audrey-hepburn-breakfast-at-tiffanys-trailerAudrey Hepburn, screenshot from trailer for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (via Wikimedia Commons)

Holly is a Manhattanite, but she is still rooted in her hillbilly past. She goes riding in Central Park, wearing jeans which were then still farm work clothes, not city wear. When she is arrested for her alleged role in a drug-smuggling racket she is wearing her riding costume, tennis shoes, blue jeans and a windbreaker. In the newspaper, the photograph of her shows her wedged between two muscular detectives, one male, one female:

In this squalid context even her clothes (she was still wearing her riding costume, windbreaker and jeans) suggested a gang-moll hooligan: an impression dark glasses, disarrayed coiffure and a Picayune cigarette dangling from sullen lips did not diminish. (page 71)

Her iconic black dress re-emerges when she goes to the airport, leaving NYC, fleeing her bail on the charges of helping the drug racket of underworld mobster Sally Tomato, to whom she made weekly Thursday visits in Sing Sing prison: “Holly stripped off her clothes, the riding costume she’d never had a chance to substitute, and struggled into a slim black dress.” (page 84)

And in that moment the genius of Coco Chanel, inventor of the LBD, is reconfirmed.

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Bret Easton Ellis (1964–)

The literary movement into branding, and not merely into luxury, takes a grotesque turn in Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991). As so often we ask ourselves, are artists the recorders of what is, or the makers of what must be? How to distinguish the permeable membrane?

bret-easton-ellis-american-psycho-collageBret Easton Ellis

In Ellis’s best-known third novel, the central figure is a serial killer, a Manhattan business man called Patrick Bateman. The novel presents itself as a satire on the consumer culture of late twentieth-century America. Of interest is the extreme form of fashion branding, perhaps for satirical purposes. Every single page presents myriad brands to the reader who becomes enveloped in a haze of consumerism. The examples which follow are not unique, but characteristic of each page of Ellis’s text.

I go into the bedroom and take off what I was wearing today: a herringbone wool suit with pleated trousers by Giorgio Correggiari, a cotton oxford shirt by Ralph Lauren, a knit tie from Paul Stuart and suede shoes from Cole Haan. I slip on a pair of sixty-dollar boxer shorts I bought at Barney’s and do some stretching exercises . . . (pages 72–73)

I run in place for twenty minutes while listening to the new Huey Lewis CD. I take a hot shower and afterwards use a new facial scrub by Caswell-Massey and a body wash by Greune, then a body moisturizer by Lubriderm and a Neutrogena facial cream. I debate between two outfits. One is a wool-crepe suit by Bill Robinson I bought at Saks with this cotton jacquard shirt from Charivari and an Armani tie. Or a wool and cashmere sport coat with blue plaid, a cotton shirt and pleated wool rousers by Alexander Julian, with a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass. The Julian might be a little too warm for May but if Patricia’s wearing this outfit by Karl Lagerfeld that I think she’s going to, then maybe I will go with the Julian, because it would go well with her suit. The shoes are crocodile loafers by A. Testoni. (pages 76–77)

The scene goes on, names the wine, the wine cooler, the Steuben glass animals on the glass top coffee table, the Wurlitzer jukebox, and so forth. When the date arrives, she is not wearing her Karl Lagerfeld suit: “But she looks pretty decent anyway: a silk gazar blouse with rhinestone cufflinks by Louis Dell’Olio and a pair of embroidered velvet pants from Saks, crystal earrings by Wendy Gell for Anne Klein and gold sling-back pumps.”

In a way it is a dispiriting, even tedious text. But the point is made, and the question is raised—consumerism reigns, and we must ask ourselves if James Bond was a licensed killer, whose own predispositions/or taste ran to branding in every way, how different is this New York financier?

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Patti Smith ( 1946–)

I confess I am in the multitudes who adored Patti Smith’s heartbreaking memoir of her time as a young person with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. Her writing is immediate and tender, evocative and visceral. Published in 2010, and deservedly award-winning, Just Kids takes us back more than forty years and it recapitulates many of the earlier themes of twentieth century clothing: the importance of black clothing, the development of Beat and hippie culture in clothing, the elevation of used clothing into vintage, the merging of male and female styles, and the influence of films on the way women dress. And in clothing styles, Smith’s book captures many of my own sartorial shifts through the same decades.

patti-smith-just-kids-collagePatti Smith (photo on left by Nate Ryan for Minnesota Public Radio)

In Patti Smith’s case, another rich vein is not only the importance of film stars and their dress, but also the impact of art, of literature, of literary figures, of musicians and of visual artists on one’s personal styles. As she herself says, “I was full of references.”

Just Kids is an artistic triumph, and a rich history of an important period in Western culture, when the centre of art shifts from Paris to New York city. Although Smith’s book’s primary focus is a little more than a decade of New York culture, 1967–1979, her narrative takes us up to the death of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989.

When Patti Smith arrives in New York in 1967, she is wearing dungarees, a black turtleneck, and an old second hand gray raincoat (page 25). Looking for work, she describes herself as cultivating “a good beatnik ballet look” (page 29–30). “It was Friday, July 21, and unexpectedly I collided with the sorrow of an age. John Coltrane . . . had died.” The boys in the village wear striped bell-bottoms and military jackets, the girls are wrapped in tie-dye.

Flyers paper the street with Country Joe and the Fish, and Paul Butterfield, and The Electric Circus.

For her trip to New York and away from her nuclear family, Smith’s mother had given her a white waitress uniform and white wedgies. A uniform, not experience, will make her a waitress. Smith abandons the uniform (page 35); she and Robert Mapplethorpe dress like other hippies of the period.

She wears beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, he a sheepskin vest and love beads (page 47). They listen to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Joan Baez, Tim Hardin and Vanilla Fudge.

Film and literature as well as the hippie movement influence their clothing choices. She gets a job at a bookstore, Charles Scribner’s, 597 Fifth Avenue, and her costume is modeled on Anna Karina’s clothing in Godard’s 1964 movie: “My uniform for Scribner’s was taken from Anna Karina in Bande à part: dark sweater, plaid skirt, black tights, and flats.” (page 55)

Smith and Mapplethorpe search out used clothing in the Bowery, “tattered silk dresses, frayed cashmere overcoats, and used motorcycle jackets.” ( page 64)

patty-smith-and-robert-mapplethorpePatti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (photo by Judy Linn)

After the shooting of J.F. Kennedy, Mapplethorpe buys her “a white dress for Easter. . . . It was a tattered Victorian tea dress of handkerchief linen.”

Reading Genet, Mapplethorpe abandons his hippie costume, and becomes obsessed with sailor’s uniforms and those of Japanese kamikaze pilots ( page 70). Cocteau, Genet and The Diary of Anne Frank animate their imaginings and their choices.

They stop living together for a time, and she takes to wearing dresses and waving her hair; he to dressing in a long oxblood leather trench coat. It is 1968. ( page 73)

In 1969, Smith and Mapplethorpe and other friends begin to hang out in what was known as the Bermuda Triangle: Brownie’s, Max’s Kansas City and The Factory, all part of Andy Warhol’s world, an artist-friendly world. One of their friends, Sandy Daley wears London designer clothes.

Sandy didn’t have a diverse wardrobe but was meticulous with her appearance. She had a few identical black dresses designed by Ossie Clark, the king of King’s Road. They were like elegant floor-length T-shirts, unconstructed yet lightly clinging, with long sleeves and a scooped neck. They seemed so essential to her persona that I often daydreamed of buying her a whole closetful.

I approached dressing like an extra preparing for a shot in a French New Wave film. I had a few looks, such as a striped boatneck shirt and a red throat scarf like Yves Montand in Wages of Fear, a Left bank beat look with green tights and red ballet slippers, or my take on Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, with her long black sweater, black tights, white socks, and black Capezios. . . . I had the attention span of a hopped-up teenage boy. (Pages 118–119)

One day at the automat in her gray trench coat and Mayakovsky cap, Smith meets Allen Ginsberg (page 123) who takes her for a pretty boy.

The sixties were coming to an end. Robert and I celebrated our birthdays. Robert turned twenty-three. Then I turned twenty-three. The perfect prime number. Robert made me a tie rack with the image of the Virgin Mary. I gave him seven silver skulls on a length of leather. He wore the skulls, I wore a tie. We felt ready for the seventies. (page 131)

And ready for a life as artists along with Viva Superstar, Diane Arbus, Jonas Mekas and Shirley Clarke.

When someone at Max’s Kansas City comments that her hair is like Joan Baez and asks her if she is a folksinger, she decides to cut her hair; she cuts out pictures of Keith Richards (page 140).

My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet . . . Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. “You know, like Mick Jagger.” I figured that must be cool. I thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Whatever it meant, with just a haircut, I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.

She gets a job playing a boy at LaMaMa theatre in the East Village: “I was dressed in my Song of the South getup—straw hat, Brier Rabbit jacket, work boots, and pegged pants” (page 141). Bobby Neuwirth and Bob Dylan are part of her world.

“We were invited to a fancy dress ball hosted by Fernando Sanchez, the great Spanish designer known for his provocative lingerie.” Loulou and Maxime de la Falaise send her a vintage gown of heavy crepe designed by Schiaparelli: “The top was black, with poufed sleeves and a V-neck bodice, sweeping down into a red floor length skirt. It looked suspiciously like the dress Snow White was wearing when she met the Seven Dwarfs.” (page 194)

The Schiaparelli dress is too small, so she dresses completely in black, finishing off her costume with pristine white Keds. Running shoes become iconic additions to the costumes of the New Age.

This was one of the most glamorous parties of the season, attended by the upper echelon of art and fashion. I felt like a Buster Keaton character, leaning alone against a wall when Fernando came up. He took me in skeptically. “Darling, the ensemble is fabulous,” he said, patting my hand and eying my black jacket, black tie, black silk shirt and heavily pegged black satin pants. “But I’m not so sure about the white sneakers.”

“But they’re essential to my costume.”

“Your costume? What are you dressed as?”

“A tennis player in mourning.”

Fernando Sanchez gives her a slot in his upcoming fashion show. “I wore the same black satin pants, a tattered T-shirt, the white sneakers, modeling his eight-foot-long black feather boa and singing Annie Had a Baby. It was my catwalk debut, the beginning and end of my modeling career.” (page 195)

patti-smith-in-white-shirtPhoto by Ruven Afanador

French poetry, photography, contemporary music, especially rock and roll, contemporary poetry and fiction, French New Wave films, all come together in her choices of clothing: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Yves Klein, Duchamp and Man Ray, Enid Starkie (pages 225–226)

It is 1973, and she plans her clothing for a trip to France, a pilgrimage to the grave of Rimbaud.

I decided to go in October, the month of Rimbaud’s birth. Robert took me shopping for a proper hat, and we chose one of soft brown felt with a grosgrain ribbon. Sam sent me to an optometrist where I was fitted for National Health-style spectacles. Sam gave me enough money for two pairs, considering my penchant for leaving things behind, but instead I chose an impractical pair of Italian sunglasses that only Ava Gardner could pull off. They were white cat’s eyes, nestled in a gray tweed case stamped Milan.

On the Bowery I found an unconstructed raincoat of Kelly green rubberized silk, a Dior blouse of gray houndstooth linen, brown trousers, and an oatmeal cardigan: an entire wardrobe for thirty dollars, just needing a bit of washing and mending. In my plaid suitcase I placed my Baudelaire cravat, my notebook; Robert added a postcard of a statue of Joan of Arc. Sam gave me a silver Coptic cross from Ethiopia . . . Janet Hamill . . . a handful of blue glass beads—scarred trade beads from Harar—the same beads that Rimbaud had traded—as a cherished souvenir . . . Thus armed, I was ready for my journey.

It’s mid-1970s, she is performing, and Mapplethorpe has become a successful photographer. Her costumes shift again: “black ballet flats, pink shantung capris, my Kelly green silk raincoat and a violet parasol… (page 241)

Then for the cover of her album Horses (1975), Mapplethorpe takes her picture. Influenced by artists Jim Morrison, Peter Reich. Jimi Hendrix,

I went to the Salvation Army on the Bowery and bought a stack of white shirts. Some were too big for me, but the one I really like was neatly pressed with a monogram below the breast pocket. It reminded me of a Brassai shot of Jean Genet wearing a white monogrammed short with rolled-up sleeves. There was an RV stitched on my shirt. I imagined it belonging to Roger Vadim, who had directed Barbarella. I cut the cuffs off the sleeves to wear under my black jacket adorned with the horse pin that Allen Lanier had given me. . ..

I finished getting dressed: black pegged pants, white lisle socks, black Capezios. I added my favorite ribbon, and Robert brushed the crumbs off my black jacket. . . . I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. (pages 249–251)

—Karen Mulhallen

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Photo Gallery I: The Author, Travelling in Style

karen-mulhallen-on-karl-marxs-graveSitting on Karl Marx’s grave, 1974-75

karen-mulhallen-at-petra-jordan-1992At Petra Jordan, 1992

karen-mulhallen-at-the-equator-in-ecuador-wearing-missoni-pantsuit-peter-fox-shoes-and-aboriginal-plains-earrings-1993On the equator in Ecuador, wearing Missoni pantsuit, Peter Fox shoes and Aboriginal plains earrings

karen-mulhallen-wearing-robert-clergie-mulesWearing Robert Clergie mules

karen-mulhallen-in-venice-wearing-betsey-johnson-dress-2005In Venice, wearing Betsey Johnson dress, 2005

 

Photo Gallery II: The Author Wearing…

karen-mulhallen-wearing-italian-silk-dress-at-tiff-1977An Italian silk dress at Toronto International Film Festival, 1977

karen-mulhallen-wearing-n-poal-in-toronto-1980An N. Peal cashmere sweater from Old Bond Street, London; in Toronto, 1980 

karen-mulhallen-wearing-victor-costa-dress-from-joy-cherry-1992A Victor Costa dress from Joy Cherry, at Truffles restaurant in Toronto, 1992

karen-mulhallen-wearing-indian-dress-1996An Indian dress, 1996

karen-mulhallen-wearing-pearls-1998Pearls, 1998

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Dressing the Twentieth Century, a Bibliography

Pauline Réage, pseudonym for Anne Declos (1907–1998)
xxStory of O (1954) New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.

D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930)
xxWomen in Love (1917–1920)
xxEngland, My England (1921) Stories: “Monkey Nuts”(1919);
xx“Tickets, Please” (1919)
xxThe Fox (1923)

Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)
xxNightwood (1937)

Jean Rhys (1890–1979)
xxThe Letters of Jean Rhys (1931–1966), edited by Francis Wyndham and
xxDiana Melly. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984.
xxTigers Are Better Looking. Stories. (1927–1967) London: Andre Deutsch, 1968.
xxQuartet. [Original Title, Postures] (1928) London: Andre Deutsch,1969.
xxAfter Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. (1930) London: Penguin, 1971.
xxVoyage in the Dark. (1934) London: Andre Deutsch 1967.
xxGood Morning, Midnight. (1939) London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.
xxWide Sargasso Sea. (1966) London: Andre Deutsch 1974.
xxSleep It Off Lady. Stories. London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.

Mavis Gallant (1922–2014)
xxFrom The Fifteenth District (1979)

Alice Munro (1931– )
xxWho Do You Think You Are? (1978) Toronto: Penguin, 2006.

Ian Fleming (1908–1964)
xxCasino Royale (1953)
xxDr. No (1957)

Truman Capote (1924–1984)
xxBreakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Voices,
xxOther Rooms,
New York: Modern Library, 2013.

Bret Easton Ellis (1964– )
xxAmerican Psycho (1991) New York: Vintage/Random House, 1991.

Patti Smith (1946– )
xxJust Kids (2010) New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

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karen-mulhallen-in-her-closet

Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University, and adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto.

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Nov 012016
 

torino2-018-beterAn Apology for Meaning, Artist’s Book, Genese  Grill

 http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

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My real delight is in the fruit, in figs, also pears, which must surely be choice in a place where even lemons grow. —Goethe, Italian Journey

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.  —Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

 

In Torino, Italy, once called Augusta Taurinorum in honor of the bull sacred to Isis, goddess of fertility, where Nietzsche went mad, embracing a beaten horse and weeping, dancing naked in his room, and practicing Dionysian rites of auto-eroticism; where, before his collapse, he enjoyed the air, the piazzas, the cobblestones, and the gelato; where the ladies chose the sweetest grapes for this reluctantly German philosopher, it is easy to feel the sensual, life-affirming, Pagan roots of myth-making, to understand those humanistic allegories that sing of life, love, pleasure, and appetite. At the opera, I heard Tosca sing, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived for art, I lived for love). I indulged in long wine-drenched lunches on unseasonably-sunny piazzas, and gazed at gleaming artifacts from ancient times in dark museums. There was a secret restaurant where a small fierce woman named Brunilde roughly took my order, displayed magical cakes with her wide toothy smile, briskly removed the empty plates that once held the most delicious food I’d ever eaten, brought me a shot glass with grapes soaked in absinthe with dessert, if I pleased her by ordering it, but growled me out the door if I was too full or too stupid to partake of her pride and joy. I was in residence at the Fusion Art Gallery on Piazza Amedeo Peyron, presided over by the wise and warm painter, Barbara Fragnogna, who told me about the market across the way which sold beautiful mushrooms, wild strawberries, and bread sticks huge, juicy olives. When I wasn’t eating, or wandering in museums, I was building an elaborate book which folds and unfolds, and is painted and glued and stitched, and “gold-leafed” with foil wrappers from the many gianduji chocolates I enjoyed. I threw off the layers of the Vermont winter to feel the wind and sun on my body, and was reminded of how much our conclusions about what life means are influenced by the relationship between our own physicality and the material world which surrounds us.

isis-and-osirisPage from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Meaning is not something that we need to artificially superimpose on the objects and events of the world through some transcendental narrative or morality. It is not something we need to be taught or coerced into seeing by external social construction or manipulative indoctrination. If one is healthy, has an appetite, and senses for seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching, beauty will be everywhere, as “the promise of happiness” or, indeed, in the knowledge of happiness’s fleetingness or absence. We are given the gift of colors and sounds, of textures and of temperatures. And if all else fails, this should be enough reason to be grateful for life. In addition to this inherent meaning, this meaning without thought and evaluation, our intellectual response to the physical facts of the world makes us dream, imagine, and invent ever new celebrations and laments. These expressions will survive and proliferate insofar as other humans resonate with them. And what resonates will be made manifest in real made things, in built places, in enacted experiments. This is a discourse and manifestation over millennia, from the ancient cave paintings to today: humans trying to make sense of the terror and tenderness of the world. We do not despair, we artists and “creative subjects”. Nor do we invent meanings that attempt to twist the facts of nature: Gravity and Mortality are real. Instead, we work with what there is, and endeavor to embrace it in all its fractured glory. Thus, also, the things that we make with our hands, out of paper, pigments, wax, string, fire, earth, water and air, will fade, crumble, dissolve in good time. They are already fragile, already very imperfect, already mostly forgotten. And yet, their fleeting presence is of the utmost importance.

I am sitting on a bench in a church entranceway. A gray, cool, dreamy late morning. Some high school students, girls and boys, gather at the other end of the stone courtyard, gossiping, talking, laughing. Old people, alone, walk in and out of the church. It is a Monday, and most shops here are closed, their metal gratings pulled down. Dirty pigeons coo. In the back streets, a gentle squalor; clothing hanging from lines; abandoned bicycles resting against elaborate gates. On the walls, scraps of political agitation, left and right, shreds of old posters, graffiti scrawls. People talk, but I don’t understand. Markets everywhere, with abundance: artichokes and more artichokes, wheels of cheese, sausages, chickens, lamb shanks, lemons. People smoke and joke, are grim or warm. On my walk here I passed a waitress carrying a tray of espresso down the street from a café out of sight, and a silver piece of paper blew to the ground. I picked it up and handed it to her. Grazie, Signora. An elegant lady walks up the church steps now, in perfectly matching brown and gold, soft brimmed hat with gold trim, a brown cane, brown coat with fur collar, a purse of gold and brown plaid, little brown shoes, dark sunglasses. All her belongings and all her faith perfectly intact from another era. Trucks rumble by; otherwise it is quiet, peaceful. Balconies preserve foliage from the summer, not quite dead, but not quite blooming, vines dangling; a single bruised yellow rose lilts; while back in Vermont everything is covered in snow and ice. This is a life. Anywhere is a life. How different, how similar is it to and from mine, from or to yours? And how does it happen that it evolved to be like this here and some other way somewhere else?

As Goethe noted in his famous Italian Journey, an experience of difference both enunciates one’s individuated self and dissolves it. Visiting another world, you imagine that you might have been, could have been, still might be, sort of someone else, leading a different life in a different country, in a different language, with a different family, lover, children, vocation. Your certainties, the things you took for granted, are called into question. You would be more comfortable not examining them, not questioning: why do you and your fellows do what you do? Are these differences a result of customs, habits, social constructions, error, accident, nature? Are they the result of our upbringing, something atavistic in our blood, or determined by the atmosphere, the landscape, or the history that surrounds us? The external differences—are they petty? Do they alter from the outside who we are inside? Or are they representative of who we are, from the inside out? Ask a novelist or a method actor how much each gesture, each phrase, each seemingly minor choice reveals about identity. The way we eat, how much beauty we need, or how much labor, leisure, love, rigor, sleep, poetry, space, air, skyline, horizon, practicality, recklessness.

And now I am experiencing the differences, the strangeness here in Torino, among people for whom all of this is natural, normal. I enjoy this sense of difference, to a point, as most of us do. We seek it out, we are sometimes sick to death of our own lives and want to gaze at, play at others’ lives; but only for a spell. It can be tiring; one feels alien; sometimes wants to cry out of frustration because everything is so confusing and the simplest things seem impossible; and the people look at you like you are an idiot and you are in a way. You are an adult who does not know things that a child knows.

I get lost often. Sometimes a piazza will have four different entryways with a statue in the middle. Who can remember which way one entered or egressed from? Since I am not usually in a hurry, I wonder why this should matter to me. Maybe because we want always to seem like we know where we are going and as if we already have everything we want. And this has something to do with desire and the desire for love, which is sometimes shameful. As a stranger one wants something. Is looking for something. Has left home to find something that one does not already have. Desire is the need to become one with what is foreign, to take it into oneself and to be embraced by it as well. As Ann Carson tells us in Eros the Bittersweet, we long to be one with the other, but when we have assimilated what was once strange, it is no longer the other and no longer serves its purpose. Knowledge comes only at the cost of desire fulfilled; we can only seek out more and more things, people, places, books, mysteries we do not yet know, have not yet seen or solved or read so that we may experience that supreme thrill of coming to know again and again. We crave difference, but we also cannot keep from looking for likenesses. We seek both everywhere. And the new experiences we have are continually threaded back into what we already know.

NietzscheNietzsche ca. 1875

In the Egizio Museum in Torino I am astonished by the way the ancient Egyptians had the same instinct for symmetry as ours; for placing each depicted object or vignette centrally within a frame; for aligning each hieroglyph in a uniform square of space; for leaving the most graceful and harmonious negative space between the hand of the man holding a slaughtered bird by its neck and the fronds of the plant in a vase by his side. A sense of what is beautiful, evidently, is at least somewhat natural and universal. And the works of art or ritual made with this sense of what is beautiful still resonates with a mysterious significance, even if we today cannot fully understand or believe in the things that were sacred to the people who made them. Translation across time and cultures is needed for a more thorough comprehension of these artifacts, but something very powerful, something powerfully familiar is present even without a struggle. What we want is to maintain the strangeness, while approaching a comprehension. What we must avoid is to diminish difference in the interest of a complete and total homogeneity.

I am operating in a language I barely know, but I do make myself understood, more or less, with the few Italian words I mispronounce and the few I manage to understand. A good part of the pleasure of communication is in the frisson of partial misunderstanding, in the incommensurable distance between one mind and another, struggling to approximate a shared vision (as in the erotic desire to become one with the unknown). Translation is necessary even without a language barrier, and we all do our best to reveal and also to conceal our meanings from each other. It is a dance. Sometimes clumsy, but sometimes surprisingly beautiful. The differences between language, as Steiner suggests, may be a result of a human need to differentiate one group from another, to keep secrets, to individuate from what may be a basically universal commonality. There are twin drives to compare and contrast, to find analogies, metaphors, likenesses; and to delineate differences, incompatibilities, untranslatables.

Today our basic assumptions about correspondence and difference are paradoxical. On the one hand, there are those who insist that everyone is equal, the same, indistinguishable (or that they should be, were we to look beyond external, physical differences). On the other hand, these same people tend to insist that it is impossible to understand the other; that there are no universals; that there is no shared sense of value; and that language barely helps us to communicate with each other at all, since it is so very distant from the things it claims to signify as to be more deceptive than descriptive. Both of these assumptions depend on a denial of the importance of the physical world; on a denial of any meaningful relationship between nature and cultural norms, between the physical world and the language that describes it; between the human brain and its sensory apparatus; and, finally, between one human brain and another. In reality, things and people are self-similar and they deviate from sameness; but even the deviations do not prohibit some approximation of understanding.

Those who deny difference and simultaneously insist on incommensurability are trying to do two contradictory things at once: 1. to strip away differences that might cause conflict or justify hierarchies or discriminations, resulting in a neutering and neutralizing homogeneity, and, 2. still paradoxically denying that these newly neutralized beings will be able to understand each other despite the pervasive removal of the characteristics that seem to have caused all the trouble in the first place. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the neutralization and leveling, the moral rejection of the physical world (beauty, ugliness, pain, pleasure, difference) will eventually really result in a homogeneity so complete that, even if we no longer have anything interesting to say or any unique artistic expressions to make, we will at least make no more war, at least harbor no more resentment or hate against the “other”—because there will be no more other. And no differential qualities whatever to get in the way of perfect passive niceness. On the one hand, we are ignoring the inevitable consequences of our neutralizations, neglecting to weigh how much difference makes life rich and strange and fascinating. And, on the other hand, by critiquing conceptualization, deconstructing symbolic archetypes, and undermining the significance of language, we are denying the natural affirmative instinct for finding likenesses and correspondences.

