Oct 072014
 

Samuel StoltonSamuel Stolton

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The most imprudent of all terms that can be applied to a work of art is to say that it has been ‘created.’ Such an affirmation suggests that a presence has been formed in a subjective totalization that affords one the ability to ‘create,’ undiscriminated by the status of previous forms. Perhaps this is why the terms ‘creator’ and ‘to create’ had no place in ancient Greek terminology. The ambiguous history of artistic creation relies on the discipline of ‘making,’ what the Greeks termed, poiesis. The operation of this act is dependent on a bifurcation between ‘presence’ and ‘materiality,’ representing a theoretical division delineated by ancient and modern conceptions of poiesis. In the following, I will examine how this conceptual junction animates the enterprise of ‘creation’ through ‘making’, in relating to an oscillating cycle of communicable ‘forth-bringing’, whilst I shall also identify how the magnificent authority of poiesis in presencing art, has the capability to actuate itself upon a universal transmissible communicability.

In order to castigate the capacious division between materiality and presence that so severely informs the art making process, my first course of action will be to trace the original contours that afford poiesis a viable agency in applying the distinction. For Plato, it is the “emotional force” that ‘making’ invokes by advocating a domain upon which we are in the “presence of an aesthetic experience.”[i] Such a communion is composed upon the act of producing an item, opposed to the modern conception of poiesis as reliant on the resonance that an item has in its final form. The modern conception was perpetuated, as William Watkin observes, by the nominalistic theories attributable to thinkers such as Nietzsche.[ii] This can be noticed in his concept of the Will to Power as Art, as a common purposiveness that bids the ‘will’ duty in creation, ex nihilo.[iii] The Will, driven by the force of supposed ontological functionalities, offers a direct path to the final presencing of a work. Nonetheless, subsequent thinkers such as Gianni Vattimo have appropriated Nietzsche’s ‘Will’, upon a more diluted theorisation, calling it, as Vattimo does, the pensiero debole – meaning “weak thought.”[iv] Vattimo’s postulations were met with wide criticism, his definition of weak thought as “a way to encounter being once more as trace, recall, a Being used up and weakened,” was judged as a detrimental outlook on the authoritative power of driving forces.[v] Nonetheless, in analysing the statement, a Being used up and weakened, it begs us to question how a ‘Being’ is firstly animated, and subsequently exhausted.

AgambenGiorgio Agamben

It is important here to review Agamben’s addressing of Plato’s conception of poiesis as a dramatization of form that serves to ‘bring something into existence that was not there before.”[vi] Agamben delineates the substance of existence by which poiesis dispenses its authority, relative to the availability of a pro-duction into presence. He speaks of the “energetic status of a work” receding amid art’s setting-up as an aestheticised model.[vii] The Heideggerian ‘being-at-work’ is “erased to make room for its characters as a stimulant of the aesthetic sentiment.”[viii] Subsequently, ‘making’s’ materialistic virtues are informed by the ‘stimulant’ of praxis, which is the action of doing, and techne, which represents, as Watkins observes, the “skilled knowing through doing.”[ix] Nevertheless, the operation of praxis in the modern age has become all too comfortably associated in applying an insurance that the “transformation of all human intentional activity” may profess to result into “some mode of making”;[x] a making that may very well achieve a state of existence, but nevertheless, in order to inject a certain ‘being,’ the participatory union of an active condition of ‘being’ is required; as such, it is possible for the ‘being’ of creative thought to legitimise the capabilities of a being-presence in art.

Experiments in the field of cognitive neuroscience have identified a functional correlation between brain activity and such creative-making ‘thought’. This has been realized in electroencephalographic (EEG) research that analyses the “quantification or task – or event-related (de)synchronization of brain activity,” resulting in what Andreas Fink has discovered to be, a “cortical idling phenomenon.”[xi] That is to say, in the experiment, Fink recognized that when a participant was presented with a task-orientated creative opportunity, and such an opportunity was acted on, this resulted in the “reduced or lower activity level of the brain [of which] is needed to produce novel, original ideas.”[xii] Is this in fact what Vattimo meant when he spoke of man’s ‘weak thought’? Vattimo’s term essentially concerns itself with the philosophical “dissolution of theory,”[xiii] relating to the withdrawal in theorizations of knowledge, that is episteme, and the subsequent emphasis on the technical aspects of craft, techne, that exemplify the postmodern persuasion in ‘making’ art. Episteme relates to the absolute knowledge as a theoretical imperative that has the propensity to inform the operation of techne, as Heidegger says, episteme is “knowing in the widest sense…to understand and be expert.”[xiv] From the aforementioned scientific observations, it can be suggested that the subcerebellar functionality of the brain may pertain to a potentiality toward the abilities and actions of techne, in creative thought,as opposed to a direct force in the comprehension of compounding an ulterior source for knowledge. That is to say, in the process of making art, the brain moves towards an emphasis on technical design, potentiality, as opposed to the formulation of an epistemological outcome in the ‘product’ of the work, actuality, thus supporting Vattimo’s claims.

The differentiation between actuality and potentiality relates to the order in which techne is performed. Heidegger deems the natural articulation of presence in the “bringing forth of something out of itself”[xv] as apparent in the cataclysmic energies that eternalize ‘being’, in such instances as the “bursting forth of a blossom into bloom, the birth of a baby or the ripening of fruit.”[xvi] On the other hand, technes abstractive, synergetic determination, readapts itself to form the process of the “bringing forth of art.”[xvii] This notion hybridizes the engagement of techne, upon an “oscillation between poiesis and enframing.”[xviii] When the process of techne provokes a bringing-forth as revealing, it is poietic, but conversely, when the mastery of its instrumentality compounds the work’s constitution as a made-thing, this represents merely a “controlling revealing.”[xix] Techne’s completion results in the retrospective formality of potentiality, but the fashioning towards its completion, revertively constitutes the ‘being’ of its actuality. Techne’s purposing is therefore not to achieve an ‘end,’ but to attain a ‘means,’ the end result being merely subsidiary to the practice itself.

HeideggerMartin Heidegger

The exercise of an absolute techne ability can never be comprehensively ‘total’, as it is impossible to appropriate an ubiquitous ‘controlling revealing’ to all realms and domains of craft, as humans, our attainment of episteme is restricted to the conditions of praxis. That is to say, we can only ‘know’ to the extent that we are able to ‘do,’ and we can only ‘do’ to the extent that we ‘know.’ We have not the authority to incite being in the crimson blush of a rose or the heavy sigh of a winter’s breeze. We are trapped within the harsh confines of our own ability, of our own equipmentality, of our own resources that afford us the aptitude toward our own perceptions.

This brings me onto a great difficulty I have in conceptualising the opportunity for creation. The issue is that we have an explicit inability to prognosticate a form that does not pertain to human sensory reception. There appears always a process taking place, an instrumental faculty, an inter-aesthetic ghost, presencing the possibility of presence itself. But nevertheless, objects appear to be exclusively sensually informed. What art do we not see, smell, touch, hear or taste? Can we ‘will’ an art, even in conceptual ‘thinking,’ that does not summon a sensory provocation? Agamben explores the emergence in seventeenth century culture of the “man of taste,” a rationalist essentialism that promulgated the “man who is endowed with a particular faculty, almost a sixth sense…which allows him to grasp the point de perfection that is characteristic of every work of art.”[xx] It is therefore possible to determine a communicative synthesis between art’s presencing of character, and man’s inheritance of such a presence, unbound from the physiological capacities of sense data, that permit a point de perfection to be realized. To explore this theory further, I must combine two concepts that in their amalgamation, support the notion that a poietical presencing is not exclusively reliant on a sensory referencing. The two theories of which I shall strive to coalesce are the Kantian sensus communis, and Jürgen Habermas’ communicative rationality.

The sensus communis translates literally as the English ‘common sense,’ which is a horridly ambiguous term in itself, and within Aristotelian theory, it originally referred to man’s ability to commune with an object through a preordained comprehension that facilitates the objective understanding upon the elemental dynamics of its ‘being’. That is to say, the unity of the sensus communis, as a concealed meditation, “allows the soul to distinguish between the proper objects of particular senses.”[xxi] Kant viewed the sensus communis as something shared by us all, that is “a power to judge that in reflecting takes account (a priori), in our thought, of everyone else’s way of presenting, in order as it were to compare our own judgement with human reason in general.”[xxii] The sensory judgmental casus belli of objects perform as per the demands towards the reasoning of human nature. We are able to reflect, judge, and think because the mode of such inquisitions is driven by this common sense. However, we have to ask ourselves, from what ontological division does the sensus communis derive? Here, I cannot merely concur with Kant in the delineation of its presencing as an a priori disposition, I would suggest however, that it originates from man’s communicative abilities. Communication, in the broadest sense of the term, facilities the movement of the sensus communis into an established perceptive prerequisite, interaction can be the only rationale that informs the continuing flux of ontological components. As Habermas states, the communicative rationality, is “orientated to achieving, sustaining and reviewing consensus.”[xxiii] Together with the determinate existence of the sensus communis, communicative rationality adapts and frames a terrain of which inhabitants appropriate the fundamentals of both functionalities. That is to say, the sensus communis is actuated upon an engagement with communicative forces. Without communicative abilities, even in the most elementary operation, presentation, as an affectation of ‘everyone else’s way’ would recede into hybridized elements of which would have no outlet for a renegotiation that the sensus communis allows. Communicative rationality continuously evolves from this, striving for an intersubjectivity founded on the composite principles of human nature, communication and interaction build these, and the subliminal operation of the sensus communis fundamentally affirms them.

HabermasJürgen Habermas via Wikipedia

Poiesis then, may be realized as a communicative presencing, it is ‘making’ from the faculty of the sensus communis, protruded by communicate rationality. It does not ‘create’ but it is the renewal and materialistic manifestation of a presencing. It is the redundant propensity, actuated upon various schema, through techne and praxis, that allows potentiality and reverts back to the only undeniable actuality, that is of the possibility of its being in the first place.

Perhaps then, the materialities of presence that dwell in the most barren and vacant pockets of the mind, awaiting upon an instance to be ‘brought-forth,’ perhaps these quiescent chapters of thought rely on poiesis to be discovered. These ‘presences’ are in constant renewal, dependent on interactive and communicative processes, and in each actuation into the fully material domain, recede from the original habitation of the maker, and, through the subjective translation in an exposure to their material ‘being,’ take up another residence, presencing in the mind of the recipient to the work. Resulting in a universal and continuous series of transmissible occurrences. A subject, therefore, has the propensity to delve into certain chambers of hidden thought, and bring forth such potentialities for making, that trigger the “transition from nonbeing to being [that] means taking on a form,”[xxiv] in order to manifest what Watkin has called “logopoiesis”.[xxv] The most coarse analogy which I can beckon to represent this is a worldwide, objective game of ‘pass the parcel’, except that everyone receives some form of a gift from the undertaking. This gift, although germinating as a mere potentiality, upon its possible actuation, is ‘used up’ as Vattimo said, but is vitally not weakened, but in fact strengthened upon a translation that conditions the essence of what Aristotle referred to as entelechy. That is the “inner urge” to be fully realized through various processes of natural design. As such, the operations of poiesis, provide a suitable, yet incredibly tragic substitute, in the search to make and actuate an immortality reflective of that of nature. As the extemporaneous cycles of nature – from blossoming to decay, are in continuous cultivation, man attempts, through the transmissible processes of presence-making, to reflect this unattainable naturality: immortality, through the contagious affair of poiesis.    

—Samuel Stolton

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Samuel Stolton is a writer living in London. He co-edits 3:AM Magazine and is the Founding Editor of the journal of philosophy, poetry and politics, Inky Needles.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Julius A. Elias, Plato’s Defence of Poetry (New York: SUNY Press, 1984), 226.
  2.  As evidenced in: William Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis (London and New York: Continuum Publishing, 2010).
  3. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: Random House Inc, 1973), 76.
  4. Gianni Vattimo, The Responsibility of the Philosopher, ed. Franca D’Agostini. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 113.
  5. Gianni Vattimo, Not Being God: A Collaborative Autobiography, trans. William McCuaig. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 87.
  6. Plato, The Symposium (Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1971), 43.
  7.  Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content (California: Stanford University Press, 1999), 66.
  8. ibid.
  9. Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis, 75.
  10.  Gyorgy Markus, “Praxis and Poiesis: Beyond the Dichotomy,” Thesis Eleven 15, no. 30 (Jan 1986): 30.
  11. Andreas Fink, “Creativity meets Neuroscience: Experimental Tasks for the Neuroscientific study of Creative Thinking,” Science Direct 42, no. 1 (Dec 2006): 75.
  12. ibid.
  13. Vattimo, The Responsibility of the Philosopher, 89.
  14. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays(New York: Garland Publishers, 1977), 13.
  15. ibid., 11.
  16. Barbara Bolt, Heidegger Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts(New York and London: I.B Tauris Publishing, 2011), 80.
  17. ibid.
  18.  ibid.
  19. ibid., 81.
  20. Agamben, The Man Without Content, 9.
  21. A.G Chern︠i︡akovThe Ontology of Time: Being and Time in the Philosophies of Aristotle, Husserl and Heidegger (New York: Springer Publishing, 2002), 73.
  22. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 173.
  23.  Jürgen HabermasThe Theory of Communicative Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 17.
  24. Agamben, The Man Without Content, 37.
  25.  Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis, 119.
Oct 062014
 

Author Pic

The_Obituary-Front_Cover-web

 

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

                                                         —Nathalie Stephens, At Alberta

 

 

Introduction

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Politics of Form versus the Dead Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Novel as Improv

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

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

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

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

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

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The Novel as Crafted

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

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

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

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

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A Gap in Lieu of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First, A Note on the Ghost of the Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Ligeia” (R/protagonist as Rowena)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Natalie Helberg

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Selected Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 helberg pic

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Scott’s writing grew out the experimental feminist writing scene localized in Montréal in the seventies and eighties; in Canada, around that time, bpNichol and Steve McCaffery were also toying with the idea of non-narrative narrative through their work on the book as a machine. This work emphasized the book’s materiality (some dimensions of which would be the look of words and letters used in a work and the use of white space on a page—the presence of suspect smirches on a particular copy’s page would count as well) and also attempted to dismantle the hierarchy between writer and reader, since the sort of texts they were theorizing were supposed to promote the reader’s participation in ordering the text—in choosing the sequence in which the text is read—among other things.
  2. Through its structure, when that structure seems improvised, through the running commentary it keeps on that structure, which gives the lie to the idea that it is fully improvised, and through the novel’s repetitious concern with what it means to be haunted, as R is, by the secrets of others, which I mention in the introduction.
Oct 042014
 

Salgado photo of artist

Andrew Salgado’s paintings have routinely all sold on or before the opening day of his exhibitions, at least they have in his last six solo shows in London (UK) twice, Ottawa, Regina, Cape Town, South Africa, and in New York City this spring. There’s tremendous excitement and a sense of pressure for his upcoming solo show, “Storytelling”, opening in London on October 7. Will it happen again?

Salgado’s artwork is stunning, larger than life. Looking at the “Storytelling” paintings, you can see, feel and, yes, hear the energy of this artist’s palette and brushstrokes, and the music that drives his inspiration to create these great bodies of work. His newest “album” of work is playful, bright, exciting, and pleasantly less somber than previous works, yet the dark side still lurks beneath.

Is “Storytelling” a modern olde-fashioned court pageant of sorts? The subjects in the paintings seem to be preparing for a show themselves. Some in contemplation as if they are getting ready for the role they are about to play, others still working on the script or perfecting a routine. All seem like characters ready to entertain you, the viewer. Or maybe for you to entertain them?

For some time now, Salgado has been the story-teller. What stories is he telling now? Does the tension between his intention and our interpretation give rise to the stories’ sub-plots? We have, in the end, to view the paintings and decide for ourselves what we are seeing (and hearing) in his work. Turning the question “what is it meant to be?” on its head and asking instead “what does it mean to me?” may give you some of the answers.

Social media savvy, Salgado shares with his 183,000-plus Facebook followers the Spotify links of the music he is listening to while he paints. It is no wonder his bodies of work are like record albums; some of his exhibitions, at least their titles and themes, have been inspired by song. Yet, the titles of his shows over the past several years have been both defined and arbitrary as are the different stories he tells through his paintings.

On his Facebook page he routinely posts updates of his work, activities, art likes and dislikes, and that “somebody took my soap from the communal washing-up-room”. Don’t get him wrong, though, he’s anything but frivolous. Playful? Hell, yes. Serious? Most definitely. He frequently donates to charitable organizations worldwide and is not shy to offer his artwork as an incentive for others to contribute to worthy causes.

Salgado, who has lived and worked in London since 2008, studied art history and theory at the University of British Columbia and graduated with a B.A. in 2005. Four years later he completed, with Distinction, a Master of Fine Arts (Honours) at the Chelsea College of Art in London.

At 31, Salgado has already exhibited around the world, from South Korea all the way west to Australia with stops in Thailand, South Africa, Scandinavia, Germany, United Kingdom, Venezuela, the USA, and Canada. In 2013, his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan, hosted his first museum exhibit at which time he received the Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award. He has another Cape Town show later in 2014 and one in Taipei in 2015.

Storytelling” opens on October 7 at Beers Contemporary in London and runs until November 22, 2014.

