Jul 032015



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.


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.


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


Click to play Dao Strom’s recording of “Two Rivers.”

“Two Rivers” was recorded/produced by Hershel Yatovitz (www.hershelyatovitz.com).


(Click the images to make them larger.)




























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.

twitter: @daostrom


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?


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.


I decided to read Primo Levi. I started with The Periodic Table. I loved it. I wanted to stay with him forever. I thought, “This is what you do when you confront the void. You turn it into something like this.” Years earlier I had read Philip Roth’s interview with Levi. That was my only previous exposure to him. One of my wife’s friends had also told us a story about professional advice she’d received to help her deal with a toxic work environment. The advice was: read Holocaust literature. The premise was: it will make your toxic work environment seem less severe. At least that was her interpretation. I said, “Maybe it means your work is comparable to a concentration camp.” Except, of course, no mass murder. I had both interpretations in my mind when I started reading Levi. I had found the cancer period Beckettian, and the death administration equally so. Again and again I was confronted with the absurdities of our bureaucratic modernism. Trying to deal with my wife’s estate, I tried to process a cheque through the bank, but they wouldn’t do it. I complained to customer service, and got a lecture on the phone from a woman who explained to me that bank policy trumped the law. “We need to protect our customers,” she said. I explained to her that her customer was dead, and I was her husband and executor and that I WAS THE ONE who was responsible for protecting her, and the she was in fact thwarting her customer’s interests. No dice. I lost. I had to find another way of cashing the cheque.

Now that, it’s clear, isn’t a concentration type problem. No. Never. But the gift of Levi is his incredible ability to classify behaviours and identify sub-strata of groups within groups. Even in this darkest of dark environments, the concentration camp, the lager, Levi shows how meaning can be made and maintained, and how victims can create victims. As he notes, the survivors survived because often they were the ones who were able to find an advantage. An extra bowl of soup. An extra piece of bread. Avoiding beatings. Levi himself survived because of his chemistry training. He was put to work in a lab, and even then barely made it out alive. The Periodic Table is framed around chemistry. Each chapter is named after an element. It tells the story of his early life, his chemistry training, the rising anti-Jewish restrictions in Italy, his budding romances, his radicalization, capture and transport to the camp. The camp itself, and later liberation, his return to professional chemistry, and his interactions with Germans, both through his work at a paint factory and through his writings. What a profound life. What a profound contribution to humanity.

After reading The Periodic Table, I read The Drowned and the Saved, which I also found moving, but not as brilliant as The Periodic Table. I started to read Survival in Auschwitz, but put it down after a couple of dozen pages. My interest had shifted. I felt that Levi had given me as much as I could get from him at that time. I reflected on the horrible bureaucracy of the camps, the savage efficiency they implemented, and the homicidal logic they represented. Going through the healthcare system with my wife, we had often remarked, “You’re just a number.” When sit in the waiting (!) room, anticipating your five minutes with the world class specialist, lining up your questions, and wondering what koan he’s going to drop on you for the next week or three until you see him again, you remind yourself that he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know your life, your ambitions, your dreams, or anything more about you than the list of numbers he sees on your chart, your blood work results, your hormone levels, your this and that and you don’t even know what because they won’t tell you. In the camps, though, you literally were a number, and it was tattooed on your arm, and the purpose of the camp was to kill you, while the purpose of the hospital is to save you. Except for many, they don’t. For my wife, they didn’t. After her mastectomy, back in her hospital room, she said, “I wonder where my breast is now,” and I said, “I know where it is. It’s in the lab.” Because that’s where the doctor had said it would be, to analyze the cells, and include the results in their database and research project. They had asked her permission to do this, of course, but that didn’t make her any less a statistic and a research subject. Catch-22. As a patient you want the benefit of that research, but as a patient you also want your doctor to see you as a human being. Sometimes this happened, and other times, not so much.

For eighteen months I felt concussed, but when that lifted, I felt worse. What was going on? Emotionally over-whelmed. Exhausted. I had survived the cancer period with the help of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sedatives, blood pressure meds, extra strength Tylenol, beer, wine, gin of increasing proportions. Little by little, I let go of those. The anti-depressants first, then the blood pressure meds. The need for Tylenol diminished. I cut the sedative dose in half. I tried to cut back on the drinking. I kept the anti-anxiety pills in reserve. I went to grief counselling. “Remember you have a body,” the counsellor said. You can’t think your way out of this. Like Miriam Greenspan said, feel your feelings. I wrote a blog throughout this period. I tried to chart my changing emotions. I felt I was getting better. I’m not sure I was getting better, only changing. I couldn’t convince myself that my wife was gone. I knew she was dead, but she felt present. I cried daily, often in sharp painful jags. They were just about the only thing that offered any relief.

What was going on? I had absorbed a blow so powerful, the bruise was taking months and months to work its way out. My head was a cloudy mess. I couldn’t anticipate a future. I tried to write new fiction, but I couldn’t. I could barely read, and often I couldn’t. Television struck me as trivial and dull. The news attracted me not at all. In her final months, my wife had spent a lot of time playing Scrabble on the ipad. I couldn’t even open that application, but I sat most evenings and weekends (when the kids weren’t here) plugging away at various online strategy games. And then I downloaded Candy Crush Saga. The distance between The Periodic Table and Candy Crush Saga, I’m here to tell you, isn’t as vast as it first seems. The attraction, in fact, was similar. At least in my case. Each both excited and calmed my mind, took the random and chaotic and led it into patterns, filled up the time on the clock. Time heals all wounds, the cliché says. Not so, but wounds do need time to heal. Some lots of time, months, even years. As I am relieved from one wound, I seem to confront yet another and then another. Through the cancer period, we looked only forward, never back, and it was a horrible time that we filled with much joy (because we were alive and together and it was our mission), and at first I thought my wound was her death, but after eighteen months I realized that it was also the way she had died. Just the other day, while I was at work in the office, I found myself asking: “Dear God, Why? If you had wanted to take her, why didn’t you just take her? Why did she need to suffer so first?” Thinking like this, makes me think the comparison to the concentration camps isn’t so misplaced. Except one is an act of God, and the other an act of Man.

In March 2014, I felt violent palpitations remembering her mastectomy surgery in March 2011. The memories came upon me suddenly, unexpectedly. I tried to puzzle out why. I had violent images of her scar and “drainage tubes” and her pain and struggle to overcome the loss of muscle under her arm also removed. At the time, we had remained calm, focused, constructive, forward-looking. In 2012, we hadn’t been looking back. Things for her we so much worse. In 2013, I had only been thinking about 2012, her last months, the process of her dying. In 2014, my memory took me back to 2011. I felt ill. I took a couple of days off work. I felt violently shaken with disbelief that they had cut her breast off. Oh my fucking God! What savagery is that!? And we had just let it happen. We had been glad that it happened. We had praised the good work of the surgeon. What a clean, beautiful scar line! All of this seemed impossible to me now. No way. How horrible all of that was. How abnormal. How perverse. What knots we tied ourselves in to make it all seem permissible. No. It was brutal and horrible and a lasting terror. And then, as quickly as they had come, those dark feelings lifted.

I read three J.G. Ballard novels in the first year after my wife died, and one more in the second. First three: Concrete Island, The Day of Creation, Super-Cannes. The forth: Millennium People. I had read Cocaine Nights previously, and some of his short stories. I had a sense that Ballard would be good to read, and he was. Why?


PART II (Nov 2014)

It is now over four months since I wrote the first part of this essay, and I have not written a word towards answering that one word question. Life intervened, and also writing the first part of this essay exhausted me. Reading it recently, I was surprised by the anger it contains. I remembered it as “cool” and “dispassionate,” but it is nothing of the sort. I had written about my wife, Kate, without naming her, a distancing strategy. Coming to terms with grief requires a distancing strategy. It is a distancing strategy. Letting go of the past. Trying to get up some momentum for the future.

In September I attended a three-day “Camp Widow” conference in Toronto. Organized by Soaring Spirits International, a California-based grief support organization, this event brought together 120 widowed individuals (110 women, 10 men) and offered a variety of workshops, seminars and peer support opportunities. I wasn’t sure I would like it. I wasn’t sure I would get anything out of it. But I did like it, and I did get a renewed sense of vigor and momentum out of it. Primarily, it helped me realign my heart and my head, accept that I am a widower now, and a widower forever, and understand, perhaps for the first time, that moving on does not require letting go.

I mean, I knew that. I was living that. But this is where the peer support was so important. In my life, I have no peers. I know no one my age who has lost a spouse. People my age tell me things like, “Divorce is like a death.” And they tell me how horrible it was to lose a parent. These events are horrible, and painful, but these people are not my peers. I go to work day after day and try to be a productive person, but my sense of belonging in my life is shattered. Everyone wants me to get “back to normal,” but there is no normal to go back to. If I have a new normal, it will be something I need to build out of the shattered remains of my former life. “Camp Widow” made that crystal clear.

J.G. Ballard was a widower. His wife died in 1964, suddenly from pneumonia, leaving him to raise three children. Of course, he had also spent part of his childhood in a prisoner of war camp in Shanghai. His novels chart the shattered remains of the (post-)modern world. Life after the catastrophe. If Levi was life within (and after) the catastrophe, Ballard is also charting “after the end.” I felt at home in these novels, which are more often read as pre-apocalyptic visions, but I think that’s a misreading. One paraphrase I read in a book on grief noted Heidegger said it was best to live as if the end had already come. This is exactly how I felt after Kate died. Where was I? How could she suddenly be gone? How could we be separated? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What was this place, without her? It wasn’t the world I had known. It was a place “after the end.” I felt pain, but I also felt free in a way I had never felt before. I could do anything, anything at all, and yet all I wanted to do was nothing. Just sit in front of a fire in the woods and poke at it with a stick.

I told these thoughts to a friend, and he told me about Walter Benjamin and his Angel of History:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I believe I had said to my friend that Kate’s death had freed me into a land of infinite choice, and yet I felt powerless. The world rumbled on, and I watched it in horror, wondering why it was full of shit. Violence. Madness. Degradation of such variety it was impossible to keep up. None of this was necessary, and yet none of it could be stopped. I seemed to have a front row seat and an awareness heightened beyond anything I had ever experienced. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.


Concrete Island (1973) is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, except the island is a traffic island lost in a sea of traffic lanes and overpasses. It’s a slim book, and if I wasn’t specifically interested in Ballard I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it gripped me. A middle-aged man on his way home from a rendez vous with his mistress goes over the barrier in his fancy car, rolls down a hill and is trapped in an odd parallel universe, which is within reality and also outside of it. He discovers the island has other denizens, a self-supporting ecosystem, and no way to escape. His expectations of life are fundamentally and suddenly altered, and he must adjust, or die. I identified with that.

The Day of Creation (1987) is also an “after the end” novel. The action takes place in Central Africa, a parched and desert-like place. An Englishman, Doctor Mallory, goes on a Heart of Darkness-type quest after a mysterious river is suddenly sprung free from the earth. In a chaotic world, ruled by paramilitaries, bureaucrats and a freelance television crew, Mallory brakes free and leads all and sundry upriver, seeking its source. There’s some high adventure in this one, but also lots about a world under stress from capitalism, militarism, technological expansion and, let’s just say it, men. The mystery of the natural world is set against all of this. The power of women and girls, too. The new great river. The land mass of the African continent. A wild, post-pubescent, silent girl, who enters carrying a gun, and is equally terrifying and heartbreaking. The novel quickly reveals the foolhardiness of those who think they “know” anything about anything. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Super-Cannes (2000) takes us into a world of ultra-capitalism and a different kind of desert, a kind of intentional community, though it is built for Forbes 500 companies, not 1960s back of the landers. It is also a post-catastrophe novel, in this case a murder rampage which had disturbed the perfectly controlled, micro-managed village just before the arrival of the protagonists, a husband and wife. She is the new doctor (replacing the doctor turned mass murderer), and her husband is the narrator, who has a lot of free time to investigate the goings on of his new surroundings. The genre explored here is whodunit? Or more precisely, whydunit? The plot thickens and thickens, as our hero is introduced to the reigning psychiatrist, who explains the theory and practice of the super village. It is designed to take care of its residents’ every need, so that they can be as productive as possible, and rake in the dough for the multinationals who are paying all of the bills. Taking care of everyone’s needs leads to an unexpected result. Folks are bored. All work and no play, it turns out, isn’t healthy, and the dark side of the soul needs to be exercised. So the folks organize under-the-cover-of-darkness vandalism brigades. Plus much more. I didn’t identify with the plot here, not in a “post-grief” way. But the undercurrent of swirling chaos felt very real. It made me think of the cancer period. It made me think of the dark truths hidden by systems.

Millennium People (2003) continues down this path. The action is set in contemporary England. A bomb has gone off at Heathrow, in the arrivals luggage area. The protagonist is a senior psychologist and his ex-wife is among those killed by the bomb. Through his job, he becomes involved in the investigation, but he begins his own independent research as well, getting drawn deeper and deeper into a shadowy world of domestic terrorism and anti-capitalist rebellion. The book contains an enlarged critique of big money and the faux surface “realities” of consumer culture and mass media. As with Super-Cannes, the plot plays with the idea that violence leads to a truer engagement with life, an idea that Ballard has returned to for decades. See, for example, Crash (1973), where characters stage car accidents for sexual pleasure. I found Millennium People to be the least satisfying of the four Ballard novels I read in this sequence. Some of the ideas felt recycled. The protagonists were starting to blur together. But the insights about an outer shell of mass media images obscuring and inner crust of essential “being” expressed what I felt to be intuitively true in my post-grief blurriness.

Being in a “liminal” world, is something Kate spoke about, as she lived with terminal cancer. Liminal = in between, life and death, here and there, fear and hope. And so on. I often felt in that space, too. Outside the main flow of life. And as I watched her die I felt as close as you can get to the other side without slipping into the void. Kate had spoken to a friend about the writing of Stephen Jenkinson, a palliative care specialist. She seemed to like what he had to say, but we didn’t talk about it much. She didn’t like to talk about dying, at least with me. She wanted us to just life, stay in our groove. But one of the things Jenkinson focuses on is fear, confronting fear, specifically. One story he tells is how most people when they confront death, aren’t actually confronting death; they’re too lost in the fear. He says that meeting death is like meeting love. You meet a new lover and at first you confront feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Is this going to work out? Can I actually connect with that person? And you go through those emotions, and then you connect with love. Connecting with death is the same, he says. And that describes what I felt, waiting, watching Kate get sicker, knowing that death would come soon, but never really sure when. Months, then weeks, then days. Imminently.

Five days before she died we were at the hospital for the last time, and her bloodwork was terrible. The numbers were not good, and she knew what that meant. She said, “I guess this is it.” Later, she asked me what my biggest fear was. I said it wasn’t that she was going to die. I wasn’t afraid about that. Now, reflecting on then, I’m stunned. We were there with death and we were both, “Oh, well. I guess it’s really going to happen.” The fears I had were about what would happen after she died. I told her that, but I also told her that I knew she didn’t want to discuss any of that with me. She didn’t. We sat in the sun outside the hospital, and I told her I wished we could just stay there forever. It wasn’t the disease that was the problem; it was time. We said some other things to each other also. It was really beautiful. Then we had to go home and re-enter reality and play the drama out. Three days later she was no longer speaking. She died two days after that.

Have I made it clear how Ballard’s multiple levels of reality felt just right to me? I hope so.

Just recently I recounted Jenkinson’s story about going through fear to get to death to my psychologist. I wanted to make the point to him that nobody told me I would have to go back through the ring of fear to get back into ordinary life. For a long time, I didn’t want anything to do with ordinary life. I liked being in the liminal space. I wanted to just stay there. It was a place full of insight, and a level of quiet peace that was sustaining, even if not fully real. But you can’t stay there. At least, I couldn’t. It’s that infernal engine of time again (another of Ballard’s obsessions, also; there’s some fantastic short stories that attack time savagely, but that’s for another…well…). Time wouldn’t let me drift in a void-like space for long, and getting back to a sense of normalcy was very, very painful. Ballard didn’t help with that. Levi, not so much, either.

I didn’t seek out novels about grief. I tried to read Murakami’s nonfiction about the sarin gas attack. I couldn’t get into it. I thought I would feel an “after the end” connection to it, but I didn’t.

On the first Valentine’s Day after Kate’s death, I bought Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). God, I hated this book when it came out. Everyone who told me about it made it sound horrible. I found the title unforgiveable. I had tried to read a number of different Eggers titles and found them unwelcoming to my tastes. But Kate liked his stuff. And this was a novel about grief and moving through it and past it, and in a moment of perversity I bought it, then devoured it quickly. I then put it on the shelf with Kate’s other Eggers titles (her books are still separate from mine). I felt, in a way, that I had read it for her. I know that sounds weird. There was more than a little magical thinking going on. I really hated the “Dave” character, pretty much all the way through, but I also got what he was doing, and I knew that I only got it because I was going through something so, so similar. I felt that I was in a place that only I could understand, and I was having visions that were like x-rays, but I knew none of this was because of genius, and also that it was heartbreaking in a quotidian way. It was pretty simple. My wife had died when I was 43. I had been 38 when we married. Eggers was in his early twenties when both of his parents had died from cancer in short succession, leaving him with custody of his much younger brother. Holy fuck, I thought. Now that’s a raw deal. And the novel is often raw, and sometimes it’s just plain stupid, but it is a song of pain that is staggering, heartbreaking, and even, yes, at times, genius. But it still left me trapped in Jenkinson’s wall of fear.


Julian Barnes lost is wife in 2008, suddenly to cancer. In 2013, he published Levels of Life, a memoir of his grief. In 2011, he published The Sense of an Ending, a novel deeply reflective of the mysteries that haunt our lives. I read both of these books in close succession in the past year, and they are each remarkable and each marked, I believe, with the sharp pain and clarity of vision that grief can bring. Levels of Life is specifically about Barnes’ own grief and he tells of hard, hurting moments, but he also gives us a magical story about balloons. It’s really amazing, how he grounds the reader with enormous weight, and also makes us feel lighter than air. This is an incredible book, and it lifted my heart. The Sense of an Ending is also an incredible book, and now that I think about it it has grief at its core also. The protagonist is an older man, reflecting on the death of a close friend when he was young. Recent events draw him back into the past, and he discovers that things he thought were so, weren’t at all. He wonders if he has made a mess of his life, but he is not without opportunities to correct it, at least partly. I bought this book at Heathrow on a visit to London, and read it in the lounge and on the plane, completing it before landing in Toronto. Both of these Barnes titles are about transition, and in the past two-and-a-half years that has been my life, over and over. Will this bloody transition ever end?

I was already feeling a new sense of something when I went to “Camp Widow,” but that experience broke open emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time. It made me realize and articulate, finally, that Kate would never leave me and that I would also move on past her, and that these two facts weren’t in contradiction. She will always be with me, but I can’t stay here, in the now, which is the past. What is that thing, that sense of an ending? Is it a different level of life? I will have my own, new future, and she will be part of it, but she also won’t be part of it. Is that what happens when you get old? You realize that the past is always with you, and nothing ever really ends?

I said to my psychologist, “Returning to ordinary life is fucking horrible. Ordinary life is fucking horrible.” I meant this in an Angel of History way, but also just: my magical powers are fading. Grief is an extraordinary emotion, and living deep in grief is an extraordinary experience. At “Camp Widow” I heard of others who had contemplated suicide, others who had succeeded. Going back through the ring of fear and re-entering ordinary life is a risky period of “time.” To let go of the magic of the grief: hard. To let go of the dreams of being with the loved one: hard. To accept the new reality of here/not here: hard. Some don’t make it. Eggers’s older sister didn’t make it. Barnes muses about suicide as an option. Levi either killed himself or died in an accidental fall. Ballard’s vision includes violence as a kind of release. I was never suicidal, but one question pounded in centre of my mind: why should I go on? Why, without her? As I have gone on, I’ve realized again and again that I’m not without her. I don’t know how to explain that, except I have a glowing certainty that it’s so. And my PTSD pain, the memories of her suffering, etc., fades, too. The soul is lighter than air, it rises like a balloon.



Okay, the PTSD pain. Yes, it fades, but it also comes and goes. The concept of “trigger warnings” is growing in common usage, and I was initially skeptical. I’m naturally skeptical. But the first week of November, the date I’m writing this, is the week Kate had her first chemotherapy. I’m self-conscious of anniversaries, and careful. Better to anticipate feeling crappy than to have it sneak up on you. Well, this week snuck up on me. Yesterday I felt like utter crap. Not as bad as I have often in the past, but worse than I’ve felt in a while. What happened at this time? I asked myself, and then I knew.

Here’s the thing about that first chemotherapy. We took a video camera. I have about a dozen video files of Kate from that day after various stages of the process. I had forgotten that entirely and then a while back found these files. We must have been crazy. We were crazy. Kate was adamant, however, that the disease wasn’t going to change her. She is seen plugged up to the machine and laughing. She is seen at home in bed, towel on her head, complaining of a headache and laughing. In one video she has the camera and she points it at me. I make a funny face. Looking at her doesn’t automatically make me sad any more. Looking at myself, was shocking.

I want to be that guy again, but I cannot. Nor can I tell him, buddy, hold on. You are in for a wild ride. If there was one thing I could tell him (me), it would be that the strategy of laughing your way through cancer will fall apart. You may think, dude, that cancer was bad; and it was; but losing her, this will be worse. (You will not laugh your way through grief, though your step-daughter will expect it of you. So like her mother, she will say, “I don’t like to see you cry.”) To put it in terms of this essay, I read and wrote through the cancer period. I clung to my reading (as did Kate) like a life raft. I read in many hospital waiting rooms. I wrote a book review weeks before she died. All of that fell apart in the tunnel of grief. This essay has been about putting my reading life back together. I have piles of books scattered all over the house, as I did before she died. I am reading widely and randomly, as I have always liked to do. On this good news, I will end.

— Michael Bryson [1]

Link to Kate’s Photos: http://kateorourkephotos.blogspot.ca/



Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is a story “Survival” at Found Press. In 2011, he published an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. TDR resumed publication in 2011. He blogs at the Underground Book Club.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Here’s a short list of some books I’ve read recently that I’m enthusiastic about:
    Mad Hope, Heather Birrell
    How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti
    Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
    Nothing Looks Familiar, Shawn Syms
    Interference, Michelle Berry
    Polyamorous Love Song, Jacab Wren
    Bourgeois Empire, Evie Christie
    The Desperates, Greg Kearney
    You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence, Donato Mancini
    The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, Sherman Alexi
    Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Cambell Scott, Mark Abley

    Here’s some books I hope to get to soon:
    Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
    What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, Lynne Tillman
    Come Back, Sky Gilbert
    Stories in a New Skin, Keavy Martin
    All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
    I know you are but what am I?, Heather Birrell
    Ellen in Pieces, Caroline Adderson
    The Outer Harbour, Wayne Compton
    Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
    Life is about losing everything, Lynn Crosbie
    Sad Peninsula, Mark Sampson
    Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote
    In the Language of Love, Diane Schoemperlen
    Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
    Boundary Problems, Greg Bechtel
    All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews
    The Incomparables, Alexandra Leggat
    Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, Jacob Wren
    Professor Borges, Borges
    Rap, Race, and Reality, Chuck D
    The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig
    Tobacco Wars
    , Paul Seesequasis
    Voluptuous Pleasure, Marianne Apostolides
    Sophrosyne, Marianne Apostolides
    Consumed, David Cronenberg

    Read on.

Oct 312014

Richard Farrell


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Rich Pilot1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


—Richard Farrell

Rich Gun-001

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


Sep 062014



It was through Phyllis Springer and Goksin Sipahioglu, the owners of the celebrated photo agency SIPA press in Paris, that I met Mavis Gallant.  This was in the 1980s.

Mavis lived in the apartment next to Phyllis and Goksin on the left bank near Boulevard Montparnasse, not far from 27 rue de Fleurus.  In that same apartment building in those days lived the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, with whom I had no encounter.

I had been staying in Paris above a couscous restaurant on rue Xavier Privas that I shared with fullback-sized cockroaches.  In those days I drove a yellow deux chevaux I named Colette.  I would park her where I could, changing places in a failed attempt to avoid parking tickets, but at least not being towed.

Some days I’d buy a lunch from un marchand de rue and, with a bottle of vin de pays, take my meal on Square du Vert Galant, a point on l’Ile de la Cité where I’d watch the bateaux mouches on the Seine.  One such lunch I saw a barge going up the river packed with cars; Colette was among them—-in fact, on the bow, like a figurehead.

It took three days of my poor French and 300 francs to free her from the Fourrière, a kind of dog pound for cars. Later, just before I left Paris, I put an AV sign in the windshield and sold her to a sous chef of Café de Palais on Place Dauphine. Adieu: Colette.

Sometimes Phyllis and Goksin would invite me to join them for dinner at a restaurant where they were habitués. It was at one of those meals that I met Mavis: La Marlotte? Brasserie Lipp? Closerie des Lilas? Probably La Marlotte, as that was not far from where they all lived.

It was at that meal that Christiane Amanpour stopped to say hello to Goksin and Phyllis; she had worked for them at SIPA before she turned to television reporting.

—He is a great photographer, she said to me, putting her hand on Goksin’s shoulder. Do you know that? I said I did. And Mavis is a great writer, she continued.  I said I knew that as well.

I had, like almost any American author who writes short fiction, read Mavis’s stories in the New Yorker. Along with Salinger and John Cheever in those days, you could earn multiple graduate degrees in creative writing by reading these authors. At one point I typed (on a manual typewriter, it was that long ago) parts of stories from all three to see what they had accomplished, and how they did it.  I learned, among other things, what a fine sense of local detail these writers had:  Salinger for the parks and subways of New York City; Cheever for the upstate suburbs with roaming lovers and Labrador Retrievers; Mavis Gallant for the rues of Paris; her stories were their own Plan de Paris.

Also at that first dinner, Phyllis asked Mavis if she had walked that day. Paris has many rainy days, and that had been one of them.

—I walk every day in Paris, Mavis said. It is how I fetch my stories. Not to do so would be impossible.

Years later, when she was crippled by arthritis and diabetes, Mavis’s agent made her a Christmas gift: a year’s worth of taxi rides so she could continue fetching her stories.

I imagine her with the notebook of her writer’s mind open through her eyes as she has the driver take her toward Place de l’Odéon, and then down where the students rioted in 1968. The next day the taxi is driving her across the Seine toward the Hotel de Ville in the 4th, past the apartment buildings and cafes and art galleries of her characters, and beyond: to Pere Lachaise in the 20th–all the time Mavis not looking where she had been in her previous work, but where in her mind’s eye she would be setting new stories once she got back to her writing.

In the years that followed our first dinner, Mavis and I would eat entre nous at restaurants that her characters and mine frequented; she would order from my fictional menu, and I would order from hers–both being true to our characters. Because of the writer she was, and because of the writer I was, her characters were much better fed than mine.  Tant pis. At least I ate well, and in her company had bright and witty talk.

At one such lunch (at Le Cherche Midi I think because it was open on Sunday), she lectured me that I was not a writer because I did not make my living as one; beyond that, I taught creative writing, which is not how writers learn. I said I knew the latter from reading her stories.  She smiled.

As if to compensate for her rather pointed points, she ordered a split of Chateau D’ay (the appellation delighted her given the company), and toasted the quality of my fiction: très amusant, which was high praise, as she thought herself a comic writer. Très belle: To Mavis Gallant, after all these years I toast both the woman and her fiction, as if the two can be separated which, had you watched her walking through Paris in the rain (as I did one day on my way to join her for lunch, her head turned here and there to see what would become the facts of her fiction) you know is, thankfully, impossible.