On one level, seeing shapes and patterns where they are not “really” present may be called “pareidolia,” most often ridiculed as a psychosis that sees Madonna and Jesus faces in rock formations and baked goods, endeavoring to prove through argument and scientific study that the piece of fabric housed in a crypt in Torino once was wrapped around no one other than Jesus Christ. The Shroud Museum has rooms filled with “evidence” of why we should believe the shroud belonged to Him: there are blood stains from where the crown of thorns would have been; stains in the shape of wounds suffered when he was tortured, an exemplar of the instrument with which he would have been scourged. The fact that there is just one wound mark where his feet would have been is explained by arguing that both feet were punctured, one atop the other, with but one nail. There is no mention in the museum of the carbon dating done on the fabric, which dated it to a time much later than Jesus’s supposed death; but there is an example of the loom upon which the cloth might have been woven and an example of a crown of thorns, which is arched like a dome and not open like a wreath. Image after image is presented to convince the skeptic that the shroud belonged to Jesus. At first it is hard to even see the shapes that would suggest any face or any body, but, as if one were gazing at one of those magical illusion pictures, if one looks long enough, the desired shapes begin to come into focus—and fade just as quickly into indistinguishable marks again. Desired shapes: the shapes one wants to see.

torino4-019Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Fresh lovers often insist that they are “exactly alike,” noting that they both amazingly like chocolate or were born on a Friday as signs that they are made for each other. And even someone as wise and experienced as myself may choose to be deluded into reading into signs that may not be there at all, thinking that the intern at the artists’ residency is making eyes at me, when really he probably just looks at everyone like that. He had told me tales of rituals in his home town where someone would dress up as Dionysus in animal skins and horns, a bag of blood hidden under the pelts, and someone else would chase after him and “kill” him, spilling blood all over the streets. But what did that mean?

Of course, all of our seeing is a process of selecting out that to some extent overlooks the fact that reality is a mass of non-delineated color and light, a mass of shifting molecules temporarily huddled into seemingly distinct shapes and entities. We can question whether the things we see are really rightly to be delineated as separate or if our particular arrangements of what belongs with what or who belongs with whom are comprehensive contextualizations or merely constructed biases, wishful thinking, or limitations. We can say the same thing about words and the concepts that they form—that words are a crime against the multifarious differentiation of reality, that they name and delimit what is really irreducible and unnameable. Names and words and categories pull some things together with other things, leaving other things out, and ignore the qualities of the named and categorized things that do not fit in with the given names—qualities that might render these things more fitting to be named and arranged in different categories altogether. Is the creation of a concept a form of psychosis, hallucination, wishful thinking, pareidolia?

When we note a pattern, say, of bird or insect movement, of repeating forms in nature, in fairy tales, or of habitual actions in our own lives, are we ignoring all of the elements that would render the categorized thing, action, or thought unfitting to be classed within the desired arrangement? Or is there really a way to establish that something is enough like something else to conclude that it is a pattern and thereby attempt to draw meaning from it? Of course, this is essentially the scientific method, but we use it indiscriminately every day, without the necessary “controls” to make our experiments scientifically viable. And science itself is subject to the same kind of criticism: even if its trials are well-documented and avail themselves of responsible criteria for investigation, the scientists have, as we well know, already decided to ask some questions over others, thereby determining what kinds of answers might be found.

But here is the crux: we do all this because we want, we need to draw meaning. And we draw meaning most readily from things that repeat or seem to repeat, from something that seems to be universal or at least not a mere exceptional random aberration. It might be absolutely accurate to say that (at least on a molecular level) everything is everything and thereby all patterns and all names and all conceptualizations are inaccurate and limiting, that the only accurate vision of reality is of a moving mass of colors and light without delineation or individuation. Babies start by seeing that way, but over time begin to recognize (or is it imagine) shapes, distances, faces. Carl Sagan writes that pareidolia itself might be an evolutionary adaptation, since those babies who were able to recognize faces responded to expressions, inducing them to smile, and make eye contact, so that they were cared for, and thus survived. This is rather suggestive, because if we were to consciously try as a culture to repress conceptualization, arrangement, and the meaning-making that rests on this patterning process, we would end up being unable to communicate with each other, and we would simply not survive as either individuals or cultures. Autistic children have a hard time making the kind of eye contact that Sagan suggests was good for survival. And many say that we are now becoming a culture of autism, one in which people do not communicate, one in which people are trapped in their own worlds without the ability to share experience, emotion, ideas. Thus, although the process of making arrangements and making concepts does perforce leave things out, although it may sometimes be inaccurate, although it may sometimes look like psychosis or pareidolia, it is far better to make provisional arrangements and to use language and concepts (always acknowledging that they can change and rearrange) than to exist always in an undifferentiated sea of colors, sounds, and non-shapes, unable to communicate.

But after visiting the Shroud Museum in Torino (the actual cloth is carefully hidden inside its box, only to be taken out on rare jubilee days), I do not believe that the shroud of Turin belonged to Jesus. The form of the body suggested by it is simply not sinuous and beautiful enough to satisfy our mythic desire for him. The image that the experts draw from the bloodstains is of a bulky square-shouldered man, not at all the sweet beloved of the visionary mystics as depicted in paintings over centuries. Just as the scientists who discovered the shape of the DNA molecule knew that they had finally found it because the double helix was the most beautiful configuration, so we can see that the shroud did not belong to the son of God because of the gracelessness of its traces.

256px-full_length_negatives_of_the_shroud_of_turinFull length negatives of the Shroud of Turin

There has to be a difference. Difference is thrilling, is frisson, is friction. If there were no difference, no distinction, no discrimination, no delineation, we would see nothing. Everything would be one blended morass, one moving, shifting mélange of everythingness. No shadows, no lights, no textures, no patterns or deviations. So we like to go away, discover new things, challenge ourselves, compare and contrast the familiar against the strange in order to understand, again, our expanded selves. And yet we find ourselves in a constant emotional oscillation, a cycle swinging between comfort, tedium, restlessness, curiosity, desire, risk-taking, danger, exposure, discomfort, exhaustion, home-sickness, comfort, tedium…ad infinitum.

Thus we come to the necessity of maintaining some borders at a basic level, personally, and then globally. We need secrets, mysteries in order to remain where we are, among our fellows in our homes, in our romantic relationships; or else it is as if we were running rampant around the neighborhood, around the world, continually searching for newness, making so many things the same as we unite with them, making everything homogeneous and known all too quickly. A promiscuous lover is someone who has not learned how to mine the depths of himself and his beloved; is quickly bored; doesn’t have enough inner resources to discern the depths hidden in his lover; thus he moves on quickly in order to stimulate his poor imagination. Curiosity, desire, conquest of new ideas and intellectual territory, all have their value: but they should not be gluttonous. If we are to feast, let us leave time for regeneration of resources; let us make sure we properly savor what we are sacrificing and devouring. The communion of the self with the other cannot be celebrated so swiftly that all differences are leveled out, sanded away, consumed by the Moloch of desire for newness. This touches on the problem and pleasure of materiality. The basic limitation of resources; that they are not infinite. You can melt down idols to make new ones, but then the old idols no longer exist. How can we contrive to keep the old ones and erect new ones, too? Of love we can barely speak in this regard: the old lovers are replaced by new ones, yet they remain, one hopes, still within us, and we within them, in traces, some very potent, as we continue to consume and appropriate and expand, becoming new ourselves and shedding strangeness as we go, exploring our anti-selves, the characteristics we harbor that are anathema to our primary identities and the identities of our native lands and cultures.

After writing The Sorrows of Young Werther, and serving many years as advisor to the Duke of Weimar, Carl August, Goethe “stole” away at three in the morning, from his friends, his duties, and his romantic (but non-sensuous) relationship with Charlotte von Stein, to sojourn in Italy for two years. There he found himself in contrast to the differences he experienced, searched out the ancient remains of classical Rome, learned about architecture at the foot of buildings designed by Palladio, learned to see by looking at Italian paintings, developed his concept of the universal Ur-Pflanze from which all plants metamorphose (Alles ist Blatt), and enjoyed, above all, the weather and the fruit. His wonderful account of his adventures includes detailed descriptions of the geology, flora, and fauna of the countries he passed through), along with evaluations of artifacts, architecture, painting, and peoples (he burdened down his pack with rock specimens as well as heavy books). Referring to the Greek god, who could not be conquered in wrestling matches as long as he remained in contact with his mother, Gaia, Goethe writes, “I see myself as Antaeus, who always feels newly strengthened, the more forcefully he is brough into contact with his mother, the earth”.

The Germans have always harbored a romantic longing for the physicality of Italy, “the land where the lemons bloom,” as Goethe writes, as mythic antithesis of everything Germanic (stoical, cold, disciplined, abstract). Nietzsche sojourned to Torino, a Dionysus on the River Po, in conscious ex-patriot spirit. What meanings did he find there, that philosopher with a hammer who famously denied the existence of “Das Ding an sich,” and called on us to bravely consider the abysmal probability that there is no meaning or purpose to life whatsoever? He certainly meant that there was no predetermined meaning or God-given purpose, no purpose ordained by a God. But he did not mean to repudiate the ways in which the world can be meaningful (affirmed, celebrated, enjoyed). For his rejection of the “thing in itself” was decidedly not a transcendental call to celebrate merely the disembodied life of the alienated mind out of touch with the physical world (a thing in itself, surely, despite Berkeley’s skepticism, and despite the inability to know it absolutely or objectively beyond phenomena). Here in Torino, this city so beloved by Nietzsche, while I am struggling with the question of meaning, I feel compelled to come to terms with him on this question. We are in agreement on the central importance of the material sensuous goodness of the world and on a deep suspicion of any ideologies which aim to affirm something in contradiction to the facts of this real.

goethe_stieler_1828Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828.  (Public domain)

Ecce Homo, which he wrote while in this city, begins with a serious discussion of the vital importance of digestion, weather, and music, all experienced by Nietzsche (and clearly by Goethe as well) as fundamental physical requirements for living the right life. The theological-metaphysical questions are deemed unimportant at best, treacherous deviations at worst.   Thoreau, whose first chapter in Walden is called “Economy,” planted beanstalks as the most efficacious conduits to a realm where one might best consider “higher laws”. It makes one wonder what would have happened to Thoreau had he visited Italy (he traveled a great deal, he noted, in Concord). Would he have abandoned his dietary restrictions against drinking coffee? Might he have succumbed to the animal spirits and fallen in love? Margaret Fuller, who translated that comprehensive man of spirit and sense, Goethe, complained about the disembodied tendency of her friend Emerson (and Thoreau was even less sensual than his mentor), did travel to Italy and fall in love, gave birth to a probably illegitimate child, and participated in the Italian revolution. If she had not tragically drowned on her return home, she might have infected all of Concord with a new European sensuality! Just imagine. Nietzsche, who admired Emerson greatly, who was just about as abstemious and celibate as Thoreau, still knew how to reason from the hands to the head, as the bard of Concord counseled—and from the stomach too, though, it would have to be a strong one.

Love of Fate meant for Nietzsche a love of life exactly as it is, which seems to suggest a belief in a thing in itself after all…the world in itself, as it is—mediated by our senses, our tastes, our interests, our desires, yes, but not subject to utter transformation of its basic realities: mortality, gravity, pain, beauty, brilliance, energy, stupidity, music, pleasure, illness, cold, sunshine. Darwin explained all of this in his own way. We don’t live in a friendly universe. The world cares not a fig for our personal happiness, though our genes may well fight mightily for their own generation. And the connection to Spinoza, greatly admired by Nietzsche, may be helpful: the world was not made for us humans, and thus should not be judged according to how well it does or does not serve our aims and desires. The world is good in itself. Is god, is divine in itself, whether we are experiencing petty miseries or committing atrocities. The world is beautiful, even without the concept of beauty invented by humans. We are to look at the world from the “perspective of eternity,” which is not a transcendental perspective, but, rather, one which provides an angle beyond our own particular immediate interests. Objectivity? Well, not quite. With Nietzsche we can speak of a perspective from the mountain top, as far away from the flatland as possible, but with a knowledge of the subjective world of taste and senses. Nietzsche writes, in The Twilight of the Idols, “One would have to be situated outside life, and on the other hand to know it as thoroughly as any, as many, as all who have experienced it, to be permitted to touch on the problem of the value of life.” For, if our reflections seem all-too mercurial, shifting, and arbitrary from the perspective of eternity, closer up they are instinctive and healthy tastes, responses to and engagement with the world.

As subjects, creative subjects, we make of this world as it is what we can. We cannot help but make meanings about it. But let these meanings be in metaphoric harmony with the real facts of nature. Let us make and preserve myths which help us to understand, to celebrate and to weep over the true facts of human existence, and its true pleasures and pains. Gilgamesh is struggling with the death of his friend. He searches for a way to be immortal, to conquer death. But when he thinks he has found it, a snake eats the magic herb he has foolishly left on the shore while he swims. Thus, although humans must be mortal, a snake can continually shed its skin. A true myth. The kind of fiction that Nietzsche railed against was of another kind: a false fiction, one that repressed the reality of death, repressed natural instinct and pleasure, repressed sexuality and the will to power, repressed beauty and energies and great health and desire in the interest of a transcendental Idealism offering an afterlife, and some sense of pious righteousness in exchange for all that made life meaningful. The myth of Christianity he would battle with the myth of the beautiful drunken god: Dionysus versus the Crucified One. Thus, he aimed, not to do away with all myths (that, in fact, was Socrates’s great sin, according to Nietzsche), but to celebrate the myths that are in accord with the true facts of life. Steiner quotes a cryptic passage from Nietzsche’s notebooks: “God Affirms; Job Affirms.” And glosses that Nietzsche was referring to his idea of the aesthetic justification of the world. The world of wonder and beauty. Look at what I made, says God to Job. I made the Leviathan. I am an artist. Don’t talk to me about your petty troubles.

And here in Torino, Nietzsche, enjoying a rare respite from his chronic pain, in withdrawal from Wagner, the Wagnerites, the Germans and their obtuse Idealism and Morality, enjoyed the sunshine and the air and the food and the gelato (but not the wine); enjoyed the graciousness of the people; and the lightness of Carmen (Torino was “tutti Carmenizzatto”). The world that Nietzsche celebrated was not so much a world of the future, a world of future higher men, but a revival of Renaissance and Pagan values. Not at all the postmodern insipid relativity of values with its snide rejection of beauty, nobility, genius, aristocratic individualism.

512px-friedrichnietzscheturinNietzsche dedicatory plague in Turin

Meaning has been attacked from two sides: on the one hand by the commercialization and commodification of life, by the simulacrum covering up an abyss of shallowness and the emptiness that is left over after the orgy of sensationalism, as humans become more and more bereft of any real connection to nature, human relationships, history, culture, beauty, pleasure, divinity, sacredness. On the other hand, it has been attacked by the cold lizards of theory, who feel nothing themselves but only touch us with their clammy hands so that we too feel a chill and cannot sense the heat in what naturally should move us. These theorists even dare to claim Nietzsche as their own. Because he questioned the idea of a transcendent meaning, aiming with his iconoclastic hammer at the ideology that denied the real meanings of the world, they use his words as an attack on meaning altogether. Because he called for a transvaluation of values, they use his words as an attack on values altogether, missing his joyous celebration of the values of nobility, of the Renaissance, of ancient Greece, of great art and great men, of genius and beauty and rapture. Indeed, he had a hammer (though sometimes it was a tuning hammer for a piano, not a bludgeon), and there was smashing to be done. He was a great destroyer, who called himself “Dynamite.” But he destroyed only as a preliminary to creation. The epigones took up his hammer and began smashing even the idols Nietzsche himself had venerated. They smashed veneration altogether. And in their adolescent giddiness, in the din of their mob fury against what was once great, in their ressentiment, they did not hear the most important part of his message: the axes must be turned into chisels, to carve new idols, new values, new words, new forms, new metaphors, ones that honor what is vivid and beautiful in life, ones that affirm the instincts and the senses.

In a museum in Torino I saw a painting of Santa Lucia, her bloody eyes on a plate. She was a good pious girl, promised in marriage to a pagan, whose mother was ill. She was called by an angel to devote herself to Christ instead of the Pagan fiancé, and in exchange, her mother would be cured. She willingly did so, refusing to bow down to the Emperor, and giving her dowry to the Church instead of her future husband. For this, some say, her eyes were gouged out. Or else she cut them out herself so as not to be attractive to her husband-to-be. She is lovely and fierce in the paintings, and probably the man they had chosen for her was a brute and not to her taste; and her devotion to Christ healed her mother; but can we not think of a better story for her? Is this really a model worthy of imitatio? So many of these maiden saints, who refused arranged marriages and gave themselves to the disembodied fantasy of the beautiful, scantily-clad Christ instead, were exercising the only power they had, and for this they are admirable. They found, by these religious subterfuges, one way of protecting themselves from drunken brutish masters in the form of husbands, pimps, and fathers. But their virginity was no great prize. Can we not imagine stories for them with better endings? Lovers to their tastes, freedom to choose, to adventure beyond the convent or house-wifely walls? Instead of continuing to venerate the lives of these pious girls, we would do well to imagine new vitae for them, lives lived in rebellion, not against Pagan Emperors and sexuality, but against the control of their bodies and souls by male authority figures, lives lived in full flowering of their sexuality and pleasure-loving instincts, in celebration of female desire. We must make new saints, and also revive old models worthy of veneration from the archives of history, woman and girls who knew light and dark, pleasure and pain, flesh, the devil, and the divine sweetness of the embrace of a beautiful, living beloved body. Poor Santa Lucia. We pity her and regret the loss of her beautiful eyes. And then, in her honor, we go looking for traces of other myths or at least a few fallen figs from some controversial historic feasts, to savor from the safe distance of a relatively tame and unromantic time.

512px-santaluciaPainting of Santa Lucia, Syracuse Italy

I am on my way to Gardone Riviera, on a pilgrimage to visit Il Vittoriale, the monumental house, shrine, and garden of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italian novelist, poet, patriot, lover, and aesthete. When I mention him to people here they sometimes seem uncomfortable; because he was wild enough to disregard the Treaty of Versailles and take over the island of Fiume to turn it into an artistic utopia; because of his relationship with Mussolini; because he represents or seems to represent many things that are nowadays in bad odor. To get there I have to take a train to Milan and one to Brescia and then a long bus ride.

It is a misty, cool, warm morning in February, and confusions proliferate: about trains, ticket machines, banks, language, customs. They seem to do everything differently here, but for them that is how it is done. Then I realize that even in my own milieu I am strange. That I am strange, wherever I go. An artist is outside of society, but also very inside it. Inside of life. Observing, but also feeling through and for everyone and everything. After writing that down I wonder if it is arrogant, as if I were suggesting that regular people don’t feel, are not conscious. No, it is not that, but rather that their attention is mostly elsewhere, and ours is so often concentrated on reflection, on the symbolization of everything. Watching gestures and configurations, listening to emphases and choices of words, noticing formal variations and repetitions. As Suzanne Langer notes, to use symbols (rather than just signs) is to talk about the world, not just to denote it, not just to deliver information, but to consider how things are, and even why. And as artists, our lives are consumed by symbols and symbolic interpretations. The entire phenomenal world is to us a sort of symbol-picture of something else. No, not of another world, as Plato would have it; not a bad copy of some perfect original, but actually a symbol-complex of itself.

The phenomenal nature of the physical world means to us. But we don’t make of it what isn’t there, but see in it all that there is to be seen in it. Well, not everything at once—that would be too much, that would be a jumble. But we see many things, one after the other, from different perspectives, in correspondence; we have many ways of seeing meaning in what is. We are curious about how things are made; where they came from; how they were invented; what human need they answered; what history they contain; what natural materials; what natural miracles are evident in their existence; what they tell us about human and animal life, past and present, about desires, fears, curiosities, mistakes, kindnesses and cruelties, despairs and foolish hopes. Thoreau, allegedly an arch anti-materialist, collected and used objects to trace history… as artifacts of material culture, looking, always, for the law and the deviation. Goethe, a naturalist and collector of botanical, geological, and artistic specimens, traced the variety of the plant world back to one original Ur-Pflanze, and then envisioned the entire world of objects and behavior as an allegory for this constant development, this constant Becoming (Werden), from out of the essence of Being (Sein).

All artists mine objects, physical acts, stories, events, speech utterances, places, buildings, man-made and natural, for their significance, for traces of how and what we have dreamt of and done battle for; for their own qualities and also for the way in which they are allegories for other things, feelings, events, experiences; for the way they seem to echo and repeat. When we see repeating patterns we naturally sometimes think we have learned something about life, some tendencies or natural laws…and, despite the doubts shed upon such instinctive correspondence nowadays, often it is true. But it would be foolish to take only one or two experiences and construct a final story about life. The largest, broadest vision would be necessary to oversee all the conflicting narratives before coming to any conclusions. Life is brutal, life is tender. Humans are brave, are craven; are polygamous, monogamous; people of habit, craving change; we like to deviate and to stay close. So, whenever we try to maintain just one thing we discover another side or possibility, but not to the extent that everything cancels everything else out. We may still come to provisional conclusions about the nature of the world, society, our lives, about what works and what does not; in fact we must. But let these not be rigid or polarized, let us not base hasty conclusions solely on either the sum of the good or the sum of the bad experiences. A little hope is healthy, as is a touch of denial, since sometimes things turn out better than one expects, even in the worst of circumstances. As much horror as there is, there is also always good. Neither can be cancelled out by the other. We must see it all. Read it all into what we find before us. Find a way to embrace it all. Amor fati—Love of fate.

I arrived at Gardone Riviera too late in the afternoon for a tour of the house, so began my visit to D’Annunzio’s Il Vittoriale degli Italiani with a sunset stroll around the “most beautiful garden in Italy”. From my Neo-Classical hotel, with its palm trees, classical columns, and reproductions of Roman sculptures, I walked up the steep winding paths and stairways to the grounds, past little houses perched amid orange trees and covered in vines, until I found the gate and entered D’Annunzio’s strange dream: grottos with idols; walkways beneath portentous archways; a sudden St. Francis of Assisi; a fountain encircled with gorgon heads; a lofty monument to the heroes of Fiume; a giant boat docked on land; columns topped with statuesque nudes. A sign before a sun-dappled little garden made up of rocks, small columns and upright missiles, informs the visitor that this is the most sacred spot of all. The “little lake for dancing” is at the bottom of a steep ravine, reached only by winding down hundreds of small stone steps. The large amphitheater is encircled from behind by tall cedars and the snow-capped Alps, and its stage has a gleaming Lake Garda as its backdrop. I imagined Isadora Duncan, one of D’Annunzio’s many lovers, walking there—as if on the water—in consummate Classical grace.

torino2-015Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

That night I wandered around the out-of-season resort town, looking for somewhere to dine, lighting upon Caffe D’Annunzio itself, one of the only places opened, where three or four locals were crowded around a counter drinking wine. I nursed a negroni on the closed-down patio while wondering what Il Vittoriale means. Why, I wondered, should it make us uncomfortable? D’Annunzio had a sense of the heroic about him that is out of fashion today. A sense of superiority and sacredness, a will to power, a contempt for lowliness, sickliness, vulgarity, cowardice. People may mock D’ Annunzio’s mythologizing, moralistically decrying his frequent bad behavior, I think—or perhaps this is the gin and the absence of a restaurant—, but at least his impulses were signs of life, of appetite. D’Annunzio might well be censured or ridiculed for his celebration of militarism and his association with Mussolini , for his many lovers (whom he adored, but also treated atrociously), for his many dogs and his race cars, for the consciously elaborated mythology of himself as a demi-God, for a combination of wounded pride and delusions of grandeur—except that he was a great writer, and his grand lifestyle enriches our collective imagination.

 

nunes_vais_mario_1856-1932_-_gabriele_dannunzio_sdraiato_mentre_leggeGabriele D’Annunzio Reading by Mario Nunes Vais (1856-1932)

Compared to the lukewarm morality of today, our smug conformity and communal piety, D’ Annunzio’s mythic theatricality exercises a certain attraction. Considering all of this, I found myself laughing out loud at the mad, mad world, strolling on the closed-down boardwalk. I was dwarfed by a 19th century edifice, crowned with a bright yellow Renaissance-style tower with the words GRAND HOTEL emblazoned in golden-tinted mosaic. It was a huge sprawling place where Churchill and Mussolini, and many other mortally-flawed heroes and villains stayed. Like most everything else here, the historic hotel was boarded up until May, and the boardwalk was surreal, empty, but for a lone palm tree swaying on the promenade. In my drunkenness, with the help of a kind stranger, I managed to work the cigarette machine I found on the way back to my hotel, and smoked a rare cigarette—which, in its rareness, got me even higher—and wondered about the difference between aesthetic individualism and fascism. The cigarette, in its naughtiness, helping me to flirt with the decadent charms of immorality.

Aesthetic individualism is associated with culture, beauty, delicate sensibilities, the collection and preservation of fragile artifacts, and an internationalism that revels in the multiplicity of the creative imagination; fascism is nationalistic, collectivist, brutally destructive, anti-intellectual, a danger not only to human beings and their ethical freedom, but also to the beloved precious buildings, artistic and historical artifacts so admired by the aesthetic individualist. So why would they ever, why do they sometimes keep common cause? In the case of D’Annunzio, we have a man of letters whose only real political affiliation was with the Party of Beauty, but who in fact did collaborate with a man who would subsequently become a fascist dictator. But even before Mussolini came to be Il Duce and to be called by D’Annunzio “an evil clown,” their relationship was strained. They came together at the start of World War I, over a shared vision of a new Roman Empire, a romantic ideal that called for the re-annexation of Trieste, Fiume, and other territories that had once belonged to Italy and which, they both agreed, should once again be theirs. D’Annunzio roused his countrymen to enter the War and to defend the French culture under siege, with speeches and street theater, and fought on the front lines. But after the Treaty of Versailles failed to reward the Italians for their sacrifices in the war, he took history into his own hands, and, with a ragtag militia, easily took Fiume back for the Italians, to the cheers of the mostly Italian populace, and tried to found an artistic utopia with a democratic constitution there. Mussolini kept himself scarce and watched from afar as the dream foundered over the course of a little more than a year, only later to seize Fiume from the Austrians himself, this time, much to D’Annunzio’s displeasure, to make it part of a fascist state. The fascists were frequently embarrassed by D’Annunzio’s eccentric sybaritic antics, his poetry and his displays of what they considered “feminine” voluptuousness; his nude sunbathing and worship of art. His association with workers’ collectives agitating for unions and civil rights also complicated matters. When D’Annunzio was not being swayed by the democratic socialists, or being lured into shady dealings by the fascists, he was doing whatever he fancied, collaborating with composers on operas, writing plays for his lovers, writing sumptuous novels and books of poems about his lovers, spending money he did not have on beautiful books and objet d’art, and making love. He felt that Mussolini had abandoned him at Fiume and that he did not give him the credit he deserved for bringing Italy into World War I; but Mussolini the dictator saw to it that a national edition of D’Annunzio’s complete works was published and that the extensive quixotic renovations of Il Vittoriale be funded in part by the Italian government. D’ Annunzio, in turn, dedicated his house and grounds to the Italian people as a monument to the soldiers who dared to take Fiume with him. It was also a retreat. Although he had dabbled sensationally in politics and war, he was, by nature, an aesthete who enjoyed comfort and sensuality. Luxury, he wrote, was as essential to him as breathing. He liked to sit at the feet of lovely women, and shower them with flowers, leaf through ancient leather-bound books and recite poetry in the dark. Over the course of a five year period, he once wrote over 1000 letters to one woman alone. They don’t make men like D’Annunzio anymore. In the mostly empty dining room of my hotel, there were none to be seen, so I gave myself to a large piece of black forest cake with whipped cream, and the conversation of the owner and his friends, who tried to get me to drink more and more champagne and spoke to me in a mixture of broken English and mostly incomprehensible Italian. Somehow I stumbled upstairs alone, somewhat nauseous, and had a nightmare about D’Annunzio. Or was it a dream?