—JC Olsthoorn

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1-Salgado-Preparations underway for StorytellingPreparations under way for Storytelling

JC Olsthoorn (JCO): Looking at your exhibitions over past couple of years, it seems you are moving from ‘body of work’ to ‘body of work’. How do you see this process, how does it work for you?

Andrew Salgado (AS): Since about 2012, I have been fortunate enough to focus on completing each body of work; one consecutive to the other. I like to think of it like an album, where I release one completed collection and then move on to the next.

The interesting thing about the works within each body of work is that the paintings are completed concurrently. I like to think of it as a bathtub filling up (as opposed to building blocks, so to speak). So in essence painting 1 and painting 10 are being worked on at the same time, and elements that come in later on in the creative process can actually double back and thereafter occur on earlier works. It makes the entire body more cohesive, more connected.

JCO: You mention the “album” metaphor for your bodies of work. Does the listening to music influence your work?

AS: I think music definitely pervades the creative process. And to me, it’s crucial. Of course, we’ve all heard the belief from a particular camp that considers music to be a perversion of the artist’s true vision, as though there exists some fundamental or erroneous cause that will destroy your artistic vision if you – god forbid, listen to music while you paint – but you know, I will do whatever I need to do in studio to make myself comfortable. I don’t drink alcohol when I paint, and I know some artists that work half-cut most days, and I don’t think them any better or worse for it. So any real practicing artist will get past these strange stigmas and work however they want, in whatever context allows them to tap into that creative source. I listen to music obsessively, and this has often greatly informed my practice. For me, there’s a brilliant marriage between the two, and to think that they are or should be mutually exclusive is foolish. The greatest brains of all time have always considered art as a whole and complex entity: think of the Italian Renaissance, these people were artists on the largest sense and this idea encapsulated all art forms.

I spend the majority of my time alone, performing upon my own set of expectations, and music keeps me calm and focused. I’m very particular about what I listen to, but I think music can have beautiful effects on the brain and how that in turn affects the performance of the body, and translated thereafter to the brush upon the canvas. I tend to fixate rather obsessively on things in studio, and over the years certain albums have epitomized periods of my work. One of the first albums that struck me so profoundly while working was Kate Bush’s 2005 Aerial which is such a complex, obsessive piece of art in and of itself that it actually changed how I worked as a painter. Antony and the Johnsons The Crying Light was really affective, but I had to stop listening to it because it became too all-consuming, and quite sad. Some favorites since then have been Wild Beast’s Smother. St Vincent’s Actor has been played steadily for a couple of years. Wooden Arms by fellow Canadian Patrick Watson is an album close to flawless for me. And I love Radiohead, but who doesn’t? Right now I’m relishing an album by iamamiwhoami called Bounty.

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JCO: How did Kate Bush’s Aerial change how you worked? What in your painting changed?

AS: Kate Bush’s album was so influential because its such a profound work of art. From start to finish. And it slowly, aggressively, worked its way into my subconscious that it was like a drug. I could not get enough and there were days in the studio that (for 8 hours) it was the only thing I listened to, on repeat. The beauty is that the form equates the content so incredibly…the last (title) song in particular is a thrusting driving repetitive rhythm that was really like a trance. I responded to that aural stimuli as visual output.

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JCO: Do you “see” music? Does it manifest itself somehow on the canvas?

AS: Actually for Variations on a Theme exhibition [New York City, May 2014] I made a playlist where each painting was directly related to a song. Kind of like a synesthetic experience. You see the painting, hear the song; hear the song, see the painting.

The Party, 180x190cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: Are you drawn more to the words, the music, or the whole of the song?

AS: I think I’m drawn at first to the melody, but the words definitely come into play. However I notice when I’m really in the zone I can go through 4, 5 songs in a row without even really realizing. So I guess that answers the question quite definitively that it boils down to the music itself over the lyrics.

Ludovico Einaudi has also been very influential for me lately.

JCO: Einaudi’s music in the 2011 film Intouchables were “wows” for me.

AS: Perhaps what I like about Einaudi is that it allowed me to slip into that trance…not be so ‘aware’ of the music but still let it propel me. There was something really inspirational and moving for me about Two Trees and later Burning that would cause me to put them on repeat and forget myself. Another song I recall having that almost hypnotic quality was Bon Iver’s Wash. I’m a very big Tori Amos fan and I find that her best is the same for me. I think sometimes the music has to be really calming, but that’s a bit of a lie because I also find myself really into loud, aggressive, repetitive music. Arcade Fire or the Dodos.

The Acquaintance [Regina, October 2013] exhibition was named after Sinead O’Connor’s Last Day of Our Acquaintance song. There’s a great essay on this by Margaret Bessai. She kind of contextualizes the connection between the song and the paintings in a way I was never quite able to.

“The narrative is an elegantly understated account of the numbing sadness at the end of a love affair. Although the term acquaintance usually refers to a near stranger, a person casually met, in O’Connor’s lyric it describes the time period of social contact, an intimate knowledge that comes to an end. Acquaintance in philosophy is the relation between a knower and the object of his knowledge. Each of these meanings may be applied to the relationship between artist and model.”

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Enjoy the Silence exhibition in Cape Town [January 2014] was named after the song of the same name, originally by Depeche Mode and covered by Tori Amos and I would listen to both a lot. In this instance however I think it actually was the lyrics that drove the points home: suppression, control, power, submission, pain, violence, all held down under the thumb of ‘love’ and ‘righteousness’.

Listening to [Ludovico Einaudi’s] Devenire now and yes….this is exactly what I love to listen to…It is a ‘wow’ you are quite right. I guess its like the music allows me to find a mood that I want to emulate.

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JCO: How do you take what you’ve experienced and learned from a previous body of work and move forward to the next one?

AS: I always say that each successive body of work has to be a response to – but also reaction to – the body of work before it. While I’m immensely self-critical throughout the creative process, I try to refrain from making overarching critiques until after the show, and the dust has settled. In this case, I like to go visit my own exhibition a few times and think critically about what has been done. What can change, its fortes, its shortcomings. This is quite a difficult process but its hugely important to be honest with yourself and re-asses your own production; I truthfully believe this is the only way to grow.

After The Acquaintance, my first museum based exhibition, I realized that despite my advancements, the exhibition was basically the same painting, done 8 times. The only two differences here were “Cinema” and “Subject” (to a lesser degree). So for the Cape Town exhibition, Enjoy the Silence I wanted to be sure that the actual content and composition of the works offered something different. Often, without really realizing it, an adjective pops into my head that guides the resulting works. Here, it was “intimate” The result was a show that was incredibly cohesive but had a greater range of compositional breadth.

3-Salgado-Notes_230x170cm_2014_oil on canvas 3Notes, 230x170cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

Then, when preparing for Variations on a Theme [May 2014, NYC] my strongest critique against Enjoy the Silence was that it was too warm, too intimate…ultimately too sedate. The guiding word here was “purposeful”, and the result was an even greater breadth in composition, scale, media, and presentation…but the resulting works were wild, energetic, and (finally) in a huge gallery, only 9 paintings. I went for statement and purpose over quantity. There was no more and no less; only exactly what was needed.

I think these basic ideas provide the greatest point of departure; but I try not to overthink when beginning a new series, otherwise I run the risk of ‘freaking’ myself out before I’ve even begun. At present I’ve started preparation for Storytelling [London, Fall 2014] and my points of departure are simple. A colour palette that varies (slightly) from what occurred previously. The adjective is more of an idea this time around…complexity masquerading as simplicity. I like to call it “deceptively simple”. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve encountered to date…if it weren’t the biggest challenge, then I’m not pushing myself enough. And if I’m no longer advancing, then I should quit. Right now I’ve completed the first 2 paintings for this show, and I can already see how its incorporating elements I have learned throughout my entire career. The works are very true to my ethos, but feel like another step forward.

I do find, however, that lately I try not to overthink before I engage. I like to learn through the process of discovery. I struggle with issues of anxiety and self-doubt. And as I mature as a person and an artist I like to think that this anxiety can be channeled and used in my favor. It’s like playing with fire, but I think that I can be a fire-eater and use this to push my own sense of creation to its limits. Each time I do so, my limits expand. I’m never satiated. It’s actually quite an exciting feeling.

4-Salgado-Temple_210x200cm_2014_oil on canvas 3Temple, 210x200cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: You’ve mentioned post-show dilemmas, that feeling between bodies of work where you say you feel (or fear) you have forgotten how to paint. Does it happen often, are they recurring? How do you arrive at that point and how do you work them out, how are you working this out?

AS: These dilemmas are inevitable; and important. Because without them I’m not pushing myself forward. There are a lot of technically proficient artists, who continue to execute variations of the exact same painting. For me, this is a practice of futility. I feel like, ‘sure, you do one painting, and you do it well, and you’ve done it well for however long….but you’re not advancing.’ In most cases, these artists are getting lazy, moving backwards. I have no time for the one-trick pony…and he is out there, feeling comfortable in his work. I often say that an artist’s worst enemy is a false sense of security in the studio. This is the kiss of death. I have no time to feel comfortable, I crave that feeling of uncertainty and excitement that comes with knowing you’re eking in one something totally new. It’s exhilarating.

Magic, 180x190cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: Your points of departure in preparing for Storytelling includes a “colour palette”. Given music’s influence, is there also a “sound palette” (beyond a playlist)?

AS: Is there a sound palette….hmm… To be honest, I’m not sure. I think there are an accumulation of songs over time that help me slip easily back into the mood of the exhibition. Albums and songs that (like smells) instantly allow me to re-enter the mood I want to work in. So perhaps there is a sound palette but I try being a little vague about these things because I do think that on one level I guess that while the music is important for me to ‘create’, its not important for the viewer to ‘view’. It’s like my own personal connection…but it can be irrelevant to the viewer. Because my process is a lengthy and lonely one, I need that comfort and connectivity to something beyond my own abilities and shortcomings.

JCO: What other things influence you as you prepare and go into the next phases of your painting?

AS: Obviously looking at painting is hugely inspiring. A number of the great literary genius’ would read chapters, or even entire books by their favourite authors before beginning to write for the day. It’s a similar process. I think that ‘quoting’ in art is often frowned upon; for some reason there’s a stigma that seems to be attached to this, whereas in other art forms its encouraged, celebrated. I’m quite honest about this practice of ‘quotation’ because a gifted artist can dislodge his inspirations from their original sources and translate them into something truly unique. It’s the hacks that end up appearing derivative. Even Picasso stated that “good artists borrow, but great artists steal”. Because ultimately we’re all paraphrasing each other, eternally, cyclically. Its exciting to think that my inspirations can come from so many varied sources and come out looking entirely my own…because as a matter of fact, it is my own. I’ve recreated something new from a vernacular that has been around for centuries.

Variations in particular looked to art history for inspiration, and did something of a ‘historical flattening’ in which anything from any era was fair game. So in some paintings I’m quoting Caravaggio, in another its Bacon, and in another it’s a friend or peer. Sometimes all these are happening at the same time.

Drawing Lesson, 180-165cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: I like this idea of ‘flattening history’ … but I see this happening as well through the idea of a story-teller who doesn’t tell just one story, the story-teller is telling many at the same time akin to “complexity masquerading as simplicity” perhaps?

AS: I guess I’m not so certain what the story is. I’m not certain there even has to be a defined narrative. But what I do like (with this title and Variations) is the freedom it allowed me. I’m no longer working within such restrictive conceptual restraints. The Misanthrope [London, 2012], The Acquaintance, etc., and all the shows before, were very specific. The works will speak for themselves.

Actually the narrative that I develop for myself is not something I will share with the viewer; I think its integral to the reading of the works to have that porousness and allow the viewer to take their own conclusions (or questions from the pieces). But I do like the idea of omniscience. I steer the ship, and I call the shots. I am allowed to lie, propose fantasy, remove the works from any adherence to reality. So I’m trying to push that. And in my head I’m developing the show piece by piece, and I’m not sure where I’m taking it.

It’s a different way than I’ve ever worked before, and so far it’s working for me. The idea of deceptive simplicity comes in both form and content. I think I’m purporting to do less and less, but the paintings are becoming far more complex. I believe it has to do with confidence and maturity. There is a kind of intimacy that the viewer is being led, through the forest, to view each piece. The first painting in the show, ‘Bruce’s Vision’, enters this fantasy where the viewer is greeted by a painting of the back of a man’s head. He is like the tour guide, I suppose.

Three, 80x80cm, oil on canvas (2014)
Photo: Oskar Proctor (courtesy of Beers Contemporary, London)

JCO: But what stories are you telling in Storytelling?

AS: The stories are individual but also overarching. I’m going back to character types: the king, the sad queen, the prince, the pauper, the elder, etc. They’re ‘kind of’ popping up as I develop the show but only in a very loose manner. I’m definitely all about drawing attention to hidden details. But this is just a context for me to explore real, socially relevant ideas. These are a lot of connected, complex thoughts that I continue to explore through my work. The one thing I do see different from Variations already is that the show is less based on the history of art. It’s telling its own story…It’s more topical, more relevant.

JCO: And I wonder if it is more about how art works its magic, how one art form influences another?

AS: I think as artists we are drawn to other forms of art and magic. We all want to believe that these things exist. We all want to be surprised by the power of art. I want to surprise myself with my work, just as I want others to come into the show and go ‘holy fuck’. Art has that power, and I want to harness that power.

—JC Olsthoorn & Andrew Salgado

.

ANDREW SALGADO (b. 1982, Regina, Canada) has created a buzz for himself with bold, generally large scale figurative paintings that have situated him as one to watch in both the UK and North America; even listed by Saatchi as “one to invest in today” (Sept 2013) and lauded by esteemed critic Edward Lucie Smith as a “dazzlingly skillful advocate” for painting. Salgado is one of 100 artists to be featured in the forthcoming publication 100 Painters of Tomorrow, authored by Kurt Beers and published by Thames & Hudson, (2014), and he is recipient of the Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award (2013).

Salgado has exhibited in the United Kingdom, Germany, Scandinavia, Australia, Venezuela, Thailand, Korea, South Africa, Canada, and the USA. Forthcoming solo exhibitions include Storytelling, Beers Contemporary, (October 2014), and an as-yet-untitled exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan at BlueRider Art. Previous solo exhibitions include Variations on A Theme, One Art Space, New York City, NY (2014); Enjoy the Silence, Christopher Møller Art, Cape Town, South Africa, (2014); The Acquaintance, his first museum-based exhibition, Art Gallery of Regina, Canada (2013); and The Misanthrope, Beers.Lambert Contemporary, London, (2012).

His paintings have hung alongside works by Tracy Emin and Gary Hume in London’s Courtauld Institute of the Arts, included in the Merida Biennale of Contemporary Art (2010), the NordArt Carlshutte Biennale (2012); and has been featured Maclean’s (Canada), The Globe and Mail (Canada), The Independent, The Evening Standard, Shortlist, Yatzer, Metro and more. He frequently donates to charitable associations worldwide, including the Terrence Higgins Trust, MacMillan Cancer Support, and others, and garnered the highest-bid ever auctioned at Canada’s esteemed Friends For Life Annual Charity Auction (2011). In 2011 he was featured in the Channel 4 (UK) documentary What Makes a Masterpiece, alongside artists Anish Kapoor, Howard Hodgkins, and Bridget Riley (2011). In 2013 he was commissioned to create a brand new series of large-scale works to adorn the windows of the luxurious UK-retailer, Harvey Nichols.

Salgado has lived and worked in London, UK since 2008.

§

JCOlsthoorn Photo by L. Cabral

JC Olsthoorn spends time at the Domaine Marée Estate near Otter Lake, Quebec, writing raw poetry, creating coarse art and cooking scratch food. His poems have been published in a chapbook, ‘as hush as us’ and have appeared in literary magazines.  JC’s artwork has been exhibited and has appeared in several publications. He is wrapping up a 30+ year career in communications and citizen engagement just in time to become a curator at the Arbor Gallery – Centre for Contemporary Art in Vankleek Hill, Ontario. His first show is the gallery’s sixth annual EROS 2015, an exhibition of erotic art, opening in February.

Oct 032014
 

Karen Mulhallen

These poems are close to my heart. Karen Mulhallen Karen and I are both exiles from Sowesto (aka southwestern Ontario), and the places of which she writes — Lake Erie, Port Dover, the Halton Sand Hills, Turkey Point, and Long Point — are ancestral touchstones for me as much as they are for her. For more about Karen, please see the introduction I wrote for her book Acquainted With Absence: Selected Poems. For more about the land of which she writes, see my “Long Point, A Geography of the Soul.”

Fishing Poems, just published by Marty Gervais at Black Moss Press, will be launched at The Windup Bird Café, 382 College Street, Toronto, Monday, 3 November. All welcome!

dg

fishingpoems-cover

/

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1845)

 

I

The Fishing Poems, An Album

I have kept my Fishing Poems close by for many decades. Their essential topography began to develop in my childhood and adolescence. As a family, we often drove from Woodstock in my father’s bright red Buick on hot summer weekends to Lake Erie to the Houghton Sand Hills, or we constructed a picnic in the parks and the beaches at Long Point, Turkey Point and Port Dover. Sometimes my parents would rent a cottage, a small wooden shack.