 —Robert Day

Bob DayRobert Day in Paris

Robert Day’s new novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love premiered here on Numéro Cinq in its entirety as a serial novel and will be published in fall 2014 by Mammoth Publications. Prior to that, his most recent book was Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”


Jul 012014

Silverman, with Quizzle, web

Our July issue starts with fanfare and a delicious pun and a text/photo collage of excerpts from Sue William Silverman’s new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, explores her conflicted feelings toward Judaism and her efforts to pass as Christian – refuge from a scary Jewish father. It’s an exploration of identity among a mishmash of American idols and ideals. At the heart of this journey are three separate encounters with the overtly Christian, 1960s pop-music icon – and father of four daughters – Pat Boone. He represents a kind of talisman reflecting Sue’s desire to belong to the dominant culture and religion. She tries on other identities as well – Baby Boomer, ballerina, hippy, kibbutznik, lefty, rebel – seeking an authentic self. The book is more ironic than dark and simultaneously celebrates the inclusivity of American culture and subverts the notion of belonging.

Here in this montage are photographs that reflect specific moments in the memoir. Accompanying the photos are quoted excerpts from individually titled chapters of the memoir.

Sue is an old friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. This is her second appearance in NC. It’s terrific to have her back.


Silverman, The Pat Boone Fan Club, for web


Even though I’m now an adult, Pat Boone still reminds me of those innocent all-American teenage summers at Palisades Park, Bermuda shorts and girls in shirtwaist dresses, corner drugstores, pearly nail polish, prom corsages, rain-scented lilacs, chenille bedspreads and chiffon scarves, jukebox rock and roll spilling across humid evenings…. He is Ivory soap, grape popsicles, screened porches at the Jersey shore, bathing suits hung to dry, the smell of must and mildew tempered by sun and salt. He is a boardwalk Ferris wheel, its spinning lights filling dark spaces between stars. He remains all the things that, as you age, you miss—the memory of this past smelling sweeter than honeysuckle on the Fourth of July…. —Sue William Silverman

My Sorted Past


Sally Pressman [the actress who plays me in the movie version of my memoir Love Sick] hands me her copy of my book to autograph, right before I leave the set in Vancouver. She’d scrawled stars and check marks in the margins to note certain passages. Some sentences are underlined, others highlighted. I sign my name on the title page, with a blue pen, along with a little message.

I regret that I never asked Sally for her autograph. But what would she have signed for me? A loop of celluloid? My copy of the salmon-colored schedule of scenes? Perhaps she could have signed her name beside the line about Sue’s sorted past.

Of course the word “sorted” was meant to be “sordid.” But I like the mistake. In the movie, in my book, in my flesh-and-blood life, I’ve sorted through selves, as if through old photographs, in order to discover one image that’s the one authentic me. How many costumes and masks did I change to wander through one small life?


The Wandering Jew

The Wandering Jew

One afternoon in St. Thomas, I see the movie Limelight starring Charlie Chaplin…who saves a young ballerina, Thereza, about to commit suicide because she suffers hysterical paralysis. She can neither walk nor dance….

After I see the movie, I am virtually mute for days. I stay home sick from school. I refuse to eat. I refuse to get out of bed. Only he can soothe me, Chaplin, this tramp, helping young ballerinas dance. He comforts girls who are lost, lonely, confused, paralyzed, trapped. He leads them away from harm’s way, saving them….

Since we first moved to the island, I have taken ballet lessons from Madame Caron at the Virgin Isle Hotel. She is the mother of French actress Leslie Caron, star of Gigi. I’ve never seen Leslie Caron in person, but her brother sometimes visits the island. The other girls and I, while practicing pliés and arabesques, watch for him outside the hotel windows. He struts around the swimming pool in a French-cut bathing suit, a Gaulois Disc Blue aslant between his lips. We girls dance as if for him, hoping to be noticed.

Today, however, after seeing Limelight, I don’t watch for him. Nor am I able to chatter with my friends as we change into Danskin leotards and pink tutus. I sit on the floor in the dressing room, my Selva ballet slippers in my hands. I mold the rabbit fur into the toes, then slide my feet inside the soft cushions. I crisscross the pink satin ribbons up my ankles and calves.

Once I’m ready to dance, I feel transported to London. The scent of trade winds ebbs as I inhale a cold, damp winter. As all the girls trail down the corridor to the hotel ballroom, I, Thereza, enter the stage of the Empire Theatre. Charlie Chaplin waits for me in the wings. My adult eyes are lined with mascara and kohl, my cheeks and mouth rouged.

The orchestra tunes in the pit.


That Summer of War and Apricots 1

Sue with an Israeli paratrooper

I lie alone on the ground beneath stars and planets in an orchard of mishmish (apricot) trees.  I am in Israel, having recently quit my job on Capitol Hill, my first after graduating college.  I press my head against the ground as if I can feel reverberations of Ari’s footsteps patrolling the kibbutz, his military boots circling closer to me.

I’ve been awake since four a.m.  From four to eleven, in the cooler air, my group picks apricots.  I strap a white canvas bucket over my shoulders and carry a wood ladder from tree to tree.  Before dawn, fruit is almost invisible on the dark branches.  I search more by feel, my fingers distinguishing fuzz from the slickness of leaves.  After filling a bucketful, I unhook the bottom.  Apricots, like cataracts of sunbeams, flow into the bed of a truck.  Then I return to the ladder: more apricots, more trees….

I flew to Israel after the Six Day War.  For the first time I’m proud to be Jewish, after wishing, all my life, to be Christian….

But do I belong here in Israel?

Am I of this new sun-drenched nation? Or just in it?

A callused hand grips my forearm.  A glint of an Uzi. Ari. His nose is thin, his eyes green, his hair so blonde he could pass as one of my Christian boyfriends….

We don’t speak.  Night spills stars across the Mediterranean sky.  The moon presses me to the earth—this Israeli moon, this soil, this man cradling me, our bodies bruising fallen fruit.’


That Summer of War and Apricots 2

2, That Summer of War and Apricots

Beneath my bare feet the floor in my bungalow is gritty with dust and sand. Out the window, yellow-green fields flow to orchards…, the air brittle with the friction of insect wings. In the distance, a Soviet-built MiG-21 zips open the sky. It plunges toward earth—quick—dropping a bomb on an Israeli town or military encampment…. Its silvery light ebbs to black. A plume of smoke hazes the horizon….

I lie on my mattress stuffed with straw and covered by a rough wool blanket….

I drift, my head on the hard pillow, gently rocked by slow concussions of sound. Light burns dust into air….

This, while a blank aerogramme rustles in a desert breeze.


Galveston Island Breakdown: Some Directions

Galveston Island Breakdown, Some Directions

At Thorne’s, a new restaurant, stand on the sidewalk gazing through floor-to-ceiling windows. Candlelight flickers on forest-green walls, white tablecloths, the mahogany bar. The ornate mirror behind the bar reflects bottles of liquor. Your husband, holding a Black Russian, sits with couples who used to be your friends, before you caused a scandal by running off [with a man driving] a blue convertible. Now they no longer speak to you.

Reflected in the window, see yourself superimposed on the room. But imagine the way you looked when you dined here. You wore long skirts, silk flowers in your hair. You sipped Sambuca with a coffee bean garnishing the bottom of the crystal glass. All evening your husband talked about the restoration project. He loves these buildings…and, sure, you love them, too. But you want him to love you more.

Leave before anyone sees you, lurking.

—Sue William Silverman

(Quotes from The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2014 by Sue William Silverman.)

Sue William Silverman’s new memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew (University of Nebraska Press). Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton), which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press),which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir (UGA Press), and her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon (Orchises). She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew



Jun 012014

Photograph – Veronica Carroll

Raymond Deane was born on Achill Island in county Mayo, the largest island off the squally West Coast of Ireland.  The artist Paul Henry lived and worked there from 1910 to 1919 and his paintings of Achill, such as his depiction of the pirate queen Granuaile’s castle, entitled The Tower, capture the unique meshing of light, sea and landscape. Raymond’s compositional oeuvre including works such as Seachanges (with Danse Macabre) for ensemble, Ripieno for Orchestra, and the electro-acoustic Passage Work also seem to inhabit this dramatic Atlantean lit world. An inheritance, surely, of his boyhood in Achill. Embers for string quartet with its stark and ethereal beauty was composed when Deane was only 20. This remains the composer’s personal favourite and perhaps the most widely performed of all his works.

His work is finely crafted and exquisitely textured. Black humour pervades as in the subject matter of his latest opera (libretto by Gavin Kostik), The Alma Fetish, based on the true story of the love affair between artist Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler and the “anatomically correct” doll that a distraught Kokoschka had made in Alma’s likeness when the affair ended. Doll and artist lived together until ultimately Kokoschka had her publicly “executed”.

Raymond is also known for his writing. The gothic novel Death of a Medium (Published by Odell & Adair, UK, 1991) describes the quest of a failed composer in 19th century Dublin to find his father who himself is embroiled in a quest of his own to find the libertine Duc D’Urval with a phantasmagoric dénouement in guillotine-ridden Paris. The novel currently has the interest of a film production company.

— Siobhan Cleary



Minerva Owl from Raymond Deane’s new Noctuary album (Resonus Classics), played by Hugh Tinney – release date June 2014


If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst. – Thomas Hardy

A substantial body of work exists comprising of the memoirs and autobiographies of composers. The most eulogised of these is Hector Berlioz’s moires, published posthumously a year after his death in 1870. This is a rollicking, colourful testament of Berlioz’s life equally intimate and tender, particularly when writing of his heartbreak, sense of failure and loneliness even after becoming a celebrated composer.  More recently John Adam’s Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life  released in 2008 is a wry but informative look back at Adam’s life combining childhood memories, cultural history and music criticism.

In My Own Light released this May is a welcome addition to this repertoire. Bob Quinn, the Irish filmmaker, writer and photographer describes it as “a superb and shocking memoir. Elegant prose first lulls us into complacency with a rich, obsessively detailed, account of an Irish childhood. Cleverly, inexorably and despite a warning prologue, we are drawn into a subsequent nightmare recalled dispassionately. The absence of self-pity heightens the horror of a life almost destroyed. Only a very talented artist could have survived the self-inflicted travails described and at the same time become one of Ireland’s finest composers. The book leaves one with a feeling of relief, even joy.”

The memoirs were written in an attempt to re-examine his past, and in particular, his descent into near fatal alcoholism. No misery memoir this, however, as Deane’s honesty, wit and humour allow a lightness on even the darkest subject matter. He was determined not to romanticise his relationship with drink which he describes as “shabby, squalid and sordid.”

The memoir is in three parts corresponding perhaps to the three movements of a symphony, each with its own tempo and style. The first accounts for his first 10 years as a boy in Achill. Contrary to the narrative of memory he previously held of an adverse childhood, he found writing this part of the memoir that his childhood was perhaps not the source of his alcoholism. Instead he describes a comfortable, middle-class background with everything provided for in an idyllic setting. Probed, he admits to have been an anxious child and was bullied by his less well-off peers, but not as badly as he had previously conjured up in his mind. His father is described as a “very nice man” who had his own battles with alcoholism. This was carefully hidden from Raymond (a drunken gait was described as the effects of prescribed medication for example) until one of his siblings spilled the beans when he was 14.  One wonders how this secrecy contributed to a young boy’s anxiety, and indeed a mere three years later, at the age of 17, Raymond had embarked on his own drink-ridden path of self-destruction.

The second part of his memoir picks up when the Deanes moved to Dublin in 1963. Raymond was thrilled at the move and didn’t miss his rural idyll. Dublin provided more stimulation by way of libraries, museums, concerts, and Raymond began to compose there at the age of ten, deciding at that tender age that a composer is what he would be.  He left school at the age of 14 wanting to concentrate on music and writing and embarked on a self-designed course of study, “reading everything that was worth reading”  including Kafka, Woolf and Faulkner (not regularly prescribed reading on any school syllabus at the time).  He matriculated into university where he studied music at UCD.  The isolation of his previous years study had its consequences and Raymond found it difficult to socialise with his colleagues. Drink became the answer to this solution bringing with it its own set of problems from which he was unable to escape for the next 18 years.

The terseness of the language of the third part underlines the torment of these years when Deane reaches hellish depths mired in the grasp of severe alcoholism. Brief sojourns as a pupil of Stockhausen in Cologne and Iseung Yun in Berlin were cut short as Raymond tried to balance his heavy drinking with the demands of rigorous 20th century compositional technique.  A further decline on his return to Dublin left him on life’s edge. He chose to admit himself to St Pat’s Hopsital and began his road to recovery.

The next part of the story is unwritten but thankfully less troubled.  Raymond successfully remained off alcohol becoming a prolific, flourishing and esteemed composer, writer and activist (he is a founding member of the Ireland–Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC). He describes himself as “happy” and fulfilled, and although he abstains from alcohol, as a “hedonist enjoying life’s pleasures”. He divides his time between Dublin, France and Germany.  He feels very lucky that he escaped the alcoholic lifestyle, no doubt mindful of countless of his contemporaries that were less fortunate. He remains optimistic about his future with his opera “The Alma Fetish “ due for a full production by the Dublin company “Wide Open Opera”,  a commission by the exciting new ensemble “The Robinson Panoramic Quartet” and he is in talks about a movie based on his Death of a Medium. He is toying with a follow up to the memoir, this time more “hallucinatory” in style. At age 61, it is clear Deane has faced and conquered whatever demons he had and is grateful for the second chance that life handed to him. In spite of terrible odds he has come through due to his own determination and resourcefulness. An inspiration indeed for those who may find themselves in similar desperate circumstances.

SC: What prompted you to write a memoir and why does it end when it does, at the relatively young age of 35?

RD: That is when I stopped drinking. The memoir was an attempt to explore the reasons why I drank so destructively and what, if any, were the childhood roots of this.

SC: Did you find a reason?

RD: No… Maybe there is no reason. Perhaps it is genetic… I was an anxious child who was terrified of growing up. I saw my father, having responsibilities, paying bills etc. and I didn’t want to be an adult. But I discovered through the writing of the memoir, that my childhood wasn’t nearly as bad as the one I had dreamt up in my imagination. I was bullied at school because I was different. I lived in a big, comfortable house and came from a more middle class background than my peers but on the other hand, I lived in an idyllic setting for a kid. I had plenty of freedom, and I was given every opportunity I could wish for, music lessons for example. But I ended up squandering all of this.

SC: Growing up in Ireland in the 1950’s by current account, seemed to bring its own set of troubles, in particular the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church. Do you think this had anything to do with the stresses that may have propelled you into alcoholismalong with many of your contemporaries?

RD: No. I don’t think so. I think it was just part of who I was.

SC: The second part of the memoir begins when you move to Dublin at the age of ten.  This seems to be a significant turning point for you.  Why did your family move? And did you miss the rural island setting of Achill?

RD:  We moved to Dublin in 1963 because my two brothers had left home and my sister was a boarder in Loreto, Stephen’s Green. I was thrilled and I didn’t miss Achill at all. I missed my piano which was still in Achill, and while waiting for it to be transported, I visited the Dublin public libraries and studied all the available piano scores. It was then at the age of ten, I decided I would be a composer. I hid this from everyone though because I was afraid of being called a sissy!

SC: By whom; Siblings? Friends? Parents?

RD: I grew up in a time and place where gender roles were very rigidly assigned. A little boy was expected to be a little man. Any perceived deviation from this – such as an interest in the arts rather than in sports – was subject to explicit mockery from peers (the word “friends” would have been too strong in my case). However, I may have been over-sensitive to this possibility. I used to hide my manuscripts behind the radiators which would cause a smell whenever the central heating was turned on in the winter!

SC: Was there a particular composer or piece of music that influenced your decision to become a composer?

RD:The “most influential piece I heard as a child” (as described in my memoir, in fact) was probably Nicolai Gedda singing the Flower Song from Carmen.

SC: Did you do any writing at that time? Short stories? Essays?

RD: Yes. Prose mainly.

SC: Do you find a difference or a similarity in composing to writing?

RD: Composing is more abstract, but I find that in either, I enter a world inhabited by characters. So if I am walking down the street, these personalities, themes, images are in my head while the real world passes by.

SC: You left school at the age of 14.  An unusual decision for a boy of your background and academic potential. Why was this?

RD: I left school because I wanted to concentrate on music and writing, and because I was fed up of mathematics, history, geography, Greek, and the likes…I felt completely relieved and not particularly anxious – I was confident of getting in to university because I could concentrate on studying English, French, Irish, Latin, and music (it was possible to do only those in the Matriculation) and I knew I was reasonably competent at all those subjects. I started reading a lot and by the time I was 23, I had read everything that even now I feel was worth reading. I practised piano, wrote and composed. I also walked the dog a lot!

SC: You studied music at UCD.  Did you enjoy this? Looking back, do you find it was particularly helpful for a subsequent career in composition?

RD:I didn’t particularly “enjoy” studying music in UCD, because I hardly did any study – I “knew it all already”. I found some of Seoirse Bodley’s lectures on modern music helpful. In 1974 when I graduated, I went to study in Switzerland, in Basel, with Gerald Bennett who was, himself, a pupil of Pierre Boulez. I studied then with Stockhausen in Cologne and with Isang Yun in Berlin.

SC: You were drinking quite heavily at this time.

RD: Yes.

SC: What were the circumstances of you giving up drink?

RD: People don’t give up drink because x, y, or z – they give up because they’ll die otherwise, or because they just age out of it, or whatever. I had reached “rock bottom,” on the verge of death, having to make a choice between life and death and choosing life… But in fact no choice being involved – given a firm push by the good people in St Pat’s.

SC: You have been sober now for nearly three decades. How easy or difficult was it to make this resolve and does it remain a temptation?

RD: In 26 years I’ve never had the slightest twinge of temptation to go back on the hooch. It’s not a question of resolve – just of the absence of temptation.

SC You later spent some time in Paris. How did this come about?

RD My sister worked for 12 years at UNESCO in Paris. She bought a small studio apartment in the 17th arrondissement (she lived in the 15th) as an investment, and put it at my disposal. I spent a few months of the year there between 1990 and1994. I came to love the place, and I still do.

SC You still spend lot of time there and in Fürth (Northern Bavaria). Do find this time away from Ireland beneficial?

RD:I need to be “away from home” for appreciable periods, be it in Germany or France, because I thrive creatively on a certain feeling of alienation from my surroundings. I don’t mean the kind of alienation I feel in Ireland – despite its cultural and political conservatism, which are repellent to me, I still feel “at home” here, a kind of insider – but the sense of being an outsider, being surrounded by people speaking a different language (which, fortunately, I also speak and understand) and having different customs. In such an atmosphere I feel freed up to work without interruption, and with a clearer perspective on what I’m doing, and also to pursue my culture vulture instincts…

SC: How did you become a political activist?

RD:I was involved in a detached kind of way in the East Timor-Ireland Solidarity Campaign, which evolved into the Ireland-Palestine SC in 2001. Its first chair was Tom Hyland, who was head of ETISC since its foundation but who soon found that he didn’t really want to continue heading the Palestine group and resigned. I was elected chair in absentia, so I was more or less thrust into intensive activism.

SC: Would you describe yourself as a reluctant activist?

RD: Yes.

SC: You’ve had some very nasty (and untrue) comments written about you in the press as a result of your activism.  Does this get to you?

RD: Press defamation DOES get to me, at least for a while. Actually, the old AA slogan helps: “This too shall pass.”

— Raymond Deane & Siobhán Cleary

cover image by Jerry Cassidy

cover image by Jerry Cassidy

 Extract from the last chapter of In My Own Light


That April I moved into a first-floor bedsit overlooking Upper Leeson Street.Increasingly I concentrated my drinking on Grogans, a famously bohemian public house presided over by the legendary Paddy O’Brien, a man who had served and refused service to Patrick Kavanagh, and who was benignly disposed towards me. Here I fell among thieves, and not just in the figurative sense. Among the hardened drinkers who became my regular cronies was Danny, a dapper rogue with an enviable way with women and an unenviable prison record. Danny rapidly ascertained that I possessed a cheque book, and seemed convinced that it was intended primarily for his benefit. He would play chess with me on my tiny portable set and would cheat shamelessly and without subtlety, taking back moves and moving pieces around when my back was turned. Eventually, when I tired of this and told him I would play no more, he simply appropriated the set and found other victims.

A more congenial companion was my old friend John Jordan. Nowadays, frustratingly, he lapsed into a comatose state after one or two drinks. John had a fine mind, had known everyone worth knowing, and could, when he wished, converse with an eloquence that contrasted blatantly with the drivel spouted by most of my associates. He was a generous man who, when compos mentis, would always stand me a pint or a short. On seeing me he would invariably exclaim “Ravel! Ma mere l’oye!” and reminisce fondly about Annaghmakerrig.

No matter how shaky I felt, I was never too self-conscious to sidle into Grogans and sit in a dark corner with a pint of water until such time as a willing victim entered the premises and either plied me with drink or “lent” me money (or both). Sometimes Paddy O’Brien or Tommy Smith, one of the pub’s co-proprietors, would let me have a few drinks on the house. When my cheques bounced they did not make too much of an issue of it, although they kept a tab of what I owed them.

Of course I had a major orchestral work to write, and this necessitated periodic trips to Bunclody. Whether I arrived drunk, hungover or semi-sober, my father always met me at the bus-stop and was always welcoming and non-judgmental. He would “feed me up” and slip me a few pounds when I left.

That summer my drinking, already excessive, took a turn for the worse. It required increasing quantities of alcohol to relieve the horror of my hangovers, yet my capacity for the stuff was diminishing drastically. This meant that by the time I had begun to feel semi-human, usually in the early afternoon, I was ready to stagger home and collapse into a short-lived and unrefreshing stupor. At seven or eight p.m. I would emerge from this with a fully reconstituted hangover, and start the whole awful process again.

This harrowing schedule often entailed waking during “the hour of the wolf”, at three or four a.m. Unable to get back to sleep I would lie there until morning, racked with anxiety, soaked in perspiration, trembling, nauseated, and dreading the delirium tremens that somehow remained at bay. I ate little, although sometimes Danny dragged me into a restaurant during the “holy hour” when he would eat with a healthy appetite while I picked at a snack and concentrated my attention on the wine. I would pay for this with a cheque, whether or not I had the funds to cover it.

On 8th July as I lurched homewards I collapsed somewhere on Leeson Street. I awoke to find myself in bed in an unknown environment. Someone had apparently taken the unacceptable liberty of inserting a wire into my penis. When I sought to remove it, my hand was clasped by an attractive young woman in a white uniform, whose firm but gentle words were: “Don’t – it’ll be very sore.” I drifted back into pleasing unconsciousness. When I came to, I was in a different bed, surrounded by curtains. My body was free of intrusive appendages. I felt drained but peaceful, and sought in vain to remember how I had arrived wherever I was.

The curtains were drawn aside and a doctor materialised. He told me I was in Saint Vincent’s Hospital, an ambulance having picked me off the street three days earlier. I had suffered an epileptic fit, and been “transferred to Casualty comatose, feverish, with abnormally low blood pressure and a severe metabolic acidosis”, to quote the medical records that I accessed a quarter century later (metabolic acidosis is an excess of acid in the body fluids). I was also suffering from dangerously rapid heart rhythm. On resuscitation I had been able to inform them that I had been drinking an average of ten pints of beer daily prior to my collapse (a figure plucked out of the air, and omitting any reference to wine, vodka and whiskey).Growing increasingly agitated over the following days I had been heavily sedated and indeed “became unrousable due to excess sedation”, which necessitated my transfer to intensive care.The words that most horrified me were “epileptic fit”. The doctor reassured me that I was not an epileptic, and the fit I had suffered was probably due to withdrawal from alcohol; such fits need not recur were I to avoid getting into such a state again.

Later that day my father visited me, bringing me a copy of Thomas Flanagan’s novel The Year of the French, which turned out to be an excellent piece of hospital reading. He had been summoned by the hospital when it seemed that my life was in danger (interestingly, this is not mentioned in the medical records). Of course he had been terribly worried but, he gently concluded, I was better now, and perhaps this was the shock that would lead to my changing my life… Yes, I responded fervently, definitely! I had learned my lesson, and everything would be different from now on.

I was taken for an endoscopy. Liquid Valium was injected into my arm to sedate me while a tube was inserted down my throat to ascertain the condition of my gastro-intestinal tract. I coughed and retched and sweated and sobbed. The doctor, disconcerted, ordered more Valium, to no avail; I went on retching and weeping until the procedure was finished. An hour later the doctor visited me, expecting to find me in a state of unconsciousness. Instead, I was sitting up in bed reading The Year of the French. He appeared baffled, and almost disapproving. The medical records mention Valium, but not my failure to respond to it. My stomach was fine, and a biopsy revealed that my liver was “as well as could be expected”, and would undoubtedly recover fully “if I gave it a chance.” Had this latest and most spectacular collapse not occurred on the street but while I was at home, nobody would have known about it and I would certainly have died.

Of course I emerged from hospital a new man. I had seen the error of my ways and henceforth would shun the embrace of Dame Ethyl. I had no fewer than three lucrative commissions waiting for me and I completed them, working mainly in Bunclody, in an unprecedented spate of concentrated work. These, like Écarts, were avant-garde pieces, quite remote in style from my earlier (and later) works, but effective for all that.

I was busy, healthy, sober, and making money. Each evening I went on a pub-crawl, drinking litres of non-alcoholic beer just to prove that I could resist temptation. Once more I anticipated amorous adventures and was undaunted when they failed to materialise – after all, it was just a matter of time until Anette and I were reunited.

We agreed to spend a week together in the Canary Islands that autumn. On 4th November I flew to Gran Canaria, where she had booked us into a German holiday resort (where the restaurants advertised Kaffee wie zu Hause! – “coffee just like at home!”). We were reasonably at ease with one another, although I felt from the start that she was insufficiently appreciative of my self-reforming zeal. I half hoped that she might confine her drinking to mineral water in solidarity with my virtuous abstemiousness. I resented the pleasure she clearly derived from a glass of wine with her meals, and envied her ability to slake her thirst in this warm climate with glasses of cool, refreshing, tempting beer.

We visited the Playa del Inglés and sneered at the crass loutishness of the Brits. We swam twice a day. We hired a car one rainy day and drove into the mountains, terrified by the absence of barriers on the abyss side of the wet winding road (lucky Anette could calm herself afterwards with a cool, refreshing, tempting beer). We took a boat trip to Tenerife, where I admired the snow-capped volcano and fantasised that it was the Popocatepetl of Under the Volcano.

As the holiday wound to a close, it became clear that it would not give renewed impetus to our relationship. I believed that I had proved my readiness to change my life in the interests of such a renewal, but that she was unwilling to meet me half way. I felt cheated, and bitterly resentful. We were leaving on successive days, so I saw her off at the airport, continued by bus to Palma, and booked into a hotel. Soon I was sitting at a terrace overlooking the sea, a large, cool, refreshing beer in front of me.

Four months without alcohol had toughened my system, so that it took a while for me to disintegrate again. After Gran Canaria I practically severed contact with the rest of my family. I learned that my father was spending Christmas in Dublin with John and his new wife Ursula, but there was no question of my inviting myself around. Instead, I accepted an invitation from the poet Michael Hartnett to partake of Christmas dinner in his house, which was a few doors away from my Leeson Street bedsit. When I arrived, Michael nervously ushered me into his sitting-room, where the table was laid for one. He himself was on the dry and his wife, fearing contagion, had ordained that I should eat alone, be given one single glass of whiskey, and sent on my way. The impulse to walk out in a dignified huff seized me momentarily, but I had little dignity left, was hungry, and “had a mind for a dhrop”.