The following day I made it into the sanctum sanctorum, D’Annunzio’s house. In the entryway to what he called “the Priory” stands a column to divide the guests into welcome and unwelcome. The many creditors would have to wait on the right, the women, mostly artists and poets and actresses, would be ushered in on the left to a room filled with incense burners and a helicopter blade hanging from the ceiling. The lucky ones would be brought to the music room, cocooned in dark tapestries. D’Annunzio had lost an eye in the war and was sensitive to light. Besides, music requires concentration of the mind. The floors are covered in carpets and pillows, for lounging or making love; busts of Michelangelo and Dante, his ‘brothers’, stand like witnesses. Books and music folios line the walls, surrounding life masks, sculptures, lamps of blown glass fruit, leaded windows, an organ, lyres, lutes, bells. The predominant tones are red, gold, and black. From the music room we proceed to a writing room, with a large desk, where D’Annunzio died, and a medicine cabinet filled with drugs. Over the doorway from the writing room to the bedroom, we read: genio et voluptati —genius and voluptuousness. The bedroom is called The Room of Leda and overflows with chinoiserie and silken fabrics and cushions. But genius is not all pleasure and happiness. Consider the Leper Room, for meditation on the death of his mother and Eleanore Duse, which features a bed in the shape of both a cradle and a coffin, “the bed of two ages”. Two leopard skins are draped over the steps leading down from the bed. A painting of Saint Francis embracing the leper hangs near the bed. We are to understand that D’Annunzio considers himself a leper in the eyes of society, in exile here after his failed attempt to raise life to its rightful gloriousness despite the philistine, luke-warm good behavior of his fellows. In his Italian Journey, written back when words like lofty, harmonize, exalt, true, and noble could be read without embarrassment, Goethe commented on the poor reception granted to a number of Palladio buildings:

How poorly these choice monuments to a lofty spirit harmonize with the life of the rest of mankind…it occurs to me that this after all is the way of the world. For one gets little thanks from people when one tries to exalt their inner urges, to give them a lofty concept of themselves, to make them feel the magnificence of a true, noble existence.

Alas, Goethe saw the tendency of things, already at the end of the 18th century. Though I wonder what he would have thought of D’Annunzio’s taste. The Relics room is a syncretic temple to all religions, mixing sacred objects with profane military paraphernalia. There are elephants, bronze Buddhas, medieval crosses, rows and rows of Catholic statuary, and a Fiume flag on the ceiling. Over the doorway is written: “Five Fingers, Five Sins”. Out of the original seven, D’Annunzio had excluded lust and greed. These two were not deadly sins, but virtues in his creed. A broken steering wheel on the altar, which once had belonged to an English racecar driver friend, symbolizes the religion of risk. His workshop, the only room in the house to let in natural light, can only be entered by prostrating oneself beneath a low ceiling and taking a few small steps. The writer had to humble himself before his muse, his great love, the actress, Eleanore Duse, whose bust sits upon his desk, covered with a silk scarf so her beauty would not distract him from his work. La Duse, as she was called, earned the full adulation that Il Duce was denied.

torino4-037Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

D’Annunzio called his house “the book of stones,” and like all good books it is filled with symbols. Everything means something. And the many mottos written on ceilings and round the rims of rooms and over doorways help us should we falter in our interpretation. And yet, I probably will be trying to understand it all for a long time to come. Certainly, although it would be simpler to outright reject grandeur and beauty, because of its sometimes questionable provenance, I cannot moralistically deny myself the intellectual and sensual pleasure it brings. And yet, the provenance and history of objects is significant and fraught with tangled skeins of so much seeming good with so much seeming bad. I will continue to be curious about all the life and the history that can be gleaned from material remains—portals to other worlds and times—and to embrace the wild contradictory nature of humanity with an amor fati—love of fate—communing, even if need be, in occasional discomfort, with all kinds of ghosts, neither assuaging nor simplistically censoring the transgressions of these haunted spirits.

What would D’Annunzio have thought, however, had he known that the souvenir shop outside the grounds would feature not only snow globes with little miniature Il Vittoriales and coffee mugs emblazoned with his face, but also a section devoted to his special friend and nemesis, Mussolini, offering brass knuckles and ominous riding crops for sale? Would he have approved? I would like to think he would he have considered it an impudent intrusion, actuated by purely capitalist vulgarity, a treacherous re-writing of his more nuanced story, rather like the posthumous revision of Nietzsche’s biography by his Wagnerite sister. (Elisabeth-Forster Nietzsche, as is well known, attempted to posthumously present her brother as a proto-Nazi, he, who in reality despised the Germans and who called in his last days for the death of all anti-Semites. The Mussolini display made me feel queasy, so I quickly exited the little shop and walked down the hill to beautiful Lake Garda, which Goethe, on his visit, had called “magnificent,” trying to separate the marvelous and admirable Italian writer from his unsavory companion. I caught the afternoon bus out of town, and made it back to Torino by late the same evening.

I spent my last week wandering around gazing at everything, saying goodbye with my eyes, entering dark churches on rainy afternoons and returning to museums I had already visited. I abandoned my foolish infatuation with the intern from Sardinia. It had been a case of pareidolia after all, or a matter of witchcraft. I visited Brunilde one more time, who had been angry at me after the last lunch for refusing dessert, a strawberry delicacy which the blackboard claimed was “the cake of love.” Probably she had cursed me, and my refusal to eat the cake was the cause of my romantic failure. This time I was all alone with her in the little restaurant. We talked despite my faulty Italian and her non-existent English, and she even gave me the name of another restaurant, scribbling it on a little piece of paper, which I did not lose and used the following day. I knew better now: I would do whatever she said and eat whatever she suggested. Lunch was orecchietti with spinach pesto and a mouth-watering cutlet swamped in delicious artichoke sauce, a glass of red wine, sparkling water, and for dessert a divinely magical zabaione with roasted almonds, an espresso, the traditional shot glass of absinthe-soaked grapes, and something extra this time, to mark my initiation: a little jar of sugar cubes soaked in liquor and spices, which I did not know really how to eat or drink. She became frustrated with me and took it away, “Only the sugar, only the sugar;” but she had accepted me, just the same, this woman whose gruffness was a legend, but whose favor I had longed for. I was sure she was a witch, and that she could help me or hurt me. After the espresso, I paid the bill, but was short some 60 cents. She waved me away; it was a mere trifle between such good friends. I wished her a beautiful life, una vita bella, and Brunilde the fierce blew me a kiss! I was blessed.

torino4-030Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

On the way to the airport, the Alps, covered in snow, were visible behind the utilitarian architecture at the edge of the city. All along the street, shutters opened and green curtains were extended from inside to out and draped over the little balconies. From a tall building, a white sheet, like a small cloud, was shaken out in the fresh morning air in the wind and sun. Church spires rose up, shopkeepers brought out boxes of fruit for display, and old men in gray caps trundled along the sidewalk, newspapers tucked in the pockets of their old tweed jackets, ready to be unfurled along with the far-off world at the nearest caffè. The time had come to leave, and the following were my last words with which I armed myself for a return to the American landscape of ironic nihilism, that nihilism born in part of a fear of the complexity inherent in material objects and in the often painful distance between dreams and reality which they reveal:

Whosoever today does not respond, does not resonate to the stirrings of beauty and the energetic life force of the world as it is, who is not filled with wonder at its teeming multifarious richness, who mocks those in the past who have made objects and symphonies and wrote poems to celebrate the intricate, elaborate, strange, cruel, and tender rhythms of life, must be dead of spirit. In the Palazzo Madama museum, after bathing in sunlight streaming into a room of baroque golden splendor from a grand window, I entered the tiny tower housing a collection of small treasures, and any lingering doubts about meaning were immediately purged from me. I knew that the doubters were blind, deaf, and dumb. These intricate treasures were immediate palpable evidence of the perennial human need to celebrate the real delights and dangers of nature and civilization. Carved ivories, etched gems, blown glass, cast bronze. Fancy— made out of the real substance of the physical world, its colors and textures and qualities. I was thus armed to do battle against the skeptical intellectuals and their social construction blasphemy. I knew: Whosoever does not love Nature and the artifacts of humankind’s love of matter (colors, curves, sounds, textures, words, flavors, rhythms, light, light, light!) may as well be dead. Such a one is bereft of heat, of senses, of love, of lust, is a lizard of theoretical idiocy; just as much a repressor of the instincts and the body and nature as any inquisition or poison-spider priest. Philistine sophisticates, parading as the new intellectuals and new anti-artists, may you chortle on the dust of your own dreary scoffing. We others, we naïve ones, have been filled with wonder by the beauty of the world.

—Genese Grill

.grill-genese-grill-with-artists-books-cropped

Genese Grill is a writer, translator, and book artist, living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). She has just finished a collection of essays entitled Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, which is looking for a nice publishing house in which it might live. Essays from the collection have appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Georgia Review, and The Missouri Review, and one of them won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Nonfiction. She is proud to be on the masthead of Numéro Cinq as special correspondent.

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Sep 022016
 

With Uncle Henry's boys at The Knoll c.1950With Uncle Henry’s boys at The Knoll, c.1950

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‘Wind it up again,’ I say to my big sister, and she rapidly turns the silver handle of Auntie Essie’s wind-up gramophone. It’s set in the top of a beautiful wooden cabinet. The doors beneath swing back to reveal shelves of records, glossy black seventy-eights in their thin brown paper sleeves, each with its round cut-out peephole through which I can see the record label and the little dog listening to his master’s voice.

The black lacquered cabinet is almost taller than I am. When I push up the lid it clicks open. I can just see the turntable, covered with green baize, and the twisting silver arm with its round head, and the glittering needles higgledy-piggledy in the container like an egg cup, set in beside the on/off lever. ‘Now change that needle often,’ Auntie Essie says, ‘or you’ll ruin those records.’ She’s not happy that we’re playing with the gramophone in the big lounge room with its elegant arm chairs and those large round Jap-silk cushions of scarlet and midnight blue. I expect she wasn’t allowed in there when she was growing up. But my Uncle Henry said, ‘Of course they can play in there. It isn’t a morgue!’

The deep groaning voice emerging from the cabinet gradually rises in pitch as my sister turns the handle until it’s Nellie Melba singing ‘One Fine Day’ in a shrill reedy voice. But soon she slows again to a drunken drawl. My sister cranks it up once more and Nellie soars to greater heights. But sometimes it isn’t Nellie; it’s that man called Gigli or the other one called Caruso. They sing sad songs from far away, amongst all that crackling. The labels say things like ‘Nessun Dorma’ and ‘Turandot’ but that’s some foreign language.

There are heaps more records. My mother says they’re mostly popular songs and dance music from the 1920s and 30s when Auntie Essie and all her brothers were growing up. There’s one dance called ‘Black Bottom’. I think that sounds a bit rude. And there are Charlestons, which I love, and Foxtrots and Two Steps, whatever they are. My favourite record, apart from ‘One Fine Day’, is a song I like to sing:

‘My dog loves your dog,
And your dog loves my dog.
Both our doggies love each other
Why can’t we?’

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Ethel

Auntie Essie lives with Grandfather at The Knoll. It stands on top of the hill overlooking the lake at 99 The Esplanade, Speers Point. We have to go there for holidays. The gloomy house is where my father grew up with Essie and his four brothers: my Uncle Art, Uncle Henry, Uncle Aub and Uncle Griff. They call Essie ‘Sis’ but her real name’s Ethel.

The Knoll 480pxThe Knoll

Thomas family and Vauxhall Tourer c1951Essie on the right beside my father and me. My sister seated by Grandfather, Uncle Aub and the Vauxhall Tourer, c.1951

Auntie Essie sits in the back room on the hard brown armchair by the wireless, listening to the serials. She turns the volume up high because she’s a bit deaf although she’s the same age as my mother and that’s not old. Her favourite serial’s called ‘When a Girl Marries’. At other times she sits reading love stories about doctors and nurses from the English Woman’s Weekly, and she’s always smoking those Capstan cigarettes. My mother doesn’t smoke or hardly ever (only when her friend Daisy comes to stay) and she doesn’t read love stories in magazines. She reads books.

Essie’s fingers are stained yellow and so are her big front teeth. My mother says it’s from the nicotine. She has permed yellow hair but I don’t think that’s the nicotine. She wears sensible lace-up shoes because she’s a nurse and sensible clothes and hats when she goes out.

It’s always dark and musty at The Knoll and there’s the smell of dank seaweed from the lake, moth balls from the cupboards and that cigarette smoke, mixed with perfumes: lantana growing wild up the gully, and frangipani blossoms floating in the black lacquered bowl on the traymobile in the dining room.

Essie doesn’t swim in the lake although it’s just down the bottom of the steep driveway. I’ve never seen her in a swimming costume—but we often go down to the lake with our mother and sometimes with our father when he doesn’t have to be back home, doing the mine inspections. Mother looks glamorous in her home-made floral swimming costume and her wide black hat. We have to wade out through that slimy black sea grass. It’s like thousands of black spiders under water waving their legs.

Beside the lake with my father c1953At the lake with my father, c.1953

My mother thinks it’s a nightmare having to stay at The Knoll for a fortnight. ‘Now mind your Ps and Qs,’ she says to us because Auntie Essie’s a stickler for manners, so we always have to be minding them, especially at the dinner table. You have to know how to use the butter knife and where to put the salt when you’ve fished it out of the little cut-glass salt cellar with the tiny silver salt spoon. You’re not to sprinkle it over the food like Uncle Aub does. He taps the little spoon with his fork and the salt goes everywhere. My mother says this makes Auntie Essie go apoplectic.

On Mondays Essie cooks liver and bacon, Tuesdays it’s tripe in white sauce, Wednesdays it’s sausages and gravy, Thursdays steak and onions—and it’s always a roast on Sundays. She keeps the chocolate biscuits in a big old Bushell’s Coffee jar locked in the kitchen cupboard, and the starched tablecloths and serviettes and the silver serviette rings and the cruet set locked in the sideboard, and the sheets and towels locked in the press outside the bathroom, and her clothes locked in the black lacquered wardrobe in her bedroom. She has all the keys on a large wire ring in her apron pocket. They jangle when she pulls them out.

I know her wardrobe’s full of long satin and shot-silk evening dresses and old silver and gold evening shoes and a fox-fur like my mother’s only the fox still has its head and it has glass eyes. I don’t think Auntie Essie goes to balls any more but she’s quite slim when she’s wearing her corset. My mother says it’s just a pity Essie’s been left on the shelf, looking after Grandfather, but she’s a very good aunt because she remembers birthdays and Christmas. Every year she sends me another pair of frilly shortie pyjamas in flamingo-pink nylon.

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Mrs Whitter

Mrs Whitter is the cleaner. She’s been cleaning The Knoll since Auntie Essie was a girl. She always did the washing, and ran the Ewbank Carpet Sweeper over the hall runners and the Oriental carpets in the lounge room, the bedrooms and the dining room, and mopped the black lacquered wooden floors where they showed, and polished the silver with Silvo and the murky brown linoleum in the kitchen with Johnson’s Wax, on her hands and knees. Then she cooked the batch of bread before she went home.

She can’t get down on her hands and knees now because she’s old and fat with wispy white hair and a bristling wart on her chin and bunions sticking out of her feet. That’s why she slops round with the broom and the mop, and runs the old carpet sweeper over the threadbare hall runners in her carpet slippers. She doesn’t make the bread any more because the baker boy calls in his white apron. He walks all the way up the steep driveway with the bread in a wicker basket while the baker’s van waits down by the lake. Her grown-up daughter comes to help sometimes. She’s Mrs someone else and I don’t like her very much—but I like Mrs Whitter.

‘Come on love,’ Mrs Whitter says to me after she’s added more wood to the fire under the bricked-in copper and the water starts to boil, ‘You can help me sort these clothes.’ So I sort the whites from the coloureds, and she grates the Sunlight soap and plunges the sheets into the boiling froth and shoves them down with the copper stick. Then the laundry’s full of steam.

I help her with the wringer after she’s finished rinsing. The wringer’s what my mother calls a ‘mod con’—much smaller than the old mangle and it clips onto the edge of the concrete laundry tubs. After Mrs Whitter feeds the clothes between the rubber rollers, I ease them out the other side and drop them in the wicker clothes basket. She turns the handle and it’s hard work. ‘Not ’arf as ’ard as that mangle,’ she says.

I know about that mangle with its big wooden rollers and rusting iron frame. It’s sitting in the garage down the bottom of the drive beside the old wooden boat called ‘The Mary Jane’ that nobody takes out on the lake any more. When my Uncle Henry was a small boy he was watching his big brother (my Uncle Art) having fun with the mangle. ‘Put your finger in there,’ Art says, pointing to a small gap between the cogs. Little Henry pokes his finger in the hole; Art turns the handle and the end of Henry’s finger is chopped right off. And that’s why my Uncle Henry has only half an index finger on his right hand. They nearly turned him down when he went to join the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, because of that finger.

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Grandfather

‘You on the air, Pop? The batteries flat?’ my father says. Grandfather doesn’t hear. He sits wheezing, glasses near the tip of his nose, tartan scarf tucked in, smelling of Vicks VapoRub. He fiddles with the gadget in his breast pocket, the plastic-coated wire twisting its way to his ear. He fumbles with the knob then leans forward expectantly, hand cupped behind the other ear. It’s hard making conversation. You have to yell. ‘Speak up!’ he says.

We’re used to yelling in our family. Quite a few people are hard of hearing including Auntie Essie and Great-Aunt Thursa. But my grandfather is the only one whose eardrums were shattered in that coal mine explosion in the Hunter Valley just after the Great War. He lost several fingers as well.

The closed-in end of The Knoll’s veranda by the magnolia tree is his office. He spends much of the day pouring over his maps, fine-nibbed mapping pen in hand, meticulously incising contour lines in Indian ink, filling spaces with vivid colours from small glass ink bottles. He carefully removes the cork and dips his brush in the ink, steadying the bottle with his thumb and the two remaining fingers of his other hand. The finished oversized geological maps are stored in the red cedar cabinet. ‘Can I see?’ I say again and he slides out a tray to reveal another wondrous work. ‘Just look,’ he says, ‘don’t touch!’—and my small fingers itch.

A glass specimen case covers the top of the cabinet. I’m not tall enough to see, so I drag over the delicately carved chair and stand on the sprung seat. I lean my forehead against the glass to gaze at the treasures: black and sparkling anthracite, rust-coloured ironstone, shale embedded with leaves or shells, gold-flecked quartz, glittering marcasite, round basalt river stone—and then there are the uncut gems. The labels, which I can’t yet read, are in Indian ink, the intricate work of a mapping pen.

The author c.1947Me, c.1947

From an overhanging branch of the giant magnolia (where the bandicoot and I met in the dark) hangs my grandfather’s old-fashioned swimming costume of grey-and-black-striped wool. It hangs by the shoulder straps to dry. In summer, despite the asthmatic breathing, he walks, shoulders back, down the hill to swim in the lake. He eases himself in from the end of the jetty beyond the black sea grass, strikes out overarm then changes to an easy sidestroke. Later, I see the swimming costume, once more dangling by its shoulder straps from the branch to dry.

We always hear him coming when he drives to our house, just up the hill from the mine. Old Bess, his ancient utility truck, sounds like a tractor. I can see the dust and blue smoke as she grinds her way up the hill on the rutted gravel track. She was bought to replace the old Hupmobile which, as my father said, guzzled up too much fuel, and petrol was still rationed. He’d been lucky to pick up another car; secondhand ones were scarce after the war and new ones unavailable.

Bess has to be cranked to get her going. First my father strains at the crank handle, then Uncle Aub or Uncle Art, but each time the engine dies and she has to be cranked up again. Grandfather sits in the car dressed in his old suit and hat, hopefully pumping the accelerator. Blue smoke emerges, not only from the rusty exhaust pipe but also from under the bonnet. When she finally roars into life, he bashes the dented door shut, grinds the gearstick into place and sets off with a shout and a wave, scattering chooks as he goes.

‘He’s a menace on the road!’ my father says. Grandfather drives slowly and carefully but, not having the gadget turned on, he doesn’t hear cars tooting impatiently from behind on the narrow roads, so he doesn’t move over to let them pass. This results in long queues like funeral processions.

§

Years later, as he painstakingly drove his Morris Minor towards home, my grandfather was rammed from behind by a semi-trailer—at least that’s what they concluded at the official inquiry. His car left the road, turning over as it headed down an embankment. The semitrailer didn’t stop and the driver was never apprehended. My grandfather spent his last years an invalid at The Knoll (that grand old house above the lake) with Ethel, my Auntie Essie—his maps now untouched in the cabinet, the pens in their case.

When I received news of his death in the early 1970s, I thought of him, long ago, sitting at his desk, glasses near the tip of his nose, smelling of Vicks VapoRub. I’m sitting beside him on a high stool: a small child drawing fairies with a mapping pen—meticulously colouring their wings with the fine brush I’ve dipped in jewel-coloured ink.

Elizabeth Thomas in the late 1980sMe in the late 1980s, not long before The Knoll was sold

—Elizabeth Thomas

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Elizabeth Thomasx

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian writer, born before the end of World War II. She graduated from London University in 1970. Her first book, Vanished Land, was published in 2014 after she retired from the field of music and music education. Currently she contributes to Numéro Cinq and is working on short stories and a memoir.

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Aug 042016
 

Cynthia photo Shawnigan lakeCynthia Flood, all photos by Dean Sinnett

 

Memory Island’s in Shawnigan Lake, north of Victoria. During World War II, two young men from families who summered at the lake were killed in Europe. Their parents bought the little island and donated it to the BC Parks system, in memory of their sons and to provide summer happiness for other kids.

Each August, my family rents a lakeside cottage at Shawnigan. Swim to the island and explore, row to the island for a picnic, canoe there with the dog anxiously aboard — everyday activities.

With my teenage grand-daughters, one afternoon last year I stepped into the refreshing lake-water, all sparkly in the sun, and began to swim.

Next: I am lying flat, wearing a blue hospital gown. A voice says, “We’ll take her up to the ward now.”

Next: a nurse fits sensors around my arm. There’s snoring, nearby.

Next: getting up to pee. Darkness. The woman in the next bed breathes quietly now. She must have turned on her side.

Next: awake. Hungry. I read words stitched on the window-curtain: Cowichan District Regional Hospital. No questions occur. A kindly nurse brings breakfast. I eat everything, and wonder where my tote-bag is.

Then I hear my partner’s voice, coming into the ward. He appears, round the blue curtain. I smile and say Hello! Big tears burst out of his eyes.

What?

This episode of Transient Global Amnesia was of average length. For about eight hours I was gone, AWOL. My brain formed no memories whatsoever. Even when it began recovering, during that hospital night, I felt no surprise or concern. Queried nothing.

After our holiday, when we returned to Vancouver, my doctor supplied me with an 8-page single-spaced literature review on TGA.

Briefly, its causes aren’t well understood, though anyone 40 or up can experience one. Migraines may be involved (I don’t have those). Strenuous exercise, violent arguments or sex or fights, extreme emotional stress, severe dehydration: all are sometimes implicated, though not in this case. Luridly, people in the midst of a TGA have been known to drive, give public lectures, play musical instruments. . . . The condition’s deemed medically benign, with no known negative sequelae. So — I won’t go dotty any sooner than I would have without the experience. My favourite stat: a recurrence rate of about 5%.

Information helps in coping with such an event, but of course none was available to my family that August afternoon.

What I’ve been told:

When the girls and I reached Memory Island, I wanted to stay alone on the beach. They reported to my younger daughter, when she swam over there a bit later, that I seemed “sort of absent.”

Indeed. I asked her, “Where are the others? How did I get here?” And refused to believe I’d swum.

All returned to the cottage, where my daughter and my partner checked me for possible stroke. Negative. I was calm, passive. Obediently I ate a bit and got dressed, but had no recall of being on the island or of the canoe-ride back.

Partner and daughter made a decision. We three drove away.

“Where are we going?”

“To Duncan.”

“What are we doing there?”

“Heading for the hospital.”

“Oh! Well, no family vacation would be complete without some minor emergency.” Laughter.

Pause.

“Where are we going?”

Repeat, repeat, as partner and daughter cried and drove and googled maps of Duncan.

In Emergency, we soon bypassed other patients. Then came a CAT scan, x-rays, blood tests — none of these registered in memory. Questions about my history and present life I answered willingly, but slipped up on my own and my daughters’ home addresses. Of the afternoon and evening’s events, zip remained.

Quite soon, a doctor suggested Transient Global Amnesia. Transient! My family seized on that.

Still, for everyone but me, a night of great concern followed. Would I have to go into care? Need constant attendance from now on?

In the morning, my older daughter joined my partner by my bed (they’d both been there the night before, but my brain didn’t record that), and they explained. After the doctors OK’d my release, we three went for coffee and I got more details. Felt horrified, yet numb. The events seemed unattached to me.

Back at the cottage, for the rest of the week I played boardgames and read and laughed and talked and cooked and canoed and ate ice-cream, all as usual but not. On our last day, we all went to Memory Island. I got up my nerve and swam there. Blue water sparkled in the sun.

Time pre-TGA seemed distant, beyond a line etched in a sharply different colour, as in sedimentary rock. Something odd happened here.

What?

Memento mori, indeed. My 75th birthday, a month later, felt irrelevant. Also, a glimpse of a future when either my partner or I may be helpless, dependent. For my daughters, perhaps the first time their mother has been exactly that.

Shawnigan 2015 Flood walking

Four months post-TGA, a neurologist ran various physical tests. I’m fine. My passivity during the event she termed typical of the condition.

Sometimes I still visualize my kind nurse, and the curly script on that hospital curtain.

Sometimes I ask, What have I done in the last two hours? Grocery-shopping. Then I walked west, by Lost Lagoon, where the otters played. Then north to Third Beach, yes, saw a big raft of goldeneyes there. Up the hill, now heading east on the Tatlow trail. . . . All clear.

—Cynthia Flood

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Cynthia Flood’s fifth collection of short stories, What Can You Do, will appear from Biblioasis in 2017. Her most recent book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor award. Cynthia lives in Vancouver.

