Nov 052015

1 circus closeup 2

HE STILL STARES AT ME after forty years, the man holding the rope, with a look that even at this poor resolution can only be violation. And the woman with the lithe body, seemingly naked in her light-colored tights, frozen in the moment of lifting a knee and raising both arms in air, preparing for flight, for ecstasy, or for some other abandon, still has her back to me, as does the man beside her, touching, guiding, helping in some way.

2 Circus

They are rehearsing for a circus somewhere in a court or square in Paris—I’ve forgotten where—and the sight was something interesting, behind the scenes, which, walking by and finding an opening in the tent, I thought I should take a picture of. The woman is practicing for a leap—onto a passing horse circling the ring?—that she will perform one night alone without the help of the two men or the safety of the rope, effortlessly, flawlessly, for our breathless wonder. This must be my violation. The supports and imperfect attempts, diminishing, distracting, meaningless, must be kept hidden and not be exposed.

I was 20 and had taken a year off from college. My expectations were bright but empty, undefined yet blinding. I had no good reason for being there and no idea what I would do next. Taking pictures itself was a matter of reluctance and indecision. I didn’t want to appear the tourist so seldom carried my camera. Nor could I find convincing purpose. I had slight knowledge of the city, little insight, and superficial experience, all that my pictures could reveal. Besides, everything had been photographed many, many times before by practiced journalists and artists with a better eye. Or I could just buy postcards. Still there were days when I gathered resolve and went on random expeditions throughout the city, firing away with stuttering abandon.

Paris itself was having a rehearsal of sorts, and there were tents, scaffolds, ropes, safety nets, and helping workers everywhere. The city was in the last stages of the Malraux plan to restore its historic buildings and clean its face to the world.

3 Scaffold 3

4 street scaffolding

Demolition of Les Halles, the centuries old market, was nearly complete, leaving a pit—le grand trou—the city debated how to fill.

5 Les Halles 2

Paris was the setting for Touche pas à la femme blanche!, Marco Ferreri’s farce that appropriated our history to portray the influence of power and money, the decline of native ideologies. I saw it when it came out. In the climactic scene Custer’s last stand is staged in the pit, a failed performance.

6 Les Halles Pit

It was 1973 or 74, a stalled time without much to distinguish it. France was adjusting to its declining influence and, like the rest of the western world, was in recession. The passions of May ’68 had calmed, though there were still some protests in the streets, many against our involvement in Iran and elsewhere. Last Tango in Paris and La grande bouffe were also playing in the theaters, movies sounding contemporary ennui and excess, two terms of the stall.

My pictures themselves were subject to accident and corruption, resulting in images that were excessive or indeterminate, all boring, imperfect attempts without any hope of spectacle. I bought an inexpensive, used manual rangefinder for the trip and an exposure meter, also cheap, which I didn’t know how to use well. I shot 400 ISO black and white film so I wouldn’t need a flash for interior shots and only had the negatives developed. But also the shutter was faulty, which I didn’t discover until it eventually broke, so exposures decayed gradually, erratically. I didn’t know what I had until I got home and enlarged the negatives—grainy photographs with blurred or dim or dark images, underexposed or overexposed, with excessive sharpness or faltering contrast.

I could ascend heights to get the larger view and gain perspective

7 vista 3

and see the vast, reasoned grid of ministries, French bureaucracy, revealed in sharp outline, and the labyrinth of narrow, old alleys released into wide boulevards, the plan of Baron Haussmann, its argument between the state and its people.

8 vista 2

The suspicion has been leveled that Napoléon III wanted to broaden the streets to make it easier to bring in troops. Paris is an open encyclopedia of a millennium of debates between rule and chaos, between the passion for order and the order of desire. Read a history of Paris and the streets fill with shouts of protest and run with blood.

But I could only see the order of order, not its basis, nor the life it might contain, and the relationship of the present order, newly freshened, to past and present disorder or to anything else was hazy.

9 vista 1

Fragments from the distant past were preserved but, eroded by the centuries, only revealed rough figures and uncertain structure.

11 Cluny thermes

Everywhere, well preserved, the buildings of faith. The structures that held them up and allowed the light to enter

12 buttresses 1

faith’s entry, its sharp contrasts of dark and light, right and wrong, up and down

13 dark church exterior

its followers

14 Apostles chartre?

its overarching beliefs.

15 churchover door

Inside, however, current practice came out only vaguely mysterious or dark, absent

16 church dark windows

or was flickering, wavering.

17 candles church 1

Faith’s monsters, though, still interest us.

18 pair of gargoyles

I did feel safe, however, walking the streets at any hour. And I did have some exposure to all walks of life, from the derelict to working class to the upward rising, even to an established family who traced its roots back to Roman days, but in all cases I saw an economy and tentativeness I hadn’t known growing up in the U.S. More unsure were the faces of the immigrants from beyond France’s borders, lured to the city during better times with better chances of employment.

Contrast my black and white pictures with pictures of Paris now, their confident display, their bright colors. Compare them with what we see in Paris itself, the sharp, clean lines of its monuments and buildings, the polish and refinement of the restored neighborhoods. But look, too, at the neighborhoods where it may no longer be safe to walk, most on Paris’s borders, where the immigrants now mass in simmering dislocation and disaffection, where there are breaks into violence, what you see in the movie La haine. And watch Entre les murs, where cultural conflict erupts in a middle school classroom.

It’s what cities have become, spectacles for our wealth and containers for our contradictions and exclusions. The decay and violence of the latter, however, can divert us and give our lives texture. Paris has its policier EngrenagesSpiral. We have our own, The Wire, etc.

There were intimations of the future, towering abstractions, void of past reference.

19 tour Italie

La tour Super-Italie. It was the Montparnasse tower, however, just completed in the heart of Paris, that most broke the city’s low skyline and raised the most protests. Pomidou, however, looking forward, wanted his towers, and more were on the horizon.

20 vista from park

It’s what our cities have also become, platforms for rising skyscrapers of soaring ambition, solid yet ethereal, forward gazes that look past us, past themselves, past anything we can see.

Not long ago I digitized the negatives and stored them on my computer. Processing them raised problems and questions about purpose and procedure. How could I bring out what wasn’t materially there? How could I soften total black or bring contrast to the chemically faint or still the blurred motions? Should I edit the imperfections in the negatives or the dust spots gathered from years of storage? Make adjustment for the shifts brought by electronic transfer? I had no guidelines and couldn’t decide, so left most the way they came out on my screen.

21 boatSeineLight

22 blur

What is the relationship of my pictures to reality? There are the realities of time and place and light—when I took them, where the sun was, what was in the sky—none of which can be easily determined or precisely defined. There are also the realities of my imperfect skills and uncertain motives. Add to those the mechanical reality of my failing shutter and the reality of chemical reactions in the film and the reality of electronic translation. These are all realities, defined by human nature and natural laws. How do they add up? Which takes priority? What relationship do they have with any larger picture? Why are my pictures any more or less real than any others?

There are no answers to these questions.

There are no pictures of me standing next to anything as I never asked someone else to take my camera. Here’s me, here’s Notre Dame. What is the purpose? What is revealed or qualified by the juxtaposition either way? I can’t imagine what pose I might have made and even now don’t want to strike one. Nor are there pictures of the people I met, though I remember many well, most with fondness, and I have written about them. Capturing them unannounced might only have exposed moments of reserve or indecision had they dropped the mask they showed the world to protect themselves. Taking a picture of the mask would have been pointless as it tells nothing. Pulling a camera out before them would have forced them to make a face and represent a relationship with me that may not have been well defined, or may not have existed. Or, worse, coerced a smile when they may not have wanted to give one. And if a moment of joy escaped or closeness emerged, why take the life of either and freeze it on film?

Yet what I most saw in Paris without notice or reflection, what my pictures most show, what I have added to in the decades since, is that our lives are largely spent in motion, the stall of going somewhere and being put on hold, the arrow that comes between a and b

23 trains

or in mere process, employment that may not engage us, that wears without renewal, where we are absorbed without thought

24 quai?

or in idle ways to pass the time

25 boules

or in gray repose

26 park fountain

or in random movement without relationship or interaction.

27 Street scene 2

28 Street scene 1

We are not rehearsing for anything. The French have a saying to express the tedium, métro, bureau, dodosubwayworksleep—that countered liberté, égalité, fraternité or left it hanging in air and dissolved any distinction one might make in time and place. Yet still we practice and try to perform, to fly and project beyond ourselves, or think we are trying. Our attempts at rehearsals are eternal, but eternal only in the sense that the spectacle they might lead to or we think they might lead to always lies beyond us and flees us everlastingly. Yet we can always count on this eternity, and also on this article of belief: it leaves our options open.

Most of Paris was still close to the ground, however, and the mansard roofs with their many attachments still capture our imagination and encourage us to look up.

29 roofs 1

And this is my revelation at last, after forty years: it is the spectacles that are illusory and in them we get lost.

But the place that most comes back to me really wasn’t anywhere. I lived in a working class neighborhood in Arcueil, a commune on the southern border of Paris. The landlord and his family lived on the first floor and rented out the second, where I had a room and others came and went. One day, for no reason, I pulled out my camera took this picture of the backyard

30 Backyard

about which I have written:

I am sitting at the kitchen window with a bottle of wine, looking out. The small plots behind the houses on my street and the houses on the next are enclosed by a grid of rough block fences, squaring the backyards and joining them. Each yard has something that distinguishes it, and the rural influence remains here, just outside Paris—a vegetable garden, pens and sheds for animals. Someone has chickens, someone else a goat. Also sheds for storage or some personal labor, hidden. In my yard, a swing set the owner’s daughters no longer use, a rusting memory of childhood. There is nothing else to see, other than a high-rise apartment building in the distance, modernish and sterile, not even the setting sun, off to the side and behind several houses. There is no streaking light in the sky, no dramatic break of clouds, no place for saints or angels to sit or stand, no chariot on which to descend, nor the lurid glare from war or revolution, just a pale blue diminishing into grayness. The world is silent, save for an occasional ratcheting cry from the goat, the flutter and coo and cluck from the hens. As the sky darkens, cats come out and negotiate the grid of walls and climb the roofs of the houses in their liquid, feline stealth.

I have no thoughts of leaving the window. I feel I have found a place, feel myself in place, but it is not a place I can name. I think about nothing, don’t even think to think, have no thoughts of that day or of the past months or the years coming, of who I am or what I want or what I am supposed to do. I do not feel depressed. I do not feel anything. I only feel alive, and all I am aware of is the quiet hum of existence in the lingering light.

I was not alone. I am not alone. I will never be alone.

To put yourself in this moment is not an act of humility, or contrition, or the backward arrogance of denial. It isn’t anything, and being there is doing nothing. To try to locate it is to get lost, as it isn’t anywhere and everywhere at the same time, perhaps to realize the error of trying to find, of location.

We could use what this moment reveals to build a philosophy, even a religion, but could just as easily use it to tear apart all thought and faith. It is only by tearing the self apart and seeing what is left, however, that we can start again and rebuild and try once more to think, and wish, and believe.


—Gary Garvin



Some of the cathedral pictures are of Chartres. Parts of the text, the quotation, and several pictures come from my essay “Above the Roofs of Paris, a Non-Memoir,” which appeared in Fourth Genre, Vol. 17, Number 1, Spring 2015. It is available at JSTOR, is excerpted at Project Muse, and can be found here.

George Packer, in “The Other France,” The New Yorker, with the Charlie Hebdo slayings in mind, recently provided an update on immigrant dislocation in the suburbs of Paris, specifically Department 93:

For decades a bastion of the old working class and the Communist Party, the 93 is now known for its residents of Arab and African origin. To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation.




Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. His short stories and essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel.


Oct 082015

Victoria Best small photo


IN HIS SHORT STORY ‘The Liar’, Tobias Wolff’s narrator is a 16-year-old boy who can’t quite confine himself to the truth. Most upset by this is his mother, a woman who ‘did not consider originality a virtue’ and whose healthy existence is frequently rewritten in her son’s hands. She finds she’s been reported as coughing blood, or suffering from leukemia; there are people ‘stopping her in the street and saying how sorry they were’. The doctor and family friend she turns to tells her he’ll grow out of it. ‘What if he doesn’t grow out of it?’ his mother asks. ‘What if he just gets better at it?’ James is her last son at home, his father has died, his siblings are dispersed, and he makes her feel ‘like a failure.’ So James is sent to his brother, Michael, in San Francisco. Naturally he lies to his mother, and takes a different bus to the one she expected.

This bus goes on a long circuitous route, and when it breaks down, the passengers start to chat. James moves effortlessly into a performance. He says he works with refugees from Tibet (his parents, until their death, being missionaries out there) and, in possession of his audience’s rapt attention, he mesmerises them all with his rendition of the Tibetan language. His lies clean of criminality in the moment, James is transformed into an entertainer, an oracle. The liar has become a storyteller.

The term ‘fiction’ looks two ways at once, its products both legal and illegal. People who make things up compulsively often become writers as often as they become law-breakers. There is a difference, some may insist, between a lie and a story, for with the former there is intent to deceive. And yet, fiction writers often intend to mislead and startle their readers; they play their cards close. The real difference is in reception, with readers seeming to know instinctively that lies in the form of stories are necessary. If we need fiction, it makes more sense to ask ourselves, what’s good about lying?


The Talented Liar

Tobias Wolff is, by his own account, someone who just got a lot better at it. The theme of deceit and its consequences recurs across his works, and is exquisitely elaborated in his memoir of childhood, This Boy’s Life. It’s the story of a young boy who dreams up a life of wealth and adventure to write to his penpal, who refuses the blame for graffiti in the school toilets which he most certainly put there himself, who grows into an adolescent who makes it into a fancy school on the basis of an entirely faked application and letters of support. You can’t help but admire the persistence, the tenacity with which he hones his skills, the innovation with which he finds new outlets for them.

Of course the paradoxical beauty of such a memoir is that it remains transparently honest to the narrator’s dishonesty. The story of a liar’s career can only be told truthfully. The young Tobias (or Jack, as he prefers to be called, after his hero, Jack London) lives with his divorced mother, and he loves her very much, though her bad luck with men frequently gets them into trouble. His father, who we learn elsewhere was a consummate liar himself, is sorely missed by his neglected son, who is forced to make him up ‘out of dreams and memories’. His stepfather, Dwight, is violently abusive. In the midst of this mess of absent and over-active fathering, the stereotypes of the daredevil alpha male lassoe Jack’s imagination. He likes to dress up in the army greatcoat of one of his mother’s boyfriend and lie across the sofa, aiming his rifle through a gap in the blinds. He hangs out with male friends at school, breaking windows, throwing eggs at convertibles, smoking in the toilets and exchanging ‘interesting facts not available to the general public about women.’ He is a stud, a rogue, an outcast, though really, he likes The Mickey Mouse Club.

‘Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me’, Wolff writes. And it’s a common thing, this rehearsal of possible roles, this testing of reality against the imagined options. Jack gains a friend, Arthur, who is ‘a great storyteller’. Arthur ‘refused to accept as final the proposition’ that his ordinary parents were his real parents, attempting to convince Jack he was adopted and descended, in fact, from the followers of Bonny Prince Charles. Jack then decides he comes from Prussian aristocrats. ‘We listened without objection to stories of usurped nobility that grew in preposterous intricacy with every telling. But we did not feel as if anything we said was a lie. We both believed that the real lie was told by our present unworthy circumstances.’

But what, then, if he didn’t grow out of it but just got better at it? As he turns adolescent, so he becomes ever more unmoored, unhinged, unanchored. His carefully practised ability to evade the law reflects a world that won’t prevent him from indulging his worst flaws. The idea of faking an application to a prestigious school starts with the ridiculous ease of doctoring his sinking grades. ‘The report cards were made out, incredibly enough, in pencil, and I owned some pencils myself.’ And the stakes in the identity games just get higher. As the gap between his reality and his ambitions increases, he finds himself ‘wanting, at any price, the world’s esteem’, and feeling ever more reckless and desperate.

The problem is that he keeps getting away with it. In his essay ‘On Getting Away With It’, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips recalls Freud’s remark that the child’s first successful lie is both the moment when s/he realises that s/he is not in fact the subject of omniscient deities who read minds, a eureka of freedom; and also the point when s/he realises s/he is alone, abandoned, adrift. ‘If you get away with something,’ Phillips writes, ‘you have done well and you have done badly. You are released but you are also unprotected. You have at least provisionally freed yourself from something, but then you have to deal with your new-found freedom.’ What will Jack Wolff do with his? There is a logical progression for those who limbo under the bar of morality, Phillips says: ‘The Good Person would be replaced by the Impressive Person.’ And this is precisely Jack’s aim, and the destination his exquisite memoir confirms. The liar, who must keep his lies a secret to evade punishment, becomes the storyteller, whose command of fiction is both impressive and protected, made viable, worthwhile, enviable. He’s found a way to get really good at it.


The Compulsive Liar

A compulsive liar goes to see his psychoanalyst and recounts to him a typical event. That morning, he had been late for work because of a row with his wife, who was threatening to leave him. When his boss asked him what happened, the liar said he would scarcely believe it. His car was pulled over by the police and he was handcuffed and shoved into the back of a van. From there he was taken to the local precinct and placed alone in a cell, indignant, afraid, but also curious. After about an hour, a plain-clothes detective arrived and apologised for the confusion; he was free to go. Talking to his analyst, the liar is astonished at his boss’s gullibility. ‘I don’t know why I said what I did. I could easily have said I had a flat tyre. But instead I chose this outlandish story. And the poor fool believed me. He believed me. You see, as long as I can do this and get away with it, then I have no worries whatsoever. What is reality if I can do this?’

The analyst is Christopher Bollas, the patient called Jonathan, the case history is called ‘The Liar’, and the question is indeed, what is reality?Yet if the liar has to tell an analyst about his behaviour, there must be some desire to reconnect with the real world, to stop getting away with it quite so convincingly.

Bollas says that Jonathan is more truthful than he at first seems; the trick is to read the lie as a metaphor. Had Jonathan said his journey to work had been like a horrible incarceration, it would have been quite sane and negligible; a story without impact. Instead he said that it was a horrible incarceration, arousing a much more vivid response in his listener, and expressing an encoded truth. Bollas knew that Jonathan was afraid of how he might react if his wife actually left him; in many previous sessions he had expressed fear of his desire to kill her and keep custody of their children. He knew such actions would likely end in his arrest. But in the story he told, although he played with the possibility of arrest, he was then set free, innocent and absolved, by a plain-clothes detective. His fear had been soothed by the fantasy of a different kind of escape. On hearing the story, Bollas understands that the plain-clothes detective, the man to set him free, must be Bollas himself.

The metaphorical lie is a way of accessing a far more powerful and intriguing reality than bald facts suggest. Bollas recounts how: ‘Jonathan’s lying brings him to life and coheres him in a way in which his narration of actual lived events does not. He lies, he often tells me, because lying is living. It is only by lying that he remains alive.’ Jonathan does not like to tell the kind of lies that are the stuff of normal social living, the lie that hides a little secret, that protects another person. Such lies make him almost as anxious as the thought of telling the truth. No, Jonathan likes the big, complex, entirely unnecessary lie, the ongoing saga that can be sustained and exaggerated over weeks. His lies are not to protect his self and his truths, but to create his self and his existence; they are grandiose and extraordinary. He doesn’t want to be a Good Person; he wants to be an Impressive Person.

What could have caused him to behave this way? Jonathan’s background was a secure and moneyed one. His parents were ambitious intellectuals who had met with much success in their careers, and so his early childhood was divided between various members of household staff: a housekeeper, a maid and a rather sadistic nanny, with brief visits from his mother at each end of the day. His father he never knew very well, as he was busy and didn’t have much time for him. It’s not a very impressive genesis for a pathological liar, with no abuse or trauma to awaken a ready sympathy in the listener, nothing, on the face of it, that will explain or excuse. As a story, it lacks impact.

In one ‘particularly intense period’ in analysis, Jonathan asked Bollas about the nature of confidentiality in their relationship. He wanted to know what circumstances would cause him to disclose protected information. After much discussion on this topic, Jonathan admitted that he was planning the murder of someone he knew well. Bollas was not at first convinced, but as Jonathan provided ever more elaborate detail as to his methods and strategies, Bollas began to fear that he might have genuine intent. The situation quickly became intolerable, as he was not sure what to think, what to do. Eventually he took the problem to a colleague who suggested he tell his client that he would certainly inform the police if he did murder anyone. Bollas was relieved to have this solution and then baffled at his own inability to come to it. It was, he felt, because he had been in such confusion over what was truth and what was fantasy.

Having told Jonathan of his intentions, the murder plot was not spoken of again. And Bollas had a particularly provocative experience of how it felt to be on the receiving end of a lie that has been exposed as such. Like others who had caught Jonathan out, he felt betrayed. He wondered if he would ever manage to achieve a proper relationship with him. His trust was shattered. He felt anger at his own gullibility, and sadness that whatever made Jonathan behave this way was not about to stop any time soon. And Bollas realised he was caught up in the experience of a powerful, extended metaphor. He felt, in short, the turbulent and bewildering emotional responses of a child repeatedly abandoned by his parents: the loss of trust, the sense of betrayal, the anger against his own hopeful beliefs, the sadness that he could not prevent it happening again.

Jonathan had created for his analyst a situation that illuminated his feelings of extreme inadequacy and insecurity, and which could help Bollas to understand the ‘crime’ of the lie: here was a child who was never with a parent long enough to create a real relationship, who had to fall back on his own fantasies time and again until the fantasies themselves seemed more solid, more enlivening, more realistic than the truth, which was only anxiety-inducing. Telling the lie gave Jonathan a safe place to be, hearing the lie, when revealed as a lie, put the listener in the place that Jonathan could never find the words to explain to another, in the midst of the emotions that had created him.


The Confused Liar

For just about seven years, between the autumn of 1998 and the winter of 2005, I was a compulsive liar. I gave an account of myself to everyone outside my immediate family that was very far from the truth. I said that I was fine, when in fact I was suffering from a debilitating chronic illness.

I had fallen ill with viral pneumonia over the Christmas of 1997. At that point in my life I had a three-year-old son and an almost-completed doctoral thesis. I also had a post to take up at a Cambridge college in the autumn of 1998. When the illness dragged on for the best part of a year, and there was no explanation for why this should be, or any obvious cure on the horizon, I began to understand that the illness had become unacceptable. I was not cured, yet there was no reason why I was still ill. For this situation, I understood that I was at fault. The term ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ did not have much currency back in 1998, and what it did have was of an outlawed and reprehensible nature. There had been cases among the students and I had heard how they were described. They were malingerers, cowards, or just plain lazy. Now this was not someone I wanted to be. I was a hard worker, a reliable friend, and a person who kept her promises; I wanted very badly to be a good mother and an admirable academic. These were truths in desperate need of preservation from an illness with the power to wreck them; I never even felt I was lying, just keeping the faith with what I knew above all else to be true.

About a year after the pneumonia, I found I could appear like my normal self in public for a while. The fact that the symptoms of chronic fatigue – racing heart, low blood pressure, nausea, dizziness, headaches, sore throats, muscle ache – were all invisible was extremely helpful. The trickiest problem was that I felt energetically like a leaky car battery. The longer I acted myself, the quicker my vitality drained away, and in no time at all I would be running on empty and afraid, knowing the symptoms would steadily increase in severity. But no matter how ill I felt, I still got away with it. Does that sound implausible to you? Well, people are ridiculously easy to fool when there’s nothing much to see, and I was good at self-discipline, a natural dissembler.

But I admit I was confused. As the years went by, and I kept on pretending and getting away with it, it became harder and harder to distinguish my own reality. I was strung out between two contrasting images of myself that held mortal sway over me: an Impressive Person, who was good and reliable and held down a demanding job while bringing up a child. Lots of ticks in boxes there. Or a Weak Person, who gave in to a nameless, invisible illness that most people didn’t believe existed. My mother often told me with loving exasperation that I was ‘doing it to myself’. My mother-in-law told my husband it was ‘all in my mind’. I felt like the worst placed person to figure out the truth. Most of the time I was too busy sustaining my façade to have any energy left over for philosophy.

Seven years. Everyone wanted so badly for me to be well; that helped prolong the lie. But what the experience felt like is so hard to explain, I can’t do it without metaphors. When I forced the symptoms out of my way, I could attain a sort of cruising speed, which was a lot like driving without brakes, propelled by momentum itself, exhilarating in its way but fraught with the imminent danger of a crash. In those cruising moments I was alive in a grandiose way, against the odds, but when I crashed and was too ill even get myself out of bed, I wondered what the hell I thought I was playing at. What exactly was I doing to myself? This was an illness where I could never clarify my role as either culprit or victim, but was constantly a mind-bending amalgam of both.

Eventually, I developed a symptom that was non-negotiable. When I struggled through brain fog to recall the details of the texts I was teaching, a moment of reckoning came. I went to see my doctor – something which in its futility I had abandoned as helpful years ago – and described my condition as truthfully as possible. It was the scene for my final lie. ‘How long do you think you’ll need to take off work to recuperate?’ he asked me. And I said, ‘Two weeks.’ It was in fact three long years before I would be well enough to return.

During that time, my perception of myself executed a radical u-turn. Whereas before I had never breathed a word about chronic fatigue, now I told everyone upfront, far too often, that this was what I had. Which meant: this was who I was. In the first year or so, when I spent most of my time in bed, it did indeed wreck the identity I had so carefully – and at such cost! – preserved. I was just an invalid, with an illness that still carried a great deal of stigma. But I was functioning at the level of what was undeniable and issuing a big, bold bring it on. Let them call me malingerer, coward, sloth. I was sick and tired of lying. Finally I could tell the truth and be bad.


The Playful Liar

Readers tend to be picky about the truth content of the memoirs they read, especially after the furore that greeted James Frey’s admission that A Million Tiny Pieces was somewhat embellished and embroidered. So what to do with a memoir that states its intention to be dishonest and tricky from the outset? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, recounts her experiences with an unusual form of epilepsy, unusual in that it may not be epilepsy at all. But to describe what she suffers as epilepsy provides a powerful extended metaphor for the deepest, most twisted realities in her life, and a way into a story that has been ‘eluding me for years.’ The book begins with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy, that is also a warning:

‘[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’

Naturally, Hayward Krieger doesn’t exist.

But in the afterword to the memoir, where Slater acknowledges the reader’s desire for the ‘real facts’, she points out that her diagnoses through the years have been ridiculously varied, from borderline personality disorder, to epilepsy, to Munchausen’s, depression, OCD and autism. ‘All I know for sure,’ she writes, ‘is this. I have been ill for much of my life. Illness has claimed my imagination, my brain, my body and everything I do I see through its feverish scrim. All I can tell you is this. Illness, medicine itself, is the ultimate narrative; there is no truth there, as diagnoses come in and out of vogue as fast as yearly fashions.’ Not that this cuts much ice with some critics. Janet Maslin in her New York Times review said the reader could be ‘forgiven for wanting to throttle the narrator’, and the memoir could be considered as ‘either postmodern fun and games or pure exasperation between hard covers.’ Yet what about that Heideggerian truth of confusion that the fictional Krieger mentions? Is there a better way for readers to understand it than to experience it?

When she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.

Her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But as puberty comes around, everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. Finally she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. She’s also left with a personality disorder – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.

And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. In late adolescence, writing takes on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. When an unhappy affair with her writing tutor ends, leaving her in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, he says, no such operation would be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.

So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch. Or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate. Or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth. Or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ And what if ambiguity really is the essence of Slater’s life? What if she is more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections?

What if all our identities were composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? What price truth then? Storytelling and its metaphors would be the only honest expression we had left.


The thing about lies – or we can call them stories if you prefer – is that they are just too essential to our survival to be given up. They hold cherished parts of ourselves that have been driven out of sight; they allow us to express the truth of experiences that no facts can convey; they are often the repositories for realities that no one really wants to face. We want the lie to be a unit of genre fiction, a nice, clear readable chunk of badness, when really it is a highly complex literary construct. A thing of layers and implications and irresolvable paradox. And in the desire to master our lives, to be the people we want to be, and to explain ourselves as best we can, we all get really good at them.

—Victoria Best


Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (


Sep 072015

Chris Hedges

The election of President Obama and the economic policies of his administration play like “trickle-down justice.” But, whether he has a choice or not, he is just a puppet to the corporate state, just as any other president would be in today’s polarized, cynical, economically fixed electoral system. —Tom Faure


Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt
Chris Hedges
Nation Books, May 2o15
304 pages, $26.99


Drones, the Patriot Act, stagnant real wages, failed public schools, a compliant press, the state’s shutdown of the Occupy movement, Citizens United, Stand Your Ground laws, stop and frisk, Ferguson, fracking, wiretapping, and the continuous mistreatment, often violent, of minorities, women, and particularly trans people. That’s just the tip of the U.S. iceberg. Then you’ve got the rest of the Earth: poverty, hunger, slavery, and injustice—compounded by the effects of global warming.

We’ve heard it all before, and the liberal mainstream has given up due to cynicism and lack of imagination. The lack of a simple solution dispirits idealists. The politics may be boring, but the situation is dire.

Chris Hedges’ Wages of Rebellion, published in May by Nation Books, reminds us of just how dire, chronicling a litany of anti-constitutional practices undertaken by the U.S. government, often in service of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism,” a state run by corporate interest. Hedges does not offer any policy-based panacea, the absence of which will disappoint those looking for quick fixes. Indeed, this important book is more a mix of genres. Over his years of international reporting, Hedges has spoken to rebels like Axel von dem Bussche, Julian Assange, Mumia Abu-Jamal, guerrilla fighters, hackers, defense lawyers, Occupy members, and others who toil in the name of social justice. By way of the theories of Gramsci, Havel, Mandela, Baldwin, Paine, and Kant, the book is a series of portraits of these dissidents and rebels, exploring whether a true revolution is in the offing and who the main agents of change would be.

Hedges’ central thesis is that revolution cannot be purely intellectual. He examines the character trait Reinhold Niebuhr called “sublime madness.” Hedges quotes Niebuhr’s declaration that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’” Liberalism is too rational, fearing the emotional component necessary, Hedges and others argue, to revolution. The possessor of sublime madness has foregone the mores of the state in favor of universal moral laws—embracing Kantian dignity and duty despite public ridicule and, frequently, violent retribution.

If there’s one thing you can count on in mainstream political discourse today, it’s that it will be dismissive of unquantifiable notions such as truth, love, passion, and fairness. Probably, this is because political discourse is so widely corrupted by neo-liberal ideology, which looks down on these notions with impatience or, sometimes, an embarrassment born out of, I think, fear and insecurity. Liberalism too often allies itself with one of humanity’s more exploitable capacities: rationality.