A week later my Dublin Millennium piece, Thresholds, was performed at the NCH, conducted by Proinnsías Ó Duinn. I had attended no rehearsals. I sat in the reserved seats with a retinue of Groganites, as the habitués of that drinking establishment are known. After the concert I refused to see in the New Year with any of the musicians or even to congratulate Prionnsías on his exertions.

The year began in a blur and degenerated steadily. I stopped shaving, and took to sleeping fully clothed on the couches or floors of various cronies’ flats, which were mostly dirty and often malodorous. I began to smoke heavily and soon had acquired my first and last nicotine stains.

On my birthday, 27th January, I trundled homewards before the holy hour and decided to have a quick drink in O’Dwyer’s at Leeson Street Bridge.

“A pint of Smithwicks, please.”

“I’m sorry, we’re all out of Smithwicks.”

“Oh? A pint of Harp then.”

“Sorry, there’s not a drop left.”


“All gone.”

I gazed at the flippant young man, and noticed my image in the mirror behind him.

“Look, I know I look a bit ratty because I haven’t shaved in a while, but today’s my birthday…”

“Happy birthday, then. Maybe you’d be better off going home for a nap.”

I went around the corner into the neighbouring pub, O’Brien’s.

“A pint of Smithwicks, please.”

“I’m afraid we’re all out of it, sir.”

I bought a half bottle of vodka in the nearest off-licence and went home. I had broken my last remaining glass, so I mixed the vodka with water and sipped it gloomily out of a cup. If desperation mixed with desolation has a taste, then this was it.

—Raymond Deane


Siobhán Cleary  was born in Dublin.  She studied music at the NUI, Maynooth, the Queen’s University, Belfast and Trinity College, Dublin where she completed a Masters in Music and Media Technology. She has composed in all the major genres, producing in addition to orchestral, chamber and vocal works, a number of works for electronic media and film scores. Her pieces have been performed and broadcast widely in Europe, USA, Canada, South America and Australia.  Her orchestral work ‘Threads’ was selected by Vienna Modern Masters for performance at the Second International Festival of New Music for Orchestra in Olomouc in the Czech Republic and later released on CD. In 1996 as a Pépinières European Young artist Laureate, she was composer in residence in Bologna with the Argo Ensemble. In January 1998 a concert devoted to her music was given at Cité International des Arts in Paris, She has been commissioned by The National Symphony Orchestra The Irish Chamber Orchestra, The National Chamber Choir, the Arts Councils of both England and Ireland, Cité International des Arts in Paris as well as many individuals soloists and ensembles. She is the founder of Ireland Promoting New Music which promotes the performance of contemporary music through its series New Sound Worlds. She was elected to Aosdána, Ireland’s state-sponsored academy of creative artists in 2008.


Raymond Deane was born in Co Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, on 27 January 1953. He was brought up on Achill Island, Co Mayo. From 1963 he lived in Dublin, where he studied at University College Dublin, graduating in 1974. He was a founding member of the Association of Young Irish Composers, and won numerous awards as a pianist. He subsequently studied in Basle with Gerald Bennett, in Cologne with Karlheinz Stockhausen (although he doesn’t consider himself “a Stockhausen pupil”), and in Berlin with Isang Yun. He was featured composer in the 1991 Accents Festival (with Kurtag) and the 1999 Sligo New Music Festival (with Roger Doyle). He has featured in several ISCM festivals (Mexico City, Manchester, Hong Kong), in the festivals l’Imaginaire irlandais (Paris 1996), Voyages (Montreal 2002), Warsaw Autumn (2004), and regularly in the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers (his Ripieno for orchestra winning a special prize in 2000).

He was artistic director of the first two RTÉ Living Music Festivals (Dublin 2002/2004),  showcasing the music of Luciano Berio and contemporary French music respectively. In 1992 he published Death of a Medium, a novel (Odell & Adair), and he continues to publish essays and articles on culture and politics. He was awarded a Doctorate in Composition by the National University of Ireland (Maynooth) in 2005. He has been a member of Aosdána, the government-sponsored academy of artists, since 1986. He is now based in Dublin, Paris, and Fürth (Bavaria).

May 132014

Photo on 2014-01-28 at 09.48

This is Donald Breckenridge’s brutal, sad memoir of his father dying. Stark and beautiful and full of our common humanity; pity, love, kindness, stubbornness, squalor and valor. The language is matter of fact, the only apparent artfulness is in the unconventional punctuation and, sometimes, the way the dialogue breaks up the sentences. There are two narratives: one works back and forth over the story of a life, two lives, father and son, and the father’s declining days; the other, more mysterious, follows Breckenridge to a diner, the subway, the train station. We get detailed accounts of conversations with the diner owner. We oscillate between donuts and staph infections, but by the genius of construction and understatement, horror and hopelessness accumulate. The word “love” isn’t thrown around, but the son patiently bandaging dabbing medication on those awful sores tells you more than words. You are fascinated, cannot turn away.

This is from a memoir/novel in progress, a new book (please read the NC interview with Breckenridge and two earlier pieces of fiction we’ve published here — links at the bottom of the piece), equal parts fiction and autobiography. This is the first autobiographical section.



I asked the waitress for a chocolate donut and told her that I didn’t need a bag. She handed me the donut with a serrated sheet of wax paper folded over it, “That will be ninety cents,” and two napkins. I removed a dollar from my wallet and gave it to her. She rang up my purchase then handed me a dime. When I thanked her she told me to have a nice day. I pocketed the dime, pushed open the door and ate the donut while walking to the corner. I wiped my mouth with the napkins then dropped them and the wax paper into a trashcan before descending the stairs at the subway station entrance.

I was washing the dishes when the phone rang. “Can you get that?” A cigarette was burning between his fingers, “It’s not for me,” another one smoldered in the ashtray. Poker chips, two soft packs of Marlboro 100’s, wallet, magnifying glass, notepad, checkbook, beige coffee mug filled with ballpoint pens, and a worn deck of cards were crowding his end of the table. Three chairs, “Of course it’s for you,” with the brown vinyl cushions torn open, “it’s your birthday,” that leaked powdery chunks of yellow foam all over the floor. “So?” December sunlight filled the broad row of casement windows in the living room, “Why would they be calling here,” facing the tall trees, “if it wasn’t for you?” Brown paper grocery bags, empty cigarette cartons, five or six months worth of the Washington Post, beige plastic shopping bags overflowing with the blue plastic bags the Post was delivered in, glossy color circulars for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Labor Day, Back to School, July 4th were piled on the floor. He tried sounding resolute, “You get it.” Pizza boxes stacked atop the microwave. My hands were submerged in warm water, “I’m busy.” Blackened chunks of rotten countertop surrounding the sink held puddles of suds. My sister hired a maid service to come and clean his townhouse twice a month but they quit a few years ago. My father got up, “It’s a robot,” and made his way into the kitchen. I turned to him while saying, “You can’t know that until you pick it up.” He was wearing flip flops and tube socks, jeans that were baggy at the knees and stained with urine from the crotch to the waist, an oversized grey cable-knit wool sweater pocked with cigarette burns, long wispy grey beard, an eye patch coated with dried mucus, and a Band-Aid that covered most of the large open sore near his right temple. “Someone is trying to sell me something.” I saw him, “You shouldn’t be getting those calls anymore,” once and sometimes twice a month during the last few years of his life. He cleared his throat, “They still call.” I washed the dishes and did his laundry, bought groceries, vacuumed the carpet, and occasionally cleaned the bathroom. “A hundred dollars says it’s not a robot.” Coffee grounds, dropped food, ashes, spilled milk, strands of pasta glued to the splintered linoleum floor. He had a distinctive smokers croak, “You’re sure about that,” that I still hear while recalling this conversation. I would open the window above the kitchen sink to get some air and frequently lingered there—especially in winter. “Absolutely.” The window overlooked a well-tended lawn, clusters of bushes and trees, a park bench at the foot of a towering Sweet Gum tree, and rows of two-story red brick townhouses constructed during the Second World War. A high-rise dominated the skyline and the faint drone of traffic from 395 always accompanied the view. Despite his grumbling, “We’ll see about that,” there was no mistaking the anticipation in his voice. He picked up the phone and said hello. I turned off the faucet then dried my hands with a paper towel. He told the caller that he had, muttered thanks and hung up. Tomato sauce was smeared on my elbow. “And?” He walked through the kitchen, “The phone company was asking about the yellow pages,” returned to his chair. “What?” He picked up the cards, “They wanted to know if I got the new one,” and began to shuffle them. I stood in the doorway and said, “Those assholes.” He turned to me with a deflated smile, “You owe me a hundred dollars.” I balled up the paper towel and tossed it in the trash. The garbage disposal was still working. Filmy water vibrated in the sink before being sucked down the drain.

I encountered the owner of the diner and an elderly waitress standing behind the counter. They were discussing the best place to display the sign for a new online delivery service. The owner greeted me like a long lost friend while handing me the sign, “You can order what you want on there.” I recognized the logo, “I’ve seen this advertised on the subway,” placed it on the counter and asked the waitress for a coconut donut then added that I didn’t need a bag. The owner proclaimed, “You can now order that on your computer through the internet.” I was taken by his enthusiasm, “That’s really great,” although I’ve never purchased anything, “I hope you get more customers that way,” except the donuts, “Your donuts are really great,” the food has never looked appetizing, “the best in the neighborhood.” Bleached color enlargements lining the walls above the counter are backlit by dim fluorescents and feature dozens of greasy dishes undoubtedly made with the cheapest ingredients available. The waitress handed me the donut with a serrated sheet of wax paper folded over it, “That will be ninety cents,” and two napkins. I removed the dollar from my wallet and handed it over while wondering if a purchase this small would make the minimum for free delivery. If I asked the owner that, even if he knew I was joking, it would only prolong our conversation. He proclaimed, “This will change the way my customers order food.” The waitress rang up my purchase then handed me a dime. When I thanked her she told me to have a nice day. I pocketed the dime then congratulated the owner while pushing the door open.

I removed the metrocard from my wallet and swiped it at the turnstile. A woman picked up her baby in the stroller and hoisted it over a turnstile. Another woman was pushing an old man in a wheelchair. They were headed toward the stairs leading to the Manhattan bound trains. A rowdy group of high school kids were on the platform yelling at each other and clearly enjoying the aggravation they were causing around them. All of the seats on the bench were taken—the West Indian homecare attendant eating a bag of BBQ potato chips, two old Asian women talking quietly, a teenage boy dressed in black with techno leaking out of his earbuds and two teenage girls in Catholic school uniforms engrossed in their cell phones.

In 1968 (the same year I was born and adopted) the doctors removed a small growth from the tear duct of my father’s left eye. Further tests revealed a massive brain tumor behind his nose. After being told of his condition, he overheard a group of doctors in the next room discussing his x-rays, and one doctor expressed surprise he was still alive, all of them doubted he would live more than a few years. He was 31. My father underwent a number of invasive brain surgeries over the next decade to remove those tumors. My brother and sister were born in ’76 and ’77; having two biological children with my mother while fighting for his life gave him the strength needed to defeat cancer. In the early 80’s he took part in an experimental neutron procedure to rid his brain of the tumors. The operations of the previous decade had taken an awful toll on him and the doctors were out of options on how to approach his cancer. At the time only three patients were willing to undergo this experimental procedure, of those three, he was the only one who survived.

When the donut was gone I wiped off the corners of my mouth with the napkins then dropped them and the wax paper into a trashcan before descending the stairs at the subway station. I removed the metrocard from my wallet and swiped it at the turnstile. The train arrived and the doors opened. It had been a long day and I was (finally) on my way home. I took a seat. I was going uptown to my job on 207th street. I was going to the Port Authority to catch a bus. I was on my way to JFK. Our flight to Athens was in three hours. I had to catch a train at Penn Station. The Chinatown bus left for DC every other hour. I was meeting my publisher for drinks at Grand Central. My corduroy jacket was too thin and I left my scarf at the office. They couldn’t start the reading without me. The subway ride to the bus that went to Laguardia would take an hour. I had to meet with the bank manager before 5 o’clock. The library book was overdue. I promised to mail all of these documents yesterday. I needed to take a piss so hopefully the train wouldn’t be delayed. I was late for my next appointment across-town and hadn’t called ahead. I should have brought a book. It was a warm spring evening growing dark and I wouldn’t get to Alexandria until early in the morning.

I would dab at the sores on his forehead with a paper towel that was soaked in rubbing alcohol before covering them with an over the counter ointment for Staph infections. “That hurts.” After searching the Internet I’d concluded that it was a Staph infection. The puss-filled lesions were black around the edges and gradually tearing through his broad forehead already scarred by repeated brain surgeries. “Does it burn?” The most familiar looking images of Staph infections that I found were from photographs of corpses. The sweet smell of rotting skin is stronger than cigarette smoke.  He looked up at me with obvious discomfort, “It tingles.” In the summer of ’04, a horn-like bump appeared on his forehead, instead of consulting a doctor and getting it removed, he simply cut it off with a pair of scissors.

Seated across from me were two teenage boys in blue tracksuits and running shoes, an Orthodox Jew with poor eyesight reading the Talmud, an old woman staring vacantly at the subway floor.

Cigarette smoke effectively mutes your sense of smell and it’s only hours after leaving a smoke filled environment that it returns. My sense of smell would come back on the bus, usually a few miles before we pulled into the Baltimore Travel Plaza, and although I knew what to expect, the stench of nicotine on my hair and clothes always embarrassed me.


When you sleep time no longer exists. Sleep is the best relief for pain. Death is better but you cannot will yourself to death. The sores gradually burrowing into his forehead began as an ugly thumb-size wound that appeared above his right temple in the late spring of ’08. He refused to see a doctor, and the infection gradually spread from there. My father passed two kidney stones in the summer of ’08, alone and lying on a couch in his sweltering living room, with a broken air conditioner, no fan, and the windows closed. When I saw him that August, I begged him to go to the hospital, pleaded with him, cursed him, and ultimately failed to convince him to get any medical attention. A few years earlier my siblings and I attempted an intervention—to get him to give up his car, sell the townhouse and move into an assisted care facility—we only succeeded in hurting his feelings. “I think that means that it’s working.” He was tired of living and wanted to die but dying is hard work. “How would you know?” Understanding why someone you love wants to die isn’t the same thing as accepting that decision. “I don’t.” Standing by as my father continuously refused medical care while living in absolute squalor was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. “Why don’t you go and see a doctor?” If you can go through your life without entering into this kind of agony, you may be short on experience, but you are very fortunate. “I’ve had enough doctors.” We were nearing the end of our very long thread. “Then tingles means it’s working.” I stood above him and applied band-aids to what became the lethal skull infection that killed him ten months later. I was completely helpless and tremendously grateful for all of the time we had together. My father lived far beyond everyone’s expectations. I was so afraid that he would die at any time, and my only regret, now that he is gone, was not lingering after saying goodbye. I never rushed out the front door but leaving him in that filthy townhouse after we embraced always made me feel unkind.

He would go weeks without answering the phone. I would call the fire department and ask them to check up on him and tell them to tell him to call me. I got so fed up with being unable to reach him, after the third or fourth time of having the fire department check in on him, that I took a Chinatown bus down to DC and woke him up long after midnight. The ringer was off because answering the constant barrage of telemarketing calls was a pain in the ass and he simply forgot to turn it back on. Getting those calls to stop was as simple as putting him on a do not call list. Surviving could have been as simple as making an appointment and taking a cab ride to a doctor’s office. His insurance offered fairly good coverage but getting him to care about his health was impossible. “Ok, doctor.” He was still smoking three or four packs of cigarettes a day depending on how many hours he slept. He would only leave the house to go to the supermarket. “It’s almost finished.” The ancient looking man with grey hair and a scraggly beard, eye patch, glasses with heavy black frames, brown windbreaker, white dress shirt, worn at the knees blue jeans, canvas sneakers dyed beige from nicotine slowly pushing a shopping cart through the Giant on South Glebe Road once a week. That was my father. Maybe you saw him there? He always paid with a check. His diet consisted of waffles drowned in syrup, black coffee, tall glasses of milk, candy bars, ice cream, occasionally canned vegetables, bananas, sometimes pasta, mashed potatoes, and grilled meat that would frequently begin to rot in the fridge before he got around to cooking it—unless one of his children found the souring Styrofoam packages first and threw them away.

The West Indian nanny feeding grapes to an unhappy child strapped in a stroller, the young Mexican mother with her two daughters wearing identical pink dresses and haircuts although one was a few years older and taller than the other, the West Africans standing around the metal pole having an animated conversation in French, a scowling Haitian teenager texting someone, the Dominican boy playing with a Spiderman action figure, an attractive brunette reading a paperback and showing plenty of thigh, two young black boys jumping on their seats antagonizing their distracted and clearly exhausted mother, an old drunk with his eyes closed and head resting on the window, the Chinese man slowly walked by playing something that sounded vaguely like Mozart on a bamboo flute and there was a lull in the noise as everyone took in his waltz-like refrain.

The neutron procedure worked and my father beat cancer although he lost an eye and his ability to smell. His marriage ended soon after, my mother had stood by him through some of the most difficult years of his life, but now found him changed physically and mentally to the point where she could no longer live with him. They split-up in ’83 and he moved from Virginia Beach to Alexandria for work. I joined him in his townhouse two years later, attended high school and lingered under his roof for another year before moving to New York City. My father never remarried, never dated, after being downsized in the early ’90s he never held another job, and rarely left his townhouse.

I grabbed a few pairs of socks and some underwear. Monday was our laundry day so my options were limited. A few clean T-shirts, a dress shirt, a pair of jeans, toothbrush, and the phone charger went into the backpack. A paperback copy of Théophile Gautier’s My Phantoms got tossed into the backpack—although I doubted I’d be able to read on the train.

Born and raised on a dairy farm in Oneida County, New York, my father was the third of six children. Photos from his teens reveal a very handsome and ambitious young man. He was the high school senior class president and the only one in his family to finish college. He earned a masters degree in mechanical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He commanded a Swift Boat in Danang, Vietnam in ’69 -’70 and saw combat although he never talked about it. He was the cool sailor in dress whites and the decorated officer with a storied and distinguished career. He was a plainspoken dairy farmer. He possessed an intrinsic sense of decency and extraordinary tenacity in the face of impossible odds. He was an epic procrastinator. He had a terrific sense of humor. He never locked the front door to his townhouse. He was incredibly stubborn–pigheaded to the point of being a public menace. It was only after plowing into a DC Metrobus and totaling his car while driving legally blind on an expired license that he started taking a cab to the supermarket. My father wasn’t vain, and although he rarely acknowledged it, the drastic alterations to his physical appearance were extremely difficult for him to accept. Every look in the mirror—regardless of how diminished his sight or filthy the reflection—was a reminder of what cancer had taken from him.

I tried calling after purchasing the ticket—thinking he would be able to get off the couch, walk across the living room and answer the phone. Or maybe the phone was on the coffee table and he would be able to reach it. I wanted to tell him that I was on my way. I would be there as soon as possible.  It rang and rang as I crossed Penn Station then the line went dead. I tried again and finally gave up after a recording informed me that the person I was calling was unavailable, that I should try calling later. The TGIF was nearly empty. I ordered and downed a shot of Jameson but didn’t have time for another because the train to Washington was boarding.

Wake up around 8, have coffee and waffles, read the funnies, do the crossword, play a few games of Solitaire, Sudoku, then nap until lunch, nap after lunch, watch television, more Solitaire or left hand vs. right hand Scrabble, have dinner, watch the local and national news, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, sports or sitcoms then fall asleep on the couch around 10—nearly everyday for two decades. I walked to the supermarket while he napped and picked up a steak, some potatoes, and a container of mixed greens. I brought down a strawberry cheesecake from Juniors and a bottle of red wine. We always drank good wine together. If I’d known this was going to be his last birthday I would’ve bought more wine. Why hadn’t I forced him to go to the hospital? I could have just picked him up, tossed him into the back of an ambulance—strapped him onto the gurney and away we go. I could have prolonged his life. Everyone who loved my father tried to convince him to take better care of himself and now he is gone. A few bites of steak and half a helping of mashed potatoes, he barely touched his salad after drowning it in Ranch dressing and only drank half a glass of wine—it was a Saint-Chinian—but managed to eat a sizeable wedge of strawberry cheesecake and washed that down with a tall glass of milk. I finished off the wine and smoked his cigarettes with the filters torn off while we sat at the table talking and playing poker. My brother called while we were watching How I Met Your Mother to wish him happy birthday. He was 72.

Four months later he took a cab to the supermarket and fainted in an isle. He told me later that he was simply tired and needed to lie down. The manager called an ambulance. He spent three days in the hospital before he was released, took a cab home, made it up the stairs and collapsed on the floor. He lay on the carpet for two or maybe three days before a neighbor called to tell me that the newspapers were piling up on the porch, that he wasn’t answering the door, or the phone. Should she call an ambulance? Would it be okay to check on him? I told her to go in and that I would stay on the line. Instead she promised to call me back when she knew what was happening. I spoke to him after she got him onto the couch and he assured me that there was nothing to worry about, that I shouldn’t come down, everything was going to be okay.

I was lulled to sleep after Newark and woke up just as the train pulled into Baltimore. I could have been the only person in the car. The weirdly glowing vegetation that clung to the rocky embankments surrounding the empty platform and my reflection in the window gradually superimposed over a warehouse. We crawled by deserted loading docks, a staggered sequence of orange lights as the train curved through a tunnel, slipping by blocks of desolate row houses, theatrically lit graffiti adorning brick walls, running along a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire, a billboard glaring defiantly into the darkness, carried above empty intersections, through swaths of dark green, long white lights and patches of trees, flashes of suburban lawns, parking lots, illuminated vegetation glistening beneath streetlights, prefabricated condos, darkened strip malls just off the highway now adjacent to the tracks, red taillights vanishing into headlights casting onto rain-slicked roads, gas stations like small islands awash in cold fluorescents, empty intersections, darkened houses, churches, restaurants and racing over a large body of water while watching for a sign that never arrived.

When hailing a cab outside of Union Station I learned that drivers pick up two or three passengers going in approximately the same direction before leaving the station. Since the Metro closes at midnight and there is a shortage of cabs I shared the ride with a chubby Delta Airlines pilot who had been stranded at BWI due to a thunderstorm and a sleep deprived Army officer just back from Afghanistan. The officer, seated on my left, remained silent throughout the ride to Crystal City. The pilot was seated beside the driver and never stopped talking about how he had been inconvenienced by the weather. His car was in the long-term parking lot furthest away from the arrivals building at Regan National. He drunkenly apologized for parking so far out of the way, had he known that the storm was going to cause his flight to be diverted, had he known that he was going to take the train down from BWI in the middle of the night, had he known that he would have to take this ridiculous cab ride, had he known all of that he would have parked much closer to the airport. He wouldn’t shut the fuck up and when we finally reached his car he couldn’t get out of the cab fast enough. I was relishing the thought of kicking his ass until I realized that would have only prolonged this unbelievable delay. I asked the driver stop at the 7/11 closest to my father’s place so I could get cash out of the ATM to pay for the ride. It was two-thirty in the morning when I finally pushed open the door and climbed the stairs. My father was lying on his back between the couch and the coffee table. He had fallen while attempting to answer the phone. He was soaked in piss and shit. I picked him up and got him onto the couch, assuring him that I was there, and that everything was going to be okay. Would he like a glass of water? Yes. A cigarette? No. Would he like to take a shower and change his clothes? No.

 —Donald Breckenridge

Donald Breckenridge is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of InTranslation, Editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology (2006) and The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology 2 (2013), and the managing editor of Red Dust Books. In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen plays, the novella Rockaway Wherein, and the novels 6/2/95You Are Here, and This Young Girl Passing. He recently completed his fourth novel, And Then, and he is currently working on a new book and a one-act play.


Jan 042014

Dad photo

“Saltwater Cowboy” is a sharply perceived portrait of an extraordinary father, a man who served in the Navy, served on ships, all his life and left his son an indelible image of competence, courage, devotion and panache. Joe Milan lives in South Korea; this is his second contribution to NC. It’s a wonderful addition to our growing collection of fatherhood texts (we have a series of set essay topics — see them all here at Numéro Cinq Anthologies).


My father said his life started at nineteen, the moment he decided to join the Navy. On a muggy August afternoon, he was sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels on a porch with a guy everyone called Bud. About halfway down the bottle my father blurted out, “Let’s go join the Navy.” They roared down the country roads in my father’s 60’s Datsun truck with holes in the floorboard, over the low hills of houses and trees where there are no dogs – only hounds — between the square plots of soybean and cotton, and into town to the recruiting office.

The recruiter showed pictures of girls and oceans and beaches and elephants of the Pacific and had them take the test and sign the papers. Two days later, after his family disapproved and said they wouldn’t let him go – “try to stop me” – my father and Bud were on a bus to Chicago and boot camp. They stayed the night in a motel along the way, and in the morning when my father woke, Bud was gone. Bud went home.

My father always left out everything that happened before that moment on the porch. For me, scraping the memories for stories my father told me when he had too much to drink, the moment my father’s life truly started was in a break room in a factory. After dropping out of high school, he worked at a rubber plant, constantly bombarded by chemical dust that stuck to his skin like paint. Once in the break room during lunch, a co-worker, who had lived his entire life in town working at the rubber factory, stood by the punch clock for a long moment. He looked around the room at the men in overalls, then down at his timecard. He muttered and then dropped to the tile floor, dead. Stroke.

* * *

Bedtime stories for me were Navy stories. Often they started when I asked about his tattoos, the cross anchors on his hands, the ships at full sail and winking girls in scanty sailor uniforms on his arms and shoulders. “Well, I got this one when we were pulling liberty in…” I heard about Singapore, Subic, Perth, Bangkok, well before Washington DC or New York. Every room was smoky. Dust trailed the speeding jeepnies and tuk tuks. Gun shots rang off in the distance. Men with names like Dirty Dan, The Fighting CB, and Matta gulped burning whisky and broke the empties on the dirt road and howled at the sky. Men fought over pool games and threw each other out of windows that had already lost their panes.

“Why, Dad?”

“That’s what young men do, have a good time,” he said. “It was fast living, boy. Real fast.”

My father, adventuring through these places, was as mythical to me as a Hollywood cowboy. And like a cowboy, he told me about vastness of space – blue fields of ocean instead of the prairie. The ocean could be as still one moment and stampeding over the deck the next. My father lived in the thick of dangerous waters and tumultuous towns.

At work

If my father had faith in anything, it was that he could handle ships. There could be a twenty-knot wind out of the west, the port engine could die on the ship, the navigator could panic since the pier cleats weren’t where they were marked on the chart, and my father, looking out the window, could drive an eleven hundred foot carrier along the pier softly. “It’s what I do,” he would say. Within ten years of joining the navy, he had moved up the ranks from a sailor mop jockeying on the deck to a harbor pilot who docked ships into port and sent them out to sea.

Sometimes, when I was about ten, my father brought me to work. I rode the tugboats that dropped him off on Trident Submarines that he guided out into the dark tree-lined fjord of Puget Sound. When the job was done, the tugboat would come alongside the moving submarine and he would jump, without a lifejacket, back onto the tug as if it were nothing. As if one slip couldn’t send him under the icy water and the wake couldn’t suck him under to the propellers.

On the way back, my father would ask the tug captain if they’d let me on the wheel. I never wanted to be on the wheel. But soon I was grasping onto the wood handles, trying to not to hold my breath, steering the boat. “Just follow the wake of the other tugs,” he would tell me.