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Apr 122016
 

Pierre Joris

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Luxembourg Findel Airport

old Findel airport in LuxembourgOld Findel airport in Luxembourg.

Findel: To find. Who? Alone, no longer here, not yet there. A threshold. Am I coming or am I going? As in Findelkind? Lost? No. Airport: a door in & through the air. I find myself at the airport. For years it meant yearning: watching the planes leave, wanting to leave. Hardly able to see over the balustrade of the old Findel’s flight deck. Later, walking over the warm tarmac to the first plane: Madrid via Bruxelles. Then London. Then New York. Departures. Arrivals. Returns. Systole/Diastole of exile. Circling a receding childhood from high above: farms, fields, cattle, fences. An expanding city. From above: the Grund – der Abgrund, the abyss. Off-rhyme with the Grand Canyon. Airplane dreams. Portage of plain paper reams of writing ferried between continents. Nothing to declare. But this: I love to arrive. I love to leave. It is the same. It is different. The continents no longer drift, therefore we have to. Dérive. Départ. Décollage.

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Remembrance Day In Patton-Town

I had just returned from New York, was still jet-lagged, when my mother sent me to buy four pork chops at the butcher’s on Main Street. Despite the tiredness I had not objected, indeed, I was looking forward to stroll through the town of my youth, hungry to hear the mamaloshen, Letzeburgesch, and get a sense of what may or may not have changed in Ettelbrück. I walked down the Avenue Salentiny, hung a right at the Grand-rue, turning my back to the now decrepit and desolate Klinik Dr. Charles Marx where my father had worked for many years, crossed the street, passed the Pensionat de Jeunes Filles and a little further on, just where the grand-rue was at its narrowest, I found the butcher shop and entered.

 It was shortly before noon and a long line of housewives waited to be served, so I overheard much small talk, mainly about the warm and sunny weather, a good omen for the festive weekend ahead. I eventually got to the counter, ordered my chops and watched absent-mindedly as the butcher’s wife wrapped them expertly. I had been distracted by a noise, a low rumble coming from outside, but thinking that it was some bulldozer or other construction machine, I paid it no further heed until I stepped outside, saw many people gawking and heard the noise getting louder. I too stopped to listen and watch.

It was a deep metallic rumble that came from the east, the direction of Diekirch, or, closer by, from the curve in the road where the Patton monument stood high up by the edge of the bridge that crossed the river Sauer. For a second I flashed back to a day in 1956 when I was walking to grade school with my friend, the baker’s son, and we were gloomy for having overheard the news our fathers had listened to the night before: Russian tanks had invaded Hungary, were fighting in Budapest crushing resistance to the Soviet government. We two ten year-olds knew that it would take those tanks only 3 weeks to cross over from Hungary and invade Luxembourg. What I saw coming from the East and making such a clattering racket (instantly familiar from the movies) were indeed tanks — but these were American tanks, as the flags they sported told us, and the people along the streets were waving in that most friendly manner used to welcome liberators.

And then it came back to me: this must be the preparations for “Remembrance Day,” the yearly celebration of General Patton and his army who liberated Luxembourg from the Nazi yoke during the Rundstedt offensive! As a kid this had been one of the great yearly treats, better for us boys even than the Schueberfouer, as we could clamber up on those tanks, slip behind the steering wheel of jeeps and armored personnel carriers, slide down the barrels of long canons and handle various automatic machine guns with the required respect and awe. On the main day of the event, a Sunday, we’d watch the spectacle of a fake battle in the Deischwiesen with paratroopers jumping out of helicopters, storming “enemy positions,” a circus re-enacting of their assault on our town in 1944. During those days we’d try out our high school or movie-learned English on the American G.I.s to buy used copies of Playboy, a magazine our bishopric had banned from the country.

But this was a different time. This was 1968 and I had just come back from a year in the USA, a year in college in upstate New York, a year in which I had seen and taken part in my first anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, a year where some of my friends had been drafted into the army while others had fled to Canada to escape the draft. That spring the biggest and most murderous battles to date had taken place, and President Johnson had ordered the resumption of the full-scale bombing of North Vietnam.

What I saw that day in the Grand-rue in Ettelbrück felt like a complete disconnect, something out of an old black and white movie, a twisted rerun of World War II victory scenes watched in my grand-mother’s “Cinéma de la Paix” a few houses up from the butcher’s on the other side of the street: the same troops my fellow citizens were feasting in the streets of Ettelbrück for having liberated us, were raining down destruction and death on a people in the Far East. Someone’s liberators will eventually turn into someone else’s oppressors? That day the myth that the armies that had liberated us were the incarnation of heroic, selfless good — and could therefore do no wrong — took a deep dent. Not so much the actual fact that Patton’s troops stopped the Germans from capturing the fuel stock-piled near Bastogne and drove them back through the Ardennes. Not those facts — but the mythology that had been made out of those facts. But what is mythology, how do (chosen) facts become a mythology, and why?

Myth, I had learned that very year upon encountering the work and the person of the American poet Robert Duncan — who was to write one of greatest anti-Vietnam war poems the very next year —, the word “myth,” “mythos,” is akin to “mouth,” i.e. myth is the story told, the story that accompanies the ritual action, some action that starts out as, or wants to turn itself into, exemplary ritual. But maybe it is the retelling of the story — whatever it is — that recreates the action that turns the story into ritual and thus self-reflectively creates the myth. Repetition compulsion, running off at the mouth, or maybe more usefully, as another American poet, Robert Kelly, put it: “Saying makes it so.” All too often then, myth without the ritual action, is nothing but the post facto late words retelling, retooling and all too often tempted to beautify, simplify, purify a past action, and becomes thus empty words, alibis, cover-ups. It may not even always be a question of voluntary deceit.

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My father was weary when my young curiosity wanted to know “what did you do during the war?” He, like so many of those who had lived through it, didn’t like to talk about those days. But he would eventually relent and tell me, us, the family around the dinner table, some fragments of what befell him during “the last war” (which, of course, wasn’t the last war at all, just as the “Great War” was not great at all, as no war ever is — war is a solitary noun, never trust any adjective that is added to it, except the one already embedded in the noun, read widdershins: raw). He would tell how during the war I was born just after (me, my generation, thus, war’s afterbirth?), he, the young intrepid surgeon, used to operate on “résistants” or freedom fighters wounded in skirmishes with the occupying Wehrmacht, late at night and in secret, deep in the bowels of the Klinik Dr. Charles Marx, in the coal room, on the coal heap. A black and white image that has stayed with me, the black coals & the white medical garments and sheets, the image a frozen scene as they stop what they are doing because upstairs or outside a German patrol is heard strutting by.  Is this my mythology or my father’s? I hear the marching boots of the German soldiers in a 100 war movies watched in grandmother’s “Cinéma de la Paix.” Not one good German in all those movies, and not one less-then-heroic American GI.

Map of von Rundstedt offensive in Joris areaMap of the von Rundstedt offensive.

But my father’s favorite story was the one where he is out late at night in the forest south of the town. It is a cold and snowy midwinter, and he is looking to score for much needed medical supplies off the Americans. He has stopped and is now sitting around a campfire on the periphery of the US army zone with a few GI’s spooning up their K-rations, when a rather burly uniformed man comes out of the night, clearly a high ranking officer, and greets the soldiers who don’t move from their seats around the fire but greet the apparition back with a quick, laconic hand to the helmet. The tall figure stalks on and disappears into the night, a flash of white briefly visible around the hips, toward where the main body of the army is bivouacked. When my father asks the soldiers who this apparition was, the answer is a single word: “Patton.”

What so fascinated my father was the easy, not to say democratic relationship between soldiers and general: no jumping to attention with mechanically extended arms and a loud “Heil Hitler,” but a nearly egalitarian greeting between soldiers and a commander most recognizable not by insignia, epaulettes, decorations or well-tailored uniform, but by those pearl-handled revolvers flashing at his hips (he probably wore only one, but myth-making memory compounded the figure of the general with that of the gunslinger hero from Western movies usually packing two guns — the famous “peacemaker” colts, no doubt).

No wonder a very few years later the town of Ettelbrück erected a larger than life monument to the hero of the Lundstedt offensive, now safely dead in a car accident, and proceeded to institute the yearly ritual known as “Remembrance Day” described above.

Remembrance Day in EttelbruckRemembrance Day in Ettelbruck.

But, as I think back on all this, another event springs to mind — unrelated on the surface — and yet…. One day — I was in 4th grade — during break, we were on the playground in front of the Ettelbrück primary school. I had recently moved to town and was standing by myself — clearly marked as an outsider, and thus not integrated into any of the groups — when I heard a cry and a song behind me. I turned around and saw 3 or 4 older boys, who had thrown a young kid to the ground and were dragging him along the asphalt, singing: “Eent, zwee, dräi, et as e Judd kapott, huelt e mat de Been a schleeft e fort — One, two, three, a Jew has croaked, grab him by the legs and away with him.” The boy who was the victim of this brutal “game” was indeed a Jewish boy, the son of one of the few Jewish families left in town, Kahn by name. I was horrified, and that nasty little show of stupid, unthinking, petit-bourgeois anti-Semitism, played out by 10 to 12 year old boys less than ten years after the horrors of Auschwitz became public knowledge, has always remained with me as a strange vaccination against the mythology of the good, innocent little Luxembourgers oppressed for years by the a vicious Jew-hating Nazi regime they were unable to resist because of the smallness of the country until brave American armies arrived in extremis to liberate them. And all the (American) flag-waving our good citizens were doing on those ritual “Remembrance Days” looked all of a sudden like a ritual cover-up for their own unacknowledged mistakes, misjudgments and omissions.

—Pierre Joris

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Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris—2011 saw the publication of Pierre Joris: Cartographies of the In-between, edited by Peter Cockelbergh, with essays on Joris’ work by, among others, Mohamed Bennis, Charles Bernstein, Nicole Brossard, Clayton Eshleman, Allen Fisher, Christine Hume, Robert Kelly, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Jennifer Moxley, Jean Portante, Carrie Noland, Alice Notley, Marjorie Perloff & Nicole Peyrafitte (Litteraria Pragensia, Charles University, Prague, 2011). Pierre Joris, while raised in Luxembourg, has moved between Europe, the US & North Africa for half a century years, publishing close 50 books of poetry, essays, translations and anthologies. In 2014 he published Barzakh — Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press), Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poems of Paul Celan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), A Voice full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (co-edited with Peter Cockelbergh, Contra Mundum Press) and Bernat Manciet’s Ode to James Dean (co-translated from Occitan with Nicole Peyrafitte; mindmade books). 2013 had brought Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press & The University of California Book of North African Literature (vol. 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour (UCP).

Other recent books include Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced & translated by Pierre Joris (Black Widow Press, 2012); The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials by Paul Celan (Stanford U.P. 2011) which received the 2012 MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work; Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 (Salt Books); Aljibar I & II (Poems, Editions PHI). Further translations include Paul Celan: Selections (UC Press) & Lightduress by Paul Celan which received the 2005 PEN Poetry Translation Award. With Jerome Rothenberg he edited Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1 & 2: The University of California Books of Modern & Postmodern Poetry.

Pierre Joris lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with his wife, performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte. Check out his website & Nomadics Blog.

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Mar 042016
 

Richard Farrell

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On a Thursday afternoon in September, some three decades ago, I sat in Mr. Belanger’s fifth-grade science class at Tatnuck School when the Blue Angels roared into town. Six insignia-blue jets buzzed the hillsides of gold-orange trees and circled over the city before they threw down their landing gear.  It was opening day of the Worcester Air Show, and our sleepy hamlet had suddenly become center stage for a spectacle of aeronautic derring-do and unimaginable pageantry. We stood—two dozen mesmerized kids temporarily released from the rigors of life science—in the windows of that classroom, staring out as the blue planes, one by one, lined up and touched down. Then Mr. Belanger barked at us, and we returned to whatever irrelevant topics awaited in our textbooks.

The ensuing three days of air-show mania were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The roar of an approaching Skyhawk would send me sprinting outside as if the house were on fire. Blue jets thundered overhead, practicing right above the yellowing sugar maple in my backyard. The ground rumbled as planes climbed, looped, crossed, barrel-rolled and boomed on high, turning the sky above Walter Street into a veritable six-ring circus. My friends and I dashed and chased, waving at the pilots who flew so low we could see their golden helmets and almost read their names painted on canopy sides. Our prosaic lawn furniture became front row seats for an otherworldly show. Delta-winged jets, tucked inches apart, twirled heavenward before screaming back toward Earth. Even now, decades later, the memories of those days seem fantastic and utterly surreal.

When the air show ended, I knew, and declared quite publicly, that one day, I would become a Navy pilot.

Blue Angels A4 SkyhawkBlue Angels in the A-4 Skyhawk, as the author first saw them

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Emerson writes that self-trust is the essence of heroism. The human spirit, in conflict with itself, must struggle against the trappings of society, ego, and expectation. The enemy is a prevalent falsehood—the mask that we wear out in the world. To hear the Transcendentalist tell it, the hero removes the mask, revealing some inner light, illuminating a truer wisdom.

I knew all about masks. As a snaggle-toothed boy growing up just forty miles from Emerson’s front door, self-trust came reluctantly, if at all. Instead, I admired men like Chuck Yeager, or at least Tom Wolfe’s re-imagined version of Yeager, fabricated from the author’s imagination and an ancient gallery of heroic archetypes. The enduring myth of American meritocracy offered up a path for a good ole boy from West Virginia to convert passion and courage into an express ride to the very top of the pyramid—a test pilot, a general, a bona fide hero with world records to prove it. If Yeager could do it, I reasoned, then why not me? I only had to find the appropriate mask, wear it with a rigid certainty, and suppress any and all emotion that might reveal hesitancy, doubt, or weakness.

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Ten years after the Worcester Air Show, still pursuing my dream of becoming a Navy pilot, I returned from physics lab to my room at the United States Naval Academy, only to find that a plebe from 10th Company had climbed out of his fifth-floor window and plunged to the brick walkway below.

His shattered, uniformed body was visible from my window as paramedics rushed in vain to save his life. Ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars had cordoned off the road, but the air was eerily still. I expected sirens, but heard only the chirping of birds, the rustle of a breeze off the Chesapeake. Again, it was September. A warm, clear day sparkled. Spinnakers billowed on the Severn River as sailboats tacked their way out to the hazy bay.

The mask had suddenly fallen away.

A moment later, my roommates came back from class. D.J. unpacked his books while Darren tore a long piece of masking tape off a roll and wrapped it around his fingers—sticky side out— and began to daub the tape against his chest, removing dust and lint, preparing for inspection. Darren would quit the Naval Academy later that year and send letters from Wisconsin regaling us with tales of coeds and frat parties.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Doesn’t look good,” I said. “Kid must’ve jumped.”

Paramedics wrapped a vacuum splint around the man’s leg and positioned a backboard nearby. Several firemen closed around the scene. Their arched backs formed a reverent, almost prayerful circle of yellow coats around the dying midshipman. Extending from the center of that circle were navy-blue uniform trousers, the same scratchy wool-polyester pants I wore that day, except the pants on that brick walkway below me were covered in dark blood.

Blood pooled on the bricks. Blood soaked the paramedics’ gloves. At one point, the rescue workers all lurched back in unison. Blood, from a blown artery, geysered out from the center. I felt my knees buckle.

Then D.J. came up and sat beside me on my desk. Just a few weeks into our sophomore year, we had been roommates only a short while. D.J. was an engineer, serious and taciturn by nature. His silence could be unnerving, because I never knew what he was thinking, but in that strange moment, D.J.’s quiet demeanor felt steadying, like a sea captain in a gale. What good were words?

Then an echolalia of chow calls began from open windows all around Bancroft Hall. Sir, you now have ten minutes until noon-meal formation. The uniform for noon-meal formation is working-uniform-blue-delta.

Chow calls were one of the many tedious rituals plebes were forced to repeat, six times a day, at ten and five minutes before each meal. One thousand plebes, minus one, repeated the rote words in a haunted chorus, a maddening mayday from a symphony of oblivious cuckoo clocks chiming the hour. Only this was no mayday. The unfolding misery below our window would not interrupt the routines.

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I don’t believe that whatever wisdom a middle-aged man has acquired is any truer than the dreams of a ten-year-old boy or a twenty-year-old midshipman. Passions abound, both in the spring of life and in its autumn. We are filled with hope, doubt, fear, longing, joy, and grief. The boy dreams of taking flight, while the grown man reassembles the broken fragments of the past.

These days, I’m a stay-at-home father, a trailing spouse married to a woman who works long, irregular hours as a Navy obstetrician. While my wife manages laboring patients, I spend my time worrying about car pools, sleepovers, birthday party gifts and baseball practice. My children’s schedules dictate the rhythm of my day, leaving precious little time to worry about their dreams: What paths have they already begun to walk? What shapes their destinies? What masks have they already begun to wear into the world? My son wants to play professional basketball; my daughter wants to ride horses and live on a ranch in Montana.

The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic, Emerson writes. At times, though, I want only simple happiness and security for my children. I don’t want my son’s body battered by contact sports. I don’t want my daughter’s heart broken. But life and wisdom always come with scars.

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Rituals at Annapolis were enshrined within a tradition and rigidity that even the most ardent cynic might admire. Each moment of our day creaked with customs, from reveille to taps. We marched, saluted, studied, and trained. We followed honor codes and conduct codes. For four years we scoured our rooms, polished brass belt buckles, folded tee shirts and socks with mathematical precision. We tucked sheets into taut hospital corners as though it were a holy sacrament. We believed in big ideas—in America and freedom and power—and we worshipped those ideas through a steadfast devotion to the most minuscule details. Our faith, like our duty, was absolute and unflinching.

For the entire four years we lived together in Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the world. Bancroft Hall was a home and a prison, a hearth and a hell. The massive building, erected at the turn of the last century in the Beaux Arts style, mixed classical symmetries with rococo flourishes. Cold stone surfaces rose to slate gray mansard roofs, trimmed with oxidized copper flashing. Nautical-themed statuary and maritime bas-relief decorated the corners. The scale of the building imposed on us, a structural symbol of an institutional ethos: the individual submitted to the will of the whole, an idea and ideal manifested in rusticated concrete and polished floor tiles. Neoclassical lines spoke of order. We marched beneath its imposing domes and stood midnight watch in Bancroft’s vast, cavernous hallways, always reminded of history, of fallen alumni and of future sacrifice, our individual existences reduced to fodder. For emphasis, brass cannons guarded the grand front staircase.

bancroft hall colour adjustedBancroft Hall, U.S. Naval Academy

In Memorial Hall, at the center of Bancroft, were inscribed the names of more than a thousand alumni who died in battle. A flag from Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1812 was enshrined behind glass. That flag reminded each of us daily with its tattered motto: Don’t Give Up the Ship.

Annapolis pushed a hero-heavy curriculum. The ghosts on the yard were all once great warriors, and we were taught to borrow their masks. Tecumseh stood watch over manicured lawns. Every academic building gestured toward mythical grandeur—Nimitz Library, Halsey Field House, Preble Hall. We revered warrior virtues and worshiped at the altar of self-sacrifice and bravery, all the while puffing out our chests with bravado and notions of coming glory. Self-trust received little attention. To interpret the iconography: there was no higher virtue than to lay down your life for your country.

Death, however, came with obligations of community and valor. While it was heroic to die in battle, it was something entirely different to take one’s own life. As the paramedics attempted to hold on to the young man’s fleeting existence on the bricks below my window, our routines continued apace. There would be no time-out for this suicide, no memorial to his sacrifice.

My roommates stepped back from the window and continued getting ready. Darren turned and D.J. taped-off his back. “Cooperate and graduate,” we learned, recited and believed as an article of faith. All for one and one for all. I rolled the tape around my own fingers, uncertain what it all meant, and kept watching out the window.

Memorial Hall Don't Give Up the ShipMemorial Hall, U.S. Naval Academy

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In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W.H. Auden reminds us that there is something rather mundane about the shape of human tragedy. The subjective nature of suffering always leaves room for the rest of the world to carry out the logic of the day. Icarus goes kerflooey while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. Auden’s poem addresses the very notions of torment and flight. The poem examines Brueghel’s sixteenth-century oil painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which itself returns to the ancient legend of Daedalus and his eager son. Early versions of this legend can be found carved on Etruscan jugs from the seventh century before Christ. Man has long dreamed of taking flight, even before the discovery of the physics and engineering that made such dreams possible. And for even longer, humanity has managed to ignore tragedy with a blithe nonchalance. Perhaps our indifference is some vestigial hangover of evolution. In the primordial ooze, there would’ve been hardly time to stop and mourn for a fallen comrade while the tiger closed on our heels. Progress lacks easy definitions.

In Brueghel’s painting, an indifferent sea swallows up the ghostly legs of the falling Icarus, while shepherds and sailors go about their day. As Auden says, everything turns away.

Landscape with the Fall of IcarusLandscape with the Fall of Icarus by Brueghel, Pieter the Elder

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Plebe year at Annapolis was the hell of it, ten grueling months stuffed with relentless military indoctrination, hazing, and physical exertion. I saw varsity linebackers reduced to tears, future fighter pilots so frazzled they’d forget their own names. But in that caldron of discipline and cruelty, an incredible thing happened. The self receded. Second-guessing disappeared. The yoking of regulation, discipline, and custom to our daily habits somehow managed to supplant the individual will. Life became a form of ascetic retreat, with a scripted rigidity, uniforms, slogans, and beliefs. As cruel and brutal as it could be, the routines were also incredibly liberating. The mask simply fit.

Ego vanished plebe year, perhaps not into some higher plane of spiritual awakening, but it was gone nonetheless. You submitted to the will of the larger institution. You became invisible, indistinguishable, if only to avoid getting reamed out by any one of the three thousand upperclassmen who outranked you. The regulations, routines, and discipline squeezed every last drop of individuality out of the blood, a dialysis designed to filter out lazy and timid habits from civilian life and replace them with the bellicose faith of military mythology and American altruism. To be certain, it was a herd mentality, but when in the crush and rhythm of the herd, oh what freedom!

The flipside to joining the herd was an obliteration of self-trust. Emerson wouldn’t have lasted a week at Annapolis. To question, to exert, to challenge—these things were unimaginable. Membership exacted the steepest price. Self-trust wasn’t heroic, it was dangerous and defiant, a tumor in the organs of an otherwise baleful gallantry. The very last thing a military force can withstand is the warrior who thinks too much.

The plebe who jumped that bright September day was named Kevin. Though I didn’t know him personally, the odds were good that we’d passed each other in the halls. I might have braced him up, chided him for an untucked shirt, or demanded he address me as “sir.” Until he jumped, he was just one of a nameless legion of young men and women like me, who turned over our identities and fates to the hallowed traditions of Annapolis.

Only later did I learn that Kevin came from Ohio. He’d managed to gut it out through the misery of Plebe Summer, but the end was still a long way off.  Kevin wanted to quit the Academy, perhaps to return to a more normal life along the shores of Lake Erie, but his well-meaning family, friends, and company officer all told him to stick it out. So did the institutional codes. The reminders were everywhere: Don’t give up the ship.

I can only imagine how words and ideas raged like cannon fire in Kevin’s mind as he struggled. I’d certainly suffered my share of setbacks and doubts during my own plebe year. Sometimes the pressure just got to be too much.

Did leaving for Kevin feel so much like failure that dying seemed a more reasonable option? Did words like sacrifice, duty, and hero slash at him as he pitted them against other words, like freedom, family, and home? Abstract ideas can inspire men to great sacrifices, or they can bring about catastrophic consequences.

As Kevin’s life spilled out on the brick sidewalk below my window, the only thing I processed was the waste of it all.

§

There’s very little that’s heroic about being a stay-at-home dad. No archetype exists, no books about domesticated heroes have been written. My day-to-day challenges involve time management and festering peccadilloes of unsorted laundry and unfinished homework.  “A man is his work,” my father intones, and these days my labor involves making beds, ignoring dust piles beneath the furniture, driving the kids to school. My failures and fuckups register in the emotional damage I can do with a raised voice or forgotten promise. My successes are far more muted. There are no air shows, no bright blue jets and golden helmets. There are no uniforms to hide behind, no masks to wear. A bizarre emphasis falls on the most mundane—the al dente texture of mac ’n’ cheese, the book reports I forget to check until the last minute. I can’t say how high or low the stakes are. Some days this work seems important. Other days, I feel like I’m wasting every second of the precious few I have left.

I never became a Navy pilot, though I came close. I graduated from the Naval Academy, became an officer, and eventually reported to flight school at the very same base where the Blue Angels were stationed. For six months, I donned a helmet, a flight suit, and a parachute and learned how to fly. On yet another September day, I climbed into a T-34 and soloed. After landing and shutting off the engine, I strutted across the flight line like I’d finally arrived at the threshold of where heroes dwelled. But the feeling didn’t linger. In fact, the closer I came to the finish line, the emptier I felt.

I thought that becoming a Navy pilot would change something fundamental about who I was. I thought gold wings would somehow smooth out the rough edges, erase doubts, fill in the empty places. In short, I assumed that I’d grow into the mask. But the opposite was happening. A month or so after that first solo, I suffered a seizure in an airplane. I was lucky to have survived, but I would never again pilot an airplane.

I suppose words like surrender and failure often seem loaded, freighted with the tincture of forever: heroic narratives that offer few examples of second-place finishers.  As a young man, words and ideas seemed ironclad, irrevocable, and failure felt freighted with only disgrace. But the moral value of a win-at-all-cost mentality is a very shallow one, not to mention entirely false. When I was forced to stop flying, I assumed my life would never recover. But I grew up. I learned, listened, and saw beyond rigid notions of right and wrong. We all win. We all lose. In somewhat equal proportions.

At ten and at twenty, it was easier to believe in mythical, right-stuff heroism. My ego willingly surrendered to the bon mot and the battle flag. Only later, with failure, with surrender, was I able to begin to understand self-trust. Emerson doesn’t address this, but sometimes self-trust looks a lot like self-doubt.

Richard Farrell as plebe at AnnapolisThe author in his plebe year

As I boy I read and reread Yeager’s autobiography. I watched The Right Stuff so much that my VCR tape began to stretch. I felt called to the shores of the Severn, but I certainly didn’t understand the implications or repercussions of that calling. My dreams were twisted and warped by the very myths in which I so vehemently believed. Watching the grisly aftermath of a shipmate leaping into the abyss was like watching some inverted, mangled, nightmarish version of my dream.