These abstract notions and their emotional cousins that receive this lazy derision are precisely what those yearning for revolution must not overlook, according to Hedges. An emotional force is the true catalyst—a force born out of misery but also frustrated expectations. Herein lies a major obstacle to any potential New American Revolutions. The masses are placated because their expectations are not frustrated to a large enough extent. They are sipping caloric Starbucks Frappucinos, commoditizing their digital avatars via the strict norms and algorithms of Facebook, freely handing over to corporate interests their valuable political and commercial data. The poor are angry, yes. But the middle class is sedate.

At Columbia University—a bastion of fascist anarchism, if you believe Bill O’Reilly—a standard introductory macroeconomics course includes on its syllabus, as would be expected, the vastly influential thinker John Maynard Keynes. Bravo, Columbia, you lefties! But Keynes makes up perhaps 2 percent of the syllabus, and he is the only economist featured who offers any critique of the supply-side economics pipedream known as the trickle-down effect. As an 18-year-old student, I was shocked and confused by the lack of rigorous critique of neoliberalism initially offered to undergraduates.

As Hedges notes, faith in the trickle-down effect plays an important role in the global takeover of corporate interests in politics, policy, and culture. The idea that the rise of the elite will benefit the weak is very compelling, for multiple reasons. There’s only one problem. The people “benefiting” from the elite’s exploitation of labor and resources are not the weak who can’t help themselves. They are the middle class—those hanging on by a thread as real wages decline and citizen rights become hollowed out. The weak? They’ve already been eliminated.

A similar dynamic is in play with regard to race. The election of President Obama and the economic policies of his administration play like “trickle-down justice.” But, whether he has a choice or not, he is just a puppet to the corporate state, just as any other president would be in today’s polarized, cynical, economically fixed electoral system.


The result is the totalitarianism of the invisible hand. Real wages have not increased in decades, millions of people, especially minorities and especially African Americans, are incarcerated thanks to Bill Clinton’s easy-plea-one-two-three, and even if Black Lives Matter takes off, the Keystone XL Pipeline will probably contaminate millions of people’s water on its way to contributing catastrophic greenhouse gases to the environment.

Hedges posits that revolutions happen, not when the people are subdued by total abjection, but rather when they have had a glimmer of hope. Raised expectations follow technical innovations and a rise in the standard of living—this is when the failings of the state, and its all-too-frequent efforts to smother dissent, fuel the fire of rebellion. Much of the battle is invisible, residing in the language and metaphors of the people. Organizing and community-building facilitate the evolution and sharpening of a language necessary to articulate the emotion awakening in the people.

Another key factor, Hedges writes, is the use of nonviolent civil disobedience. Descending into violence or property damage legitimizes the state’s violent response in the eyes of the masses, whose emotional reaction is so key to the success of the revolution.

The growth of social media might offer a beacon of hope. However, Hedges writes, even in this relatively promising domain, dissident leaders fear the state’s ability to infiltrate and control virtual space:

It is only through encryption that we can protect ourselves, Assange and his coauthors argue, and it is only by breaking through the digital walls of secrecy erected by the power elite that we can expose power. What they fear, however, is the possibility that the corporate state will eventually effectively harness the power of the internet to shut down dissent.

Hedges’ book is a multidimensional, somewhat scattered, consistently incisive exploration of the psychological and linguistic margins upon which any revolutionary fervor might explode in the coming decades. Its critics have rolled out the hackneyed rebuttal: “well, if not global capitalism, then what?” Their claim is that Hedges does not offer any new ideas, dismissing as recycled his calls for civil disobedience and labor organizing. But, just because he doesn’t offer a structural alternative to neo-liberal ideology, that does not make the status quo acceptable.

Besides, the main weakness of Wages for this reader is that it’s simply not terrifically written. Too many instances of awkward syntax break rhetorical flow. Hedges is very thorough—the bibliography offers a comprehensive education on the anarchist critique of both capitalism and communism, as well as on the litany of injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government against its people and those abroad—but he also has a tendency to repeat himself, which can be challenging to a reader seeking the next step of the argument. At other times, Hedges does the opposite, veering into hyperbolic leaps of logic without sourcing data—odd, given his assiduous sourcing otherwise—or leading the reader step by step through the argument.

But these are quibbles, because the book is a political manifesto of sorts, not, say, a piece of literary fiction—yet they do matter, because the book could have been more ambitious. It flirts with cultural criticism at times, elevating the discourse on fanatical capitalism to the metaphorical and literary levels—notably, drawing analogies to Moby Dick. But then Hedges either pulls back intentionally or loses interest in the metaphorical thread, I can’t tell which.

Herman Melville’s odd masterpiece is an ode to the ocean and, though his narrator Ishmael warns against viewing the tale as an allegory, a frightening portrait of capitalism as seen through the whaling industry. Captain Ahab, a fanatical sea wolf, is hell-bent on killing the eponymous great “white whale” that took his leg. Ahab is prepared to forego the massive profits of the whaling expedition as he focuses his energy and his men on finding and destroying this one whale. His language contains sublime madness, which is unfortunate for the crew, all of whom will drown because of Ahab’s charismatic quest. Starbuck, the first mate, is one of the few who expresses doubts about Ahab’s plans for the Pequod.

Ahab's white whale has become a popular metaphor.

Ahab’s white whale has become a popular metaphor. Cartoon by Dave Granlund.

The crucial moment comes in Chapter 36 when Ahab enthralls his poor, exploited crew with glorious visions of killing Moby Dick. Ahab notices Starbuck’s uncomfortable look. He invites Starbuck to respond, in full view of the crew. The first mate initially expresses his worry over consigning the entire enterprise to his “commander’s vengeance.” Ahab rebukes this swiftly, using revolutionary language (my emphasis added):

How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

Starbuck folds. He lacks the sublime madness (which, interestingly, Ahab does possess, as Hedges acknowledges) or language of rebellion to mutiny against his commander. He bemoans that Ahab has “blasted all my reason out of me!” Hedges writes: “Starbuck especially elucidates this peculiar division between physical and moral courage. […] Moral cowardice like Starbuck’s turns us into hostages. Mutiny is the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. And mutiny is our only salvation.” Hedges makes a compelling argument that today we have too many Starbucks.

Much of Wages focuses on cataloguing the injustices meted out by the state, only reserving a portion of its energy for portraits of rebels and an exploration of this sublime madness. Hedges does not explore with sufficient force how the quality might develop and how those possessing it will harness their passions and wake the masses out of their slumbers. What does emerge, though, is a compelling spotlight on those who are in the trenches today.

“You can’t fight power if you don’t understand it,” says Abu-Jamal from prison. Better understanding can only aid the cause—but until the corporate state trips up in its successful smothering of the will to understand, there’s little chance sublime madness will penetrate the middle class; without this, any real wages of rebellion will continue to stagnate against the inflation buoyed by mainstream narratives of capitalist ideology.

—Tom Faure


Tom Take 4

Tom Faure received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Waxwing Literary JournalZocalo Public Square, and Splash of Red. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.



Sep 062015
Secretariat via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia


YouTube Preview Image

Kentucky Derby 1973

YouTube Preview Image

Preakness 1973

YouTube Preview Image

Belmont Stakes 1973


TRIPLE CROWN WINNER American Pharoah’s recent loss in the 2015 Travers Stakes has, I’ve noticed, occasionally been accompanied by the erroneous remark that the greatest of all Triple Crown champions, the incomparable Secretariat, had also lost that race in Saratoga, the fabled “graveyard of champions.” This misstatement, coupled with the off-hand comment by Donald Trump a week earlier that “Secretariat wasn’t one of the best,” have combined to propel me back to the summer of 1973, to recall at least some of my memories of Secretariat, and to finally record something of the impact he’s had on my life.

In terms of direct, visceral experience, my relationship to Secretariat is reducible to a furtive touch and a mere breath. Yet a similar experience with the great California-bred Swaps—winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby (his owner ignored the other two Triple Crown races) and 1956 Horse of the Year—so affected Bill Nack that it led him to a career that resulted in, among other accomplishments, the writing of the definitive biography of Secretariat, the basis of the widely-viewed 2010 film. Bill and I have become friends, discovering that we have at least two things intensely in common. He is, I quickly learned, an informed appreciator, and public reader, of poetry, not least the poetry of Yeats, the poet whose work I happen to know most about. But Bill is also, of course, not merely enamored of Secretariat, but the world’s leading expert on the horse. That brings us back, again, to that annus mirabilis, 1973.

Though Secretariat had been the phenomenon of that summer, just as The Donald has been the rather-less-glorious phenomenon of the summer of 2015, Big Red had competition for the nation’s attention in 1973. That was also the summer of the Watergate hearings, which I watched on television in the recreation room of Helen Hadley Hall at Yale University. At the time, I was a participant in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar taught by Harold Bloom, already as spectacularly outstanding, indeed unique, in the world of literary criticism as Secretariat had swiftly become in the world of thoroughbred racing.

The national malaise attending Watergate and the dismal winding-down of the tragedy of the Vietnam War had, for many in the country and not only sports fans, been alleviated by the brilliant performances of “the People’s Horse.” It was not only his power, dazzling speed, and breathtaking come-from-behind style that made Secretariat so popular. He was extraordinarily intelligent and curious, with a playful personality almost as noticeable and appealing as his sheer physical beauty. Magnificently muscled, the “perfect horse” or “horse that God made” had a chestnut coat that shimmered like copper in the sunlight. The photos of him that appeared on the covers of three national magazines in a single week have become collectors’ items. The June 11, 1973 Time cover, one of four framed portraits of Secretariat hanging in my home, shows him looking directly at us, eyes alert, ears pricked. The words to the right of the picture say it all: SUPER HORSE.

Time cover

In a curious parallel on the personal level, my despondency in the summer of 1973 over the painful breakup of the most passionate relationship of my life had been relieved by the exhilaration of working with Harold Bloom and, even more, by the thrill of watching Secretariat win the first Triple Crown in a quarter-century. Of course, he not only won; he set records in all three races. Those records still stand more than four decades later; and his culminating performance in the last and longest leg, the Belmont Stakes—winning by 31 lengths in an almost miraculous 2:24 flat—is almost impossible to imagine ever being matched let alone beaten.

But back for a moment to those remarks made in 2015, first Trump’s.

The author of The Art of the Deal brazenly claims that his exaggerations and outright falsehoods are “innocent” utilitarian untruths; the end justifies the means, he argues, and hyperbole is effective salesmanship. His art of the deal continues in the current presidential campaign, with the media-savvy huckster playing fast and loose with facts, while touching, with uncanny insight and precision, more than a few nativist nerves and appealing to a much larger Washington-weary constituency, alienated and frustrated by political polarization and dysfunction.

But, to extend to Trump the fairness he seldom extends to others, his remark about Secretariat was not directed at the horse’s legendary performances on the track but at his lesser performance as a stallion: a testosterone-centered category in which the supermodel-collecting billionaire has always flaunted his own prowess. At the overflow August 21 rally in Mobile, Alabama, where Trump made the casual reference to Secretariat, it was in the context of his characteristic boasting about his own brilliance. On this occasion, referring to his “family’s intelligence,” he announced to the crowd that he “believes in the gene thing.” It was thought, he continued in his usual teleprompter-free stream of loose association, that Secretariat “couldn’t produce slow horses. But Secretariat wasn’t all that great, if you want to know the truth.”

YouTube Preview ImageFrom the documentary Penny & Red: the Belmont Stakes extended cut

The slur, as usual with Trump, was a half-truth. It’s true that Secretariat never produced a horse of his own caliber (what sire could?), thus disappointing the unrealistic expectations of some who had invested in that expensive $6 million syndicate and were dreaming of miraculous progeny. But he did in fact sire some stakes-winning colts and a series of remarkable daughters, most notably, the 1986 Eclipse Horse of the Year, Lady’s Secret, who won many Grade 1 races and dominated the field in that year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic. She is one of the few fillies ranked among the 100 top thoroughbreds. Another of Secretariat’s daughters, Terlingua, became the dam of Storm Cat, the most successful sire (his breeding fee at the peak of his stud career was $500,000) in thoroughbred history.

Though it is as a broodmare sire that Secretariat has left his most enduring mark on breeding, he did produce several fine colts as well. His son Tinner’s Way had lifetime earnings of over $1.8 million. Another, Risen Star, was beaten (along with all the other boys) in the 1988 Kentucky Derby by the sensational filly, Winning Colors, who ran wire-to-wire. But he came back in the remaining Triple Crown races, taking The Preakness and then romping to victory in the Belmont, in what was then a time second only to that of his daddy. Another son of Secretariat, General Assembly, won a number of stakes races, most dramatically the 1979 Travers, in which, on a sloppy track, he set a new record, 2:00 minutes flat: a mark that still stands, both for the Travers and for that distance, 1¼ miles, at Saratoga.

I was there that wet day, cheering on General Assembly in the performance of his life, but also in what I saw as an act of poetic justice: payback for the medical fluke that, a half-dozen years earlier, had prevented his father from adding to his Saratoga legacy following his Triple Crown triumph earlier that summer.

YouTube Preview Image



I had been in love with Secretariat from the first time I saw him in the flesh and, in fact, actually touched him. That was in Saratoga in early August, 1972, in the minutes leading up to the Hopeful Stakes. I was at the paddock rail when a man standing to my immediate right pointed his camera at Secretariat. With Ronnie Turcotte in the saddle, the beautiful two-year-old, already a camera-conscious star, strode to the rail. I instinctively raised my hand, then thought better of it; after all, he would be on the track competing in just a few minutes. However, Turcotte, with a resigned and understanding nod, gave me the green light. When I stroked that muscled crest of a neck, Secretariat turned and looked right at me with those intelligent eyes. I felt the warmth of his breath on my bare forearm.

YouTube Preview Image1972 Hopeful Stakes

The young colt then went out and ran the most dazzling Hopeful Stakes in the history of a race often thought of as a preview of the following year’s Triple Crown competition. He broke languidly, then, in a sudden, breathtaking move, surged past eight horses, exploding from dead last to first in little more than a furlong. He would do the same thing the following year, in The Preakness, making the other horses look as if they were standing still as he rocketed by. But by then he was a mature three-year-old. When he made that huge move in the Hopeful, I was jumping up and down, yelling to everyone near me that we were watching the future Triple Crown champion. My friends laughed at my premature enthusiasm, but I wasn’t just responding to that unprecedented burst of speed; I was still conscious of having stroked him, still feeling his breath on my arm. Bill Nack has said that he can still remember the life-changing moment when Swaps, the first horse he loved, breathed on his hand as he was stroking him. From the day I touched Secretariat and he breathed on me, I was similarly smitten for life.

The other half-truth I referred to was a claim made in the aftermath of American Pharoah’s failure on August 29. Secretariat, too, we were told, had lost at Saratoga, with the implication sometimes explicit: that he had “lost” the Travers.

American Pharoah did indeed lose the Travers. Bill Nack, recently asked to contribute to a special American Pharoah issue of the horse magazine Equus, told the editor that he was not the right contributor since he could not bring himself to rank the horse among “the greatest in history”; the editor invited him to write instead about a few of those he did so rank. Pharoah’s performance in the Travers may confirm Bill’s skepticism, conveyed to me in an email full of wonderful anecdotes about the golden age of racing.

Prior to the Travers, not even that email could steer me off Pharoah. I was at the track and noticed, from about 40 feet away, that he was sweating as he headed out for the big race, and it seemed clear, even though he led for almost the entire trip, that he was running tired. As his trainer, Bob Baffert, observed even as he graciously complimented the winner, his horse “did not bring his A-game.” No wonder—having been flown back and forth across the country in a matter of three weeks. Following his Belmont win, capping the first Triple Crown in 37 years, Pharoah had won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth handily, with his jockey, Victor Espinoza, coasting in the final stage of the stretch, saving his horse for what we all hoped would be the Travers. It was well known that Baffert didn’t like Saratoga, whose track-surface he considers deep and demanding; and Saratoga’s reputation as the “graveyard of champions” had been painfully demonstrated to him in past attempts to win the Big One at the Spa. Baffert had saddled five strong horses in previous Travers Stakes, winning only once, in 2001, with the great Point Given.

It was probably the combination of a dazzling work on August 22 at Del Mar, Pharoah’s home track in California, coupled with the NYRA decision to sweeten the Travers purse by $350,000 to $1.6 million in an attempt to lure the colt back across the country, that convinced the owner, Ahmed Zayat, and a more reluctant Baffert to run their horse in the Travers.

On top of the cross-country travel, Pharoah was not given sufficient time, less than three days, to acclimate himself to Saratoga. In the race, even in the lead, he did not seem his usual smooth self. Challenged at the head of the stretch by Frosted, he struggled, but regained the lead. That was the moment to close the deal, and many of us thought he was about to. But having beaten back the challenge by Frosted, Pharoah could not hold off the late rush of Keen Ice, who had also closed on him in the Haskell, cutting his lead from 5 to 21/2 lengths. But, with that race won, Espinoza had eased back. In the Travers, in sharp contrast, he was whipping Pharoah hard. But the horse was spent; Keen Ice passed him in the final seconds, to win by a full length.

His schedule may have been mismanaged, but the 2015 Triple Crown champion had his shot at the Travers and was beaten fair and square. In 1973, Secretariat had never gotten his chance. After easily winning the Arlington Invitational in Chicago, Secretariat was scheduled to run in both major races at Saratoga, the Whitney and the Travers, and was overwhelmingly expected to win both. Coming back to the scene of his triumphs as a two-year-old in the Sanford and Hopeful Stakes, the Triple Crown champion was welcomed as a returning hero. The Saturday of the Whitney Stakes, August 4, was declared Secretariat Day; the town was festive, draped in his blue and white colors, and—he lost!

In an astonishing upset, he was beaten by Onion, trained by Allan Jerkins. When those of us watching in growing dismay finally realized that Secretariat, who came in second, wasn’t going to storm past Onion in the stretch, a shockwave of disbelief spread through the grandstand, stunning an adoring crowd that had come to see the triumph, on his way to the Travers, of the greatest thoroughbred since Man o’ War—whose only defeat came as a two-year-old in the 1919 Sanford at (of course) Saratoga, losing to a 100-1 longshot unbelievably but aptly named Upset.

In the eerie silence that followed my hero’s defeat, I left the track in tears. It turned out that Secretariat had not simply been the victim of Jerkins as “giant killer” or of Saratoga as the graveyard of champions, however well-earned both those reputations were. Secretariat had failed to fire in the stretch because of a virus he had been incubating, a low-grade fever that—salt in the wound—also prevented him, as he further sickened, from competing in the Travers.

His son would help make up for that by winning the Travers in the fastest time ever recorded. But that would be six years in the future. The immediate compensation for the numbing disappointment of the Whitney came just a month later, and I was there to see Secretariat’s astonishing recovery. What was originally intended to be a match race between Secretariat and his stablemate, Riva Ridge, had been cancelled when both horses unexpectedly lost. Instead, a star cast was assembled for the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup Invitational.

Along with Riva Ridge and Onion, the talented field included Annihilate ‘Em (the actual winner of the 1973 Travers), Canadian champion Kennedy Road, and the 1972 three-year-old champion, Key to the Mint. I was at Belmont on that September day when, with his stablemate coming in second, Secretariat galloped to victory in 1:452/5, setting a new world record for 11/8 miles on dirt. Once again, I left the track after the feature race—again in tears, but this time tears of joy.

Secretariat via Zenyatta

YouTube Preview ImageSecretariat in retirement, running for the fun of it



Such tearful reactions may seem excessive to those who don’t share the passion some of us have for truly great horses. So let me try one more story involving tears and Secretariat. This one takes place not long after 1989, the year Secretariat, suffering from incurable laminitis, was humanely euthanized (yes, I wept that day, but that’s not the tale of tears I’m about to tell). I was visiting Saratoga, to see friends and to take in some races. Walking on Union Avenue, I noticed that one of the great houses was serving temporarily as a museum. I went in and was immediately struck by a splendid bronze in the middle of the room.

Secretariat statue

Perhaps two-thirds life-size, it depicted Secretariat immediately after winning the Kentucky Derby. Having just broken the old Derby record (Secretariat’s 1:592/5 still stands), the horse is pumped. Turcotte is in the saddle, gripping the reins, but one feels the strength pulsing under him. Even Eddie Sweat, his groom and the man who knew “Big Red” best, can barely restrain him. Fluent in bronze, Secretariat’s muscles are sharply delineated, his eyes dilated with excitement. The sculptor had caught perfectly the stunning surface beauty of the horse and the flexed power throbbing beneath that rippling coat.

via Horseguru

Noticing me admiring it, the curator walked over and asked if I had a minute for a story involving the sculpture. Unsurprisingly, I did. She told me that the piece was not commissioned but a labor of love, begun by the artist on a much smaller scale, but gradually possessing him until this seemed the minimum size to convey his sense of the horse. When it was exhibited, the sculptor arranged for Eddie Sweat to be flown up from Florida, where he was still working with horses.

When Eddie arrived, the sole black man in a white world of brie and chablis, he walked directly to the sculpture. He proceeded to circle it, slowly and repeatedly, without saying a word and with no discernable facial expression. At last the sculptor, concerned (the curator told me) by the lack of overt response on the part of the man who knew Secretariat most intimately, walked over to him.

“What’s the matter, Eddie,” he asked nervously, “You don’t like it?”

His eyes never leaving the sculpture, Eddie said simply:

“That’s him; that’s him.”

The sculptor, so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the room, later told the curator that lavish praise from the most distinguished art critic in the world could not have meant as much to him as those four words from Eddie Sweat.

Eddie Sweat and SecretariatEddie Sweat and Secretariat

The artist was internationally renowned equine sculptor Edwin Bogucki, who had first conceived of a tribute to Secretariat after seeing the horse in retirement at Claiborne Farm, just months before his death. Later, to reproduce the horse in his prime, he examined photos, made sketches, and took measurements. Ron Turcotte was always to be included in the piece. But when Bogucki saw a photograph of Eddie Sweat, alone and in tears, having just surrendered his beloved “Red” to Claiborne to begin his retirement, he knew that no depiction of Secretariat would be complete without the man who knew and loved him best.

The magnificent life-size version of this sculpture is now on permanent display in Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, the entrance to which is guarded by a statue of Man o’ War, its pedestal resting on the transposed grave of the only horse in thoroughbred racing history that can be considered Secretariat’s equal.

Secretariat’s own grave is nearby, at Claiborne Farm. Traditionally, even a champion thoroughbred’s body is cremated; only the symbolic head, heart, and hooves are buried. Secretariat was given the rare honor (shared only, as far as I know, by Man o’ War and the greatest of all fillies, beautiful, doomed Ruffian) of being buried whole. Even the oxygen-crunching organ that powered him to records—revealed in the necropsy to be the largest equine heart ever measured—was returned intact to his body. Visitors to that grave who also happen to love poetry may be reminded of the opening and closing lines of Wordsworth’s sonnet evoking immense power at rest: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty…/ And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

YouTube Preview ImageLast video of Secretariat

—Patrick J. Keane

September 2, 2015


Patrick J Keane 2

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


Sep 012015

V0048935 Women wearing crinolines set on fire, ca. 1860, lithograph Crinolines on fire, 1860, Creative Commons Image


THIS STORY HAPPENED when I was in my mid-twenties. Like most sensitive young men I was full of romantic notions about all sorts of things. Especially famous writers: most fascinating to me at the time was Oscar Wilde. I was also curious about my family roots, in this case in Ireland. Given these preoccupations I was in the completely wrong place (the cornfields of Iowa), doing the wrong thing (studying for an interminable degree in god-knows-which obscure American modernist poet). I was feeling isolated and claustrophobic in the fishbowl of Iowa City – which was pretty enough and even cool enough thanks to the Workshop students, but which was neither sufficiently old nor charming. Added to this my father had just died unexpectedly at 49. I mourned his death by making rash, unpredictable choices.

So one frosty Iowa spring morning, seized by the desire to abandon my sensible, funded graduate program and pursue my unfunded obsession with Wilde in Ireland, I acted. I withdrew from all my courses and forwarded my small inheritance to the financial department of Trinity College, Dublin. I remember having in mind a particular epigram of Wilde’s, something about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. Even the gutter part sounded romantic. I was confused, as I say, and overrun by the fever of romance. But that’s how I found myself enrolled the next autumn at the university attended by Wilde (and Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker, and many other writers I admired), specializing in Wilde, at a research centre bearing Wilde’s name, in the very house where Wilde was born. (Let’s forget for a moment what happened later: when Ireland and I, having squandered all our money, were subjected to the meanest form of austerity.)

My first term at Trinity had its highs and lows. Academically speaking, it was an inauspicious start: mostly spent in smoky Northside pubs, listening to moody Irish ballads, falling prey to infatuations, drinking too much, lying spread-eagled among the cigarettes and broken glass on the pub floors of Nighttown – that sort of thing. I was attending very few lectures, and still fewer sober.

Yet somehow I soaked up, along with the beer and whiskey and gin, more literature than I ever knew existed. I read voraciously, either in my green leather nook at the back of the Stag’s Head or, like the feckless student narrator in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, in bed all day while I nursed a hangover: not only Wilde but Joyce and Behan and O’Casey and Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston and Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney and Brendan Kennelly (who was one of my teachers). I waded through the mystical mire of Yeats’s A Vision and read the notorious Black Diaries of Roger Casement, the colonial civil servant turned human rights activist and gay Irish revolutionary, who was caught running guns from Germany to Ireland and executed by the English for treason in 1916. My blood ran black and white, and my eyes puffed up from the strain of reading fifteen hours a day.

It was a grand time and I was enjoying myself immensely. But something still nagged: I wanted to stake a formal claim on my ancestry. So I went down to the Passport Office in Molesworth Street near the National Library to obtain my hereditary citizenship. A kind and maternal woman in her fifties named Maebh took my case. She told me what to do and I brought her all the necessary documents, culled from the detritus of my dead relatives and carried across the Atlantic: certificates of birth, marriage, and death. There was one yellowed piece of parchment written in a calligraphic hand that predated the Irish Republic itself. She stamped all her stamps and scurried back and forth from her window to the ancient photocopier while I stood by and watched. Then my application was complete: the last thing she said before she rang the bell to call the next in line was “Welcome home, son.”

By that time St. Patrick’s Day was drawing near, and feeling now exceptionally Irish I decided to write to my great aunt and arrange a visit. Edna, my grandfather’s sister-in-law, was an ancient woman from Sligo whom I’d never met and who lived alone on a farm in County Monaghan just south of the border. I wrote her a proper letter, straining to remember my cursive script, and a few weeks later she wrote back. She invited me to come up for the long weekend. Leaving the party behind I walked down to the Bus Éireann station on Friday morning and caught a bus going to Belfast. I got off a few hours later in the small town of Clones – where Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy was filmed – and found the place respectable enough, if a bit cold and grey. My first thought was: No wonder they left. But one of my grandfather’s brothers had stayed, and now his wife Edna, a robust widow in her eighties with thick glasses and gumboots, was standing there waiting for me. She said hello without offering a hug, and drove us in a battered Mercedes back to the farm at Smithboro, the place where my grandfather was born.

I knew by now not to expect much of the legendary family farm, and in this lack of expectation I was not disappointed. There had once been a larger house, Edna told me, the one where my grandfather lived until he was nineteen, but it had been torn down in the sixties. In its place was a small and sensible two-storey stucco house. There were a few crumbling outbuildings to add a bit of romance, several sheep on the front lawn that Edna called “pets,” and some large enclosures behind the house which held five bulls and two or three horses. Edna said that although she lived alone there were a couple of local men who worked the farm, and her niece Ruth, my father’s cousin, stopped by almost every day. Inside the house was a mix of the very old – sombre furniture that, having survived the long journey, would never leave – and the strikingly new, including a huge television positioned directly opposite a sleek black leather lounger.

On Friday night Edna served fish fingers and boiled potatoes and milk for dinner. Since it was just the two of us we ate in the kitchen, and afterwards we retired to the living room. There we sat, Edna in her lounger and me on the lace-covered sofa, watching The Quiet Man with John Wayne and saying very little to each other. I was beginning to realize that, unlike the Dubliners I had met, Edna was a woman of few words. I remember trying to ignore the silence by focusing on the film, and noticing that John Wayne’s trousers were pulled up higher than any trousers I’d ever seen on a man.

But eventually during a long advertising break we started to talk. She told me the history of my family, once prosperous “gentlemen farmers” now reduced by emigration and economic crisis to this lonely widow living in a few rooms of a modest country house. We touched on education – Edna surprised me with the news that she had attended Wesley College, a Methodist boarding school once situated on the edge of St. Stephen’s Green – and then about particular Irish authors (Shaw was a graduate of Wesley). I asked Edna if she had seen any famous productions of the plays of Wilde or Yeats or Shaw or Synge at the Abbey or the Gate. She indulged me as much as her failing memory would allow: she had definitely seen something scandalous by Shaw.

But I also learned another, more shocking family history – one that was loosely tied up with my own. It was the story of Oscar Wilde’s two illegitimate half-sisters. Wilde’s father, William Wilde, was a notorious philanderer, and he had children hidden away in houses up and down the country. Two of these children, Mary and Emily, had lived on the farm, or “estate,” next to ours. They had died together – shortly after Oscar’s seventeenth birthday, though it is unclear whether he even knew of their existence – in a tragic fire in that very house. On October 31st, 1871, during the last dance of a country ball, the hem of one sister’s – Emily’s – crinoline evening gown had suddenly burst into flames. Crinoline was notoriously flammable: so much so that this sort of death was not uncommon. Hundreds of young women seem to have died in similar fires during the nineteenth century. In this case the other sister, Mary, tried to rescue her, but she was also wearing a crinoline gown; both sisters received mortal burns. William Wilde, Edna told me with a sideways glance, had been spotted at the graveside in the weeks after the funeral, wailing openly in his grief. He never recovered, she said. He died a few years later, a broken man. Not unlike his son after prison, I thought. What a tragic family.

The story came up completely by accident. Not long after I arrived, I had noticed a dust-jacketed copy of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde sitting primly on a doily-covered china cabinet. Ellmann, the American son of a Jewish Romanian immigrant father and a Ukrainian mother, was Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford University from 1970 to 1985. (He also passed through Trinity College, Dublin.) Ellmann wrote the definitive biography of James Joyce in 1959 and a dozen other books on famous Irish authors. He also published an anthology in the 1960s that strongly influenced the study of literary modernism – especially its slant towards Irish writers. Along with The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner, a fellow Yale graduate and Hibernophile, Ellmann’s The Modern Tradition shaped the modernist canon for decades afterwards.

I had taken down several of Ellmann’s books from the stacks at Trinity library during my first two terms. In particular I recalled spending a week in bed around Valentine’s Day, sick with a humiliating case of adult chicken pox, reading his edition of Joyce’s fascinating and filthy letters. I guessed he might have written about Wilde reluctantly, being unsure what to do with him: Wilde was modern, but not exactly a modernist; he was gay, which Ellmann seemed to have difficulty talking about; and unlike Joyce or Yeats, he seemed to have left his Irishness behind when he left Ireland. In fact, as I later learned, Ellmann struggled with the biography through the last two decades of his life. As fate would have it, Wilde was not only Ellmann’s last subject, but also his crowning achievement. Ellmann died in 1987, the same year the book was published, and Oscar Wilde was posthumously awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award. (The book was later used as the basis for Wilde, the biopic with Stephen Fry giving his uncanny performance as Oscar incarnate.)

