In the slider at the Top of the Page this month we’re featuring selections from our massive trove of What It’s Like Living Here essays. The What It’s Like Living Here series began as an attempt to create community, to humanize the staid old brand of the literary magazine. Instead of just faceless usernames, readers could actually tell us who they are by telling us about the place where they live. It’s turned out to be, hit for hit, the most popular feature in the magazine. Witness the fact that just last month, Sean Selway’s essay on living in Hamilton, Ontario, brought in over 2,500 visitors in two days. So for the June issue we are featuring just a small selection of these wonderful essays. You can always go back to the main What It’s Like Living Here page to read more.
Severn Thompson in Elle
Severn Thompson’s stage adaptation of my novel Elle is on the short list for a Dora Award in the Outstanding New Play category. The Doras are given out by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts.
Read the Globe and Mail announcement @The Doras 2016: The best in Toronto theatre have a distinctly Canadian flavour.
Toyen — Amid Long Shadows, 1943
It’s the June issue. I woke up this morning thinking the MAY issue in my head and made coffee and thought about it and said to myself, No, it’s June coming up. And what happened to May? And then the dog looked at me weirdly.
I am exhausted of superlatives. The May issue squeezed the last ones out. I did not think we could surpass the May issue. May was spectacular. But then events give me the lie. June is spectacular, too. What do you do with things like that? I dunno.
The image above is from Paul Pines’ essay “Dinner with the Fisher King,” the fourth and final chapter of his magnum opus on, yes, the Fisher King of legend, the wounded king of a desolate land. (All the previous chapters have appeared here — another book on NC.) A therapist as well as a poet and scholar, Pines has dedicated these essays to delving the roots of creativity, his own personal journey as an artist, the psyche, and the mysterious images the human race has dreamed in its past, obscure and luminous, the shadows among which we dwell.
“I woke with these lines from ‘The Kingfishers’ in my head…then couldn’t stop thinking about Amfortas.”
“In Wagner’s Parsifal,” Carol comments. “Amfortas is a baritone wounded by his own holy spear.”
“Wolfram’s Amfortas betrays his duty as Grail keeper by killing another knight, who leaves him with a wound that won’t heal. His pain is almost unbearable. Only fishing eases it.”
“Until Parzival appears to heal him.” —Paul Pines
Victoria Best returns to the pages of NC with a brilliant essay on Patrick Modiano, the surprise 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s a compendious and yet personal essay on Modiano that will leave you hungry to read his work.
When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature, not very many people knew who he was. This was a delicious irony, if you had ever read any of his novels. Modiano’s work, when seen as a whole, is like a patchwork quilt, his books forming a coherent design, related by pattern, theme, and sometimes character, each one revolving around a fugitive, enigmatic narrator. —Victoria Best
Photo by Jowita Bydlowska
Jowita Bydlowska returns with a stellar, shocking, deeply sad (as in driven to your knees and stunned with sadness) short story. I won’t tell you any more. It should shock you afresh.
WHEN I COULD finally stand up, my husband ushered me out of that room.
I was wearing bloody pads. I was numb. I wanted to turn around and come and get her. A mistake has been made.
“You’re just in shock,” he kept saying.
I walked like an elderly person. He grabbed my upper arm gently but firmly, walked me faster. —Jowita Bydlowska
David Ishaya Osu
We have also new poems from the Nigerian poet, David Ishaya Osu. Sentences fragments and welded into lines (sentences and lines work in a mysterious tension with one another) that are both ebullient and tragic.
kill a dance & enjoy
your body stands
because this is a bag of echoes—come on,
now that you have drunk too
much silence… —David Ishaya Osu
Our own A. Anupama, poet, essayist, translator, returns with more of her delicious translations from classical Tamil poetry. Erotic and sometimes comic couplets. Her translations are among our most popular published pieces.
I dreamt he made love to me. When I woke,
he swiftly entered my heart.
In this waking life, he offered me nothing. Yet I ached when in my dream
my love evaporated from my longing eyes. — Translated by A. Anupama
Also new poems from the incomparable George Szirtes, poet and translator, roots in Hungary, living in England. He writes perhaps the most beautiful Twitter feed I have seen, mixing what are almost diary notes, scraps of poems and prose.
what you want but
something gets in the way,
he said and laughed again, then took
not just yourself.