I wish I could go back and tell Kevin that things would have improved. Plebe year eventually would end. Whatever burdens he carried with him to the ledge that day were temporary ones. Didn’t he know that?  I wish I could have convinced him that there was no lasting shame in quitting the Academy. He would have recovered. Like my roommate, Darren, he could have written letters from a civilian college—boasting of frat parties and girlfriends—while his roommates back at Annapolis envied his freedom. Instead, he opened a window on a glorious September day and jumped.

And though my kinship with him was institutional—born of the anonymous Brigade of Midshipmen and the identical uniforms we wore—his short life became an enduring lesson. From my window, I watched him take his final breaths. Something died in my own heart too. Was it innocence? Was it faith?

I would continue to believe in heroes. I would wear my class ring and feel an incredible pride as the Blue Angels roared over graduation. But I would also eventually leave behind the simplistic codes and the consuming urgency of an organization that esteems martyrdom. I would eventually see through the cracks in the ivory tower, smell the rot in the walls.

As Kevin’s life ran out, right there on the brick sidewalk below me, could he have fathomed how the routines around us continued undisturbed? Was he trying to make a statement?  Was I the only one who heard? The institution had long before turned deaf. His suicide hardly altered the plan of the day. But I felt the mask slip.

And yet we turned away from Kevin, we who claimed to be his shipmates, trusted guardians of each other’s fate. We didn’t even skip a formation for his death. And for twenty-five years I’ve carried a measure of shame about that. Below my window, his navy-blue uniform pants and black shoes were drenched in blood, while I and four thousand other midshipmen simply prepared for lunch, as if nothing had really happened.

Like the ploughman in Brueghel’s painting and Auden’s poem, I bent to my task. I turned away. There simply wasn’t time to listen. Or maybe there wasn’t enough silence. The voices of shouting plebes droned off into a din as the paramedics lifted Kevin’s lifeless body onto the gurney. Sirens began, drowning out the wind, the birds, my own thoughts and feelings. I did what I had to do. I turned back from the window, straightened my belt buckle, and went out to formation.

Self-trust was a tall order, especially for an idealistic young man who wanted the world to make sense. Heroes carried on, even if carrying on was the least heroic thing any of us did that day.

After the fall, Daedalus surely saw the sky as a burden for the rest of his life. Every cloud, every soaring bird, and every star became another reminder of his lost son. Or maybe that’s just foolishness. Maybe I’m still looking towards myths and heroes to explain the world, rather than trusting my own heart. If self-trust perpetuates heroism, what does that say about self-doubt?

I see not any road of perfect peace which a man can walk, Emerson writes, but to take counsel of his own bosom.

It is morning here, and birds are singing and the light is golden. Soon my kids will come bursting from their dreams, hungry, eager for whatever private desires spur them through the day and fill their beings. I want them to soar, of course, though I’m fearful of what they may encounter in flight. But for now, I will make breakfast and oversee showers. I’ll try not to worry about what kind of people they will become, where life will take them, or how it will twist and turn, with its infinite number of ways to break hearts but also to stir passions. We forge ahead on these fragile, corruptible paths, always capable of discovering great joys but never far from sadness either. But I don’t have time to ponder these things much, because my kids are almost awake, and there is so much to be done.

—Richard Farrell

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Richard Farrell collage 480px

Richard Farrell  is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq and the Nonfiction Editor at upstreet. His work, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared or is forthcoming in Descant, Hunger Mountain, Newfound, Blue Monday, Dig Boston, Contrary, and others. He is currently writing a collection of short stories and a novel. In 2016, he will be a resident writer at the Ragdale Artist Community in Lake Forest, Illinois. He lives with his family in San Diego.

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Feb 092016
 

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On the corner of Myrtle and Carlton the old man yelling out an open window: What’s today? He was bald with no eyebrows: What day is today? My best guess must have satisfied him because he disappeared behind a torn curtain without another word. After the line was disconnected I put the phone in a drawer. A one-act play about a young woman giving her baby up for adoption—the father was one of her professors—I worked on it nearly every day for three months but it didn’t survive a second draft. Earlier that week I discovered my wife’s letter to a mutual friend where she stated that our marriage was over and that her plans for when she returned to New York in the fall did not include me. I would read novels until late at night, until I couldn’t focus on the sentences, then turn out the light and listen to the radio until dawn. Three blocks later I discovered it wasn’t Thursday and that one of Don Imus’s lungs and a hotel in Thailand had collapsed. If sleep didn’t come I would quit trying then make coffee and sit down in front of the manuscript while the sky turned blue. The Daily News also told me that the city was still sweltering. Walk by the Korean market, pharmacy, another diner, Italian bakery, dry cleaners, and a bank. The box fan I found on the street worked for an hour before the motor began to smoke. On our first wedding anniversary I destroyed the old upright piano in the front room with a hammer and screwdriver. Living off infrequent loans and a twenty-pound bag of rice. Most of the keys were broken so stripping the piano down to its heavy brass frame enabled me to pound on every out of tune string. Rice and eggs for breakfast, rice and beans for dinner, anything leftover went for cigarettes and beer. Each character was assigned a row of strings, I built cascading passages around pages of dialogue, seeking greater contrast between the lines, hoping that would help me define the characters, and yet no matter how intricate the passages or how many hours I pounded on the strings, every one of them remained bloodless stand-ins mouthing clichés in an airless suburban melodrama. I had absolutely no interest in even considering the possibility of looking for a part-time job. Another bank, bodega, liquor store, and a barbershop. Our mutual friend was a willowy Brazilian with waist-length red hair who spent part of the previous winter living with us after being evicted from an East Village loft. The ceiling in the room where she slept leaked whenever the snow on the roof began to melt, so on those nights, while brown water gradually filled the pots lining the floor, she would join us on the big futon in our bedroom. On the night we drank a fifth of bourbon alone together she informed me in her heavily accented English that sadly, my marriage was a green card sham, I might have thought it was love, but no …pointing a long index finger in my direction…You are being delusional and she is using you … Can’t you see that? I quietly tried to justify what must have appeared to be an extremely one-sided relationship as we talked in semi-coherent circles about the nature of unrequited love until the bottle was empty. The next day I asked if she remembered our conversation and with a sheepish smile she said, No, I had a blackout. Our mutual friend eventually found another place in the East Village where she lived for a few more months on her parents’ dime. I was already alone when she turned up in late March with the suitcase I was to store for her while she went back to Brazil. I finally opened it, after convincing myself that I was only looking for money, to discover a jumble of colorful polyester dresses a few books and the letter from my wife.

It was about a mile off the interstate and the first left after the gas station. She told him about being blindfolded for a psychology class then slowly led into what turned out to be a large greenhouse filled with dozens of varieties of orchids. He drove cautiously with both hands on the wheel, desire linked to anticipation, accommodating her running narrative with an appreciative silence through miles of Franklin County farmland. The TA asked her to identify all of the things she could smell in that humid room. Sunlight hung over the wide stream, a long drum roll as the Skylark ran over the wooden bridge, above the clear water that sparkled where it pooled. She came up with an insightful analogy for being in a greenhouse, that blindfolded visit was her first but would certainly not be her last, something she thought he would find amusing, but it isn’t coming to me just now, and looking out the open window at the endless wooden horse fence running alongside the road while searching her memory could not bring it back, I’ll probably remember in another minute when I’m thinking of something else, instead she recalled the damp clouds of musky sweet human-flesh-like-flower scents, sharp chemical smells of fertilizers and herbicides, the close proximity of the TA, apparently he’d forgotten to let go of her forearm, with his cheap aftershave and stale coffee breath, but she made no mention of those smells so as not to offend him, knowing that would have a negative impact on her grade, instead she reproached herself for the disgusting nicotine stench on her own fingers, then quietly added, and something that smelled just like cold rice.

I used to come around with zombie movies or we would listen to his Johnny Thunders bootlegs while we got high. His place was on Ryerson between Myrtle and Park, about halfway down the block on the right if you were heading toward Park, the brown tenement with the torn screen in the middle window on the third floor. My tired line about just dropping by to ask for a small favor got swallowed by the math—it had been nearly two years—I rang the bell anyway and was buzzed in. The stairwell smelled of frying fish. The door opened, “Holy shit,” when I reached the second floor landing, “how’s it going?” We shook hands, “Hey Tom,” before I walked in, “how are you?” He worked nights as a doorman, “I just started my vacation.” The blinds were down and the air conditioner was rattling away in the window while turning out cold air. “Have a seat,” the television faced the couch, “you want a beer?” A cigarette was burning in the ashtray. “Sure.” Tom grew up in Bensonhurst, “You’re a little early for the party,” but had lived in the neighborhood forever. The opened pack of Marlboros on the coffee table. “Party?” I called after him. The store-bought painting of an amber sunset seeping through a cluster of bare trees that hung on the wall to the left of the television was slightly crooked. I needed at least five dollars to get through the next five days and put off looking until everything was gone. The advertisement for replacement windows ended with a familiar jingle. Tom’s roommate appeared wearing a blue apron and said hello. “Isko’s been cleaning,” Tom followed him back into the room, “and cooking all day,” then handed me a cold bottle of Budweiser. “It smells really good.” Isko asked if I was hungry. I opened the beer before telling him that I’d just eaten. He gave me a skeptical frown before returning to the kitchen. “In a few hours,” Tom sat down, “this place is going to be swarming with Filipino dudes.” I laughed before asking, “Just guys?” “Afraid so.” Leaning back on the couch, “Are you going anywhere?” He took up the cigarette, “I’ll probably retreat to the bar,” flicked away the ash. “No, for your vacation?” He shook his head, “I’m just going to catch up on my sleep.” Tom was an irregular fixture at the bar around the corner. Sears was having their annual back to school sale. “Nice.” He would usually come in drunk and fill the jukebox before getting into an argument with another regular over a real or imagined slight then get thrown out of the bar before any of his songs came on. The blonde mother selected a dress for her smiling daughter: Featuring styles to fit every budget. We bonded over pitchers on a Tuesday night and early that Wednesday morning, while pushing each other along Myrtle Avenue in a wheelchair that we’d rescued from a pile of garbage, I realized that I’d discovered a kindred spirit. The black mother presented her teenage son with an orange sweater before admiring an array of colorful scarves for herself. “Can I grab one of those?” Indicating the cigarettes. The brunette looked over paint samples with a grinning salesman by her side. “Sure.” I took one from the pack, “You remember that girl I used to go on about all the time?” Our dedicated sales staff is always on hand to help with all of your home improvement projects. He passed me the lighter, “Can’t say that I do.”

The broken yellow line ended before the road narrowed. He asked her what cold rice smelled like and she laughed while saying that sperm smelled just like cold rice. The car slowed as towering oaks and maples crowded out the blue June sky. If the human race possesses the highest form of consciousness, or so says the collective wisdom of that very same human race, she turned to him before stating, then we still have so much to learn from nature. This nineteen-year-old college sophomore majoring in English literature who also wrote plays was my biological mother. If his left hand was anticipation then his right hand was desire. According to the papers I received from the adoption agency in Palo Alto when I turned eighteen, my biological father was in his mid-thirties and married with three children, apparently he was an insurance adjuster who enjoyed playing the piano. More like a warm envelope, she undid the metal buckle, that greenhouse, and slid over to the center of the wide dark blue vinyl seat, like being embraced inside a humid envelope, draped her left arm over his shoulders, enveloped in a warm envelope, but that isn’t quite right. I’ve always told people that he was one of her professors, or an older writer who was mentoring her, and that the career title she bestowed upon him while signing me over at the agency was an allusion to Franz Kafka.

A keycard illustrated with instructions on how to unlock the beige fireproof door —insert face up in slot above handle/turn handle after green light appears—that opened into room 201. Curtained afternoon sunlight in stale air-conditioning backed with the faint smell of commercial-grade disinfectant. The door locked automatically when it closed. A blue and white Do Not Disturb door hanger attached to the handle. A two-toggle vertical brass wall plate at shoulder height left of the door contained switches for the brushed nickel-plated ceiling fixture above the full-sized bed and the pale green ceramic cottage table lamps with cylindrical beige canvas shades atop both nightstands. The peephole offered a fisheye view of the fluorescent illuminated blue beige hall. The fire exit plan with security instructions on when and how to safely evacuate the room and building in the event of a fire —illustrated with two human figures fleeing orange flames—beneath a map of the 2nd floor with green arrows pointing toward the stairs. A notice for safe storage availability at the front desk beneath the exit plan along with instructions for locking the door in addition to suggestions on how and when to open it. The room was carpeted in the same thin blue-grey fire retardant nylon and Polypropylene blend that covered the floor in the hall while the walls were pasted in fine textured vinyl coated beige wallpaper. The stuccoed ceiling was painted off-white. The empty black compact refrigerator stood beside the beige pasteboard bathroom door opposite the six foot tall and seven foot wide accordion door finished in shimmering vinyl oak veneer that pulled back on narrow metal runners to reveal four wooden anti-theft hangers suspended from a narrow metal rod spanning the length of the shallow closet.

Did you know, kissing his cheek, that of the thousands of species of orchids that there is one called the bee orchid? Perhaps he was an actual insurance adjustor and my insistence on having her outfit him with a literary subterfuge is nothing more than romantic mythmaking, although it is much easier for me to imagine her being intimate with a man she shared a passion with in addition to their mutual physical attraction, especially considering their difference in age at a time when it was considered deeply reactionary for anyone in their teens or twenties to trust much less be romantically involved with someone over the age of thirty, and while I’m proof that exceptions do exist, he must have held something for her other than a briefcase full of policy drafts. Why is it called that? I know that he was of Welsh and Scottish descent and that she was from a large Irish Catholic family. Its blossom mimics the appearance, scent and even the tactile experience of the female bee. According to the papers her only request was that I be placed with a family that had liberal religious beliefs. When the bee attempts to mate with the flower these yellow pollen sacks get attached to his back. I do not know how they met, how their relationship began or ended and I can only presume that they were fond of each other otherwise she probably would have terminated the pregnancy. The car slowed to a near stop before turning left onto a gravel road. Unless her desire that I be placed with a family that had liberal religious beliefs was in response to a repressively devout upbringing and she didn’t terminate the pregnancy out of fear of being excommunicated by her family. A cabin eventually appeared between the trees. Birth control is considered a sin by practicing Catholics, which might help to explain its fumbled use or complete absence. Pollinia, she recalled before swinging the car door closed. At the time abortion was illegal so having one done was either prohibitively expensive or a risky, unprofessional and potentially life threatening procedure. The pale stones bordering the walkway glistened with rainwater. I owe my existence to some unknown combination of love, faith, and the lack of an affordable alternative. They look like little saddlebags, adjusting her orange mini-skirt, attached to its back as he flies off in search of a real female bee.

I tore off the filter then lit the cigarette while telling Tom about the girl I met in school, he picked up the remote and muted Hawaii 5-0, how beautiful she was, her amazing body, her intuitive intelligence, describing our incredibly passionate relationship that lasted until I got someone else pregnant, we were both twenty-one, and we lost touch after it ended, after I ended our relationship because I wanted to do the right thing, my biological mother had me when she was twenty and gave me up for adoption so I’m not about to try and convince anyone to get an abortion, although that someone else who got pregnant had a miscarriage, like less than a month later …Anyway… We lost touch but I never ever stopped obsessing over her, exhaling smoke, three years later, that winter, not this last one but the one before, picking a stray bit of tobacco off my lower lip with my thumb and middle finger then flicking it away, we ran into each other on the corner of Lafayette and East Eighth, here I combined the words incredibly romantic and magical renewal in a sentence that eloquently described the rebirth of our relationship while leaning forward and crushing what was left of the cigarette in the ashtray, further elaborating on her beautifully body, above the undone smoke, claiming I experienced a love previously unknown to me … a love I’d never even imagined was possible … we spent that entire spring in Europe, I described weeks in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, on the island of Sardinia, telling him that we got married at the end of last summer here in Brooklyn and lived together for seven blissful months before she decided that that was enough of being married, quickly adding, not to me specifically but in general and she went home …taking another swig from the bottle before telling him that I followed her in April, quietly confiding that we fought constantly, it was the exact opposite of the previous spring, I described a few of our more vicious fights, bleak hotel rooms in Frankfurt and Prague, endless losing walks through Vienna, our tearful goodbye in Milan, how out of desperation I begged my father for money and that by some miracle he actually wired me fifteen-hundred dollars, that I spent nearly all of June by myself in Rome where I sat on the same bench in the Villa Borghese every day and worked on this play that I’m still trying to finish, coughing into my open palm, but I ran out of money and had to return to her parent’s house, that when I did it was war all the time, finally when I was absolutely convinced that our marriage was finished I took a packed commuter bus down a winding alpine road to the Innsbruck train station and boarded a Munich bound train, from there I snuck onto the subway and rode it to the airport then boarded a flight to JFK, that I arrived in New York with a dollar in my wallet and vaulted the turnstile at JFK then took the A to the C back to Fort Greene and for the last month I’ve been afraid to leave the house because she is coming back to me and I have to be there when she does … I’m only here right now because all the flights from Europe are in for the day and—

The full-size mattress with freshly laundered white cotton sheets—fitted sheet beneath loose sheet beneath a soft white thermal herring bone cotton blanket—two sets of foam pillows encased in sky blue stripped sateen pillow cases and a solid aquamarine polyester bedspread. The nightstands with their tightly woven pattern of banana leaves over honey-finished plywood were positioned at both sides of the head of the bed. Pale green ceramic cottage table lamps with single setting sixty-watt incandescent bulbs and cylindrical beige canvas shades atop each nightstand. Located on the left nightstand—if you were standing at the foot of the bed with your back to the television— was the digital alarm clock indicating the correct time in faint green LED numbers and the television remote. Atop the nightstand on the right was a small metal tent sign illustrated with an exed out cigarette informing guests that they were occupying a non-smoking room. The drawer below the sign contained a copy of the Gideon Bible. The bulky dark grained plywood credenza with storage space that included three empty drawers and two side cabinets with two empty shelves. Atop the cadenza was the beige push button telephone with instructions bordering the keypad—Dialing the Front Desk, How To Make A Wake-Up Call, Calling Collect, 1+800 Numbers, Local, International Calls beside the thirty-two inch color television where Steve McGarrett and Danno were exchanging vital information over the phone.

They were seated at the metal table on the screened in porch when the fireflies came out. The narrow slate walkway lined with ferns led to a flowerbed where rose bushes bloomed before a low stonewall. The blue grey dusk creeping over the outdoors as a steady breeze moved through the trees. Wavering candlelight. She smoked another cigarette while they talked about Hesse or Faulkner or Barthelme or Camus or Gass or Chekhov or Elkin or Yates. More wine? She nodded then asked him why he didn’t like Brautigan.

A two-toggle horizontal brass wall plate at shoulder height just left of the door with separate switches for the track lighting that framed the mirror above the sink and the circular overhead fluorescent encased in a semitranslucent plastic shade. Both switches activated the ventilation fan built into the wall above the door. Light beige tile floor with matching vinyl coated wallpaper, a standard shower stall with three shatterproof glass walls, a chrome showerhead that resembled a drooping sunflower built into the beige tile wall, complementary four-ounce plastic bottles of fresh citrus scented shampoo and creamy citrus hair conditioner tucked into the beige ceramic shelf beside the single handle chrome shower faucet. Thick white bath towels hanging at waist height from the outer shower stall door and on the metal rod behind the beige toilet. A new roll of white toilet paper attached to the ceramic beige holder. The toilet seat and cover were down. Beige faux marble countertop, beige ceramic toothbrush/cup holder mounted to the wall with a disposable plastic cup incased in clear plastic placed in the holder. Beneath the toothbrush/cup holder were three small bars of soap individually wrapped in pale glossy paper and illustrated with bright yellow lemons. Twelve clear 40-watt incandescent bulbs framed the wide spotless mirror. A single handle polished chrome faucet—left for cold and right for hot—with matching pop-up drain. The squat black plastic coffee machine cradled the glass pot embossed with the manufactures name and a row of even numbers in vertical ascending order 2-4-6-8 at half-inch intervals. The black cord for the coffee maker was plugged into the bulky three-pronged outlet beside an unopened box of beige tissues. A small wicker basket contained five ounce Hotel Brand coffee packets—two regular, two French Roast, one decaffeinated—three coffee filters, three Lipton cinnamon tea bags, two thin wooden coffee stirrers, two Styrofoam cups individually encased in clear plastic and three of each—non-dairy creamer, raw sugar, processed sugar and artificial sweetener—in individual five gram packets.

Standing up, “I should get going,” as I made my way to the door, “I don’t want to burden you with this,” the room began to spin.   “Can’t you just call her and find out when she is coming back?”

“The phone is disconnected.”

“Send a letter?”

“I have but I haven’t heard anything.”

“Do you want another beer?”

Isko walked in with a steaming bowl of soup, “You should eat,” chunks of grilled fish, cellophane noodles, bean sprouts, and cilantro in a clear broth.

“Eat.” He placed the bowl on the coffee table then presented me with a Chinese soupspoon and some chopsticks.

“This looks amazing.”

Or maybe they sat on the couch and held hands in the same room where he wrote when he wasn’t neglecting that manuscript. Making time to write must have been challenging with a teaching job, a wife, three children, and a teenage lover. Dark oak floors, walls stained a lighter shade of blonde, exposed beams running beneath the high vaulted ceiling. Was he between chapters or had something big just been sent off to an editor? A cast iron wood-burning stove stood silently in the corner. It’s almost too bad that it’s too warm for a fire. Maybe disillusionment with a stalled manuscript caused their relationship to take shape. Or maybe he was enjoying some modest success, she had been an early admirer of his work, and their relationship simply grew physical from there. Or maybe he played her recordings of Maggie Teyte singing Debussy’s Proses lyriques after Baudelaire, accompanied on the piano by Gerald Moore, where the atmospheric arpeggios suggest the play of sunlight on water. These 78s were made during the blitz while the Germans were trying to destroy London, and here he might have added, although Teyte was considered past her prime when these recordings were made they are some of my favorite pieces of music.

Blue-grey flame resistant blackout drapes and a semi-transparent white nylon lining hung before the broad double paned sealed window that pulled back to reveal a second floor view of the employee parking lot. A battered red Cadillac Eldorado with a torn black canvas top beside a green Volkswagen Beetle, three rows of sun bleached yellow parking slots on weathered asphalt, a green dumpster and an empty laundry bin. Yellow arrows indicate the left entrance into the parking lot and right exit onto the service road that ran parallel to the six-lane interstate. The thru-wall air conditioner spanning the length of the window blowing cold stale air into the room accompanied the endless lines of traffic racing beneath a cloudless blue sky. Across the interstate and another service road a group of office workers—four women and three men—were gathered at a bus stop. Beyond the bus stop was a fenced in parking lot and a boarded-up service station.

She listened attentively—discounting the pops detracting from the flowing sound—and wanted to say something intelligent, not just that the music was beautiful, she wanted to convey the genuine impression that hearing this with him right now was uniquely relevant, that this moment belonged solely to them no matter what the future held. She wanted to say something memorable to equal his enthusiasm and tried to read his expression while speaking over the music. Her attempt at being profound, to explain exactly why the music moved her probably came off as performative, naïve, the language she used was awkward and ultimately unnecessary because she had conquered him on the very same day she agreed to spend the weekend alone with him in this out of the way place. Maybe he told her that, and not in so many words, maybe it had been conveyed silently, maybe she could read him well enough and she knew, or at least suspected she knew just how real this moment was for him as well, so they were holding hands and listening in silence as Maggie Teyte and Gerald Moore evoked the fragile beauty of a profound yet temporal love entwined in perfect harmony with nature. I’ll never know what they had together, and of course relationships such as theirs are frequently occasioned by quick furtive physical encounters, but I want to believe that they did have at least some time to enjoy each other in an idyllic place, and maybe I wasn’t conceived in the backseat of a car or in some dank motel room. Seven months after a certain date in June of ’67 she would leave Central Ohio to go and live with her aunt in San Francisco. She gave birth to me there in the middle of March. I was adopted two months later and in the spring of the following year she contacted the agency to see if I had been placed.

“One penny weighs two point five grams,” I was telling Tom about the pretty Dominican cashier at Key Food, “fifty cents is nine ounces,” who was always so gracious, “a dollar weighs one pound and two point five ounces,” whenever I paid for groceries with my pockets full of pennies. Tom shook his head before asking, “How can you walk around with no money in your wallet?” After ringing me up she would weigh the coins on the scale above the register. “What are they going to steal?” Empty beer bottles strategically placed before us. “That’s a great way to get shot.” “Bullets are expensive,” I shrugged, “and it’s not worth the hassle.” “These kids don’t think like that,” Tom leaned forward, “you’re just another opportunity,” and took his wallet off the coffee table, “they get angry when you don’t give it up,” removed a ten, “you know that.” “All the more reason not to leave the house.” “Here you go,” he handed it to me, “Howard Hughes.” I tucked it into my wallet while promising to pay him back.

The television in the living room of her shared Telegraph Hill apartment shows color footage of battle-weary Marines gradually emerging from the jungle while a young male reporter, in a helmet and flack jacket, standing off to the side with a microphone in his right hand relates the objectives of Operation Oklahoma Hills. The soldiers disdainful expressions are captured as they trudge by the reporter as he continues speaking: During the last eight-weeks Marines from a number of battalions along with an ARVN regiment cleared out the base camps of two NVA regiments. Although the NVA avoided major confrontations throughout the operation the Marines were able to inflict a substantial number of causalities while suffering relatively low losses. The scene had shifted to the CBS newsroom in New York City when the telephone rang and she got off the couch then quickly crossed to the kitchen before it rang again. It was the woman from the agency who apologized for the delay in getting back to her, but yes, a family adopted her baby nearly two months after he was born. She expressed surprised relief and thanked the woman for returning her call before hanging up the phone.

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A jetliner appeared low and massive on the immediate left—silver and blue with the landing gear down—making its final approach to the nearby airport. The metallic whine of its engines rising over the droning air conditioner and maybe you glimpsed a few faces in the row of oval windows before the shadow of the plane flashed over the interstate and blue city bus approaching the group of office workers.

—Donald Breckenridge

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Donald Breckenridge is a novelist and the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of InTranslation, and managing editor of Red Dust Books. He is currently co-adapting Laura Raicovich’s A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties for the stage and working on a new novel. His writing has recently appeared in Vestiges, BOMB and is forthcoming in Black Sun Lit.

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Feb 042016
 

AineGreaneyPanelÁine Greaney

 

In an article for The Village Voice, John Berger, writing about European emigration to the United States stated that, “Originally home meant the centre of the world – not in a geographical but in an ontological sense.” It was a place where two lines intersect. “The vertical was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places. Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and the dead in the underworld.” The immigrant, meanwhile, “never finds another place where the two lines cross.”