Advice from my father was always the same. On jumping from the high dive, “Just jump. Just go and do it.” On going to college, “Make it happen. Go and do it.” On becoming a writer, “Well, go and do it. Write.” Sometimes he added, “The worst thing you can do is overthink it, boy. Educated people sit around asking why the wind is blowing you toward the rocks. You don’t have time to ask. You just look out the window and react. Make a decision. Life doesn’t have time for you to worry it right. You just go out and do it.”

* * *

When my father retired from the Navy they gave him a party, a handshake and a shadow box filled with his service ribbons and brass plates recounting my father’s time in navy, most of it as a pilot. Piloting was what he wanted to do again. He studied charts, took tests and improved his maritime licenses. He applied for piloting jobs and flew out to Florida and Virginia for interviews. Each time he came back disappointed. And so we stayed near Seattle, not far from my father’s last duty station. Waiting, my father worked part time jobs, as a captain or a mate on ferries, tugboats, and science ships in the icy waters of the Northwest. There were a lot of days he didn’t work. On those days with a coffee in hand, he sat on the porch and watched the neighbor’s cat hunker behind the cul de sac sign and take a dump.

That’s also when people my father knew started dying. Bud was first, lung cancer. My uncle, my father’s brother, cancer. That one startles me even today. For the first and only time in my life I saw my father cry. After he hung up the phone, he clung onto my mother and me in the dark end of the hallway of our house. His face was hot and he heaved for air. My uncle died at fifty-four.

After eight years of trying, and waiting, he became a pilot again in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was an October evening in 2003, after docking a couple of ships my father came home and had his first heart attack. On the phone he talked about his cholesterol levels as he would with tide tables or how much draft a ship had. Only when he had a physical would he signal his worry with a sigh and a “I gotta go, boy.” On the next call, “Boy, have a drink on me. The doctor said I’m in better shape then those twenty year old skulls on the ships I pilot.”

My parents came to see me in Korea to find me battered in the hospital. I had flown off a mountain bike crashed into a tree leaving my chest and spine a tangled mess of rattling broken bones to be fastened back together with bolts and plates of titanium, and someone else’s bones. The doctors told me I was lucky and I was: I would walk. I was alive. My father sat next to my bed, quietly rubbing the tattooed cross anchors on the back of his hand. Finally, he struggled out, “Sometimes a man has to know his limitations.” A line from Dirty Harry.

Rope ladder

* * *

After my parents separated, my father told me about a dream he kept having about a ship he had served on before he became a pilot. My father had taken the old and mothballed ship out to be sunk for target practice. The ship went down, then his shipmates from my bedtime stories – the same ones from that very ship – started dying. Diabetes. Suicide. Heart attack. It wasn’t just his old shipmates. A pilot from a nearby port in Hawaii fell off a rope ladder while boarding a ship and was sucked under the waves. My father started wearing life jackets. My father hated life jackets.

“I keep seeing it,” he told me over the phone, “just like it was after we had hung off the sides and painted it. I’m there on the pier with my sea bag over my shoulder and I’m about to go up the gangway and the old chief stops me. ‘Sorry boats, Milan,’ he tells me, ‘not your time.’ I can see them, my shipmates, hollering at the seamen, getting them heaving on the lines, the boatswain whistles blowing. Then I see them all go, steaming away, leaving me alone on the pier with the seagulls dropping clams.”

Then came the skin cancer. Small spots like freckles on his bald head got radiated, leaving little pink scars. It also had burrowed into his ear canal. The doctors took it all out and covered his earhole with a flap of skin from his leg. “They might take my job from me. Might say they I’m not fit to pilot,” My father worried over the phone. I told him if that happened, we’d just open a bar in the Philippines and drink cheap wine. “I wouldn’t survive a week.”

The last time I visited him in Hawaii, we went shopping at a maritime store for fishing caps to keep the sun off his head. He would try a hat on and look at the mirror, shake his head and put it back. I said that we could get a sombrero. He could be the Mariachi Pilot. Then I asked him, “Do you feel like you’ve lost something? Like you’ve lost a bit of breath?”

 He caught me off guard. “I don’t know, I guess. It’s like I lost something I can never have back.” He picked up a yellow fishing cap and looked in the mirror. He looked pale. He looked scared.

* * *

In college, I worked in film production. After the movie sets were torn down, when the only remains of the spectacle were naked concrete and traces of sawdust and sand, I’d always get a feeling that I was tiny and couldn’t say where the props had really been. I got that same feeling at my father’s memorial. There was a photo of my father from the bridge wing of a ship, grinning while looking down at the camera. He looked so happy. Yet, before I noticed the grin, I saw the life jacket.

One day I sat down at my desk and wrote this:

As the last hours of streetlight sliced through the blinds, my father stared up at the ceiling. Old photos in clean picture frames look out from the shelves. His shadow box is gathering dust. After a few sips of Kona decaf coffee, he sat and took his blood pressure. The machine groaned and tightened. It beeps and he wished he could still hear it without the muffle. The numbers say it’s a little low.

The harbor’s July air is thick and full of salt and diesel exhaust. The roads were still black from the morning mists. The waters rippled off the piers and the docked ships. From the wheelhouse of the tugboat steaming through the channel toward the job, my father didn’t notice the Arizona memorial raising its flag above the sunken hulk. His thoughts were on the job, and the depths of the harbor, the draft of the ship, and the breeze from the northeast. 

A cargo ship deep in West Loach waited for him. It was a complicated job that would need all his focus. His strategy is to pull the ship from the pier with tugs, back slow and turn the ship 90 degrees, using the tugs, avoiding the other ships and the unseen shallows. Once the ship was in the channel he could drive the ship past the last turn and out to sea. The job was like moving a semi-truck  out of a full parking lot, on ice, without brakes, with ball bearings instead of wheels, and little go carts pushing the trailer to keep it between the lines.

As he climbed the rope ladder to the access hatch in the wall of the gray hull, he clenched his teeth. Men can fall off into the green abyss. Big ships like this give men heartburn. They can smash into the pier or run aground. Lines from the tugs could part and whip back onto the deck. Anything can go wrong; everything can go wrong.

The sun broke through the clouds and it was hot under his life jacket.

 On the bridge, my father smiled, and shook the captain’s hand. Harbor Pilots are faces of calm. The ship’s engines hummed and the crew checked the computer screens and hustled the lines. From the bridge wing, the tugs were small, as if they hadn’t grown up yet. He swallowed, keeping in the tension, focusing on the images burned in his mind of where and when each movement would begin and end.

The tugs heaved and the ship growled and shuddered as propellers started backing. Coffee brown silt swelled up staining the water. The ship had a deep draft and the bottom wasn’t much deeper. Lines moaned, water churned, radios crackled, my father’s forehead beaded with sweat. There was a knot twisting and tightening inside him.

For an hour my father crisscrossed from the port bridge wing to the starboard and back again, gauging distances, calling corrections to conn, and to the tugs. He fought sudden breezes, the ever-changing depths, the weariness of his body. Then finally, it happened. They cleared the tight loach and were moving toward the channel to the last turn and the ocean.

With the job essentially done, he looked down from the bridge, past the anchor winches and the stanchions of the deck to the dark green water just ahead. This is when he would laugh. A country boy from the fields of Tennessee had moved a mountain of steel.

But as the adrenaline faded, he didn’t laugh. When the ship made its last turn at Whiskey point, the point where the harbor opens up to the unending field of green then blue water of the Pacific, where the white caps clapped all the way to the line where the water splits with the cloud splattered sky, he looked up and knew he had gotten the ship out safely. And that was it.

Whiskey PointThe approach to Whiskey Point

—Joe Milan


Joe Milan 3

Joe Milan has spent nearly a third of his life traveling and living outside the borders of the USA; his most recent landing is in Seoul where he writes and teaches at the Catholic University of Korea. He is a recent graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program.

Aug 112013

Jungle GirlJungle Girl: The author, age 5

One of NC’s Saskatchewan stalwarts, Byrna Barclay, sent in these nuggets that tell us you don’t have to write a tome to make an impact, to have panache and éclat. Here we have a photo of the author taken in a studio when she was five, the author’s delightful one-paragraph micromemoir of same, and a snippet from a novel-in-progress based on the incident. We meet the author, the author’s fictional alter ego, Annika Robin, and the amazing Grandmunch, the reallife and fictional Jesse Emma, grandmother extraordinaire.

The fictional fragment is taken from House of the White Elephant, the last of the series of Barclay’s Livelong Quartet (Summer of the Hungry Pup, The Last Echo, and Winter of the White Wolf have already published by NeWest Press in Edmonton).



When I had measles my teacher mother sent me to my grandmother, affectionately known as Grandmunch.  The daughter of a Judge and graduate of the Sorbonne, she had lived through two world wars, lost her husband and son, and survived the Depression by bartering her music — lessons in ballet, violin, piano, and elocution — for eggs, butter, chickens, whatever the parents could spare.  To commemorate my visit she took me to James Studio, stood me on a black box, draped the leopard skin she had brought from India over me, then dashed out to the green grocer to buy a banana to place in my hand. Just when the photographer, whose head had disappeared under a black cloth, took the photo the skin slipped and I gasped.  Jesse Emma chose that photo and had it air brushed to hide the exposed part of me.  Oh yes, even the frame was hand-carved in India at the turn of the 20th C.

—Byrna Barclay


The Jungle Girl

How well Jesse remembers the day she took Annika Robin down Central Avenue to James Studio.  She removed her clothes and stood her on a box covered with a black velvet cloth.  She draped her own mother’s leopard skin over Robin’s shoulders, but had nothing to fasten it.  She let down the child’s braids, and with her strong piano-fingers messed up her white-blonde hair til it was wild and tossed raggedly about her shoulders.  She stood back, like an artist with a vision yet to be drawn on blank canvas.  Something vital was missing; it lack the full effect Jesse sought.

She dashed out and down the street to the green grocer’s and returned with an overly ripe, motley banana that looked more like a plantain.  She thrust it into Robin’s right hand.  Perfect.  The photographer ducked his head under the black hood on the free-standing camera.  Just as the shutter clicked the pelt slipped and Robin gasped and bit her bottom lip, which gave her an impish expression in the photograph.  Never mind, the photographer said, he would air-brush the portrait, creating a shadow on the inside of the child’s thighs to hide her private parts.

When Jesse gave a copy to Linnaea, the loony Swede didn’t like it and was furious with Jesse: What are you trying to do? 

The portrait took Jesse Emma back to her own childhood in Calcutta, to stories her mother had told her about white girls lost in the jungle and raised by apes or elephants or Bengal tigers, tales that Jesse hoped would delight fanciful Robin who played Tarzan & Jane among the elms hand-planted along the bank of the North Saskatchewan River.

Excerpt from House of the White Elephant — Byrna Barclay



Byrna Barclay

Byrna Barclay has published three in a series of novels known as The Livelong Quartet, three collections of short stories, the most recent being Girl at the Window, and a hybrid, searching for the nude in the landscape. Her many awards include The Saskatchewan Culture and Youth First Novel Award, SBA Best Fiction Award, and City of Regina Award,  YMCA Woman of the Year, CMHA National Distinguished Service Award, SWG Volunteer Award, Sask. Culture Award, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.  In 2010 she published her 9th book, The Forest Horses, which was nominated for Best Fiction for the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  Her poetic drama, The Room With Five Walls: The Trials of Victor Hoffman, an exploration of the Shell Lake Massacre, won the City of Regina Award.  She has been president of SWG twice, President of Sask. Book Awards, and Fiction Editor of GRAIN magazine.  A strong advocate for Mental Health as well as the arts, she served as President of CMHA, Saskatchewan, was the founding Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and for twenty years was the Editor-in-chief of TRANSITION magazine.  Vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board from 1982-1989, she is currrently the Chair. Mother of actor Julianna Barclay, she lives in Regina.

May 122013



MY MOTHER ALWAYS WANTED to live in a French Provincial house–but the house she imagined was in Fairway Manor, Kansas not in rural France.  And her idea of “French Provincial” was not a southwest peasant Perigord but a Midwest suburban ranch.  A shake shingle roof, wide soffits, and something called “weeping mortar” could turn a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie House  into a domesticated Mansard.  Decorate the inside in late fifties chartreuse drapes and upholstery, put identical lamps on identical tables on either side of a three cushion couch (with a matching “coffee table” in front–on which you never had coffee, and in a living room in which you did not live), and you were in my mother’s Midi.

“I don’t know why you have to leave America,” my mother said when I told her I planned to settle in France.  “How am I going to call you if I need you?”  We are sitting (for once) at my mother’s coffee table.  I have come on a surprise visit over a May weekend that has lifted the ban on the living room.

“I’ll write out all the numbers.”

“They’ll be in French,” my mother said.

“French numbers and America numbers are the same,” I said.

“You’re talking,” she said.  My mother had a way of teasing me that I was never sure about.

“I’ll call you,” I said.

“I’ll be here,” my mother had said.  “But write me as well. You can’t reread a phone call.”

“Yes, mother.”

“Do you speak French?”

“Un petit peu.”

“What does that mean?”

“ ‘A little bit,’” I said.

“You can tell me other French words when you call.”

“Five a phone call and after a year you’ll be speaking French,” I said.

“I should live so long.”

My mother was suspicious of Europe, especially of France.  Not that she was ignorant of foreign countries.  Because my father had worked for TWA, we traveled when I was growing up:  Paris.  Rome.  Venice.  London. And a few car trips as well.  I remember a long drive from Athens to Paris along the peaceful Adriatic coast of Tito’s Yugoslavia, complete with a two-day stop in Joyce’s Trieste.

And not that my mother was the “Ugly American” of those days.  She traveled with patience and modesty, and with the understanding that if she did not always appreciate the local customs that was more her problem than others.  Still, it did not suit her in Paris to eat hard rolls in the mornings, nor to drink wine at lunch, nor for the stores to be closed from noon to two–nor for dinner to be served at eight in the evening.

“It is bad for the digestion,” she would say.  “You’ll just get fat and lazy eating so much at night and then going to sleep on a full stomach.  And the lunches they have!   With wine.  And corks in the bottles. No wonder they have to take a nap.”  It was my mother who insisted that we book reservations at our Paris hotel restaurant for six.  We ate in lonely splendor.  And then took a long walk along the Seine afterwards.

“That’s better,” she had said.  “Look at Notre Dame.  The name means ‘Our Lady.’  The French are Catholic. Tomorrow we go home.”  Home was Fairway Manor, Kansas.  Weeping mortar.  A privet hedge.  Anne Page bread from which she made “French Toast” on Sundays.  And dinner at six, with wine–my mother drank Mogen David.  No corks.  My father had a Jim Beam before dinner.  A Coors afterwards. On Fridays two Coors while he watched the fights.

But even given her relative patience with foreign travel, my mother was still wary of it.  There was the water problem.   The money was difficult to figure. Venice had an odor about it.  In Athens they spoke Greek.  In Paris it rained.    There were menus to read and misunderstand  (in northern Italy she once ordered what appeared to me then–and even now in my mind’s eye–to be the stuffed intestine of a small mammal). The traffic was impossible.  Especially in cities where her assignment was to be the navigator to my captain father.

“We are at via Vicenza and Polizia,” said my mother as we wound our way in and around Rome one day in desperate search of our hotel.  We had just come back from a two-day trip down the Almafie drive.

“That can’t be,” said my father.

“Now we are at Via Vicenza and Gelato,” said my mother.

“’Gelato’ means ice cream,” I said from the back seat.

“’Polizia’ probably means ‘police’,” my father said from his Captain’s seat.  When under pressure my father would resort to understatement.

“There’s the train station,” my mother said.  “Does that help?”

“We’re looking for Piazza Navona,” my father said.  “Our hotel is just off the Piazza Navona.”

“We’re at Piazza Maggiore,” said my mother, looking up from her map, then down, then up.  “Take the first left.”  Which my father did, going a number of blocks the wrong way up a one-way street against a full orchestra of Italian horns.

“I don’t think this right,” said my father.

“Oh dear,” said my mother.   “Now we’re at Via de Serpenti and Gelato.” In Rome all roads lead to ice cream.  Or to the Polizia–who stopped us just as we exited into Roman sunshine of some fountained circle–and then waved us on when they saw that my mother was an American housewife lost in her map.

“Oh dear.”

“When we get to the hotel may I get an ice cream cone?”

“Just what are you going to do in France?” my mother had asked that May Sunday.

“Live,” I said.   How else to explain to her what I was not sure I could explain to myself.

“Not like the French, I hope,” she said.  “Promise me you won’t eat late.  You’ll just get fat and lazy.  Or drink wine for lunch.  And tell the truth when you write me, not like those stories of yours.  The things you make up.”

“I won’t promise,” I said.  “But by this time next year, you can come and see for yourself.  I’ll pick you up at the airport. You’ll be speaking French.”

“I should live so long,” she said.  “Now where is it you are you going to be?”

“Southwestern France,” I said.  “Far from Paris.”

“Do they still have those hard rolls?” she said.  “And what about the water?”

“The water is fine,” I said.  “And yes they still have the hard rolls.  But I eat pain au chocolate for breakfasts.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“You must eat cereal for breakfast,” she said.  “Even in France.  And remember cheese constipates.  Eat salads with dinner. Prunes will help.”

“Yes mother.”

“I don’t see the sense in it,” she said.  “Show me on a map exactly where you’re going to live so I know where to call when I need you.”

“Yes, mother.”

I got out the map of France and southern Europe I had brought along for her to see where Bordeaux was, and where St. Emilion and Castillion were, and where the tiny village of St. Michel de Montaigne was–for it was in St. Michel and on the former Montaigne estate that I had made arrangements with Armel, a friend of mine, to restore an old farm house in exchange for living there.  Until the basic work was done I would be staying in Armel’s guest house in the village itself.

“Have we ever been there?” said my mother as she looked at the map, and the place on the map I had circled.  “Did we go there with your father?”

“No,” I said.  “I have been there, but you haven’t.   However the three of us drove up through Austria from Athens, then on to Paris.”  And I showed her the route we had taken.

“Where did I order the inside of the possum?”  she asked.  “You remember the time I ordered the inside of the possum?”

“I do,” I said.  And I pointed to northern Italy.

“Do you remember the time in Rome when I kept telling your father we were at the corner of Via whatever and ice cream,” she said.

“I do indeed,” I said.

“Those were good times,” she said.  “And do you remember how your father took us to Alfrado’s after we finally found the hotel, and that Alfrado served me the pasta in his own bowl with those golden spoons.”


“And when the violinist came to our table your father asked him to play Come back to Sorrento, because that was the day we came back from Sorrento and how scared I was of the road.”  She is looking at the map and with her finger finding these places on it.

“I remember that as well,” I said.

“Your father was very patient with me,” said my mother.  “Now tell me again, why are you going to France?”

“It is a doctor for you from American on the phone,” Armel says. It is the middle of the night.  He has come over to the guesthouse to wake me.

Over the summer I had made it my habit to call my mother every Sunday.  In this way I have told her of my life in France: How the water is safe to drink; that I have named the swallows nesting at the farm house I am restoring; and about Hooter, a Dame Blanche that flies out of attic each evening at dusk.  I have not told her that I drink wine with corks in the bottles.

She wants to know about the weather and if I am eating my cereal.  And salads.  And prunes.  I tell her about the trips I make with Armel in his Deux Chevaux, and that its name means “two horses,” and that the French word for ice cream is glace, and the word for street is rue.  I have written her as well, but not as often as I should have.  You can’t reread a phone call echoes in my head after all these years.

As summer faded and September came on, I tell my mother about the grape harvest, and how I am helping at the Montaigne estate pick the grapes that will be made into wine, and that I will have the owner sign a bottle for her that will be her present when she visits me next May.  I tell her that we will use Armel’s Deux Chevaux and ride to Castillion and have lunch at the Hotel des Voyageurs and drink wine from a bottle that had a cork in it–and afterward, we will have glace from a pastry shop I know down the rue were the ice cream is rich and smooth.

I should live so long, she had said on the phone the Sunday before Armel came to the guest room to wake me.

 —Robert Day


Robert DayRobert Days most recent books are Where I Am Now, a collection of short stories published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press, Speaking French in Kansas (short stories) and The Committee to Save the World (literary non-fiction) can be obtained through Western Books.  His 1977 novel The Last Cattle Drive was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and has seen multiple reprintings. Day is past president of the Associated Writing Programs and Adjunct Professor at Washington College in Maryland.


Mar 132013


Jonah Glover contributes here the fourth in his series of romantic micro-memoirs & stories about charmingly maladroit young men and their quixotic misadventures in the Land of Teen Love. These used to be called his High School Romance Triptych, a comprehensive title that no longer works for obvious reasons. Since the series now seems to be ongoing ad infinitum, I give up on the comprehensive title thing. See also “The I(r)onic Bond: A Chemical Romance,”  “Talking to a 17-Year-Old Girl, When You are a 16-Year-Old Boy” and the ever-popular “Calculust: A Mathematical Romance.” To get a complete picture of his dangerous mind, read his epic one-sentence anti-romance “The Eunuch.”



I was sitting across from a girl at the library today and, though I was supposed to be studying, was completely preoccupied with trying to figure out if she was attractive.

After many attempts to situate myself in such a way that I could see her entirely, I got frustrated and tried to think of a way to get her to stand up.

Whether it was because I hadn’t gotten much sleep these last couple of days, or because I am a human male, I chose the least discreet method to get her to stand up.

While making eye contact, I reached across the table, picked up her pencil and threw it, maybe too far, away from the table. After staring for a few seconds, I covered up my actions by faking a stretch and yawning.

In a fury, I quickly picked up my bag and left.

But not before tripping on the chair and knocking her books off the table.

— Jonah Glover


Sep 222012

Christy Clothier is a former student, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and a US Navy veteran with a story to tell. But her story isn’t just about the Navy; it’s also about the abusive family that nurtured her in its truly malign embrace, also about her courage to transcend her past and grow into the writer she is today and will yet become. NC has already published a segment from her memoir dealing with her arrival at a naval base in California where she worked as an air traffic controller. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been turned into a play called The Controller. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor.



There are no pictures to show what happened, so I will create the images myself. At age twelve I stood before the princess mirror on my bedroom wall and leaned so close to my reflection that the contours of my cheeks, forehead and chin blurred into the flatness of a photo, an image I wanted to scratch away. I cut my face with cuticle trimmers, safety pins, razors—pain slid red down my cheeks like raindrops on a window pane. If I had paused, I might have seen my face bloody and bruised—and I could have backed away. But I didn’t want to. Once my appearance was distorted I had the confirmation I longed for: that I deserved it, “that pain is weakness leaving the body,” something I re-learned in boot camp. And I believed it. Because long before I donned the olive green military clothes of conflict, I had already trained my body to bear witness to what my mind had to erase.

An inappropriate poke. Oh, come on, Christy, it was just a joke! your parents say. Get over it. Your stomach’s wound tight, but they tell you it’s okay—ha ha—no reason to get upset. You hug them goodnight. Your adopted-stepfather’s hands rest lightly on your back. Sleep tight! You can tuck yourself in, you mother knows. No need to tell Daddy that Mommy made you watch her masturbate that afternoon while he took Jacob and Bret Jr. fishing. What he knows won’t matter: you’re not really his kid. He ignores the bruises — your mother’ll let him add his own, if he wants — “I don’t get involved in Domestic Disputes!” his favorite line whenever your mother bites her children. “Don’t worry, tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of your life,” she says, sending the words after you down the hall as you walk to your bedroom. She’s teaching you to forget.

The next morning starts with Jacob and Bret Jr.’s teasing. They point to the “artwork” your mother bought at a craft fair. A plywood plaque featuring a doghouse with a carpenter nail in the center of it. Alongside the doghouse sit five miniature dogs, each wearing a collar. It’s meant to be funny, only your mother took it seriously and scribbled everyone’s name on the “This is Cute” piece of crap. Someone has placed “Christy” on the nail.

You hang on a wall covered with history: your father’s family crest next to a gold crucifix (a gift from Aunt Linda — you’re only Catholic when she visits). The doghouse and Christ hang next to the military awards given to every male member of the family. And there’s a picture of you and your New Father. He’s stiff in his officer’s dress whites; you’re green in your Girl Scout uniform. Together you stand composed with badges and pins.

You catch your mother’s reflection in the picture frame’s glass. She’s been watching you. Hi, sweetie! She turns you around to get her morning hug. She’s hungry again. She presses your breasts into hers, pinches your nipples. Just showing you love, she says: a mother’s touch. She hasn’t brushed her teeth yet. Instead, she sucks on a cinnamon jaw breaker. The sour-sweet makes you want to vomit. But instead you pour French vanilla creamer into her coffee and spread cream cheese thick on her bagel. The rest of the family takes its assigned seats in the living room. Your father’s in his recliner. His fingertips turning black with newspaper ink. He reads a version of what he already knew yesterday before watching it again later on the news. Jacob and Bret Jr. watch your mother’s morning programs. They laugh anytime she does, nod their heads whenever she argues with the infomercial hosts. Your brothers sit on their hands, knowing your mother’s unjustified indignation is only the start of her daily rage. They won’t look at you, yet you know they are grateful that you take your mother’s blows; they know once you’re old enough to leave the house, they are next. They watch you to see how you survive.

You leave the kitchen. You don’t eat. In this family, meals are issued by rank, and Jacob and you remain the lowest. First your father, then your mother and their biological son get to eat. Then Jacob and you may have whatever is left over, so long as no one is saving it for later. When there is no surplus food, and neither Jacob nor you had enough of your own money to cobble a dinner from snacks at the gas station, you ask your mother what you should eat, already knowing her answer: Fend for yourself! You should feel lucky, your father reminds you, I put a roof over your head.

But you are hungry, so you climb the staircase to your room. You already know how to feed off the girl in the mirror your mother gave you—a gift from her father once she’d turned thirteen. Your skin buckles under your fingernails as you rip off your face. Your reflection changes into swollen, gouged, scared cheeks, chin, forehead and neck, and you’re sated. You walk to your window, curl one foot behind the other, and imagine a life under blue skies streaked white just beyond the orange poppies dotting Southern California’s hills. Past palm trees interspersed with silver dollar saplings on manicured lawns. Past older kids riding their bikes and skateboards along the wide streets that flow like an alluvial fan toward Santee Lakes. I’ll live like Karana, you decide, the main character in the book you know by heart.

Yet I do remember the day that I decided I would never live in the village again. The Island of the Blue Dolphins was my home; I had no other.

I joined the Navy just after I turned twenty, but I’d been heading for Naval Air Station San Clemente Island long before I knew it existed. By age twelve, I’d read The Island Of The Blue Dolphins often enough for the librarian to throw up her hands and give me the book. I never realized the fictionalized setting I’d imagined every night actually existed 75 miles off the coast of California. I followed jet exhaust like em dashes to a place so near to where I had dreamed that I didn’t know I’d been sleepwalking, unable to wake from my own fairy tale.

Now, at 35, a part of me still believes there is such a physical place, somewhere west where I can run and find peace. That same part of me still longs to rest on San Clemente’s porous volcanic rocks and watch the Pacific’s waves filter through them. I let myself go there whenever I need the familiar feeling of being trapped and free to reclaim what was promised and what was lost.


Is there anything more seductive than the illusion of safety? Senior Chief Petty Officer Ibsen directed Navy boot-camp Division 265 to march left, left, your left-right-left. A double-wide mass of eighty women—heads erect, shoulders squared, arms strong, hands fisted with knuckles pointed down and thumbs aligned with pant seams—march along the greasy-hot Chicago asphalt. I stared at the back of the recruit marching in front of me; her brushed cotton jacket provided no reflection, so I couldn’t see myself. I lowered my Navy ball cap further down my face and repeated Ibsen’s words to myself like a spell preventing me from thinking about anything else in case one thought led to another and reminded me of everything I knew, which I was certain would break me. I let the sound of boots carry me along in a wave of feet and fists that pounded the pavement until Ibsen commanded, “Division Halt.”