In adolescence, when the freedom offered by the family car came into play, I went with other teenagers to hear music: Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry; they all performed in Ontario’s deep southwest.

And more rarely, but memorably, in adulthood, my brothers and I would go off to spend the day in west Norfolk at the Houghton Sand Hills, towering 250 feet in the air, ever changing, and shaped toward the east by the southwest winds which revealed potshards and arrowheads in their passage and the shadowy presence still of a look-out, aboriginal or white, gauging the approach of a stranger across the long narrow stretch of lake below. Erielhonan, Iroquois for long-tailed.

Welded with these scenes was my indelible reading, when I was thirteen, of Alain Bombard’s Naufragé Volontaire (1953). Bombard sailed across the Atlantic from France to the Barbados, a distance of 4400 km, in an open boat, an inflatable he invented himself, and which he called L’Hérétique. With only a sextant, a few provisions, and an indomitable will, Bombard epitomized for me all those other great voyages on the oceans of the world, all those heretical abandonments of the known, those searches for a new found land.

It is easy to get shipwrecked, or to drown, in the search for freedom.

*

In the early seventies, I lived in Toronto in a second floor apartment in a house on Brunswick Avenue. In the rear ground floor apartment was a photographer named Brian Ramer who hailed from Brantford. It was Brian who initiated my tertiary enchantment with Norfolk County as we explored our shared childhoods and talked of climbing the towering Houghton Sand Hills, white grains slithering between fingers and toes, and the shallow warm welcoming waters and sun-dappled sandy beach at Port Dover on the shores of Lake Erie.

Brian was making a living as a photographer and spending all his spare time in our back yard teaching himself solarized printing. The old buildings of Spadina Avenue with their cross hatchings of street car lines, their eccentric turrets and false façade pediments and elaborate brickwork niches would appeared in brown and the palest gold, like ancient sepia prints, on sheets of paper, spread over the weeds under the clothesline. Upstairs I’d given up Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology and was teaching myself structural linguistic analysis with an eye on those lush passionate melancholic tales of William Faulkner.

Four of us piled in Brian’s old Chevy and drove off for the day to Dover. Brian had been a couple times lately, talked to John Simple, and hung out on the beach, eating foot-long Arbors and watching the farm kids from Hagersville with their six foot inflatables, the big kings of the surf.

It was a tiny town, not much bigger than in Brébeuf’s time, although now it was all white. Brian had walked the main drag. Mr Vary still had his store at number 421 Main Street which he’d set up in 1908, when there were 1500 folks in the town.It took nearly forty years to double that. He was 87 now but his memory was good, which is what we found in everyone we talked to.

We headed up St Andrew which curves like a comma back to Main at the Water Tower. It was early, the beach mottled from the night rain, the sun rays small. For a moment it clouded over, and the sun shone through an aperture, the narrow band a hot vertical arc light. The tide was coming in, the water flashing diamonds in front of a large white yacht. A small blue sailboat cut across the bay, just behind a coral yacht at anchor. I knew by noon the whole beach would be a quilt, one blanket after another. The Blue Pickerel was still the best fish shack on the beach, “no bones about it”, but at that hour we had no inclination to “Try some for the Halibut”, despite the faded old sign, hung proudly on its front. And anyway the louvres were only partly open.

The gulls were swooping around a fishing boat way out there. We squinted into the sun as a yellow paper bag came floating along the horizon line,like a double- masted iceberg. Then we decided to climb up toward the drawbridge through the underbrush, dead twigs snap snapping against dusty gravel. Just then the bells began to ring.

My sandals were no good for climbing and I had to pick my way barefoot around fallen thistle burrs, old nails, and cigarette butts. The bridge began to lift cutting a diagonal right across the sky as a bird with a fish by the tail came swooping under, heading up the canal toward the river. There were three kids on the bridge, a couple of bikes dumped by the side on the gravel slope. Two of the kids had fishing poles, and there was a large tomato juice can full of minnows on the ground.

We were going to talk to John Simple in the evening about gill netting in an open boat and about dragging for smelt, and the lore of the town. We knew where the Alma would dock and I’d already put my hand down into the split car-tire buoys full of small soft spiders lining the Alma’s spot.

Brian and Tony climbed up to the top of Bank Street on the edge of the highway, just over from the big yellow fork- lift machine, while Bill and I went on another amble in the town centre. We knew we’d all end up back on the beach to make a supper out of golden orange sweet honey glow drinks, a dog and an ice cream cone at the Arbor shack, where a scoop of blueberry or loganberry was only 10 cents.

Near the dock was a mass of orange net and a pile of green and white and grey buoys. The Dover Rose slid into harbor loaded down. We picked up the boardwalk and headed to Globe & Mail Park where we all met up with Shelley and Sheri and Dougie playing on the stone lions at the bandstand steps. I figured them for 13 or so, and I wasn’t far off. We did the standard adult tack, asked them about school. “ You guys are lucky. I don’t learn nothin in school” said Dougie. “ The other kids are too noisy.” “ Is the teacher young?” “ No, but not old either. She’s got veins in her hands.” Brian’s camera was handed over and Sheri cracked a real Marilyn Monro cheesecake. “She looks sharp without the camera” says Dougie, “through it she doesn’t even look smart.”

Brian and I went several more times to Dover that summer to walk the beach, to talk to the fishermen, and to spend time in the small town library archives.

*

When I was growing up in southwestern Ontario, the past and its passions were everywhere present. I went to the Indian reserve at Oshweken with my father, and to farm auctions where old farm houses and barns yielded vestiges of pioneer days. In July, there were Highland Games nearby at Embro, and the Battle of Culloden was fought over and over, as children in kilts danced over swords, and the Amish families, all modestly dressed, arrived with their horses and buggies. The world champion tug-of-war team, originating in the 1870s, was a group of six farmers who lived near Embro. They called themselves The Mighty Men of Zorra, after the township they lived in. For a child there was always an odd sense that many of the rituals I encountered and the people I met had come from away. How did they get here; what was this place for them; were they really here, or were they still there?

And always beyond the early settlers and their descendants and the native peoples there loomed the distant past, a world of animal and spirit forms, manifesting themselves in nature.

*

While I lived on Brunswick Avenue, Lorraine Monk had published, for the National Film Board of Canada, a book to celebrate Canada’s centenary, a picture book, Canada: A Year of the Land, with poems by my friend Miriam Waddington. Brian Ramer and I were inspired by its format and began to plan our own book of text and pictures. When our book was done, I sent it to the NFB and then to two other publishers, and it has remained unpublished. Brian left 411 Brunswick and eventually I moved on as well. But before I left Brunswick Avenue I went to the Pacific Ocean where I met a sailor who had built his own trimaran and sailed south from northern California, past the Baja coast where the spirits and the winds are strong, to a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico.

I can still hear the crackle of the light blue onionskin airmail letters as they slipped through the front door mail slot bearing the beginnings of yet another version of Fishing Poems. For although my fishing poems had begun in childhood, they also now included the death, by drowning in the Tiber, of my friend Chris, as well as the end of my marriage, which had been primarily enacted by water, to a man who had been schooled on a ship, as his own father was its commander. So although I was born landlocked, I was early, or from the very beginning, marked by water.

I met the sailor on the beach in the old fishing village of Zihuatenejo. I had been to a shack for dinner where a thin, gray-haired white woman in pajamas, hands shaking, served us dishes of lobster by the light of an oil lamp hung on a peg from the roof rafters. Afterward L and I went for a walk on the beach, and then took a taxi up the hill to our hotel, The Irma, determined to move to the beach in the morning. B was on the beach that night, but I didn’t know it.

The next morning, settled in to our beachfront double room, with its louvres opening toward the sea, we took a stroll and met the crew of the Tattoo, three tall bleached-out northern California sailors, of which B was the captain.

Ixtapa was being carved out of the cliffs, south of town, and we ran along the coast in the Tattoo looking up at tiny figures crawling like white ants over the face of the rocks. We beached below the vast hive, ate shrimp cooked on an open fire by a local fisherman, then walked up to the waterfalls, and stood under the cascades, fully clothed, as the water plastered hair, dresses, shorts, and T-shirts to bodies.

The following day, just before noon, we went up the hill to the village lending library, where I showed B the diaries of Simone Weil, while the resident king parrot squawked, and then took a bite out of my finger.

In the morning, L and I took a light plane back to Mexico City. I can still remember looking out from the small porthole down on the rough field landing strip where B stood tall against the wooden shacks, his long blond ponytail still damp from our morning shower.

It would be more than twenty years before I let myself fall in love again with a sailor, and in the meantime I would have taken to the sea myself.

*

The Fishing Poems and the deep southwest have stayed with me and I have carried my manuscript to Scotland, to Venice, to Australia and to Toronto Island. Anyplace I went on retreat to write, the Fishing Poems went with me, always rewritten, never released. They have allowed me to write about the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Baja Peninsula, the Great Barrier Reef, and that great fresh water sea at the base of the city which is my home, Lake Ontario.

I have come to recognize that my relationship with the Fishing Poems and with water is a trope writers know intimately. There is a book always close to you that you cannot finish and cannot truly let go. It is the catalyst for other excursions. If you are William Faulkner, it is your Golden Book of Yoknapatawpha County; if you are Mavis Gallant, it is your study of the Dreyfus Case; if you are Mr Casaubon, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it is your very Key to All Mythologies. Fictional authors or the real McCoy, there is always the book which eludes and leads us.

  /

Ondine’s Lament

I have been acquainted with absence;
Neither air nor water is my element.
I have been acquainted with absence,
Moving as amphibious creatures ought.

The old woman warned me
Returning from the arroyo:
You have remained out too long, she said,
After dark is dangerous.

I am the air when full—
My heart is beating;
I am the evening wind—
My blood is coursing.

Here the wing of the fragrant fly
Mimics my flight,
Holding me in his embrace
Clasping my clasping hands.

When it is damp, the water sinks—
My eyes are flickering.
When it is dry, the fountain sprays—
My veins are pulsing;

When it is sunning, the prisms crack—
My core is throbbing.
When it is darkling, the stars shine—
Myself am waiting:

Neither fish nor fowl
Always smooth but plumed:
Myself am waiting,
Myself am curling,

Myself am turning
Toward the horizon without end,
Shore without line, sound without presence:
The voice, the touch, the texture,
…………..which renews.
….I am not Griselda, nor was meant to be,
………am an attendant slave.

/

 

The Sailor’s Letter

3.

Nine days later, evening, becalmed,

In the waiting there are many dreams—the half moon behind the ragged clouds, the soft sparkle of phosphorescent animals, as the boat slightly rocks in what remains of the swell. Lamp-lit cabins, and companions so close we need hardly speak.

/

 

Captain Alexander McNeilledge

(1791-1874)

Captain Alexander McNeilledge committed suicide at the age of 83.
This is the last entry in his diary, 20 August 1874:

I last saw my mother on July 12, 1806, when I left Scotland expecting to be gone 3 or 4 months.
I was shipwrecked, and did not return to Scotland for 40 years.

They were all shipwrecks, maddened, these men,
gathered in that village in the wood, dreaming of prosperous towns,
perchance a great city, other civilizations,
the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

One log house, the Birdsells, halfway to Van Allen’s place;
a small house on Prospect Hill, where Silas Knight the lawyer lived.
A school was raised; and at the mill, a small store,
kept by John Kirkpatrick and Colin McNeilledge—

And that mill, The Granary, haunted by Rob Roy, on its fascia mounted
the figurehead of the schooner called Highlander
wrecked on the treacherous sheet of water,
painted in Campbell and MacGregor colours,

and each 30th of November, St Andrew’s night,
Scots gather at Sandy’s Tavern in Dover,
raising a glass, drinking a dram, crying aloud
with haggis and pipes, and all the accompaniments,

skirling their longing,
Red Robert, Red Robert,
Rob Roy, Rob Roy

 /

Children at the Beach

Take thy bliss, O Man!
And sweet shall be thy taste & sweet thy infant joys renew!

William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion

1.

Where the water tower stands
St Andrew Street like a comma
curls back to Main.

2.

Remember mottled wet beach like this after the rain?
No, but I remember morning beach when the rays were small.

3.

When you came here with your family
and you were twelve and you were starting to look
and starting to get together and tell your jokes
and a couple was behind the high school
and a policeman finds you and you says you’re only necking
and he says, well, put your neck back in your pants
and get outta here.

4.

You can get smashed by this lake,
but I don’t know what this means.

5.

Diamond flashing water coming into shore
before a large white yacht.

6.

Days when through the cloud
a narrow band of sun lights.

7.

Farm kids from Hagersville
with their 9′ inflatables—
the big kings of the surf.

8.

Remembering: days when there is just one blanket
after another—the whole beach a quilt.

Seeing a fishing boat with gulls
behind a yellow paper bag
floating like a large berg on the horizon:
a double sail.
9.

Norfolk Hotel
Ladies and Escorts
presenting Mr Bruise B.

Mr Bruise B,
loves like a bee
kisses like a wasp,
oh no
Mr. Bruce B.

oooooh eeeee—Mr Brian R.
mouth like a bar
when he does he goes up far
ooo—–eeee

oooo–eeeeee
oo-ah ah
ting tang
wally wally bing bang
oo–eeee–oooo–aa–aa–
ting tang tanga
wallywally bing bang

Stevie Crozier—here he is
waiting for his hard on to go down to piss
while pencilling on the wall seven foot tall
Polonius Sucks

John and Mary up in a tree
K.I.S.S.I.N.G.
first comes love
then comes marriage
then comes Mary
with a baby carriage
oh-oh

Tiny Tim
went to the doctor
doctor wasn’t in
went to the nurse
nurse had the curse
oh oh Tiny Tim

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Arrivals

1.

Rain on the River

In the fog we drift hither and yon over the dark waves.
At last under a maple, our little boat finds shelter.

Above the veil of mist, from time to time, there lifts a sail.

2.

Coming in

We rowed ashore. Early this morning we took a tour along the coast of the bay.
It’s all a montage now, looking back on it.
You are in my mind here, Sarah, your presence.
Two white birds in a windy sky.

3.

the sixteenth

…what is it ? The dream began it. The writing started then.
Any point to this is there, blowing all through it, invisible, yet heard.
I am afraid to say like the wind in the trees.

4.

the seventeenth

Tonight the dream came again, and a healer touched me with his index finger,
just below my clavicle, saying pain is serpentine —here is its point of entry—here
is its point of exit. As he touched me all the pain of my life came rushing out,
and you were there, watching, as it left.

That’s all for now.
Adios.
Until we see each other again, carry my love with you,
B

 

—Karen Mulhallen

These poems are excerpted from the book Fishing Poems (Black Moss Press, September 2014).

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

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Oct 022014
 

murakami via http://www.sequenza21.com/dillon/

The modulation is from the internal to the external, and the puzzles Tsukuru attempts to solve actually have answers. They draw Murakami away from his usual narrative tactic of ambiguity. Still, even here, after what most readers would have to call a satisfactory conclusion to a well-made tale, some essential mystery remains. — Steven Axelrod

colorless_tsukuru_tazaki_and_his_years_of_pilgrimage_by_haruki_murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami
Knopf (August, 2014)
Hardcover, 386 Pages, $25.95

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Haruki Murakami’s career been an extraordinary one by any standard. His status in Japan falls somewhere between J.K.Rowling and the Beatles at their peak of popularity. Japanese fans line up for hours to purchase each new book, despite the establishment cavil that he is a little too interested McDonalds and Walt Disney, Raymond Chandler and rock and roll. His various works of fiction and memoir have earned him constant critical acclaim and many literary prizes, including the World Fantasy Award (2006), the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (2006), the Franz Kafka Prize (2006), and the Jerusalem Prize (2009).

Murakami’s novels deploy a quiet, austere prose-style to describe bizarre alternate realities. In books like 1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, his protagonists descend – down an emergency stairway on a Tokyo highway, or into a dry well – to find themselves in new and uneasily altered worlds. The quiet young bachelor of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (a common type in Murakami’s oeuvre) receives healing powers from a random sexual encounter, learns that some sinister supernatural force is altering the political landscape and recognizes the voice of doom in the call of a mechanical bird. The heroine of 1Q84 finds herself in a world with two moons, where tiny creatures emerge from the mouths of cult members to create an “air chrysalis” a cocoon woven out of thin air, from which some sort of human golem is born. In Kafka on the Shore a ghost appears as Colonel Sanders (he would have preferred manifesting as Mickey Mouse, Disney is so litigious!). Mackerel and sardines fall from the sky like hail.

These examples scarcely begin to catalogue the surreal inventory of Murakami’s imagination. But earlier in his career, he worked in a more naturalistic style, to which he returns for his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage.

The book, elegantly translated by Philip Gabriel,  tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, who after being mysteriously spurned by his close cadre of high school friends and stumbling through a decade of confusion and despair, finally sets out to discover why the four people he cared about the most could have rejected him so ruthlessly. His quest for understanding takes him deep into their shared past, offers troubling revelations about their present lives, and ultimately provides some tentative hope for the future.

Norwegian Wood, published in 1987, features many of the same narrative devices as the new book: the group of friends shattered by an untimely death, a nondescript almost extravagantly ordinary “everyman” led by a beautiful vibrant woman into an examination, and ultimately an understanding, of his life. As usual, Murakami chooses a musical theme to set the tone – Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Janacek’s Sinfonetta in 1Q84, or the Beatles song in Norwegian Wood.