I knew most of this at the time, and I was delighted to find an object of common interest, so I asked my aunt about the book. Edna was dismissive at first, saying it had been sitting there for a decade gathering dust. After some gentle prodding, however, she told me the story of how the book had found its way into the house. Ellmann had come to Ireland to research the book, and one of his stops was Monaghan to investigate the story of Wilde’s sisters. As Edna told it, he had lain in wait outside the local church on a Sunday, and when the congregation emerged Ellmann started asking if anyone knew the story of the sisters’ death. Someone pointed to my great uncle and said, “Ask him, he’ll know.” So Ellmann interviewed my uncle about it, and when the book came out he sent a signed copy as thanks. And there it sat, long after Ellmann and my uncle had gone.

The story of Wilde’s sisters that my uncle told Ellmann is a sensational one, reminiscent of something Gwendolen Fairfax would read on the train. The first published account of the story appears in a biography of William Wilde by T. G. Wilson in 1942. Yeats’s father recalled the sisters’ death in a letter in 1921 – so the story was probably familiar to the small world of Dublin society. At the same time, some of the obscurity surrounding the events stems from discretion on the part of the authorities when dealing with sensitive matters involving people of significant social standing. From reading several accounts, including the one my great uncle gave to Ellmann, I learned that the births of Mary and Emily Wilde were indeed out of wedlock (that antiquated yet evocative phrase) but they predated the marriage of Oscar’s parents. At the time of their death Mary and Emily were wards – like Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest – of William Wilde’s eldest brother, the impeccably named Reverend Ralph Wilde. The Reverend Ralph, who christened Oscar, was rector of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat: the parish church that my family attended in Monaghan. The neighbour’s house, where the party took place, belonged to a local bank manager named Andrew Reid. Reid was the man who had taken the last dance with Emily and then tried in vain to extinguish both sisters when their dresses caught fire.

The night itself, October 31st, seems to have been a party to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain in Ireland. It was most likely attended by the well-to-do landowning families in the area, from neighbouring estates like ours. (I asked whether it was likely that anyone from our family had been present, but Edna just shrugged indifferently.) There was plenty of alcohol, and the party went on late into the night. Accounts of the event differ, with some even calling it a Christmas party. Some accounts also describe there being snow on the ground: Reid is said to have rushed Emily outside and rolled her in the snow to put out the flames, while Mary ran around screaming frantically until she collapsed. There is no mention of snow in the official inquiry, but then the inquiry also gives the family name not as Wilde but “Wylie.”

The aftermath of the tragedy was, if possible, even more gruesome than the terrible accident itself. The sisters remained in the house, as was the custom at the time, where they were treated for the severe burns they had both suffered. To die on Halloween night would have been merciful: instead they lingered on for days and weeks at Drumaconnor. Mary, the younger sister who had tried to help, died first, on November 9th. Her death was kept a secret from Emily, who was also near death, to spare her the shock; nevertheless, three weeks after the accident, on November 21st, Emily also died.

Oscar Wilde, that pioneer of camp sensibility, was not one to respond to tragedy with too much sentiment. One of the most famous remarks attributed to him is the one about the death of Nell Trent, the angelic child in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Wilde is said to have quipped: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” (The child’s death in the popular serial story took everyone by shock: before it was revealed, people were said to have lined the docks in New York, shouting to sailors arriving from England, “Is Little Nell alive?”) In The Importance of Being Earnest, the supremely unsentimental Lady Bracknell, on hearing that Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing is an orphan, declares: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The same could be said of sisters.

It is hard to say with any certainty what happened that Halloween night, at the end of the party when most of the guests had left. Events were intentionally covered up, and details were kept to a minimum to avoid scandal; the story that was passed down in the neighbourhood, and that my great uncle told Richard Ellmann outside the church, was likely filled in and smoothed around the edges with the passing of time. Was there really snow on the ground in Ireland on October 31st? Was it Emily who danced with the host, or Mary? Who else was in the room? How much had been drunk?

The story ends in the tiny churchyard of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat parish, two miles from Smithboro, County Monaghan, where I drove with Edna that Sunday to visit the graves of our ancestors before catching the bus back to Dublin. In the car on the way Edna repeated a story I had already read in Ellmann’s biography. It was the local legend of the “woman in black” – thought to be the girls’ mother – who visited the graves regularly for twenty years after the tragedy. Oscar Wilde also used to tell the story of a woman in black. Wilde, who was still a teenager at the time, recalled an unknown woman’s visits to his house during his father’s last illness. The woman would come into the house and kneel by William’s sickbed, while Oscar’s mother stood by watching without interfering, apparently knowing that her husband and the woman, who shared a tragic bond, had loved each other deeply.

We entered the churchyard through the wrought iron gate and explored separately in silence. Edna’s hands were clasped behind her back, her head bowed. Right away I noticed that among the names on gravestones that I could read – Arthur Brady; Henry and Anne Finnegan; Robert John Bole and his wife Charlotte, who had emigrated to Alberta and whose bodies had been returned for burial here; Martha Brown, Ruth’s mother – at least half were marked by my family name. There was Thomas Hanna, and Stephen, who died in 1835, and his brother James, and their sister, whose name I couldn’t read. Edna pointed out the grave of another great aunt, Amy Elizabeth, whom my sister was named after. I knelt in the grass and took some pictures. The grave of Mary and Emily was there too, and I photographed it. In contrast to their younger brother, whose famous tomb I had seen once in Père Lachaise cemetery, the sisters were all but anonymous, their gravestone untended and overgrown and lost to time.

Years later I went back to Smithboro and the churchyard of St. Molua’s. Things had improved. The Oscar Wilde Society had erected a new monument beside the old one to mark the Wilde sisters’ final resting place. The simple stone read:

In Memory of
Two loving and beloved Sisters
MARY WILDE aged 22
who lost their lives by accident
in this parish in Nov 1871.
They were lovely and pleasant in
their lives and in their death they
were not divided
(II Samuel Chap. I, v 23)

Emily & Mary - half sisters of Oscar Wile. Original stone on right.Julian Hanna photo

—Julian Hanna



Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.

Aug 072015

15th Cen. St Brenden, stranded whale, B. Museum15th Cen. St. Brenden & The Stranded Whale, British Museum


There shines in us, though dimly in darkness, the life and the light
of man, a light which does not come from us, which however is in
us, and we must therefore find it within us.
Gerhard Dorn – Philosophia specuativa



“As the dead prey upon us,
they are the dead in ourselves,
awake, my sleeping ones, I cry out to you,
disentangle the nets of being!”
Charles Olson

1 – Pedrolino

WOKE THIS MORNING in the house where the poet Vincent Ferrini lived and wrote for decades, now the Gloucester Writers Center.August 17th, 2014, at 7:30 AM, newly risen light washes purple drawstring shades, which I keep half-shut. Perched on the shoulder of East Maine Street, a two lane coastal road that runs between downtown Gloucester and Rocky Neck, traffic up and down the hill sets up a constant rush of sound. The front door opens on a gas station/ convenience store at the far side of a parking lot. In back workmen level ground to pave a narrow alley. People walk close to the windows. There’s a small kitchen at one end, and a bathroom off the main room. I’ll be the poet-in-residence here for a week, which ends with a reading from my latest collection, Fishing On The Pole Star.

Last night, after a chicken/vegetable stir-fry dinner, I turned on the overhead fan, moved a lamp to the side of the vintage pull-out bed and perused a book case lining the wall stacked with copies of Vincent’s collection, Know Fish. Among them I found a copy of Charles Olsen’s Collected Works and fell asleep reading his signature poem, “The Kingfishers.” This morning I dimly remember a dream in which I’m standing in a rowboat fishing from the stern with a child’s rig. I understand the implication that I am still developing as a fisherman, but have no doubt that knowing fish has brought me here.

Framed poems hang on white walls beside images of Ferrini and his friend, larger than life poet Charles Olson, who mythologized Gloucester as Joyce did Dublin. Standing 6’8”, aka Maximus, and former rector of Black Mountain College, Olson played a major role in the dynamic changes that drove mid-20th Century American poetry. Ferrini appears small beside him, but no less haunting.

Vincent & MEVincent Ferrini, (monoprint) by Jain Tarnower @ The Gloucester Writers Center

I work on a table facing a print of Ferrini outlined in white on a black field—an image dominated by his white face and hands. He wears a domed hat, like a novitiate in an obscure Italian order, but might as easily be Pedrolino, the moon-faced dreamer out of the comedia dell’arte. His smile is enigmatic. It reads like a confidence, an intimate whisper in my ear:  Pay no attention to what is going on outside and around you. Do as I did. Listen for what comes through the inner doors and windows.

I follow the instruction, submit to the inner sensorium.

What enters is as much shape as sound, ideas like iron filings on a magnetic field. The field becomes an ocean, the magnet a star. Fish swim below or break the surface. Constellations in space dance without touching. This ghost in the room I think of as Pedrolino has awakened a ghost in me. I see myself standing beside Amfortas, the Fisher King, in the Pole Star watching a king fisher dive. How did Amfortas end up in my boat, both of us in the stern waiting for Parzival or his equivalent? Olson’s poem, “King Fishers,” which influenced me as a young poet, has set up an inexorable call to the obsession of my later years, the wounded Fisher King!

Amfortas drops his line next to mine, and with it the orderly content of my inner world breaks down. I can’t predict what will emerge from this matrix, what looks like a massa confusa, but is possibly the first stage of important work.

Pedrolino nods.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I accept.”

I’ll take the risk, go where the currents lead. I am a navigator with faulty maps and a ragged compass. But there is a mystery on the tip of my tongue waiting to be revealed, a series of linkages I had not suspected before that will pull valuable information out of the shadows into the light of day—if only I will engage the journey.

Pedrolino is pleased. His smile deepens.

I let him know that in addition to my reading I will give a talk, because the title just popped into my head like a mackerel: “Trolling With The Fisher King.”

That is, after all, what this about. Whether alone in the boat, or with Amfortas trailing in Charles Olson’s wake, fishing is what connects us. It is as though now all three of us were working the same line after the catch we were all hoping for—the wisdom that whispers, “What wounded thee will make thee whole.”

I email my host Henry, old Ferrini’s nephew, proposing the talk and its title and suggest it immediately follow my reading.

Almost instantly, I get a reply: “You’re on!”

Pedrolino likes this.


2 – Spreading the Net

The Fisher King figure in its present form appears prominently in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th Century epic, Parzival, set in a landscape devastated by war. Armies returning from the Crusades, and mercenaries hired by expansionist nation-states, have pillaged the countryside. Against this backdrop, knights governed by the archaic laws of chivalry kill each other in the name of love and honor, leaving a trail of widows and fatherless children in their wake. Parzival’s mother, stricken by the loss of her heroic husband, takes their son into the woods vowing he will not perish in this way. She raises Parzival in a state of nature ignorant of his lineage and his real name, which means piercing through. One day at an age when most young men leave home, he sees a brace of knights in armor riding through the woods and mistakes them in their shining armor for gods. Parzival follows them to King Arthur’s court, where he gains entry by killing the Red Knight who blocks the entrance with a lucky throw of his lance through the eye-slit in the seasoned warrior’s helmet. Still innocent (unconscious) but triumphant, the fledgling sets out to prove himself, and becomes what his mother feared most, a man who kills in the name of love and honor.

Riding past a lake one evening at dusk Parzival spies a man fishing from a dingy who directs him to a castle where he can spend the night. He doesn’t recognize that the fisherman is Amfortas (without strength), keeper of the Grail. Under the banner of AMOR, Amfortas killed a Saracen warrior in single combat, and ever since that time has carried a piece of the Infidel’s lance in his groin. Because his pain is greatest in the presence of the Grail, Amfortas can no longer function as Grail Keeper. He now sits with a line in the water to ease his pain waiting for one pure in heart to ask the question that heals his wound, and restore the Waste Land.

In some versions, the question is, “Whom does the Grail serve?” in others, “What ails thee?”

The innocent (unconscious) Parzival doesn’t recognize himself as the one for whom Amfortas and all attendant on the Grail are waiting.He follows directions to the Castle and is welcomed by attendants who bathe and dress him. In the Great Hall he witnesses the procession of the Grail that once held Christ’s blood, and the lance used by the Roman soldier Longinus to pierce His side. Joseph of Arimathea, who prepared Jesus for burial was said to have brought these sacred objects to England.

Galahad_grailGalahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co.. Wool and silk on cotton warp, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

From his divan in the Great Hall, Parzival watches robed acolytes parade with the spear that pierced Christ’s side. After this another set of acolytes carry the Grail, which fills the tankards, bowls, goblets, trenchers, platters and baskets with all manner of delicacies, from fowl, and mutton to cheeses, fruits, breads and wine until everyone at the banquet is provided for. There appears to be no limit to what nourishment the Grail can bestow. In the right hands, such abundance might feed the world.Seated across from him Amfortas writhes in pain waiting to hear the question that will deliver him. But Parzival has been taught that it’s impolite for a guest to question his host, and so he fails to ask the question. He wakes next morning to find the Castle empty except for spectral voices jeering from the battlements. The drawbridge slams shut behind him. Slowly, it dawns on Parzival that he has failed to recognize this opportunity.

It’s a bitter pill.

All of his assumptions, the received wisdom given by those in authority, dissolve in the first light of consciousness. He will spend the next twenty years wrestling with this failure. In the end, confronting his own wounded pride, he is able to “pierce through” to the recognition of his true identity as heir in that lineage as Grail Keeper.

Two details must be noted: after recognizing his role, Parzival rejoins his wife in true union, a Holy Marriage (heiros gamos); and, finally, he encounters his dark brother, Fierfize, (piebald), the son their father, Gahmuret, sired with the black Moorish Queen Belcane, in the North African Kingdom of Zazamanc, on his way home from the Crusades. Concealed by their armor, they face off without knowing the identity of the other. Just before delivering the death blow Parzival sees his brother’s face free of the helmet, recognizes him, and the once embattled knights embrace.It begins as a reprise of the battle in which Amfortas was wounded, and ends with a resolution. Parzival welcomes his dark Muslim brother as a part of himself. He can heal the wounded Fisher King by asking the question which he now embodies. Amfortas, free from pain, dies in peace. may be a cipher and a prescription for our own time..


3- Mare Nostrum

The reading at the Gloucester Center for Writing from Fishing On The Polestar is scheduled for later this week. The poems record my experience trolling the out islands of the Bahamas, exploring obscure inlets, crossing the section between Eleuthera and Columbus Point known as “the tongue of the ocean.”

What would the tongue of the ocean say if it could speak?

I recall last night’s dream, and reel it up from my store of memories.

As a child I hooked crappies (small sunfish) in Prospect Park. In the 70s , I hauled in snapper on a hand-line from a dugout off the coast of Belize. Later, I trolled for bill fish in a 42’ Bertram from Ft. Lauderdale to Crooked Island. In time it dawned on me that as a poet and psychotherapist drawn to the unconscious, my lures were set to bring up something concealed in my own depths. I have come to understand the Fisher King wound and why a line in the water brings relief.

Olson’s Collected Works lies on my bed open to “The Kingfishers”. I read: What does not change / is the will to change…

He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He
Remembered only one thing, the birds, how
When he came in, he had gone around the rooms
And got them back into their cage, the green one first,
She with the bad leg, and then the blue,
The one they had hoped was a male.

Since the poem was published in 1949, no one has been able to give “The Kingfishers” a definitive reading. Those who engage it are drawn or repelled; few are indifferent to its movement. Some critics call it a dreamscape, and there is reason to treat it as such. Others cite it primarily as a response to post-Holocaust trauma.But what’s most haunting about it is less historical than psychological. “The Kingfishers” occupies a limbic space, that threshold between sleeping and waking where the conscious and unconscious are open to each other. This is also where we locate the Grail Castle that appears and disappears, a quantum space beyond fixed coordinates. Here, Charles Olson drops his lures.

MarillDialogue at Five (Provincetown) – Herman Maril

Lines from “The Kingfishers” float through dream-time into morning light trailing brightly colored green and blue feathers from two caged birds. Still in bed, I hear seagulls outside squawk and cry. Sea-birds have trailed in my wake for hundreds of miles, like my golondrina. As a merchant seaman crossing the Pacific I watched a tiny swallow hitch a ride from the Golden Gate to Subic Bay on our United Fruit ship. Even through the roughest storms. When I thought it had been blown away, there it was the next morning perched on a boom. Long after I returned from the South China Sea, the swallow haunts me. Like Olson’s kingfishers, my golondrina, exists as an ache in the present—an unhealed wound.

I follow my ghost bird into the poem.

Neither “The Kingfishers” nor the Fisher King is primarily concerned with the act of fishing, but each links deeply wounded cultures, lacking coherence, to fishermen, fish and fishing birds. A lost but crucial piece of psyche must be restored. I fish for the clue in Olson’s paradox: everything changes but the will to change.

What is the lure attached to this line?

unnamed paul pinesWayne Atherton – Mounting The Bounty

It isn’t change that carries the charge, but the “changeless will,” and what that implies.We are drawn to what is concealed in changeless will. Calculations will not reveal it. Otherwise discourse—words, ideas and numbers alone would heal the Fisher King wound.Better to follow the kingfisher into limbic space, watch it circle, dive, and emerge with a fish in its beak. Reason will not tell us what lies beyond it, like the sublime—or how to locate “changeless will” in the wound, the fisherman, or the fish.

Better to follow a ghost bird.


4 – Fixing the Colors

Olson’s narrator wakes fully clothed from a dream. Seated at my computer, under Pedrolino’s watchful eye, I recall that seabirds following a school will mirror the behavior of the fish, then feel a tug, rock back and forth as if I were in the fighting chair. What I bring to light surprises me, a dream fragment from last night. I enter a room where people dressed in blue and green are waiting to hear my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King”. Olson’s birds are blue and green. This is not insignificant. He quotes 16th Century Belgian alchemist/psychologist Gerhard Dorn: “Color/ is the evidence of truth.”

I agree. Color is important.

As an eight-year-old fishing for crappies in Prospect Park, I watch my cork bob on a bed of light that splinters when the float sinks. As I reel in a sunfish, brightness falls from the air (a line James Joyce borrowed from Thomas Nash). The brilliance of its scales fires my imagination. These sparks are evidence of an underwater rainbow I might pull up whole as all those other kids marvel. It will give me super powers, change my life by calling forth the power inside of me.

Years later, at sixteen, reading Freud’s Future of an Illusion, I understand that fishing my dreams is more likely to yield that life-changing catch. The flashes of color I glimpsed as a child were aspects of myself yet to be identified.I’m still waiting for a vision to break the surface like a marlin.

Color…fixes the statement,” (Olson via Dorn).

What shall I say about “The Kingfishers” to my dream audience in kingfisher colors?

We trail lines defined by the color of our lures.”

ArthurDoveSunSun, Arthur Dove, the Smithsonian

The first thing Olson does in “The Kingfishers” is to pluck color from dream-water, the green female bird “with the bad leg,” and the blue male returned to their cage by someone named Fernand who “ had talked lispingly of Albers & Angkor Vat,” and subsequently leaves the party that is taking place…

When I saw him he was at the door, but it did not matter,
he was already sliding along the wall of the night, losing
in some crack of the ruins. That it should have been he
who said, “The Kingfishers!
who cares
for their feathers

Fernand dissolves like a shadow in “some crack of the ruins.” He points to what we otherwise can’t see, and seeing, turn away. No wonder the poet regrets that it should have been Fernand who poses the question: who cares? The shadow’s voice, peripheral to awareness,delivers a message that draws us down, even as it hangs in the air like an accusation. The poet wishes the question had been his to ask.

Parzival also begs the question; the part of him that would ask it remains buried in his split-off shadow. He must become fully conscious to ask the healing question: What ails thee?

Fernand’s question points to, rather than discloses the disconnection, and so rings both as desperate and ironic: Who cares?

Outraged, Olson raises a more pressing question: Who is Fernand anyway, this shadow that speaks what must be said, then vanishes, leaving behind him a cloud of regret? Fernand’s question, “Who cares?” exists as a statement yet to be understood by those at the party, including the poet.This Post-Parzival situation finds us in stagnant waters.

Bright blue and green sparks in the kingfisher feathers at the opening of the poem disappear into the rapidly deteriorating natural world. Observing from the shadow’s point of view, Fernand comments.

His last words had been, “The pool is slime.” Suddenly everyone,
ceasing their talk, sat in a row around him, watched
they did not so much hear, or pay attention, they
wondered, looked at each other, smirked, but listened,
he repeated and repeated, could not go beyond his thought
“The pool the kingfisher’ feathers were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

Those at the gathering are confronted with the degraded pool at their center, evidence of unconsciousness. They are unmoved, look but don’t see, listen but don’t hear—remain in a peculiar state of indifference, partying in a Waste Land. Part one of “The King Fishers” ends here, with Fernand’s unanswered question.

It was then he left.


5 – Consciousness / The Wound

How did we become deaf to the voice that reminds us to wake up? Mother earth calls from the depths, warns us to pay attention. This was the purpose of the Great Mysteries. The Dying and Reviving Gods like Tammuz, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Ba’al and Jesus demand we remain conscious. Their myths and ceremonies of wounding and healing model the birth, death and resurrection of consciousness, a transformative experience open to those who understand it. In her study The Language of the Goddess (1989), Marija Gimbutas points out that wine and bread were revered as sacraments in Neolithic cultures because they represented the inherent potential for transformation produced by fermentation and yeast. Early Egyptians drank beer and tasted Osiris wafers to partake of an eternal blood and body. The Pyramid Text, dating back to the 5th Dynasty (2,400 BCE), instructs the king to rise from his tomb

Take your head, collect your bones,
Gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh!
Take your bread that rots not, your beer that sours not

unnamedUnnamed, Matt Daly

The same text, perhaps the world’s earliest known religious document, records the worship of Osiris, Egyptian lord of the Underworld. Depicted with green skin, a pharaonic beard and ostrich feathers on either side of a conical crown in later hieroglyphs, Osiris is the poster boy for death and resurrection. Dismembered by his jealous brother, Seth, and re/membered by his sister/wife, Isis, Osiris knits worlds above and below into a seamless whole, just as the wounded Fisher King embodies the potential to restore the Waste Land. But there is a shift in this mythos between Dynasty V and the 12 Century AD, and again into our Post-Internet culture. The drama is no longer the provenance of the Gods. The transformation requires human participation. Parzival must become conscious of his own wound before he can heal Amfortas and accomplish his mission.

We are dealing in symbolic terms with human development, the ordeal through which split off material in the unconscious is brought to light and integrated. Carl Jung found in Alchemy a compelling description of transformation applicable to the totality of the psyche. For him, the writing of adepts like Gerhard Dorn revealed in symbolic language the relationship of the unconscious to the conscious as the agent of psychological transformation. Jung recognized in Alchemy an intuitive iteration of Psyche’s drive to realize itself. Olson also quotes Dorn suggestively: “Color is important.”

the blackeningCombat, Marc Shanker

The Alchemical Work broadly speaking unfolds in four stages, the first of which is a condition of decay, the “blackening” known to practitioners as nigredo. It is analogous to the initial wounding, the early call of the unconscious to become conscious. Olson’s poem locates it in Fernand’s recognition of the pool become slime. He points it out to those gathered but no one hears him. Only when there is some acknowledgment of the condition can the Work move on to stages known by their colors, white, yellow and the reddening, rubedo. Here, the transformation is realized in the body of the “Philosopher’s Stone”, or as Parzival beholds it, the lapis exilies, another name for The Holy Grail.

Olson’s poem can be read as the search for materials in anticipation of the Alchemical Work, which is increasingly difficult as we are blinded by distractions. Psyche’s drive toward transformation, the hidden telos in Olson’s “will to change,” calls out to us. His poem, “The King Fishers” is an attempt to hear it, a plea for us to open our ears or suffer the consequences. Riding the stern of his work, feathered lures in the water, I see Charles Olson become the Fisher King. It’s not the nigredo alone he fears, but that he (we) will get stuck in it, and stay that way—trapped in

a state between
the origin and
the end, between
birth and the beginning of
another fetid nest

Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny: the principle states that each of us in our development recapitulates the evolution of the species, and possibly the entire universe, from chaos to cosmos. If true, there is a moment when that movement becomes conscious of itself, a shift (or fall) from undifferentiated “time before time” into time as we experience it—antiphonal, polarized, and fleeting. In a number of myths, the creation of cosmos from chaos involves horrific violence, a wounding and dismembering that becomes embedded in nature.

For the Aztecs creation begins with a many armed female monster, a hungry mouth at the juncture of each arm. In this myth, the agents of “the will to change”, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, become serpents, wrap themselves around the insatiable matrix and twist until she comes apart. From her parts they construct the ordered world which remembers the pain and exacts tribute in blood. Sumerian hero-god Marduk does the same to the complaining sea-serpent Ti’amat. The mother of us all, pre-conscious chaos incarnate, must be torn apart. This process, essential to creating and sustaining order, also produces the consciousness that re/members that pain.

The wound requires appeasing. Host cultures enacted blood rituals of reparation to a matrix that might exact revenge if disregarded. If we forget or cease to feel the pain inherent in becoming conscious, degradation of the psychological and natural worlds follow as surely as slime on the pool. Numbed and disconnected, we dismiss Fernand’s warning, whisperings from the shadow in the wings.

kingfisher-3Kingfisher hovering, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds


6 – Re/member Me

In Greek mythology the wind god, Aeolus, intervenes when his daughter Halcyon attempts to follow her mortal husband drowns in a storm. Aeolus prevails on Zeus to turn them into birds. Zeus does this, but requires that she nest on the shore for two weeks in mid-January ever year during which he stays the waves and winds to let her young hatch in safety. These become known as Halcyon Days; we know these birds as kingfishers.

It is true, it does nest with the opening year, but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There,
six or eight white and translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds.

I have observed riverine kingfishers nesting in the muddy banks of the Sibun River in Belize. We steered our canoe through an uncharted stretch that flowed between the Pine Ridge and jungle low-lands. I noted anhinga, heron, hummingbird and toucan—among other exotic avian life—but the kingfishers where most memorable. They darted in and out of tunnels in which they built their nests. I think of them as I read Olson’s description of that process, how they construct those nests of decomposed fish bones—evidence of which was visible and odiferous as I passed them on the river bank.

Mostly it was the sea-birds I followed.

swallowHieroglyph Swallow,

E.H. Gombrich tells us in his Little History of the World: “If you want to know where Egypt is, I suggest you ask a swallow.” That’s where they fly every autumn, over the Alps to Italy, across the sea, to the Nile valley. My golondrina: the swallow, for centuries the talisman of seamen—square riggers manned by seamen with barn swallow tattoos on their arms and chests. The swallow delivered a lost sailor’s soul safely to the Underworld. A Pharaoh tells us in the Pyramid Texts he has “gone to the great island in the midst of the Field of Offerings on which the swallow gods alight; the swallows are the imperishable stars.”

Poems in my book, Fishing On The Pole Star, describe birds circling or diving into weeds banked on shoals where small fish are feeding, larger ones under them, and at the bottom tier great creatures with silver fins that break the surface, incarnate beams of light. Aloft on the tuna tower of our boat, a small seat on top of a ten foot ladder rising from our bridge, I admired the weave of worlds from Bimini to the Planas. For years the sun drenched waters appeared to be as they had always been. Then the veil fell from my eyes. I’d been like those Fernand addressed at the pool-party, unaware of the slime.

The Waste Land referred to in Parzival, and revived as a theme by T.S. Eliot, links the mythic to the ecological narrative. The state of the physical world is a reflection of the psychological one in which we live. Our willingness to read and understand it depends on our ability to tolerate the pain in that recognition, and our desire to heal it.

Changes in Bahamian and Caribbean waters have been incremental, but can be measured in bleached reefs, diminishing schools of tuna, the paucity of local catch, and marlin moving further south to Piñas Bay. Sea birds—cormorant, frigate, pelican, heron, and kingfisher—that dive with satellite precision, are the unifying connection of above to below. What becomes of them as the fish populations dwindle? “Who cares for their feathers now?”

Changes in temperature provide a breeding ground for stinging mites that make it impossible to swim in certain locations without a wet suit.

Cays with white sand beaches that held no footprint are now virtual stages where Bahamians set up a fake village for Holland American Line cruise ships, where tourists buy folk art, drink rum punch, and dance to a reggae band before cruising on, unaware they’ve been in Disneyland. It might’ve been a protected beach for halcyon birds to hatch their eggs, but who can protect them from cruise ships?

We’ve come a long way from the Pharaoh’s great island tenanted by imperishable sparrows. All assumptions about endlessly resilient Mother Nature are no longer tenable. NASA photos reveal we live on a frangible sphere wrapped in atmospheric lace. We are now cognizant of five previous extinctions.
Where does the extinction of our species fit in?

In addition to species, we are also aware that words and feelings can become extinct, the once rich chords on the emotional scale reduced to simple notes. Awe, a word once a referring to a transformative experience, has been reduced to a trivial response in every day speech.

What happens to us, and to the natural world when we remain unconscious and therefore unable to address the wound?

Olson puts it another way: What happens when only the feathers are left?

Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, ca. 1350 BC, British Museum


7 – Focusing on the Feathers

Olson’s emphasis on the bird and its feathers makes me think of ancient Egypt. In the Ur-myth Isis re/members the severed parts of her husband Osiris thrown into the Nile by his jealous brother, Seth. With the help of Ibis-headed Toth, she retrieves all but his phallus, swallowed by a fish. This doesn’t prevent Osiris from fathering an only begotten son, Horus, his representative on earth. We might call Horus, the falcon: Consciousness Fathered by the Wounded One.

Osiris takes his place as Lord of the Underworld (Duat) where he presides over the fate of souls after death, depicted in hieroglyphs as birds that fly into the underworld. Osiris guides the soul, dis/membered by death, in a transformation through which the wound is healed and the soul restored in the body of Osiris—fulfilling what will be articulated in the Great Christian Mystery: “my father and I are one.”

baNerfertari as Ba, Tomb Painting, 3,200 BC

The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom clearly tell us that souls in the Duat are “regularly and continually” challenged to undergo transformation.  The union of the ba (embodied soul) and the ka (vital spark), form a third, the akh (the effective one). The akh, as the pure light of consciousness, is represented in hieroglyph by a crested ibis, bird of the wise god Toth. The Pyramid Text stipulates that should the ferryman refuse to transport King Unas’ soul to the other side: He will leap and sit on the wing of Toth.