For Berger’s emigrants, leaving home was often forced upon them and rarely chosen, but as Aine Greaney wrote in a recent article in The Irish Times, emigrants now have a “diversity of stories and joy and tears. One person’s economic displacement is another’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” And furthermore, they at least have the “guts and the vocabulary” to talk about their loss of home. Indeed she counters this with, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living abroad, among Irish and other-nation expats, we might auto-cite the default reason (economics), but there’s nearly always a secondary driver, always another reason for leaving.”

In her memoir, What Brought You Here? (from which there are two chapters extracted below), Greaney bravely seeks to answer that near impossible question posed by the title. When told in America that she had “courage” to leave her home, she reminds herself that, “For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.””

“Home,” for Berger was “the starting point and, it was hoped, the returning point for all terrestrial journeys.” Fortunately, for us, Greaney’s writing has the courage to talk about that place where the two lines may never cross but where the language now exists to communicate (at a point of near return) with the gods above and the dead below.

—Gerard Beirne

 

Dublin Blood and Stateside Fables: Visa Day at the U.S. Embassy

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The Americans said I had courage.

They said it just as I got to that part about the fries or salad or soup, and how our restaurant customers could choose one side dish with each selected lunch special.“Are you from Ireland?”

“Yes, I am.”

“How long have you been over here?”

“Three months.” Then, “Six months” Then, “Two years.”

“Oh! What brought you here?”

The wife asked these first questions. The husband had his own set of queries: “North or south?” “Catholic or Protestant? “Are your French fries hand cut or frozen?”

Dressed in my emerald green pub shirt, my black trousers and waitress’s apron, I raised my voice to answer their questions, to get heard over the Irish music on the bar stereo.

“Oh, my God!” The woman would say. “That must have taken such courage.”

The evening shift and the dinner hour were too busy for these tableside chats and my short-order immigration tale. But the lunch shift gave me all the time in the world. At age 24, at least in the eyes these chino-clad couples en route to the family cottage in the Adirondacks, I became that woman who strides through the airport in dusty hiking boots, with nothing between her and the big bad world but a Kindle full of Lonely Planet Guides.

No. Scratch that. Actually, I was even braver than Ms. Hiker Boots. For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.”

Often, as I stood there with my pen and order pad, I heard that woman’s undertow of regret. I wondered if she glimpsed herself at my age, if my story evoked her own roads not taken, her own botched tests of courage. Did she mourn that job or that lover that her small-town mother had talked her out of? Had she spent a grown-up life, a marriage, wondering about that man whose cologne and touch she can still conjure? A man far sexier but riskier than the paunchy husband inquiring about his lunchtime French fries?

For others, I knew that I embodied this woman’s worst fear: That one day, her own 20- or 30-something daughter, the apple of their parental eyes, would buy an airline ticket to move 3,000 miles away.

In the end it was easy to diffuse the whole courage thing, to divert this nice couple back to their lunch order and choosing their accompany sides. It was extra easy if I laid on the Irish accent: “Oh, now, I don’t know would you call it courage or just a streak of daftness.”

Even now, almost three decades after landing at JFK Airport, New York, I’m at a dinner party or some evening fundraiser thing, and someone will ask and I will tell and it gets said again: That must’ve taken some courage. Nowadays I have the benefit of online articles on youthful impetuosity and how our under-25-year olds cannot foresee or care about the consequences of their actions. Standing there in my summer linens or corporate jackets, in my best expatriate patois I say: “Courage? Sure at that age none of us knows what the heck we’re doing. If we did, we’d have done nothing at all.”

It’s another diversion tactic, guaranteed to garner a counter story about a teenage son who texts while driving, or a daughter who won’t make school-night curfew.

How I loved that all-American makeover. It was so guileless and generous—at least until that day’s restaurant shift was over, when I shed my gussied-up Irish shtick and waitress’s getup to stand under the shower. As I scrubbed away the smell of French Fries, the whole courage thing felt (and still feels) like a private joke. I am that girl who gets crowned beauty queen when, in fact, it’s all been a secret Botox job.

My Lonely Planet odyssey started on that Friday, November 28, 1986. I had planned to spiff it up and look good for my visa interview at the American Embassy. But the Dublin morning was cold and drizzly, so I abandoned the interview dress-up for one of those padded winter jackets. I remember: it was cream-colored, machine washable, a high, zip-up collar but no hood. As I left the house to catch my city bus, I doubled back to grab a knitted hat from the overflowing coat pegs in the hallway.

When the double-decker bus creaked to a stop in Fairview, on Dublin’s north side, I clamored upstairs to sit with all the other smokers, and for a top-down view of the terraced houses, the school playgrounds, each city neighborhood with its butcher’s and newsagent’s and bookie’s shop.

I bit my nails. My right thumbnail had started bleeding. I stubbed out my Players Blue cigarette on the floor and, seconds later, lit up another. On my lap was my brown leather satchel that contained everything I would need to get to America: the Embassy appointment letter; my green passport with the gold harp on the cover; and an airmail letter from an expatriate friend, Mary, with her American phone number and her offer of a couch to crash on once I landed. If I was granted my visa, then I would telephone Mary at her shared house somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. If she meant what she said in the letter, then I would empty out my Bank of Ireland savings book to buy a transatlantic ticket from Shannon to San Francisco. I planned to leave immediately after Christmas. So the flight ticket had to be bought soon, with enough advance purchase time so that the money in my bank book would actually cover the cost of the flight.

Also in the letter was a snapshot of her sitting by an American swimming pool, wearing white shorts and a yellow T-shirt.

“Note the shades,” Mary had written and underlined on the back. Yes, of course I had noticed the shades. And I saw how much brighter and bolder she looked in her new life, working as a live-out nanny for a Bay Area family who let her drive their “extra” Volvo car.

If they saw me at all, I am certain that none of my fellow Dublin bus passengers nudged and whispered to a seat mate: “Jayzus, would you look at yer wan in the white bleedin’ coat. Now, there’s a little daisy that looks like she has loads of courage.”

That morning, I was another wanna-be, 1980s émigré joining the 200,000 others skedaddling from our small island with its runaway inflation and public debt and, in some regions, a 20% unemployment rate. I was fixing to become a small addendum to our three-centuries-long Irish emigration saga.

On that bus, this retrospective, historical stuff was too big and scary to consider. The immediate alternative was a 100 times scarier. If I flunked the interview and the Americans refused my visa? I would be a girl with no job and no place to live and barely enough money to see me past the upcoming Christmas holiday. Much worse, my family would have to witness and cringe over my looser-state, and, even worse, I would have to witness their cringing and shame. I knew this because I already had.

Whatever those online psychology articles say, the impetuous young brain is actually a blessing. Plus, young or not, fear and desperation will regress any of us to that myopic thinking in which we can only behold this city bus, this morning rain, this day’s errands.

I was afraid. And desperate. Though these, too, are retrospective.

Without that short-order mind-set, I would have clamored down those bus steps and walked out into Dublin traffic to find a piss-smelling alleyway where I would have curled up and wept.

In Dublin’s city center, I pulled on my knitted hat to walk in the rain up Talbot Street past the just-opened shops, turned left into O’Connell Street and across O’Connell Bridge that links Dublin’s north and south sides.

In winter the up-river whiff of the Guinness Brewery always made the River Liffey and that part of the city centre smell like stale coffee. This was before the construction cranes dotted the skyline, before city-centre apartments incited estate agents’ bidding wars. The Ha’penny Bridge, the houses and shops along Bachelor’s Walk, the Four Courts. It was and is the post-card view of our capital city, but it always looked in need of a good power wash.

I walked up D’Olier Street and along the walls of Trinity College, Europe’s oldest university and home to the Book of Kells. Outside Trinity, on the corner of Nassau and Grafton Streets, I waited for my second bus, a Number 7 or 7A or 6 or 6A that would take me south to Ballsbridge and the Embassy.

It’s a short bus ride from the city center to Ballsbridge. On a drier day, on a day when I wasn’t so petrified to be late, I would have walked it.

In those weeks before I left for America, I was sleeping on the floor of my younger sister Frances’s rented house that she shared with her college-student friends. I had moved across the country to stay in Dublin because I had enrolled in one of those commercial “business schools” and this crazy, new-fangled sounding class, “Introduction to Word Processing.” Every day, we students, all women, sat before a bank of computers the size of washing machines, squinting at our black screens as we cursed and muttered at that blinking cursor.

On the opposite side of the country, in my small-town convent school in County Mayo, we had never been offered typing classes (the Sisters of Mercy deemed typing classes to be far too working class). So the business school woman demanded that I enroll in an extra, add-on session, “Basic Typing,” where a few of us clanked away on black Royal manuals while the typing teacher strode between our desks shouting: “Left hand: A-S-D-F. Stop. Right? Everyone O.K.? Now, girls! Right hand: Semi-colon, L,K,J. Ready? Now, girls, type the following sentence, but without looking down at yer typewriter.”

Today, I was skipping both classes to do all my American errands.

Among the many then-rumors about America was that one about how the Yanks could hardly tie their own shoes without switching on a computer. So if you knew how to type some words on a keyboard, the American jobs were just there for the taking—especially in hospital administration.

Hospital administration. It had a lovely ring to it, but I doubt any of us had the slightest idea what it actually was. A hospital was a place full of antiseptic smells and old men in plaid robes and nurses in their stiff white hats, so why would you need a computer for any of that?

At night, cocooned in my sleeping bag on my sister’s bedroom floor, I dream-typed that day’s business-school exercises: A, S, D, F. Stop. Semi-colon, L, K, J.

I also pre-dreamed this day, this hour of reckoning that was waiting at the end of my second bus ride. In my dreams, I got on the wrong bus. Or, when the city bus got there, I begged the driver to stop, please stop, but he just sped on toward Dún Laoghaire. The Embassy was suddenly, permanently closed. Or it was open and everything was fine until, when I reached the top of that long emigration queue, an American man stood up to scream across his desk and to banish me from his country.

Heart thumping, I would wake up to lie there in the dark and wait for my younger sister’s breathing, where she lay in the single bed next to and above mine, to lull me back to sleep.

On that second bus, I lit one last cigarette and opened my leather satchel to check my paperwork one last time. And the knitted hat. According to the rumors, the emigration queue would extend, Soviet-style, down the Dublin footpath and I would need my knitted rain hat.

From the footpath, the American Embassy with its glassy, Lego-look frontage didn’t seem like the kind of place that could make or break your Friday or the rest of your life.

Inside, a woman with a Marcia Brady accent directed me to Consulate Services. The queue? Where was the reputed queue of doleful, desperate people waiting to flee our 32,599-mile country?

I crossed that room with its line of pale desks flanked by giant American flags, my footsteps clack-clack-ing. I stood behind a white line on the floor, a queue of one waiting for that 60-something man in the white uniform shirt to look up and beckon me forward.

Another American rumor: They all spoke loudly, whereas I had been told (and told) that I spoke way too softly, and if I wanted to seem like the kind of person suited for the land of the free, then I’d better project my voice.

Right. Well, here I was at last, sitting in the chair across from him, and here came the questions whose answers I had rehearsed and was ready to shout out like a quiz contestant.

Adequate financial means to travel and live in the United States?

YUP. OH YEAH. Through my satchel, I fingered my Bank of Ireland savings book and was ready to produce it.

Secure accommodation?

ABSOLUTELY. ALL FIXED UP THERE. NOT A PROBLEM.

Valid passport?

IT’S ALL THERE, SIR.

Suddenly, he stopped leafing through my paperwork to give me a what-is-your-problem look. Hard of hearing? Tourettes? Some kind of anger issue?

Christ. I was certain that the Americans wouldn’t want or welcome any one of those infirmities. So here was my nightmare about to come true. He was going to scrape back his chair and point, Christ-like, to the glassy entrance behind me. I was about to be pre-banished from America.

He returned to the paperwork, his face impassive. Then, without meeting my eyes, he stamped my green passport and handed it back to me.

I whispered, “Thank you.”

§

 

America Had Big Blue Freckles

.

Why in the name of Christ was nobody hitting the call buttons? Or had I just imagined what I had just seen down there, dotted amid the buildings and roads and gardens of America?

I scooched back across the empty seat to my tiny airplane window. No. No joke. There were blue freckles, giant, azure-tinted mercury spills on Long Island, New York.

Eight months earlier, on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had exploded in the Ukraine. Now, the Americans had had a similar disaster and of course, this would all have to happen on the very day that I was flying here. While the Aer Lingus flight attendants were serving up tea and drinks and miniature meals, while all my fellow passenger in the smoking section seemed determined to drink out the in-flight bar, nobody had bothered to warn or divert us?

My hand-knit wool sweater was so hot that the sweat had pooled in my armpits.

The pilot made another announcement. Oh, would these drunken yahoos all around me just shush up to hell? What did he say exactly? I was terrified to ask. Our plane descended. My ears buzzed.

The blue freckles finally disappeared. Then, here they were back again, only bigger this time, some of them rectangular and bright green, not blue.

Swimming pools. Jesus! Bloody swimming pools. Down there, on that forked tongue of land surrounded by ocean, the Americans had installed their own backyard swimming pools.

We trooped down the skybridge, and my ears popped and my older sister Mary’s voice replayed in my head: JFK is the busiest, the loudest place in the world.

The wool sweater was even hotter, even wrong-er for that florescent-lit airport and the huge immigration processing room where a uniformed woman herded us down a corridor and around a corner toward a long bank of Plexiglas windows where another woman yelped at us, herded us into queues. Here, the heat-flushed Irish faces merged with the black and brown and taupe faces, and our immigration queues were a calico blend of pale and dark, of wanna-be, various hued immigrants lined up before each window and its corresponding INS man.

Jackets and sweaters got shed. Men rolled up shirt sleeves. People stepped out of the queue to check the delay, how many more people left to process? Except for the shuffle of clothes and bags and feet, everything was eerily silent.

The Caucasian guy in front of me had awful body odor. I probably did, too. But mine was only eight hours’ old.

Someone else just got stamped and admitted. Like spectators at Wimbledon, heads turned to watch that person’s jaunty walk toward the glassy airport doors.

The queue moved on. I tried not to stare too hard at the dark-skinned people, to gawp at how different they were, what a shock it was to be here with them—the same, but not.

Now the sweat had lodged between my breasts.

Just pull the damn geansai or sweater off. I stepped out of line for a distant glimpse of my INS man in his silent, glassed-in animation. Under the sweater I had a faded yellow T-shirt from a long-ago concert. Maybe that INS fellow didn’t like concerts or girls who went to concerts? Didn’t like music overall? Didn’t like musicians? Especially hated Irish musicians who secured American landing pads for their sisters in law?

Now, I was about to test the American factoid or rumor that really mattered. One false step, one type-o or misspelling of your name could set the INS computers flashing and auto-unleash the airport Alsatian dogs who would herd you to a holding room where you’d spend the night sleeping upright in a plastic chair until they deported you back to Shannon Airport and your father would have to apologize to the gaffer and forgo his overtime pay to drive down to get you.

No, no striptease acts here. Just sweat it out and practice your immigration quiz responses, the same information you gave to the Dublin Embassy over a month ago.

As the well as the body odor, the guy in front had a huge pimple sitting dead center above his shirt collar. I kept staring at it while begging and promising myself that I’d stop staring at it, stop breathing in his smell.

My sister’s voice: Remember to write the date backward. Month, then day, then year. That’s how they do it over there.

When I got to the beehive window, the INS questions were rapid-fire fast: Where to, how long, adequate financial means to live in the land of swimming pools?

I fingered the little wad of $200 cash in my jeans front pocket. At Shannon’s Bureau de Change desk, I had wrapped the wad of dollars in the lined notebook page with Bob, my sister’s American friend’s phone number.

“I’ll pay it all back,” I had assured my mother when she had lent me that money. “You have my word.”

“Yes,” I told the INS agent now. (Act confident. The Yanks like confident).

“Yes, I have adequate means.”

Thunk. I was in.

The Arrivals Hall was a mad mass of smiley, waiting families, lovers with their bunches of flowers, Indian families with their luggage trolleys piled high and the women in brightly colored saris. Here people spoke with their hands flailing, as if a dozen wasps swarmed around their heads. Lots more black people. Brown. Tawny. Old white women in colored sweat shirts and stone-washed jeans. Old white men with paunchy bellies. Wait! These people knew they were headed to America’s most important airport, but they couldn’t put on a pair of nylons or a decent sports coat?

Trainers. Young men, young women, even the hobbling elderly with their travel belts. The Indian men with overcoats over their kurtas and dhotis. Well over half of this airport was wearing trainers or sneakers.

Don’t gawk. Whatever you do don’t gawk.

But Jesus! How could I not gawk at this giant indoor souk? How could I not flinch at the shouting, the laughing, the tack-tack-tack of foreign, non-English words?

My rucksack bopping against my back, I sidestepped around each group. I checked my $200 again. No pickpockets. Yet.

Follow the signs for Ground Transportation. Ask about the bus to Albany, New York. My sister’s instructions were a bullet-pointed list in my head.

The woman at Ground Transportation jabbed her forefinger at a paper brochure on her desk. “The Holiday Inn, Wolf Road, Aww-lbany,” she said. “That’s the last stop, where the bus will take you. It’s about three hours; maybe more.”

Ha. Ha. Well, this was a bit of a joke. I grinned up at her. The Holiday Inn? When he bought his hotel, this Albany fella couldn’t come up with a less obvious name than the Holiday Inn?

No. No joke. There was, in fact, something about me that was obviously pissing this woman off. She nodded me toward another set of glassy doors. “Wait out there.”

The airport doors slid open to a giant, outdoor fridge. It was dark now, and the freezing air was fogged with car exhaust fumes. I watched the mad dodgem-car race of yellow cabs and courtesy vans and black livery cars. Everyone zipped up coats, pulled on hats and gloves. Not me. I lit up a Players Blue cigarette and stood there in my sweater, no jacket, letting my body heat rise and convect into the New York night.

Finally, when I could no longer feel my feet, I pulled on my jean jacket, but the denim seemed to attract, not insulate against the December cold.

After the airport exit, our bus nudged onto and along a stop-and-go motorway. The distant lit-up skyscrapers were straight out of the old King Kong movie, and I presumed I was looking at Manhattan (I wasn’t). Soon, a giant brown apartment building overflowed the edges of my bus window. I held my breath at the enormity of it. Just as that building slid out of sight, here came another, then another, each with its row upon row upon row of Christmas-lit windows. I was glimpsing and gliding past hundreds of American lives, hundreds of squabbles and fights and tears and hugs, a thousand breakfasts and suppers and bedtime stories. Yet, it was safe to assume that these lives were as unfathomable to each other as they were to a just-arrived Irish girl on a Trailways bus. I scrunched down and dipped my head to find a horizon, because somewhere, I thought, all that brown brick had to end, had to collide with an amber-lit night sky.

Another motorway. This one passed by old wooden houses with petrified back gardens and chain link fences. Suddenly, the amber city lights disappeared from the sky, and we were tunneling into endless darkness. In less than an hour, we had gone from a jungle of crammed-in lives to an abandoned place where no dog barked from a roadside gateway. Nobody maneuvered between the cars on his bicycle. Nobody stood by the side of the road with his thumb out hoping for a lift. Except for the car and the motorway lights slithering over our passenger faces, this place had no human life.

Over the motorway hung these giant green signs: Tarrytown. Newburgh. New Paltz. Kingston.

Albany. It was the last bullet point on my travel list. Albany and the Holiday Inn. If I nodded off asleep, if I didn’t pay attention, I could end up in Canada. So I sat with my rucksack propped on my lap, watching and reading the green motorway signs.

—Áine Greaney

.

Áine Greaney grew up on a remote farm in County Mayo. In 1986, after a brief career as a primary-school teacher in the Irish midlands, she moved to America, and she now lives and writes on Boston’s North Shore. As well as her four books (Simon & Schuster UK, Flume Press, Syracuse U.P. and Writers Digest Books), she has placed and broadcast personal essays and short stories in consumer and literary publications in the U.S., Ireland and the U.K. Her non-fiction essays and fiction have appeared in “Creative Nonfiction,” “The Feminist Wire,” “Salon.com,” “The Boston Globe Magazine,” “Forbes Women,” “Cyphers,” “National Public Radio Boston,” “Natural Bridge,” “Books Ireland,” “Sunday Tribune New Irish Writing,” “The Fish Anthology” and other publications. Her essay, “Green Card” (listen to Áine read her essay here) was selected as a “notable” in “Best American Essays 2013,” while her essay, “Sanctuary” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Áine Greaney holds a B.Ed in education and an M.A. in English. She is on the MFA Faculty at Baypath University where she has developed and teaches a writing course on narrative medicine. She has also led writing classes and workshops at various conferences and arts organizations in New England and presented at the National Writers Digest conference in New York City. www.ainegreaney.com

Jan 052016
 

PouringColonyIntoHivePouring the colony into the hive.

Where the bee sucks, there suck I.
Shakespeare

 

When I was a girl, I kept company with bees. Our house stood on an old orchard that had been subdivided into urban lots; our backyard was thick with grapefruit trees. The trunks were painted bright white to keep them from getting sunburnt. I’d often take a book and climb into a tree –the branches were smooth and sturdy– and spend hours there. Cicadas hummed and left their shed exoskeletons on the bark, bees crowded the blossoms. The bees also tried to drink from our swimming pool. Mostly they drowned, though when I saw one flailing there, I’d cup my palm and scoop her up. I’d softly blow on her wet wings. She’d fly away.

Taccuino_Sanitatis,_CasanatenseFrom Taccuino Sanitatis, Casanatense—a medieval health handbook.

The bees –along with camping trips, Indian rodeos, swimming, stargazing, cartwheeling, reading, my family and my dog– were part of my ecosystem. I can’t imagine my girlhood without them. I have always loved the taste of honey.

Bees are messengers, intermediaries between the sun and earth, gods and people, life and death. The message bees carry is holy.

That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees.
Marcus Aurelius

Three years ago I set up some hives in my island backyard.

My young son and I were excited when the first colonies arrived. I’d ordered Italians; they came in the mail. Apis mellifera linguistica are the most popular honey bee in the States, known for their affability, their flamboyant honey production, their prodigious breeding. They are also bad housekeepers, improvident, and succumb easily to the cold.

We put on our veils, then poured the bees out from their boxes into the waiting hives.

The hive is shelter, food storage, nursery, palace, and fortress for bees. Wax is secreted from glands in the worker bees’ abdomens. The hexagonal cells of the comb are filled in organized fashion with pollen, honey, eggs and brood. Wild and feral honey bees will find a cave, an eaves, a hole in a wall, any protected enclosure in which to build their comb. After mating, the queen leaves the hive only if there’s an emergency or housing crunch.

Evidence suggests that people have been gathering honey from wild bees for about 15,000 years, and started domesticating bees about 9,000 years ago. Beehive hairdos take their shape from the skep, a hive often woven from straw. Clay pots, mud tubes, tree hollows, and a variety of wooden boxes have all been used by beekeepers as hives. The disadvantage of many traditional hives is that they don’t allow for inspection, manipulation, or easy extraction of honey. Often, all the comb is destroyed when honey is collected.

LangstrothHivesLangstroth Hives

I use hives that are the industry standard in the North America. Langstroth hives are rectangular wooden bodies that can be stacked. They have neither top nor bottom. Inside, removable frames hang like file folders. Bees will build their comb onto the frames. The bottom boxes are used for brood and pollen. On top are stacked honey supers– shallower bodies also filled with frames. Shallower, because honey is heavy. You put a cover, usually clad in metal for weather protection, on top of it all.

Although a fossilized honey bee, apis neartica, was found in Nevada, honey bees, as we know them, are not native to the Americas. The first colony of apis mellifera likely arrived –along with chickens, Christianity, flintlocks, liquor, and smallpox– with seventeenth-century English settlers in Virginia.

These days, I live on traditional Coast Salish land, and daily drive through a reservation. I have been reminded how in many indigenous traditions, the human self is simply part of nature, there is no neat divorce of soul from body from place. We don’t hold dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and every living thing that moveth upon the earth. Rather, we are all profoundly and mysteriously connected.

Something the bees have always known.

Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb:
honey and milk are under thy tongue

Song of Solomon 4:11

A virgin queen will loosen her girdle only once. She’ll fly up to the Drone Congregation Area and sleep around, stuffing her spermatheca –a kind of purse she always carries. This one very good time will provide her with all the sperm she’ll ever need to fertilize the millions of eggs she will lay. A strong queen can live for a few years. By contrast, a drone has a brief, if pampered, life. All he does is hang out, eat honey that the female workers have made, and wait for a queen to knock up. His reproductive organ is torn from his body as he mates, then his dead body falls from the sky.

IMG_6640 - Version 2A marked queen.

The worker bees have different jobs, there are foragers, defenders, nurses, honeymakers, janitors, undertakers. All of them sing and dance. The constant humming. A complex choreography. A worker waggling her behind, kicking up her heels, turning in figure 8s, is telling her sisters where the nectar is. The waggle dance –official name– is complemented by the tremble dance and the grooming dance.

Singing, dancing girls. Muses. Nymphs.

The nymphs of Artemis were often called Melissae, which means honey bee. Bee larvae, to this day, are called nymphs. The woman who cared for the infant Zeus, fed him goat’s milk and honey, was named Melissa, as was the priestess who refused to reveal divine secrets and who, for her discretion, was ripped to bits by an angry mob. Her dead body gave birth to bees.The woman who was the oracle at Delphi, the woman who gave voice to the Artemis’ twin, the god Apollo, was called the Delphic bee.

The Greeks were great beekeepers, likely having learned from the Minoans, who worshipped the insects. The Minoans held the bull to be a sacred beast, and believed that bees were born from the carcass of a bull. Bees –golden– are symbols of the sun; the Egyptian sun god Ra wept bees for tears. Bulls –crescent horned– are yoked by association to the moon. Artemis was a moon goddess, as well as that of the hunt and wild animals, of virginity and childbirth.

BeeGoddess@RhodesGold plaques embossed with winged bee goddesses, found at
Camiros Rhodes, dated to 7th century BCE.

There is a statue of Artemis at Ephesus in which she is covered with strange protrusions. Some believe the bumps to be eggs, or breasts, or bull testicles, all symbols of fertility. Some, espe-cially when learning that the statue is a re-creation of an earlier wooden one which was decorated with honey-resonant amber drops, see the shape of bees about to emerge, fully grown, from their cells. Artemis was the Greek’s syncretic version of an older, Bronze Age goddess. An earth goddess. When you start to scratch around motherhood and fertility, bees swarm.

Artemis@EphesusArtemis, the goddess of the wilderness,
the hunt and wild animals, and fertility.

Life, death, sun, moon. The bees.

It was easy to love them.