Here he chooses Franz Liszt’s Le Mal du Pays, from the composer’s Years of Pilgrimage Suite, meant to invoke “a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.”

There’s a lot of melancholy in this book, as there was in Norwegian Wood. Premature death smothers the living like a snowfall of ash. But there are crucial differences between this new effort and the earlier novel. Norwegian Wood was set in motion by an inexplicable suicide; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by an unexplained act of violence. The modulation is from the internal to the external, and the mysteries Tsukuru Tazaki attempts to solve actually have answers. They draw Murakami away from his usual narrative tactic of ambiguity. Still, even here, after what most readers would have to call a satisfactory conclusion to a well-made tale, some essential mystery remains.

Two central aspects of Norwegian Wood are reiterated in the story of Tsukuru Tazaki: The childhood tragedy viewed with adult perspective, and the brilliant woman who will function as the emotional catalyst that sparks all the inert elements of a monochrome existence.

As Murakami put it in his 2004 Paris Review interview, “In my books and stories, women are mediums, in a sense; the function of the medium is to make something happen through herself. It’s a kind of system to be experienced. The protagonist is always led somewhere by the medium and the visions that he sees are shown to him by her.” In this case the woman is named Sara. Sophisticated and worldly, she is drawn to Tsukuru, but quickly detects his emotional disabilities. When she hears the story of how his friends inexplicably shunned him, she understands intuitively how to heal his distance and disconnection.

The issue is baffling even to Tsukuru himself: more than a decade before, his four best friends cut him off absolutely, with no explanation. Clearly they assumed he had done something unforgivable, but he still has no idea what his crime might have been, and no way to defend himself. The mysterious exile tipped Tsukuru over into a suicidal depression, but never carried out the ultimate act. Instead the pain gradually dulled to a constant ache, a permanent cloud cover dimming the landscape of his ever more regimented, asocial, mechanical life. He studied engineering, sat in train stations watching the commuters come and go; ate and slept. The hole in his psyche couldn’t be patched or filled in, so he simply tried to ignore it. He has lived like a hoarder in a cluttered old house, moving in ever more narrow paths through the teetering jumble of an unexamined life. Until he discards the rubbish, packs the valuables and cleans up, he can never move out or move on.

Sara grasps this instantly, and she sets the plot of the novel in motion by setting the terms of love affair with Tsukuru: nothing can begin with her until Tsukuru finds his old friends and discovers why they cut him off.  So Tsukuru starts investigating his own past, as well as the present day lives of his four friends, and this quest becomes the central engine of the novel.

For Tsukuru, it began when he was the “colorless” member of a five-kid clique in high school: three boys and two girls, constant companions.  Their last names all invoke actual colors — the two boys, Akamatsu (“red pine”) and Oumi (“blue sea”); the two girls, Shirane (“white root”) and Kurono (“black field”). For convenience, I’ll just refer to them by their nicknames here: Aka (red), Ao (blue), Shiro (white), and Kuro (black). But Tsukuru is just Tsukuru. The chromatic distinction is not simply one of personality (though Tsukuru feels crushingly ordinary compared to the others).

Murakami has chosen his palette with care. The boys, simple souls, reflect primary colors. The girls are black and white, each embodying the contradiction inherent in pigment and light. In pigment, black signifies the combination of all colors, white the absence of color. In light it’s precisely the opposite. Black is the absence of all colors, and white contains the full spectrum. Shira, with her love of music and the spiritual life, is the white of light, holding every hue inside her, as does the more earthy and practical Kura, whose black pigment also combines every tint.

In high school, Aka was short shy and stubborn, always at the top of his class though he never had to study. Ao was a jock, a big handsome charismatic boy – a good listener and a born leader. Shiro was slim and beautiful: “A Japanese doll”. She was painfully shy but a spectacularly talented musician, happier with children and pets than other people; and happiest at the piano. Kuro was the class clown, a big girl, fast and funny, clever and sarcastic. Alone in this “Breakfast Club” gang, Tsukuru lacked any obvious talents or eccentricities, with only an obsession with train stations to set him apart from the crowd.

Murakami actually gives very little detail about these early years, but the vagueness of Tsukuru’s glory days works a function of the character’s memory, not the author’s laziness. The golden haze that dims Tsukuru’s recollections is crucial to the mystery of how the idyll failed.The first cracks appear when Tsukuru leaves the suburb of Nagoya to attend college in Tokyo. The other four remain at home. Some emotional distance occurs naturally in the separation, as visits become less frequent. Then the blow falls. The severance is absolute, non-negotiable and impossible to understand.

Tsukuru only makes one friend during his decade of exile, a young man named Haida, whose name appropriately refers to the color gray. They swim together at a local pool and discuss philosophy. Haida tells Tsukuru the story of his father (or was it Haida himself? Tsukuru never knows for sure) meeting a pianist named Midorikawa (It means “green river”, another colorful name) in a hot springs resort in the mountains. Haida’s father found himself captivated by the music and by the fact that the musician could see a nimbus of color around everyone he met. The gift could only be passed on to people who had accepted death, which would have made Tsukuru, with his suicidal fixation, an excellent candidate.

Tsukuru never learns to detect auras, but just hearing the story starts him dreaming at night, as his hibernating sexuality reawakens: passionate sexual encounters between himself and the long-lost Shiro and Kura, though their friendship was always strictly platonic; and with Haida, though neither one of them is homosexual in waking life. The friendship with Haida ends abruptly, without explanation, and Tsukuru is once again left alone.

This Purgatorial interlude finally ends when Tsukuru meets Sara at age thirty-six, and begins his quest.

Tsukuru learns that the boys, Ao and Ako, have turned into salesman, one pushing expensive cars and the other hustling a tawdry, pedestrian self-help system. They’ve made their fortunes but turned themselves into colorless capitalist cogs — a fate that Tsukuru, with his quirky love of train stations and his engineering degree, has managed to avoid. In another trope borrowed from Western movies, the boring geek has grown up to outshine the cool group who shunned him. But at least they’re glad to see him, both forthcoming and regretful about the events that poisoned their friendship.

This is what happened: Shira had been raped, and she told the others that Tsukuru was her attacker.

The allegation sounded crazy to Tsukuru’s friends, but Shira was so adamant in her certainty of his guilt that they were forced to close ranks against him. Making things much worse, Shira became pregnant from the attack, decided to carry the baby to term, but lost it. She moved away from Nagoya to a small town on the coast. But tragedy followed her relentlessly. She was murdered, a crime never solved or explained.

As time passed, Tsukuru’s culpability seemed more and more unlikely to his friends, but the confusion and social awkwardness of their first response metastasized with time: the years of silence accumulating like black mold.

When Tsukuru finally tracks them down, though, Ao and Ako are glad to apologize and set things right. They tell him their stories, and the forward rush of the narrative pauses so we can listen. And “listen” is the proper word, as these tales echo both Murakami’s earlier work (The harrowing accounts of war crimes and the slaughter of zoo animals in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the novel-within-a-novel in 1Q84) and the professional story-tellers of Meiji era Japan. These purveyors of Ninjobashi (or sentimental stories) reached their height of popularity in the early twentieth century, when performers of Hamashika , which, much like The Moth today, involved talking without notes on stage, filled the Yose theaters with audiences from every strata of Japanese society.

Concurrently, the invention of Japanese shorthand allowed for the transcription and publication of these stories and hastened the loosening of Japanese formal written language into a more colloquial and approachable style. The Englishman Harry Black came to japan in the 1870s and started presenting Japanese versions of European novels at the Yose theaters. In these adaptations, called Han’anno, you see a clear precedent for Murakami’s fascination with western culture.

But Murakami’s work harks even further back, to the Buddhist Sestuma parables of the 10th century. Like the itinerant priests of the Shoan era, Murakami means his fables to enlighten.

In the life-stories told by Tsukuru’s friends you can trace the development from disconnection and falsity to an enlightened authenticity. Ako sells a bogus self-help course; Ao sells cars. Kuro has moved to Finland, and actually makes something – her beautiful free-form pottery. And of course Tsukuru – whose name means “builder” – helps to design train stations, the most practical and grounded vocation of all. In fact Tsukuru has possessed the very thing he has been seeking all along.

When Tsukuru travels to Finland to see Kuro, he finds her still haunted by the past. She has married a Finnish potter, and changed her name to Eri in a futile effort to extirpate her previous existence. But it’s a hopeless task. “You can put a lid on memory, but you can’t hide history,” Sara tells Tsukuru.

Eri knows it’s true. She regrets siding absolutely with her friend against the absent ‘culprit’ but still doesn’t know how she could have acted differently. Evil spirits, the trauma of the event, followed Shira everywhere, like “dark elves in a forest.” Shira needed protection and absolute fealty from someone. Eri was the only one who could grant it to her.

The answers Tsukuru needs most — who really committed the crime, and why Shira chose to blame him, died with her. He will never get to ask her the most important questions, as he will never get to hear her play  Mal du Pays on the piano again.

Tsukuru returns to Japan from Finland, where his long-standing sense of solitude and exile had finally found some objective correlative: eating strange food in cafés, surrounded by the clatter of a foreign language, the street signs and newspapers inscrutable behind a foreign alphabet. Back in Tokyo, returned from exile, the city starts to feel like home.

In the closing moments of the book, Tsukuru thinks:

If Sara chooses me, I’m going to propose to her right away. And give her everything I’m capable of giving – every single thing. Before I get lost in a dark forest. Before the bad elves grab me.

Not everything was lost in the flow of time. That’s what Tskuru should have said to Eri when he said goodbye at the lakeside in Finland. But that point, he couldn’t put it into words.We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something – with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.

He calmed himself, shut his eyes and fell asleep. The rear light of consciousness, like the last express train of the night, began to fade into the distance, gradually speeding up, growing smaller until it was finally, sucked into the depths of the night, where it disappeared. All that remained was the sound of the wind slipping through a stand of white birch trees.

Murakami has returned to an earlier style of story-telling here, but the intervening years have left their mark. Anchored in reality as Norwegian Wood was twenty-seven years ago, the mundane reality of the new book is imbricated with dreams and magic, from the image patterning of music and color (Sara’s name is as colorless, finally, as Tsukuru’s), to the psychically gifted pianist and the mysterious effect of the music he plays on Tsukru’s sexual, violent, inexplicable dreams. In one of them, Tsukuru is flayed by birds, his skin replaced by some unknown substance between eggs and feathers.

Do the auras the pianist sees really exist? Does embracing death really render them visible? Are the dark forest elves real that pursued Shira real or metaphorical? Did Tsukuru actually attack Shira in some somnambulistic fugue state? Did he have sex with his friend Haida, or merely dream it? The author leaves these mysteries unresolved, like the tragic events of Shira’s life and death. But their presence deepens and invigorates the most straightforward and open-hearted book Haruki Murakami has ever written.

—Steven Axelrod

 

Oct 012014
 

liam3
Liam Carson’s memoir, Call Mother a Lonely Field (shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize), was described by Pol O’Muiri, writing in The Irish Times, as “a lyrical prose poem about being one of the first generation of Belfast children to be actually raised – reluctantly at times – with Irish.” The opening and closing chapters framing the memoir are both titled Tearmann, the Irish word for sanctuary. For his father, Liam Mac Carráin, Carson tells us in the opening chapter, Irish was a place of refuge. “He was once interviewed for BBC Radio Ulster’s Tearmann— where guests were asked what gave them sanctuary in their lives. He chose the Irish language itself. He hid within and took comfort from words.” Carson himself when he eventually resolves his relationship with the Irish language describes it as “a blessing that—finally—I have returned to the linguistic sanctuary my parents bequeathed me, for which I am eternally grateful.”

“Will Irish survive?” he ultimately wonders. “Nobody knows,” he determines. “If it does, it will not be the language of the past, because we are not the people of the past. But a generation ago, men and women like my father and mother gave their children something that still fights erasure. If it endures it will be because there must always be a return to one’s own tearmann, where something of one’s soul and being is kept alive.”

If the Irish language survives, it will be because of people like Liam Carson also who has dedicated so much of his time to bringing the Irish language and Irish language literature to the forefront of our cultural life providing us with comfort and a much needed sanctuary.

—Gerard Beirne

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Once upon a time…I was a reader, but not a reader of literature in Irish. I was a speaker of Irish, or a kind of Irish, having been brought up speaking the language in Belfast in the 1960s. My father had many books in Irish – the classic Gaeltacht memoirs and novels by writers such as Séamas Ó Grianna and Seosamh Mac Grianna, Maurice O’Sullivan, Peig Sayers, and Tomás Ó Criomhthain. I never read these books. For one, I didn’t feel my Irish was good enough to engage with them. For another, they didn’t seem to have much to do with the world in which I lived – in 1970s Belfast, my cultural reference points were Bob Dylan, The Doors, punk rock, and science fiction. English was urban and urbane, Irish was a harkening to a mythical rural idyll that never existed in the first place. Like many Irish schoolchildren I went to the Gaeltacht in the summer, and whilst we improved our Irish at morning classes, there was never any mention of poetry or literature, other than that which we encountered in wonderful songs like ‘Thíos cois na trá domh’.

There would be occasional moments when what seemed to me like two disparate cultures would meet. I remember seeing the Donegal band Clannad in a theatre in Gaoth Dobhair. They came on to the stage, hippies with their long hair, jeans, waistjackets and began to sing ‘Níl sé ‘na Lá’. Here was a traditional song reworked, with modern jazz bass lines quivering under a folksy surface. It was magical.

Years later, many years later, I became interested in Irish again – and through the medium of literature. On a visit to Donegal, I felt the language calling to me again. At the Oideas Gael bookshop, I bought a couple of poetry collections by Cathal Ó Searcaigh — and Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues, by Gearóid MacLochlainn. This book shattered my ignorant notions of what existed within Irish literature. I realised what I had missed by not reading Irish. It is not the purely nostalgic literature I once imagined; it can be very much of the present. MacLochlainn writes about my home — west Belfast – and learnt much of his Irish from my father. I recognized myself and my city in his poems. Here were the soldiers, the helicopters, the sirens, the plastic bullets and the Molotov cocktails. Here were people listening to reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, punk and rap. Here were people swimming between Irish and English. Cathal Ó Searcaigh combines a profound knowledge and love of his Donegal tradition — the poets and storytellers who came before him — with the sensibility of somebody who has read Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lorca and Cavafy. I learnt that some of the most engaged, innovative, and beautiful writing emerging from Ireland is in Irish. I became like a thirsty man, drinking from a long-forgotten well. Caithfear pilleadh arís ar na foinsí says Ó Searcaigh — we will have to return to the springs. And in this, we hear echoes of English poet Kathleen Raine’s mission of ‘defending ancient springs’.

It wasn’t long before I was trawling second-hand bookshops for back issues of the wonderful poetry magazine INNTI, brilliantly edited by the mercurial Michael Davitt (whose book title gleann ar ghleann is surely a conscious nod to Bob Dylan). And what Dylan’s blonde on blonde was to the rock lyric, so INNTI was to Irish language poetry. It exploded the categories, crossed borderlines, broke the rules.

I also discovered the dark and surreal work of Dáithí Ó Muirí, one of Ireland’s finest short story writers in any language. Ó Muirí sculpts language with consummate skill, fusing clean accessible lyric Irish with the hipster prose of modern rock journalism. He work carries the influence of fantasy writers such as Ray Bradbury and JG Ballard. This is Irish magical realism, a literature that exists in the context of Borges as much as Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

In his stories people can fly; a mother and daughter see visions of an ice castle on an Indian mountain, and discover a holy well that seems to vanish into thin air. What permeates these tales is the surreal logic of dreams.

But within his alienated landscapes, there exist potent reminders of the world we know. In ‘Cogadh’ (War) we find the fear of the other that lies at the heart of war. His imaginary citizens erect a wall to protect themselves from attack – and immediately the reader is reminded of the twenty or so ironically named ‘peace lines’ that still separate catholic and protestant communities in Belfast; or of the ‘security wall’ that the state of Israel has built around the Palestinian territories.

In many of his stories, the background is replete with televisions pumping out the news of a tireless vaguely defined conflict that echoes the ‘war on terror’. African immigrants ‘éalú ón gcruatan thall, bochtanas, gorta, foréigean’ (flee from distant hardship, poverty, famine, violence). This is Irish literature which is simultaneously global.

Irish cultural commentator Diarmuid Ó Giolláin recently put forward the provocative proposition that traditional folklore might find a rebirth in a post-modern culture where the grand narratives of the 20th century novel are in retreat, and where ‘little local stories’ (‘scéalta beaga aitiúla’) have been re-invested with value. In Irish literature, these ‘little stories’ have recently found potent expression in Alan Titley’s delightful Leabhar Nora Ní Anluain. On the one hand, it is utterly Gaelic, and takes as its model or framework classic collections of traditional folk narratives such as Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill – and some have also compared it to Boccaccio’s The Decameron. On the other hand, it is a book utterly of our time, with a subversive critique of global neo-liberalism and all forms of colonialism at its heart.