Papyri and tomb walls exhibit images of birds and feathers everywhere. For the world’s oldest high culture, birds embodied distinct intelligences essential to specific gods and goddesses. Amon, the “hidden source” or uncreated creator is a feathered crow.  Amentet, the setting sun, who prepares souls for rebirth, appears with wings and holding a hawk’s feather. Shu, god of the atmosphere, wears ostrich feathers. Isis, wife of Osiris, mother of Horus, sports a vulture head dress and the rainbow wings of a kite. Horus is a falcon. Osiris wears white feathers on either side of his crown. Ra, the Sun and first Pharaoh, has a hawk’s head. Kephri, at sunrise, becomes the Bennu, or risen Phoenix. A single feather belonging to Ma’at on the scale in the Hall of Two Truths determines the fate of all souls. Souls lighter than her feather become Akh and are welcomed to paradise. Those less fortunate are devoured by the crocodile jaws of Ammit.

ostrich wingsGoddess of Balance, Ma’at spreads her ostrich wings over gods and humans.

Sea-birds also link the world above to the one below. Their feathers are talismans. Olson’s kingfishers vanish into the shadows. Their feathers are evidence of a forgotten unity that calls to us unheard. Birds, visible by day, accompany Ra’s solar barc on its Night Sea Journey through the underworld, as did the golandrina, which I failed to recognize as my ba-bird. Birds, especially the swallows, become the vehicles for souls in the underworld, and for their transformation. The Bennu, the Egyptian phoenix, rises and sets with the sun.

The Osiris Mystery, as both myth and ritual, marks the early intuition of an objective intelligence in the unconscious. The drama of transformation in the Underworld describes the potential that takes place in our own psychological depths. Olson’s representation of the soul as kingfisher, a force precipitating the unchanging will to change, and its loss, constitutes more than his own gloss on the old myth, but a new one for our time. Perhaps the de-potentiation of mythology itself, the loss of any symbolic narrative that gives culture coherence and the way of enlarging individual consciousness.

Parzival’s healing question can only be asked by one who has been weighed in the balance of Ma’at and become an akh. Olson’s poem, “The Kingfishers,” is an 11th hour cry for help!

“The pool the kingfisher’s feather were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

When the symbolic links disappear, we are left with lassitude. Anything more is difficult to grasp, certainly the world as a coherent whole. Fernand speaks from the shadows about the devalued kingfisher feathers. He addresses those who sit mindlessly around the stagnant pool full of slime. In the end what he asks is rhetorical, not so much a probe as a hook.

Drawn by the potential for transformation, the changeless will to change, Parzival becomes an embodied soul and asks the healing question. But what happens when Parzival, the Fisher King and the Grail itself disappear from consciousness altogether?


8 -Rubedo, The Reddening

Olson loved to dig among stones. Indecipherable Mayan Glyphs spoke to him of buried intelligence in images of serpents and birds, heads dressed in woven feathers, the rise and fall of a high civilization incised on clay tablets. These elusive messages held valuable if undisclosed information: how do advanced systems decline into devalued plumage, slime in the pool.

I pose you your question:
Shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
I hunt among the stones

In the coastal Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltun, and rubble of “Dogtown”, the Gloucester settlement abandoned after 1812, Olson was drawn to the haunt of civilizations that carved the clues to their demise in stone. He knocks on the door of the unconscious.

b8899ccb1dcf17ffe1cdcfddad9775edCourage, Dogtown, Gloucester/Cape Anne

Olson asks, Shall we find honey where maggots are? He might be speaking of the alchemical work which begins in the decomposing nigredo. He may be referring to the condition of mythological structures that once supported these high civilizations now sinking into the earth, and our own, on the way to becoming a Waste Land.

Olson begins Section 2 of “The King Fishers” with the self-mythologizing Mao, who forbids the centuries old custom of binding women’s feet, while proclaiming the risen sun, la lumiere,” as the symbol of a mythless society. In 1934 he will lead his followers on a long march toward l’aurore, and later, in 1949, as leader of the Peoples’ Republic of China, mount a cultural revolt outlined in his Little Red Book to entirely erase the past. After considering Mao’s position, the man who hunts among the stones weighs in.

He thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said

la lumiere”
mmbut the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
mmbut the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
mmhe got the color of his breast
mmfrom the heat of the setting sun!

In search of a myth for a mythless world, Olson’s avian avatar flies west, redness baked into its breast. He invites us to ride Ra’s Sunship into the underworld accompanied by swallows. In the Egyptian narrative the sun is totally eclipsed and for a moment faces the danger of total extinction. This happens every night. It appears to be what Olson wants us to consider.

8892_originalRa in the Sun Ship, Egyptian tomb painting, 1,200 BC

There are twelve houses one must pass through on the Egyptian Night Sea Journey corresponding to hours between sunset and sunrise. Each hour presents its own dangers. A Coffin Papyrus shows three ba-birds in the 5th hour there to protect Ra against devouring chaos, the serpent Apophis.

Temple at OptetRa uniting with Osiris, Temple of Optet, 1,200 BC

Ra grows darker and weaker as the hours pass; even his guardians are afraid. There is no guarantee that chaos will not at some point swallow Ra’s light. At the darkest hour, when it appears all may be lost, Osiris, “the Hidden Soul”, meets Ra face to face. In that moment, the high-voltage transformation takes place. In the Mystery of the Two become One, both are renewed. In the Duat souls are continually transformed into enlightened akh.

light_core_darkness_jungLight at the core of darkness, The Red Book, C.G. Jung

On a cosmic level this takes place nightly when wounded Ra consciousness is united to the Osiris intelligence in the unconsciousness. The union gives birth to a third in Kephri, the newborn Sun. This is also the end result of the Work, the red which alchemists call the rubedo. The transformation which starts with the blackening nigredo, moves through the bright white albedo, to Kephri’s light. Both the Egyptian Night Sea journey and the Alchemical phases can be viewed as the movement from despair, through understanding, to enlightenment.

A Hymn to Osiris states: “Thou risest in the horizon, thou givest light through the darkness…”

220px-Theatrum_Chemicum_Vol_I_page_1Theatrum Chemicum, Gerhard Dorn, 1661

Gerhard Dorn, the 16th Century alchemist prized by Charles Olson and Carl Jung, speaks of a “hidden third” arising from the two as “the medium enduring until now in all things…” Jung refers to this as a “synthesis of the conscious with the unconscious,” as a unio mystica. Ra’s transformational connection to Osiris can be compared to Parzival’s to the Fisher King; both describe this underlying unity in the alchemical marriage. Ironically, this was also observed by Chinese alchemists in antiquity and recorded in The Secret of the Golden Flower, which survived Mao’s “cultural revolution.” What the Egyptians called Akh, Western alchemists like Dorn the “philosophical stone,” the Chinese text refers to as the “Diamond Body”.

warhol-maotse-tung-seriesChairman Mao, Andy Warhol

Mao wasn’t interested in hieroglyphs or alchemy. Symbolic thought of any kind became anathema. His demythologized Revolution reduced civilization to a simple surface. Hence Olson’s open question: What happens when only the feathers are left?

He answers it in “The King Fishers” by attempting to re-mythologize the wounded cultural psyche, to locate the place in which the archetypal transformation enshrined in the sacred traditions of all cultures can occur. Even so, Olson feared that it might be beyond reach at the beginning of a period which he was the first to call “Post-Modern.”

Olson asks: Where do we find what we have lost?

“The Kingfishers” is a fragmented psychological treasure map missing that piece where X marks the spot. We are given clues: the changeless will to change, the king fishers, and in the absence of the seabirds, their lore and feathers—representations to challenge us in the absence of a living mythology. Of course there is always the possibility that what Mao did by coercion in China, we are doing in a Post-Internet world by attrition. We may be losing the ability as a species to bring the latent intelligence to light.


9 – The Alchemical Nest

Chaos stalks our hi-tech lives more powerfully than ever; one inspired hacker-child could send our infrastructure into a tailspin. The same holds true of our personal infrastructure. The Underworld is no longer the place in which souls are weighed or balance restored by Ma’at’s feather. Our psychology is haunted by forces denied, degraded, or disguised as ideologies, religious and political, that set us at odds. Fundamental religious beliefs fused to nationalist politics are fueled by thanatos, an unconscious death-wish. The ecology deteriorates while gods past and present disappear beneath the waves.

untitled colourPacal Descending to Xibalba, Tomb at Palenque, Mexico

In his study The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden Robert Johnson paraphrases Jung: “We no longer have Zeus but we have headaches instead. We no longer have Aphrodite and her noble feminine realm but we have gastric upsets. To dethrone anything from consciousness to unconsciousness is to diminish it in stature to a symptom.” Just so, the wounded Fisher King, split off from ourselves, becomes a hive of symptoms. T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is inhabited by hollow men.

Will you leave it there? Pedrolino’s question is rhetorical. What will you tell them?

From his post on the wall, this black figure in his domed hat outlined by a white line on a black field gazes down from a moon face that glows like polished silver. He is the soul of old Ferrini, author of Know Fish. His words crawl through my mind.

“Tell whom?” I protest.

Pedrolino doesn’t answer, but I know. He is referring to those who will come to hear me read from Fishing On The Pole Star, directly followed by my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

It occurs to me that when only feathers are left, we must use them as lures.

Olson does just that; he uses feathers and stones the way a shaman employs a single bone to re/constitute the entire body. He builds the poem as king fishers do their nests with the remains of rotting fish bones. By gathering the “rejectamenta,” decaying bone splinters of myth, personal, and historical memory he builds to re/member.

it does nest with the opening year but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There
Six or eight white or translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
Not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds

I’ll describe to my audience the scene I witnessed on a bank of the Sibun River. I could smell the rotting fish bone chips from my canoe. Warmed by the heat of that decaying mass kingfisher eggs hatch on the bones of their prey. Future generations will rise from this matrix of remains. From its heat, words are born, take flight, hover and dive. It suddenly strikes me that Olson’s poem about the process is itself a nest of decaying bone chips.

Pay attention, whispers Pedrolino. “You’re close.”

I stop and listen. An idea comes in an open inner window—an insight. Not simply a piece of information, but an epiphany. I must instruct my audience not simply to see what is being described here with the mind’s eye, but to bring all the senses to bear—to hear the birds chatter, feel the river flow beneath the craft, touch the oars, the gunnels, smell the decaying bone chips, let the sulphurous odor of the nests sting the nostrils. Instead of solving the mystery he presents in the opening of “The Kingfishers”, Olson gradually shifts the emphasis from product to process. We must be in it totally to realize what is going on here. The question of what happened to the kingfishers is never answered in the poem—but by the poem. What fledges from it dives like a sea-bird into the unconscious.

Contemplating-the-Origin-of-Thought-An-Exercise-from-The-Secret-of-the-Golden-FlowerContemplating Mind Before Thought, Secret of the Golden Flower, 1668


10 – Parsing (Parsivalizing) the Question

In his Holocaust memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel describes the secret teaching received by his young alter-ego, Elie, before the entire shtetle was transported to Auschwitz. Bare-foot Moshe the Beadle, who cleans the synagogue, instructs his young protégée, “At the end of your life God measures you by the depth of your question.”

In this teaching, authority isn’t captured by the answer. The deepest question answers itself by deepening. The mythos lies too deep for words but can be alluded to in a myth. Such is the wisdom imparted at the beginning of Wiesel’s narrative that portrays the naked depravity under the veneer of civilization capable of destroying ancient cultures and turning cities into rubble.

Olson asks, “The Kingfishers! / Who cares/ For their feathers/Now?”

Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in The Rye, wants to know, “Where do ducks in winter go?”

Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval inquires, “Who does the Grail serve?”

Von Eschenbach’s Parzival wants to know, “What ails thee?”

From Isis to Olson, we are challenged to re/member what has been left to languish in the dark. In every case, the healing power of the question is measured by the depth of the one who asks it. But what if the question itself is forgotten, lost, out of reach—or, more to the point, there is no

one to bring it full voice into the world?

25Parzival on journey lighter72_900Parzival, from the Feirefiz Project, Liz Neilson


11 – Spreading the Word

Olson’s vanished kingfisher constitutes a loss of myth, and with it our connection to the unconscious, its potential to transform fragmented souls, the ka and ba of us, into an akh, “the effective one” or pure light of consciousness. As a consequence, something has slipped from our grasp that once linked atoms to the stars and bound existence into a unified whole.

“The Kingfishers,” begins with a comment that might easily go unremarked: He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He / remembered only one thing, the birds

I might have disregarded it entirely had I not been for my encounter with the spirit of place, the essence of old Ferrini caught by an etching on the wall. No sooner had I named him Pedrolino, than he spoke to me, as he does three days later, after I wake from the same recurring dream. I’m in a room full of folding chairs. They are empty at first, then people file in to fill them. They’ve come to hear my talk. I smile at them. They smile back. Everyone is dressed in blue and green: my ba-birds. I wake in cold sweat.

osiris_nefertariOsiris, Tomb of Nefertari

There has to be something I can tell them about “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

Listen, counsels Pedrolino.

I just need a little more time to tie things together. These are my two thoughts and perhaps from them a third will follow. 1) Olson fishes the imagination for something born on a nest of decaying bones, that voice from the underworld speaking through him, the poet, telling us to hear in this moment what “was differently heard// as, in another time…” and 2) birds guide dead souls in the underworld, and shield Ra in the 5th hour of his Night Sea Journey from the devouring maw of Apophis, which would extinguish the light. Then it comes to me, out of the tension of the two, a third suggested in von Eschenbach’s Parzival 3) that the lapis exilies, or Holy Grail was delivered to us by “the neutral angels” while a war between opposing camps raged in heaven. This may be an expression of the unchanging potential inherent in our psychic structure, a constant that binds our atoms to the stars; our mission is to apprehend what we already contain, the numinous as the thing in itself.

The message I will convey to my audience of ba-birds, is this: each one of us is a wounded Fisher King trolling uncertain waters. We must keep our lines in, follow the sea-birds. The voice we listen for is equally uncertain. It comes through us, “heard differently//as in another time,” but is not our own. The fate of the world from which it rises depends on it.

ad7c4-olson-birdseye2cjpg“O city of mediocrity…”, Olson is Gone, But We Are Here, Peter Anastas, 12.24.14


12 – Epilogos

Charles Olson sought out Carl Jung when the latter spoke at Harvard in 1938, and engaged him in conversation about Herman Melville. The fever dream of wounded Ahab’s obsession with the whale pales in anticipation of the world driven to the brink of the abyss. Olson published “The Kingfishers” in 1949, long after public knowledge of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima had redefined civilization, and the year that Mao established the Peoples’ Republic of China. Jung was also putting together the connection between the transformations described by the Sun’s journey through the underworld, the Alchemical Work and his own theory of individuation as a transformative relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.

The Belgian alchemist Gerhard Dorn summed up the situation in his Theatrum Chemicum: “The sun is invisible in men, but visible in the world, yet both are of one and the same sun.” Olson and Jung were drawn to Dorn, a fellow Fisher King.

Olson plaquePlaque on Fort Street, Paul Pines, 8.2014

I feel Olson this afternoon as I walk through town to Fort Street to find the modest multiple dwelling house facing the bay. A plaque affixed to the peeling white wall is a tribute to the insistence of Henry Ferrini, as much as it to Charles Olson. My host at the Gloucester Writers Center, and Vincent’s nephew, Henry petitioned the city fathers for the installation until they relented. It remains the only physical evidence that locates Olson where he lived, looking out at the channel between the Inner and Gloucester Harbor.

Today, Gorton’s huge plant that hugs the shore along Roger’s Street facing the State Fish Pier processes frozen catch from foreign waters. The depleted local fishing grounds, and the plant that packages fish for export echo the missing kingfishers in the poem. I marvel that it was Olson who coined the term that defined such an age: Post Modern. And that he found in Gloucester material to create a mythic monument to what had been lost.

In Parzival the question is asked and answered; at the end, the Fisher King is healed and the land restored. In our time, we have yet to frame the question.

We fish to bring it to light. This is the theme of my book, Fishing On The Pole Star.

There’s a moment in my book, after weeks on the troll, just beyond Concepcion Island, when I hook a three hundred pound marlin, fight him for almost two hours, then bring him to the starboard side of our boat. Our mate holds him in place to “swim him.” The idea here is to quiet the creature and move him slowly until the water circulating through his gills restores color depleted after our struggle.

Color is important.

No shark in the ocean can best a marlin in full bloom. Dimmed, he is doomed.

Our big boy allows us to swim him until bands of green and blue blossom the length of his body. Then he bites down gently on the hand of the man who is holding him to signal he’s ready. The power in his great jaws could take the arm of his handler off at the shoulder with little effort—but the touch is delicate, almost reverential. Upon release, he rides up over the gunnel to meet our eyes with his large circular orb, full of an intelligence so balanced, so complete, I glimpse in it the Divine Child, and also The Grail. I think, Here is the constant which links the atom to the stars, and binds existence into a whole.

And then he is gone.

surrealist-art-2-by-artist-vladimir-kush-on-desartsSunrise by the Ocean, Vladimir Kush

—Paul Pines



PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published twelve books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, BreathAdrift on Blinding LightTaxidancing, Last Call at the Tin PalaceReflections in a Smoking MirrorDivine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros,  Fishing On The Pole Star, and Message From The Memoirist. His thirteenth collection, Charlotte Songs, will soon be out from Marsh Hawk Press. The Adirondack Center for Writing awarded him for the best book of poetry in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia have been performed internationally and appear on the Summit label. He had published essays in Notre Dame Review, Golden Handcuffs Review, Big Bridge and Numero Cinq, among others. Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend

Aug 052015

Janice Galloway via The ScotsmanJanice Galloway via The Scotsman


I.In the eponymous story from her most recent collection, Jellyfish, Janice Galloway shows her genius for the ‘ouch’ principle: the wince-inducing collision of something exposed and over-sensitive with something brutal and sadistic.

We feel it coming; harbingers and hints surround Monica and her four-year-old son, on an outing to the beach as a last hurrah, the day before school starts. Alert to the impending separation, Monica sees danger and careless indifference all around her: in the mother who chats to a friend, unaware that her toddler in his buggy hangs over the kerb, too close to the wheels of a passing lorry; in the angry father swearing viciously at his little boy. She worries too much, she wants to protect. Somewhere between the wild beauty of the coast and the unsavoury piles of rubbish dumped by locals, they come across a parliament of stranded jellyfish. Transparent and ‘gummy’, out of their natural environment, one of them is little more than viscous pulp, object of blunt force trauma by human hand. How is the mother to explain this act of random violence on something so exquisitely vulnerable? ‘Maybe they hurt it – her voice faltered – they hurt it just because it can’t stop them.’ Ach, the jellyfish, so hopelessly undefended, not even a skin to mask its insides; the stupid jellyfish, out of its element and asking for trouble. The sight is painful because Monica – and through her eyes, the reader – knows how it feels, recognizes how easily one might end up in its place, how a cherished child might end up in its place. Characters in Galloway’s books are often alive to their inner jellyfish, and aware of – even enduring – the myriad situations in which the hammer may fall.

The recent Guardian review of Jellyfish suggested that these stories held new departures for Galloway in their focus on the parent-child relationship and the natural world. But both make fine provocations for the sort of catastrophic thinking typical to her work; thinking that has flowed and been repressed so many times it creates a carboniferous pragmatism. In the story that intrigued me perhaps the most, Eric Blair (otherwise known as George Orwell), is living with his young son on the Scottish West Coast island of Jura after the death of his wife, Eileen. It’s a hardscrabble existence in a place with no amenities and only the most basic of resources, and Blair is in denial over the diagnosis of his own soon-to-be-fatal tuberculosis. ‘You don’t fight an illness by fighting it; it gives not a hoot about your stoicism,’ the doctor tells him. But Blair is nothing if not stubborn: ‘Rest was not an appropriate response to encroaching lack of breath, lack of power. They had no idea what they were asking.’

Jellyfish - Janice Galloway

Inside his mind, two concerns breed fear; his belief that another war is coming, and his determination to ‘toughen up’ his young son. Excessive fear promotes a formidable fight response, but Blair cannot allow himself anything as weak as emotions; they must harden into ideologies. The story follows his trip to the general stores where he asks whether his parcel – a firearm – has arrived (it hasn’t), and then he begins the twenty mile return trip on his motorbike. The sound of a gunshot from the hills unsettles him so much he comes off the bike, but he’s okay ‘after a fashion’. Menace and machismo shadow box across the pages. He continues hoping for another five years in which to finish his novel and form his son: ‘He’d ruddy well achieve it by means of will alone.’ He was to die less than two years later. But his novel, 1984, the crystallisation of sadism and denial of feeling into a society in which only the broken would survive, lived a dark and splendid life after him.

It’s a fascinating portrait of an artist, from an artist who grew up in what seemed to be a sort of Scottish working-class family microcosm of 1984. Love in the form of brutality, the grim reckoning that the worst would be likely to happen and the best would be to face up to it, deprivation of all kinds, were basic elements of Galloway’s upbringing that transmuted into her writing. But her literary imagination tempers its casual cruelty with tenderness and a cautious optimism. Critics use the word ‘visceral’ a lot, but note the glittering seam of black humour. The New York Times Book Review memorably claimed her work ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy rewritten by Sylvia Plath’, which we might reasonably take to mean that she is an original. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (1989) won the MIND/Allen Lane award, and was followed by two more novels, two short story collections and, before Jellyfish, two extraordinary memoirs that took the reader deep into the phenomenology of childhood whilst advising caution towards a simple overlap of reality and narrative. There were prizes all around. Not bad for a woman who claimed that an artistic vocation was unimaginable for her as she ‘thought writers were wealthy people who just wrote things out of the goodness of their heart and gave them as gifts.’



Janice Galloway was born in 1955 in Saltcoats, Scotland, to a mother who ‘thought I was the menopause’. In the mythic version Galloway tells in her memoir, This Is Not About Me, which might be the true one for all she knows, her mother was unaware of the pregnancy until her waters broke, perhaps in denial of the freedom-busting, life-ending truth. The young Janice is never in doubt about her status as nuisance. ‘If I’d kent, she’d say, her eyes narrowing. If I’d just bloody known.’ Galloway’s father makes scant appearance in the pages, dying when Janice is only six, though when he’s there, he makes his mark felt. By throwing supper out the back door in a fit of temper, locking Janice inside and making her play chequers with him while her mother is locked out, knocking pitifully on the windows. And finally, setting fire (he was drunk and smoking) to the cigarette stand they owned but had not insured. Just over fifty pages in, she and her mother move into a tiny attic flat above the doctors’ surgery where her mother finds work as a cleaner.

This relative idyll does not last, for Janice’s older sister, Cora, joins them. Cora is seventeen years older and has left behind a husband and son of her own, and once her loud-voiced, gleefully selfish, hard-hitting, pan-sticked presence erupts into the pages, she stalks them like the fifty-foot woman of a B-movie. Galloway calls her Cora, though her real name was Nora, some sort of psychological distance being necessary even in a memoir. Cora takes up all the oxygen in their family and is dangerously jealous if her space, status and rule are in anyway infringed upon. ‘Delight to spite took seconds: there was no middle ground,’ Janice recalls. ‘She’ll be found dead up a close with her stockings around her neck one of these days, my mother said. Too bloody cheeky by half.’

Though it’s Janice whose life seems daily endangered. Cora is ‘handy’, which seems to mean useful for violence. She slaps, punches and headbutts her little sister, locks her in a cupboard, sets fire to her hair. Their mother is too tired and too defeated to intervene, and she loves Cora and cannot escape her thrall. The potency of the daemonic, the Greek concept of an unstoppable force of energy that could be turned either to good or evil, is Cora’s superpower. ‘Even wedged into a chair, Cora charged the air with electricity. Something around her crackled fit to kill flies and drop them at her feet in crispy little packets. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.’ She’s mean, but she’s fearless and vividly sexual. Janice is allowed to watch, enthralled, as Cora paints her face on, pours herself into a too-tight bodice and seamed nylons. A trip to the fair with her is high-octane stuff, all thrills and reckless spending. As Janice staggers dizzily off the walzer, Cora ‘walked in a straight line with her hands on her hips to prove it. Nothing beats me, she said. I could stay on that thing all night and not turn a hair.’ But one minute Jekyll, the next Hyde. When their mother has the chance to work full-time, her concern about Janice being all right alone in the two-bed council flat (they moved back in once her father died) becomes Cora’s decision she won’t get in at all. ‘You give her a key and she’ll let people in. Either that or somebody will take it off her. She can wait in the fresh air. It’s good for her.’

this is not about me

In fact, Janice likes the peace in the garden, and there’s the coal-shed if it rains or snows. Although Galloway would later say in interview with Stuart Kelly that ‘The expectation of brutality used to be a commonplace part of most [Scottish] upbringings’, there is a particularly intense quality of disenfranchisement about young Janice, a too-stark awareness of her lack of value, except as emotional punch-bag. The drama in her small household, ruled by Medusa and the Furies, turns her inward, gives her the obsessive good-girl mentality of someone who knows she does not simply deserve the oxygen she breathes. The memoir displays the close-grained hypervigilant powers of observation that come from the traumatised, or as Gareth McLean in The Guardian puts it, ‘her eye for detail comes from having watched life occur while maintaining not so much a dignified silence as a petrified one.’ We’ve been told from the start that this is not about her, and the key to understanding Janice’s story is to recognise the myriad truths in this statement. Her mother’s suicide attempt, her sister’s disappearance, from which she returns bruised and close-lipped, the screaming rows, all the crucible of disturbing events in which Janice is forged, stem from a history that predates her.

‘Watching their faces as they hurled half-understood insults at each other, the feeling of being in the way while most of it raged over my head was letting something else dawn as well. This wasn’t about me…. This was about Cora and mum; mum and Cora doing something they’d done since Cora left Glasgow behind and turned up at the attic… Longer even than that. Weans, my mother said. As though there had been more than one baby Cora had left behind. If I’m man-daft, where did I learn it? I’ve dealt with my troubles. My troubles. It was always the same in our house. Nothing you knew was solid.’

If the young Janice is obliterated by the emotional warfare carrying on around her (in a way that psychologists would suggest is the basis for most severe neuroses), she finds some comfort in knowing she is not its cause. Her place in the world is formed before she ever entered it, by a cross-hatching of fierce emotional currents, the legacy of ancient events, bitter disappointments and sacrifices, in the lives of those who supposedly care for her. Galloway is clear that there is love, that her own childish spirit, even if oppressed, still finds ways to slip free, but the climate and the conditions in which love and freedom find form are not in her control. This is the reality of all childhoods, but most children feel guilty and responsible anyway. The extreme weather of Galloway’s young life may stunt her growth, but it liberates her perspective.

If This Is Not About Me was about the origins of that ‘ouch’ principle, the collision of Janice’s innocence and vulnerability with her sister’s ruthless violence and her mother’s tough love, the next volume of memoir, All Made Up, is about putting Janice together again from the scraps of self left over after the carnage. As a child, she was good at schoolwork and liked singing. As she becomes an adolescent, music will take an ever greater role in her life. Latin will become an unexpected love. And there will be boys, of course, and inevitably. It’s not that conditions change much – within a couple of pages of the start of the book, Cora has broken her nose. And at the end, when Janice is dressed up in borrowed finery for an evening out with her fiancé, Cora takes one look before launching a plate of stew at her. So no change there, then; but Janice grows into her hardiness, her ability to flourish on very little soil and sunshine, and despite her family’s injunction to cultivate shame and self-doubt. ‘I think it’s part of the Scottish temperament: always waiting for something to cut you down to size,’ she later said in an interview.


The memoir races through the key points once Janice has left home for Glasgow university and a degree in music. Her mother died when she was 26, Cora died of a smoking-related illness in 2000 (and the sisters had barely met since Janice left home). This means that when Galloway sat down to write her memoirs, the main characters of her cast were not breathing over her shoulder. She was aware of writing exactly the sort of truthful account of their living conditions they would have hated, but Galloway had come to understand that old, uncomfortable need to pretend was motivated by working-class shame. When she gave her mother a telephone, she would only speak on it in a Yorkshire accent: ‘Even her voice wasn’t good enough to expose,’ she said. But in all the interviews she gave about her memoirs, Galloway is insistent that the mother and sister who appear within their pages are not direct transpositions: ‘I am a writer. You’re not writing people, you’re writing versions of people that fit into a story version of something universal as well as something ideosyncratic.’ But I have to wonder whether this barrier is not there to protect the dead, but to keep Galloway safe from their ghosts. In an article she wrote in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, she admitted that her sister had tracked her down once she realised she was ‘writing stuff’. ‘She phoned me. How she got my number I haven’t an idea. I recognized the voice immediately, however: if I thought I was It I had another think coming, she said. Do you hear? Pack it in. I felt 11 again and almost wept.



Janice Galloway’s first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, is an unruly narrative of a distressed and disobedient mind. The ironically named Joy Stone is a teacher in her 20s whose chaotic love life has tipped her over the edge of breakdown. The married man she has been living with – enough of a scandal in itself – drowned on a holiday abroad they took together and Joy’s grief is all the more unwieldy for being that of a mistress, socially unrecognized and unpermissable. She lives in Michael’s house (subject to further legal battles) on a sterile estate with poor transport links, while her own jerry-built house is slowly rotting away. Joy has no one to turn to. Her best friend, Marianne, has emigrated to America, her family consists of a sister, Myra, who ‘could just stand and scare me to death.’ Health care professionals are worse than useless. Joy imagines saying to her weary and indifferent GP: ‘Ok, let’s talk straight. You ask me to talk then you look at your watch… Can’t you send me to someone who’s paid to have me waste their time? You don’t know what to do with me but you keep telling me to come back.’ And all the time she is sinking deeper into bulimia and depression. She is the prototype jellyfish; a quivering wreck of exposed nerve endings.

Or you could read her as a 20th century version of Job, a woman crumbling under an onslaught of calamities specific to being an abandoned Scottish woman in the late 1980s in poor mental health. This is not a story that begs our sympathy, though, despite the rigors of Joy’s plight. Her exquisite vulnerability, which we readers are invited to witness as intimately as possible, from a ringside seat within Joy’s psyche, is played out on the page as an innovative typographical display that’s entirely distracting. There’s a cordon around Joy’s pain that comes from her own lack of lack of sympathy towards herself and the velvety-black humour that springs irascibly from her narration, as well as the experimental features of the text, attention-grabbing features of a verbal energy that ricochets around the pages, out of control, the underside of a too-tightly held persona masking inner collapse.

‘o yes
when I was good I was very very good but
there was more going on below the surface.
There always is.’

In the fragmentary text, words jump out from unexpected places and bleed into the margins, sentences trail unfinished, white space marks missing time and emotional dislocation, italics indicate the presence of memories that remain unintegrated. There’s no order to the story, and no neat boundaries either in the form of orthodox chapter divisions or quotations marks around speech. There’s just an uneven torrent of words acting out, or else a parodic inclusion of conventions: play scripts, for instance, marking cliched conversations, lists, excerpts from magazines spouting cultural commonplaces, and marching imposingly across the narrative, the dreaded mantras of mental health:

The More Something Hurts, the More it can Teach Me…
I write:
…..Persistence is the Only Thing That Works.