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I filled troughs with sugar water to feed them. I watched them. I listened to them: bees hum high and fast when they’re angry or scared, sweet and low when they’re feeling good. A man at a dinner party told me about his business, a clinic that administers tiny shocks to the brain. Gentle waves pulsing into a cortex would wash away anxiety, depression, and any number of neurological ailments. Everything is frequency, he said.

I sang to my bees. It calmed me, and perhaps them, too. After the first few inspections, I shed my clunky veil and gloves. It was easier to work bare-handed, bare-headed, easier to remove frames from the hive to see if the queen was laying eggs, if the foragers were gathering pollen, if workers were building comb. The bees were docile. The workers don’t want to sting; they die when they do. Like a drone losing his prick in coitus, a worker sacrifices her barbed stinger, and thus her abdomen, when she attacks. Sometimes a bee would get caught in my hair; if I didn’t freak, she didn’t sting.

Common wisdom is that bees will pick up on fear, anger or agitation, and that’s when they’ll attack. It made me almost giddy to be so unafraid, because I am afraid of so much else. My husband dislikes the bees, he is afraid of them. The reversal in our roles was pleasing.

Beekeepers live long, is the claim. Is it from their equanimity, or from the numerous stings they sustain? My grandmother would sit in a beeline and get herself stung; she swore by this as a cure for arthritis. Raw honey is said to help with allergies to pollen. You can buy royal jelly at a health food store. Science does not yet uphold the claims of apitherapy, but folk traditions around the world do.

That first year, I started with two hives. One colony outgrew their living quarters, so they made a new queen. The new queen stayed in the hive with half the workers, and the old queen took the other half and swarmed, went looking for a new home.

When bees swarm, they are vagabonding. They have no hive, no brood to protect. They have just gorged themselves on honey, and so are plump and pleasantly drunk.

SwarmSwarm.

The swarm – tens of thousands of bees– was a droopy fruit hanging from a low branch of an alder; the queen –critical seed– was in the middle. I lopped the branch, gave it a quick shake into a bucket and the bees tumbled down inside. I poured the swarm, thick and gold, into the hive box. Home now, girls. Settle down, lay in stores for the winter. Breed. A queen’s work is never done.

Three thriving hives were mine.

I have a little neck, so it will be the work of a moment.
Anne Boleyn, to her executioner

You get used to dead bees. Every time I filled the sugar water trough, I first dredged out drowned bees. Every time I moved a hive body, I squished bees who failed to get out of the way. I once came across a scene of apicide: a mouse had snuck into a hive and eaten the heads off workers. How the mouse pulled this off without being stung to death, I have no idea.

My Italians made it through the first winter, but then they starved to death in the spring, before the nectar flowed. They’d not put up enough honey to last.

IMG_0171Unsealing honeycomb.

Carniolans –Apis mellifera carnica– a strain from the Balkans, are said to to overwinter well. I ordered three colonies to fill my empty hives. They were beautifully black-banded, and just as good-natured as the Italians had been.

These bees were hale. They swarmed several times, and I was able to catch at least a couple. My apiary grew.

But then, the mites.

These tiny brown dots will eat whole nymphs, and they’ll gnaw away at grown bees. You’ll see mangled wings, bitten thoraces, missing legs. My hives were infested. I tried atomizing thyme oil, dusting with powdered sugar, various natural remedies. I considered an organic acid, but decided against it when I learned that I’d have to wear a respirator mask when using it.

A drastic measure: I decided to re-queen.

Supersedure is when a colony senses that the queen is old or weak; they’ll raise a new queen. The virgin will kill the matriarch and assume the throne. Re-queening is when the beekeeper kills the old queen, and sneaks her replacement into the hive.

Each new queen came in a tiny cage from which she would be released once the colony became accustomed to her smell. Because they had been mated, the queens were marked with a jewel-like dab of green paint between the wings. They’d been bred from, and inseminated by, rugged feral bees from the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula. The offspring of these queens would gradually replace the existing workers. Theoretically, the new colonies would be able to fend off disease and parasites without the aid of acids, chemicals, and constant supplements. My goal was not to raise bees that needed no human intervention, but to create a more balanced bee-human ecosystem.

I opened the hives, and went hunting with needle nose pliers.

I spotted the first few queens on the brooding frames of their respective hives. I nabbed them in the plier’s mouth, and quickly killed them. The last queen, though, was fierce and canny. She ran from the needle-nosed shadow, she jumped from one frame to another. I gave chase. Finally, I had her, and clamped the pliers shut on her belly. I flicked her flattened body aside, and set about hanging the new queen’s cage in the hive.

IMG_0201A queen cage.

Looking over at what I thought would be the old queen’s corpse, I saw her dragging her body across the dirt, trying to get back home. There was white liquid oozing out of her. I squashed her totally dead, and felt a little bad.

Eat thou honey, because it is good
Proberbs 24:13

Honey is a busy metaphor, standing in, throughout the world and across centuries, for love, truth, poetry, and wisdom. In substance, honey has been used as food, as medicine, as healing balm, as offering to the gods. Mead predates the cultivation of crops, and is thought to be the oldest fermented beverage around.

Honey will last for thousands of years if kept from moisture; jars filled with honey have been found in ancient tombs. Bees have represented immortality and the afterlife as much as they have fertility.

Honey

I couldn’t feed my son honey until he was a year old because of the risk of costridium botulinum, a bacterial spore sometimes –if rarely– present in honey. An immature, or compromised, immune system can’t handle the spore, which can result in fatal botulism.

Mad honey is that made from the nectar of rhododendron, oleandar, bog rosemary, spoonwood, or sheep laurel. It can produce euphoria, hallucinations, vomiting, seizures, or –rarely– death, depending on how much is consumed. It has sometimes been deliberately harvested for medicinal or religious purposes. Pompey the Great lost 1,000 of his soldiers in 67 BCE when the ragtag band of Persians whom they were chasing placed combs of mad honey along the route. The Greeks gorged themselves, became disoriented, and then were easily slaughtered.

Bees make honey so that they have something to eat in the winter. As a beekeeper, you want to steal modestly: take too much, and your bees will starve. In the first year of my beekeeping, I didn’t harvest any honey, figuring that the bees had been so busy building comb, establishing home, that they needed all the honey. The second year, though, was sweet.

When harvesting honey, use a hot knife or sharp pick to scrape the wax sealing from the cells. You can make an extractor out of bicycle wheels and a barrel, but I borrowed a sturdy, factory-made one from a friend. The frames are held upright by what would be the spokes of a wheel. You turn the crank on top, the frames whirl around. Centrifugal force spins the honey out from the comb onto the sides of the cylinder, and from there it drips down to the bottom.

HarvestingHoneyWithAFriendHarvesting honey with a friend.

My son helps with the harvest. Helps, by opening his mouth under the spigot at the bottom of the honey extractor. Helps by licking the comb. We are sticky at the end of the day, and greatly pleased with our jars of gold.

Because the Bee may blameless hum / For Thee a Bee do I become
Emily Dickinson

There I was –acrophobe– perched on the top rungs of a telescoping ladder. One of my colonies had swarmed and had found temporary refuge high in a cedar. My plan was to shake them into the bucket I held.

Down below, a neighbor, my son, and my husband watched. My husband was videotaping me. I am camera shy. He was asking me technical questions about bees, questions to which I did not know the answers, and was offering helpful advice on how best to catch them. He doesn’t even like the bees. I was agitated, which is almost like asking to be attacked.

The guard bees came right at my face. I was stung, once in the corner of each eye.

I’d forgotten how much a sting hurts, what a wallop a tiny insect can pack.

The arrow from an archer’s bow is like the stinger from a bee: a transformative prick. No wonder Eros –whose arrows caused the ache of desire– along with Artemis –whose arrows caused merciful death– was associated with bees.

At first, the stings were red and warm to the touch, but not worrisome. I’d been stung on my hands and legs plenty before, and had not violently reacted. I went to sleep that night thinking I’d be fine by morning. I woke to the sound of my husband taking a picture of my face. I couldn’t open my eyes, they were swollen shut.

When I could at last pry my eyes into narrow slits and see, I didn’t recognize myself. Neither did anybody else. My blown-up eyelids made for huge, protruding orbs. My face was perfectly round, with only the barest suggestion of a nose. Give me some antennae and a pair of sheer wings, and I’d have become as one of them. A bee.

StungStung.

The itching was hell. I wanted to claw my face off. I spent days high on Benadryl, icing my head. The swelling didn’t diminish at first, but it moved. Down. My high cheekbones became flappy jowls. My neck became a flaccid, wobbly thing. I think of my clavicle as my best feature: it disappeared by the end of the week. And then it was all gone, as suddenly as it had come on.

The queen I’d killed months before, the one who’d dragged her pinched body across in a defiant gesture, it was her colony that swarmed, that got me. I like to think it was some kind of blood memory, passed down through quick generations. Fair vengeance.

We had a visceral relationship, me and the bees.

One day, a few months after the big sting, I woke with an emptiness inside me, inside the place where I thought about bees. I felt a stillness, a silence. And sure enough, when I tramped out to check the hives, all my bees were gone.

This was not swarming, when two queens split the queendom. This was not colony collapse, when the workers abandon their queen. This was absconding, when the queen leads all her subjects away. Let’s blow this popsicle stand. And it wasn’t just one hive, it was all five.

MinoanBeePendant2Minoan bee pendant.

I’ve asked experts, and nobody can guess why my bees absconded. They were well-sheltered, healthy, mite-free, and had built up lovely comb. It was almost winter. Leaving would likely mean death.

I imagine my queens out in the wild, tasting the air, gauging the sun.

Enough of domestication!

Willing to take a chance.

—Julie Trimingham

Notes:

King James Bible, Genesis 1:28: And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

In addition to the internet, useful sources include:

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Julie2

Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

 

Dec 052015
 

Dennis

Dennis O’Driscoll’s abrupt and untimely death on December 24th 2012 was a huge shock to the poetry world. He was an acclaimed poet (considered one of the best European poets of his time) and critic who was selfless in his generosity towards his fellow poets. His remarkable series of interviews with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones : Interviews with Seamus Heaney, was published in 2008 – a book-length portrait of the famous poet. And, perhaps, it was Heaney who when speaking of his friend, Dennis, put it best:

“Not only was he constant in his dedication to his own work, he also acted as mentor and sounding board to beginners and established figures alike. Modest to a fault, he would have shrugged off the hero word. Yet there was heroic virtue in the man, in the way he answered the demands of his day job as a civil servant and then devoted what ought to have been free time for his own work to responding to the work of others. He was like Yeats‘s “man of a passionate serving kind”, never self-promoting or seeking the limelight but constantly being sought.”

On this, the third anniversary of his death, I am tremendously grateful to his sister Marie for sharing her memories of Dennis, her personal photographs and her vibrant artwork.

—Gerard Beirne

 

Though Dennis will be remembered by many through the treasured words he left behind, I will always be filled with the memories of growing up together, our childhood days.

I filled the garden with skipping rhymes, Dennis sat and read. He was the one who introduced me to the joy of reading, the first of many books.

He was a great instigator of much of the mischief which occurred in the household of six siblings.

He took me on my first trip without our parents, on the train to Dublin, where he quickly reached the top of the large queue in the train’s restaurant, with the use of my “magic slate” to announce to all that he was deaf and dumb. But he soon found his voice… when we were sympathetically ushered to the counter much to the annoyance of our fellow passengers!!

He created “pop up” art exhibitions of his ‘Abstract artwork” on the front wall of our home (which were worth a fortune!!). My parents were only alerted to the event by the sound of the odd car slowing down to take a peek as they traveled along the road.

Our annual holidays by the sea, embracing his anonymity, he could be a French tourist with little ability to communicate in English, seeking directions from exasperated, though helpful, locals. Convince people they were being interviewed live on the radio on topics of great interest, these interviews which we would listen back to on his tape recorder later in the day.

Our family’s Christmas will be forever tinged with sadness now,
his books and the many cards and letters he sent me
lie huddled together on my shelves,
where with the flick of a page,
I can feel his heart pouring out,
read his thoughts,
see visions through his words

Though it’s no easy task.

 

childDennis back in our childhood days.

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Christmas Eve 2012

My heart sunk as I caught a glimpse of the postal van, on its last round, as it headed for home on that cold Christmas eve 2012. The parcel from my brother Dennis wrapped with care, filled with thoughtful treasures, was now lost I feared. My present had always arrived well before the Christmas celebrations began and was often the first gift to be placed unopened beneath my Christmas tree.

Little did I know what lay ahead or that Christmas day would be spent in a cloud of unbelievable sorrow as we booked unexpected flights home. Or that I would find myself sitting by Dennis’s fireplace with my family a few days later where his painful absence was truly felt after that dreadful phone call late on the night of Christmas eve.

On my return to Holland with my heart filled with sorrow following the painful task of bidding him farewell…

…on the eve of his birthday, beneath a winter sky, in the midst of twinkling lights of Christmas.

It was then… that I discovered that the precious package had in fact arrived… and awaited me in my neighbor’s house.

There it was in all its glory with the so familiar handwriting looking as fresh as though the ink was barely dry.

I held it close to me as though it contained life…
With trembling hands, I peered inside,
then I carefully
placed it beneath
my darkened Christmas tree…

as gently as a coffin lowered
to its
Place of rest…

§

marie and dennisDennis & Marie

While Dennis used words to create images, I use paints and brushes… So one Christmas I decided to combine our work and send him a painting as a gift from me, a welcome break from the endless ties, I hoped. I wondered which poem I should choose, and as I read through “A Christmas Night”, it created visions for me. And so with great ease, his words emerged upon my canvas with each brush stroke.

christmas night

§

After he passed away, Evie our niece, then aged ten, would bravely stand up at a number of his tributes to do a reading of one of her Uncle Dennis’s favorite poems.

eviePortrait of Evie aged four

 §

Misunderstanding And Muzak

You are in the Super Value supermarket
expecting to meet me at 6.15.

I am in the Extra Value supermarket
expecting to meet you at 6.15.

Danny boy is calling you down special-offer aisles.
Johann Strauss is waltzing me down special-offer aisles.

I weigh mushrooms and broccoli and beans.
You weigh beans and mushrooms and broccoli.

It is 6.45 sign of you.
It is 6.45 no sign of me.

You may have had a puncture.
I may have been held up at work.

It is 6.55. You may have been murdered.
It is 6.55. I may have been flattened by a truck.

Danny Boy starts crooning all over you again.
Johann Strauss starts dancing all over me again.

Everything that’s needed for our Sunday lunch
is heaped up in my trolley, your trolley

We hope to meet, somewhere to eat it.

§

Since we lost Dennis, I continue to paint, and there are times when some of my work seems to be reflected in his words as in his poems Home and Time Sharing.

Home

when all is said and done
what counts is having someone
you can phone home at five

to ask for the immersion heater
to be switched to “bath”
and the pizza taken from the deepfreeze.

unnamed.

Time Sharing

In our time together
we are travelling in the heated car,
a violin concerto playing on the radio
hills streaming with winter cold,
year – end fields worn down to seams,
a blazing quiff of distant dogwood,
burned meringue of snow on mountain tops.
We blurt past farms and cottages;
those whose era we share
are staring from net curtains
at a morning chill for milking
or are setting off to factories in the town,
their segments of road deserted.
It is like a childhood journey
of sleep and open-eyed surprise,
of hermetically sealed life
in the eternal present
before the final destination is reached
We hold hands on the gear stick
and, at this moment,
fear for nothing except the future.

§

Though it is not intentional, my sister Eithne once remarked to me that she can see a bit of us all in some of my paintings…on reflection, I had to agree. I can indeed see something of our very stylish Mother in this vintage style painting.

mother.

Years After

And yet we managed fine.

We missed your baking for a time.
And yet we were not better off
without cream-hearted sponges cakes,
flaky, rhubarb-oozing pies.

Linoleum-tiled rooms could no longer
presume on your thoroughgoing scrub;
and yet me made up for our neglect,
laid hardwood timber floors.

Windows shimmered less often.
And yet we got around to
elbow-greasing them eventually.
Your daily sheet-and-blanket

rituals of bed making were more
than we could hope to emulate
And yet the duvets we bought
brought us gradually to sleep,

Declan and Eithne (eleven
and nine respectively at the time)
had to survive without your packed
banana sandwiches, wooden spoon

deterrent, hugs, multivitamins.
And yet they both grew strong;
you have unmet grandchildren
in-laws you never knew.

Yes, we managed fine, made
breakfasts and made love,
took on jobs and mortgages,
set ourselves up for life.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

—Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll; Text & Paintings by Marie O’Driscoll

We are grateful to Anvil Press and Carcanet Press for permission to reprint the poems “Christmas Night,” “Misunderstanding And Muzak,” “Home,” “Time Sharing,” and “Years After.”

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Dennis O’Driscoll (1954–2012) was born in Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Apart from nine collections of poetry, books published during his lifetime included a selection of essays and reviews, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams(2001), two collections of literary quotations and Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney(2008). Among his awards were a Lannan Literary Award in 1999, the 2005 E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the 2006 O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the Center for Irish Studies (Minnesota). A member of Aosdána, the Irish academy of artists, he worked for almost forty years in Ireland’s Revenue and Customs service. He died on Christmas Eve, 2012.

A second collection of his essays, The Outnumbered Poet, was published by Gallery Press in 2013. His selection from the works of Michael Hamburger, A Michael Hamburger Reader, will be published by Anvil in December 2015.  dennisodriscoll.com

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Marie O’Driscoll was born in Thurles, Co.Tipperary in 1957, one of a family of six siblings. She was educated in the Ursuline Convent Thurles, and it was there that she had the only art classes, that she would ever attend. Both Art and English were her greatest passion throughout her school life.  In her final year  at school, the family were struck with tragedy following the death of their mother, Kitty, and five years later their father Jimmy also died. The shock of the term “orphan” became a reality in their young lives.

She spent a number of years living in Dublin, where she attended a secretarial college, followed by a move to the west of Ireland where she met her  husband to be. A number of years later they emigrated to Holland with their  two daughters. She began teaching English to adults and children, and eventually created a method of combining her two favorite passions together by setting up classes for children using art as a medium to teach English to them. Although she been painting for as long as she can remember, it took her many years to reveal her work to others. Since then her art has found its way to many corners of the world. www.marieodriscoll.com

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Jul 032015
 

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My grandmother, Yoeum Preng, passed away recently at the age of eighty-six.  At the funeral our family came together, along with saffron-robed monks from temples in Revere, MA, and Utica, NY. Also present were white-clad nuns from the local community, to help mourn our beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  Earlier in the week my uncle, the oldest child, and his cousin went to the temple in Revere, had their heads shaved by a monk, knelt in front of a row of monks, and were given robes and instructions in Pali.  They were becoming honorary monks following our Cambodian Buddhist custom.

I wondered what my uncle was thinking when he knelt and listened to Buddhist chanting. He was becoming a monk to honor and pay respect to his mother, whom he had been taking care of twenty-four seven for the past five years.  Eyes closed, face focused, determined, he was handed a bright orange-yellow robe.  The next day, the seventh and last day of our funeral rites, when, according to our belief, my grandmother’s spirit woke to discover that she was no longer of this world and needed us to guide her to her proper place, my uncle was asked by the head monk to speak.  He rose slowly and deliberately.  One hand clutching the microphone, he thanked the community of monks, nuns, and friends for their show of support and for their kindness.  But when it came to speak about Lok-Yiey (i.e. “ grandmother” in Khmer), all he could muster was, “I have no more words.”

Grandma in Breakheart Reservation 2006Grandma in Breakheart Reservation 2006

My crying came hard. I was inconsolable.  Like a possession, my shoulders shook, chest heaved, body convulsed.  The world became bleary.  After my uncle said what he could say, which meant that the suffering he was experiencing was beyond language, the head monk asked if anyone else would like to speak.  I felt the silence hang heavily in the air and my family turning to me, the most educated in the family, a college professor whose job was to speak clearly and intelligently in front of people.  When my aunt looked at me and saw what I was going through, she said, “Leave him alone.  He’s in no shape to give a speech.”  I walked backwards until my back was against the wall, found a seat, and sat down, head in hands, sobbing uncontrollably.

IMG_1752BK and his aunt, Bunyien Prak, who had her head shaved to become an honorary nun (in honor of BK’s grandmother) in front of grandmother’s picture. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.

I am a writer.  I use words to tell stories.  And I love writing.  It’s my way to control the chaos of life, make sense of it, and share my thoughts and feelings with the world.  But when it comes to real-life events, when I come face-to-face with another human being or surrounded by people, I fumble, mumble, and falter.

Writing is a private activity through which my inner world connects with the external world of family, friends, and strangers.  But on that seventh day of our mourning, words failed me and, by extension, I felt I had failed my family when they needed me the most.  I couldn’t find the words, any words, to encapsulate the hurt, loss, and suffering I felt that day.  All I did was sob like a child.  On that day I understood the limits of language and felt utterly helpless and alone.  I lost my faith in the power of words, as I couldn’t console my family, who turned to me for words to comfort, guide, and heal.  They also looked to me because I had a special relationship with Lok-Yiey, with whom I shared a common loss: the death of my mother.

IMG_1870BK’s uncle, Bunyonn Tuon, and his cousin Bunpak Tuon becoming honorary monks.  This was their way of honoring his grandmother. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.

My family wanted me to express what she stood for, what she meant to all of us, what we should tell the younger generation about her—in short, how we should remember and honor her.

When I was in graduate school, I began collecting my family’s stories.  I was in my late twenties and didn’t know the story of my life; I had never sat down with my aunts, uncles, and grandmother to ask them about my deceased mother and father.  So, one year, I returned home during the holidays, armed with a list of questions and a tape recorder.  Naturally, I started with the story of my birth.

According to family’s legend, my birth brought everyone together.  To celebrate the birth of the eldest son of the family, my father’s family came from Khmer Krom, now in Southern Viet Nam, crossing the Mekong by boat and riding the train from Phnom Penh to Battambang in Western Cambodia, where my mother’s family had lived for many generations.  But this family celebration was marred by my constant crying.  I cried and cried so much that even my parents didn’t want to hold me.  It was Lok-Yiey who held me, fed and cared for me, while everyone else slept through the night.  It was Lok-Yiey who took me to see lok-gru (i.e. a village elder), who explained that my spirit mother missed me and wanted me back with her in the spirit world.  His solution was to trick this spirit mother into not recognizing me by changing my name.  After my name was changed to Bunkong, which means “endurance” and “longevity,” I stopped crying.

On one of my visits home, I heard a story about how Lok-Yiey risked her life to keep me alive.  It was late afternoon, after a family barbecue to celebrate a niece’s birthday, and the guests had already left.  My uncle, his friend, and I were cleaning up.  I was sweeping the driveway; my uncle and his friend were picking up the numerous soda cans and beer bottles that had been strewn about after the party.  For some reason, the subject of survival came up.  Maybe it had to do with the flies swarming around the grilled chicken wings, skewered beef, and papaya salad left on the table, the wastefulness of American wealth that made them quiet, and got them thinking about hunger under the Khmer Rouge regime.  During those times people ate whatever they could find to stave off death: leaves that resembled the light-green vegetable they used to eat, larva worms for protein, and crickets, bugs, and insects that jumped and crawled about while they dug irrigation ditches and carried mud on their shoulders.  Like two million other people, my mother fell victim of the Khmer Rouge regime when she died from sickness and hunger.  It was at this point that Lok-Yiey became my mother.  As before, she cared for me, made sure I was fed.  But unlike before, her love for me battled against the Khmer Rouge law.   She stole a few grains of rice from sahak-gor, the collective kitchen of Angkar, so that she could make rice gruel, barbor, for me to eat.

My uncle’s friend said, “She risked her life to feed you.  If the Khmer Rouge had found out, she would have been ‘disappeared.’  That’s how much she loves you.”

“I didn’t know any of this.”  I then asked, “Do you remember what I said about the gruel?”

My uncle answered, “You say, ‘What’s this?  It’s better than chicken curry.’”

Even to this day, I have no memory of hunger and starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime, despite the fact that more people died from hunger and sickness during that time than from execution.  I only remember my grandmother’s love.

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During the couple of years before her passing, Lok-Yiey was in and out of the hospital.  When she was first taken to Mass General Hospital, in Boston, my uncle, the one who took care of her, didn’t call to tell me what had happened.  Whenever I called home, my uncle only said, “She’s doing fine.  Everything’s fine.  How’s your job?  Are the students and professors treating you well?  Are you done with your book yet?”  He didn’t want me to be distracted, knowing that I was going up for tenure the following year, so he kept asking me questions about my job to keep me focused on achieving my American dream.  It was a cousin who texted me, “Grandma is in the hospital.  Liquid in her heart.  Come home if you can take time off.”  At one point, this cousin confronted this uncle, “He’s an adult.  Treat him like one.  He needs to know the truth about his own grandmother.”  My cousin said to me afterward, “I know the old generation wants to protect you from the truth.  But they need to trust us.  We know about America more than them.  They have to learn to rely on us, especially when they are getting old and will need to be cared for.”  Caught between my uncles’ and aunts’ way of dealing with difficult subject matters in our lives and my cousin’s American way, I called my uncle and told him what I needed: “I have to know what’s going on with Lok-Yiey, so that I can decide what I need to do with work and my classes.  My department is extremely understanding and supportive.  Knowing myself, not knowing the truth will drive me crazy.  Do you understand what I mean?”

There was a long silence on the other end.  Then he said, “Okay, boy.”

Somehow Lok-Yiey was able to pull through and survive these harrowing experiences.   I remember one time the family was given an ultimatum: either she was to have surgery or she would live out her last few days at the hospital.  My uncles and aunts drove home, sat down in the kitchen, and discussed their plan.  “She can’t have surgery at her age.  It’s too much for her body to handle,” an aunt said.  “But without surgery,” an uncle countered, “she doesn’t have long to live.  At least with surgery, there is hope.” So they decided on the surgery. However, when the nurses were prepping grandmother, they discovered her blood pressure and heartbeat had returned to normal.  They kept her overnight for observation and let her leave the next day without any other explanation except to say that she was “a medical miracle.”  When I got home a few days later, Lok-Yiey was resting in her room.  My uncle heard my voice, said to Lok-Yiey, “Your medicine is here.”  Lok-Yiey turned her head, asked, “Who?”  “He’s here, standing at the door, your grandson,” my uncle pointed at me and laughed.  Lok-Yiey smiled, called out to me, and asked if I had eaten anything.

What forces in the universe drew us together and made us the kind of grandmother and grandson we were to each other? Was it fate?  Was it history?  Was it a combination of the two?  I don’t know.  An uncle who usually refused to talk about his experience under the Khmer Rouge regime told me this story during one of my holiday visits.  “Before we left for the refugee camps in Thailand in 1979, Lok-Yiey went up to your father and told him she was going to take you with her.”  He spoke while cutting the red and green peppers for the stir-fried steak he was making.