But it is not enough for a literature to exist. A literature needs readers. Writers need readers, listeners, they need a platform on which to sing their songs. In 2004, with the assistance of Poetry Ireland, I set out to create the IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival. It was co-founder poet Gabriel Rosenstock who named the festival IMRAM – a ‘voyage of discovery’. It means constantly finding new ways in which to frame Irish language literature – through eclectic and imaginative event programming that fuses poetry, prose and music. IMRAM has also featured film, drama, puppetry, debates, lectures, and writing workshops for both adults and children. IMRAM’s core mission is to bring writers and readers – and particularly new readers – together.

IMRAM’s message is positive – and places the Irish language and its literature at the heart of public life within a modern, energetic and multicultural framework. IMRAM believes that it is crucial to place Irish language literature in an international context. Irish language writers do not exist in some strange Gaelic ghetto cut off from the rest of the world. It is impossible to imagine Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry without the influence of John Berryman or of Marina Tsvetaeva. And it’s worth noting that her poem ‘Dubh’ (Black) is an impassioned cri-de-coeur response to the tragic fall of Srebrenica in 1995, during which Serbian forces under the command of the notorious General Ratko Mladic slaughtered eight thousand Bosnian men and boys in the single worst act of genocide on European soil since the Second World War.

Liam Ó Muirthile has spoken of his deep attachment to French poetry, particularly poets François Villon and Jacques Prévert. Gabriel Rosenstock has long engaged with eastern literature – Indian, Chinese, and Japanese. He is one of the world’s foremost writers and translators of the haiku, possessed by the spirits of Basho, Buson and Issa.

There has always been traffic between Ireland and the rest of Europe, Ireland and the world at large. And there have always been writers who have reflected the spirit of the age in its broadest sense. Seosamh Mac Grianna wrote what I would describe as existentialist noir, he evoked the zeitgeist of the 1930s, and of the individual trying to come to grips with the darkness of the age.

For IMRAM, the trick is to find the points where literatures and cultures meet. For me, it was obvious that Bob Dylan should be translated into Irish. His songs draw on a tradition with Gaelic roots, they have traditional themes, airs and lyrics that lend themselves perfectly to translation to Irish. In Gabriel Rosenstock’s hands, these lyrics were not just translated, they were transmuted, as if by a process of literary alchemy. Thus the questioning ‘how does it feel’ of Dylan’s original becomes a demand to simply tell one’s story – ‘mínigh an scéal’. Or in Dublin parlance, ‘what’s the story?’, Dylan’s ‘like a complete unknown’ becomes ‘i do bhard gan dán’ – a poet without a poem. Thus storytelling and poetry become the core of Dylan’s torrent of language.

Creative and themed events are at the heart of IMRAM’s mission. We believe that literature must engage with othe art forms – music, visual arts, dance, drama. In 2009, IMRAM staged The Riverrun Project, a bli-lingual poetic and sonic voyage through modern and historical Dublin. This featured specially commissioned work by Biddy Jenkinson, Dermot Bolger, Liam Ó Muirthile and Máighréad Medbh, performed to original music and sound effects created by Seán Mac Erlaine. Graphic artist Margaret Lonergan created on-screen projections, showing a mesmerising series of often quite beautiful images of modern Dublin, carefully selected to match the poems being read.

In 2010, IMRAM transformed experimental poet Séamas Cain’s book tríd an gcoill was transformed into a sonic and visual installation by sound artist Slavek Kwi, and staged in City Arts over five days. Slavek Kwi fused Cain’s recital of the poem with a sound-track of sounds gathered in Dromore Wood in County Clare; in addition hundreds of still images and film-clips were used, both on a large screen and on a small screen within a ‘speaker-tree’.

For the 2011 Dublin Writers Festival, IMRAM produced two special commissioned performances. The first of these was The Aisling Project, in which poets Paddy Bushe, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn and Dairena Ní Chinnéide performed newly composed poems in the aisling form addressing the current state of Ireland. These were performed to beautiful effect with specially composed live music by acclaimed composer and multi-instrumentalist Seán Mac Erlaine, and powerful on-screen projections by artist Margaret Lonergan.

In conjunction with the Goethe Institute and Poetry Ireland – IMRAM and the Dublin Writers Festival also staged Orpheus Sings a tri-lingual celebration of Rainer Maria Rilke. Peter Jankowski read the original German texts. Celia de Fréine read her sparkling Irish versions of Rilke, along with selections from Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s translations of Duino Elegies and Valentin Iremonger’s translation of The Life of Mary. Eva Bourke read fresh new English versions of Rilke, including selections from his earlier work and from New Poems. The poets were read to musical from harpist Cormac de Barra, and artist Margaret Lonergan created on-screen projections of photos and art celebrating Rilke’s life.

For a number of years now, IMRAM has been working in close association with design and typography students in the Dublin Institute of Technology, creating an annual Cló Project. Poems and short prose texts are selected and given to students, who create imaginative new typefaces and graphics for the poems and stories. In 2012, we took the project to the streets of Dublin, producing 30 large billboard poems. This meant that Irish language poetry had a significant visible presence, seen by thousands on their way to work.

In 2012, IMRAM also experimented with dance, commissioning acclaimed choreographer and dance artist Fearghus Ó Conchúir to create an otherwordly exploration of Daithí Ó Muirí’s surreal novel, Ré. Using live dance, music and visuals, the show featured dancer Ríonach Ní Néill, with music by Alma Kelliher, and lighting by Ciarán Ó Melia.

IMRAM staged La nuit est ma femme at the 2013 Dublin Writers Festival – a literary exploration of Kerouac’s relationship to French, to Catholicism and Buddhism; of his bi-lingual identity; and of his fraught relationship with America. The selections drew on poems, haiku and novels. Two writers – Gabriel Rosenstock and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn – both translated and responded to Kerouac’s work. The texts were read to improvised jazz accompaniment by The Dirty Jazz Band and on-screen projections created by Margaret Lonergan. This event saw a capacity crowd (the majority students in their twenties) in the Workman’s Club.

IMRAM is eleven years old this year, and we are currently developing beyond being an annual festival into an organization that programmes and curates events for other literary organizations and festivals throughout Ireland and beyond. We are always open to creative partnerships, open to new ideas, dialogue, and communication. We are here to celebrate literature in Irish – a literature that has proved surprisingly alive and flexible in the face of all the challenges that face any minority language. We continue our mission, like a rolling stone…

—Liam Carson

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Liam Carson was born in Belfast, and is the author of Call Mother a Lonely Field, published by Hag’s Head Press and Seren Books. He is the director of the IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival, which he founded in 2004.

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Oct 012014
 

AFSullivan-Insideco

 

The first time they floated through the ceiling, Abbie Kirkland was naked. Life was full of constraints, obligations and restrictions—sleep was one chance to abandon all of that. Even in the winter months, she hated sleeping in her clothes. Quilts were piled up on the bed, but she and Derek floated right up through them, their skin lit up blue under in a wide circle of light. Derek wore only a ratty t-shirt, the armpits gaping holes. The clock read 3:00 AM, but Abbie could not speak or cry out. Her body was almost frozen, slowed down so every moment was an ache, an endless task. Her eyes could move, but all they saw was blue light and Derek beside her, his own face stuck half-way through a yawn. There was fear trickling out around the corners of his eyes, but he could not say a word. His teeth looked electric, sharpened in the light. Abbie wanted to scream, but then she passed through the ceiling, through the attic, through the roof of the farmhouse, and nothing could touch her.

It was there in the tractorbeam above their farmhouse twenty miles outside Lethbridge that Abbie finally saw everything, even the pieces she never wanted to find. She did not see the horizon or the world around her; she saw everything inside Derek, inside the tractorbeam hoisting them up into the air, soundlessly, the saucer above them just an aluminum pan stuck in rotation. Memories of frogs exploded with firecrackers, of a mother’s fist whacking Derek’s mouth, of dead mice in the attic fed to the cat by hand. The blue light pierced them both in a way that she and Derek became one, unleashing every fear, every hate and those deep kindnesses most humans can’t remember. They washed over her mind, seeped into the corners of her skull. Abbie saw her husband pull a boy out a house fire while he was wasted, saw him leave a friend outside in the winter cold when there was not enough room in the truck. She watched him hold his first niece, felt the size of his heart almost cripple his skinny chest. She learned of the horrors his father had described, but never enacted on his offspring. She and Derek rose up through the darkness, swaddled in blue and not even the moisture in the air could touch them.

Abbie watched Derek’s eyes move toward her, felt him there, showered with her oldest thoughts, the time she cut her hand and didn’t cry but just watched the blood run through the lifeline of her hand, watched it trickle down her arm and slide off the point of her elbow. It was only then that she told her mother, only then that she had wept because that was what you were supposed to do when you were five and someone saw you hurting. This was your signal, your cue. Derek had access to all of this, but he wasn’t probing, he was being showered with these memories, these horrors and fears and revelations. She always wanted him to refuse a shower before they made love, to smell the day on him, the sweat, the shit, whatever and now he saw this, knew this and they kept rising into the air. The saucer above drew closer, but it could not be a saucer. These were not true stories, these were fantasies. She wanted to call it a dream, but the blue light tasted like a socket and she could not pinch herself. No dreams, no nightmares. Just a now.

As a small hum of the machine above them drew closer, Abbie pushed words out toward her husband, letting them swim through the blue light toward his head. What is this? Why is this?

Derek only could send back colours, bright yellows that hit her brain, reds that made her tremble somewhere within, where the blue light could not reach. Finally, small words began to trickle in to her brain, into her consciousness, if that’s what she could call it here, hovering above their house and the snow below.

Something. It is. Do not. Do not. Let go. Let go. Hold. Hold. Hold.

It was when they bumped against the aluminium that the darkness finally closed around them and the last word she could taste, could smell, could hear was rye and ginger and Us like a whisper pushed through chipped, clenched teeth. And then she knew everything.

The next morning Abbie and Derek woke up in the backyard. She was still naked in the snow and his shirt was still ragged. They crawled toward each other against the cold and did not need to speak. Each one had somehow been inside the other up there in the sky; there were no more intimate places to hide, no more shame, no more secrets. They groped each other, looking for wounds, for missing parts, for seams or zippers where there had been none before. They found nothing, only what they knew, what they had always wanted. Abbie ran a hand down her husband’s spine, pushed her lips into his. They would tell no one of what happened. No one would believe them anyway—no one would understand outside these two beings. They remembered nothing after the aluminum, but everything from before. They had halls to walk, museums to explore that never seemed to end. The world could become a person if you were given enough access—the world could become a person if that was all you cared to know.

After a few minutes kneeling in the snow, they finally realized they were cold.

-

It was five years before they rose again in the middle of the night, bodies pulled slowly from the bed, perfectly flat toward the ceiling. Derek wore the same t-shirt which now had spots of puke decorating its front. Abbie still remained naked, but it was summer and her sweat had filled the sheets. The blue light was the same. Owen was two years old and sleeping in the other room. He was just learning to make it through the night. Abbie’s heart began to ripple quickly inside her as she rose; there were never any guarantees that they would come back, there were no promises with the light. It came when it wanted to it seemed, it raised them in the dark with no warning.

We knew this was comingWe will come back. We will always come back.

Derek’s voice was inside her, his words sliding up against her glowing teeth. Her eyes found his and she saw the fear in her rain down toward him, a lonely child, a bitter boy with no parents in this world, sent to live with ancient relatives who could not spell kindness, much less show it. Rotten fruit, rotten kids at school, a boy stunted by a lack of diet, a lack of love. This would be Owen and Derek’s dreams filtered back toward her, the night the cattle got out and he had kissed Owen goodnight three times, how he had come back between each run and looked down on his son, placed a gnarled hand against the smooth surface of the boy’s head. Abbie’s fear plunged away somewhere hidden, and she found the old pieces she wanted to recognize, the first time Owen had bit her while breastfeeding, the first time he had fallen down and got up by himself. Children would eventually grow, eventually change. Derek’s mind showed her how he stayed up some nights just to watch over her, how he ate the overcooked chicken breast without complaint, how he threw out a vase he smashed one night after a bachelor party and she never noticed.

She found little bits of Owen inside him as they rose through the light. Private moments a son had shared with his father, things the boy would way day forget, but that would linger on for the man beside her, naked in the air, floating in the heat of summer, teeth lit up like exposed wires under a foreign sun. She knew Derek found the first steps Owen had taken with her while he had been out haying in the summer before, the way the boy had clapped to cheer for himself and then fallen over directly into the coffee table. Only three stitches, but those stiches were woven into Abbie’s heart now, into her being, she could feel them there even in the blue light.

There were secret loves here, things that had changed, grown deeper, creeks that had become rivers, ditches into canyons, but they were not divided, they were still drawn toward one another. The blue light tightened this bond that had once just been a child, held it close against them. The sky was clear and they could have stared for miles around them, taken in the beauty of a world about to change, a season fading into the next, the idea of distance, of space, of whatever it was dragging them up into the sky, but here, in the tractorbeam, Abbie could only find her husband, could know him more than any other place, any time. It sucked them both up into the sky, drew them towards a deep unknown and all she could find was how he liked to swallow his toothpaste water, how he liked to wrap his hand inside her hair, how he could slaughter a pig and think of Morrissey and laugh. And Abbie wanted all these things, she had all these things, they were hers and his and there was no separation, no line, no demarcation. They eroded into one another, in the blue, in the light, until they were swallowed once again, not as a two, but as a single organism.

They agreed never to tell the boy, again deposited outside their home in the early hours of the day. There was now a new knowledge between them, a third, displaced understanding of their son within their lives. Abbie could hear the cows bucking up against the fences near the house—they understood something, but could not articulate it beyond their fear. From inside the house, she could hear a voice and for a second, the sensation was too old, too ancient to count as a memory. Her knowledge came from inside, came from a knowing that Derek could share alone, a long understanding that needed no form the outside world could understand. This was a human sound and Derek moved before she could, a crying coming from within the house. Owen was awake. She gathered herself up in the grass, not even bothering to look for a wound or a puncture, no soreness on her body. Whatever they had taken from her, they had given something more. Abbie knew this. This was an understanding she would have, a knowledge she could keep. This was not magic or science, or fantasy. This was simply the future, she told herself. This is something we deserve. As she came through the screen door, she watched Derek in his dirty shirt swing Owen up into his arms and then remembered she was naked and did not care.

-

They slept in separate beds during the third occurrence. Separate rooms even. It wasn’t until Abbie rose through the dissipated ceiling, her body now covered in a nightgown in the fall air, that she saw Derek rising with her, his hairy body turned away from her, as if their gaze was what connected them in these strange and foreign moments. His body seemed to fight the light, she could see striations of him straining, little bundles of muscle fibre slowed and stunned by the blue encompassing them. There would be no escape. They both knew this and so Abbie did not resist. She welcomed this, dreamed of being taken away to another planet, to another place, away from their house. It had to be cursed now; maybe the blue light had cursed them, given them too much. She wanted to see the grief inside Derek, the places where he was no longer whole, to let herself know that he too was shattered, splintered, a series of fragments stitched together by will alone, will and some bizarre desire to keep living in the wake of Owen’s absence.

All that she found was rage though, a seething mass of red bombarding her skull, the contents of Derek shelling her with images of other women, of flesh on flesh, of an email he had read where she confessed her desires to a man in San Francisco, the hand of Owen slipping from hers near the river two summers before, Derek wasn’t there but he had imagined it well enough, almost had Abbie shoving their son into the deep, dark cold. She dove in after him, but Derek had painted it with hesitation, had nixed out the Skidoos and the screaming people, had rendered it into some strange tableau and so her own black bile filtered through the blue light to him, their semi-naked bodies hurling insults and rage at one another in the sky. It was raining and the water could not touch them, it fell in a cone around the blue light while the saucer spun above them, nameless, eyeless, watching nonetheless, its blue maw pulling them higher and higher.

Agony had new terms here, was an eternal reliving of that loss, of the ways they had tried to cope, the new flesh Derek had pursued in town, the cats he had shot in the middle of the night, drunk in the barn, aiming for raccoons or anything to stomp the life out of to quiet himself. Abbie found the ways she retreated already well-worn routes into the arms of old high school boyfriends grown wide and sedentary, but still welcoming. She mainly slept on their couches, drank their beers, asked how their ex-wives were going.

Murder spun between them, acts of imagined violence, divorce always gloaming up into the dark but never quite taking shape until now, until the memories seemed to be boxed up and divided, the museums closed to one another, but still memorized, so all the wounds still burned hot even in the blue. Words still filtered through to express failures, to express desires best left unsaid.

Loathing is too weak.

Abbie could feel this on her neck, coupled with the yoke of Owen’s body never moving from her shoulders but here in the blue with her crackling teeth, she cast it off to build up her own defenses—you never could be a man to recognize. You would not identify the body.

He had disappeared down the river and it had been weeks before they pulled out what was assumed to be the Kirkland boy. Abbie found images of Derek weeping in his truck outside the coroner’s office, battering the steering wheel, prying his teeth into the leather, the sobs wracking his chest like a death rattle. She threw these through the air toward him, split his weaknesses into tinder and lit it. The blue light did not allow Derek to run and so he burned and burned and she can feel him flush the blood and bile toward her, unspooling older hatreds she already knew but had let mold and drift away. Her mother slapping her in the face outside the church, outside the corner store, outside the school. Her father sitting in the car and just watching, just watching.