I forgot to write:
…..Beware of the Maxim.
…..Neat Phrases hide Hard Work.
…..Everything Worth Having is Hard as Nails.’

A beautifully unarticulated paradox rises up from all this verbal play, in which the insufficiency of such mantras is almost insulting in comparison to the depth of Joy’s disorientation and pain. But such inadequate linguistic supports are all that exist as a bridge back to normal life. Galloway is nothing if not respectful to the reality of her protagonist’s state, and little is resolved by the end of the narrative. But there are the earliest hints of healing; tiny shards of optimism that stud the conclusion with welcome precursors of light.

Talking of cautious optimism, her second novel proved that her characters were at least ready to risk travelling abroad again. In Foreign Parts (1994), Rona and Cassie are friends of long-standing, and mildly mismatched travelling companions who have come to spend their precious fortnight off work in France. Short of cash and feeling unworthy of culture, they know ‘that proper holidays are for proper people with proper money and that real travellers, in denim bermudas of uneven leg length, travel to real faraway places in search of real poor people enduring real life in the raw. We are neither real nor proper: just fraudulent moochers in other people’s territory, getting by on the cheap.’ Cassie, source of the narrative voice though it floats, according to Cassie’s mood, between first, third and even second person, is sensitive, observant, moody and questing for something real and meaningful. Rona is stolid, calm, accepting and happy to tick the vacational boxes. Their differences come to a crunch mostly over the guidebook they have brought with them, entitled ‘Potted France’, whose injunctions to notice historical features enrage Cassie with their vapidity.

foreign parts

Threaded in between the stages of their journey are descriptions of photographs from holidays Cassie has taken with boyfriends in the past and the memories they evoke. Not that these holidays have been any better than the one Cassie is currently on. Holidays fall into a similar category to horoscopes, magazine articles and self-help books for Janice Galloway’s main characters: they are places where the commonplace fantasy of achieving something splendid cracks under the weight of recalcitrant reality. Rona, Cassie tells us, at times when they are sleeping in the car, or in some terrible 50 franc-a-night dive, ‘loves games of not admitting hellishness is hellish.’ But Cassie, like Joy Stone, is in no mood to pretend. And more than that, there is an unspoken but deep-rooted belief in both books that anything revelatory, real, valuable or significant, can only come from an unflinching scrutiny of the situation. When Cassie does transcend the ordeal of pointlessness that is tourism – in Chartres cathedral, playing house in a gîte they hire, standing on the beach at Veulettes before taking the ferry home – these moments have a full-bodied poetry about them that can only come from patient attendance on the authentic.

As such, this is a novel wilfully rejecting a number of conventions; it is not the buddy road trip or travel novel that we might be expecting. Cassie’s sharp edges puncture any such glib journeying. More confusing to its readers (if Goodreads reviews are any indication) is Cassie’s conclusion as the end of the trip nears, that she is no longer interested in a heterosexual relationship, but considering the possibility of moving in with Rona. Cassie and Rona may squabble and bicker, but there is a mutual understanding and recognition between them that is missing, as far as Cassie is concerned, from a relationship with a man: ‘They don’t have the same priorities, to be able to organise their priorities in a compatible way with ours,’ she explains. Cultural fantasy rears its head again, to be cut down to size: ‘The knight on a white charger is never going to come, Rona. You know why? Because he’s down the pub with the other white knights, that’s why.’ If there are generalisations going on here, then they belong to a Scottish culture that lags behind the times (‘There are real gender problems in my country,’ Galloway said once in interview). But what Cassie wants is something free from all sexual and domestic norms. The life she envisages with Rona has no recognisable, culturally-approved shape, resists all labels and orthodoxies.

Right at the start of the book, the first sign Cassie and Rona see when they get off the ferry says: BRICOLAGE. This is a common sign in France, indicating a D.I.Y. store, but its original meaning is one of Heath Robinson-type construction, using bits and pieces of other things to create something new. For this reason it was borrowed by the nouveaux romanciers in the 50s and 60s to describe a kind of literary experimentalism that took apart the nuts and bolts of narratives and put the pieces back together in innovative ways. It stands as a fine sign to hang across Foreign Parts, too, in which the patchwork of travel guides, lists, overheard conversations, street signs, flashbacks and letters correspond at a technical level to the unorthodox ways of experiencing travel and building relationships that are its themes. The disparate and the heterogeneous are more playful, less threatening than in Trick, the anxiety and anger about a dissatisfying present are soothed in this novel into something forward-looking and hopeful.

Galloway’s third novel, Clara (2002), was in some respects a departure, a long, lyrical account of the life of Clara Schumann, child prodigy, world-famous concert pianist and composer. Clara passes from the tyrannical hands of an overbearing father, a piano teacher whose love for her resides in her responsiveness to his teaching and who basks in her reflected glory, to those of her husband, Robert Schumann, mad, melancholy, ambitious in his own right and unequal to tolerating a more famous and successful wife. It’s essentially a study of the discipline, the strategems and the sacrifices a woman like Clara must make in order to stay in touch with her musical creativity. Concerns about gender, freedom and madness abound, tethered to historical and biographical realities.

There is still experimentation, but what’s intriguing is that it is so seamlessly incorporated into the narrative it’s oddly harmonious, rather than disruptive. There are phrases from musical scores, poems, lists (of course) and the use of different font sizes. The latter are easy to decode, for they range from the huge beetling-black words of fortissimo, to the smaller fonts of diminuendo. Lists are staccato, poetry is cantabile, all is effortlessly woven into a smoothly flowing, wordy andante narrative. The voice nimbly skips between the heads of Clara, her father and her husband, able to pick up on a wide variety of moods, constantly singing.


In her interview with Stuart Kelly, Galloway denies that her use of experimentation in the early novels was ‘politically motivated’, saying instead that she ‘just didn’t know how to write a story’. Whispering in her ear, perhaps, was the shade of her sister, telling her that if she thought she was It she should just pack it in. The experimentation, in all probability instinctual, reveals a sophisticated understanding of the landscape of the mind when functioning in a state of extreme fear, duress, or misery. Those fragmented, discontinuous texts showed how words could perch unabsorbed upon the mind’s surface, how other voices within might be heckling from the sidelines, how memories repeatedly broke through any stable crust in the present with unwelcome or alien messages. But over the years there is a distinct progression in Galloway’s novels, one that has the appearance, not of anything as facile as healing, but of steady incorporation, acceptance of the ‘hellishness’ for what it is, a breaking down of old parts in order to put them together again, economically, in something new. After Clara came her memoirs, her darkest and her funniest works, the most revealing and the most accessible. Galloway had always been a formidably innovative storyteller; now the novelty was that the story could tell itself straight.



In the final tale in Jellyfish, ‘distance’, Martha is all alone on a trip to Jura, site of George Orwell’s last days. Many years ago now, when she was an insecure young mother, her small son cut his head open on a glass table and the accident unleashed some reckoning with the arbitrary and inevitable nature of catastrophe that has never been resolved. Her solution back then was to divorce her husband and allow him custody, afraid that her own fears would prove contaminatory to her child. Since then, Martha has cut herself off, taking only supply teaching work so she should never be lulled into the responsibility of relationships. Though the invisibility begins to tell. Attempting to teach Orwell to a class of resistant children, she tells them about the time he saved his four-year-old son from drowning in a sailing incident. ‘Sometimes, she said, there’s more to people than meets the eye. Repressed and paranoid and dying is not a whole picture of anyone.’

And maybe Martha is dying; in her forties now, with an burgeoning disease that is gynacological, possibly serious, possibly not, she decides to take this solo trip to Jura. The freedom feels easeful, at night watching the waves she understands: ‘There was no hidden code, no message, no meaning. What happened out there was random, wholly without blame or favour. In the end, nothing hinged on human decisions, nothing demanded retribution or just deserts: what happened was just what happened.’ Then, driving back to her lodgings in the darkness, listening on the car radio to Mozart’s Queen of the Night, she runs over a deer. Martha staggers over to the beast, longing to comfort it, afraid her touch will terrify it further. ‘Dislocated bars of Mozart were gusting like feathers in the night air,’ as she tends to the animal and her own relentless blundering in the world. ‘I’m here, she said, her words bouncing off the surrounding rocks and rising, furious, into the solid dark. I’m here. I’m here.’

And here Galloway’s voice remains, holding fast to its lament of risk and vulnerability, innocence and brutality that cannot be resolved. Instead, the elements are left suspended in uneasy harmony together, awaiting conclusion, a perfect augmented chord.

—Victoria Best


Victoria Best

Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (

Jul 092015


It was in Iowa City where I first met Ray Carver. He was then teaching at the Writer’s Workshop. I don’t recall what I was doing there, maybe being interviewed for the kind of job Ray had: you teach one semester or two, and then someone takes your place. (In fact I did that a few years later.) Or maybe I was just passing through to see my friends Marvin Bell and Jack Leggett. Speak memory?

Somehow, some place, for some reason, Ray asked if I’d drive him to the Iowa City airport. Sure. By this time I’d read a number his stories in Esquire (not knowing then about the controversial cuts that had been made by Gordon Lish, the fiction editor there). In those days Ray was drinking. He drank on the way to the airport, offering me a pull. Thanks, but no thanks. Keep the bottle for me, he said as he got out of the car. Sure.

In the car I talked; Ray did not. Or at least not much. I told him what I thought about his fiction, especially Fat, using the two terms that in those days were applied to his work: “K Mart Fiction” and “Minimalist Fiction,” what Granta called “dirty realists”—that’s those Brits for you. Reading his stories, I said, he had taught me a few things. You don’t need much teaching, he said, and tried the bottle on me a second time. I’ll put it on your desk in EPB, I said. Thanks, he said.

I also asked where he was going. It was probably a Wednesday afternoon. You could teach either a Monday-Wednesday schedule at the workshop or a Tuesday-Thursday schedule. Ray had apparently picked Monday-Wednesday. But now that I think about it, he might have made special arrangements to teach Monday-Tuesday for reasons that I would learn later had to do with his flight that day.

Chicago, he said.  Chicago? He said nothing more.

Frank Martin uncrosses his arms and takes a puff on the cigar. He lets the smoke carry out of his mouth. Then he raises his chin toward the hill and says, “Jack London used to have a big place on the other side of this valley. Right over there behind that green hill you’re looking at. But alcohol killed him. Let that be a lesson to you. He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn’t handle the stuff, either.” Frank Martin looks at what’s left of his cigar. It’s gone out. He tosses it into the bucket. “You guys want to read something while you’re here, read that book of his, The Call of the Wild. You know the one I’m talking about? We have it inside if you want to read something. It’s about this animal that’s half dog and half wolf. End of sermon,” he says, and then hitches his pants up and tugs his sweater down. ‘I’m going inside,” he says. “See you at lunch.”

This passage is from Ray Carver’s story “Where I’m Calling From.” I will explain later.

The next time Ray Carver—in fact the next two times—came into my life were through his editors, one being Michel Curtis, the fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and the aforementioned Gordon Lish of Esquire. In what order is also now lost to my apparently speechless memory.

At Washington College where I once taught we would bring in poets and writers for the students, but I thought a good literary editor might helpful as well. That had been my case when I was a student and the University of Arkansas MFA program brought to campus Ted Soloratoff of New American Review. In was in this spirit that I had invited Mike Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic.

In advance of his arrival, he sent me a copy of the magazine in which Ray’s new story, “Cathedral,” had been published. It was not at all like the Ray Carver stories I had read in Esquire: It was long, very long, and there was nothing K-Mart about it. But there was something else: it rambled as a matter of design. Not shamble, because there was nothing awkward or clumsy about its pace. If Carver’s Esquire stories were tight in their telling, this one was loose. But in its fashion, beautifully telling.

At lunch that day with Curtis and students I thanked him for the Atlantic and said how much I enjoyed “Cathedral,” but that it was long for a Carver story. It is neither long, nor short, Mike said, it is the right length for the story. His answer seemed blunt, as if there were reasons behind it I did not understand. Which was true.

We then talked about length (as opposed to brevity) in short fiction, with Melville being part of the conversation, along with Katherine Anne Porter and J.D. Salinger. But I kept thinking how quickly Curtis had made his point about Carver. I refrained from asking about the absence of the K Mart stores in “Cathedral,” much less “dirty realism.”

It was a few years later (or earlier?) that also in the spirit of bringing an editor to campus that I invited Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire. The students at Washington College had a literary house for themselves where they would give readings, host visiting writers, hold a salon among themselves, publish literary magazines and, using a warren of rooms, write novels and stories and poems and plays. All through the house were framed posters of those literary folk who had stopped by: Edward Albee, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison, Joseph Brodsky, John Barth , Katherine Ann Porter, Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, Diane Wakoski, and more. The Washington Post called their house the Carnegie Hall of Literary Readings. They put it on a T-shirt.

It was the custom of the literary students who inhabited the house to decide if the visitors were worthy or not. If not, the poster would be hung upside down. Very few were, but apparently they thought Gordon’s visit (consisting of conferences, classes, and a public lecture) was so poor they turned his poster to the wall. Done.

Well, not quite done. Some of the students pointed out that while Lish was of little or no help to them with their writing, through him, Ray Carver had been. Not that I knew this until I was told later that everywhere Gordon went on our campus (to a student reception for him; in classes; in the conferences he had with students over their work), he brought up Ray Carver: What a fine writer Carver was and that one way to develop as a writer was to read with a writer’s eye authors you admire. Ray Carver, Gordon Lish had asserted, will teach you by what he has written. Type out passages you like from his stories, Gordon told them, and he will teach you more than your creative writing teacher (that would have been me).

After some debate, and after the students began reading Carver, a new vote was taken and Gordon got turned around. Still upside down, but at least no longer a blank on the wall.

What those students learned from Ray Carver was probably what I had learned: his restraint in describing or delineating a character and in this way giving the character a chance of his own; his candor about the grim faults of those he had created; his half open-ended endings, as if a door is left ajar. I owe him.

The second time I met Ray was with Jack Barth at a bar in Baltimore to get something to eat before Ray was to give a reading at Johns Hopkins that evening. Ray was not drinking, Jack said by way of introduction. I nodded; Ray nodded back. I wondered if he had remembered me from Iowa City. I didn’t mention it; nor did he. We talked books and writers. I mentioned Ray’s use of Jack London in “Where I’m Calling From.” He told me had learned a lot from London, but not about drinking. That he had learned on his own.

In the pause among us, I asked Barth how he learned to be a writer. I was a failure at being a jazz musician, he said. And you? he asked me. In fact it was from Jack London, I said. How so, asked Ray?

I read “To Build A Fire” for a university course in American Literature and when I went to class the professor explained that the story was a Man-Against-Nature story. He explained that for fifty minutes. There are Man-Against-Man, Man-Against-Society, and Man-Against-Nature stories. The next class the professor explained that sometimes nature wins, sometimes man wins…and so on…for another fifty minutes.

Ray said he’d heard that lecture as well.

Somewhere in haze of those hundred minutes, I said, I found myself thinking how much I liked the writing in the story. The language of it. Shouldn’t that count for something in an English class? Not that I knew then what could be said about the language. But when I went back to my dorm room and read the story again the writing seemed splendid in ways I could not name so that in order (I now suppose) to understand what I admired, I propped the book up beside the portable Royal type writer my mother had given me before I went away to school and typed out the first long paragraph which I then memorized:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun….

Before I could finish, Ray took over:

This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

He had been there before.

It was later, and it was either Jack Leggett or Connie Brothers at the Iowa Writers Workshop, who told me that Ray had been flying back and forth between a college teaching job in California only to fly back later in the week to take up his position at Iowa. Not that anybody knew the story at the time. Or maybe they did.

—Robert Day


Robert Day

Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is 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 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.


Jun 052015

New Mexico landscape



THE CAR IS SILENT until we’ve left Saranac Lake and are headed towards Tupper, and then the road begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and we’re thrust into deep, swampy Adirondack forest. It’s a freezing day in January, and Pants, the cat, begins to fidget. She growls, a low, guttural sound that matches the car’s grumbling engine. I sing to her, and her tail swats at the mesh walls of her carrier. Finally, she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Through the mesh, I can see that her ears are pricked.

Pants, I say, and she yowls.

My father recommended this curving route through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water, white buildings with red roofs, Adirondack mountains in backyards. Those are the last of the High Peaks, my father had said, and then there’s nothing til you hit the Rockies.

I am bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there and a teaching job. My father thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother at Taos, on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.

There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting him.

Soon, I say to Pants, we won’t recognize this country at all.


We spend our first night in Rochester, which is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home. In the morning it feels so strange to get in the car for a second day and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I’ve never seen the Great Lakes until now; we drive alongside water for miles and miles, wind whipping across the road and smacking the car.

Through Pennsylvania we drive; we sleep in Illinois. We sleep in Missouri. By Oklahoma, I’m starting to worry, for how blank and brown the landscape is, and how windswept Tulsa. Is this how New Mexico will be?

When I cross the border, though, I know I needn’t have worried. Everything instantly changes color. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant ranges. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. The shift from northern Texas into New Mexico is miraculous.

Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep.

The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but somehow, it feels familiar.

road to nm


Desert Nights

In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns.

You aren’t from here, are you? he says, when I ask him a second time what the prickers are called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.

Meanwhile, the rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. I hike in the woods; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside.


Just before darkness falls here, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see.

Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’ve traded water for sky and tall trees for grass.


Dark Rooms

It’s hot in the classroom on the first day of my teaching job. Every seat is taken. I unpack my things, write my name on the board, announce that this is English 109, and I am the adjunct instructor. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means.

Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast. Start with green.

For their first essay, my students must write about a challenge they’ve overcome. From that very first set of papers, I learn that some of my students go home after class to hoards of children, who clamor over them. One has a mother who is silent all the time, and one has a father who hates fat people. One has an uncle who takes her into a dark room from time to time and closes the door. One has a father who burns her writing; one has a memory of a bad-smelling room, a winter afternoon, the first time he said good-bye.

sf nm

One woman writes that she can still remember being locked in a closet as a child with a bucket and a dish of water on the floor. One man, who can’t be more than 22, has been to jail already twice. He has two daughters and a wife, and he teaches me what the word recidivism means.

When they read their stories aloud, their voices sometimes tremble. Sometimes people weep. We close the classroom door but take inside with us our families, our lovers, our road trips, our childhoods crumpled by domineering mothers, by a life without a father, by a sideways glance that almost killed us and by the gleam of a bottle, half-full. We remember hard times, but there is much beauty as well. Sometimes, words pour over us and bring us somewhere else, far from this room, this desert college, this date and time.



In New Mexico, Pants discovers the outdoors. A Boston cat before, she now routinely squirts out the screen door before I have time to stop her. She darts to the smooth cement patio and rolls there with urgency; her tail thickens and the strip of fur along her back raises to a ridge. I can hear her purring throatily as she jumps the stone fence, skitters up the cedar tree, races down the stairs to the cellar door. She sniffs everything: the air, the trees, the stones, and I chase her out of the yard and into the desert, up and down the rolling hills and along the sandy arroyo.


While I’m out, I sometimes imagine Pants lying pressed against the window, a screen the only barrier between her and a world she is dying to learn. I imagine her slipping out and my chasing her, farther and farther each time until eventually I chase her right out of sight. Is letting her leave a sign of love? Must I trust that she’ll return, and that between the trees and on the dirt is where she most wants to go?
I go over to pet her. We’ll have to find out a better system, I tell her, and she gazes out at the birds on the stone fence, then up at me.

It’s only a matter of time, her green eyes say, and I wonder where she sends herself when her eyes are closed. Are her dreams a river of scents and gusts of wind?


American Roads

I learned to drive in Boston, sharp turns and quick blinkers and the pedal constantly pressed against the metal. In New Mexico, I learn that yes, some people actually are out on leisurely Sunday drives, despite it not necessarily being Sunday. People drive slowly, and they don’t use their signals. It’s not unusual to share the road with a trucker, an immigrant boy in his grandfather’s ancient Ford, a tractor going thirty miles under the speed limit, a couple of horses galloping alongside the road. A pickup pulling a trailer, a horse’s head sticking out the window, its main fluttering in the breeze.

another road

The oldest cars you’ll see in America can be found here in New Mexico, because our environment is just right for them—no salt, hardly any rain, and no moisture. Dry. High. Only the sun can hurt your car, peeling the paint over the course of months and years, bleaching your roof and hood bright white. Gas is the cheapest in the nation, I am told.



Winter rolls into spring, and the sky is a seamless blue. The air grows warm but never muggy, and even in the nighttime everything smells of baked pine. Stars fill up the sky. I walk down empty roads. At nighttime, coyotes come eerily close, their cries like human wails, frightening and familiar both. Pants watches them in the darkness; out my apartment windows, there’s always someone to watch. Birds live in a nest in the rafters, and beetles creep over the brick floor.


The seasons pass, and I feel my world broaden a little more each day—a new friend, a new trail to ski, a new view of distant Albuquerque. A new town, nestled in the hills, where the residents paint their houses teal and salmon and sell expensive turquoise and painted bones.

At the community college, I learn to start my lessons late. Only half the class is ever there when I arrive, and missing ten or a dozen students, I discover, is normal. This is the New Mexico way, I quickly realize. You ease into things here.

And so I start my lessons at ten minutes to nine. Students trickle in, people arriving as late as ten o’clock, and not even sheepish. They are a laid back group—sometimes too laid back when it comes to staying awake in class, turning in essays on time, avoiding words like u and thru and nowofdays. Trying not to write dessert when what they’re really describing is the desert in which they live. People look out the windows a lot; I learn not to scold but to ignore.



The semester ends, and the campus empties. The smell of fires from the Jemez Mountains thickens the air. Fire season, people say to each other in the grocery store, shrugging their shoulders, peering out the windows. The smoke smells sweet and strange.


Open Doors

On the fourth of July, I wake up and the door is open and Pants is gone. She never goes out at night; the coyotes are rampant, now that we’re in a drought. There’s no food, no water, and so they come scavenging in our yards.

I run out into the darkness, barefoot, not even feeling the goat-heads. I am shivering; my heart is pounding. She doesn’t come, and she doesn’t come. For an hour I stumble, calling her name. In the morning, she still doesn’t come. I walk weeping through the neighborhood, pasting up signs and knocking on the doors of complete strangers, who are kind and take my number and give me a drink of water. They tell me they’ll call if they see anything, and no one is cruel enough to mention the brazen coyotes that sing every night.

Months pass, and still I don’t give up hope. I wait for someone to find her in a garage. I walk the neighborhood, softly calling her name. Only when winter comes do I finally stop looking; when the first snow of the season falls, I go outside and kneel in the brown grass and close my eyes. There is no stone for her, nothing to bury that she left behind. I pray that she’s found her place between the trees and coyotes, the hawks, the velvet nights, the sun and moon. I listen hard, but only the wind comes.

A hundred times I will think of the open door, the wind and the darkness beyond, the chattering night and the sliver of moon. I’ll imagine cooling jewels of fireworks. I will think again and again of that night, when something wild came and took her away.


American Roads

Where I live, the days are long and clay-colored. By March, waves of heat blow in through the windows. Spring Break comes and goes, and my students start to fidget. People wear flip flops to school. Young women bare their bellies and guys their muscled arms, wound in tattoos. Trees begin to bud. We taste summer early here.

Now, I live on the plains with a long-haired man; we find pot shards in the garden every year. The mesa in the distance is long and red. There are trailers out here and old burial mounds, tiny adobe churches with bells mounted to the roofs. A peacock screams in the morning, and at dusk, coyotes come.


I have another cat, calico like Pants was, but this one came with a nipped ear and a strong desire never to go outside. She skitters away from open doors, content to purr and blink and flick her tail at the window. She also came with a name: Mora, after a northern New Mexico town. Pants is dust and sage now, dust and sage and piñon and wind.

The desert has taught me to pray for rain. I search the sky for clouds, and when the drops finally fall, I can smell water before it hits the ground. The scent creeps in through adobe walls. I can hear it on the roof. I stop what I am doing and listen and breathe, because I have learned what it means to wait for water.

This desert is at turns bitter and wild, sweet and enchanted. Tonight, the sky is the color of a cactus bloom. My father doesn’t blame me for never wanting to leave: he comes to visit; we ski at Taos; we hike in the canyons. He sees what this place has done to me: I am a teacher now, and in the summers I am a writer and a farmer. Money matters to me less than it did before. Pot shards line the windowsill, and the cat eats cobwebs on the stairs.


Kate McCahill



Kate McCahill’s essays have been featured in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), The Lowestoft Chronicle, Wellesley Magazine, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Born in Lake Placid, New York, McCahill now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Read more at

May 092015

Early Autobiographical Work, age 5Early autobiographical work

Leona age 9Nine years old


The pop machine

MY FATHER OPERATED a garage in the small prairie town of Bredenbury, Saskatchewan, pop. 500 or so, located just off the Yellowhead Highway 30 miles west of the Manitoba border. The garage was low and squarish, with a huge sign mounted high on the front that read ‘Hi-Way Service,’ navy blue letters against white. I don’t know how much that sign set my father back, but I know it was too fancy by half for a small-town shop in the sixties. A year or two after the sign went up, the new highway went in, skirting the town entirely. The unlucky Hi-Way Service now fronted on a low-traffic graveled street little different from any other street in town. Over time, the blue letters weathered to a colour close to purple.

Inside the garage, over to one side, was a pop machine built like a chest freezer. Sometimes, not often, on a hot day I would slip into the garage, into dimness after sunlight. The clank of a tool hitting a workbench, the pffft of an air hose, the earthy smell of oil. I would make for the pop machine, use all my muscle to push open the lid, and peer over the side at the rows of glass bottles. They hung in their separate metal tracks, NuGrape, Orange Crush, Seven-Up, Club Soda, Coca-Cola, suspended by their bulbous little chins, their lower parts immersed in a bath of ice-cold water. I could reach way, way over, feet lifting off the floor, and plunge my hot hand into the cold bath. Once in a long while, or maybe once, period, my father found a dime and slipped it into the coin slot, and I slid a bottle of NuGrape along its track and out past the metal guard. Ten cents bought one release of the guard and the satisfying slap as the metal fell back into place after the bottle came out. An opener was mounted on the front of the machine, a pry mechanism, and below it a cap-catcher shaped like a tiny pregnant belly. I held the bottle, sliding-wet from its cold bath, and my father gripped it further up, along its tapered neck, and helped me lever off the cap. It fell, clink, against the other caps inside the little belly. I have never lost my appreciation for the earth-sweet smells of gas and oil. I wasn’t really even supposed to be in the garage.

Hi-Way Service before the SignHi-Way Service before the sign


The pasture

I was a town kid, but Nickel’s pasture was my little bit of wild. I could get there by walking: across a gravel street, across the corner of a neighbour’s triangular lot, across a ditch. Not there yet: across the gravel road that used to be called a highway, across another ditch, and finally along a lane. I liked to sit in the pasture at the bottom of a little draw, low enough that I couldn’t see a single house or car or shed. The pasture was rimmed by scrubby bush: chokecherries, saskatoons, spindly poplars. Down in the draw I was in the Wild West, a place I knew from TV, in all its black-and-whiteness. Kicking around the house we had an Indian-princess hairpiece—a pair of braids made from three pairs of old nylon stockings. Bobby-pinned into my hair, the braids hung on either side of my white and pink and freckled face and draped onto my shoulders. I don’t recall if I was wearing the braids on the day I’m thinking about now, the day I was frightened by my own heartbeat. Crouched in the draw, summer warm on my hair, sun frying my freckled nose, I listened to the silence of that small world. And then I heard a beat, relentless, rhythmic. Indian drums! From the stand of poplars over there! I froze for a moment; then I ran home fast, listening as the drumbeat sped with me, inside my chest.

Years later, my sister and I and the girl from across the street put the pasture to another use. Hanging from a nail on our kitchen wall was a tin matchbox holder, and in it was a box of Eddy’s Redbirds. The tips of the matches were banded blue and red and white, the colours of the Union Jack. We’d grab them by the handful, couldn’t stop ourselves from licking them to taste the naughty taste. We’d make off with them to light our little fires. In the pasture we pulled together small, dense stooks of dry grass, lit them, and watched as they went poof, and flared and died. One day the flare didn’t die. We high-tailed it away and waited for a grown-up to notice the grass fire. Eventually, a grown-up did. The volunteer fire department came out in force to quell the flames, and we were either not found out or were silently excused without a fuss.

The _Little Kids_ (Leona on the left)The Little Kids (Leona on the left)


The nuisance grounds

Small-town Saskatchewan kids were free-range kids in the sixties. We could walk along a country road to what we called the nuisance grounds, about a half a mile from town. On one excursion, we three girls found skin magazines, and we ripped out pictures of partially naked women and folded them into our pockets. Were we ten or so? In the heat of summer days, among the reek of rotting left-behinds, we found other memorable junk—one day the remains of the combination mailboxes the post office had disposed of after the conversion to keyed boxes. The old boxes had metal fronts, about five inches wide and four inches high, each with two concentric dials on the front that reminded us of the safes we saw on “Get Smart.” These metal doors were still attached by hinges to wooden drawers, and the drawers slid in and out of what remained of the wooden framing that housed them when they were still in use. Some of the frames were open at the top, and we could see inside the guts of the mechanisms well enough to figure out the combinations by watching closely as we turned the dials. Every kid needs a place to store her secrets. We had a wagon with us (of course), and we each took home a mailbox or two. We memorized the combinations, closed the open tops with nailed-on boards, and hid the dirty pictures inside.

Water lines


The Red Thing

We four sisters shared a bedroom. Two sets of bunk beds. I assume that The Red Thing, which stood at the foot of one of the beds, began as a display stand that came to the Hi-Way Service in the course of business, and once the product it displayed was sold out—oil, antifreeze, wiper blades?—my mother or my father carried it half a block to the house so it could be put to a new use. It was made of heavy-gauge wire, say three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and the wire was coated with a red material, silicon or plastic or some such. It had two or three shelves, and the back and sides were an open grid of wire. Into and onto this rig we piled books, teen magazines, comics, puzzles, paper dolls.

—Where’s my Nancy Drew?

—It’s on The Red Thing.

The Secret of the Old Clock, Donna Parker, The Curly Tops Snowed In (my first-ever hard-cover book, which my mother brought home from a magical place in Regina called The Book Exchange), Heidi, Treasure Island, Little Women, Call of the Wild. The bottom shelf was low to the floor, and the broom wouldn’t fit underneath; you’d have had to move the entire rig to sweep there, and so when I sat in front of it to sort through the sliding stack of Archie comics and colouring books I could see the dust curls underneath. We weren’t much for housekeeping anyway. Words were the thing.