It is some other thing
you must deny and so you do,
he said. —George Szirtes
Susan & Sharon
Sharon McCartney is back, yes. Each of her books is unique, a divine eccentric, carved out of marble of her own life and past. This one is called Agonal and Preterminal, which are words from a medical report on the condition of her sister, who eventually days after unspeakable years. These lines will rip your guts out. But then what is poetry for?
Susan appears agonal and preterminal.
From a neurological consult report dated September 18, 1979,
11 days before she dies.
I have to look up agonal.
Of or related to great pain.
As in the agony of death.
She was in pain.
I never thought about her being in pain. —Sharon McCartney
A D Jameson
A D Jameson is new to NC, a brilliant young writer of the newest new wave of American experimentalism, call it fiction of the Anthropocene.
You’ve probably heard about me. I was murdered by women. It’s OK. I had it coming. I deserved it. And it made me kind of famous. I’m pretty famous. My death was all over the evening news. It was the murder of the decade, a ratings sensation. The details are not for the faint of heart. They’re fairly gruesome. Sheila used a frying pan to bash in my head. Antonia tore open my throat with a paring knife. The coroner, later, couldn’t determine who struck first. I wish I could shed some light on the subject, but it was a blur. A whole lot of things were happening at once. —A D Jameson
Contributing Editor Sydney Lea returns to NC with a reminiscence about his college days, a friend he made, and an epic poem he never read (and regrets). Eloquent, elegant, mixing the every day with a sense of eternity.
I’d sometimes be the diner’s only customer in the wee hours, and so it was that, after about three weeks of showing up at his establishment, I was let into a real confidence from Spiro. He stressed that his revelation was not to be shared with anyone. The man’s dearest wish, it turned out, was to complete the epic poem he’d long been working on, Sixty Steps from Yale. He’d accumulated more than seventy pages of manuscript, all of them in Greek, and all composed, he claimed, in genuinely Homeric fashion. —Sydney Lea
And David Helwig, who has been contributing translations and poems since the beginning of time (I mean the beginning of the magazine), also returns with poems, also redolent of death and the astonishment of days. Come to thing it, this is a somber issue, yet so lively. The paradox of existence over and over.
The chalk-blue walls shape
this afternoon of favoured ghosts,
mysterious harmonies of the heartbeat,
the many years, day by day
from the astonishment of birth
to the astonishment of death.—-David Helwig
And there is more, as always. Contributing Editor Ann Ireland has a profile of Los Angeles musician Alan Church Brown, a.k.a. the band Sea Wolf; from translator Brendan Riley, we have “Aspirin,” a short story by the Mexican writer Julián Herbert; and from Contributor Mary Kathryn Jablonski, a profile (plus refugee photographs) of the Lynne M. Browne.
The inimitable (and fast-becoming a necessity at NC) Joe Schreiber reviews Thomas Bernhard’s Goethe Dies; Jeff Bursey reviews So Much for Winter by Dorthe Nors; and Tom Faure reviews the latest Anne Tyler.
There may be more. I have surprises. Actually, surprises surprise me. And Rob Gray will be here with another NC at the Movies as well the latest installment of Gerry Beirne’s amazing Irish feature Uimhir a Cúig.
Okay, this is one of those, you know, things that come out of the blue. Tom Greene, VCFA’s president, called me from his car this morning to tell me they had launched a new Vermont College of Fine Arts Artists Development Fund based on a $1 million donation from the Martin Foundation. Part of the fund, a fund within the fund for writers, authors, and publishers, is named after me.
Naturally, I am nonplussed, amazed, bemused, and touched. I am grateful to the Martin Foundation for singling me out like this. It’s a terrific honour. I hope the fund inspires and supports many, many great writers in the future.
There is, of course, backstory here. But so far the donor wishes to remain anonymous, and I won’t blab.