I and the other five-foot-tall recruit wearing a traffic-cone colored road-guard vest over her dungarees ran ahead of our division to “post” in the middle of the intersection. I rushed past the eighteen-year-old, with her short, dark bob; she could have been either the one sitting behind me at indoc crying over having to exchange her blue jeans and sandals for military-issue sweat pants and sneakers or the slender one who sat beside me quietly asking herself, What am I doing here? A month into boot camp, the only thing differentiating any of us was the last names sewn onto the fronts of our shirts, the backs of our pants. My long, dark braid tucked under my standard-issue ball cap, my dog tags bearing the surname of the man my mother forced me to marry at sixteen smacking against my chest under a white cotton tee, I ran into the street.

We had arrived a group of strangers. We filed out of Greyhound buses into a warehouse (it seemed) full of men’s portraits hung under multi-colored flags. I was sure, for some reason, that I was already in trouble. Screaming men in uniform demanded we identify ourselves by last name and social security number. That’s all I was: a name and a number I’d only recently memorized. My past no longer mattered. Only the fear of messing up, of saying the wrong thing in front of people who could tell me what to do, defined the present moment. I recited my most recent name before shouting out the number assigned to me at birth, and it sounded like it came from someone else.

The first few weeks of boot camp flashed by in a series of consecutive movements, as if each time I opened my eyes I was somewhere else on base, less and less myself, a new world widening to me like an eye after a blink. I relinquished all civilian possessions: my clothes, my wallet, the few dollars I’d brought in case of something (I don’t remember), blue jeans, tee shirt, tennis shoes, clothes I wore to do laundry or yard work in, clothes I was ready to be rid of. I was ordered to redress in a blue sweat suit with gold lettering spelling Navy down each leg and to tie on New Balance running shoes. Having shivered in the cold, seemingly unheated, cinder block building, I felt the new outfit as a relief. We shuffled into another room where barbers took their thick shears to many girls’ long ponytails. I’d been told by my recruiter that I’d entered boot camp during a trial phase when they weren’t forcing women to chop off their hair. But no one else had been told, and the Recruit Division Commanders in charge weren’t saying anything. I kept quiet and moved to the back of the room. At my height, it was fairly easy to disappear into the crowd. After one of the men with a pair of scissors in his hands asked, “Anybody else?” and no one stepped up to his chair, a man I’d never see again ushered us into a classroom where I waited to be assigned to a division.

The only vivid memory I have of the weeks that followed that first night, aside from getting “dropped” to do push ups, showing my teeth, getting my sight tested, having flu shots fired into my left arm by a gun, and penicillin so thick it was termed “The Peanut-Butter Shot” stung into my right buttock was the day we went to the military tailors. For two weeks, maybe even longer, my new division, Division 265, had marched and slept in those same sweat clothes, and I hadn’t even noticed. I never paid attention to what we were doing or when, though it was scheduled on a chalk board near the front door. I took comfort in the routine of waking, eating, walking, sleeping—getting yelled at; each day passed into the next.

That morning we marched past the other barracks holding thousands of recruits, past the large parking lot in front of the brick building we’d been dropped off at our first night. The streets were lined with trees and interspersed with grass islands dotted with park benches. It was like every military installation I’d visited as a child or any suburb I grew up in. I marched along, happy with my internal cadence of numb familiarity, happy with being ordered exactly how and where to walk. The tailors consisted of twenty seaman and petty officers—all women—working in a warehouse filled with identical uniforms folded in cardboard boxes stacked on metal shelves up to the ceiling. I stood alongside seventy-nine other women like auctioned cattle in line after line, as the tailors pinched, poked and pinned our uniforms to fit us perfectly. We received summer dress whites and a winter pea coat. We were issued combat boots, black wool socks, white cotton undershirts. We were fitted for bell-bottom dungaree pants and denim chambray button-ups. The women I knew only by their rank were so delicate with me, making sure not to stab me with a needle, that I began to feel like a doll, and I thought it was a trick—they’d poke me, once I relaxed, I was sure. I looked straight through their faces to the white cinder block wall behind them until my vision blurred and I found myself in a familiar haze.

“You have a beautiful daughter, don’t you?” your mother breathes to your New Dad. She yanks you into place and instructs you to stand “Front and Center.”

You look away from your parent’s four knees facing you as they sit on the couch leering over you in your pageant dress. You are a trinket, required to look and play the part before being shelved away to the bedrooms and backyards of your multiple childhood homes. Your mind floats. You make your way up the wall like a balloon knocking itself against the ceiling, having nowhere else to go.

 Since modeling school at the age of ten, I had been trained to stand and receive all the clothes I would need for my Girl Scout banquets, my pageant photos, my enlistment. I stood at attention, locking my knees in front of the tailors circling me, checking proportions and measurements, until someone finally had to ask me to move.

Within a month into boot camp, I sleep walked right out the front door. Before the overhead florescent lights woke eighty recruits from their racks with a 4:30 alarm, I was getting dressed in my uniform and heading toward the galley. My fellow recruits informed me that they had to keep putting me back to sleep. I might have thought they were joking accept that I woke up wearing my dungaree pants and combat boots. Apparently I so relished regulation that I began dressing even before the RDCs arrived and told us to. Or maybe I was just hungry.

Still, when the day came for the hundred-meter jump, I didn’t want to participate. By the time I realized my hesitance I was already standing on the diving platform. The arches of my feet cupped the cement ledge so that it would only take the flex of a shin muscle. The slightest pressure down toward the big toe and I would drop twenty feet (or was it 100?) from the high dive platform into the Olympic pool below. The RDCs urged me on, but they wouldn’t push me. Like the other pass/fail tests in boot camp, jumping off the high dive would have to be my idea. I could back down the two dozen steps I’d just climbed to the platform, but I’d be punished, made to do push-ups until I acquiesced or sent to CID (the Navy’s remedial training that made everyday boot-camp activities like jumping into a pool seem preferable).

I looked down. Under the glassy water divers waited for me, a pedestrian already committed to stepping into the street. Like patient drivers, they waved me on as though motioning from behind a windshield I was about to crash into. Go ahead — their movements exaggerated by the water — we’ll wait for you to pass, ignore the “Don’t Walk” sign warning the light change. By then I’d learned my stark black uniforms were to be called Navy dress blues, my ball cap was a cover, the beds were racks, the cinder block building a ship, and I was an airman recruit. There was no going back. I let myself fall.

I heard the bubbles form overhead as I rushed toward the bottom of the pool. My initial fear over jumping changed with the weightlessness that suddenly surrounded me. Underwater, I couldn’t feel my skin. Everything I had seen before the jump now blurred into abstract forms. I brought my arms together above me and pushed myself even deeper toward the bottom. I wanted to breathe in the pool’s silver-blue anonymity that refracted everything around me for as long as I could. Above water, my RDC Senior Chief Ibsen flapped his arms, urging me to surface. The divers began to advance. If they helped me, I would fail for not having risen on my own. I tilted my head back and rose to the top, expelling any last breath before breathing in new air.

“Keep going!” Ibsen coached, hopping with each syllable as though his own excitement could propel me. “You have to get to the end to pass.” He pointed to the 100-yard-swim marker, which I needed to reach in order to advance to the next month-and-a-half of training, make it to graduation day, through air traffic control school and then complete my six-year enlistment before I could spend the 30,000 dollars promised for college. Behind me, other recruits waited until I was clear before they jumped.

It didn’t seem like that big of a drop once I looked back at the platform from the water. I am doing this for myself, I thought. I stretched my arms out and swam a slow languorous swim, enjoying every last moment before I reached the other side. Looking back, I realize that more than wanting to stay in the comfort of a familiar medium, I, having jumped from one world, wanted to remain in a moment of sheer freedom before pulling myself out of the pool and into another.

After passing the last crucial boot camp test, I knew I only had to make it through each day, which got easier and easier as I learned what to expect. Other than attending shipboard classes I paid no attention to (knowing I was going to air traffic control school, it seemed irrelevant, even to the RDCs who didn’t make me or a few others headed to nuclear engineering school participate in the man-overboard practice drills) I lost myself in the daily marches, concentrating solely on the footsteps ahead and behind me. I felt invisible in a group that, after six weeks, seemed unstoppable, no longer even needing a cadence to follow. We marched perfectly to the drum of each other’s feet pulsing down the streets; we’d been broken down and rebuilt, always carrying with us the fear of getting in trouble, for me of being left behind.

Eventually our RDCs decided they could Division 265 to discipline itself through the night. That gave them the opportunity to sleep at home with their families. But then one night two male RDCs from another division stormed into our barracks, flashed the overhead lights on and demanded we answer the question “What are you doing in my Navy?” They insisted that women only joined the Navy to find a husband, and, to punish us, they interrupted our sleep: a 4-hour respite separating our twenty-hour days. Being female recruits, we were not allowed to strip down to our skivvies for bed; hence, we were already dressed for the occasion.

These men singled out Jaime, one of my shipmates. Jaime was a single mother struggling to raise her child in an inner city. She was strong. She would have to be because the RDCs forced her to stay in push-up position until her hips gave out. Weeks before, another girl had been cycled—exercised—to the point of a heart attack. When she slumped against the metal beds and asked for help, two RDCs taunted her until the ambulance crew arrived and confirmed her near-fatal condition. After that scandal, the prospect of another girl from the same division hospitalized for abuse was too much, so the two men who had burst into our barracks that night were reprimanded and no longer allowed near our racks at night.

I’d come to trust my division’s RDCs, especially Ibsen who tried to be gentle and almost never yelled, because they protected us from other RDCs like the two men who broke in on us. I didn’t think about the fact that we were the lucky few. Those other RDCs led other divisions where they were able to do whatever they wanted (in loco parentis).

I happily followed Senior Chief Ibsen from our barracks to medical, the drill hall or the galley. Two-by-two we’d file through red-and-blue painted bars along with the thousands of other sailors also headed toward the aluminum serving counters. En masse we moved toward other uniformed recruits doling out breakfast in equal portions onto identical plastic trays, ending the transaction by singing the only authorized communication between any of us: “Thank you, Shipmate.”

We weren’t allowed to look around at anyone else, but my short stature allowed me to watch the crowd without getting caught. Most recruits were nondescript. Newbies, called “Rickis,” naturally stood out: lanky men with long hair and unshaven cheeks; girls with streaking mascara and loose ponytails. They never glanced at us, and I didn’t much look at them; it was as though we didn’t recognize each other.

But there was another group that always stood out, those who had made it past the initial first week or two and showed up in the same blue sweat outfits my division had received. I watched them lovingly, remembering my own initiation. Freshly cowed, these new recruits knew to keep their heads down, their eyes glazed, and stare at nothing.

But then one day, across from me dressed in his “Smurfs,” stood my eighteen-year-old brother, Jacob. Both of us forgot our training and rushed to one another.

“Hey Christy!” he said. It was the first time I’d been called my name in over a month. “The food’s pretty good here, huh?” He smiled.

Actually, the food was disgusting. Disguised with the heady aroma of scrambled eggs, sausage links and sweet pastries, under heat lamps warmed the worst breakfast I’d ever tasted. Powdered eggs overcooked into a Play-Doh texture. Pancakes floated in mock syrup that had the consistency of olive oil, which did nothing to mask the metallic taste of excessive baking soda.

But I knew what my brother really meant. When we were children, strangers mistook us for twins, partly because of our similar features, but mostly because our mannerisms, tastes and experiences were identical. We both had our mother’s large hazel eyes, kept the same timing when telling jokes, and Jacob had been forced to join the military before he was a senior in high school, around the same age I had been when I was forced to marry Jerrod, 16. Like me, Jacob also grew up with a mother who sexualized everything, with an adopted stepfather that would lock the pantry, angry over having to feed a teenaged boy who was not his biological son, or would shove him into corners and slap him, goading Jacob to “Go ahead, hit me!” Years later, Jacob would earn a graduate degree in criminal justice and work as a prison case manager, doing everything he could to help ex-cons rehabilitate. But that day, he was my baby brother, his thick chestnut hair recently shaved off by boot-camp barbers, replaced with the red track marks of industrial clippers.

Without thinking, we gave each other a quick hug. The RDCs rushed toward us, screaming for Jacob and I to “Break!” They were as infuriated as they were stunned.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” one asked.

“This is my brother,” I said, pointing to Jacob. He had our adopted surname on his uniform while I wore my estranged husband’s on mine.

“Do you mean your bro, like you guys are cool with each other?” the RDC asked.

“No, my brother-brother.”

“Look at them. They look exactly alike.”

Jacob nodded, confirming our relationship.

“Okay,” the first RDC said, “but you can’t talk to each other.”

Hours later, my division marched home amid the smell of over-saturated maple leaves holding the hot, moist air. We climbed the three flights to take our communal showers, stow our uniforms in the tiny metal footlockers, and dress in our Navy T-shirts and blue nylon shorts for bedtime when Ibsen, Sampson and Claude stormed the room with an urgency beyond what we’d ever seen before.

“Get dressed. You have five minutes,” Ibsen commanded.

We raced to prepare while spinning through the possibilities of what had gone wrong and who had done it.

Then the base lights began to shut off as Ibsen shepherded us to the ground floor, where we braced ourselves against what turned out to be the Lindenhurst tornado shrieking through northeastern Illinois.

I sat at a window and watched clouds. Some recruits buried their heads in their knees. A few cried. Others dug out paper and pens they’d kept hidden and wrote letters openly, realizing that the RDCs didn’t care. Ibsen, Sampson and Claude, separated from their own homes and families, watched over us, projecting their own worries out the windows by staring so hard at the storm outside it was like they were trying to control the weather themselves.

I told jokes. I relished being watched over during an emergency. I didn’t care if the RDCs ordered me to drop and “do twenty,” fifty, seventy, or more elaborate routines. We could get “cycled” by performing sets of exercises until our bodies collapsed, such as eight-count body-builders. We would stand tall then fall to our hands and feet on the tile, bring our feet up to our hands on the ground, and then push our feet back before jumping back into a stand—and that was one. We repeated the routine, up and down, to the count of eight seconds.

Often Sampson would order us to close the industrial windows lining the walls, shutting in Chicago’s summer air. Claude instructed us to “get into Battle Gear.” We stood in front of our racks, pulled our wool socks over the bottom of our dungaree pants, buttoned our long sleeve shirts to our necks. Then we were ordered to run in place for as long as it took for our body heat to saturate the room so that condensation would drip off the ceiling and back onto our faces, all the while the RDCs shouted, “Make it rain, make it rain!”

As far as I was concerned the RDCs could yell at me until their voices gave out and they needed to call for back up, because they never touched us. In boot camp, hitting was illegal. Unlike my parents, the RDCs would never stand by and watch while one or the other slammed my butt with a half-inch-thick piece of plywood fashioned into a fraternity paddle with the words “Board of Education.”  The RDCs could only make us hurt ourselves, something I was good at. With each pushup I performed, Petty Officer Sampson would kneel beside me and yell, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I believed her because with exercise I became stronger.

But then graduation day arrived like a disaster. I stood in a blinding sea of dress-white uniforms (several divisions including mine), which reflected the sun sharply into my eyes. I fought tears throughout the ceremony, pretending I was trying to avoid the sun in my eyes. The day I graduated was perfect southern California weather, but after growing accustomed to Chicago, I preferred the rain.

Friends and family filled stadium bleachers to watch us parade, listen to speeches, wave miniature American flags. My relatives did not come. While everyone else embraced, I walked home to the barracks unclaimed. I walked past empty racks to the fire escape landing outside, where I had my first solitary moment in over two months. I took my waist-long hair out of its clip, unwound the long tight braid and let it fall loose over my shoulders, down my back and into the wind. Standing three stories above a prison-like cement courtyard on an iron ledge, I could have told myself anything, but I felt at peace for the first time in my life, having had consistent food, clothing and shelter, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. I left the fire escape for the bathroom. I didn’t bother turning on the lights: I didn’t need to see what I had to do having, suddenly, become aware I was once again alone. I stood in front of the mirror, thought about how my mother forced me to marry my boyfriend, Jerrod, when I was sixteen, and dug my fingernails into my face.

“I love you this much!” Jerrod squeezes your hand, but you don’t see it bloom purple-red. You don’t find the metaphor in the gift he mailed to you from the time he was in Army boot-camp only a few months before visiting from D.C. — the Army-brown chow-hall napkin with the words “You Are Mine!” penned in black Sharpee. You don’t know that he will consume you until you have nothing left but feet and knees and hands with which to crawl. You tack the napkin above your bed like a banner, a warning to your mother. Only he can touch you now! You shift the square into a diamond and wish on it like a star.

You are sixteen sitting next to your nineteen-year-old boyfriend who has visited from Fort Meyers in D.C. You have not learned to wipe your mouth, because nothing spills out for you to clean up after. In a Mexican restaurant, you pick tortilla chips out of a plastic wicker basket while your mother feeds your boyfriend of nine months from across the table.

She talks money, housing — but Jerrod hears family; he doesn’t really have one, either. She must get rid of you. He loves you. Your hands have done her housework for years, but now they are old enough to replace hers. Jerrod promises to take care of you.

Get away from your parents as fast as possible, your high-school guidance counselor warns you. She’s met them, knows that with the easy stroke of a cheap pen your mother abandons you to a man she’d eaten with twice.

At the Idaho State County Clerks Office, your mother’s signature is scratched across the  photocopied permission slip. You don’t know if there is a notary public. No one questions your mother’s intent. In the orphan’s court they assume you’re pregnant. Only your mother and Jerrod know you’re not.

Hand-in-hand, you stand with Jerrod inside a gingerbread cottage at the end of a trail your mother laid out. You want to be pushed into the oven. But he won’t let you, not yet, only later when children aren’t a possibility. He loves the sixteen-year-old with the huge green-brown eyes looking up to him with all the love she needed to give to feel real. Three years later when she breaks, he won’t recognize his “Baby Doll.”

So you suspend disbelief until you can no longer recognize the man who held you by the hand and repeated, “I Do.”

Once my face was covered with blood, I stood back and wondered how a mother could do such a thing to her own flesh and blood. I walked past Sampson on my way to my rack. She said nothing. I’d already graduated, and she was no longer responsible for me.

The next morning Greyhound buses idled to transport a dozen divisions to various technical schools around the country. I couldn’t walk straight while carrying my gym bag full of the civilian clothes I surrendered upon arrival along with everything else I had been issued. Ibsen turned back toward the end of the line of sailors streaming into buses and noticed my hesitant wobbling. I dropped my gym bag on the sidewalk. Ibsen walked to me, picked up my bag and helped me to the bus.

Hundreds of sailors watched out of bus windows as I sobbed like a child in Sampson’s arms. I gripped her like a buoy, hoping to remain within the cold cinderblock walls where I knew what to expect. I wanted the structured organization, every moment of my day scheduled in the hyper-strict atmosphere where felt safe. I wanted Ibsen to take my luggage back to the barracks so that we could continue to be Division 265, and I’d have a family. Sampson rocked me for a few moments before Ibsen took my hands.

“Christy,”  —he knew my first name — “you’ll be fine.” He swung my hands in his and said, “I felt the same way.”

I boarded the bus with the men and women I had lived among for nearly three months, and, for a moment, we all headed in the same direction. I was the only one from my graduating class to be attending Air Traffic Control School. Once my bus dropped me off at Chicago O’Hare, I walked alone to my gate. I felt awkward in my dress whites. I was too nervous to eat. But by the time my plane landed in Pensacola, I was ready to swallow anything they put in front of me.

—Christy Clothier


Christy L. Clothier graduated with a double MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her recently completed memoir, Trail of Breadcrumbs: Why I Joined and Left the US Navy, follows a fairy-tale structure of a young girl wholly rejected by her “mother,” who believes she’ll find safety in the military, a world populated by men. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been published elsewhere and turned into a play. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor. She writes short stories, research articles and essays that connect childhood abuse with military service and trauma. Christy’s writing has appeared in Inquiry and Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, from which her essay “The Controller” was adapted for the play Coming in Hot. She teaches English to international war refugees in Colorado and lives with her dog, Jauss, named after a famous author.

Sep 062012


Sydney Lea has three books coming out, including his new essay collection A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press) this month. At an age when old dogs curl up before the fire and dream ancient dreams, Sydney is all spark and vigor which I find endlessly appealing and optimistic. Sydney is also the Poet Laureate of Vermont, and I guess poet laureates hobnob in ways that mere mortals don’t. He and Fleda Brown, recently Poet Laureate of Delaware, have been writing essays back and forth. As Sydney writes, “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

Earlier on these pages I published the essay “Unskunked” which is part of this poet laureate interchange. In “Unskunked” we were treated to the image of the author running naked through the dark and dripping forest. In “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know,” Sydney Lea waxes less overtly spectacular and delivers a lovely, wise account of his education as a young poet. He is a paradoxical intellect; part athlete, hunter and woodsman; part scholar; mostly a poet. This is the story of how these impulses somehow coalesced around his admiration for what we might call the New England old timer (in 2012, there aren’t many of these left). At the center of this is an idea of manliness (not macho posturing but old fashioned manly virtue — a good thing).

Sydney Lea is a great friend and former colleague from my early days at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s a source of deep satisfaction that he has found Numéro Cinq a congenial home for his work.



When I was young, who thought I’d choose poetry as my prime mode of knowing the world?

Not I.  It’s true that as a high school punk, despite my enthusiasm for football and my wilder one for hockey, despite my commonplace tough-guy posturing, practiced by so many of us guys at that stage of life, I did secretly like to think of myself as a bit arty too. I was a musician. I could sing. I even thought I drew pretty well. I was a big cheese in the dramatic club, as a senior playing Oedipus in the eponymous play (a lisping king, who addressed “generationth of the living in the land of Thebeth”).

But I don’t remember writing poems, save maybe the sorts that any person may have written, and that he hopes have long since utterly biodegraded: rants about being ditched by a girlfriend, just for the tritest example.

I was also a pretty good student. Indeed, had it not been for what would now be diagnosed as a mathematical learning disability, my GPA would have been of the very highest. My truest proficiency was foreign languages, a gift nourished by the best instructor I ever had at any level, Ted Wright, who taught French. I began to speak the tongue pretty quickly, and I recall how strange it was that the words and the grammar often almost seemed to be granted me by some power outside myself.

It’s a feeling I would later come to recall – if not as often, naturally, as I could wish – when I composed a poem successful in my own eyes.

It’s at once simple and weird: words and phrases, whatever the language, simply enchant me, seduce me, especially if I hear them. Things spoken in my presence, if they have a particular, inexplicable resonance, will lodge themselves in my mind for decades. For example, I lately remembered a friend’s describing the death of his farmer uncle, who fell dead in his tracks while shutting the tailgate of his truck on a calf bound for the abattoir. I heard that description, unremarkable in most respects, about forty years ago. I wrote the poem last week.

Like my exemplar Robert Frost, I want my poems to have something of the ring of actual talk in them. But that’s to get ahead of myself. The college I chose had no writing courses as we know them in our era of too-rampant MFAism. But somehow, on my own, I started to feel an itch to write, which I did, my only audience, really, being my roommates, who tended to think I was good enough, if they thought about my work at all. My genre was short fiction, and I wrote a lot of it in those four years; it seemed to keep me balanced somehow, while everything else – including the alcoholism that would plague too many later years – was doing just the opposite.

Ultimately, of course, graduation loomed, and I had to figure out what I might do. Yale had accepted me as a grad student in French, but much as I loved the language and the literature, something in me recoiled from living as a kind of literary expatriate. I never imagined applying to a place like Iowa, though quantitatively, my portfolio would have permitted me to. (Who knows about the quality?) I had barely even heard of any of the far fewer MFA programs that existed in those days. I never dreamed, either, of Being a Writer.  Professional writing, I assumed, was something other people did; there must be some secret to it, and no one had shared it with me.

I did not want to go to Vietnam, as one those roommates did, becoming one of the earliest casualties of that wrong-headed adventure. And so, because schoolteachers were exempt from the draft at that time, I elected to go back to my own private high school, having no credentials to teach in a public one.

I taught French and English, and came to understand how Ted Wright managed to be so inspired and inspiring a teacher. He simply committed himself to that end every minute of the day right through the evening’s class preparation. No one messed with Ted: he was a big, muscular guy, the football coach, a former semi-pro pitcher. At a mere 21, I didn’t have that sort of gravitas, and I devoted a lot of time to quashing the same sort of ill discipline I’d imposed on all my other teachers, now my forgiving colleagues, just a few years before.

Top quality high school teachers are, to my mind, the heroes of American education. They deserve to be paid a lot more, and college teachers (especially those at the sorts of “prestige” institutions where I myself have taught) a good deal less. To say it tersely, even after one year in a pretty cushy job at that level, I knew I didn’t have the endurance and commitment Ted did. In deed, I concluded there wasn’t enough money in anyone’s bank to keep me at his sort of work. Too hard, too demanding, too much time just being present.

So I did go to grad school after all, not in French, but not in English either. I did comparative literature, wanting to use my languages while I focused on fiction and poetry as fields of study. I was too naïve to know that comparative literature was just then leading such study in the “theoretical” direction that has made it unappealing to me and apparently –  judging from the radical shrinkage in literature majors at the majority of colleges – to most students.

Not that my dabbling in theory didn’t have its heady moments. I particularly recall a fabulous seminar on European Romanticism, presided over by the second best of my many teachers, Geoffrey Hartman. And yet Geoffrey became, quite unintentionally, a bit of a villain in my history. I had settled on a perfectly conventional dissertation topic, Frost and the Romantics, but he persuaded me to expand one of my seminar papers, an examination of several supernaturalist authors of the nineteenth century, most of them deservedly forgotten. Unlike my other choice, he averred, this would be “a real contribution.”

Contribution? What about nightmare? To indicate how sheep-like I’d been in acceding to my professor’s suggestion, most of my texts were written in German, the one major western European language I didn’t really command, which meant that I was forevermore rifling through the stacks for translations from the original into French, Italian or Spanish, few being available in my native tongue.

Good Lord…

In due course I took a job at Dartmouth College, without, however, having finished that accursed dissertation. Indeed, it would take me more than four years to do so.

There were no writing courses at Dartmouth in those days, any more than there had been at Yale when I was there. But a fair amount of clamor arose from students for that lack to be remedied. The result, in my second year, was English 70, an omnium-gatherum offering in which students could write fiction, poetry, drama, personal essays, what have you?

The heavies of the department, many of them good people and true, to be sure, were exclusively male – women adjuncts were referred to as “lady lecturers”! – and white and old, and at least marginally Christian. (These descriptives fit me better as I write this than they fit the people in question then; but such, in my late twenties, was my regard for them, one and all.) They assigned English 70 to me, of all people.

This was meant, though, as an act of kindness. Since in the eyes of those senior colleagues, such a course was not a “real” one at all, not the kind that demanded any genuine thought or preparation, I would have more time to complete my burdensome dissertation.

And yet a strange thing happened  (or perhaps not so strange). In teaching that course, ineptly, I’m sure, given my utter lack of credentials, I found that old itch returning. It had been suppressed for more than half a decade, but now I began to write again myself.

I began, though, to write poetry. Why? Well, pardon a detour to something very relevant: on my father’s side, my family has had a relation to a remote part of Maine that now goes back generations. In these times, my brother and sisters collectively own our cabin there. My time in the neighborhood had exposed me to certain notable characters, ones who would be 120 or so if they lived still. These were men and women whose early lives had preceded the advent of power tools, so that the male lumberjacks had cut millions of board feet by hand. And to call the females “housewives” would be downright laughable: they lacked all domestic conveniences we take for granted. Stunningly hardworking people, they quite literally kept the home fires burning, cooked in wood-fired ovens, slaughtered chickens, skinned game, cleaned fish and did whatever else was called for to sustain a homestead.