We discovered The Red Thing was sturdy enough, and freighted with enough printed matter, that it could counterbalance the weight of a child hanging upside-down off the front of it, feet up top, hands grasping the sides halfway down. Every kid needs a members-only club, and every club needs a pledge. I remember one of my sisters, face blossoming red, hair dangling inches from the dust bunnies, reciting “I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down for my club, the upside-down club.” I can recall no function of the upside-down club other than hanging upside-down.

One evening—I think I was about nine—I heard my three sisters laughing in the bedroom, and I walked in and grouched at them, because what could be funny when my mother had just told me we were about to lose the house, and we’d all be out in the snow with our furniture by Christmas? Snow falling on the bunk beds and The Red Thing, I supposed. And on all the books, the ones on The Red Thing and the others, hundreds of them ranged on shelf after shelf in the living room, the ones I had to stand on the back of the sofa to reach.

I don’t know how my mother succeeded, ultimately, in saving the title to the house. A lot of yelling went on, those years, and we girls managed sometimes to tune out the specifics. I do think it must’ve been my mother who saved the title. My father was smart in his way, a small-time genius as an inventor, mechanic and electrician, but he had no head for business or law, and he was so good at avoiding the tough questions that he knew how to leave mail unopened for years if he didn’t like the address on the upper left corner of the envelope. Long after my parents died, going through old files, I came across a sheaf of papers that had to do with the house, the garage, the courts: eight letters from the sheriff, seventeen from various creditors, fifteen notices to do with unpaid taxes, and three to do with court proceedings. A note in my mother’s handwriting attests that a letter from one creditor remained unopened for seven years; it was old enough that the mailbox the postmistress would have sorted it into would have been opened by combination rather than key. Through the years when all that was going on, I would sometimes sit in front of The Red Thing and open my copy of Heidi and bring it to my nose and sniff the pages. The smell of ink and binding glue and pressed paper would call up a feeling that I want to describe as friendship. I still do this with books; I still am surprised by that same feeling, whether or not I know beforehand that it’s what I’m looking for.

SistersWeavingSisters weaving


The garden

In the early years, we grew vegetables in the vegetable garden. One summer my next-older sister and I—we were the “little kids” and the two oldest were the “big kids”—were paid 88 cents each for a couple of days of hand-pulling portulaca and pigweed free of the stubborn clay. Why 88 cents? Because the general store was advertising an 88-cent sale and as part of this special occasion they’d brought in toys, a rare addition to their stock. When my sister and I walked into the store clutching our coins we learned that most of the toys were in fact priced at $1.88 or $2.88. We did each come home with something cheap and plastic and unmemorable, I’m sure we did, and I’ll bet we loved these things for as many days as we would have loved the more expensive bits of plastic. But weeding—we hated it. The garden became a wonderland only after my parents lost interest in using it to grow vegetables. In the area where a different family might have planted potatoes and beans and corn, my sister and I dug an enormous hole, an underground fort. Evenings, I would scratch my scalp and have my fingernails come away full of grit, a satisfying feeling, evidence of a day well spent. We dragged old boards from here and there and laid them across the top of the hole, and we crouched inside amid shadows and candlelight. The smell of a candle burning inside dirt walls gave me a thrill I felt low in my tummy. A finger in the flame, how long can you hold it there? Or drip some wax into the palm of your hand and feel the bite. The small rituals of our club of two in our safe little hideaway, built too small for grown-ups. We were the bosses down there. We owned the place.

Sisters in the Garden (Leona on the left)

 —Leona Theis


Leona2014 #2

Leona Theis writes novels, short stories, memoir and personal essays. She is the author of Sightlines, a collection of linked stories set in small-town Saskatchewan, and the novel The Art of Salvage. She is at work on two other novels and a collection of essays. Her essays have appeared in or are about to appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. She lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.


Apr 302015

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


When members of Jimmy’s family told Jim McQuade, Director of Schuyler Hill Funeral Home, that, at Jimmy’s request, we were having neither priest nor funeral mass, he warned us that we might have trouble getting Jimmy into St. Raymond’s Cemetery. He proved prophetic. Growing up, Jimmy and I had been thrown out of a couple of Bronx taverns, but getting barred from the graveyard was a new experience. In lieu of a priest, I had been invited by Jimmy’s family to give a eulogy. “That would be fine,” said Jim McQuade, as we sat at a table; I could “just briefly sum up Jimmy’s life.” We laughed because, more than anyone I’ve ever known, Jimmy’s life was not one to be glibly summed up. Everyone thought they knew Jimmy; but they knew only aspects of the whole, complicated man. His life, rich and multifaceted, fell into many different, apparently incompatible phases. Yet there was an underlying integrity, in both senses of that word.

Jimmy had been a hell-raiser and legendary fist-fighter growing up; then a father who raised one son early, and later two young children single-handedly when their mother, Sharon, died young. Professionally, he was chief consulting engineer for the Bronx from 1980, and was in charge of the capital budget program, overseeing money allocated for such construction programs as the Grand Concourse rehabilitation and the parks improvements from Hunts Point to Riverdale. “But he was a lot more than that to me,” said former Borough President Fernando Ferrer. “He was indispensable.” As the go-to person for district leader Michael Benedetto, Jimmy handled housing and zoning issues; in addition, demonstrating Assemblyman Benedetto’s description of him as a “tremendously giving person” who quietly helped many people, Jimmy, each year, did the income taxes, gratis, of more than a hundred seniors who couldn’t figure out the forms or afford to pay a professional.

After retiring in 1995, Jimmy stayed on for almost two decades with the borough president’s office as a part-time consultant. In these years, he also taught physics at Bronx Community College. As engineer and architect, Jimmy created—pro bono—the building now housing the Chippewa Democratic Club, of which he was treasurer for more than 40 years. Still vital, energetic, and physically powerful, Jimmy was, in 2005, diagnosed in a late stage of a particularly horrible form of incurable cancer.  It was in valiantly battling multiple myeloma for ten years (which must be the world’s record) that we all saw Jimmy’s stamina and real courage. So, is there any key that helps explain so varied a life? Not really, but let me make a tentative triple-suggestion that will seem strange to those who didn’t know the “whole” Jimmy: strength, stars—and pigeons.

The pigeons, a group shot.

From the time he was a kid, Jimmy had a coop, and flew pigeons.  Later, residing in Locust Point, he had a flock that numbered almost two hundred. Jimmy and his sons David and Alex lived very near the Throgs Neck Bridge, its under-structure a favorite nesting place for peregrine falcons and hawks. Jimmy flew his pigeons every day and loved how they out-maneuvered the predators, making undulations and quick turns in the air, so that it was almost impossible for a falcon or hawk to kill one. (When many were killed, including Jimmy’s pair of beloved black homers, it was not by a hawk, nor by the family of feral cats Jimmy fed daily, but by a raccoon who got into the cages.)  Once, a frustrated brown hawk pursued some pigeons right into those cages. Jimmy’s first instinct was rage, but he quickly appreciated the magnificence of the hawk and he knew that it, too, had its part to play in the natural order. So he kept it for a day or two, admiring, studying, and photographing it.

As for strength: When we were growing up, Jimmy was himself a hawk, a warrior who never lost a fight even against much larger opponents. I’ll give just two examples, but they represent many stories of Jimmy’s almost mythical prowess as a fighter. My neighborhood, Alden Park, had (laughably enough) a so-called private beach, consisting of a pier and about 50 yards of water. Once, when we were sixteen or so, Jimmy came over to hang out with me. We went down for a swim. An older guy, a blond and brawny 6-foot, 220-pound wire-lather, informed Jimmy, who weighed about 145 at the time, that this was a private beach and that he wasn’t welcome. Jimmy started to leave. But the Big Man couldn’t leave well enough alone: “And don’t come back, you little guinea.” About ten seconds later, Jimmy did leave; but they had to carry the wire-lather home. Jimmy, 75 lbs. lighter and 3 inches shorter, had cut him down with a half-dozen lightning-fast punches that left the would-be hero and actual bigot sprawled and bleeding on the pier.

This is a photo I took myself about 60 years ago circa 1956. Jimmy is standing with two of the girls in our crowd Diane Schleininger and Janet Gartner

On another occasion, a year or so later, Jimmy faced down even bigger odds. In a nocturnal raid, we had snuck into a pool and concession called Bronx Beach and stolen 17 cases of beer. Having “borrowed” a rowboat, we transported our booty to a small cabin cruiser moored off a waterfront stretch called Big Oak. The plan was to return early the following morning and move our goods to a safe location. Unfortunately, when we arrived shortly after dawn the boat was gone. We discovered that the owner and his friends (who must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven) had left for Oyster Bay on the north shore of Long Island to fish and camp out. A few days later word reached us that they were back and were having a grand time in what was then an orchard that sloped down to our own Bay, not really a “bay” since it opens onto the Long Island Sound. When Jimmy and I arrived and peered through the foliage we saw eight guys and their girlfriends listening to music and enjoying “our” beer. This was a moral outrage, a violation of the code of honor among thieves. We jumped the fence and Jimmy walked right up to the biggest guy, the fellow who owned the boat we’d used for temporary storage. “The party’s over,” Jimmy announced, ordering the leader to pack up the beer, put it in one of their cars (we were carless) and take it to where we wanted it. Even with their girlfriends present as witnesses of their humiliation, he and the others complied. Even at odds of 8-2, they were afraid to tangle with Jimmy.

Back then, he seemed all strength and speed. The first time we ever saw a set of weights, Jimmy, 14 years old and weighing about 140, military-pressed 20 pounds or so above his body-weight, astonishing the older guys who owned the barbell.  He ran the 100 and 220 at Cardinal Hayes, winning at both distances; and once, at a Rice Stadium meet where I was running the 440 for St. Helena’s, Jimmy was asked to substitute for an injured shot-putter. I watched amused as Jimmy, a complete novice at the event, outdistanced the competitors, but was disqualified on all three shots, one of which was so off it actually grazed someone in the audience.

But under all that physical power there were other, deeper qualities. Jimmy had a formidable brain, and dreams. When he and I weren’t getting into trouble, we often sat on the sea-wall, gazing at the opening to Long Island Sound off City Island, looking out at the beautiful green lantern of Stepping Stone Lighthouse, and up to that greater lighthouse, the stars above our heads. In time, Jimmy would know almost everything there was to know about the birth and death of stars, as well as about black holes, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics. Back then we would discuss “escape velocity,” the speed a rocket would have to attain to break earth’s gravitational pull: 7 miles a second. And this was long before John F. Kennedy pledged to send a manned rocket to the moon and back.

Jimmy and Alex2Jimmy and Alex

Earlier this week, when Alex invited me to look through his father’s books, I was re-reminded of the range of Jimmy’s interests.  There were books on the Bible, and on Jesus alongside volumes on the universe, on string theory and quantum mechanics; several books on Einstein; on history and philosophy; novels, poetry, books of literary criticism (not all, but most by me, since Jimmy was as proud of me as I was of him). From the time he was a boy, Jimmy was what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called an “Inquiring Spirit,” especially when it came to questioning, from the perspective of science (physics and evolutionary biology) the religion in which we had both been raised and long believed. In later years, he was particularly fond of two passages I’d cited in my book on Emerson. In his essay “Intellect,” Emerson posed a choice between “Truth and Repose.” He who simply accepts the comfortable “creed” he has inherited will find rest,

but he shuts the door to truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as a wall, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.

This passage had a momentous impact on the lives of both Emily Dickinson and Emerson’s greatest disciple, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom were raised in deeply religious families. Nietzsche, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, echoed Emerson’s thought, and choice, in a youthful letter to his sister. Should we, the twenty-year-old Nietzsche asked rhetorically,

arrive at that view of God, world, and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable?….Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth….Faith does not offer the least support of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.

Restless (as his sister Barbara told us) from the time he was a colicky baby, Jimmy never, ever sought “repose,” either in his life or in his intellectual inquiries. I should have added that his library included, along (of course) with studies of pigeons, books on aviation. When, after he got out of the Marines, Jimmy was living with his wife Beth and their baby, Jimmy Jr., in a trailer in Moonachie, N.J., he was working full-time and studying for his engineering degree. Yet he somehow found time to learn to fly a plane!  Why?  Well, pigeons fly, don’t they?

Jimmy in the Marines.Jimmy (right) in the Marines

Armed with his engineering degree, Jimmy eventually rose through the ranks of the New York City Highway Department and other positions to become chief engineer of the Bronx, working, as I said, out of the Borough President’s office. Whatever lunacy and law-breaking we engaged in growing up, once Jimmy was in a position of power, he proved incorruptible. As many told me at one of his retirement parties, Jimmy’s word was his bond. His agreement over the phone could be, literally, taken to the bank. Many projects in the Bronx are the visible results of Jimmy’s efforts.  As boys looking up at the stars, we talked about escape velocity; but Jimmy, unlike the rest of our crowd, never wanted to escape from the Bronx. Instead, he wanted to stay and improve it. And he did. As current Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., remarked in his tribute: “James Cerasoli gained the respect and admiration of all through his tireless work in the Bronx. His signature is imprinted on numerous maps; his work and his memory will live forever.”

Jimmy with David as a baby

That most endearing of Jimmy’s qualities—his intense and lifelong love of animals—bore enduring fruit in improvements to the Bronx Zoo.  In charge of the capital budget, Jimmy made sure the Zoo got its share and more of the borough funds. Our close-knit crowd of two dozen, which has kept in touch for six decades, always loved the Zoo as kids; for us it was an oasis, a Magic Kingdom. When Jimmy and I, with my own family, visited it as adults, Jimmy was treated like a king by those who appreciated his support. Why was the Zoo such a priority?  Of course, it was the borough’s main tourist attraction. But for Jimmy, it was personal. The bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. His answer was as famous as Willie himself: “that’s where they keep the money.” For Jimmy, the Zoo was where they keep the animals and, if they had to be in confinement, he wanted to do what he could to insure that they were kept in state-of-the-art comfort and able to enjoy maximum freedom. The big cats are no longer in cages.

Jimmy among the deer at Catskill Game Park.At the Catskill Game Farm

The one photograph his sons submitted for Jimmy’s newspaper obituary shows him, a quarter-century ago and looking much younger than his 52 years, feeding deer at the Catskill Game Farm (closed, sadly, in 2006). As his son David rightly said, the photo exemplifies Jimmy’s love of animals. I think that love of animals, especially his doting on his pigeons, even helps explain Jimmy’s liberal politics; he always championed the underdog rather than the predatory and powerful. His pigeon-skills certainly honed the qualities that made this tough athlete and undefeatable street-fighter a loving and nurturing caregiver when he was left with two young boys to raise on his own. He had learned whatever he needed to master in order to care for his pigeons; now he learned whatever he needed to know to take care of his boys—even learning to cook, and to cook well.

Jimmy’s final decade was incredibly difficult, but he fought this terrible and terminal disease with the same courage and skill that he’d once displayed in fist-fights. (He studied multiple myeloma, and soon knew as much about it as his doctors). In this battle, however, he had the support and love of a close-knit family: his sisters Barbara, Arlene and Pinky, his brothers Hank and John and his young sons David and Alex.  For years every Friday was set aside by Hank and John for lunch with Jimmy at a restaurant of John’s choosing.  When I was visiting from upstate, I was invited to join them.

Jimmy Jr. and his wife and three children lived far out on Long Island, but for Jimmy’s 75th birthday, the whole family got together, and again I was invited. Ironically, Alex, who had been at his father’s side virtually every day since he’d been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, had to be in Florida. But it was good that the rest of us were there, since, just a year later, young Jimmy suddenly died of a heart attack. This was, in many ways, the last twist of the knife. I came down for the first of two wakes, right here at Schuyler Hill. But Jimmy (burdened with an oxygen tank that embarrassed him and which he relegated to Jim McQuade’s office rather than draw attention to himself) had to endure a second wake and funeral out on Long Island.  When I came over to the house the next day, and asked the stupid but inevitable question as to how it had gone, he said, “Pat, I felt feelings I didn’t know I had.” Alex told me that that was the beginning of the end for Jimmy; that much of the fight—and it had been a long and brave fight—went out of him.  David, Hank, and John agreed, and I sensed it myself, though Jimmy tried to maintain a stoic front. I can’t talk here about David’s and Alex’s own relationship to their father because I will be reduced to uncontrollable tears—as Alex was at Jimmy’s deathbed while David, my godson, tried to hold it together.

Jimmy with his three sons.

Terrible as that death was, it was peaceful, and Jimmy, who we think was able to hear us, was surrounded by those who loved him—no small thing.  It seemed to me at the time, and even more so today, that it was particularly appropriate that when his time came, he died in a hospital named for his intellectual hero, Albert Einstein.  The last long conversation I had in Jimmy’s kitchen (I’ll tell you in a moment about our last phone conversation), we talked about Walter Isaacson’s book on Einstein.  I knew why Einstein had (one of his few errors) rejected quantum mechanics; but Jimmy actually understood quantum mechanics! Though Einstein acknowledged that it explained much, he could never bring himself to accept quantum theory because it was random and Einstein was committed to strictly determined mathematical laws of nature. As he famously said, quantum theory “says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secrets of the old one [der Alte]. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice with the Universe.”

 That kind of God-talk led many—especially in his adopted country, America, where he was much beloved and had become a pop-culture icon—to conclude that Einstein believed in a personal God, one who cares about us, is accessible to prayer, and promises (for good or ill) an eternal Afterlife. Einstein did not believe in such a deity. In a letter written to a little girl in the sixth grade who wanted to know, “Do scientists pray?” Einstein, endearingly, took her question seriously. He responded that scientists are not likely to be inclined, in a world where “everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature,” to believe “that events could be influenced by prayers to a supernatural being.” Nevertheless, he continued,

Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

His God, Einstein told the New York Times, was “Spinoza’s God,” a divinity inseparable from Nature itself—though he was also convinced, like that sublime and “god-intoxicated” yet “atheistic” 17th-century Jewish philosopher, that no matter how we try to “penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature,” we find that, “beyond all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend, is,” said Einstein, “my religion.” That “humble admiration” and “deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” Introduced to the philosophy of Spinoza by his friend Coleridge, William Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey,” captured that “presence” (the essence of Spinoza’s pantheism) in deliberately vague but deeply moving lines:

MMMMAnd I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

In 1930, Einstein concluded his credo, “What I Believe,” by defining what he actually meant in calling himself “religious”:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead….To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly; this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

In that sense, and that sense only, Jimmy, an inquiring spirit in the mode of Spinoza and Einstein, was a devoutly religious man—to the very end of his life and beginning from the time when, as kids, he and I gazed out on the water on moonlit or starry nights and then up to the stars themselves. When we were rummaging through Jimmy’s books, Alex showed me something his father had inscribed on the library wall, and which Alex intends to carve out and save: “My improbable God: before Infinity, there is God; after Infinity, there is God.” If that’s not good enough to get into the “religious” cemetery, to hell with them.

Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years2Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years.

I’ll end with that last phone call, and with the final lines of a Wallace Stevens poem, both of which involve deer and, of course, pigeons.  I phoned Jimmy one day while I was looking out the window at my back yard.  Out on the lawn were three deer, a few squirrels, two mourning doves and two pigeons. “How are they interacting?” Jimmy asked, the old enthusiasm still there despite the pain. “Harmoniously,” I said.  But the peaceable kingdom was interrupted.  There’s a 100-foot spruce in my yard and a huge female goshawk (bigger than the males of the species) often nests there. She swooped down. The deer were unnerved, the squirrels scampered to safety, and the mourning doves ducked into the hedge. But the pigeons took off with the hawk in fierce pursuit. I was disturbed, but Jimmy assured me, “don’t worry, she’ll never get them.”  He was right.

This scene prompted me to quote to him over the phone the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” a poem centered on a woman who does not go to church that morning, but instead seeks her religion in nature.  She finds herself in what the poet calls in the final stanza “an old chaos of the Sun, unsponsored”: a beautiful but perishable universe in which we must all die. This is our mortal condition; what are our consolations? Jimmy loved the ending of the poem, finding in it, along with the appreciation of deer and birds, a beautiful and brave death-image, an image that applies, as my friend Barron Boyd recently remarked, to Jimmy’s characteristically courageous acceptance of his own impending descent:

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness,
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Jimmy, who seemed unconquerable, is gone. But nothing can erase, as Borough President Diaz noted, Jimmy’s permanent “signature imprinted” on the Bronx. That “will live forever,” as will the memories that will be preserved—until our own deaths—in the hearts of family and friends who loved and valued this remarkable and many-sided man. And I will think of my brother-in-spirit as inextinguishable in a more profound sense. When, without that funeral mass, we were denied permission for burial in the Catholic cemetery, we decided to have Jimmy cremated. Back in 1957, when he was 19, Jimmy shared with me a now famous essay in which four astrophysicists argued that the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the oxygen we breathe, are the remnants, the ashes, of stars that died in supernova-explosions billions of years ago. When, this summer, we scatter Jimmy’s ashes in Long Island Sound, it will be into water we now know derived in part from a titanic gas cloud older even than our solar system. Out on Hank’s boat, we will be returning Jimmy to the world of nature he loved, and to the cosmos that fascinated him, stardust back to stardust.

Pat Keane/ April 10, 2015


Afterword: For David and Alex

I returned to Syracuse in time on April 11 to make, I thought, a Curlew Theatre play about W. B. Yeats, for which I’d written an introduction and which was scheduled to be performed at Le Moyne College at 7pm. I didn’t know that while I was in New York City for Jimmy’s death and wake, the time had been changed to 4pm. It was good that I didn’t know, because something rather wonderful happened in my walk over to the college—as I told Kate Costello-Sullivan, Le Moyne’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, in the following email, which I’m now sharing with you.

Dear Kate,

Unaware that the play had already been performed, I left for the college at 6:50. I was walking due west on Salt Springs, thus directly into the setting sun. As I came over the rise in the road, I suddenly found myself looking at 7 or 8 deer: they were just standing there, stopped in the midst of crossing from the college side. I heard two cars coming fast, maybe 100-150 feet behind me. Between the brightness of the sun and the fact that the deer were just over the rise, neither driver could see what was ahead. I jumped out in the middle of the street and started waving. One driver slammed on his brakes, the other swerved onto a lawn alongside the road. The little herd of deer took off. The drivers understood.

When I got to the college, the doors were locked. I tried another possible venue, and that’s when I saw a poster, with the time, 4:00, and featuring a line excerpted from one of Yeats’s finest poems: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” I’d felt pretty good about the deer episode right off. But as I started walking back, it dawned on me that if I hadn’t been precisely where I was at precisely that moment, one or both of those cars would have plowed into the deer.

My friend Jimmy had been cremated that morning. As I’d emphasized in my eulogy, along with being a legendary fist-fighter when we were growing up, Jimmy was, among other things, a deep and lifelong lover of animals. Later, as Borough Engineer of the Bronx, in charge of the capital budget, Jimmy was responsible for many improvements in the Bronx Zoo. He hated the idea of animals in captivity; but if they were to be confined, he was determined to insure that they were comfortable and enjoyed maximum freedom. And they do.

Jimmy kept and flew pigeons from the time he was in grade-school; and on his last visit up to see me, he loved seeing the deer in my back yard. I ended my eulogy with the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” beginning, “Deer walk upon our mountains,” and ending with pigeons, at evening, making “Ambiguous undulations as they sink/ Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

I don’t believe in miracles, but I’d been despondent walking over to see the play—a play that, as it happened, had already been performed. Thus, I had no reason to be on that road at 6:50. You apologized, Kate, for not getting my phone call in time to stop me. I’m obviously delighted that you didn’t. Walking back to my house, the more I thought about having “saved” the deer, the more elated I became. I remembered that little Robert Frost poem, “Dust of Snow”:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

That’s what happened to me yesterday. The reminder that we still live “in nature,” with creatures other than ourselves, altered without erasing my sadness at the death of a friend I loved and admired, got in trouble with, and discussed literature and science and religion with, for two-thirds of a century. But last night, going to bed still thinking about those deer, I slept for almost 11 hours—more than the preceding five nights combined. Being on that road at 6:50 was a gift, and it comforts me, even as I’m writing these words, to think, intuitively rather than rationally, that it was a last gift from Jimmy, still watching out for the animals.



Pat Keane and Jimmy.

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


Click an image for a full sized version with caption.


Apr 072015

Agri Ismaïl

Premise: Four men sit around a giant bottle of vodka, picking at various unappetising appetisers as waiters hurry to bring them an assortment of mixers and pour clumsy blends of vodka and juice. The men raise a toast, welcoming each other, and talk of work, politics, war. One of the men tells the story of when, in 1996, he had saved up and bought his very first portable cassette player after toiling away at the reception desk of a local hotel for months. He describes the specifications of the lost device (auto reverse! 20radio station memory!) with affection between modest sips of his drink. He recounts how when the city was taken, he was sure that his house would be looted due to his political affiliations, so he considered whom among his friends and family members was least enmeshed in the political situation before driving it to his young cousin, sure that his house would be spared. The man starts giggling then, before he has even told the funny part: of course, in the end, the cousins house was the only one in his family to be looted. All the men laugh in recognition. They drink to all that was taken, all that was lost.


IMAGINE THAT THIS STORY has roused whatever part of you that is interested in narratives, for whatever reason, and that you are about to undertake the increasingly non-trivial process of deciding what form said narrative is to take.

Imagine, furthermore, that you are a Kurd, that the event takes place in Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city in Northern Iraq and that the men in the above scenario are all Kurds speaking in a Sorani dialect. The first conclusion presents itself as evident: this should be a narrative in Kurdish.

At first, this seems satisfactory. It pleases the dreadfully lazy part of you to know that minimal effort will be needed to achieve an acceptable level of verisimilitude (dialogue will admittedly need to be polished somewhat to achieve a certain degree of artificiality in order to pass for realism, but can otherwise be reproduced more or less verbatim).

Also, to write in a minor language is to a certain extent its own reward. It is not just about reaching an audience (which for Kurdish literature is minuscule, even if you were to disregard the fact that Kurds use two completely different alphabets; it is also, perhaps even foremost, about preserving and enriching said language. The thought that something you write can, fairly easily, have such lasting power feeds your ego tremendously. You imagine cyborgs in the future attempting a comprehensive account of the extinct human race by reverse-engineering our technology to be able to read today’s hard drives and noting that there was such as a thing as Kurdish literature. This will, you imagine, please the cyborgs.

You think back on the Kurdish novel, a feeble object that has barely been allowed to breathe, kept alive by authors like Sherzad Hassan, Bakhtyar Ali and the dearly departed Mehmet Uzun, in spite of overwhelming evidence that literature is pointless in a society that wants to emulate the capitalist wonderlands of our most generic cities (to echo Rem Koolhaas), our Singapores and Dubais and Heathrow Terminal 5s, while simultaneously fighting off the medieval LARP currently en vogue. A tricky juxtaposition, that. But it has always been thus, literature has never had it easy here: texts were uniformly banned for being written in a language that several governments tried their utmost to eradicate during the 19th and 20th centuries. A novel cannot be written, after all, if the language to write it in does not exist. When novels appeared at all, it was often small editions printed by clandestine presses, an arrestable offence for author and publisher alike. That we then define 1929’s The Kurdish Shepherd by Erebê Şemo, 1961’s Peshmerga by Rehîmî Qazî and 1972’s Jani Gal by Ibrahim Ahmad as some of the first Kurdish novels merely attests to the fortune of these manuscripts to have survived. Indeed, there are no extant copies of the first edition of The Kurdish Shepherd, which was originally published in the Soviet Union and heavily censored. That it has survived is only due to a 1947 Beirut reprint. Similarly, Ahmad’s Jani Gal had to be rewritten twice from memory after the original manuscripts were burned or lost, and it wasn’t until a French translation appeared courtesy of L’Harmattan that the text appeared in its complete state, including geographical locations and the overt references to the regime that had been previously excised. It is indicative of the subjugated state of Kurdish writing that one of the very first Kurdish novels ever to be written appeared in its entirety not in Kurdish, but in French, as late as 1994.

The remains of the Kurdish novel are, then, mere shadows, flickers of what once was. To think of what exists as a comprehensive picture of Kurdish literature is akin to thinking Sappho’s fragments represent her complete work.

You fortunately no longer have to worry about censorship, about having to burn your only manuscript in the garden before Baathist police get to it, about having to hide a printing press in your bedroom. Even the Turkish government, which for decades insisted the Kurdish language did not exist (and, in a wonderful display of incoherent logic, that this thing that did not exist should, because it did not exist, be banned) has begun to begrudgingly tolerate texts written in Kurdish.

And yet, there are other obstacles. Such as the invisibility of your work by merely writing in a non-Latin script, where it will be hidden to all but those who can conjure the signs to summon it. You often labour under the belief that everything can be found online, yet forget that in order for this to be even slightly true, you must master alphabets that mean nothing to you, alphabets that your computer is reluctant to write in. The non-Latin text is sealed off, unsearchable by the Latin index, hidden behind the limits of written language. You think of the character in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia who is only known by a non-standard, unpronounceable, symbol (which you cannot reproduce in this text other than as a screenshot: 

and therefore would never be able search for it). You suspect it is not a coincidence that throughout Negarestani’s novel this character is missing.

Another obstacle: Microsoft Word on the Macintosh Operating System cannot use Arabic fonts (let alone Kurdish ones). You could of course use another word processor (e.g. Apple’s own Pages) but the fonts remain often incompatible with other word processors and so e-mailing a file in Kurdish, more often than not, will result in something like this:


Now this is perhaps impressive in a formalist kind of way, a uniform representation of thought and language and whatnot, but you doubt that you can convince an audience that what they have before them is the Great Kurdish Novel (to take a silly term from the Americans, because lord knows they’ve taken their fair share from us) when all they are looking at are a series of Unicode squares. The computer was not designed, after all, with non-Western languages in mind, nor was any of the software (though you envy the Chinese who you imagine, by virtue of their logographic writing system, would be able to write entire short stories on Twitter in 140 characters — if China had not banned access to Twitter, that is). The electronic age is upon us and that age was coded using a specific writing system. You would be insane to think this does not matter.

Also, and you’re ashamed to have to mention this but even though Kurdish is your native language you don’t really master it: you are a child of exile with the exile’s unnatural feel for language; you frequently mis-use words and your handwriting is all haunted-house seance scribbles of the dead trying to communicate with the living in crude approximations of letters. You are far more comfortable with English, even though you have no tie to that language other than the fact every book you read and every movie you see is in English. You have not read more than a handful of Kurdish novels because as already mentioned, Kurdish novels are hard to come by. You should, of course, practice your mother tongue; you suspect that you could become a half-decent writer if only you put as much effort into reading and writing in Kurdish as you have done in English but this is a multi-year project, akin to reading Proust. And you have yet to read Proust.