Horrified, I asked: “What did my father say?”

“I don’t know.  I know that a week later in the camp, we met someone from the village who told us that your father came to our old home looking for you.”

My heart sank when I heard this story. I wonder what compelled Lok-Yiey to walk up to my father and tell him she wanted me to be with her?  Was it because my father had taken another wife?  Did she sense that my father would have children with this woman?  Was she then afraid that I might be abused by my stepmother and neglected by my father?  And what did my father say to her?  What was he thinking when he was told that I was leaving him?  Why didn’t he come after me sooner?  Why didn’t he come with me and leave Cambodia?  Did he talk to his new wife about it?  What did she tell him?

Or did the reason Lok-Yiey took me with her have something to do with my mother?  Did I remind her of her oldest daughter?  Was it my round face and almond-shaped eyes?  By this time, Lok-Yiey had lost so much already. Her youngest brother, who worked as an interpreter and tour guide in Siem Reap, had disappeared when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.  Her oldest child, who went to study in Phnom Penh, had also disappeared.  No one heard from him after the great purging of the capital.  Still, Lok-Yiey held onto hope, believing that he was still alive somewhere, since no one had seen him taken away by soldiers and his body was never found.  Then, in 1978, a year before Viet Nam invaded Cambodia and liberated it from the Khmer Rouge, Lok-Yiey watched my mother, her oldest daughter, wither away, her body shriveled and dried, as she was slowly dying from starvation and sickness.  She saw pus oozing from her open wounds.  Was Lok-Yiey determined to keep me, what was left of her daughter, to replace what was taken from her?

I held no resentment towards Lok-Yiey.  Without her decision to take me with her, I wouldn’t be here, in the United States, teaching American students about the Cambodian Genocide.  It was the working of life’s great mysteries, a kind of poetic, cosmic justice, where Cambodia was shrouded in mystery under the regime, kept in silence, until survivors broke their silence and told the world about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. It was Lok-Yiey’s quick and heart-felt decision on that day that allowed me to talk to today’s students about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and share it with the world in my poetry and prose. But still, somewhere in my mind, a thought flashed to my father: that moment when he came to Lok-Yiey’s thatch-roofed house and found it empty. No trace of me, his son, to be found. In my throat, I ached a little.

I carry the following memory with me: It was in 1979, and we were crossing the Cambodian jungles for what seemed like at least a week to my undiscerning consciousness.  Too young to walk on my own, I was carried on Lok-Yiey’s back.  We walked in single file.  My uncles and aunts were ahead of us.  Trailing behind was Vanna, the surviving daughter of Lok-Yiey’s youngest sibling, the one who disappeared as soon as the Khmer Rouge captured Siem Reap, guilty of the crime of being educated.  I remember the rain falling hard over our heads, making our path muddy and slippery.  A few years older than me, Vanna walked behind us until, too tired to see the puddle in front of her, she slipped and fell.  When she got up, her face was covered with dark, earthy mud.  All I could see were the whites of her eyes.  From my perch on grandmother’s back, I pointed and laughed.  Vanna was fuming, angry at me.  Thus began years of childhood bickering between the two of us.  But I relate this incident to illustrate how I was shielded from suffering, protected from life’s horrors, both large and small, by the love of my Lok-Yeay.  People in my family, especially Vanna, say I’m lucky that I had a grandmother so loving, so kind, and gentle.  I think they are right.

In America my uncles and aunts got married, had children, and took jobs.  After a few years of working, they pooled their savings to purchase a three-story Victorian house in Malden, Massachusetts.  Over twenty of us lived in that house, but Lok-Yiey wouldn’t want it any other way.  While my uncles and aunts were busy working, Lok-Yeay took care of us all,  her grandchildren.  She cooked and cleaned; she bathed and fed us.  She woke us up for school.  In her bell-bottom pants and puffy winter coat she took from the clothes bin at our sponsor’s church, she walked my little cousins to school.  I have no idea how she found her way home. Did she ask other parents for directions?  But how was that possible?  She spoke very little English.  All she could do was point and smile. And when we got home from school, fried fish or Chinese sausages appeared, like magic, on the table, with cooked jasmine rice in a pot on the stove, just in case we couldn’t eat American food or we got hungry after a day of studying.  That was her magic: No matter how poor we were, none of us ever felt hungry under Lok-Yiey’s watchful eye.

But it wasn’t really magic. Whenever I think of Lok-Yiey, I always see her in our kitchen preparing food. She is in her red-and-orange sarong and light blue shirt, hair dark and curly, wearing large round orange-rimmed glasses. She is either sitting on the floor with a huge meat cleaver in hand mincing pork for the prahouk, crushing garlic, red and green chilies, ginger and galangal in a mortar and pestle for sralauw, or standing in front of the stove stirring a hot pot full of boiled potatoes, onion, and beef curry. Lok-Yiey was five feet tall, sturdy, with broad shoulders and powerful forearms, a frame strong enough to bear the tough life she led. I remember one evening in Revere. I held her hand while she slept, studied it, turned it over, traced the grease surrounding her life line and touched the calloused bulbs at the beginning of each finger. Then I looked at my own hand, soft and tender, a baby’s hand. I remember her snoring. I reached out to touch her shoulder, shaking it. She opened her eyes, told me to go to sleep, and resumed her snoring. I lay there in her arms, feeling her breath on me, and tried to breathe in synchronicity with her.

Family 1980 in refugee camp in ThailandFamily 1980 in refugee camp in Thailand

At the funeral, Vanna, who took a red-eye flight from Arizona, whispered to me, “She was so strict with me.  I couldn’t go out at night.  No boys whatsoever.  We butt heads, of course; I was a teenager, after all.”

I didn’t say anything.  I sat watching Lok-Yiey lying peacefully in the coffin.

Vanna continued, “You know what?  Looking back at it now, I realize she was doing the right thing, teaching me to be good.  Without her, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.  She was like a mother to me.”  Then she sobbed.

Lok-Yiey was a mother to all of us.  While my uncles and aunts worked at lumber companies and factories in cities and towns throughout the Greater Boston area, she became our Great Mother.

When my aunt, grandmother’s youngest child, bought a house in Wakefield, a twenty-minute drive from our family’s home in Malden, Lok-Yiey was worried that her family, which she had built and nurtured throughout the years, would spread out and be like other American families whose members only see each other during the holidays.  She knew that, if we were to survive in America, we had to stick together.  That was her lesson for all of us.  But our family never became distant, and my aunt learned well the lesson of her mother.  She continued visiting Lok-Yiey every day.  When Lok-Yiey passed on, my aunt shaved her head, donned a white robe, and became an honorary nun.  For a week she attended services at the temple in Revere each morning and evening.  She didn’t shed her material possessions (hair, clothes, makeup, etc.) out of blind obligation.  She did it out of love for her mother—the mother who continued to care for her even after she got married.  When my aunt and her husband decided to pursue the Cambodian-American dream by leaving Massachusetts for Southern California to buy a donut shop, Lok-Yiey went with them.  She cooked and cleaned while my aunt sold donuts in her store in Bell, California, and my uncle slept in the upstairs room, exhausted after a night of making donuts.

Looking back through the years, I have no memory of Lok-Yiey saying to me, “I love you.”  But not once in my life did I ever doubt her love for me. Like the old generation in my family, who came from a culture of polite modesty, she expressed her feelings through actions rather than words. Her love was in the food she made food for me, such as prahouk with minced pork or salor srae or tirk kreoung. Whenever I came home from college, she would prepare Khmer dishes she had known all her life, peasant food for farmers. I don’t know what it was, but the flavor she created seemed magical.  When I came home one day from college armed with pen and paper to document these recipes, she laughed and told me I was foolish. Like others from the old country, she didn’t use measuring spoons and cups, had no book of famous recipes, and didn’t consider her cooking worth preserving. Lok-Yiey learned to cook from her mother who learned it from her own mother, and so on. Everything related to food was passed down through memories of loved ones.  And when Lok-Yiey couldn’t cook anymore, she had my aunts make food for me. I’m sure Vanna would say I was “spoiled.” But I would say simply that I was lucky to be loved by my grandmother.

We were all loved by Lok-Yiey.  For her, nothing was more important than family.  When her first husband died, Lok-Yiey was in her thirties, a single mother with six children, the oldest in his teens and the youngest, the aunt who would later shave her head, too young to remember her father’s funeral.  She cared for them by getting up at dusk, putting wood in the stove, making fried rice and noodles to take to the train station in Battambang and sell to businessmen and travelers with her daughters’ help.  She would run after the train when a customer forgot to return empty bowls and plates.  After the morning rush hour, she would walk to the field and help her teenaged son farm the land.  By afternoon, she would return home and cook food for businessmen arriving at the train station after work.  When there wasn’t enough money to feed her children, she smuggled spices, eels, and fish across the Thailand-Cambodian border.  One time, she was caught by the police at the train station in Poipet, but they took pity and let her go when she told them she did what she had to do for her hungry children.

Lok-Yiey put her children above everything.  The truth is, my uncles, aunts, cousins, and their children wouldn’t be here without her love.  In refugee camps, she continued to barter goods with Thai people through the fence surrounding our lives, risking beatings from the military police.  In America, she sold fried rice and stir-fried beef at her daughter’s donut shop as a way of expanding the business.  Lok-Yiey was a survivor, an entrepreneur, a fighter.  And she did it all in the name of family.

Lok-Yiey didn’t receive a doctorate from Harvard or a business degree from one of the top universities in the States.  She was the wife of a farmer; her children are the sons and daughters of farmers in a small village in Battambang.  She didn’t use big words to impress people. But what she lacked in vocabulary, she made up for with a heart as big as the world.  That is her lesson for all of us: family love.

Grandma and her family todayGrandmother and the family picture taken recently. Note the contrast with the picture taken in Thailand.

It’s been three weeks now since Lok-Yiey left us.  I am still sad.  We have lost an era; a way of life where goodness comes from hard work, commitment to do the right thing, and love for family and friends; a worldview where the self is intricately connected to community, where a person’s actions are more valued than her words.  She is gone now, and I don’t know how to fill that void, that emptiness, in my life.  How do I keep Lok-Yiey with us and honor her memories?

I remember teaching In Revere, In Those Days by Roland Merullo at my college and asking the same question during class discussion.  At the end of the novel, the protagonist loses his grandfather, the one who had given him emotional support and moral guidance ever since his parents lost their lives in a plane crash.  “How do you honor the memory of such a loved one?”  I asked my students.  They were quiet for a moment, then one raised her hand, another followed, and so on.  Of course, I had my own answer, which I shared with them.  For me, it’s maintaining the values she stood for and the ideas she cherished.  For Lok-Yiey, it could be as simple as cooking the food that she made for us when we were young, eating and sharing her favorite dishes with family and friends.  More importantly, it is the symbolic value such culinary space represents: working hard, expressing love through actions, sharing what you have with others, and, ultimately, understanding the importance of family and friends.  It is more important than ever for our family to uphold this value system.  No matter what happens, we must not undo what Lok-Yiey had worked so hard to build.  We must stick together as a family, forgive each other, care for and love one another, the same way that Lok-Yiey cared for and loved us.

To the younger generation in my family, it is now our turn to carry what Lok-Yiey and your parents have carried all their lives.  We know the language and culture of the United States, as if they were our own, that’s because they are; we must therefore help the older generation navigate with dignity its social and political systems.  We are, after all, Americans with a Cambodian accent.  The first generation have carried us this far, and now we, the 1.5 and second generation, must carry them.  It is the way of life, a cyclical pattern of the karmic order of things.  It is Buddhist; it is Cambodian; it’s the human thing to do.

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On that day when the head monk asked family members to speak their last words about Lok-Yiey, I wish I could have mustered self-control to speak from the heart.  If I had, this is what I would have said: “Lok-Yiey, I know that in our Cambodian culture, we don’t speak directly and openly.  But I’ve been in America for too long and have picked up some of its wayward customs.  So let me speak from the heart.  Thank you for all you have done for us, Lok-Yiey.  We are gathered here to show our respect and deep love for you.  Thank you for everything.  I love you.”

—Bunkong Tuon

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Bunkong Tuon teaches writing and literature in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, New York. His recent publications include Nerve Cowboy, Más Tequila Review, Chiron Review, and Patterson Literary Review. Gruel, his first full-length collection, is recently published by NYQ Books: http://books.nyq.org/title/gruel

Jul 012015
 

Pierre JorisPierre Joris

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IN THE BEGINNING WERE THE WORDS. And the words were double from the word go: the cool black on white words in the book, & the loud, fast & hot words on the radio. To begin with the word on the radio let me cold, while the word on the page was what asked me to light up my nights with a flashlight under the covers. This happened, age 5: I remember the room – it was dark & thus I do not remember what was in it except for the bed in which I lay with covers drawn up, trying to read. Later on, in daylight, this room became or had become a living room, & I sat on the daybed & I watched the green eye of Nordmende, the box from which the hot words came. But first the cool ones, black on white, a book grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings in it, ink drawings in a multitude of lines that made up faces, scenes, thin, scraggly ink lines, like very square handwriting writing a picture, “modern” in a fifties sense (& this was 1951). The book I took I could read the title of: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Feodor Dostoiwski. But I wanted to read & read I did or just looked at the first page of print & eventually taught myself the letters with whose help I don’t remember. Parents too busy running a small hospital called St. Pierre’s, my name, my patron saint as I was to inherit it later, be, like father, a surgeon in the capital. But I had already started on the road downhill or elsewhere: lying on the bed reading The Idiot, teaching myself to read. And I did manage a few sentences, a paragraph, half a page, maybe, before my parents discovered me & took this precocity as a good sign & hired a retired school teacher to teach me to read a year before I could officially go to grade school.

I read laboriously no doubt, and in secret to begin with, this book I remember only physically: a white hardcover with black print & black ink drawings. The Idiot. Chapter One, paragraph one – so this are the first sentences I deciphered, the first silent written language that traversed me:

Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine oclock in the morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed. The morning was so damp and misty that it was only with great difficulty that the day succeeded in breaking; and it was impossible to distinguish anything more than a few yards away from the carriage windows.

Some of the passengers by this particular train were returning from abroad; but the third-class carriages were the best filled, chiefly with insignificant persons of various occupations and degrees, picked up at the different stations nearer town. All of them seemed weary, and most of them had sleepy eyes and a shivering expression, while their complexions generally appeared to have taken on the color of the fog outside.

But these were not the words I read – the book I had with me under the covers was in German, was a translation, i.e. something I would spend the rest of my life getting in & out of.

START OVER:

Is there life before reading? I am not certain — & grow less certain as time passes, as I grow old & memory, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be. So if you ask me what it was like to be a child, I will have a hard time answering — and not just because I do not remember it as being the best time of my life. Not that I wouldn’t be interested in finding out for myself. But how to be a historian of one’s own past, if istorin — the Greek word for history — means for the one historian I trust (because I love to read him) to find out for oneself. How can I go there from now? Maybe I can write myself there, i.e. activate dreaming and reading and come back forward?

And thus the earliest state of childhood — supposedly paradisiacal, even if, or maybe exactly because, forgotten — I cannot help but associate with non-reading, so that “prelapsarian” always rhymes with preliterate in my mind. Where was I? Rue Glesener, in the southern quartier de la gare of Luxembourg (the capital city of the eponymous country). When was I? Not yet, not yet. I lack photos of that time, cannot see myself, and the google map doesn’t get me closer than 200 meters for an inch. The street was maybe 300 meters long, that much I can make out; it started from the Avenue de la Liberté and ended in the rue Adolphe Fischer.

We lived — but this I was shown later, it is not my memory, just something I was told — we lived for awhile in the last house on the North side of the street, the one giving onto the large open space used by civil engineering company Karp-Kneip as depot for its construction materials and as parking lot for its caterpillar tractors, steam rollers, and asphalt laying and paving machines. I must have looked down on that machinery from an upstairs window, or tried to get glimpses through slits in the wooden barrier surrounding the site. But I do not remember the specific occasion of doing this, or, better, all I remember is the shared fondness of children and grown men to peek with mouths agape through any available opening into construction sites where big machinery moves about.

The only thing I do remember from that house — because in the next house we lived in I already remembered it and its location in a room I furthermore remember every detail of, especially the daybed in the corner upon which I taught myself to read — the only thing I do remember from that first house is a large Mahogany radio set with built-in record-player on top and box to keep the old shellacked 78s and later the first “long-playing” 33-rpm records at the bottom. A Nordmende, I think, but who knows, it could just as well have been a Phillips, Telefunken, Grundig or Saba. Sleek, elegant, probably taller than I was the year my father bought it. It stayed that size, I kept growing. I like to think that for some time we saw eye to eye — for what has remained with me always was the magic green eye that, cat-like, would widen or narrow its pupil in relation to how good the signal was. I would press my blue eye to its green & with one hand play with the tuning button to make the eye twitch.

But I would have my hand gently slapped for playing with the tuning button because father didn’t like me to un-tune the one station he listened to — long-wave Radio Luxembourg. Not much stays with me beyond the fascination of the green eye, except for two auditory memories, though these must be from the second house. The first of these is the opening soundtrack and half-screamed title of the 12:50 p.m. radio-drama: Ça va bouillir, Zappy Max! Although French was always an available language, I don’t remember anything of the story lines, except for Zappy Max’s breathless voice, and the fact that the weird nasty bad guy was called “le tonneau” — the barrel. What made the show for me were the incredible variety of noises, screams, screeches & other sound-effects that pushed whatever story line there was ahead at breakneck speed.

What has stayed with me more essentially was something else: a sequence of sound I couldn’t make sense of but were the most seductive, the most wondrous and mysterious language-sounds I had ever heard. And that inscribed itself immediately and forever in my brain. This sound sequence would come over the radio in the program my father listened to after Zappy Max, the one o’clock news. Later on I translated the music the vocables made into semantic meaning: it turned out to be a name, much in the news at that time: Krim Bel Kacem. I can still hear it in the singing French inflections of the news announcer – returning, repeated, over and over: Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem.

With no semantic referent to attach to the sound sequence, I was utterly seduced by its sheer musicality, from the repetition of which I drew an immense pleasure I recall to this day: first, the initial hard, nearly explosive consonantal rub of “r” after “k” followed by the elongated high vowel sound of the “i” and down into the calm “m” — a peaceful “om” after the crime-evoking sounds of the first three letters. Then the high bell-sound of “bel” a clear peel, short but echoing loudly and in its very clarity hiding or making me forget the reference to the obvious (but misplaced) French semantic meaning. This was followed by the alliteration of the “k” sound, though this time with the variation of the “a” vowel replacing the “are” of krim, a descent in pitch from the “e” of “bel,” but a widening of the scope of sound, a deepening into that initial and initiating sound of human language, the long “a” that can carry pain, pleasure, surprise, exhilaration and so on. After the “c” planes down and alleviates the harshness of the two initial “k”s, the sequence finishes on a second alliteration, that of the final “m,” easily drawn out to bring it even closer to the calmness of the seed syllable “om.”

Maybe father did tell me that it was a name, no matter, I don’t remember if he did, and if he did do so, I must have forgotten instantly, or else willfully worked on forgetting, as I do remember that “Krim Bel Kacem” was my favorite word sequence for that marvelous childhood play consisting in repeating a sequence of words without pause or interruption until any semantic meaning is rubbed out and all that’s left is the pure jouissance of a sound that now arises from the very chora of language.

Now you may say that the foregoing answers my initial question: clearly, there is life before reading, and it is the life of sound….But how do I know? Much of the time listening to Radio Luxembourg in that room with the green eye gleaming were spent on the daybed at the other end of the room with … a book in my hand. The first such book was a tome grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings. I could read the title: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But I wanted to read & I read or looked at the first page of print & taught myself the letters, with whose help I don’t remember. A year later I was put immediately into second grade, given that I could read — & just as immediately proceeded to exchange the Dostoyevsky for the first fifteen issues of “Akim,” the Tarzan wanna-be character created in 1950 by the script-writer Roberto Renzi, with artwork by Augusto Pedrazza in the handy Piccolo strip-series. They were the perfect size to read in school under the desk, or on the daybed out of the parents’ sight and under the protection of the cool, unphased green eye of the Nordmende, while “Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem” would eventually echo through the other words, “Akim, Akim, Akim” and I would make up new names for new heroes I dreamed I would later write about or draw strips for or put on the radio and I could already here the announcer in Zappy’s voice breathlessly screaming: “Ça va bouillir, Kim Akrim Bel Kacem.”

 

—Pierre Joris

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Pierre Joris has published some 50 books of poems, essays & translations, most recently Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press 2014), Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan (FSG 2014) & A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (coedited with Peter Cockelbergh, Contra Mundum Press 2014). Previous books include Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press and The University of California Book of North African Literature (volume 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced and translated by Joris (Black Widow Press), & Cartographies of the In-between: The Poetry & Poetics of Pierre Joris, edited by Peter Cockelbergh came out in 2012. When not nomadizing, he lives in Sorrentinostan, a.k.a. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, multimedia performance artist and writer Nicole Peyrafitte.

 

Feb 092015
 

Dao Strom

Herewith an enchanting multimedia (song, image & text) memoir, a piece about childhood, from Vietnam-born singer, songwriter, and author.  The memoir is excerpted from Strom’s forthcoming book We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album East/West.

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The song (as well as the excerpt/essay) both belong to the same larger project, due to be released/published Summer 2015 by Jaded Ibis Productions — I’m calling it a hybrid book/music project (hard to find a good term for it).

The book is called We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album is called East/West. The song “Two Rivers” comes from the “West” segment of the album. Inspired initially by a Wallace Stegner story of the same title, the song draws a picture of the meeting point between two rivers and a child’s memories of landscape. I think the song and the photo-autobiography traverse the same thematic and emotional terrain, that of negotiating the space between two streams/landscapes.

The catalog description reads:

More than a book, We Were Meant to be a Gentle People  is a song-cycle working in concert with prose fragments and imagery. The author seeks to articulate two concepts of “geographies” — East and West — and the mythos associated with each, through the lens of a writer/musician of the Vietnamese diaspora. Strom combines multiple mediums of “voice” with an investigation of the intersection between personal and collective histories to elucidates the transition between cultures.

—Dao Strom

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Click to play Dao Strom’s recording of “Two Rivers.”

“Two Rivers” was recorded/produced by Hershel Yatovitz (www.hershelyatovitz.com).

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Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She has a forthcoming book/music project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (Jaded Ibis, 2015). The New Yorker praised Dao’s last book,The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, as being “quietly beautiful…hip without being ironic.” She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a James Michener Fellowship, and the Nelson Algren Award, among other recognitions. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.

www.theseaandthemother.com
www.facebook.com/theseaandthemother
www.daostrom.com
twitter: @daostrom

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Jan 112015
 

IMG_0002Michael and Kate


PART I (June 2014)

Two years ago I wrote an essay on returning to reading following the death of my wife. She was forty-four. We’d been married four years and nine months. She had breast cancer for twenty-one months. She left me with two kids (eight and eleven) and an ex-husband to negotiate. More accurately, she left her ex-husband with two kids and a second husband and step-parent to negotiate.

I intended to follow up my essay a year later with another on reading through grief, but I couldn’t manage it. The flow of grief left me unsettled to the extent that I never felt secure enough to speak. Never felt grounded, is what I mean. How could I write an essay on anything when every time I tried to put my thoughts together they shifted? Also, I had wanted to write how, one year later, I had “read through” grief, and about how I was now on the other side looking back. Except I wasn’t on the other side. Not only did I feel nowhere near the other side, I felt increasingly in ever deeper, ever more tumultuous water. For eighteen months, I felt concussed. And when those symptoms relieved, I felt something worse.

The grieved get used to people asking, “How’s it going? Better?” Things are supposed to get better. We have clichés for that. Time heals all wounds. We all know about the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance. As a grieved person, you are granted a certain leeway to be crazy. Emotionally overloaded. Out there. Behaving irrationally, unpredictably, outside the norm. And then you are supposed to “get over” all of that. You are supposed to acknowledge that folks have “allowed” you this period of disrupted expectations. You are supposed to be grateful how everyone has been “there for you,” which they have been, on the whole, even if it really seems that all anyone has really done is try to wait you out. Wait for you to declare, “I’m back.”

Early on I decided I was never going back. In my wife’s final months, I read The Five Ways We Grieve by Susan A. Berger and I’d absorbed the message that grief was transformative. You may respond to it in any number of ways, but you will not remain unchanged. After my wife died, I read Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended to me by one of my wife’s friends who’d lost her only son at age four to cancer. The transformation message was reprised there and to it was added a second: feel your feelings. Do not fear the darkness. Open your heart and mind and let the grief process carry you on its current. Healing will come in stages, and you will experience unexpected gifts.

I did experience unexpected gifts. Many involved suffering a rainbow of unremitting pain. All the better to teach you resiliency, my dear. Off in the distance a witch cackles. Ah haha. That I can write this now shows that I am released from this spell, which as I said was concussion-like. After my wife died, I chose to read Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Woolf was my wife’s favorite author, and Mrs. Dalloway was her favorite book. I’d never read it, and I chose it to honour her. Waiting for Godot called to me. I felt I was caught in an absurd, Beckettian situation. I had spent so many hours sitting in hospital waiting rooms with my wife (waiting! rooms), so many months waiting for the disease to progress or not, so many weeks, then days, then suddenly minutes at the end, waiting for death. I felt I had confronted the void, and I felt I needed Beckett. Woolf, too. (And I did.) But what next?

Michael

I once made a list of the ten to twelve books I read that first year. It’s still around the house somewhere, but I’m not going to search for it. There were as many books, likely more, I started and set aside. I fell into no rhythm, felt no progression, struggled against despair. I believed in prescribing myself books. I felt I could self-medicate with literature and get through my hard times, but while some books clicked, in general I felt myself slipping downward. Of course, downward is a literary journey, too, but I decided against attempting Dante. Early on I tried Hamlet, a tale of grief and madness, and I thought it fantastic. I read it about the same period of time after my wife’s death as the period of time between the death of Hamlet’s father and the re-marriage of his mother. Too soon! Holy smokes! I also re-read T.S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet and thought (again) that he was full of it. The capture of Hamlet by chaos and his urgent need for sense, pattern and meaning gripped me as perfectly sensible. Order had been overthrown, and what was it now?

In my own life, I had lost my role as husband and my role as a step-father became severely ambiguous. The children continue to spend time with me, but half what they spent before. The three of us were the ones closest to their mother, and we have a bond that has been forged in fire and is unbreakable, and my separation from them terrified me. If we can make it through seven more years, and get the youngest one out of high school, then we will have achieved something remarkable. It once seemed barely plausible. Now it seems more likely.