Because these people had no electricity, they of course had no radio either, let alone movie theaters or the great drug television. No, they had to make their own amusement, and as a result, man and woman alike were fabulous raconteurs. Their magical turns of phrase ring in my head every day: some get into my conversation, a lot into my poems, as it were, in disguise.

It seemed inevitable that, when I moved for my job to another part of northern New England, I sought out their Vermont and New Hampshire counterparts, who were equally eloquent, grammar and syntax be damned. And even at my young age, I somehow recognized mine was the last generation who would have known these precious souls.

I wanted to get their voices onto the page.

And yet I knew I’d prove no genius. I wasn’t Mark Twain. I wasn’t Willa Cather. I couldn’t resort to dialect without on the one hand sounding condescending, which was the opposite of how I felt, or simply sounding “off,” or both. I came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that if I used poetry to tell their stories – or rather to tell stories suggested by their stories –  I might capture the rhythms and cadences of that old-time, entrancing speech without having to imitate it.

My earliest poems, consequently, were in the main quite specifically narrative ones. And although I have drifted away from overt story-telling in my verse, I have never quit believing in certain narrative values: even if plot remains implicit, I want my reader at least to know who’s talking to whom, and where and why. Character, setting and dialogue: why should we poets have ceded these endowments so readily to the fiction writers?

To this day (and I am old enough now to be indifferent about what the Smart People think), I want whoever encounters a poem of mine to know some literal truths when he or she first sees it. I want to make him or her aware of who the actors are, perhaps especially the one named I. If I can make allies of my readers, I’ll be pleased – and genuinely grateful to them. To these ends, I feel I owe them a welcome. A good poem will be complex, no doubt, but that’s a different thing from complicated. Those who are willing to consider it shouldn’t be taxed to figure out the plain facts of its matter.

Back to the academy. One of the department elders – a man whom I greatly liked from those days up to his fairly recent death – was chairman at a critical juncture. He approached me one day and said, “People are starting to regard you pretty favorably around here, but you know the saying, publish or perish. I’m glad it didn’t apply when I was your age, but without some scholarship in print nowadays, you have very little chance of tenure.”

Okay, then… I liked where I lived. I particularly liked the landscape and that access to the old story-tellers, and since in those days one did not have to publish a book, but rather a few articles, to pass the publish-or-perish test, I thought, well, I’ll just take a chapter or two from my dissertation (a screed still incomprehensible, even to its author) and try to stick it somewhere.

Mind you, I had gotten lucky with my poetry pretty quickly. I’d put poems in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, The New Republic and a slew of high-end lit magazines. But however different things are now at Dartmouth, in those days publishing poetry was not “real” publishing; that my first collection was under contract cut no ice, then.

I took the dissertation over to my library carrel, opened it up, and felt as I sometimes have upon looking over a shear precipice. My head spun, my stomach knotted, and I uttered aloud, despite the fact that I was in my thirties: “This is not what I want to do when I grow up.”

I closed that dusted-over tome, vowing that I would go on writing poetry and let the chips fall where they might. I did not of course get tenure, but was fortunate enough as almost immediately to be hired by Middlebury College, where the tradition of writer-professors had been fairly long established.

I now ponder that cri de coeur of mine, and I wonder why scholarship should not have appealed to me as something to do as a grown-up; why it couldn’t draw me more than it did or does. Understand, after all: nothing I say here is intended as an attack on scholarship. The contrary. I have benefitted enormously from other people’s labor in scholarly endeavor. It’s only that it isn’t for me.

Or not to the exclusion of other things. Oh, I have done a few genuinely scholarly articles since, copious annotation and all, and have even enjoyed doing them. But something always seems missing when I finish. It’s the missing something that’s provided by so-called creative writing, especially the writing of lyric, though I must struggle here and elsewhere to name that element.

For me, poetry is another mode of knowing the world, one that is different from the either/or, syllogistic one whereby people (myself included) generally conduct their business. Nothing wrong with that: if Shelley claimed poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, from what I’ve seen of them (myself included), it’s likely a good thing that their legislation does go largely unnoticed.

In any case, the lyrical approach is largely divorced from either/or, is in fact an approach well described, the way Carl Jung did in another context, as either/and/or –which is to say that it enables the writer (and ideally the reader) to see and feel from multiple angles simultaneously. To choose a hyper-obvious example, with the fairly recent birth of each of my grandchildren I have felt an indescribable surge of joy contemporaneously with numbing despond to imagine the world they may inhabit: over-heated, desperate for drinkable water, fratricidal, on and on.

It is this either/and/or quality, I believe, that John Keats famously called Negative Capability: the capacity to be  “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Any number of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and so on can exist in a poem at the same time, including ones like the above, which are evidently contradictory of one another. In these respects, poetry’s path to knowledge, more nearly than any other, seems the path my mind inclines to follow.

And of course there is again the matter of language. All those voices, old and new, anglophone and otherwise, that reverberate in my skull and, more importantly, in my heart. To abandon myself to what I called their rhythms and cadences, to let the words and phrases, as it were, bear me along like a tide to such enlightenment as I’ll ever have – that feels, and not just slightly, like a self-abandonment (allow me) to something divine.

— Sydney Lea


SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, will be out from U. of Michigan Press in September. In January, Skyhorse Publications will issue A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in  April 2013,  his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Aug 212012

Harry Marten writes here a lovely essay on rivers, river books (Huck and  Ratty and Mole) and cancer, the beauty and whimsicality of the one and the grim treatment protocols, anxiety and dread of the other. Born in the Bronx, Marten has spent most of this life living next to the Mohawk River a few miles from where it drops over the falls at Cohoes and joins the Hudson (so he is practically a neighbor of mine). We have also gorgeous paintings by Marten’s wife Ginit Marten of the river that is so precious to them both. Marten is the Edward E. Hale, Jr., Professor of Modern British and American Literature at Union College in Schenectady, also a Conrad Aiken expert which endears me since Aiken has been a teacher and inspiration to me since I cracked open The Divine Pilgrim at the feet of the two-story reproduction of Michelangelo’s David in the library reading room at the Loyola campus of Concordia University in Montreal in 1975.


Mohawk River, Niskayuna


Living on the river was nice and easy./People on the river just take their time. / The wind in the summer was warm and breezy. / Wind in the winter, it cut like ice. (Folk Song)

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about by a river. (A.A. Milne, play version of The Wind in the Willows)

Some childhood things just stick in the mind. Water Rat from The Wind in the Willows, for instance, forever confident, offering words to live by: “’And you really live by the river? What a jolly life! . . . .’`By it and with it and on it and in it . . . . It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink. . . .  It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing. Lord! the times we’ve had together! Whether in winter or summer, spring or autumn, it’s always got its fun and its excitements.’”

But despite Ratty’s words of wisdom, read to me by my sweet father before I had many words of my own, my life remained essentially riverless for more than five decades.  There were plenty of ponds, lakes, oceans, even a reservoir or two, but no river contact to speak of.

For a boy in the 1950s Bronx, the river – East or Hudson – seen through the back window of the family Plymouth driving south to visit aunts and uncles in midtown, seemed to confirm Ratty’s enthusiasm. The shining water was lovely and beckoning. But up close, it was a free flowing garbage dump and a danger zone, home to muggers and addicts. Well known myth had it that even putting your foot in the river was to risk rot or worse; and to walk the shoreline after sunset meant becoming the crime written up in the morning Daily Mirror headlines.

There were always satisfying encounters with imagined rivers, growing in number as I ambled into adulthood  — Marlow’s voyage  into African darkness, Huck’s raft on the Mississippi, Lewis and Clark on the Columbia and Yellowstone, Thoreau’s Concord and Merrimack.  But when it came to actually looking at, touching, smelling the thing itself, I found that I had little desire to muck about by or in, or with or on any river.  Even when I lived near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri for six years, I hardly ever looked up from my work of teaching and paper grading to notice their majesty. When the tropically hot St. Louis summers oppressed our young family, my wife and I followed Huck’s example and lit out for the territories – but not on a river. We were looking for a lake or a beach. We never tried float tripping on the Missouri, the proscribed summer get-away activity for locals; it just wasn’t part of our sense of how the world worked. Instead, we drove hours south to the tacky Lake of the Ozarks, and days north as far as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to find a plop-down beach and cool water. For all the impact America’s great rivers made on me, I might as well have been living in the Mohave Desert.  Which is why I was surprised to find myself well into my fifties living alongside a river and liking it.

More than half a dozen years ago, having decided that we’d better do it soon if we were ever going to move from our clattery but comfortable city neighborhood in upstate NY where we’d been just about long enough to pay off our mortgage, my wife and I began to spend our weekends with a workaholic realtor. She showed us suburban ranches in lawnville, country estates where I could pretend to be a small-scale Rockefeller, woodsy cabins ripe for improvement, and upscale colonials crammed with enough electronic gizmos to light up the darkest nights. But nothing clicked until the house on the river  swung into view.   For all practical purposes the deal was struck before I’d even finished locking the car.

My wife and the realtor had gone inside while I stayed back on the driveway for a minute to enjoy the late spring sunshine before following along behind. It was as close as I’d ever come to a Sunday Times Magazine kind of place, skylights and windows filling each room with light and air. The vaulted ceilings were a plus; and the huge two-sided brick fireplace with coppery arched doorways was a knockout. But it was the view that did it, the house set high above the Mohawk River, with a wetland at the base of the river bluff. Along the back of the house, every window, every door, looked out toward the water. I loved the idea of “my river.” That afternoon it was brown and placid, moving slowly south and east toward its grand finale with the Hudson a few miles down the line.

Filled with desire, we bargained badly, pushed ourselves to the limit of our money, said yes, we’ll do it. We hired Mr. Sandman to awaken the gloss of the hardwood floors. We had the place inspected, the shale-driven radon gas remediated with a pricey vacuum system. We tried to persuade our grown sons that we weren’t abandoning their history or their boxes of comic books, vinyl records, Star Wars figures, Transformers, old Tin Tin stories, secret diaries, stuff they could neither use nor throw away. We moved out and moved in, leaving our three story urban Victorian in order to discover a new domestic world in the semi-tamed water wilds.

The blur of the first months became the blur of the first years. Boxes filled the basement and garage, waiting to be unloaded while we lived without really settling in. We went about our business of work and play, noticing the river and the wetland in passing when a big boat went by, or when a heron landed to feed and preen down below our windows. We kept binoculars hanging in the kitchen so we could spy selectively on river life. But for the most part the river neither demanded nor commanded our steady attention. Until the late winter of our fourth year, that is, when normal became abnormal and routine stopped dead in its dull and predictable tracks.

 There was nothing unique about the moment, which had to have happened many times that day and every day on the east coast and the west, in the breadbasket middle of the country, in faraway places I’d never visited or thought to visit. It wasn’t even a first in the family; but it was a first for me and it changed things. Though my wife had had three cancers in ten years, this was my turn, and it came as a surprise.

The clue, I suppose, was the doctor’s office calling to give me the last appointment of the day — “so you and Doctor can talk,” the receptionist said.

“Why do they always call them ‘Doctor?’” I groused to my wife – “like they’re the only one of their kind.” Of course I was nervous and showing it, but I’d really had no negative vibes. My PSA numbers weren’t very high, though they’d been slowly and steadily moving up and lately had jumped. The obligatory biopsy had been humiliating, but painless, and Dr. R., an experienced surgeon even if he looked younger than my children, had told me that this was just a precaution. He didn’t expect cancer, and if he didn’t, I didn’t.

The last appointment of the day takes you out of the examination room and into the comfy chair room, the office with leatherette chairs, lamps instead of neon, a grand oak desk. Everyone, it seemed, had left for the day except me, my wife, and Dr. R, who was quiet, serious, kind, as he explained that much to his surprise the biopsy had been positive, and not only that, my “Gleason Score” – the way of measuring the irregularity, and therefore the aggressiveness, of prostate cancer cells – was near the top of the scale. I had “It,” and a particularly dangerous version of it to boot. With the February evening turning cold and dark outside the office window, Dr. R offered a sobering pep talk. For someone my age, he recommended a radical prostatectomy, surgical removal of the offending organ, as the procedure with the best survival statistics; but he urged me to take my time in deciding what action to take.

There were plenty of choices, from radiation to cryotherapy, leaving me with bizarre echoes of Robert Frost’s world-ending visions of fire and ice spinning round in my literature professor mind. The one option that Dr. R. refused to sanction was the one I wished for:  do nothing now, simply watch and wait. Maybe all of this would take care of itself, turn out to be no big deal after all. I knew better, of course, and handing me a “Prostate Cancer and You” pamphlet, and a list of books I could find at my local Barnes and Noble – everything from Surviving Prostate Cancer by the grand Pooh Bah of Urological Surgeons, to the Prostate Cancer entry in the Dummies series – Dr. R urged me think it through so that I felt comfortable in my decision. The books would clarify, he said.

“Take your time,” it turns out, means take up to four weeks if your Gleason rating is 9 on a 10 scale, hardly a blink when contemplating actions that might leave you incontinent, impotent, or, in a worst case scenario, dead as Marley’s ghost. Not to mention that second opinions typically come from doctors who are booked out months in advance, not weeks. The decision-making tied me in knots – everything that followed was simply a predictable, and therefore manageable, misery.

Too tired and too wired to go home for dinner after the diagnosis, my wife and I ate at our favorite family Italian restaurant. I won’t say that it had become a kind of ritual meal for the condemned, but pasta is powerful comfort food, and we had gone there after my wife had gotten her first cancer report. Then we had been profoundly shocked and disbelieving. Now, ten years and three other cancers down the line, our reaction after the first hour was “OK. Now what do we have to do?” That answer, at least, was clear: like the old Fred and Ginger song said, you’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. The problem was that only we could decide where to start and how to start this time through.

Oddly enough, one of the things I most remembered from our first encounter with the disease was a trip to the MOMA in New York to see Willem de Kooning’s late paintings. The old man, his disruptive, alcohol-fueled creative rage replaced by a growing calm that came, sadly and ironically, with the onset of dementia, had in the 1980s produced paintings that were fluid ribbons of bright color, objects of great beauty that seemed to offer openness, simplicity, and movement as an intuitive response to gathering darkness. On a weekday afternoon, the museum almost deserted, we’d walked through the show contemplating the sense of sadness, but also the wonder and freedom at the end of life.

A gift from an unexpected source, I thought, next morning, standing in front of the show’s poster that hangs alongside a cactus many feet taller than I am on a second floor landing of our house. Below a large arched window looking out to the river, de Kooning’s ripples of color and light seem to speak to the always moving dark but sparkling water down below.  And that’s where my eyes and thoughts turned those first weeks of decision-making – gliding past de Kooning to the river in winter.

When I wasn’t making arrangements for time away from work, seeing to medical consultations, or discovering in my stack of “how to” cancer books that the subject turns from treatment options to survival statistics when the text shifts to cancers at the top of the Gleason scale, I found my attention drawn to the waters below the house.  While my world seemed to be uprooting, as if slowly tilting down an embankment, the river stayed firmly horizontal, always changing yet visibly stable. In February’s sharp light, unobstructed by leaves or cat tails, the river seemed a study in contrasts.   Blocks of ice capped by mounds of snow formed great uneven ridges across the channel between our street and “Riverview Road” across the way.  But the surface of the water seemed uniformly dark in the early morning, then mirror-flat and shimmering in the cold afternoon sunshine. Contemplating the water, I tried hard to keep my own surface appearance steady in public view, masking the surges of fear and stress that pushed me into turmoil.

My days were filled with a new language, words I’d lived happily without for six decades—abstract, scary words that were hard to grasp because I was bent on forgetting them as soon as they reared up into my consciousness:  bladder neck contracture, external-beam radiation, laparoscopic pelvic lymphadenectomy, neurovascular bundles,  surgical margins. Some of it was military:  there were “zones,” “invasions, “blockades.” Some of it sounded like a collision of Freud and up to the minute sociology – all about “urges” and “dysfunction.” At its best it was a distraction, a chance to practice my standard coping mechanism of irony. At its worst, it was an open sesame into a world of pain and diminishment. Unable to concentrate on pop medical books with catchy chapter titles like “Diagnosis and Staging” and “What Are My Options,” half-hiding, reading as if I was holding my hand up to my eyes, fingers spread wide, so I could see and not see at the same time, I found myself looking more and more toward the steadying river that in its indifference to its surroundings, its regular unflustered downstate movement past my house, never failed to calm and clear my mind.

The Mohawk travels roughly 150 miles from its start as a tiny stream 35 miles or so north of Rome, NY, flowing generally south and east across New York’s  Mohawk Valley through small towns and cities that mix Indian and European names – Oriskinay (“the place of nettles”), Canajoharie (“the pot that cleans itself”),  Alplaus (“eel place”), Schenectady (“across the pine plains”), Niskayuna (“flat land where the corn grows”) – down to Cohoes Falls where it spills some 70 feet down into the Hudson Valley. My own slice of the river, looking full left and right as far as the eye can see from the dining room window without precipitating neck spasms, is about three-fourths of a mile.  The mystery of the unknown, both upstream and down from my window on the watery world, absorbs me. Often my puzzling extends no farther than wondering where that log that’s floating past me broke loose, or when will the ice be breaking up again with its loud and sudden rifle cracks. But faced with my sudden awareness of time’s limits, a  standard subject, of course, for the novels and poems I’ve been teaching for decades but which I seem not to have absorbed viscerally until just yesterday, I find myself wondering too about the history of the place where I’m standing – fifty years ago,  one hundred, two hundred.

On their ways west, how many may have casually looked up to exactly where I’m standing? Did they continue far beyond the bend in the river, or did they stop nearby, set down roots, raise families? Remembering my grandfather who once was a Canadian fur trapper, I think about the European traders who worked the river, and the Indians who were displaced. Remembering the old bridges I’ve driven across lately, I wonder if there were wooden bridges before iron and steel.  What happens to old things along the river, no longer useful, no longer wanted? Do they simply rot and crumble, finally drifting away, never to be seen or thought of again? Will any of the riverside construction I see each day be here when my grandchildren are old enough to notice it? What about the roads now jammed with workers headed into and out of the city? Or the Country Club a river’s width away, that fires glorious tracers into the night sky to celebrate weddings, graduations, and our national independence? The apple orchards down the road, a delicious autumn destination? I’ve no capacity to think in geologic time, of the slow dance of glacier melts and deposits tens of thousands of years ago. Of course I understand that things are always starting and ending; but I know, too, that for all practical purposes the river continues, which is, during these days of uncertainty, a comfort.

Two weeks after my sit down with Dr. R.  I have an appointment for a second opinion. The Head of Oncological Radiology at the hospital is a slender, confident, middle-aged guy, whose office lies deep within the bowels of the building.  To get there, my wife and I are instructed to follow the color coded stripes painted on the floor. Like Hansel and Gretel we keep to our trail of breadcrumbs, which takes us eventually to Elevator C and then to who knows what witch’s house in the windowless basement.

Though he must have a version of this conversation many times a week, Dr.S. is polite, attentive, unhurried. He reads through the chunky file of my medical history, sits forward in his swivel chair, leans into the conversation. He pulls out a yellow pad and begins to draw what he figures is going on inside my body. He talks about clinical “staging,” writes out a dizzying assemblage of numbers and letters that are used to indicate how virulent and how far along a tumor might be, offers a preliminary number and letter for my version of the beast – the bad news being my Gleason score; the good news being the likelihood of this being an early discovery of the tumor.

He explains what radiologists do:  3-D conformal radiation; intensity-modulated radiation therapy; proton beam radiation. Like the good student I have always been, I take notes like crazy, filling up pages of my notebook with fragments of techno-talk. As far as I can tell, all the radiological options do the same thing, burn and destroy tissue, trying to keep to a minimum the damaging of healthy cells while killing the killers.  Then the risks and side-effects part of the conversation:  inflammations, burnings, itchings, crampings, blockages, bleedings, strictures, pain that won’t quit, various diminishments and/or collapses of body functions. This fills up 20 miserable minutes, escalating to anecdotes about worst case scenarios, like the one about a man who has been compelled to use a Foley Catheter for more than a year because he has lost the ability to urinate, before Dr. S. tells me that he simply wouldn’t recommend any kind of radiation for a patient like me – strong enough to tolerate surgery, young enough to expect long life after a procedure, early diagnosis, likely for various reasons to have urinary “issues” after any sort of  beam treatment.   It’s hard to argue with a man who turns away business.

After extravagantly praising Dr. R’s surgical skills and reputation, he talks about my surgical options. The more he explains, the more anxious I become. Though I need to understand what’s coming my way – it is, after all, why we are spending our “second opinion” afternoon together – what  I suppose I’d like to hear from him, though I’d not admit to it,  is “do it this way, and do it now.”  I’d resent and distrust his certainty, but I’d be able to get on with my planning.  Instead, covering the same ground that Dr. R. and the books have mapped, he explains my two options. There’s the old way, traditional open surgery with the surgeon’s hands doing the cutting and in the body, and the surgeon’s senses of touch and sight immediately engaged; and the new way – robotic surgery performed by working a robot from behind a computer screen. Both procedures take you to the same place – removal of the cancerous organ and the cancerous tissue that may surround it.  But the robotic is initially less invasive, less traumatic.  The hospital stay is likely to be shorter, initial recovery quicker.

It seems a no brainer; less pain never loses its appeal. Until he begins to talk about survival statistics, which are generally good for the old ways and “too soon to call” for the new. He says we just don’t have enough data to know if robotic surgery is as effective a treatment as open surgery. Maybe in ten years everyone will be dancing with robots, but now, in this part of the country, it’s only a few, and they’re finding their way as they go. “Want to be part of their learning curve?” he asks,  pointing out that Robotic surgery might well add three to five hours to the time of an already long operation, and every hour under anesthesia comes with the risk of brain cell damage. “How many cells can you afford to lose?” he asks?

The issue of being on the “cutting edge” has never taken on so precise and troubling a meaning. Dr. R practices the old tried and true method and has done many hundreds of these surgeries, a statistic that both pleases me and makes me cringe. Does it matter that I’ve known and liked him for years, and if I switch to the latest technology I’ll just be encountering another surgeon for the requisite 6-8 hours of the procedure – being asleep for much of that time anyway? Should it matter? Am I comfortable with a doctor behind a monitor, a position that he probably hasn’t assumed all that often before seeing my inner organs in, I hope, vivid Technicolor?  Working all my adult life with metaphors not numbers, I’ve always been likely to come down on the side of Disraeli’s “there are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  But the stats I have before me speak to the possibility of my living or dying, and the debunking quote suddenly seems too cute and coy. Pondering my Gleason score again as I gather up the diagrams and my scribbled notes to leave,  trying to untie the tight knots in my stomach, I find myself hearing the explosive frustration of that other Gleason, Jackie, delivering Ralph Kramden’s  Honeymooners line: “one of these days . . . . one of these day, POW, right in the kisser.”  But is it my POW or my kisser?

If I could just leave the sickness books and notes behind, I think, even for a day or two – take a walk along the river, looking downstream toward the nearest river lock, letting the water and winter sky clear my view of things while all the accumulated information simply moves through me, like river tributaries, I’d know what to do . But the February freeze holds into March, and the ice and snow along the riverbank makes walking impossible. All I can do is look out from the safety of my cliffside perch to the uniform gray of the scene below, hoping to be able to differentiate distinct shapes.

With a smile, my brother-in-law tells me about a busy CEO who picked his treatment and his doctor by finding the place and practitioner nearest to his weekly staff meetings. A friend, snipping the grape vine, recommends a doctor that another has told me to avoid at all cost.  A colleague tells me that in Europe they rarely cut, just wait. Gotta die of something, he says. I make and break an appointment for yet another medical opinion. Time’s running along, and  caution or confidence, I’m really not sure which, keeps bringing me back to the place I began – the doctor I know best and the operating technique that has been around longest.

Much to my surprise, by the time I look up from my intense preoccupation with next steps and survival strategies, the seasons have shifted.  Ice jams have broken, and the surging river is carrying its usual early spring load of winter detritus – wrecked trees, beer cans, even an occasional abandoned cooking grill and kitchen appliance – down toward the falls at Cohoes.  My own stumbling rush to determine and set up my procedure –carrying its full load of fear and other psychic waste suddenly released into turbulent flow of my thoughts – has bumped to a halt against the reality of the surgeon’s schedule and operation room availability. Now knowing more than I care to about my body and the state of prostate cancer treatments, I spend the next month ducking thoughts of pain, disease and death, until finally I’m summoned to unload my medical history and get clearance at a series of pre-op appointments. My internist confirms that except for this disease I’m basically fit to go.  A cardiologist says, yes, my heart is beating. I’m scanned and screened, listing again and again the meds I take, other illnesses and surgeries I’ve had, including childhood miseries like mumps and chicken pox. They ask if there’s a history of cancer in the family, but what can it matter now that I’m not a statistic of possibility but an actual happening?

The admissions clerk who takes my insurance information tells me that she once had a parakeet named Harry. This bird, she says, was remarkable – talkative, with a large medical vocabulary, given to eating table scraps right off the plate, sleeping right on her shoulder during the early evening TV news broadcasts. It flew out the window one summer morning and she hasn’t seen it since. It’s probably dead, she figures, giving me a hard stare as if I were the bird reborn. Sad news, I say, wishing I could fly out the window with my namesake. Good luck, she says, chirpy.

Next morning at the hospital I’m banded like Harry the parakeet, ready to be tracked. Outfitted with a flapping hospital gown and a green hair net, an IV tube that will travel with me for days, I climb up on the gurney that will be my bed for the day. I’m attached to a host of machines that monitor blood pressure, blood chemistry, heart beat. A nurse asks me how I respond best to indicating pain – visually, with a series of smiley and frowny faces that will mark my threshold? Numerically on a 1-5 basis with 1 equal to no pain and 5 as cataclysmic? With actual words like extreme, moderate, mild? I opt for words, as they seem to me to offer the best chance for maintaining dignity. I have one final go at the toilet, a first and last conversation with the anesthesiologist, a jokey exchange with Dr. R about how well rested we both feel, then surgical oblivion.

I wake to nurses flowing around me, like quick water round a floating tree trunk. One leans in to welcome me back, to ask how I’m feeling, to tell me that Dr. R. has already come by and that all went well, though I remember nothing of that and can’t really focus on what it means. He has explained it all to my wife, she says, who’ll be coming in from the waiting room any minute now. Slowly I understand that I’m in the recovery room, fuzzy headed, tightly and heavily wrapped around my belly with some kind of surgical bandages, and, oddly, down near my ankles, fitted with pulsating leggings that rhythmically squeeze blood through my legs and thighs to prevent clotting. I seem engulfed by a spider web of tubes – some, like the catheter and drain, will be my unwanted constant  companions for many days; others are just for the post-surgical moment,  part of testing and measuring my return to the world.

I seem to have questions, but the words I form disappear before they can get from somewhere inside my head to out my mouth. I feel muddy and sluggish, and when my wife comes in, she simply sits, her hand on mine.  Later, when I can listen, she tells me the news – no apparent metastasis, margins and lymph nodes clean. The downside is that given the aggressiveness of the cancer, not all of the nerve bundles on either side of the prostate, the nerves that enable erectile function, could be spared. What I know is that I am still in the world, a doped but recognizable version of myself. The rest, for now, is abstract – issues for some future recovery time.