At this point you start doubting yourself: if writing in Kurdish means more effort than writing in English why not just write in English? You also begin suspecting that the above premise may not be interesting to a Kurdish audience as everyone has had their house looted at some point. Everyone has lost a family member to genocide or internecine warfare. For you, the exiled one whose portraits would invariably reek of privilege and Eurocentric notions, to comment on the Kurdish situation to a Kurdish audience can easily become patronising and in bad taste. What can a foreigner possibly have to teach people about themselves? You may instead want to shine a light outwards, towards readers unfamiliar with Kurdish history, and this requires another language. “Texts must experience the condition of exile.” said Emily Apter, and which better way to exile a text than to force it into a language which is not its own?

So you choose English, because, yes, “the Anglicized subject is at once bullied and seduced into accepting the corporal burden of English,” to cite Susie O’Brien & Imre Szeman.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

Though this is the right choice (you hope), problems arise immediately, as they tend to for immigrants pretending to be something they are not. You are suddenly tempted to add explanations for your audience that you would refrain from adding if you were writing about a people to themselves.

For instance:

1. The men would have to be defined as Kurdish, as you suspect merely writing “men” would conjure a group of white people to the reader.

2. A Kurdish reader would understand that the choice of vodka, rather than the traditional arrak, indicates that these men are rather affluent or at the very least cosmopolitan (mostly this cosmopolitism is derived from a life in exile, from refugee camps, from being a foreigner where fluid thoughts have had to be rendered as malformed syllables and broken grammar and have been mistaken for stupidity), so when you lose this element you may well be tempted to linger on other details, the brand of vodka, the logos on their polo shirts, in order to convey the same thing in a much cruder manner.

3. You will have to explain what happened in 1996, a reference that would be evident to Kurdish readers but an obscure historical footnote for everyone else. Also you’ll want to briefly touch on the sanctions, embargoes and the overall financial situation that made the purchase of a cassette player in 1996 – when even CDs were beginning to be replaced by MiniDiscs and Mp3s – something that required significant capital.

Your text is now overwritten, heavy with exposition, and you haven’t even dealt with the question of language.

The dialogue will be laboured, tortured into resembling Kurdish. Perhaps you will try to mirror the cadence of a Kurdish speaker; perhaps you will keep the expressions intact, all the “may I be sacrificed in your honour”-style sentences that seem so clunky when translated. You could also use the trick that all those world lit novels of the 1990s used: sprinkle English dialogue with some non-English words for added authenticity. You try, you try, you fail, you delete.

(All fiction is based on artifice, but for some reason writing non-English dialogue in English often seems like an artifice too far. If only there was some form of literary subtitle, you think. [1])

You also worry, as all translators are wont to do, about the weight of words. You are reminded how for centuries, the French have been misunderstanding Nietzsche because the French “sujet” does not contain the “critique of the effects of subjective submission” that the German “Subjekt” does (cf. Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslability and Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles). The Kurdish word for looting, تالان, best transliterated as “talan”, has an inherent weight to it from its frequent use in Kurdish society under various dictatorships and processes of ethnic cleansing that is immediately lost in translation, as the English “looting” has since long lost its primal association to times of war (and is mainly used in times of riots, as a byproduct of temporary capitalist collapse).

What you are left with, then, is a text that panders to its audience in its need to hold the reader’s hand through a history with which she is not familiar, a text infused with exoticism, a narrative forced into a form that is inherently Western, with all the issues that arise when, to cite Franco Moretti, “Western form meets [non-Western] reality”. These texts, as selected by Western publishers, often seem to include an outmoded paean to humanism, as though to comfort a bourgeois reading culture, to ensure that the narrative that we are all the same is heard. Fredric Jameson, in his otherwise unspectacular essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism (wherein he actually states that “Nothing is to be gained by passing over in silence the radical difference of non-canonical texts. The third-world novel will not offer the satisfactions of Proust or Joyce.”) provides a rare insight when he notes that “Indeed our want of sympathy for these often unmodern third-world texts is itself frequently but a disguise for some deeper fear of the affluent about the way people actually live in other parts of the world”. This is echoed by a much-debated editorial in N+1 wherein the editors argue that “Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience” and that “the bestselling Kite Runner, by the Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini, made some Americans feel better, and others worse, about our war over there”.

Above all, perhaps, it rankles to use English because of the ravages that the British Empire wrought on Kurds and the possibility of Kurdish statehood. If Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is accurate in his assertion that “African authors should be clear about the fact that when they write in English they are contributing to the expansion of, and dependence on, the English language.”, then to write in English is a betrayal.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.


international capitalism is a system that is simultaneously one and unequal: with a core and a periphery (and a semiperiphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality.i.e. the destiny of a culture [] is intersected and altered by another culture (from the core) that completely ignores it’”

(Franco Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature”)

Most novels that you read today seem like relics, as though modernism never happened at all, Flaubertian narratives in which characters hold the latest consumer technology to make you, the reader, realise that it is meant to take place in the now. But it does not feel like any reality you experience on a daily basis, it feels literary: as though what we consider realism is merely what authors convinced readers reality looked like a hundred and fifty years ago, static narratives that embrace the provincial when finance and politics are now global. The very conventions of the realist novel, so daring when they were perfected by Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, have now trapped narratives in an individualistic, humanistic world order. After all, how to describe the light-speed flow of capital, the corporations with human rights but without human obligations, the drones killing the anonymous in a form that is structured around individual agency, about self-realisation and a human perception of time? The novel is doomed to fail. If contemporary capitalism and consumer culture are a part of contemporary fiction, it is often as a mere gloss, rather than the actual spine of the constructed reality. Similarly, the challenges of globalisation are reduced to facile exotifications, the non-Western reality forced into a Western form. The novel was not designed, after all, with non-Western cultures in mind.

What you want is the literary future imagined by Bhanu Kapil — an author who has managed to dismantle all the problems listed here with aplomb — namely “a literature that is not made from literature.” The heroine of her novel Incubation: A Space for Monsters is half girl, half machine/cyborg, her identity and culture shifts along with the text, as essential a creation as any archetype. You are heartened by Julius’s dérive in Teju Cole’s Open City where the character maps out a New York of immigrants and asylum seekers before he transforms the 20th century urban dérive into an international one, by travelling to Belgium, to Nigeria. You embrace the aforementioned Cyclonopedia, a dense but fragile text that can barely even carry the categorisation of novel, with its fake translator’s notes (e.g. “The linguistic structure of the original Farsi text is highly inconsistent, to the extent that one assumes it to have been written by more than one author.”) making the reader realise just how many truths a narrative can contain.

We heed the warning in the aforementioned N+1 essay that “Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations,” but why should literature not instead revel in these deformations? You realise that English literature always has been “an unsteady amalgam of [the] voices of the vanquished, along with the voices of the dominant English regions” (to cite Stephen Greenblatt) and if you are to dissent from Lorde and try to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, you could do worse than making English your own Latin, a tool for a vulgar novel. Let there be allusions that remain unexplained, let there be dialogue that is not naturalistic, let there be disregard for the master’s rules, let the work contain the fractured realities as we see them today.

—Agri Ismaïl

Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq- and Sweden-based writer whose work has appeared in the White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Al Jazeera, and the Swedish journal Glänta among other places. He can be found on Twitter.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Yes, of course there is the footnote which has a long literary history: remember how War & Peace began with a long chunk of French dialogue, which Tolstoy then translated (badly, one might add) into Russian in the footnotes. But this does not seem like a very good option: if none of your readers understand the dialogue in the original language, in effect you’re just asking them to do more work. You suspect your readers would hate you after one or two pages of this.
Mar 062015



AT 9:00 AM ON A SUNNY MORNING, while your teenage son sleeps, make plans with your husband to visit the city of Briançon and the stronghold of Mont-Dauphin. Just over the Italian border in France, these are World UNESCO sites where the military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre Vauban (1633-1707), designed forts and walls for the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Wake your son. Don’t tell him about the history trip ahead. You know he’s always hated history—facts have always proved slippery, elusive, dull. Instead, tell him you want to take him to France for a crêpe. When he hops out of bed without a complaint, hand him an espresso. While he’s in the shower, charge your camera batteries. Pack chocolate.

Smile when your husband says, surprised, “That was easy.”

At 10:30 am, let your son sit in the front seat next to you while you drive west. Hand him your camera. Direct him to take pictures of the road slicing through granite and slate. Remind him of Hannibal the Carthaginian and his elephants, of the Romans who fought the Gauls, of the Duke of Savoy who fought the Sun King. Tell him that armies have always climbed through the Alps first one way, then the other, shifting boundaries first one way, then the other.

Inhale when he nods.


Pull into a scenic lookout when he says “Stop.” Climb out and gaze at the rock scantily clad with snow while he takes pictures.

Agree when he says, “This road is tough, but without the asphalt and tunnels it was tougher.”


Where Italian and then French flags blow, at the top of the pass at the Col du Montgenèvre, say to your husband and son, “Bienvenus en France, mes chers.” Then, since you’ve forgotten your son’s ID, panic when you see gendarmes at the booth ahead scrutinizing arriving traffic. Look at the police straight on though, and smile when they wave you through.

Agree when your husband says, “Borders are porous these days.”



At 11:30, stop at the old walled city of Briançon that Vauban fortified after the Duke of Savoy pillaged the surrounding countryside in 1692. Park your car. Wind down steep streets to the main square. Buy a guidebook in a bookstore. Find a café. Order crêpes and pommes frites. Point to the fort on the crest looming above. Say, “Those rocks are a reminder of the past.”


Agree when your son says, between mouthfuls of buttery food, “These mountains are tough, but the men were tougher.”


At 2:30 suggest getting ice cream down the road. Drive south for thirty minutes, alongside the Écrins National Park. Admire the winsome villages with spiky churches and red geraniums. At picturesque Eygliers turn left. Note that your son’s breath catches at the sight of Mont-Dauphin, Vauban’s citadel that crowns the Millaures plateau which means ‘at the cross of the winds’ in Occitan.

Ask what he’s thinking.

Nod when he says, “Those towers above are a cliff full of mystery.”


Together climb over grass-clad ramparts. Cross the bridge that fords the empty moat. Explain how Vauban began building this citadel in 1693 but that it came to a halt with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 when the border was pushed elsewhere. Listen when your son reads aloud from the guidebook: “No actual battle ever took place here.” Shake your head when he adds, “too bad these walls went to waste.”

Buy ice cream. Lick the drips.


Circle clockwise. Photograph the church that was never completed. Photograph the remaining wing of the Arsenal where guns and ammunition were kept. Listen when your son reports, “the flanking wing was destroyed in World War II when Italians flew over and bombed it.” Agree when he adds, “So this place saw some action after all but it was only one brief blaze.”

Visit the cemetery. Look at the rusting crosses and dates. See how they’re relatively recent.




Photograph the main street where officers once lived. Together imagine how they waited for war that never materialized. Tighten your scarf around your neck again and again when the wind—the incessant wind—blows through. Notice how some places are boarded up and others are for sale.


Nod when your son observes, “This has always been a ghost town even when the soldiers were here.”


At 7:00 pm, climb in the car, head back down the hill, turn right onto the highway. Drive north along the Écrins National Park toward Briançon and the Alps. Honk at a camper hogging the road. Swerve left when a stream of bicyclists in black nylon and silver helmets encroach on your lane.

Agree when your son, who is now in the back seat, says, “Look, these are today’s road warriors.”


Ask your son his impressions of his day in France. When he says he liked the crêpe and the ice cream, sigh, but say “Good, I’m glad.” When he says, “I know it was a ruse to get me to come,” deny it. But smile broadly when he says, “The best part was walking where the armies had been. We should do this more often. Can I see the guidebook again?”

Don’t remind him you’ve always done it. Don’t list the museums and sites you’ve gone to together.


Shake your head when your husband says, “That was easy.”

Then hand over the book, pull out the chocolate you packed, and share it.

  —Natalia Sarkissian


Natalia Sarkissian

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


Feb 102015

Syd2The Author with his Grandson Arthur

Thank You Note

……Newbury Burial Ground, 2014


My wife says we’ll be eternally close to Tink and Polly, old-time Vermonters, that vanishing stock, and best of neighbors. To me, she seems like some madwoman, talking about how we should stipulate a bench instead of a headstone to stand at this grave she bought yesterday, when I was out of town. A bench, she explains, will enable our children and grandchildren to sit, have picnics, enjoy the scenery. As they take in the panorama, she adds, they can think of us, and in this setting their thoughts will necessarily be happy ones.

Now I’ll admit she’s always been uncannily good at knowing what our children, and now their children, may need or want, but I’m skeptical of this rosy vision of hers. Our kids aren’t as needy as many I’ve known in any case. Even when they were small, they often proved delightfully resourceful.

The two youngest daughters dreamed up sisters for their games: Sharlee was the bright one, Sally the drunken fool. They had Bunnum the rabbit too, and the younger girl often took on the role of Moodyhawk, an odd, mean character who claimed to rule the world. She came, as I recall, from Guam.

An older brother conceived and played the part of a dog named Ruffy. He would school his father or his mother, or often both at once, in their lines of dialogue with Ruffy, often scolding us for faulty inflection or body language. “Not like that!” he’d snap. (When he became a teenager, his grief at the death of his real dog, a sweet Labrador bitch called Plum, would keep him home from school one day.)

The eldest daughter, at four years old, reported, lisping the plural, that she’d found two slugs on a pumpkin. There was gusto, even mirth, in her description of how the orange of the mollusks and the orange of the fruit “didn’t go together.” She was visibly disappointed when she led me out to the garden; she couldn’t find the slugs themselves, merely the pale paths they had left on descending and heading who knew where?

The firstborn child was obsessed with Jeeps, and in bumbling, nightly drawing lessons, I guided his hand with my own in our cold old kitchen. He’d whistle between his teeth in concentration, his breaths turning to small clouds in that frigid space, no matter the ancient Round Oak woodstove glowed red in the corner. Draft after draft after draft. He wanted perfection. Who doesn’t long for that?

Standing on my grave, I start mourning, because I’ll lose these moments and others accrued over so many years. In short, my own vision is far less cheery than my wife’s. Is this a matter of gender? I’ll never know. I can’t speak for motherhood. But can anyone have been a father and conjured such random memories without some inward weeping?

Now, from the plot she’s just bought, my wife sweeps an arm at the view again: looming above all else, there’s our favorite mountain to eastward, purple with May but still holding snow at the summit. An eagle appears before it as if the woman had willed it there, the bird’s reflection complete in the river’s languid oxbow. Sun-spangled, it skims the treeline along the near shore. My love claps hands in witness, eyes joyous.

Meanwhile, and as always for no palpable reason, my mind makes its oblique jumps. I suddenly think of a check I left this morning for a woman who comes now and then to clean house. She bore a child in her teens, and might have gone on to harm, misery, or dependence; but her boyfriend stood by her, married her, helped her to raise that daughter. I admire that woman greatly: her industry, her constantly upbeat mood, whatever a given day’s circumstances and despite her rheumatoid arthritis.

I scribbled a thank you note to her along with the payment. Typically broody, I think just now how the note resembles so much I’ve put my hand to: a note is no more than a note, and still it’s one more thing that will disappear for good.

Those children’s children: how could I ever have known how much I’d love them? You see, it’s not the abstraction death that daunts me; it’s the leaving behind of all the beloved, particular creatures with whom I’ve walked the earth that will cover my ashes, and all the places on earth that have proved so dear to us. And yet my wife –without saying a word– reminds me that an apter feeling might be gratitude. I have had so much to lose in the first place.

I should study that. Maybe the bench is a fine idea after all.



River, Stars, and Blessed Failure


I pause in my drive back home from a reading, unknotting my legs and back, which have stiffened while I’ve sat at the wheel. It’s a joy to behold the moon as it breaches the mountain, though I feel even slighter than one of the beads of froth down there in the rapids, which are winking back at more stars than I’ve ever seen in New England. How can there be so many? They rob my breath and speech.

I could almost read my poems out loud again by that moon and those stars. But I’m not in the least inclined to do that. I’m banishing words for the moment, as if by strange instinct – not just my own words, but all. I find it more than peaceful out here to articulate nothing, to feel myself on the farthest edge of conscious thought.

Over the river’s crackle, I catch the lyrical calling of a coyote, and from it can imagine ones nearer to home, their sopranos mixed with the altos of owls and the lilting descant of a freshet. I picture my wife in our house. Perhaps she pauses by a certain window just now, the big one through which at this time of year we watch the deer glide in to browse our night-black lawn. Against that darkness, their bodies show ashen, ghostly, elegant.

Our children are all grown and gone. And yet in this moment their distance feels slight. No longer are we at the exact center of a family constellation, but even so –or is it therefore?– we still know this thing we crudely call joy.

Of course, as one who always longs for the freshest and rarest expression of feeling he can muster, I might easily wince at so paltry and common a noun as that – joy indeed! if I didn’t find this a time, precisely, for rhetorical failure, no words quite apt for what shimmers out there above any one person’s construals of meaning.

—Sydney Lea


Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

The essays published here will appear in a collection forthcoming this spring by Green Writers Press.


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 (


(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


Feb 082015

Lawrence Sutin


I hate this question because it admits of many answers that each have some sense, if not certainty, to offer.

There are persons who feel that it’s morbid to think about it, a hindrance to engagement with life. There are persons who feel the exact opposite—there always are, on any question, and we as a species could do better at seeing this as a sign of hope rather than a signal for war—and pointedly face their fear of mortality, become devoted to risky behaviors from climbing mountains to snorting coke because you’re going to die anyway, deal with it by using the fear for what it’s good for, fuel. There are persons who have had their dearly loved ones die and their answer is that there’s no hope of their ever thinking about anything else. Others see death as cosmic drama—the gateway to eternal salvation, damnation or reincarnation. Others look forward to death because they’re convinced it’s lights- out oblivion, a blissful rest from life. Still others say that we’re all dead already and just don’t know it, the afterlife is here and now and you can call it heaven, hell, the bardo, the liminal, the astral, the timeless dream in which the universe become us and us it. A sizable subgroup avoids thinking of their own deaths but relishes thinking of the deaths of those they hate.

All of these views are thoughts I’ve had, but none of them quite answer the question I’ve posed with its focus on when. No one would seriously hold that any person who has come of age could manage never to think about death, so we all would agree that we have to think about it sometimes. To what standard shall we set our mental clocks so that we might devote ourselves efficiently to the task? But what do I mean by efficient and what has it to do with when? I mean by efficient that sort of thinking—and I include feeling as a particularly wrenching sort of thinking—that enables us to live well with the knowledge of death. Now, as just what so enables us is intertwined with our time of life, we return to when as the crucial point. When? For how long and how often? And should it ever stop?

By seeing the complexity of the question I am trying to spare myself the problem of answering it. The complexity itself is the answer, I could say. As few of us know when we are going to die and those few—the terminal and the condemned—who do know are likely to think of death without wondering if they’ve found the proper time, that leaves the feckless majority of us not knowing or wishing to know when we will die and not knowing when we should start or stop thinking about it.

But I think that many of us think about it incessantly without knowing we do, if not unconsciously than implicitly, and always with a mind to how we should spend the time we have, a sack of coins that seems never to empty when we are not thinking of death. Joy and boredom both make time burgeon. So we choose certain jobs, certain loves, even certain sorrows, because given the time we have we naturally choose what we can’t escape.

I recently visited my daughter Sarah in Seattle, where she is living with her fiancé–they are both in their early twenties–and wondering where their lives might best lead. When she goes about her day she sometimes has to drive over Lake Union upon the venerable, girded and cantilevered Aurora Bridge—six tight lanes of two-way traffic with no central barriers to take the brunt if a driver happens to wander into the opposite flow.   One spacy swerve in any of the lanes of the Aurora Bridge—on which if you head south will lead you to the Pacific Highway and ultimately all the way to Mexico—when traffic is moderate or heavy which is every day and cars would crush each other one by one for hundreds of yards. I should add that, since its construction in 1932, it has been a favored site for suicides—over 230, second amongst U. S. bridges only to the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

But the old Aurora Bridge with its rattling compression can make you think about death even if you hope to stay alive. That’s the effect it has on my daughter Sarah, who would avoid the Aurora if she could, but given the algae-like spread of the Seattle streets the lost time she put into avoidance would haunt her as the silly cost of fearing to think about death. Sarah does not want to be driven by fear and so she drives the Aurora and does her time thinking.

I have gone along with her on this ride—it’s just the two of us—expressly to watch her and talk with her as she makes the crossing. She’s material to keep my hand moving over this page you now read. She has my brown curly hair only lots more of it. She also has my penchant for anxiety and I would not have wished that for her. I ask how this bridge-drive is impacting her and she says she has to concentrate on her driving to keep her nerves from setting her on fire.

Does she think there is life after death? She does not. What she wants when she is dying is to be able to say that there is nothing left to be done, her design projects completed, her loved ones protected. But she acknowledges the paradox that, were someone she loved dying, a solace to her would be if they would ask her to do something yet unfinished for them. That would take her out of missing them for the time it took to do it.

Suicide?   She doesn’t want to commit it. I breathe again. But in her young crowd the question of preferred method comes up now and then—it’s their way of thinking of death, I’m guessing, with the fantasy of control over their own demise without yet having undergone the agony that makes you yearn for an end—and she felt she needed to come up with an answer. Helium seemed to be easy as such things went. All the while Sarah’s face is serious, her espresso eyes fixed and galactic, the mask of a goddess of life and of death who has no choice but to dwell and rule in both realms.

How afraid are you of death? How often do you think of it when you’re not on this goddamned bridge? Finally I put these questions point-blank and she senses my fear along with hers. She says she tries not to think about it but she does, not a lot, but it never goes far away, she doesn’t think it does for most people.

We have crossed the Aurora Bridge and I am now far more unsettled than Sarah because, at my bidding, my daughter has talked about death to me and I feel I have spurred her to show fear that I wanted to see for the tawdry sake of answering the question of when. But I don’t want Sarah to have any fear of death, none. I want her to be free from every mental crevasse I have fallen into, death’s certainty being an especially deep one. I also don’t want to lie to her when she reads this by hiding the fact that I often imagine happily a future world in which she is vibrant and I am gone. I meditate to accept impermanence but I pray that Sarah’s death will come after I’m gone. I would love it if we could see each other in the afterdeath realm or reincarnate as puppies in the same litter, but I suspect what will ensue is a chain of genetics that will dance through descendants as it has through us. And all of them will think about death and none of them solely when they chose.

So the answer to when might as well be never once you’ve thought about it hard. How else to avoid crossing lanes by recalling we’re tiny sacs of life knocking about without and within, a car or a heart valve could veer and kill us. Our souls would have no idea if they were staying or going as death happened, they would have expected us to have thought about that but we haven’t, not clearly, nothing we have ever thought about seems to answer to this death we will find ourselves dying when there is still a great deal to do and our loved ones need us, loved ones always do. Think of them and not death while you can.

—Lawrence Sutin

Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West.  In addition, his erasure books can be seen at  He teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Feb 072015






In comments made aboard the papal plane en route to the Philippines in early January, Pope Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks. According to the AP, he defended “free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good,” and he condemned the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Such horrific violence “in God’s name,” far from being justified, was an “aberration” of religion. In fact, he said, “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity.” Perhaps; but we also know that, absurd or not, killing in the name of God accounts for many of the more irrational streams of blood staining what Hegel famously called the “slaughter-bench” of history.

Francis is aware of the paradox. His very insistence that when it comes to religion “there are limits to free expression,” anticipates his overt conclusion that a “reaction of some sort” to the Muhammad cartoons was “to be expected.” If not inevitable, a response was hardly unlikely. Most Muslims consider any representation of Muhammad, even the most benign, image-worshiping and therefore blasphemous. And radicalized Islamists, a small but virulent minority of Muslims, have demonstrated a willingness to resort to violence when they feel their Prophet has been offended. The pope was not speaking ex cathedra, not pronouncing authoritatively on faith and morals. Still, he was talking about “faith,” insisting that it must never be ridiculed. “You cannot,” he declared, “insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Though these “Shalt Nots” go too far for some, many will be inclined to agree with the pope. In a gentler world I would myself. But this is decidedly not that world.


This seems counter-intuitive. Surely in the post-9/11 world, a world in which the blood-dimmed tide of theological passion has been loosed, it would make all the more sense not to intensify those passions. One strand of the Enlightenment interprets free speech as universal tolerance, including the acceptance of everyone’s right to practice his or her own religion on its own terms, with its own codes and beliefs. But another strand of the Enlightenment—reflecting the same reaction to the preceding century or more of religious conflict, obscurantism, and superstition—is radically secular, and therefore more likely to be dismissive than tolerant of religion in general, especially those creeds whose adherents cling to what seem to secularists atavistic mores—which is to say, counter-Enlightenment values.

That’s our Enlightenment, of course: European and then transatlantic. But, as everybody knows or else should know, Islam had its own sustained enlightenment. During that 500-year period, a unique Islamic culture flourished, while, simultaneously, Muslim scholars became the saviors and conduits of much of Greek philosophy, literature, and science: a rich deposit that eventually resulted in the European Renaissance. The Islamic Golden Age, beginning in the Abbasid caliphate of the great Harun-al-Rashid (789-809) and stretching beyond the 13th century, occurred during a half-millennium when Europe was mired in what, at least in comparison with contemporaneous Muslim culture, actually were the fabled “Dark Ages.” Benjamin Disraeli once squelched in Parliament an Irish MP who had alluded to the Prime Minister’s Jewish heritage by reminding the unfortunate Celt that while “the honorable gentleman’s ancestors were living in caves and painting their bodies blue, mine were high priests in the Temple of Solomon.” Disraeli’s contrast might be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the contrast between European and Muslim civilization between, say, the 8th and the 12th centuries.

But that Golden Age of Islam is long past, replaced by a post-colonial world of vast petro-wealth for the few and abject poverty for the many. The current Muslim Middle East is beset by fundamentalist versions of Islam, protracted violence, widespread illiteracy, lack of opportunity, and the growing sense of parents that neither they, nor their children nor their grandchildren, are likely to develop the skills required to function in a modern global economy. Their region is multiply afflicted by authoritarian despotism in the oil-rich states; sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia; tribal and civil chaos; and the rise of ever-more zealous and brutal jihadists, with ISIS in particular now trying to slaughter and terrorize its way to a grotesquely distorted version of the long-lost Abbasid caliphate.

Western secularists understand, may even admire, Muslim rejection of our often sordid materialistic culture. But from the perspective of enlightened reason, fatwas and jihad are another matter. Bans on images of the Prophet can fall into the same dubious category. Such prohibitions, even if they seem excessive, are understandable to most Western observers. This likely majority would include believers, who, having their own religious faith, have no wish to insult an article of Muslim faith. It would also include secularists committed to the thread of Enlightenment thought that stresses tolerance and a respect for the beliefs of others, even those we may consider idiosyncratic.

There are, however, secular defenders of free speech for whom these prohibitions regarding images of the Prophet become intolerable when reinforced by the threat of violence. That is the camp in which I find myself, awkwardly caught on the horns of a dilemma. How can those of us defending freedom of expression in the name of secular values avoid falling into a binary opposition pitting “us” against “them? Yet what are we to do if our response to Islamist terrorism is to insist, in this matter of banned images, that our secular faith in freedom of thought and expression requires us to insult the religious beliefs not only of Islamist fanatics but of virtually all Muslims? There is no easy answer, and perhaps no middle ground, for those of us who might wish, in the name of amity and mutual respect, to honor such a ban, but resist being bullied into it by the threat of violence and death if we do not.



Pope Francis, though adamant in condemning violence in the name of religion, advocates tolerance and respect for the “faith of others,” both as an intrinsic value and because he is the world leader of a faith he also wishes to see respected by others. One reason his recent comments received such worldwide attention is that, quite aside from being, for Catholics, the Vicar of Christ, this charismatic pope has quickly become a popular celebrity in the secular world. As such, it might be argued, his observations to intimates on a plane should be taken as just another instance of the unscripted utterances that have charmed those who share this remarkably informal pope’s vision of a less pompous pontificate—though these same spontaneous observations unnerve the Vatican Curia and send church officials scurrying to preempt any potential fallout. Forget it. Given Francis’ immense personal appeal and his spiritual prestige as pope, his comments cannot be reduced, as they were the day after by a Vatican PR spokesman, to merely “casual remarks.” His utterances all carry significant weight.

The troubling aspect of his remarks on the plane—for those who were troubled—had to do not only with those “cannots” regarding religion, but with the immediate political context in which they were pronounced. I applaud his effort to bring together rather than divide. But to condemn, as Francis did on this occasion, “insults” or “fun” directed at “faith” suggests—in the context of the politically and religiously motivated slaughter of cartoonists who did not share that reticence—a partial misreading of events, and of the issues at stake. Some, even admirers of this pope, of whom I am one, have been disturbed by what struck us as a less than full-throated condemnation of religiously-inspired violence, even if the killings in Paris represent, as they do, an “aberration of religion,” in this case, of Islam.

In his remarks on the plane, the pope—reaching out, as always, to what he calls “the peripheries”—was advocating tolerance and mutual respect rather than engaging in a debate about freedom of speech. The complicating factor, as recently noted by Timothy Garton Ash—Isaiah Berlin Fellow at Oxford and leader of the Oxford-based Free Speech Debate project—is that in our contemporary world, a world where writers and cartoonists can be murdered for engaging in religious satire, “the argument for ‘respect’ is so uncomfortably intertwined with fear of the assassin’s veto.” But there may be safety in anonymity. Writing on January 22, Ash proposed, as a way of “Defying the Assassin’s Veto” (New York Review of Books, February 19, 2015), the establishment of a “safe haven”: a website “specifically dedicated to republishing and making accessible to the widest readership offensive images that are of genuine news interest, but which, for a variety of reasons, many journals, online platforms, and broadcasters would hesitate to publish on their own.”

Fully aware of the “no-holds-barred French genre of caricature as practiced by Charlie Hebdo,” Ash does not expect widespread endorsement of the often grossly outrageous satirical attacks the magazine has long launched against a wide spectrum of religious and political figures. Nor does he glibly charge with “cowardice” those editors around the world who, dealing with genuinely difficult choices, elected not to republish the Charlie Muhammad cartoons. But he does applaud Nick Cohen’s refreshingly frank observation, made during a panel discussion at The Guardian (which did not reprint the original cartoons though it did publish, a week later, Charlie Hebdo’s memorial cover, depicting a weeping Muhammad saying “all is forgiven”). Cohen said: “If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say that. The most effective form of censorship is one that nobody admits exists.” As if in response, the Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote the following day, “I am not Charlie, I am not brave enough.”

“I am not Charlie” prose quickly became, as Ash remarks, a “subgenre.” In his January 9 NY Times column, “Why I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” conservative commentator David Brooks made several characteristically sensible points; but not, it seems to me, when it came to what he thought the “motivation” behind the French people’s “lionizing” of Charlie Hebdo. The mass response in Paris and elsewhere had to do, not so much with approval of the offending cartoons; nor even with approval of Charlie Hebdo’s laudable exposure (one of the traditional targets of satire in Rabelais, Molière and Voltaire) of the use and abuse of religion by hypocrites and fanatics. The marchers were “motivated” by a felt need to defend freedom of expression, to champion liberté, rightly seen as under direct assault by the forces of ignorance, religious bigotry, and militant fanaticism.