Just watch a boy drown, just watch, just watch.

They rose slowly together even through this maelstrom, even through this hate as the rain fell and now Derek was the one closer to naked, closer to the start, he was sleeping in the guest room these days and doing his own laundry at Sheryl Ann’s place and she liked to take him in her mouth before he left at night and Abbie couldn’t help but know these things, they must both know all these things, this was what the blue light has always promised and so when they hit the edge of the aluminum, when the dark descended again and cancelled everything, there was no love, no loss, no want between them—just flame and salt and whatever was left of hearts untended.

They were never dropped into their beds. They were in the yard again and they awoke with no outer wounds, no zippers, no portals through their stomachs. They awoke clothed and damp and it was still raining and the cows were in the barn and they did not look at each other. Abbie rose with her cheeks bright red and her eyes filled with crystals of some sort, they were tears, they were stuck to her eyes it seems, but she did not make any noise. She rose and walked toward the house, saw Derek stumbling toward his axe at the woodpile and then shuffling toward the barn.

Abbie stepped into the kitchen, turning one of the burners on, placing a skillet over the rising flame. She stared out the wet window, watched her husband bring a pig out into the yard, watched him raise the axe above its head. No artistry out there in the wet, just rage, just red, just splashes of fury out onto the dirt and the grass and his half-naked body. This was how it would show itself, the wounds the blue light had provided, the ones lingering within them for that year, for that loss, for what a river could take away and never apologize for because it was never the same thing twice. The river was never static enough—there would be no blue light there.

Abbie pressed her bare palm down onto the skillet and did not scream. She let it sizzle and burn until the pig outside stopped wailing and Derek had fallen to his knees in the mud.

Only then did she pull the melted flesh away like a human glove, knowing there and then the inside was still worse off. The rain did not wipe anything away; it only blurred the edges until everything outside looked like a wound. Abbie ran the tap and let it all slough down the drain.

-

Fifteen years passed and they stayed in that same farmhouse, working the same land, living the same life as before in the same separate beds in the same rooms and they rose in that blue light again, but older, fatter, more tired. Everything gets tired, everyone gets tired, even the blue light seemed weaker for once, or maybe they were just used to it by this point, this fourth ride into the sky so delayed from their earlier voyages. Abbie did not turn away from Derek, she could almost move her face toward him. He was wearing a coverall from the barn. He had not even bothered to change before lying down in the bed, placing his balding head back against the sweat drenched pillow. She could feel the fear begin wafting off him, all the knowledge she could find inside him leaking out for the world to see.

Abbie had tried to forget things, tried to heal her burnt hand, but it was never quite the same. At one point she almost told the doctor about the beacon in the sky above her bed, the sensation of floating through your own attic with your husband beside you, the deep knowing of your guilt in every synapse in your brain due to this terrible blue light, this terrible illuminating technology, a gift, a curse, all these things at once, but she kept her mouth shut because there were mornings where she could not believe, where she would go to Owen’s grave and weep and blame the river and the sky all at once. It resided in each molecule of her, it hid all its stories and memories in her flesh, bound Derek to her in each and every day. They had never harmed her, but Abbie knew she would never be the same. And no doctor would help with that.

Why? Derek’s word slipped into her like a long forgotten transmission, a recoding he’d kept in storage for this moment, wanting her pardon. Why rise again, why bring this pain again?

Abbie could see his yellowed teeth crackling in the blue light like before, she could see the pieces of Owen within him and the old pieces of the love they’d built, the love he’d tried to find with other women, with Sheryl Ann and Debra and Ms. Gibbons from the elementary school. None of it lasted though and he had stayed on in that house with her, stayed away from the river, from the scenes of devastations and house fires and missing children. Abbie was not shocked to find new things in him, new things she wanted to absorb, to find and remember. There were newer hurts, newer fears, the same old longings he could never outrun. There was a baseball game on tomorrow that he wanted to watch, a dream he wanted to forget about frogs and death and the ghost of his father’s right hook.

Abbie knew why. She wanted to know Derek as she always had, as he would want to be known. And they could still build Owen in there somewhere, maybe, maybe out of disparate parts and all the new terrible and awesome things they had come to know—awesome in the old understanding of unknown skies and seasons. The world could be just two people, could just be a single person if you were given enough time, enough delay in the sky.

Abbie Kirkland knew why.

Fascination.

Abbie’s voice wasn’t a sound, it was a colour and a fury, it was a sky before the storm, it made the blue light pale against Derek’s exposed face. It spread through him as a pink glow inside his sluggish blood and there was no aluminum above them, no maw to swallow. They were both here and they could know everything. All they had was a now. Her voice knew it.

 —Andrew F. Sullivan

/

Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of WASTE (forthcoming Dzanc Books, 2015) and All We Want is Everything (ARP Books, 2013), one of The Globe & Mail’s Best Books of 2013. Sullivan no longer works in a warehouse.

 

Oct 012014
 

Jacob Glover

At the Top of the Page this month: essays and reviews, a selection of Jacob Glover‘s contributions to the magazine. Jacob Glover has been an accomplice, co-conspirator, helpful presence from the magazine’s inception. He’s contributed essays, reviews, translations, poems, blog posts, and contest entries (in the days when we ran contests), also performed as a singer-songwriter with his brother Jonah and allowed dg to post funny pictures of him now and then. He has done background layout and scouted and curated pieces for the magazine, most recently the Wayne Hankey essay on conversion and novel plots in the July issue. He entered into the spirit of the place from the start. He’s one of the old guard at NC. On the current masthead, only Rich Farrell can claim seniority.

Sep 262014
 

Savage Love PB cover2 small(Click on the image to read reviews.)

“This was, hands down, the best book I read in 2013.” National Post

“…stories as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature.” Los Angeles Review of Books

“…demands comparison to McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner.” Music and Literature

§

Publisher’s web page.

Sep 242014
 

2-Salgado-The Party_180x190cm_2014_oil on canvasThe Party by Andrew Salgado

Art is the human/inhuman attempt to get at what is beyond the words, the thing that cannot be expressed, whether love or sadness or joy or awe. Paradox there, I know. If you’re writing words, how can you be trying to get beyond words? But you are. Think about it.

The amazing Canadian painter Andrew Salgado has a new exhibition going up October 7 in London called Storytelling; storytelling but with paintings, with images, oil on canvas, his medium for what cannot be communicated. We have excellent paintings and an interview curated by Numéro Cinq newcomer JC Olsthoorn.

Fritz at SrebrenicaSrebrenica Genocide Memorial, Tom Simpson Photo

Long story: in 2010 we published a gorgeous sequence of poems by the Bosnian-Canadian poet Goran Simić. Flash forward to this summer: I got in touch with Goran in Bosnia and he said sure but he needed some translation help. Contributing Editor Sydney Lea put me in touch with Tom Simpson at Philips Exeter Academy who knows Goran and has a personal stake in Bosnia. Tom flies to Sarajevo and he and Goran have what I can only say must have been a wonderful time together, sitting in Bosnian bars and coffee houses, mulling over the poems.  The result: We have in this issue a brand new, freshly translated (by Goran and Tom) sheaf of Goran Simić poems, plus a terribly moving, passionate memoir of Thomas Simpson’s travels in Bosnia, his friendships and epiphanies.You will have to read the poems and the essay; words fail, and the story of pain, loss and human will embodied in the word Bosnia can only be re-experienced in their art.

But wait, there’s more (ah, the endless adventure of editing NC): A week and a half ago, Tom wrote to say he’d gone to a Sydney Lea reading (they had never met before), and Syd had read a poem about and for Goran Simić that nearly brought Tom to tears. So I wrote to Syd and got the poem for NC. Much gratitude to Tom and Goran and Syd for combining on two continents to bring this to pass.

My imagination was born from my simple need
To be silent instead of cry
Because silence alone has the colour I am craving
To paint myself,
Which finds no place on the hardware store’s palette.

—Goran Simić

Goran SimicGoran Simić

Samuel Stolton in his brilliant brief essay “Plato, Heidegger, Kant & Habermas Play Pass the Parcel: Poiesis and the Philosophy of Art-Creation” turns the problem of art (the paradox of expressing the inexpressible) on its head: How do you create something out of nothing?  He then does a forensic analysis of the philosophy from Plato to Agamben and Habermas. I adore the concept herein of “weak thought,” the sort of  artistic noodling around that is neither focused or intentional but is a precursor to creation. But there is so much more.

Samuel StoltonSamuel Stolton

And Natalie Helberg (one of our own) contributes a stunningly dense and erudite essay on the great Canadian experimental novelist Gail Scott  (who can forget her first novel  Heroine?), focusing on Scott’s 2010/12 novel The Obituary with its complex overlapping point of view structure. The essay begins with a paradoxical question: “How to do justice to a text so rich that I could only do justice to it by repeating it exactly?”

Author PicGail Scott

And then because I have a dog and have always loved that J. R. Ackerley memoir My Dog Tulip, which, among other things is about love and communicating without words, we have a nice little review (by animal rescue activist Melissa Armstrong) of Han Dong’s new novella A Tabby-cat’s Tale just published by Frisch & Co in Berlin. (I also have a new dog in my life but will restrain myself from adding several irrelevant photos here. Just so you know.)

haystack-rock-e1407876106174-768x1024Melissa Armstrong talking with her dog.

We also have in this issue — at this point in the preview, the writing of the preview, I generally start to hyperventilate and need to breathe into a paper bag (or walk the dog) — scads of new fiction. First and foremost, a brief tale of the grisly and unspeakable (might as well keep the theme going), baby-selling, from Benjamin Woodard.

WoodardBenjamin Woodard

And then a fantastic story by Andrew F. Sullivan, one of my favourite young Canadian writers, a story of, yes, that thing you don’t usual talk about (if it happens to you — for me, only twice, and till now I have kept my mouth shut), of alien abduction called “Nights in the Tractorbeam.”

The first time they floated through the ceiling, Abbie Kirkland was naked. Life was full of constraints, obligations and restrictions—sleep was one chance to abandon all of that. Even in the winter months, she hated sleeping in her clothes. Quilts were piled up on the bed, but she and Derek floated right up through them, their skin lit up blue under in a wide circle of light. Derek wore only a ratty t-shirt, the armpits gaping holes. The clock read 3:00 AM, but Abbie could not speak or cry out. Her body was almost frozen, slowed down so every moment was an ache, an endless task. Her eyes could move, but all they saw was blue light and Derek beside her, his own face stuck half-way through a yawn. There was fear trickling out around the corners of his eyes, but he could not say a word. His teeth looked electric, sharpened in the light. Abbie wanted to scream, but then she passed through the ceiling, through the attic, through the roof of the farmhouse, and nothing could touch her.

AFSullivan-InsideAndrew F. Sullivan (who takes a good picture, too)

Also a gorgeous story by Timothy Dugdale (who has appeared before as a book reviewer): “Back Spin” — a terse, grim, Carver-esque piece on snow, dog-walking, and the thrashing death of a deer.

His father shone a flashlight. The deer was thrashing about, trying to right itself. But it was front legs were destroyed and blood covered its breast. His father gave Nieves the flashlight and took out a sledge hammer from the back of the truck. He stepped smartly to the deer and  swung. The deer wrenched its head from the blow and thrashed again. His father took another swing. The deer made a sound and moved and went still. A car whizzed by and then another.  “Hold that light steady, ” his old man said. Nieves watched his father pause at the top of his next swing, staring at the deer, choosing his place for delivery. The hammer dropped. The deer’s head exploded.

Timothy DugdaleTimothy Dugdale

We have more, much more (and I am past the hyperventilating mode). A lovely interview-with-poems from Ann Ireland who talks to the amazing wife and husband poetry-writing duo Roo Borson and Kim Maltman.

The Collaborators Kim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing roomKim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing space

And a review of the new Murakami novel by Steven Axelrod, a novel excerpt from Gladys Swan, another Numéro Cinq at the Movies by R. W. Gray who has recently been busy premiering his own film Zack and Luc at the Atlantic Film Festival and, yes, even another Uimhir a Cúig (a piece of NC that will always be Ireland) featuring an essay by Liam Carson on Irish language writers.

That should be enough. That should hold you, oh ravening beast readers of NC.

Ok.

DSCF8568New dog at Casa NC.

dg

Sep 232014
 

In this powerful and important essay, Laura K. Warrell refuses to bow to Quentin Tarantino as a pop icon and instead calls him out as a puerile manipulator of stereotypes. She puts his brutal and salacious Mandingo fight scene in Django Unchained (winner of the completely undeserved Oscar for Original Screenplay) up against Ralph Ellison’s horrific fight scene in Invisible Man (published separately as a short story called “Battle Royal”) and a recent theatrical production of the novel at the Huntington Theater in Boston. All three portray forced fight scenes between black men as an expression of white racism in the American South; they give Warrell an amazing opportunity to contrast approaches, values, techniques and motives and to deliver a stinging indictment of lingering racism and black stereotyping in Hollywood and PC America. In the end, Ellison is the voice that speaks the black experience with grace, intelligence and dignity.

Read the essay at Race & Art in America: The Invisible Man meets Django Unchained — Laura K. Warrell » in the Numéro Cinq Archives.

Sep 202014
 

BergerJohn Berger

Here’s a review I wrote of John Berger’s early novel Corker’s Freedom 20 years ago, rescued from an old disk. The novel was first published in the UK in 1964 and was finally published in the U.S. in 1993 by Pantheon Books. This review appeared in the Washington Post in February 1994. Berger, as you all know, went on to win the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G. and became a famous BBC TV art critic. An amazing, knowing writer. Get the book.

dg

corkers-freedom-frontcover-5a44cf4884f45f8f48187085a26d3304The Verso edition.

Corker’s Freedom
A Novel
By John Berger

.

Dostoevsky once said we all came out from under Gogol’s overcoat by which he meant that the roots of modern storytelling all trace back to Nikolai Gogol’s tale of a humble clerk whose great adventure was buying a brand new overcoat which someone immediately steals.

John Berger’s novel Corker’s Freedom is contemporary masterwork in precisely this Gogolian mode — the old-style noble hero is dead, and in his place we have the drama of a little man who throws all his passion and yearning into some minor, shopworn achievement and inevitably fails.

First published in England in 1964, Corker’s Freedom took almost thirty years to cross the Atlantic Ocean, a slow passage by anyone’s reckoning. I won’t say it was worth the wait because a delay like that is unconscionable, though not inexplicable.

Berger went on to win the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G., but he also has an immense reputation as a (Marxist) art critic and avant garde film maker, a reputation sure not to make the hearts of commercial publishers flutter with anticipation.

Corker’s Freedom is about the 64-year-old owner of a grubby little London employment agency who one day decides to leave the home he shares with his invalid sister Irene and set up house in the empty flat above his office. William Corker is humble clay. He and Irene are emotionally pinched — what everyone today would instantly recognize as co-dependent. The single relationship that Corker can recall in anything resembling warm tones is his brief childhood acquaintance with a Viennese nanny.

The move from Irene’s house to the agency flat is the great adventure of Corker’s life, his last, desperate bid for freedom before the long night falls. In the midst of rearranging his mother’s old furniture to make a bedroom, he pictures himself as Lancelot holding the Grail. He thinks he has struck a blow for “The right of a man to be himself, the right of a man to find a way out of his suffering, the right of a man to live where and as he wishes — eager, curious, hopeful, experimental — the right of a man to say: I wish to begin again.”

These are brave, rousing words uttered in the cause of personal transformation in a godless modern world. But they come to nothing. In a horrifyingly comic climactic scene, a drunken Corker discourses on the meaning of life, liberty and art in the midst of an ill-attended church hall slide presentation on his recent holiday in Vienna. His sister sits in the audience tapping her canes irritably. His agency assistant Alec fondles his girlfriend. And a pretty young woman with whom Corker thinks he has fallen in love watches cagily while her burgler lover breaks into the employment agency and makes off with the company safe. Ruined, Corker ends up making crank speeches from a Hyde Park soap box and conning tourists for his lunch.

Berger pushes against the constraints of the novel form, using passages of screen-play dialogue and parenthetical stage directions as fictional shorthand to stand for everyday narrative machinery (set-up and background) that might take pages and pages in a normal novel. This is so that he can pay attention to what he wants to pay attention to, which is the gap between the inner thoughts and public statements of his characters, the tragic and ironic distance between what they know or feel and what they can say.

The drama of the book, in Corker’s case, is the gradual narrowing of this gap — at the end of the church hall scene he is saying what he thinks and knows, which, as Berger sees it, is a kind of folly bordering on madness and leads directly to Corker’s downfall. (Hence the irony of the final pages with Corker endlessly exercising every Englishman’s right to free speech to a sparse gathering of unemployed hecklers and baffled tourists.)

Corker is already done for when he announces to his slide-show audience: “To the best of our ability we must choose happiness. That is my choice. I may be interrupted, prevented or defeated by circumstances but at least I know what I want and what I am doing. I am making myself happy.” The final sentence is, of course, untrue, which makes the speech achingly tragic and absurdly funny at the same time.

Berger writes with amazing aplomb, packing his pages with pyrotechnic ethical wisdom, trenchant social criticism (couched dramatically in the life stories of a succession of deftly sketched secondary characters), and sly comedy (Corker getting progressively drunker on Austrian kummel while reflecting on the glories of Vienna and his long-lost nanny).