The nurse who greets me in the place where I’ll be parked for the better part of a week is efficient and cheerful. She demonstrates the morphine drip that I can use for pain control. Just squeeze here, she says. It won’t do more than two jolts every twenty minutes, but that should be plenty.  If you need assistance, she says, just press this button –it’s what I’m here for. I’ve got the room to myself, though a plaster Jesus hangs above me on each wall, watching.  It’s part of the ambience of this Catholic Hospital, the trade off, I suppose, for having private rooms available. His repeated presence on the cross, wracked with pain for all our sins, speaks to my physical discomfort, unsettling the room. The body is what preoccupies me, not my spiritual well being, and if I could move, I’d take him down. Maybe if I ring a nurse she could take the little Jesuses away.  Within minutes, drifting in and out of sleep, I hardly notice them.

The nurses, arriving and departing, mark the minutes and hours of my new days. Every half hour they come to write out the statistics that represent me. When chills and fever flash through me, they shift the cocktail in my IV drip. When my catheter bag is full, they drain it, measuring my urine before they carry it to the toilet. They change my sweat soaked sheets and gown, barely disturbing me. Some are chatty and playful, some quiet, a few somber, cheerless and put upon. With all of them those first few days I try hard not to be a bother; my goal is not to be noticed at all.  Perhaps I’m guided by an instinct of appreciation and cooperation. Or maybe it’s just a way of fooling myself into feeling that I’m not really helpless. The puzzle that no illness guide books prepare you for is just how to give over with grace to being suddenly needy after a lifelong habit of independent action and coping.

As if to throw that question at me, a man I can’t see, but who is clearly in his own world of pain across the hall, screams his discomfort constantly in a voice that can’t be calmed or ignored.  “Nurse, Nuuuuurse, NURSE”—he  shouts it over and over – “Help me.” It comes in waves slapping against the walls of my room, and every room within reach. It kills sleep.

I try to picture my vocal neighbor, frightened and shocked by a kind of pain that’s completely new to him. I want to walk out into the hall, grab the first nurse I see, guide her into his room. “See,” I’ll say, “this man needs you. Do what you can for him. Do what you should for him.”  But for now the best I can manage is to be still, somewhere between lying down in a heap and slumped up in bed. “What’s going on over there,” I ask when a young nurse stops by to run a magical thermometer around my forehead and the side of my face. Not to worry, she says, they’ll get him sorted out. But the wailing goes on, endlessly. Later, when my wife comes in, she shuts the door behind her to dampen the noise. Next time it’s earplugs all around, I say, half smiling. Maybe it’s the morphine haze speaking out of my mouth, or my own pain answering his. Or maybe it’s the real me coming out at last under duress.  I’d like to choke him, I think, Duck Tape his mouth – just enough to bring peace to the surgical recovery wing.

Ever accommodating, Dr. R. manages a room change for me. But to my surprise, by mid- afternoon of my second day, I hear loud and clear from just across my new stretch of hallway, “NURSE. NURSE, Can’t anybody help me?” – as steady as Ticktock in Oz, as shrill as a dentist’s drill. My neighbor’s twin in pain? The man himself, moved down the hall too, so he can keep me awake? This time, laughing in helpless disbelief, I float away on it, the white noise of another man’s discomfort lapping round my head.

“Nothing by mouth,” the sign at the foot of my bed says in scribbled block letters, like a hasty judgment at last on the quality of my communication skills.  It’s one more instruction, of course, about care and feeding, but despite that, I’m given the daily menu which lists grandiose sounding entrees for some, chicken broth, apple juice and jello for others. I’m headed for the clear liquid diet in a few days, and surprisingly in a rush to get there, since I can’t even begin to be considered for release until my digestion is up and running. Before 7 AM of my second morning, a polite and enthusiastic man stops at the bed to collect the menu. Apologetic but optimistic, he assures me that any day now he’ll be there to take my order.  By the time “any day” comes round, “clear liquids only” has replaced my end-of-bed instructions, and Carlos, the food man whom I’ve gotten to know pretty well from his three times a day stop-bys to drop off or pick up menus, seems genuinely pleased to have me moving into his sphere. At lunch, he offers a grand flourish as he whisks the cover off my main course, a bowl of broth, then unveils a hunk of orange jello, my dessert. He wishes me “Bon Appétit,” and he means it, as proud of his presentation as if he were delivering at a four star restaurant.  A sweet man, I think, images dancing in my head of the “poor Chinese baby,” who, lacking a spoon, struggled to discover the flavor of his wiggly jello, and Bill Cosby cooing to his enraptured TV audience about how there’s always room for J-E-L-L-O.

The theory seems to be that when you can eat, you can move – your digestive system, your foggy brain, finally your feet, all ready for essential action. This is beyond sitting up, or transfer from bed to a reclining chair, which happened early-on with a nurse’s persistence and my wife’s help. It’s about walking, the sooner the better –my ticket out. And now that I have full access to a gruel that would make Oliver Twist cringe, but which I’m pleased to call my own, I’m encouraged to try.  Light headed and leaning hard on my wife while a nurse stands at the foot of my bed poised for emergency action should I stumble and fall, I begin with a small shuffle, imagining Fats Waller’s voice declaring “Come on and walk that thing! Oh I never heard of such walkin’! Mercy!”

My first effort gets me out the room door and to the nurse’s station down the hall, clutching at the seams of my absurd gown in a futile effort to maintain some dignity, my IV drip wheeling along beside me, my urine bag flapping against my leg.  In seconds that feel like minutes I’m back in my reclining chair, worn out and sweating, leaking fluid from under my bandages where a drain has pulled loose, and from the edges of my Foley catheter and a partially detached bag of saline solution. I feel wet and swampy, an unwieldy boat stuck in a mucky stream. But it’s a start. Throughout the afternoon and the morning to follow, I float myself out into the stream of hospital traffic, marking my path with repeated trips. Right turn at the door, slow motion to the desks at the end of the hall where the nurses are chatting and collecting meds to give out  to the residents of  the surgical recovery wing,  circling to the other side of the hallway and back to my dock, leaning hard against my wife’s steadying and steering arm.

Trying to be chipper, visibly earnest, well behaved and full of unquenchable optimism, I feel instead like a visible voyeur, aimlessly peeping into rooms as I drift by on my way up the hall to health.  In each I see versions of myself,  exhausted and probably worried men and women too weary to read the magazines, newspapers, books their friends have brought, too tired or drugged to manage more than staring out a window, or channel-flicking through the day’s infomercials or soap operas. But I’m ahead of the game, worthy of ridiculous pride and praise, up and about and not climbing back into bed until I’ve shown the staff and myself that I have enough get up and go to be up and gone.

Fats Domino forever has his walkin’(“yes, indeed”); Nancy Sinatra has her boots made for walking “all over you”; and I have my non-skid hospital slipper socks. By the third day, I’m able to get from C wing all the way into B wing and back. I ache everywhere with it, and sometimes need to stop to breathe; but getting out is a powerful motivator, and by the end of the day I’m told that “if everything still looks good” I should be back by the river tomorrow.  I’m more dependent on my wife and nurses for encouragement, energy, support for all simple tasks, than I can bring myself to face. But the idea of home has taken on huge proportions and every hour I stay in the hospital makes me more fretful and peevish. Home, I think, is the place where I can look out at the sun and water surrounded by my things – feet up on the blue couch,   Paul Simon or Rostropovich on the stereo, Dickens or Tin Tin in my lap – anything’s possible in the right space and place.

Here are the hospital exit questions. Get them wrong and you’re going nowhere: Are you running a fever? Can you keep food down? Any unmanageable pain? Ten on a ten scale? All frowny faces?  Any bleeding?  Any discharge or red streaking around the incision?  Can you pass gas? No need for bowel movements, just plain old American gas indicating digestion in process. This one is make or break, and while modesty suggests restraint, necessity demands rudeness.  If you can fart you can fly. And late in the evening before my possible departure date, my body rewards me with everything I need for a ticket of leave.

Trying to dress for the world out there, I discover that in four days my pants have ceased to fit.  Swollen from the insult of the surgery, and gauze-packed from belly button to groin, I can barely pull up my chinos.  With a loose shirt over me, I just leave the zipper and button alone.  Bending to tie my shoes is out of the question, but my wife laughingly tells me to relax into helplessness while she wrestles on my gold toe crew socks and slips my sneakers over them. I try for nonchalance but physical dependency is a hard swallow. “It’ll be better,” my wife says, “just flow like a river.”

The metaphor is soft, but the drive home is hard, full of bumps and bounces that I’ve never noticed before. “Oh for cripes sake, the car’s not that old,” I complain to my wife, “what ever happened to the shocks?” Though my wife’s driving with exquisite care, each jerk and jolt says hold on tight, steady yourself, you’re not who you thought you were.

Finally, as if returning after a long trip, we turn up toward the house, familiar yet suddenly surprising.  I push myself out of the car, slowly. And up the stairs to the second floor, slowly. Into the queen sized bed with its extra firm mattress, so high off the floor that it hurts to climb in. Weary, worried, but home to heal at last,  dragging along my stiches and aches, my urine tube, catheter bag, hydrocodone tablets,   unsettling memories of the hospital, and Dr. R’s emergency number, I slip off to sleep as my wife shuts the blinds. So this, I think, is my new beginning.

The initial changes are not subtle. Though some only last weeks, some hang on for months or more. Some, it seems will be forever. I learn to sleep on my back to accommodate the large urine drainage bag I’ve come to think of as my new-age piss pot. It sits squat in a large green plastic bucket on the floor to my right. Sometimes the tube that feeds it gets tangled or pulls loose, making a mess that my wife has to clean up since I’m still unable to bend to below waist height. During the day, where I go, my bucket goes, as if I’m constantly looking around for a floor to wash; have bucket will travel. I remember once hearing Odetta sing “there’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza” and I suppose I should be grateful that this one is whole. But these days I feel Sisyphean, bound to the thing with no end in sight. If I want, there’s another way, a small bag that ties to my upper thigh – my dress bag. But as I’m rarely out and about these days, and the bag is unstable – leaking onto my pants leg rather than into the wash bucket, and needing to be changed often, it’s usually put aside for a “special occasion.”

“Oh, there’ll be some dripping for awhile, don’t let it bother you; it usually passes, ” the hospital resident who gave me my discharge papers had told me, as if I’ve become a faucet that needs tightening. But when the catheter comes out after three full weeks in place to allow the bladder to heal, I present a flood not a slow leak.  And like the overflow of the Mohawk in springtime, there’s no controlling it.

“Do your Kegels,” Dr. R tells me when I call in a near panic at the addition to my pile up of pain and indignity.  He means the pelvic squeezing exercises common to pregnant women and the rapidly aging of any gender. I might as well try to stop a runaway express train by holding out a raised arm or by simply willing it to slow down.  “Be patient,” he tells me. And in the meanwhile, get yourself some pads.”

They come in all sizes, these dams of human effluence. I shopped for them when my mother’s dementia stole her independence and I know the drill, from Super Plus Absorbency to Light Day Ultra Thins, but I’ve never thought of them for myself.  It means new larger underwear to accommodate the bulk; a new intimate relationship with the vagaries of  what I’ve begun to think of as the time bomb that is my body; and a new fretfulness at the prospect of potty re-training.  Depending on my Depends and trying to stay as empty as possible so as not to overwhelm their wick away capacities, I sit through hours at home that became days, then weeks, usually with a book in my hand, but mostly staring out at the river world beyond our house in a kind of trance- like waiting.

Friends phone and stop by, bringing news of ordinary doings from “out there.”    But as nothing stops comfortable conversation like the feeling of the body emptying while visitors sit by unaware of the secret interior drama, and nothing disrupts congeniality like sudden and frequent trips to the nearest toilet to change urine soaked pads, it’s always a relief to regain the quiet of the empty house and the river beyond it.

“A half a day’s journey from the Colonie, on the Mohawk River, there lies the most beautiful land that the eye of man ever beheld,”  Arendt Van Curler wrote in a 1643  real  estate developer’s sort of letter to Killian Van Rensselaer in Holland. There used to be a marker of the spot he meant at one end of Schenectady’s downtown river bridge to Scotia.  Two centuries later, the river was still flowing sweetly in the local imagination, celebrated in the sentimental ballad of “Bonny Eloise, / The belle of the Mohawk vale.” “Oh sweet is the vale,” the song goes, “where the Mohawk gently glides / On, its clear winding way to the sea, / And dearer than all storied streams on the earth beside / Is the bright rolling river to me. ”

But the human history of the river is darker than that, cloudy and roiling enough to make me feel a bit like Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott as I sit by my window on the world contemplating health, an observer “sick of shadows” but fearing a reality that can “come upon” me as “a curse” of recognition of things as they are. The Mohawk that eases me into a mood of recovery with the promise of energy and change in its flux and flow, and stability in its often unbroken surfaces, can fool me with the mirror of its glassy impenetrability that hides entangling weeds, twisting currents, eddies downriver of where I sit.

The word itself discomforts. “Mohowaug,”  the name Mohican Indians gave their enemies, “eaters of living creatures.”  The Dutch made it “Mahakuaas”; our New England forefathers and mothers called them “Mohawks” conjuring up birds of prey, killers of the sky. And killing defined life along the river for hundreds of years.

Along its banks, Father Jogues was murdered and martyred, fingers burned and crushed, flesh cut from back and arms, head lopped off and displayed in plain view, his body thrown into the Mohawk.  Here, as decade passed into decade, war passed into war – involving all river dwellers – French and English, Dutch and Palatine Settlers, Tories and Patriots;  Huron,  Seneca,  Oneida,  Mohegan and Mohawk.  Slaughter in battles bloodied the Mohawk Valley – at Wolf Hollow, Oriskany,  Mount’s Clearing, Fairfield, Stone Arabia,  Beukendaal, Klock’s Field, Herkimer.  It’s one of the first things you learn about the place. At what used to be the North Gate of the stockade in downtown Schenectady, a sign marks the massacre of 1690, when, in the hard February cold of 1690, two French lieutenants with the sweet civilized sounding names of Le Moyne de Saine-Helene and Daillebout de Montet, and the Mohawk Chief Kryn, led a force of nearly 200 into a sleeping town, burning the city to the ground, scalping families, old and young.

Sir William Johnson, Joseph Brant, John and Walter Butler and their destroying Rangers, mythic heroes and bogey men to frighten children, left their shaping marks on memory and imagination along the killing grounds of the river’s fields and flood plains.  Destruction followed the water, yet renewal did as well – the making of forts, farms, outposts and villages, cities, leading finally to houses like the one I’m sitting in.

The river shaped the places built alongside it even as it offered the promise and vision of next places.  Bateaux and Durham boats, eventually Erie Canal barges and packet-boats, carried goods and people east to the heart of commerce, and through the Appalachian Plateau to the unknown continent beyond.

This river mattered , as all rivers matter, because it moved people, things,  stories, along its currents.  But the cost was high. By the early 1900s the river east of Utica was officially declared dead, victim of its many users and abusers – tanneries, factories, sawmills and gristmills, oil and chemical barges spilling into the water at canal transfer stations. The stink was potent until the last quarter of the last century, when New York’s Pure Waters Act sought to undo the disaster, enabling a natural recovery, bringing back the water I watch, as if newly made to wash my eyes each day as I settle in for viewing.

One morning our heron is back.  He comes with the early summer fishing boat that parks from 5 to 7 a.m. each day near the wetlands below our house.  Bird and man are both patient, waiting for underwater movement before flashing into motion.  A few weeks after, snapping turtles, some nearly two feet in diameter, begin their long climb up the river bluffs, stumbling around in the scrub grass of our sandy back yard to find a place to lay their eggs, before falling back over the cliff edge to flip and tumble back to the water.  Dozens of them, their hard work done, climb out on fallen tree trunks in the tidal pond to sun themselves.  At night, red foxes tear up the nests, devour the eggs, but some hatchlings survive to reach the river and enter its protective flow.  Red, green, and yellow canoes and kayaks begin to dot the waters. Silver crew-shells flash by in early morning and late afternoon.   Grand lumbering cabin cruisers push slowly west and east, white caps ruffling in their wakes.  Gulls circle, and now and again a red-tailed hawk or an eagle floats on a big wind, gliding high above the watery world.

That the river is finally unknowable and unconquerable is its saving grace, and my own.  Moving outside me, it returns me to myself, reminding me of the mystery of my own flowing veins, arteries, the twists and turns of my life, always moving, even in what seem to be moments stalled in pain and diminishment.  Months after diagnosis and surgery my wife and I walk together down to the river shore. By now the grass is head high, the ground spongy under foot. Kneeling, I put my hand in the cold flow, pull out a few stones ground smooth by the pressure of the water that embraces and then parts for my hand. I listen to the hush and surge of the water, hear the river’s voice from past to present. Hold steady, it says, for the wild ride to come.

Morning Shadows by the River

—Text by Harry Marten & Paintings by Ginit Marten


Harry Marten has written a memoir (But That Didn’t Happen to You, XOXOX Press) and books on Conrad Aiken and Denise Levertov. His work has been published in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The Gettysburg Review, The Cortland Review, The Ohio Review, Agenda, Prairie Schooner, New England Review (and NER/BLQ when it was called that), The Centennial Review, Inertia Magazine, other magazines and journals. He taught at Union College, Schenectady, NY, for decades, retiring at the end of August, 2012. “Healing Waters” is part of a book-in-progress concerned with life along three rivers: the Mohawk (NY), the Ouse (UK), and the Corrib (Ireland).

Aug 082012

This is an essay about fathers and flyfishing (and the fierce competitiveness of fishermen), about the gray aura of death, about nature and love, about coming back to the beginning of things, and about (even if tangentially) becoming a writer. David Carpenter is an old, though (unhappily) seldom seen, friend from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (where dg was a once newspaper copyeditor at the Star-Phoenix, yea, these many years ago). In an essay on humor published in my collection Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, I use one of David’s books as a example:

Between the twin horrors of love and the loss of love, it often seems there is little opportunity for satisfaction and happiness. So that comedy’s two faces, Janus-like, are a kind of voodoo, at once recognizing and evading the truth we fear.

David Carpenter has written a novel called Jewels about a homosexual librarian from Saskatoon. In a wonderful sequence of scenes, a jealous husband barges into Julian’s apartment accusing Julian of having an affair with his wife; Julian rushes out, leaving his gay friends and the jealous husband to sort out their sexual misunderstandings; he takes a lonely walk by the river, and then retreats to the darkened library only to walk in on the wife and her paramour in the act of love. This is a deliciously stage-managed comedy of errors that deals out pain and laughs in about equal proportion, and the laughs are a spell against our feeling too directly the utter wretchedness of Julian’s life.

Aside from the “utter wretchedness” part, this is about as good an introduction to David Carpenter’s writing as I can imagine — he’s a gentle, witty, generous and very human author.



One June morning in 1968, while wrestling with a stump, my father had a heart attack. He was sixty-two. My mother packed him into the car and drove him to the hospital. That night she phoned and told me to meet her at the cardiac ward the next morning. I saw her standing just outside his room. She had spotted me coming down the corridor, and when we made eye contact, she shook her head. No, she seemed to say, he might not make it.

Dr. Flanagan had a different take on father’s condition.

“Your father is very lucky we got to him when we did.” A moment later he added, “But yes, your father is a very sick man.” I tried to put this very bad, good news together: a not quite massive heart attack. The next week would be crucial in determining his chances for recovery. My father wanted to talk but he could scarcely whisper. I knelt down to hear him.

“It’s amazing,” he said, “in here, how they fix you up.”

We visited with my father and consulted with his team, and I wrote to my brother not to worry; there was nothing he could do but wait for further developments.

After a few days of guarded hopes and worried looks my mother said, “You may as well go fishing with your friends. Not much is going to happen this weekend.”

The doctors claimed that my father was stable, and he did seem to be rallying in small ways. But he’d been thinking about his mortality in the way that first-time heart attack patients do, and he was clearly depressed. He looked gray.


There is a cabin belonging to the Anderson family that sits on the shores of Lake Edith, which in turn lies almost in the shadow of Pyramid Mountain in the heart of Jasper National Park. At one end of the lake, a small feeder stream winds through the gloom of a forest of ferns, thick bush and Douglas firs. It bubbles up from beneath the massive roots of an old fir and murmurs its way over the gravel and into Lake Edith. The lake is shaped like a pair of sunglasses, front-on, and it would have been two small lakes but for the presence of a shallow channel connecting the two bodies of water. The water is absolutely clear. From the shallows to the depths, this lake covers the spectrum from pale green to near-purple. The rainbows that spawn in the tiny stream, and in the spring-fed beds of gravel out on the lake, are pampered by a sumptuous array of nymphs, bugs and minnows. The rainbows of Lake Edith, when I was a young fly fishing fool, grew bigger and fatter than any other trout in the Park. Right at sundown the big ones would cruise the shallows for emerging insects a few yards from shore. The water is so clear and placid in the evening that you could see them coming a block away.


My father was a practical man and a family man. He never crossed the line on such things as drunkenness, womanizing, gambling or anything of an obsessive nature. He taught me and my brother about fishing, but he could never have predicted how easily I would become addicted to flyfishing. I read Outdoor Life and Field & Stream and stocking stats and fishing guides with the devotion of a literary scholar. Writers like Roderick Haig-Brown or Isaac Walton had conversations with me in my dreams.

On the subject of politics, my father always said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of idealistic quests, my father said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of various girls, he said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of flyfishing, he said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of saving my money, he said, Now you’re talkin, son.

I learned how to cast flies with my friend Hyndman one winter when I was fifteen. Every Wednesday night we would take the bus to a school in Edmonton’s east end. We would practise casting under the tutelage of an old Scotsman, whipping flies beneath basketball hoops at target patterns on the gym floor. Our guru never tired of telling us, Laddie, y’kenna catch a fesh if yer line’s no in the water. By the end of the winter we could cast a straight line forty feet or more and tie a few basic flies. I remember a streamer we called the Kilburn Killer, which imitated a minnow about two inches long.

My father paid for it all. My first fly rod, my subscription to Outdoor Life, my membership in the Edmonton flyfishing club. Have fun, but don’t get carried away. At fifteen years, I was the monster he created. Thank God my friend Hyndman was just as obsessive as I.


The Andersons’ cabin at Lake Edith was a social, psychological, spiritual, piscatorial, culinary smorgasbord of conviviality. When I arrived on the evening of opening day (always June 15th in the Park), Lynn Anderson (lean, tall, a hiker, and incurably sociable) threw open the door. Credence Clearwater Revival was celebrating their love for Suzy Q and everybody was dancing. We were in our twenties. Lynn and I were schoolteachers. She had yet to become a fulltime artist, her boyfriend Lloyd had yet to become a lawyer, and I had yet to become a writer. Anything was possible. That’s what Credence Clearwater was telling us as we danced. That’s what the wine was telling us, what the month of June was telling us: Life, opportunity and Suzy Q were ours for the asking. We were, I’m sure, getting carried away.

The plan was to party till four or five in the morning and then hit the lake. There would be a prize for the biggest rainbow. Perhaps only a few of us took the contest seriously, but I was one of them. My arch rival in this endeavor was Scot Smith, another victim of flyfishing addiction.

Maybe a dozen of us left the party before dawn and went down to the water to cast from shore or troll from the Andersons’ canoe or fish from some other boat. The water was calm and so was the fishing, and then the sun rose, the insects got going, and friend Scot had a hit, and Lloyd got a hit, and one of Lynn’s brothers got a hit and I got a hit, and all over the lake, eager voices, mostly male, were calling out I got one or I lost the (expletive) fish or I just saw a monster or you’ve just crossed my (expletive) line again or I got another one.

By late morning, Lynn was barbecuing a rainbow that was, if I remember correctly, just shy of five pounds. It was one of Scot’s fish, so the bar for the biggest fish had been set.

One by one, weary anglers all over the lake retired to their sleeping bags and their cabin bunks, and when at last I brought in a five-pounder and claimed the prize, Scot was the only angler from our party left out on the water. Before long, perhaps late in the afternoon, he came in with a fat silver rainbow so clearly bigger than mine that I knew my labours had only just begun. I grabbed my waders and set out for the other side of the lake, the shaded end where the little feeder stream flowed in, wearing for itself a shallow channel that dropped steadily off into the deep water where the lake followed the spectrum from pale green to blue to purple.

This was where the last of the ragged ones patrolled the shoreline. The spring spawn was over now, so these ones were legal to catch. Their numbers had dwindled to about a dozen from more than a hundred. When I arrived, these last ones were nosing through the shallows like the last revellers to leave a party. They made half-hearted runs at their rivals and continued to circle past the redds as though caught up and exhausted by the perplexing mysteries of love that Credence Clearwater still sings about.

There were no fish remaining in the feeder stream. The rainbows in the shallows were rolling past in about three feet of water in front of me. They seemed to prefer the gravel here to that in the little stream, where they would have been vulnerable to predators. They all looked pretty big to me, but one dark male seemed longer than any other fish in that exhausted band of spawn-fraught rainbows.

I waded in and stripped some line from my reel.


It is fun to imagine my father watching this moment of intense concentration from the beach, or reading this little adventure of mine in a magazine. He would approve. He would say, That’s real living, son. He wasn’t exactly mad about my books. My writing about self-deluded drunks, gay librarians, libidinous women, doomed victims, godless womanisers and reclusive intellectuals probably left him wondering where he had gone wrong. These things were absolutely uncarpentarian. But writing about the sporting life was okay with Paul Carpenter. It was something he could show his friends without embarrassment. He was like most fathers of his generation. He wanted his son to have a good job, a good marriage, and if he had to do this writing stuff, let it be a hobby. Let’s not get carried away.

A few of my friends from that summer were married, and most of them were paired-off and likely entering their own bouts of intense spawning with their partners, so the month of June, up at Lake Edith, had for them even more than me, a sweet and urgent tumescence with which the rainbow trout, decked in their deepest greens, reds, pinks and blues, seemed in tune. Or no, perhaps it was the other way around: my friends, besotted in deepest desire, were in tune with all those pink-sided cupids sweeping their tales in slow, exhausting circles over the gravel beds and ever so often thrusting their bodies into the silted bottom of Lake Edith.

Why did I do this? Was winning a prize for the biggest fish so important that I would disturb this last bout of spawning? Was this done for bragging rights? Or, in the absence of any spawning in my own life, was I simply sublimating into something over which I had some control? Socially at that time, and sexually, romantically, I was a fish out of water.

Enough of this. The fish are still gliding by and I need to tend to them.

I waded as close as I dared to the action before me and sent out a cast that went beyond the school of circling trout.

All day long I had been thinking about my gray-faced father in his bed at the cardiac ward, and how surprised he would be at the sight of a huge trout. I would catch it for him. Well, no, I would catch a big one for me and then present it to him. He’d get a kick out of it and maybe stop looking quite so gray. I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And I was getting carried away. When you want your father to be proud of you, you are probably wading through uncertain waters and unlikely to inspire pride in anyone–until you get over this need to impress him.

I let my line sink to the sandy bottom and began a slow retrieve. The fly I had chosen was my big Kilburn Killer, a streamer fly I’ve never seen in a store. It ploughed through the sand and gravel like a somnolent minnow with a death wish, an inebriate who showed up at the wrong party and risked becoming part of the menu.

When the great dark rainbow came back my way, I pulled the stickleback up from the gravel and drew it towards me in short irregular jerks. The big rainbow went right for it. He mouthed it, I raised the rod, and he was on. He bucked around in slow motion sending the other fish outwards from the spawning trenches in a wide explosion of silt. He moved off to my right, changed directions, flopped around, kicked up a mighty spray with his tail and took off for deep waters.

“Verrrry nice,” someone said.