The perspective of the pope, as of David Brooks, seems to be shared by most media outlets, which had, until recently, refused to reproduce the “inflammatory” cartoons for the general public. True; free speech is not unlimited. There are considerations of sensitivity, respect for the feelings or beliefs of others. And there is the question of public safety: one mustn’t, to cite the usual cliché, shout “fire” in a crowded theater. In addition, especially in the U. S., many—left, right and center—are quite willing to sacrifice freedom of expression when it comes to voices they disagree with, ranging from speech codes on campuses and college committees disinviting controversial speakers, to attempts to ban flag-burning. And, to cite an example mingling outrage, bias, politics, and self-censorship, there is about as much chance of hearing a favorable word about Israeli policy in the UN General Assembly as there is of hearing a disparaging one in the U. S. Congress.

The crucial question posed by the onboard remarks of Pope Francis has to do with his specific defense of religion set in the specific context of a contemporary world threatened, not by Islam, but by radicalized Islamists ardent to participate—as organized terrorists, as affiliates of al Qaeda and its various offshoots, or as lone wolves—in some form of jihad. Religion’s defense of itself against freedom of speech is nothing new, as attested to by the pitiless but pious burning of “heretics” at the stake; the cherum (ritual of expulsion) pronounced against the noble Spinoza, cursed, damned and driven from his synagogue; the imprisonment of writers and thinkers charged with “blasphemy.” The old lethality resurfaced dramatically in 1989. In the year the Soviet Empire collapsed (fittingly, the 200th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution), Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the irreverent (but brilliant and very funny) chapter on Muhammad’s wives in his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses.

Though they joined in deploring the death-sentence against the author, the Vatican of John Paul II, the archbishop of New York (John Cardinal O’Connor), the archbishop of Canterbury, and the principal Sephardic rabbi of Israel also united in taking a stand against “blasphemy.” Pope Francis, not given to dogmatic pronouncements, did not use the word “blasphemy.” But, like Francis now, all these leaders insisted in 1989 that “there is a limit to free expression” when it comes to religion. I may seem to be having it both ways: acknowledging that Francis did not refer to “blasphemy” and at the same time making him guilty by association with those who have employed this term. Not quite.

But the pope does seem to me guilty of mixing messages and muddying the waters by using the occasion of the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo to inform us all that we must always be respectful, and “never make fun” of anyone’s “faith,” at the very moment he is also telling us (listen up, ye cartoonists and satirists!) that we and they have to “expect” retaliation of some sort when we violate that taboo. The pope was speaking off-the-cuff and with the best intentions. Nevertheless, this is a taboo he shares, in however benign a form, with most orthodox Muslims and, alas, with Islamist terrorists. In a more formal imprimatur of the “casual” assertion of Francis that “you cannot insult” or “make fun of the faith of others,” there has been a recent joint declaration by leading imams and the Vatican strongly urging the media to “treat religions with respect.”

That may seem reasonable and civilized, but in our particular historical-political context, such respect, normally to be encouraged and embraced, presents a threat to both reason and civilization. Conscious of the secular challenge to Christianity as well as to Islam, but fully realizing that a robust defense of freedom of expression (in practice rather than mere theory) virtually requires secularists to risk insulting Muslims, Pope Francis insists that religion must invariably be treated with respect. Like Timothy Garton Ash, I attribute the self-censorship seen in most media around the world less to a decent respect for the faith of others than to fear of violent retaliation. Despite the polarization it simultaneously reflects and intensifies, my own position, succinctly stated, comes down to this: a conviction that it’s precisely the threat of terrorism that makes it incumbent on the West to refuse to sacrifice its deepest value, freedom, to uncritically “respecting” religion—especially when the particular religion in question seeks to blackmail the rest of the world into “respecting” (under some “only-to-be-expected” threat of death) its own ban on images of the Prophet. That prohibition derives, by the way, not from the Qur’an, but from the Hadith, posthumous tales of Muhammad’s life. Ironically enough, Muslim scholars often cite a passage in the Hebrew Bible in which Abraham (whose father, Terah, was a manufacturer of idols) declares the worship of “images” a manifest “error.” The further irony is that the Islamic ban, intended to discourage the worship of idols, has turned the prohibited images, these absent presences, into another and potentially lethal form of idolatry.



Current Muslim resentment and, in its most toxic form, Islamist terrorism, have been fueled by Western colonialism and, more recently, by U. S. military intervention in the Middle East. The colonialist legacy has been, for the most part, unambiguously negative, culturally and politically. In economic terms, the victims of colonialism had imposed upon them an imported labor market management model that encouraged a race to the bottom in pursuit of comparative advantage in cheap labor. Through conquest, and with the strokes of various pens, Western colonialism created states that were less “nations” than multi-cultural entities, subject to authoritarian despots in varying degrees initially subservient to Western interests: kings and shahs and presidents-for-life propped up by the oil-thirsty West, and who, even when they asserted their independence, tended to brutally oppress their own people. In several Middle Eastern states, people ripe for revolution rose up in the exhilarating but tragically short-lived Arab Spring. That revolution, like so many others (notably including the great French Revolution itself), consumed its own idealistic children, and what emerged, or re-emerged, was military dictatorship, Islamic extremism, and another wave of emigration from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. And some of those immigrants, especially but not only in France, became a fifth column: poor, unassimilated, embittered, and therefore susceptible to the siren call to jihad. From their ranks came the killers who lashed out at the “blasphemous” cartoonists in Paris.

In a Le Moyne College open discussion of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, four faculty presenters explored “issues behind and exposed by the murders,” murders “no one could accept.” As the organizer, history professor Bruce Erickson, rightly insisted: “we do not defend the terrorists, or justify the murderers, or reject the Enlightenment, if we ask questions about how to integrate the multi-cultural world and nations that we created through colonialism.” Though most Muslim immigrants to the United States have assimilated well, many living in France and other Western European countries have not, some choosing to self-segregate. Though the “no-go zones,” alleged Muslim enclaves governing themselves under Sharia law, turned out to be a myth, subsequently recanted by its perpetuators at Fox News, this hardly diminishes the problem, nor does it sever the connection between the colonialist past and the terrorist present. The French failure to integrate the children and grandchildren of immigrants generated just the sort of recruits who became the murderers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

As an explanation of Islamic radicalism, these recent colonial developments, though crucial, may be more symptomatic than causal. The deep roots of jihad (whether interpreted as internal struggle or as external battle against the infidel) are to be found in the “sword-passages” of the Qur’an; and the historical expansion of Islamic extremism came with the transformation of large elements of a once relatively open and intellectually dynamic faith, the Islam of the Golden Age, into puritanical sects—primarily but not exclusively Wahhabism. That, of course, is the narrow-minded brand of Islam (a main source as well of much of the treatment of women and gays deplored in the West) globally disseminated through madrassas funded primarily by our “moderate” friend and supposed ally in the region, oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

To trace Islamic radicalization exclusively to Western provocations would be to “infantilize” Muslims, to hold them utterly blameless for their own actions. In saying that past European colonialism and more recent U.S. intervention have “fueled” Muslim resentment, my point (to flesh out the metaphor) is that these Western phenomena have fed, fanned, and intensified the flames of radicalization and reactionary terrorism. Hardly a complete explanation, let alone an excuse, for Islamist extremism, the impact of this history seems incontrovertible. I have already referred to the cumulative, corrosive legacy of the old colonialism; but here are examples of obvious Islamic reaction to Western provocations.

The original Muslim Brotherhood was reacting to colonialist secularization in Egypt. The Iranian theocracy established in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomeini sealed the revolution against the secularist Shah, installed in 1953, after the coup against the legitimately-elected Mossadegh government: a coup engineered by petroleum-protecting British Intelligence, and orchestrated with a reluctant but still complicit American CIA. Osama bin Laden founded al Qaeda in reaction to the presence of U. S. troops in “holy” Arabia in preparation for the first (for many of us, the “justifiable”) Gulf War. And over the past decade and a half thousands of jihadists have specifically attributed their radicalization to U.S actions, whether in actual conflict and the carrying out of drone strikes, or in response to the pointless atrocities of Abu Ghraib and to the more systematic employment of torture in CIA “black sites.” The al Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11 preceded the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but came after our first Gulf War. And jihadism intensified and metastasized in the wake of our duplicitous, inept, and counterproductive 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld has proven to be prophetic. In one of his myriad “snowflake” memos, the then Secretary of Defense feared that we “might generate more terrorists than we could kill.”

Given the role of the West in, not creating, but certainly exacerbating, Islamic extremism, it is worth noting that the ban on images of the Prophet intensified during the early period of European colonization when Muslims were most anxious to differentiate their religion from “image-worshiping” Christianity. The prohibition is particularly stressed by Saudi Wahhabism and Iran’s clerical theocracy. Because of the impact of these most puritanical forms of Islam, what is for most Muslims anti-iconic “respect” becomes, for many of us in the West, an idiosyncratic, irrational, regressive, and intolerant shibboleth regarding “images of the Prophet.” And yet it is a ban we are to “respect,” not on the moral grounds of sensitivity to the beliefs of others, but under compulsion: the “assassin’s veto,” the clear and present danger of retribution, including fatwa and death.

Many, probably most, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus wish to be respectful of the beliefs of others and tolerant of difference. When the stakes are as high as they are now, however, this misplaced “tolerance” gives at least the appearance of justifying ignorance and barbarism by labeling religion’s satirists disrespectful, for some, blasphemous. With the advent of contemporary Islamist extremism, the old tensions between the religious and the secular and between freedom and limitation of expression have taken on a new urgency, becoming, literally, matters of life and death. Making fun of faith can put you in the grave.

The pope’s point about predictable retaliation, given the history of the past few decades, is non-controversial. But instead of stating the obvious, that some sort of reaction was “to be expected,” he ought to have questioned how things have come to this pass. Such a discussion would have included the background (Western colonialism), but should also have made it clear that, whatever the oppressive historical circumstances in which it evolved and to which it is reacting, Islamist extremism in its current militant form deserves to be criticized, and needs to be resisted. However flawed the West may be, civilization is preferable to barbarism.

Of course, resisting religious extremism can produce, as unthinking backlash, its own form of religious extremism. To shift from the charge that criticism of religion is “blasphemous,” consider the following manifestation of religious fanaticism, this time Christian, from a Fox News radio host and Fox News TV “contributor.” In recently attacking critics of the box-office blockbuster American Sniper, dramatizing the 160-kill exploits of sharpshooter Chris Kyle in Iraq, Todd Starnes announced that “Jesus would love” the film and would personally thank snipers for dispatching “godless” Muslims to the “lake of fire.”[1]

Far from invoking Jesus to justify violence against Muslims, Pope Francis called for “respect” toward Islam, and, indeed, all religions. In defending religion, theirs and others, from criticism, some Christian and Jewish leaders have invoked the specter of “blasphemy.” To his credit, as earlier mentioned, Francis did not employ that incendiary term, and he was right to refrain. Rather than join them in leveling the charge, we should leave such labeling to the thoughtless defenders of their particular faith, to God-and-country jingoists and to Islamist fanatics.


It’s not necessary to applaud the often scurrilous Charlie Hebdo cartoons in order to defend the cartoonists’ freedom of expression. Unlike American satire (aside from two of its greatest practitioners, Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken), French satire has a long history of being anti-religious and anti-clerical, as well as being offensive—savagely and equally—across the board, skewering every sacred cow in sight. French satire, like the French state itself, is fiercely secular, as is most of post-World War II Western Europe. This is precisely why the previous pope, the conservative Benedict XVI, was so determined to re-Christianize Western Europe. And this is why the French people and their leaders came out in such numbers in the immediate aftermath of the lethal assault on Charlie Hebdo. Aside from expressing outrage against these particular religiously-inspired murders and this specific assault on free speech, the French marchers were defending their twin, and notably secular, heritages: the Enlightenment and the Revolution—at least the Idea of the Revolution, stain-free, the bloody guillotines of the Jacobin Terror conveniently repressed.

But despite the heartening response in the streets of Paris and elsewhere, rallying in support of Charlie Hebdo (like many others, I wondered where President Obama was, or at least Biden or Kerry), the Islamists have already won to the extent that almost everybody else in the world was, at least initially, too “terrified” to even reproduce the Charlie Muhammad cartoons—just as they were too afraid of violent retaliation to reproduce the famous “Danish cartoons” in 2005. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale about the threat of lethal violence. Though many Danish papers republished the Charlie Hebdo images, they were, significantly, not reproduced in Jyllands-Posten, where the original “Danish cartoons” had appeared. Citing the paper’s “unique position,” and concerned for employees’ safety, the paper’s foreign editor, Flemmings Rose—hardly a coward, indeed, the very man who had commissioned those Muhammad cartoons a decade earlier—candidly admitted to the BBC: “We caved in,” adding that “Violence works,” and that “sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.” One understands his caution, and the dangerous alternative. But there is an even greater danger in surrendering the pen to the sword. Islamists, whose preferred method of terrifying infidels and recruiting fresh jihadists is the publicly exhibited decapitation of prisoners (or, most recently, burning them alive), may, paradoxically, have made it necessary to be religiously offensive in order to defend the Western concept of freedom, now faced with a challenge as theocratic as it is political.

Not showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or labeling them offensive, insulting, or, worse yet, “blasphemous,” is no longer simply a matter of “good taste” or “respect for others.” In the context of a growing threat by Islamist extremists—ranging from self-appointed jihadists to organized armed forces aiming to establish by the sword a new Islamic caliphate—such normally laudable sensitivity becomes, instead, a caving-in to intimidation by fanatics. The momentarily most ruthless of them (ISIS or ISIL) is determined, in God’s name (Allahu akbar!), not only to forcibly install an “Islamic State” in the heart of the Middle East, but to repeal the Enlightenment and the modern world.



One can make nuanced arguments against both the Enlightenment and modernity, but NOT when the alternatives are irrationality, atavism, and—for unbelieving secularists—superstition. In the end, in the view of skeptics, the leaders of organized religions, Francis included, are in the business of defending their vested interests, their own particular accumulations of doctrine, tradition, and (for agnostics and atheists) “superstition.” But believers who are not fanatics have a particular responsibility to be unequivocal in condemning religious fanaticism.

No one in the world is better positioned to do so than this deservedly popular pope. The emphases and values that dominate his papacy were forged in the 1970s. When, in 1973, Jorge Bergogli became Provincial Superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he distanced himself from a Catholic hierarchy that had acquiesced in the brutal repression by the military junta; intensified his compassionate and Jesuit commitment to the poor; and, while avoiding direct confrontation of the military regime, struggled (in the words of Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge) “to reconcile the demands of justice and compassion for those suffering atrocity with the need to preserve the order’s institutions and mission and to save Jesuit lives” (the later accusation that he betrayed politically radical Jesuits to the junta is baseless slander). As cardinal, he exercised the same wise leadership and again stressed compassionate concern for the poor.[2]

As pope, taking his name from Francis of Assisi (a notably humble saint cherished for his protective love of the earth and of animals, and for his ministry to the poor), the former provincial and cardinal has, true to both his Jesuit heritage and to the spirit of his chosen name, continued his own focus on the poor and wretched of the earth. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, on the joy and true meaning of the gospel, he pointedly denounced, to the annoyance of many conservatives, the “economics of exclusion.” He has also emphasized the dangers to the environment presented by global climate change, and even speculated that there might be a place in heaven for animals: a charming thought of which the original Francis might approve, but which doctrinally-concerned Vatican spokesmen felt the need to quickly walk back. In his first Holy Week as pope, Francis performed the solemn Maundy Thursday foot-washing ceremony not, as usual, in the Lateran Basilica but in an institution housing young offenders. He washed and kissed the feet of a dozen prisoners, one of them (though this was, traditionally, a males-only ritual) a Muslim woman, a gesture that, as Eamon Duffy notes, “predictably scandalized the liturgists and canon lawyers.”

As practiced by this pope, the imitatio Christi, following the example of Jesus, differs from the emphasis of sin-obsessed Augustine, and even from the focus on the interior life and withdrawal from the world of Thomas à Kempis in his 15th-century devotional book Imitatio Christi. This Francis follows his namesake, stressing the path of Jesus, born in a manger, preaching to the poor, practicing humility. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, who tended to treat opposition as “dissent,” Francis has been humble and conciliar in conducting meetings, encouraging a frank expression of views. In opening the Synod on the Family in October 2014, he told the bishops that, in discussing what were certain to be controversial issues, no one should be silent or conceal his true opinion, “perhaps believing that the Pope might think something else.” During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, deviation from the official line had courted reprimand, even removal. Thus, as Eamon Duffy emphasizes: “For a pope to encourage fearless public outspokenness among the bishops was a startling novelty.” [3]

Given that attitude, one might have expected, if not quite “encouragement,” at least greater “respect” for the “fearless public outspokenness” exhibited by the massacred Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. At the very least, the pope, a remarkably empathetic man pastorally sensitive to suffering, might have displayed greater tact by mourning the dead a bit longer, before admonishing us, with the bodies not yet buried, to always “respect” religion and never “make fun of the faith of others.”

But here, the admirable Francis fell short. At least as viewed from the perspective of a secularist committed to virtually uninhibited freedom of expression—not least when it comes to religion. But that is not the only perspective, and not—as is hardly necessary to add—one shared by Francis. As pope, he is necessarily a man to double business bound, at once a condemner of violence and a defender of religion—any religion, since, in his view, none deserves to be insulted. That includes, of course, his own religion. Just as he had protected the Argentinian Jesuits in his care in the 1970s, so it is his duty now, though a reformer critical of some of its salient shortcomings, to protect the church as a whole.

On that papal plane, in responding to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and to the retaliatory murders that followed, Francis was talking common sense, decency, civility, and mutual respect. That’s all to the good. In a chaotic world of already inflamed religious-political passions, his intention was obviously to condemn the murders in Paris without adding fuel to the fire. But his equanimity was not altogether disinterested. In asserting his own ban—“You cannot make fun of the faith of others”—the pope was also defending the Company Store: the Roman Catholic branch of a global theological enterprise. In that sense, and to that extent, he was aligning himself, not with the massacred humorists, but with their murderers: fanatics who had killed the cartoonists precisely for “making fun” of the fanatics’ own distorted version of Islam.

Like politics, theology can make strange bedfellows. But far more than this momentary convergence of interests would be required to bridge the moral abyss stretching between Pope Francis and murderers. That would be especially true of murderers who violate his own deeply-held conviction that “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity. ” For him, what happened in Paris was the commission of a supposedly religious act that is, in fact, an “aberration” of the religion and of most of the teachings of the Prophet in whose name they claim to act.


Though I learned from the previously-mentioned Le Moyne open forum on the roots of, and responses to, the Charlie Ebdo murders, this essay was originally generated by a casual but serious email exchange with three friends, all Le Moyne graduates: Scott, Jack, and Markus. Some reservations of the latter about the initial draft were incorporated in the revised version. My thanks: to Jack in general, and, on this particular occasion, to Scott, for sending along the AP item that started us off. I’m particularly grateful to Markus, for critically reading the first draft and helping to sharpen and clarify my thoughts, not all of which he will endorse. The same is true of Bruce Erickson, the organizer of the Le Moyne forum, who, along with the four faculty presenters, enriched my understanding. Bruce also responded to my penultimate draft, thoughtfully, graciously, and productively challenging my position.

—Patrick J. Keane

January/ February 2015


Patrick J Keane smaller

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


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I have two problems with the well-made American Sniper, one political, one cinematic. Once we are in Iraq, we see Chris Kyle skillfully picking off targets, all of whom, he is certain, are “terrorists” and (as described in his book) “savages.” They were enemies, and in killing 160 of them, Chris Kyle saved the lives of countless American troops; he is a “hero.” Yet many of those he killed do not fit into either of Chris’s categories. But back up: how do we get to Iraq? That political quandary is solved by cinematic legerdemain. In an early domestic scene, Chris and his wife are watching on TV the collapse of the smoldering Twin Towers. A sudden cut, and we are instantly transported to combat, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq! The effect, intentional or not on Clint Eastwood’s part, is to “fuel” (there’s that verb again) or, rather, refuel, the myth (peddled above all by Dick Cheney) that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in 9/11 and was also harboring al Qaeda. In short, the invasion of Iraq, whatever our fears about WMD, is still being sold to a gullible or manipulated public as justified retaliation for 9/11. If it’s good enough for a hero like Chris, it should be good enough for us.
  2. Duffy, “Who is the Pope?” New York Review of Books (February 19, 2015), p. 12.
  3. The most celebrated demotion by Francis has been that of Raymond Cardinal Burke, removed as head of the church’s supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura. A conservative American traditionalist and harsh critic of the “confusing” doctrinal views of the new pope, Burke had been especially “outspoken” at the Synod on the Family, and had certainly violated protocol in describing the church under Francis as “a ship without a rudder.” But he may have been sent off to a largely ceremonial post in Malta at least as much for a sartorial extravagance utterly alien to the humble spirit of this papacy. Though it was long out of favor, even before the advent of Francis, Burke habitually sported the capa magna, a twenty-foot-long train of scarlet watered silk.
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:



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.

Jan 092015

Photo by Egle Oddo, 2013.

‘This is a flag about unspoken voices”:
Nathalie Bikoro at the Pitt Rivers Museum


Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro chooses a place in Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford, England) to sew a flag. She constructs this object from pieces of Dutch Wax fabric, of various colours and designs, sewn together with needle and thread. The meaning of the Dutch Wax fabric Bikoro selects (deliberately and carefully) has already been made visible in the work of Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA).  The cloth, a colonial invention, that came to be equated with Africanness, calls into question the authenticity of objects, and their historical, political and cultural entanglements. First produced in Dutch Indonesia, and then later manufactured in Britain, Dutch Wax was sold in West Africa and came to be equated with African identities (both within the African continent and in Britain). In Bikoro’s performance, the cloth also has personal importance and invokes family memories and narratives, particularly those of her grandmother:  “This kind of cloth made in the Netherlands and India were given as a gift to African countries. My grandmother used to say: ‘What gift? They are asking us to wear what they want us to look like.’ She was excluded from her village in Gabon because she burned the dress that she was given.”[1]Bikoro’s grandmother gave her the cloths used in the performance at Pitt Rivers. She speaks of how her grandmother told her to burn them: “I like the metaphorical idea of burning the archive. Burning is a form of cannibalism. You are eating something, projecting something new, digesting something that is given to you and creating something else with it, to then state the voices that are untold and unheard.”[2]

IMG_2482Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Bikoro is a French-Gabonese contemporary artist currently based in Berlin. Her interdisciplinary practice explores the possibilities of international dialogues across continents and communities. A ten-year battle with Leukaemia during her childhood in Gabon, the Netherlands, and France informs the narratives and methods that underpin her work and her interest in developing educational collaborative community projects. Her PhD work encompasses philosophy, cultural politics, the arts in Africa and networks between Europe, Brazil and the African continent (including Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, South Africa, Senegal and Gabon). Bikoro’s work and her performance and live art practices have appeared internationally, including most recently, in November, at the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art (2014) in Toronto.

IMG_2519Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford, Bikoro makes a flag, not for the purposes of a specific country, geography or political affiliation but rather for the sake of her own memories, those of her ancestors, and those who wish to enter into a dialogue with her: “I am creating a flag to contest the idea of freedom. What gives you the freedom to say how I must look, how I should speak, what my voice is? What gives you the freedom to represent me as a flag with these colours?”[3] She places herself not in the centre of the museum but rather in an unassuming spot in one of the upper galleries where visitors might choose to engage with her or not. Bikoro’s action of sewing occurs not as spectacle but rather as though an ordinary, everyday activity. She rests the fabric with which she works on a glass cabinet filled with objects and their labels: these things are obscured as she assembles her flag from segments of cloth (some of which lie on the floor at her feet).

IMG_2569Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum is like time traveling: objects from weapons to jewellery are densely packed into cabinets of wood and glass or, in the absence of space, larger objects such as boat paddles are suspended from above. The museum was founded in 1884 to house in excess of 26,000 archaeological, ethnological and antiquarian objects which were given to the University of Oxford by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900).[4] The collection also includes objects transferred from Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History and the Ashmolean Museum, and was added to by its curators beginning with Henry Balfour: there are now thought to be about 50,000 objects on display and the collection, as a whole, consists of more than 300,000 objects (as well as a comparable number of field photographs, manuscripts and sound recordings).[5]

IMG_2486Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

The reverence with which museum objects are handled, conserved and displayed is obstructed as the artist re-imagines the museum cabinet as a surface upon which to sew. Her action appears as a private ritual performed within a public space. People, including myself, gather around her. As we watch her thread needle and cotton, and stitch the cloths together, deliberately disregarding precision and allowing for asymmetries and imperfections, we ask her questions which turn into conversations. There is no barrier between us and the artist as she works: we are invited into the space she produces and we stand around and talk and look.  Her performance animates the space of the museum and the objects in the glass cabinets the immobility of which render the lives which brought them into being opaque: “This comes from India. This comes from Africa. Africa is an invention. You can’t say this comes from Africa. It comes from a specific family, a specific place. These objects are also about colonial encounters and came about because of exchanges between different countries and people.”[6] Notions of invention, the fictive and the mythical are alive in the narratives embedded within the Dutch Wax fabric, and its circulation as commodity and locus of identity. The idea of invention is brought to life in the spoken exchanges with Bikoro which complicate the meanings of the objects in the cabinets, and the labels and systems which attempt to structure and contain how it is we experience them.

IMG_2515Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Bikoro’s action of sewing a flag enters into a dialogue with Pitt Rivers Museum from the perspective of her own history and subjectivity which she brings to its atmosphere, its aesthetic, and its curatorial approach. Across from her performance is an installation of film and sound. The event as a whole is titled Les Statues Meurent Aussi II a direct reference to the 1953 film Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die), directed by Chris Marker,  Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet. This film places the idea of the colonial collection, and the display of historical African art, under scrutiny and its opening credits acknowledge the support of institutions and individuals which include ‘Mr. le Colonel Pitt Rivers’.[7] Bikoro’s film installation (composed of two films projected onto two separate screens) appropriates footage from Les Statues Meurent Aussi aspects of which were filmed in General Pitt-Rivers’s’ private collection held at Farnham in Dorset.  The film was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953 and subsequently banned by the Centre National de la Cinématographie from 1953 to 1963 (despite being awarded the Prix Jean Vigo in 1954).[8] It was commissioned by Présence Africaine, a literary review and publishing house founded by the Senegalese writer and editor Alioune Diop, established in 1947.[9] Many of the most significant Francophone thinkers and writers on négritude  – including Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor – are associated with Présence Africaine. James Clifford reflects on Césaire’s négritude which, situated in relation to Caribbean history, presents the possibility of an ambiguity that ‘keeps the planet’s local futures uncertain and open’.[10] Clifford asserts that: The “Caribbean history from which Césaire derives an inventive and tactical “negritude” is a history of degradation, mimicry, violence and blocked possibilities.”[11] It is also he adds “rebellious, syncretic, and creative.”[12] He concludes: “There is no master narrative that can reconcile the tragic and comic plots of global cultural history.”[13] Bikoro’s practice is cogniscent of histories and discourses of colonial violence (and her own ancestral links to these) and she works to open up dialogues, with those who encounter her work, in a manner that is neither didactic nor oppositional. Her film installation deploys the devices of avant-garde film encompassing montage and multiple (apparently incongruous) narratives staged simultaneously. She deliberately disrupts linear, causal narration and an unfaltering faith in objectivity and empirical evidence: historical events are deliberately muddled and obscured and merged with the artist’s own memories and experiences (sound includes that of her baby’s beating heart).

IMG_2503Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Despite appearing frozen in time the museum embodies, albeit on the surface largely opaque, a number of museological approaches and histories. Jeremy Coote (Curator and Joint Head of Collections) narrates:  “It is not simple, unilinear history. The museum, the way it is now, has not just developed in a single line.”[14] The glass cases were manufactured and brought in at different times from the nineteenth through to the twentieth-first century, and until the 1960s the roof was glass: ‘The museum was full of light because it was all about rationality and enlightenment. This was about the scientific approach to understanding human technology’.[15] In the 1960s the glass roof was replaced because of the damage caused to organic objects by light. Also in the ‘60s the displays were considered old-fashioned and irrelevant to anthropology (the university wanted to move the museum out to another place). In the 1980s anthropologists again began working on art and material culture, and museums and representation: ‘People began to find positive value in the way the museum was. It preserved certain aspects of museological practice. It had a certain atmosphere. Gradually we have become aware that it is in part an aesthetic that we are preserving.’ [16]

To animate the objects in the museum, and to breathe life into them, requires acts of dialogue and performance. No object is ever really frozen in time or space, no museum display of glass, or descriptive label can immobilise meaning or the narratives, contingencies of time and history, and acts of imagination people bring to things. This is the importance of Bikoro’s performance, which is a political strategy alert to dialogue, conversation and the affective and subjective significance of sites of historical and cultural memory and exchange. As viewers, we see the film, hear the sound and watch the performance only for a short time and then it is over. It exists only in our memories fashioned by what we choose to remember or forget:  “I am sewing a wound, an old wound. This is a flag about unspoken voices.”

—Yvette Greslé

nathalie bikoro performanceNathalie Bikoro, ‘The Uncomfortable Truth’, live performance, November 2011, duration: 40 minutes. Curated by European Performance Art Festival, Warsaw (Poland). Documentation: courtesy of EPAF Warsaw and the artist.


Yvette Greslé

Yvette Greslé is an art historian and writer. She was born in Johannesburg, grew up in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles, and now lives and works in London. She is an editor at Minor Literature[s] founded by Fernando Sdrigotti and her blog ‘writing in relation’ represents the political issues and questions that propel her work forward as a whole. Yvette’s PhD research, based in History of Art at University College London, explores traumatic memory, historical events and video art by South African women artists. She is a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg and has written about contemporary art for publications in the UK, Europe and South Africa.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  2. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  3. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  4. Cootes, J. ‘Speaking for themselves’,, Pushing Boundaries, Spring 2011, Volume 16, Number 1, 22-23.
  5. Ibid. 22-23. I have also drawn from email conversations with Salma Caller (Education Officer, Adults, Secondary Schools and Communities at Pitt Rivers Museum), 10 and 28 November and 1 December 2014.
  6. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  7. Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Ghislain Cloquet, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, 1953) (
  8. Les Statues Meurent Aussi
  9. Les Statues Meurent Aussi
  10. Clifford, J. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Massachusetts and London: England, 1988), p.15.
  11. Ibid.p.15.
  12. Ibid.p.15.
  13. Ibid. p.15.
  14. Interview (Jeremy Coote and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  15. Interview (Jeremy Coote and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  16. Interview (Jeremy Coote and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.