Corker’s Freedom is an exhilarating achievement, wise, unsettling, and alive with a sense of humanity that is flawed, doomed, yet oddly indomitable.

—Douglas Glover (Originally appeared in the Washington Post, February 27, 1994)

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Sep 202014
 

My old roomie (and frequent NC contributor) Mark Anthony Jarman and I are reading together at the Goose Lane Editions 60th Anniversary party in Toronto, September 30. Many others are reading, too (including David Seymour, reviewed in these pages earlier this year). So you won’t be bored with, you know, just me.

Details: September 30, 7:00 pm at The Supermarket, 268 Augusta Avenue, Toronto, ON.

This is also the launch for six@sixty: Goose Lane Anniversary Collection, a very cool boxed set of six stories by six Goose Lane authors, each story as a separate small book. My contribution is the story “Woman Gored by Bison Lives” from my collection A Guide to Animal Behaviour. It’s a story about love, sex, death, and great steaming herds of charging buffalo. Not to be missed. It begins:

Days, while my husband is at work, Susan and I make love on the couch in her parents’ basement. It is a desperate thing to do, and we are both a little stunned by it. But something has pushed us to the edge of caring.

Gabriela, the baby, is upstairs sleeping, while Susan’s mother does housework or watches soap operas. We keep our clothes on, manacled at the ankles by a tangle of underwear, jeans and belts.  And when Susan comes, I press my palm across her lips to keep her from shouting out her joy.

I don’t know if we are in love. But we are both in need of solace, and our sex is a composition of melancholy and violence, as though we are seeking to escape and punish ourselves in the same act.

This story also contains the immortal lines: “There are certain things you have to know. Suicide is not an option. Life is always better under the influence of mild intoxicants. Masturbation is healthy, the sooner started the better. It’s a sin not to take love where you find it. That is the only sin.”

PLUS!!!!!!!! The paperback edition of Savage Love is coming out. I got copies in the mail this week.

dg

GLE

 

Sep 192014
 

Wendy1Wendy Voorsanger in her novel skin at Burning Man. Click the photo for more.

One of the side benefits of Numéro Cinq is the outrageously extensive network of friends, contributors, passionate readers and interested parties committed to the cause. My son Jonah, himself an NC contributor, is on a work term (from University of  Waterloo) in San Francisco. He moved there late August, but before that, I put out the word to the NC Tribe and got some amazingly helpful responses. Best of all was Wendy Voorsanger (check out her contributions in the Art contents page, or click the photo above, or read her What It’s Like Living Here essay) who offered Jonah a place to stay till he got on his feet, a warm and generous (thoughtful, caring — I could go on) invitation from someone with a family of her own to look after. Jonah moved into an apartment at the beginning of September, but Wendy’s parting gift was a quick & dirty list of the best things to see and do during his four months in San Francisco. The list made me want to move to SF. Hell, the whole thing made me want Wendy to adopt me. I thought it was too good to leave in an email. So here it is. A friend’s advice to my son on what to experience in a new city. I am eternally grateful.

dg

Jonah and sf skylineJonah on Telegraph Hill. Click the photo for his NC Archive Page.

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1. Off The Grid food truck dinner market (http://offthegridsf.com). I suggest the Haight on Thursday night or Fort Mason on Friday night. If you do Fort Mason on Friday, you can pair it with SFBATS improv comedy theater (http://www.improv.org). Super funny, and cheap entertainment.

2. Have pasta and chianti in North Beach.

3. Visit Coit Tower to see gorgeous WPA frescos painted inside (some by Ralph Stackpole, who did the nudes in our dining room of Conrad’s grandmother, when she/they were young). Don’t forget to go to the top!

4. Have cheap Chinese food in China Town, I suggest Hunan Home’s Restaurant.

5. City Lights Books, Green Apple Books, Dog Eared Books.

6. Visit the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and bike through the park (it’s closed to traffic on Sundays) to the ocean beach and have lunch at the Beach Chalet. Upstairs is sit down, out back is more casual. Don’t forget to check out the frescos inside here too.

7. Walk (or bike) from Crissy Field for Ft. Point Cafe under the Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny day.

8. Bike over the GG Bridge.

9. Take a ferry to Tiburon and have brunch at Sam’s Cafe outside on the pier.

10. Get a burrito at La Taqueria in the Mission.

11. Walk behind the MLK waterfall in Yerba Buena Park. Read the wall.

12. See a movie at the Kabuki Theater.

13. Order a California Roll at Sushi Boat Restaurant.

14. Visit the SF Art Institute (a private art school founded by Ansel Adams) and ask to visit the Diego River Mural in the main gallery.

15. Attend a Litquake event, SF’s literary festival in October.

16. Visit Stanford in Palo Alto.

17. Visit UC Berkley across the Bay.

18. Visit Muir Woods in Marin and see the giant Sequoia Redwoods.

19. SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) in Capitola.

20. Climb Mt. Tamalpais all the day to the fire look out on a clear day for a 360 view of the Bay Area.

(21. Visit Steve Jarret at Facebook!)

—Wendy

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Sep 182014
 

Bonnie Prince CharlieBonnie Prince Charlie bidding farewell to Flora MacDonald on the Isle of Skye after the Battler of Culloden, from the London Illustrated News.

Okay, the referendum is today. A brief memoir: I have Scottish blood, McCall and McInnes. On the McCall side, there was a Scottish soldier who fought with Wolfe at Quebec and then came west along the Lake Erie shore during Pontiac’s Rebellion. He was demobilized in New Jersey, but left the United States after the Revolution and ended up in what became known as the Long Point Settlement in what is now southwestern Ontario. On the McInnes side, there was a fatherless boy, taken up by Sir Walter Scott, educated and sent on the Grand Tour, who then inherited slaves and a tapioca plantation in Curaçao. Later he became the youngest slave owner indemnified by the British government for giving up his slaves. He took the money, moved also to southwestern Ontario, and never worked again. The two families eventually intermarried and my great-great-grandfather Daniel McCall ran a store in St Williams, Ontario, on the Erie shore. At some point, someone in the family cut this illustration from the London Illustrated News, framed it, and hung it in the outhouse (posh outhouse). Later, my grandmother, who grew up with it, took the illustration to live with her. Now it lives with me, hangs above my desk. So now you know which way I’d vote. On the other hand, these things always have a way of disappointing romantics, so I can’t bear to watch the news today.

dg

 

Sep 152014
 

In Justin Anderson’s “Jumper,” a mid-century modern styled family is taunted and tempted by a naked stranger who troubles everything that lies beneath their well-mannered dinner. The film pays homage both to Pier Paolo Passolini’s Teruma and David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings while it more specifically pays tribute to British fashion designer Jonathan Saunders on the 10th anniversary of his label. This melange of fashion, painting, and film is characteristic of most of Anderson’s work, but in this short in particular his play between texts works perfectly with the film’s themes of repression and beautiful surfaces.

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The film starts with a pool sequence that pays homage to almost every painting about a pool David Hockney ever made. Hockney’s pool paintings reveal his excitement and celebration of what he found in 70’s Hollywood when he moved there from England: an expressive, carnal, sun-bronzed eden. This creative time and the life of Hockney and his friends was captured in the documentary A Bigger Splash (1973). The  Hockneyesque pool is both something that inspires the man to strip naked and, when he climbs out on the other side, is the place where he is transformed from naked man into a profound messenger for the woman waiting.

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The house wife the naked man finds on the other side of the pool stands with a pained, pleased expression, her mouth parted, as water trickles down his chest. She responds to this rupture in her life, to the excitement he provokes in her by turning away, walking back into the house, and carrying a plate of pasta to the dinner table. She walks away from her desire and in a sense all the desires and corruptions that follow stem from her walking away from this naked man. Perhaps if she had given over to her appetite, he would not have loomed over their meal, their lives, tempting them one by one. Perhaps she could have consumed him, but now he will consume them.

Jonathan-Saunders

Anderson’s work leans into the absurd, focuses on awkward details that seem conscious of themselves as symbols while they contradictorily resist their symbolization. Water is a key example here: it is the pool he swims through; it drips off his torso, distorts how we see the dinner through the water jug, overflows on the table; the daughter sucks it from the soaked napkin and the father penetrates the jug of it with his hand and wedding finger. Water means so many things that it becomes either numinous or an empty symbol, impossible to be fixed, just like the naked man’s influence over the family.

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The troubling stranger in films is both a perverse and sometimes queer trope. In the aforementioned Teorema, a man sleeps with all the members of a family and the maid, in the Argentinian Apartment Zero, a mysterious James Dean sort of figure has all the denizens of an apartment complex fall in love with him, particularly his roommate (Colin Firth), and in Holy Motorsthe enigmatic and mercurial figure who traverses a cornucopia of little worlds full of confusion and excess. There’s a masters’ thesis here.

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In “Jumper,” though, the film seems less about stirring up trouble than it does the sort of tenderness and beauty that can come from connecting with this stranger, connections that seem impossible in the context of the family, even between husband and wife. Certainly Anderson employs a fetishistic camera that troubles the eye, confuses and overwhelms, but the effect I think is not horrific, but alienating, so that the moments of tenderness when they surface look like life preservers.

Anderson’s other works also marry art and fashion and he’s more recently been hired by the likes of Italian Vogue. His short “Fleurs du Mal” flirts or cruises the line between the beauty and violence of lingerie. Though his work is definitely more sexualized, there are some interesting similarities between the fashion / horror elements in some of Anderson’s films and the fashion short films made by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, her works (“Muta,” “Fish“) previously featured and written about here on Numero Cinq by Sophie Lavoie. Fashion and film seem to share a similar love for where the beauteous and the disturbing meet.

–R.W. Gray

 

Sep 142014
 

ssample01Author Photo by Sally Anne Sample Ward

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Call me Magdalene. Not Maggie. Not Meg. And certainly not Dolly, for God’s sake. Call me Magdalene. Let the syllables roll off your tongue. Slowly…slowly…

Let the connotation seep into your stomach, your very skeleton, your middle there. Take a breath. Narrow your eyes. What do you want?

Think: do you really love your life? Your job…your grown children…your spouse? Is what you have now really enough for you? Take another breath.

Touch my cheek… my silver-sheathed breast…me. Keep breathing now.

Hear the raging air blowing all around us. Feel the wind’s unpredictability. Sense the precipice beneath our toes. Smell the gift. See how our bodies sway just before they’re beyond choice? How our chests cease to heave?

We fly for an instant, holding each other for an infinite moment of understanding. See the puffs of dust rise in frilly clouds that our bones make as they crack on the sun-scorched earth./

—Cynthia Sample

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Cynthia Sample holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in fiction as well as advanced degrees from University of Texas at Dallas and at Austin in mathematics and business. Her writing credits include stories published in Numéro Cinq, SLAB, Summerset Literary Review, Between the Lines, Wichita Falls Literary & Arts Journal, and others. She lives in Dallas.

 

 

 

Sep 132014
 

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke. Photo by Tom King.

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This brings us back again to the question of repetition, if such may be seen as a question. Take Jack. The question as pertains to Jack was Jack’s fear of repetition. In our view Jack was counted a failure as a musician because Jack refused to repeat himself. He would not play or sing a number twice — never in public, that is, and rarely in private except to a restricted few — because that meant he was without any new ideas and had become the wretched musician who went on performing the same old material over and over. Such is how we saw it, and furthermore saw the same when it came to his compositions. Here, too, he failed, because if he played out a bar or two he could never bear to repeat that bar or bars a second time, the result being that all his compositions were inadequate. We had no doubts as to why this was so.

We said to Jack, Jack, you are in love with Zulu, are you not? Yes, Jack said, I am head over heels in love with that woman. We said, Well, Jack, you have told her of this love, have you not? Jack said, Yes, I have declared my adoration in no uncertain terms. We said, Well, Jack, that was our exact expectation, that you had spoken of this love, which is to say, you have said it out loud to Zulu, but there is this also, which we expect you know, a woman certainly is not going to be content with an expression of love delivered once and never again, a person, Zulu among them, requires an updating on the love question once in a while, needs reassurance, we are saying. I know what you are saying, said Jack. We said, Jack, how long have you and Zulu been together? A few days over a year, said Jack, which has been my great  good fortune. Yes, we said, but when was it you last expressed you love for dear Zulu, whom we love also? We would wager you said ‘Zulu, I love you,’ or something similar, long, long ago, most likely in the early days of your relationship, would this not be so? Jack said, I believe I can say I expressed my adoration of this woman in the very earliest days of our relationship, probably, in fact, sometime during the first hour I found myself in her presence. We said, we would expect no less of you, Jack, the fact of the matter is that Zulu has told us she was leaning against a wall and you were leaning against her and whispering this love business in one ear and another within five minutes of your very first meeting. That rings a bell, said Jack, I recall the very building we were standing against and what time of day it was, and that it was winter and snowing and we both had on these thick coats and what hell it was, how frantic we were, I mean, to get our hands beneath those coats all the while we were kissing and not aware of any other person on this planet. Yes, we said, that corresponds exactly with our sense of the event, inasmuch as we were in a Hudson’s Bay entryway watching, asking each other who that woman was Jack was kissing, how long has that been going on, when did she come into the picture? Asking such questions as that because until that moment we had all been feeling a little sorry for you because there was no one in your life you loved and never had been, so far as we knew, when we were all of us pretty well covered on that front and recognizing how lucky we were. Yet there you were suddenly in passionate embrace of this woman we had never seen before. Behaving, that is to say, in a manner we thought shocking at the time, because this was so unlike the Jack we knew that we could not believe our eyes. Jack said, Yes, I was more than a little shocked myself, and hardly believed it myself, all those honking horns and stunned pedestrians, because almost within seconds of catching sight of each other there we were pressed against the wall and fumbling to get inside those coats. Yes, we said, that is just as we saw it, the falling snow, moreover it was freezing cold out there, one could get frostbite in a minute. Well, Jack said, I don’t remember being cold, I believe it would be fair to say that Zulu and I were totally unaware of weather, although I do recall we had these little sniffles in the days following. We said, we can’t speak of that, Jack, because it seems you and Zulu disappeared for about a month, although of course at that time we didn’t know her name was Zulu. Yes, said Jack, a month, that’s accurate. We hid away in bed that full month, hardly ever eating and seeing no one. We said, Well, that brings us to our point, Jack. Jack said, What point is that, I hope this is not going to be embarrassing. We said, It well might embarrass you, Jack, our question is, well, it really isn’t a question so much as an observation. Jack said, What is this observation? We said, It is this, Jack, we were thinking surely during that month, given all that passion, you must have expressed your love for Zulu a second, third, or fourth time, however much this does not square with your obsession with this question of repetition, if that indeed is a question. Jack said, I am going to say this only once, the truth is simply that you do not understand. We said, So explain it to us, Jack. Jack said, I am sure these expressions of love passed back and forth between us during that month, and since. Where you are making your mistake is in assuming there is only one way to say I love you whereas there are about ten thousand ways of expressing these endearments, few of which I regard as repetitious, the same applying, I would argue, to what you deride as my compositions. We said, Be that as it may, Jack, or as may may be, still you must admit that now a year and some have passed and if you are telling us that in the whole of this time, these endearments firing back and forth, you have not repeated yourself, then we simply are not going to believe it, and as for that we very much doubt Zulu would confirm this ludicrous, not to say far-fetched notion you are preaching. Jack said, Be my guest then, why don’t you go and ask her. We said, Jack, old friend, it is not our intention to intrude into your affairs in the manner you are suggesting, it is enlightening, however, to learn that in matters of love you claim infinite variation, yet in your professional life you contrarily refuse to play or sing a composition more than once, which fear of repetition explains why all your creations are imperfect, worthless, a waste of time, and that’s why, to make no bones about it, as an artist you are an abject failure. Jack said, Oh, abject, am I, a failure am I, is that so. We said, How else would you put it, to which Jack said For your information I do not need to sound out those bars on any instrument since I hear those notes perfectly well in my head, thus these passages you apparently believe mandatory are rendered unnecessary for any and all judicious ears, but you deem me an abject failure even so, am I understanding you correctly? We said, Yes, unfortunately, but yes, yes. Jack said, Well, that is nice to know, it is nice to know that my supposed best friends, esteemed colleagues in the musical world, view me so unfavourably. We said, It is our contention, Jack, sad though it be, that you have not lived up to your potential. Fine, Jack said, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion. We said, It is not only our opinion, we bet if you asked Zulu she would say the same. Jack said, You are mistaken, you do not know Zulu. We said, All right, we will go and ask her. Jack said, You do that, you are in for a big surprise, you will return with tears in your eyes, begging my forgiveness, I doubt I will be able to, at least not for a week or two, for a week or two your lives are going to be utter hell.

We said, We will see about that.

Jack said, Kindly take these beautiful strawberries to my darling, such is what I was sent out for, you scorpions will be first to know Zulu is having our baby.

—Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. He exhibits paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

Check out Rooke’s earlier appearances on NC below:

Sirens & The Red Hair District: Paintings

Thou Beside Me Singing: The April Poems

Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat: Fiction

Son of Light: Fiction

Four Paintings

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Sep 122014
 

Cuba Feb 2012 052Glen Sorestad in Cuba

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Cuban Hand Line Fisherman

Beneath the roil and roll of the turquoise surge the restless Gulf
lies before him, an infinite mystery the young man is trying his best
to fathom, as others before him have done. He seeks to unbolt
the buried treasure chest of marine knowledge. With each flick
of his right wrist and follow-through of hand and arm, he hurls
his line and baited hook out to the limits of his developing skill.
With each cast he is a pilgrim tossing his coin with religious fervour
into a fountain of miracle. The youth has learned the timeless art
of delving below the surface of things, an unseen world in which he
has become one with the fish, so he may hear the subtlest voice
in the tension of line as he draws it, slowly, ever so slowly, back to
him, intuiting movements he can interpret only through the thinnest
monofilament, conveying its messages to his sensory receptors over
the tip of his index finger only.

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Guillerucina

The name card left atop the TV
tells us our maid has this uncommon name –
uncommon at least for us,
coming from a country not rife
with Spanish names.
So for the first few days I roll
a variety of bumbling pronunciations
off my Anglo-thick tongue, imagining
the placement of the various accents.

Her name sets her firmly apart
from the myriad Marias
and repetitive Rosas as one
who certainly cannot be easily dismissed,
nor taken lightly, one with whom
to trifle would involve risk.
Guillerucina is a name one might
expect to find on a building nameplate,
someone of considerable consequence,
perhaps even a figure of power.
We tip her well.

This afternoon when we return
to our room Guillerucina has swirled
our fresh white towels into an unmistakable swan
afloat on the pond of our bed, and fallen
alongside – a scarlet hibiscus bloom.

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The Bus Stops Here

We are waiting for the morning bus
into Havana, a cluster of us from the hotel,
when one of the women indicates a man
standing near the front of the group, clad

all in white, middle-aged, a curly black
haphazard thicket of mad scientist hair.

You know, he’s got to be the first to get on the bus,
or else. He’s caused all kinds of problems with
the staff and the rest of us, says the woman,
here with her husband from Toronto.

I have noted this person for several days,
an obvious loner, anti-social, demanding.
A walking frown, he could be
from an Andy Capp comic strip

So I ask her, Does anyone know his name?
Asshole? she suggests helpfully.
Would that name be all in caps? I enquire.
No! And she becomes quite adamant.
Lower case — very, very small.

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Cuban Sunset

When dusk arrives here it is no lingering suitor —
no gradual softening of light, no slow fade
to the deep, thick stillness of night.

The sun dives into the Gulf like a tossed stone;
the dark pursues, pell-mell, dragging a duvet
of night over land and sea.

—Glen Sorestad

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Glen Sorestad is a Canadian poet who lives in Saskatoon. His poems have appeared in literary magazines all over North America and other countries; they have been translated and published as well in seven languages. His poems has appeared in over 60 anthologies and textbooks, as well as in his more than twenty books and chapbooks of poems published over the years.

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Sep 112014
 

josephine-jacobsen-448

Photo 1 - J. Jacobsen

 

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: a word of warning— If you’re a tyrant, you’d do well to beware the Ides of March. Four-hundred years after Shakespeare offered up that phrase to theater-goers, it’s still best to avoid friendly types who gather round waiting to stab a despot to death outside whatever Capitol he controls. Sic semper tyrannis, as John Wilkes Booth reminded another crowd of theater-goers in 1865.

Writers: Odds are you’re not in control of any Capitol (nor any capital) so forget the soothsayer’s voice rising above the crowd in Julius Caesar. Had the Bard been issuing a warning to his own colleagues, he might have said, “Beware the phrase ‘a writer’s writer,’ ” because those words are like a knife between the ribs, metaphorically speaking.

“A writer’s writer” implies that the readers who most appreciate your work will be other writers – high praise to some, low praise to many, almost certain poverty will ensue, and yes, it’s the kind of praise that can bury Caesar. Upon hearing that designation assigned to them, ambitious writers – those who hope to win over a wider range of countrymen and readers, and/or those who hope to make more money – might feel as Marc Antony did, as if their hearts are “in the coffin there with Caesar.” Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, quoting a review in the New York Times, said that the phrase “a writer’s writer” is “the definition of obscurity.”

Try searching the Web for the phrase “writer’s writers” and up the names will come, the generally-agreed-upon writers’ writers (wiggle-room acknowledged), mostly contemporary: Joseph Brodsky, Henry Green, Julian Barnes, Lydia Davis, James Salter, Colm Toibin, William Maxwell, Elias Canetti, Richard Yates, W.G. Sebald, Mavis Gallant – these writers often have the phrase “a writer’s writer” attached to descriptions of their work. The list goes on, of course, and is not always short; people argue for the inclusion of a baker’s dozen more, or argue their exclusion. But the list settles down to those whose names get repeated often. Putting the wrong person on the list (try naming anyone who writes science fiction) generates guffaws among the cognoscenti. The phrase “a writer’s writer” suggests a level of craftsmanship – “the art of the sentence” – not generally associated with popular fiction, much less genre fiction. “Writer’s writer” tops off an amorphous category known as “literary fiction.”

If you narrow “a writer’s writer” to “a poet’s poet” – the phrase first used by Charles Lamb to describe Edmund Spenser – you’re taken into the backroom of an even more exclusive club (whether exclusivity is off-putting is a side argument): Elizabeth Bishop is on everyone’s list, I think, and names like Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur, Allen Grossman, Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa and Allen Tate make the short list of 20th-century  “poet’s poets” over and over.

Sisters2

The one I want to shine a light on here is Josephine Jacobsen, born Ontario, Canada, 1908, died Maryland, U.S.A., 2003, just one month short of her 95th birthday. Though she published well into her eighties, and received more attention in those later years, she remains even less well-known – less read and less anthologized – than most of the poets already mentioned.

Jacobsen’s poetry offers its readers three qualities most common to the category of “poet’s poet” – formal precision with the variety and musicality of her words, a freshness to her images, and a depth of subtext underneath the surface subject. All three of those qualities inspire repeated readings of any one of her poems; with each subsequent reading, her poems unfold and grow, unlike less complicated poems which remain relatively static each time they’re read. If you pay close attention to how she manages to do what she does, you do what good poets do, studying not just the surface of the poem but the craftsmanship behind it. Readers who want quick comfort from a poem rarely spend time with a poet’s poet because what they’re looking for is something easy. To be fair, quick comfort is sometimes nice and certainly serves a wider community. But the general public’s knowledge of the many tools a poet uses is minimal, so its desire for an “accessible” poem is maximized.

Jacobsen’s craftsmanship exceeded the abilities of less exciting poets as well as the capacity of readers in a hurry to understand. She was not “willfully difficult” as Wallace Stevens has been described. But she handled the tools available to a poet with more precision, complexity and grace than is the norm.

Of Pairs

The mockingbirds, that pair, arrive,
one, and the other; glossily perch,
respond, respond, branch to branch.
One stops, and flies. The other flies.
Arrives, dips, in a blur of wings,
lights, is joined. Sings. Sings.

Actually, there are birds galore:
bowlegged blackbirds brassy as crows;
elegant ibises with inelegant cows;
hummingbirds’ stutter on air;
tilted over the sea, a man-of-war
in a long arc without a feather’s stir.

The mockingbirds are a pair. A pair
touches some magic marrow, lends
a curious solace. “Lovers” pretends
of course an anthropomorphic care
we know is specious. This is a whim
of species. Nevertheless, they come.

One, then the other, says what it has to say,
pours its treble tricks clearer
into clear air, goes; one, and the other.
In the palms’ dishevelment, the random day,
over the green hot grass, fellow to fellow:
the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.

What jumps out at you at once in the first stanza of Jacobsen’s “Of Pairs” is the pairing of words as a complement to the pair of birds being described. Hardly a line goes by without words being doubled or repeated – one/the other, respond/respond, branch/branch, one/the other (that phrase itself, repeated), flies/flies, sings/sings. The second stanza moves on to describe other birds, non-pairs, some as part of a multitude (blackbirds, crows, hummingbirds), some spared cross-species (ibis and cow), and one eerily singular (the lone man-of-war in his long arc over the sea.) The third stanza opens again by pairing the word “pair,” and adds a warning via the pairing of “specious” and “species” – we’re warned not to over-anthropomorphize the mockingbirds; in other words, we should work to understand this as similar to human behavior only when due caution is exercised. The fourth stanza, again, is all about pairing – one/the other (a third echo of that phrase), clearer/clear, one/the other (the fourth and final echo of the phrase), fellow/fellow, shadow of wings/wing’s shadow.

Unlike some poems where the echoes are less intense and less noticeable, it seems Jacobsen’s purpose here is to overwhelm the reader with pairings. The title of the poem itself announces her purpose. And nothing about the pairing apparatus is subtle, in keeping with the nature of the mockingbirds themselves, who not only pair up but who echo the songs of other birds – the pairing of birds, plus the pairing of words, plus the imitation (parroting, pairing) of one bird by another. A perfect matching of form to content.

All this Jacobsen does while sustaining the tetrameter rhythm (a four-beat line) through four six-lined stanzas, and creating a rhyme scheme of ABBACC – a pair of A’s, a pair of B’s, a pair of C’s – and what is rhyme if not a pairing of words? There are some full rhymes (wings/sings, pair/care, lends/pretends, say/day) but many more near-rhymes (perch/branch, arrive/flies, galore/air, crows/cows, war/stir, whim/come, clearer/other, fellow/shadow) which the ear picks up as both imperfect and interesting, as are the mockingbirds’ own imitations of other birds – similar, but not the same. Again, form and content “rhyme.” The noisy alliteration of those bowlegged blackbirds brassy calls – again, form (alliteration, almost always noisy) and content (blackbirds, ditto) pair up.

As for the freshness of images, who would argue that “bowlegged blackbirds” is a tired idea, or that hummingbirds stuttering and mockingbirds playing “treble tricks” are not fresh ways of seeing and hearing them? Who but a poet’s poet could come up with such an ending: “In the palms dishevelment, the random day, / over the green, hot grass, fellow to fellow: / the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.” This is what I mean by a poet’s “depth of subtext underneath the surface subject.” Depending on your circumstances at any given point in your life, these lines take on new meanings – so the poem must be read, re-read, and read again over the course of a lifetime. For each person, there is a way to weave these lines into individual experiences – what does “the palm’s dishevelment” mean in the context of a random day of happiness or sorrow? And so a fine poet releases the poem to her readers, she lets her readers make meaning, rather than the other way around. And she does it simply (though not as simply as it seems at first) by describing the mockingbirds. Musicality, fresh images, depth of meaning – each element expertly handled.

What’s even more amazing is that Jacobsen managed to sustain this level of effort and precision over a long lifetime of writing. William Meredith called her “post-cocious.” She never got lazy, she never just knocked one out or went for an easy laugh or an easy cry, as some poets do. Poor Billy Collins always comes up in discussions of accessibility; he’s the punching bag of the Formalists who don’t care for his prose-like work. I do like Collins’ quirkiness when he’s at his best – there’s no denying he brings a poet’s perspective to the world. But sweet as some of his work is, he is no poet’s poet. His lack of technical finesse and his prolific output inform how “tossed off” much of his work feels to poets who work within the restrictions of received forms. Collins charms the public, there’s no doubt about that. Poets like Jacobsen, however, charm the poets.

sisters4

Effortful-ness, then, might also be a quality particular to the work of a poet’s poet, most often if the effort disappears inside the poem. Effort sustained over a lifetime, in combination with technical elegance – those are the trappings of genius. “Of Pairs” is included in Jacobsen’s last book, In the Crevice of Time, published when she was eighty-seven. Though I don’t know the precise year “Of Pairs” was written, it’s included in the section of poems written between 1975 and 1994, when the poet was already a septuagenarian (at least.) Compare it to “Terrestrial,” a poem published at the beginning of her career.

Terrestrial

The day was made of dust,
The bright and lovely
And utterly perishing—
Nothing that we could trust, nothing worth cherishing.

No skeleton to stay and whiten,
No soul to escape—
The word was never,
Nothing like love, to frighten; dust, lost forever.

Moss, rainbow rock, fall apart,
the cold pools vanish
Without resurrection.
The alien human heart, strange to perfection

Understands this, its own:
Not past, not future,
Not truth, to enmesh us—
This was our dust alone, O ours, O precious.

Structurally, this has four four-line stanzas, with the first three lines short, and the last line comparatively long. Each last line has a caesura – a sustained pause within the long line – and the last word of the first line of each stanza rhymes with the last word before the caesura in each fourth line (dust/trust, whiten/frighten, apart/heart, own/alone.) In addition, the last word or words of each third line rhyme with the final word/words of each stanza (never/forever, resurrection/perfection, enmesh us/O precious.) Technically, Jacobsen has always done this kind of rhyming elegantly, using unexpected patterns. If you want a hair-pulling writing prompt, try to write a poem following that structure and rhyme scheme.

Though the poem seems grounded, literally, in dirt and dust, it’s filled with airy abstractions like “love” and “the soul,” the past, the future, truth – all words I would warn a student of poetry away from because abstractions tend to make a poem ungrounded – that is, they make nothing available to the reader’s senses. But are those abstractions airy? In an odd way, they feel heavier than the dust in Jacobsen’s poem – they stand as things to cherish and revere, and they impart a kind of biblical solidity – a religion of abstractions – that readers can get tangled in or bogged down by. Compare that abstract solidity to what is real and what the heart, maybe unwillingly, understands in Jacobsen’s poem: the ephemeral dust-to-dust nature of our bodies, ending without even “skeletons to whiten,” without perfection, without time – we are the “utterly perishing.” We own that condition, it’s ours, and it’s precious. Death is, after all, what makes life meaningful.

There – I’ve made sense of the poem in a way that satisfies me right now. Tomorrow or next year or in another ten years, I might read it again and make sense of it another way, possibly reinterpreting that word “resurrection.” That’s the gift a good poet offers us: a poem to slow down with, to re-read, to understand in a new way each time it’s read.

Though Jacobsen’s work is not well known, she did receive – finally – some of the honors her work deserved. She served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973. The Sisters, a poetry collection published in 1987,was awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize in 1988. She was given a fellowship by the Academy of American Poets and awarded the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in 1994. Joyce Carol Oates, in the New York Times Book Review, compared her to Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. Jacobsen also wrote well-received short fiction; her collection of short stories, On the Island, was nominated for both the Pen Faulkner award and National Book Critics Circle award, and eight of her stories have been included in the O’Henry Prize Stories series.

When asked to assess her own work, Jacobsen said, “”I don’t really value very highly statements from a poet in regard to her work. I can perhaps best introduce my own poetry by saying what I have not done, rather than defining what I have done. I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group: I have tried not to force any poem into an overall concept of how I write poetry when it should be left to create organically its own individual style; I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance which would limit the flexibility of discovery. I have not confused technical innovation, however desirable, with poetic originality or intensity. I have not utilized poetry as a social or political lever. I have not conceded that any subject matter, any vocabulary, any approach, or any form is in itself necessarily unsuitable to the uses of poetry. I have not tried to establish a reputation on any grounds but those of my poetry.”

I hope you’ll search out Jacobsen’s books – In the Crevice of Time collects an astounding number of poems written over the course of sixty years, between 1935 and 1994; used and nearly new copies of the book pop up from time to time. It’s exciting to see the poems in their original volumes as well, and to judge for yourself how she developed as a writer. Don’t fail to find her book of collected essays and lectures, The Instant of Knowing, and check out her fiction to see if her achievements there measure up to her skill as a poet. I think her poems gained in strength and brilliance as she aged, and one of my favorites of her later poems – “Piazza di Spagna”— was first published in the Atlanta Review (Vol.II, No.1, Fall, 1995 – see note in comments) and then posthumously in Contents of a Minute as part of Sarabande Books’ Quarternote Chapbook Series. In the poem, Jacobsen uses the two characters from Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir, to open up a short examination of the nature of poetry itself, placing at its core the small apartment in Rome where John Keats died.

Piazza di Spagna

Estragon says to Vladimir
(or vice versa) of happiness
recollected in distress: how
unpleasant that must be.

Ah, Estragon, ah Vladimir,
discussing loss, the poet’s
mother-lode. On the Spanish Steps
chill fingers the bone.

As the sun drops and drops,
stare across at the small,
cold, invisible room
where loss has reveled;

where loss’s aficionado
labored to grasp and hold
a green felicity,
Apollo’s summer look.

Loss has its son et lumiere
to show what it has got
and means to keep: a hundred poems,
bright blood, a girl.

It’s always risky to try to pin down what makes a poem a poem, and I like the elusiveness of this take on it – we really only hear about two essential elements, memory and loss. Maybe that’s true even today as post-Modernism pokes holes in received traditions. I’m not sure what I think of that. Jacobsen wrote another poem (“The Poem Itself”) which takes a look at how a poem “works,” and in it she offers this description: “On the shelf, by the clock’s tick, in the black / stacks of midnight: it is. A moon / to all its tides.” That, I believe completely. It saddens me to think that a poet can be undersung not because she is so bad, but because she is this good. Shakespeare gave his soothsayer in Julius Caesar a “tongue shriller than all the music,” and its true that something is needed to make certain voices rise above others. Luminous craftsmanship shines, but it doesn’t always make the loudest noise. Sic semper scriptores.

—Julie Larios

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