I couldn’t recognize the voice and I couldn’t turn around. Perhaps he was a cabin owner or a conservation officer. I heard the click of a camera, an expensive sound, an authoritative slide of the shutter.

The old rainbow fought stubbornly, but never once did he jump out of the water or do a high-speed run to take my ratchet into the upper registers.

“If I had a cottage on this lake,” the voice said, “I would not go swimming out there. Not with guys like that in the neighbourhood.”

“He’s a big one,” I said to the voice.

It did not sound like a fisherman’s voice. It was lisping and pedantic, and mildly sarcastic, even when opportunities for sarcasm were unavailable.

“Rots a ruck, buddy.”

This is the point in the story where the angler gazes down on the dark bluegreen back, the wide band of deepest rose on the side, flecked with dark spots from head to tail, and he sees his fly protruding from the corner of the kiped jaw, and he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the old trout. He bends down, detaches his fly. He holds the trout by the tail and moves its body back and forth, opening and closing the gill-covers, reviving his old adversary, and sending him back to spawn again.

That didn’t happen. I brained the old rainbow with a piece of wood and held him up for inspection.

“Do you think you could kind of clean it up for me?”

I looked into the face of a man with a notebook. The mystery voice with the Daffy Duck lisp belonged to a newspaper reporter. Another man, a quiet fellow with a camera, stood beside him.

These two had come all the way from Edmonton to cover opening day for the sports page of The Edmonton Journal. The cameraman shot me and my trout from several more angles while the man with the notebook asked me questions. And then with a rush of purest joy and more than a trace of vanity, I knew how I would give my father a boost.


My mother was sitting in a chair by my father’s bed, reading a section of the newspaper and occasionally looking over in my father’s direction. He had gone through the front section and the business reports and the editorials and made it at last to the sports page. He pulled a straight pin from the top pocket of his hospital gown and began to cut out an article. Did other people’s fathers do this? I don’t know. He handed the article to my mother with the usual comment.

“Something for the boys.”

My mother perused the picture and the article, which she had already read, and handed it back to my father.

“Remind you of someone?” she said.

Perhaps my father’s eyesight had been affected by the heart attack, or perhaps he hadn’t been wearing his glasses. Or perhaps he’d become preoccupied with his own mortality. But perhaps as well at this moment my father would have heard a note of mischief in my mother’s voice. He looked once more at the trout in the photo and this time he read the photo caption.

“As I live and breathe.”


As I live and breathe. Coming from a man who was so recently on the critical list, these words seemed well chosen indeed. My father’s recovery dates from the day he saw a picture of his son in The Edmonton Journal. It’s one thing, I guess, to catch a big fish; it’s quite another thing to have it celebrated for all to see. The Carpenter family witnessed a tiny miracle that summer.

I had decided on the shores of Lake Edith that my father needed a homecoming gift. I took my frozen rainbow to a taxidermist. The process took longer than expected, so I presented my trophy to my father on his birthday, more than a month after he’d returned from the hospital. It was attached to an oval mount made of stained maple, a twenty-seven inch stuffed male with all the original spawning colors shamelessly enhanced by the taxidermist. My parents decided to hang it in the den.

A time came when my parents sold their home in Alberta and retired to the gentler climate of British Columbia’s coast. They had to downsize drastically, so they gave me back my rainbow trophy. They did this rather easily, as though the value I had attached to it was in excess of their own sentiments. This makes sense to me now, because if my father had caught the rainbow and presented it to me while I was convalescing, I might do the same.

I hid the stuffed rainbow in the basement of my house in Saskatoon. I suppose I did not want anyone to think that I made trophies from the fish I caught. It seemed, by that time, disrespectful to the fish.

Honor, my girlfriend and a visual artist, agreed. She had been photographing the mounted rainbow in the following way:

Shot #1, the head of my fish just up to the gills; Shot # 2, the tail of my fish; both shots in black and white. She framed the head shot on the left side of my study window and the tail shot on the right side. Missing in the middle, of course, was the body of the fish. An entire window separated the head from the tail.

One winter night in early 1985, Honor said, “Why not return your fish to that feeder stream?”

At first this suggestion seemed like a bleeding heart gesture. But the more I thought about it, her idea gained an aura of atonement, and it took hold. The following August we drove west to the Rockies and found a motel in the Jasper townsite. The next morning we drove out to Lake Edith, and for the first time, Honor saw the Anderson cabin, the view of Pyramid Mountain, the two sections of the lake and the small feeder stream.

There were very few people around the lake and there was no evidence of fish. The Park had stopped stocking many years earlier, and a very small population of trout remained, perhaps the progeny of those few that had managed to spawn uninterrupted in or near the feeder stream.

Honor and I had work to do. The light was fading rapidly as it does this far north in late August. We had brought a hammer and a sturdy five inch nail. We rolled a large log over to a tree we had selected, a black spruce that perched above the feeder stream. I climbed onto the log so that my boots were a good three feet off the ground. I detached the trout from its maple mount and drove the spike through the middle of the trout and into the spruce tree. We rolled the log away, and as Honor photographed my rainbow, I had a last look at him. It was drifting above its creek, pointed upstream towards the pure source of his water.

I was thinking about my father, the man who taught me to fish, but who never made time for himself to learn flyfishing. He had taken me and my friend Hyndman fishing on many occasions when he might more happily have lazed around the back yard, resting from his labours. Now he was an old man living with his wife far from the prairie of his youth, and unaware of this hairbrained scheme cooked up by my girlfriend and me. My father, who didn’t die after all. I was thinking that this moment by the creek, with the sound of Honor’s camera reminding me of another camera from many years ago, was an appropriate ending to our story.


But a story doesn’t end until someone writes it down. Honor and I got married in 1990. I had lost that fish-out-of-water feeling of being the odd man out. Oh yes, and she loves to flyfish.

It was time for my annual drive out to British Columbia to see my parents in their apartment. To get there, we had to go through Jasper, so once again we got a motel and went for a drive near Lake Edith. A man was fishing close to the feeder stream, and he noticed Honor and I looking for our old friend the rainbow up in his spruce tree.

We found the tree that had been his resting place, and the spike that had impaled him up there, but the rainbow was gone. We approached the angler, who was not a tourist but a local man.

“Bet I know what you was lookin for.”

“What?” said Honor.

“You was lookin for that Jesus big fish.”

We played dumb. “What fish would that be?” I said.

“Up there, over there, used to be a old rainbow trout, nailed to the tree. Huge thing.” He spread out his hands in that hyperbolic way of anglers. “No guff, it was three foot long. Musta weighed twenny pounds.”

Six pounds would be closer to the mark, several ounces lighter than Scot Smith’s biggest rainbow from the summer of ‘68. From having recently spawned, mine was a lean fish.

The man reeled in a gob of worms and a bobber and checked his bait for signs of predatory behavior. Then he stood and launched his wormy delight far out into the lake.

“Yessir, they’re in here.”

Playing dumb to the end, I asked him, “How did this monster fish get up in a tree?”

“They say it was some kind of a … like a totem, eh? Indian guy?”

I asked him where the fish was now.

“No one knows,” the man said, lounging next to his cooler. “Figure somebody took it.” He looked up at me. “For luck, eh?”

I still have Honor’s black and white photographs, the ones of the tail and the head separated by the window in my study. It’s the big space in between that draws one’s attention and invites one to imagine just how big that trout was. So it’s no longer a trophy, a vanity, a thing to make my father proud of me. It’s just a reminder now of that summer when my father looked over the edge but didn’t get carried away.

— David Carpenter


David Carpenter was conceived in Saskatoon and born in Edmonton, where he grew up on Saskatchewan stories. He moved to Saskatoon in 1975 and began writing the following year. He spent 4 years working on a novel entitled The Loving of Michael Goggins, a modern version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His main characters were a Titania-like young woman, a pudgy Bottom-like man, and an homme fatal disc jockey. It was a story of ill-fated love, despair, romantic disenchantment and all those youthful, fun emotions. He finished the novel in 1980 and it was rejected in 18 days, a Canadian indoor record. That same year he finished his first short story and sent it to Saturday Night. They phoned him one evening when he was in his kitchen standing beneath a high beam. He had often tried to jump high enough to touch this beam, but he could never quite reach it. The editor told him that Saturday Night would like to “buy” his story. He had never heard that sentence uttered before. The editor asked him if $2,000 would be all right, and he told the man yes, that would be all right. Carpenter gave this reply in a tone suggesting that this sort of thing happened with boring regularity. When the phonecall ended, he leapt up into the air and slapped he beam above him and returned, very slowly, to earth. His novel Niceman Cometh was his 10th book, a story about a Titania-like single mom, a pudgy Bottom-like dreamer, and a flesh-foolish disc jockey in the Saskatoon of the 1990s. He launched a new book of fiction in the fall of 2009, a collection of novellas entitled Welcome to Canada.

       Carpenter is currently at work on Volume One of The Literary History of Saskatchewan. He also just finished working on a nonfiction book, A Hunter’s Confession, about the rise and fall of hunting as a pastime in North America.

       Carpenter’s writing credo is as follows (and it may not apply to poets): Most writers must learn to make a pact with dullness. Not boredom, or lack of imagination or passion, but dullness of routine. Keep your daily appointment with the computer screen and keep your ass on the chair until you’ve reached your daily quota. However rich your inner life may be, seek also the dullard within.

Jul 122012

Herewith an excerpt from Edouard Levé‘s Autoportrait, translated by Lorin Stein and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  On first encounter you might feel reluctant toward Levé’s prose since the sentences tend not to work together as in a standard narrative. The rhythm of his “I like,” “I have,” “I would,” I + verb will pull you along, though.  Also I’ve tried to choose a section with some of the more humorous (note: darkly) lines.

A few months ago, when The Paris Review ran a pre-publication excerpt of Autoportrait, I experimented with writing in its style because it looked too easy, too random.  It proved more difficult than expected.  A page or two was all I could muster.  I felt too exposed, too vulnerable. Also, to my surprise, the truthfulness of what I’d written started to feel rather shaky.  It’s extraordinary that Levé extents his self-revealing for 117 pages, and at times it’s painful. He lays out so much about himself that he seems to disappear in the bluster of his statements, a kind of self-erasure through self-exploratory prose perhaps meant to showcase his life. As he writes: “If I look in the mirror for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything.”

Author photo via The Balloon Journey.

— Jason DeYoung

I reuse grocery bags as trash bags. I separate my recycling, more or less. Drinking puts me to sleep. In Hong Kong I knew someone who went out three nights a week, no more, no less. I believe that democracy is spreading in the world. The modern man I sing. I feel better lying down than standing up and better standing than seated. I admire the person who thought up the title The Last House on the Left. A friend told me about the “Red Man of the Tuileries,” I don’t remember what he did but the name still gives me shivers. The pediatrician my mother took me to humiliated generations of children, including me, with this riddle: “If Vincent leaves a donkey in one meadow and goes into another meadow, how many donkeys are there?” all said in a measured voice, and then he’d say, “There’s only one donkey—you” to any child, that is, every child, who didn’t answer “One.” I want to write sentences that begin “Ultimately.” I can understand “It’s the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning,” but once we get to “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning of the end of the beginning,” all I hear is a bunch of words. I have sometimes annoyed an interlocutor by systematically repeating the last word he said. I never get tired of saying La fifille à son pépère (grandfather’s darling). One of my friends earns the admiration of some and the indifference of others by knowing the name and number of every département in France. My cousin Véronique is amazing. I sometimes think of the witty thing to say an hour later. At the table, I excused myself for splashing food on the spotless shirt of a friend by telling him: “You got in the way of my juice.” I take no pleasure in others’ misfortunes. I do not bow down before a metal idol. I am not horrified by my heritage. I do not till the earth. I do not expect to discover new marvels in classical music, but I’m sure of taking pleasure until I die in the ones I already know. I do not know whether one can improve on the music of Bach, but one can certainly improve on the music of several others who shall remain nameless. I admit to being wrong. I do not fight. I have never punched anyone. I have noticed that, on the keypads of Parisian front doors, the 1 wears out the fastest. I have sometimes turned my interlocutors against me by an excess of argumentation. I do not listen to jazz, I listen to Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday. I sometimes feel like an impostor without knowing why, as if a shadow falls over me and I can’t make it go away. If I travel with someone, I see half as much of the country as if I traveled by myself. One of my friends likes to travel in certain Middle Eastern countries where there is nothing to see but airports, deserts, and roads. I have never regretted traveling by myself, but I have sometimes regretted traveling with someone else. I read the Bible out of order. I do not read Faulkner, because of the translation. I made a series of pictures based on things that came out of my body or grew on it: whiskers, hair, nails, semen, urine, shit, saliva, mucus, tears, sweat, pus, blood. TV interests me more without the sound. Among friends I can laugh hard at certain unfunny TV programs that depress me when I’m alone. I never quite hear what people say who bore me. To me a simple “No” is pleasantly brief and upsettingly harsh. The noise level when it’s turned up too high in a restaurant ruins my meal. If I had to emigrate I would choose Italy or America, but I don’t. When I’m in a foreign country, I dream of having a house in Provence, a project I forget when I get back. I rarely regret a decision and always regret not having made one. I think back on the pain of affairs that never took place. The highway bores me, there’s no life on the side of the road. On the highway the view is too far away for my imagination to bring it to life. I do not see what I lack. I have less desire to change things than to change my perception of them. I take pictures because I have no real desire to change things. I have no desire to change things because I am the youngest in my family. I like meeting new people when I travel: these brief and inconsequential encounters have the thrill of beginnings and the sadness of separations. I wanted to write a book entitled In the Car, made up of remarks recorded while driving. To take pictures at random goes against my nature, but since I like doing things that go against my nature, I have had to make up excuses to take pictures at random, for example, to spend three months in the United States traveling only to cities that share a name with a city in another country: Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Jericho, Stockholm, Rio, Delhi, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Mexico, Syracuse, Lima, Versailles, Calcutta, Baghdad. When I decide to take a picture of someone I see in the street, I have ten seconds to notice the person, decide to take the picture, and go ask, if I wait it’s too late. I wear glasses. In my mouth, time moves slowly for candy. I have deeper to dig in myself. I see art where others see things. Between the solitude of the womb and the solitude of the tomb I will have hung out with lots of people. While driving a car past some meadows these words came to me: a tractor chicken and an elephant tent. I wish treatises were article- not booklength. In the United States I came across a village called Seneca Falls, which I mistranslated Les Chutes de Seneque (Seneca’s Falls). I have seen an ad for a vegetarian vehicle. I would like to see movies accompanied by inappropriate music, a comedy with goth rock, a children’s movie with music from a funeral, a romance with a brass band, a political film with a musical-comedy sound track, a war movie with acid rock, porn with a choir. I make fewer and fewer excuses. After I lick an envelope I spit. I don’t want to die suddenly but to see death slowly coming. I do not think I will end up in hell. It takes five minutes for my nose to forget a smell, even a very bad one, this doesn’t go for what I perceive with my other senses. I have weapons in my brain. I have read this sentence by Kerouac: “The war must have been getting in my bones.” Although I have always translated Deer Hunter as Chasseur de cerf, I still hear the echo of the mistranslation cher chasseur (dear hunter). I remember what people tell me better than what I said. I expect to die at the age of eighty-five. To drive at night through rolling hills by moonlight in summertime can make me shudder with pleasure. I look more closely at old photographs than contemporary ones, they are smaller, and their details are more precise. If not for religion and sex, I could live like a monk. My last and first names mean nothing to me. If I look in the mirror for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything. I can stand around in several dozen different ways. I have carried women in my arms, I have not been carried by them. I have not hugged a male friend tight. I have not walked hand in hand with a male friend. I have not worn a friend’s clothing. I have not seen the dead body of a friend. I have seen the dead bodies of my grandmother and my uncle. I have not kissed a boy. I used to have sex with women my own age, but as I got older they got younger. I do not buy used shoes. I had an idea for an Amish punk band. Only once was I the first occupant of an apartment. I got into a motorcycle accident that could have cost me my life, but I don’t have any bad memories of it. The present interests me more than the past, and less than the future. I have nothing to confess. I have trouble believing that France will go to war in my lifetime. I like to say thank you. I cannot perceive the delay in mirrors. I don’t like narrative movies any more than I like the novel. “I do not like the novel” doesn’t mean I do not like literature, “I don’t like narrative movies” doesn’t mean I don’t like movies. Art that unfolds over time gives me less pleasure than art that stops it. The second time I walk the same route, I pay less attention to the view and walk faster. I let the phone ring until the answering machine screens the call. I spend two hours talking to one friend, but it only takes five minutes to end my conversation with another. When I’m on the phone, I don’t make any effort with my face. If I put off a phone call where something is at stake, the wait becomes more difficult than the call. I am impatient when waiting for a phone call but not when I have to make one. I have more good memories than bad ones. When I’m sure I like an article of clothing I buy a few of the same one. I do not wish to shine.

— Edouard Levé, translated by Lorin Stein



Jun 132012

Author photo credit/copyright to Charlotte Lehman (lehmanc@garnet.union.edu)

“The Battleship of Maine” is a sweetly elegiac memoir of a father, a family genealogy, an homage to old American folk music, and a glimpse of a forgotten upstate New York universe. Jordan Smith is a fine poet and an old friend (see a selection of his poems published earlier on these pages)  also a musician and a story writer. He teaches at Union College in Schenectady, has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has published six books of poetry including An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns (Princeton University Press) and Lucky Seven (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book, just out, is The Light in the Film  (University of Tampa Press). It’s wonderful to have him back.

Author photo credit/copyright to Charlotte Lehman (lehmanc@garnet.union.edu)


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I was driving on the New York Thruway from Rochester to Schenectady, and I was listening on the iPod to a compilation by The New Lost City Ramblers, which may already tell you more than you want to know about me. The song was “The Battleship of Maine,” about the Spanish American War, originally recorded by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers, and it reminded me, for the first time in years, that my great-uncle Harry St. John had been a doctor in the army during that war. He had lived on South Avenue in Rochester, a few blocks from Highland Hospital, where I had just been arranging hospice care for my father, about to be discharged with what would surely become respiratory failure, although no one knew when. My father was ninety-three. Great-uncle Harry had also lived into his nineties. I hadn’t managed to spot his house on my drives to and from the hospital, but I remembered the oak floors and frames around the doors, the window seat, the hair-drier chairs in the back room he rented to a beauty salon, a chest of toys. Best of all, I remember that he and my great-aunt gave me the run of the place, although I was only seven or so, talked to me as if I were an intelligent and responsible person, and always gave me books for my birthday. I couldn’t have loved them more. And I remember, or think I do, seeing his uniform, a cap and a dress sword and maybe a jacket. I wasn’t old enough to know the questions I should have asked.

I’ve traveled—hitching, in my college years; driving cars, from a ’68 Rambler American to a Prius—across western and central New York over and over, on the Thruway, on Route 31 (“Pray for Me, I Drive Route 31” was a bumper-sticker I spotted on a truck once), or the pretty roads, farther south, that make up New York Routes 5 and 20. Whatever road I’ve been on, it has always seemed more like a journey through history than like driving to a destination. There were the yellow and blue historical markers that the state put up, and where my father would sometimes stop for a quick lesson in what had happened here. There were old locks from the Erie Canal, the decorated mansions of the solid nineteenth century and the equally distinctive plain houses of the canal towns, there were parking lots where battlefields had been and a tree at the site of a massacre. Though my father was the only son of an only son, there were branches and side-branches of his family all through the Catskills, where they had worked on the New York Ontario and Western Railroad (the “Old and Weary,” known for poor maintenance, sloppy management, and train crashes, some featuring my ancestors), taught school, farmed, joined the DAR, ran a country store, played the mandolin. I didn’t have much of this in narrative form, only in brief anecdotes, so recalling it was like looking at the box of nineteenth-century photographs in the cellar and wishing someone had thought to write the names on the backs.

The next song on the cd was “We’ve Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again.” My father would have approved of its anti-prohibition sentiment, but he never, to put it mildly, approved of Roosevelt, and I learned better than to speak highly of the New Deal in his presence. My politics came from what we’ve come to call in my family “the big red history book,” a pictorial history of America with cartoons by Nast, maps and woodcuts, Hearst’s front page announcing the explosion of the Maine, photographs of the American invasion of the Philippines, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick, FDR at Yalta. It also had, I realized when I reread it later and when the ideological work had already been irredeemably done, a distinctly leftist, or at least liberal Democratic cast, and reading it set me at variance with my father, probably for good. My mother had bought the book, but I think it pleased her because a family friend had once met the author (or was it his father?), and because it was printed on the thin, going-to-yellow paper of the years after the world war. I am not sure what her politics were, exactly. Like my father, she always voted Republican, but she entirely repudiated the prejudices that were part of his heritage.  Over his strong objections, she worked as a volunteer at the Baden Street Settlement House in the Joseph Avenue neighborhood. Once the home of her German family, and then Jewish, it had become the heart of the African-American community, and it would explode, like similar neighborhoods in other cities in the long hot summer of 1964, events that fired my father’s racial anxieties. She took me there once, along with an older boy, to play trumpet duets for her preschoolers, and she enrolled me for music lessons in the Hochstein School a few blocks away. When my father drove me there on Saturday mornings his tension was palpable.

It would not be fair to talk about my father’s reactions to the black faces on the sidewalks and in the newspapers without saying how much of this was due to his upbringing and how much to the combination of anxiety and depression that sent him to the state hospital on Elmwood Avenue, that cost him his job as a test engineer working on sophisticated vacuum coating devices, and that left him nearly immobilized for much of the next decade when he wasn’t working on grounds crews or as a high school janitor. When effective antidepressants became available, and when he got out of the guilt-driven therapy of the Freudians and into the care of a doctor who knew how to help him, he calmed down about many things, race and politics included, and he came to realize that the time when such attitudes had seemed normal was long gone. But he didn’t ever mellow about Roosevelt, and I never understood why. My father’s family was not wealthy, and they never stood to lose anything from the New Deal. They weren’t likely to benefit from repeal of the estate tax or to suffer from regulation of the banks. They were charitable and sympathetic to those in need; my great-grandfather, a trainmaster on the O&W, insisted that his wife feed any tramp who stopped by their back door, and he was known for generosity to the men who worked for him. But, on a tour of Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, I found a clue. One of the last stops was the servants’ quarters. I recognized the furniture there immediately. Dark brown stained wood cabinets, with drawers and little doors, and marble tops, it was the furniture from my parents’ spare bedroom. What my family had used and saved and savored, the Roosevelts had cast aside or bought as second-rate in the first place. The Roosevelts were patroons, as far as my father was concerned, and they had assumed authority as some kind of family right. That they might wish to appear benevolent in their use of it meant nothing. He had no objection to the wealth of others, but he had no tolerance for noblesse oblige. Its moral imperatives were too close to taxation without representation; its protestations of concern and understanding too close to condescension.

The mp3 player had shuffled to an anthology of classic American folk tunes from the Smithsonian, and the song was called “Policeman.” Shoot your dice and roll ’em in the sand, says the singer, who earlier had bragged of getting the drop on a cop with his .44, I ain’t going to work for no damn man. My father worked most of his life for one damn man or another, and he took pride in doing his work right whether he was an engineer or a janitor, but I don’t think it was in his nature to have any master but himself, or to feel himself measured by any standard other than his own. When he retired, when his depression had receded, and when it no longer mattered what he had been, but only what he had done or would do, he was able to be free of almost everything except his affections.

History was one of these, especially the history of the Hudson Valley or of railroads. Before reading became too difficult, he was working his way through a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. If anything, he preferred a scoundrel. Though he liked what Charles Ives could do with a hymn tune and always loved Sousa, he didn’t share my taste for old-time country, and I don’t think he’d have much enjoyed hearing “Battleship of Maine,” unless I told him that it made me remember Great-uncle Harry and our visits to South Avenue. I wish, before they started him on the morphine, that I’d asked if he remembered the dress sword and cap, or if that was my memory making it up. Either way, it would have pleased him that I cared to remember this, when there was a good deal worse to recall between us.

School kids learn now that there was nothing glorious about the Spanish American War, a trumped-up colonial power grab with a first-rate publicity machine, that led to appalling cruelties in the Philippines, and from which we’ve apparently learned nothing. That’s history, the gift that keeps on giving. So why am I so pleased to have visited, all of seven years old, in the parlor of a tall, thin, white-haired man, a doctor and a soldier, in wire-rimmed glasses who paid me the almost frightening compliment of looking at me with the kind of intelligent appraisal, frank and welcoming and discerning, that, now that I think of it, seems as rare as a just war. I didn’t know anything about how or why he fought. I didn’t know anything about how hard my father, sitting beside we, would have to struggle to find himself changed in a world whose authorities he had every reason to distrust. I didn’t know that I’d grow up by way of books, and my mother’s absolute refusal to discriminate between those who might benefit from her kindness, and my father’s purgatory, to remember the awe I felt, without understanding, in the presence of history, suffering, and healing.

 — Jordan Smith


Jordan Smith‘s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” will be in the forthcoming issue of Big Fiction. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.


May 082012

This is a follow to the Christmas murder story Jean-Marie Saporito wrote about in her first “Letter from Taos” in January — intimate, intense, minimalist memoir, Chekhov crossed with Barry Hannah but telling the truth, with a female sensibility that is sassy, unafraid of her own peccadilloes and desires. What was wonderful in the earlier piece and still holds here is Jean-Marie’s ability to create a dense weave of narrative vectors: murder, femme fatale, sobering up, a cowboy lover, an indiscretion, and the words of historical cowgirls. Jean-Marie is a former student of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she received her MFA. She lives in Taos. For her first “letter” she wrote, “If you want, you can add to my bio that I’m dating a cowboy. You know what a cowboy is? A man who can handle cows — ride, rope, herd. I’m learning a lot.”



I saw the femme fatale of the Christmas murder at my friend’s party. Let’s call her T. to protect what little may be left of her privacy. The papers had graciously kept her anonymous. T. is 17, a child I’ve known since my son and she were in kindergarten. I had heard that the girl had hid in the closet and listened while Charles shot Dylan and that she’d since sobered up. So when I saw T. at this intimate party of recovering women junkies and drunks, I knew, without asking, she was the girl who’d hid in the closet that night.

At this party we played a raucous game of Cowgirls Ride the Trail of Truth. This board game, which the hostess, M., created several years ago, is a version of Truth or Dare, only the dare is to tell the truth. On the front of the cards are quotes from cowgirls like R.C. Jonas (1904) — “To have courage is to have the life you want.” On the cards’ backs are different categories of questions — family and friends, experience and history, sex and body.

My turn from the sex and body category — “What would you do if you woke up one morning and discovered you had a penis instead of a vagina?”

“Fuck the first girl I could!” someone shouted, another, “Masturbate!” We screeched and laughed at our unseemliness. I noticed T. smiling.

I left the party to see my cowboy. We fought over my admitted indiscretion with another man. My cowboy had a violent past, now many years behind him. Still, I considered the game I was playing.

On Valentine’s day, at a burlesque show at the local solar station bar, I saw T.’s mother. I was there with friends, having refused to see my cowboy lover. Maintaining the pretense of T.’s anonymity, I mentioned to her mother that I had seen her daughter recently, that she is such a sweet girl, that she remembered me. I didn’t have the courage to tell T.’s mother I don’t think the Christmas murder was her daughter’s fault. Instead of taking her hand and lamenting motherhood’s travails, I pretended that nothing had happened, and smiled, commenting on the show and the sweet bits of cake we were eating.

A few days later, my cowboy gave me my Valentine’s presents — jewelry, flowers, and a box of condoms.

From the cowgirl, Kathy Willow (1881): “Everything has a meaning, but sometimes I just can’t figure out what it is.”

 —Jean-Marie Saporito