Actress, director, writer, translator Micheline Lanctôt picked my novel as one of the indispensable books last month on French language CBC Radio. The word they used on air and on their website is “incontournable.” The novel in question is my book The Life and Times of Captain N., first published by Knopf in New York where Gordon Lish was my editor. The French version was published under the title Le Rédempteur (the redeemer, which was its working title most of the time I was writing it, oddly enough). The translator was the redoubtable Daniel Poliquin who went on to be a prolific novelist himself (this was back in the early 1990s).
Micheline knows my work intimately. She translated my book of stories 16 Categories of Desire into French. It was published as Seize Sortes de Désir. She’s a wonderful actress and director. Long before I actually met her, or even thought of meeting her, I knew exactly who she was, having been entranced with her performance on the screen in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), where she played the French-Canadian love interest opposite Richard Dreyfus.
View the complete list of indispensable books @ Ici on lit at Radio-Canada.
E. M. Forester asserted that, at least in terms of plot, “The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death.” In Yulia Mahr’s short film and in Max Richter’s SLEEP, the composition it springs from, sleep at last gets its due. Richter describes SLEEP as “an eight-hour personal lullaby for a frenetic world and a manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” Mahr’s visual lullaby “Path 5 (delta)” is decidedly more restless, but still haunts this unspoken, dreamy space we hardly understand, draws us down under the covers to find our own sleepy understandings.
The film, like the music, is minimalist, repeats a few visual themes: the waxing and waning of a moon, time lapse film of crowds, traffic, cities, and time lapse footage of people sleeping. In this way it moves from the macro to the micro, from the ghostly, pock marked face that pulls at us, watches over our sleep, through the frenzy of the lives we choose, down to the small dances of sleep in our tiny rooms and beds.
Mahr chooses to make all the footage black and white and then reverses the colours so the film takes on the ghostly appearance of photography negatives. This reversal means that light takes over, swallows the moon then offers it up again, bodies of light rush through cityscapes, and sleepers of light toss and turn. All the darknesses here are sublimated into light.
Fades to light in film, and perhaps most notably in the TV serial Six Feet Under, lean towards the divine, look heavenward, counter to the fade to black’s going under swallowing of time, of consciousness. Less established in film vernacular, a fade to white is highly specialized, more rarely used. Jacob T. Swinney explores this visually in his video montage of the device:
As Sami Emory points out, “When filmmakers invert the norm, however, and end on a wash of white, what follows can be wholly enigmatic.” The fade-to-white’s ambiguity is perfect for Mahr’s repeating, minimalist reflection on sleep and its place in our worlds.
Where Richter’s composition lulls towards sleep states, Mahr’s visual composition is restless. None of the film is peaceful. The chaos of the time-lapse crowds and cities crossfade so that they layer over the sleepers, the moon haunting the background. The boundaries between the images are porous, sleep not a separate eden of peacefulness. What this emphasizes, divulges, is the bare truth of sleep, its vulnerability.
Richter, in several interviews, has talked about his fascination with the neurological aspects of sleep. In interview with Robin Murray in Clash Magazine, he describes his process and the questions he has explored with “Sleep” is how he has created a work of art that, in many ways, relies on the experience of the listener:
“It’s actually on the condition that people bring their own biography and their own thoughts about it, and then you start to get a sense of the bigger picture of the thing. Because until then it’s just hypothetical, really,” he states. “You’ve got this thing and you think this is what it is, but honestly, that’s just through the lens of my experience and my intentions. And actually, especially in this piece, the experiences of the listener are really at the centre of it. If there is a theme, then it’s the act of hearing and the act of sleeping – that’s the theme of it.”
Though performances of the piece have incorporated actual sleepers, this is something Richter himself can never experience. In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy Daily, he confessed “For me, though, that part of my brain is just incapable of turning off. Listening to music is a really busy activity. I’m going, “Hmm… I’d rather do that, I’d fix that noise…” [laughs] That’s how I’m wired. I don’t listen to music before bed because then I’d never fall asleep! You think about it from a maker’s perspective, you know – how is that made? I think that’s quite natural, that sort of curiosity.”
The fundamental experience of SLEEP is inaccessible to him, like the secret world of our sleep is inaccessible to us, the audience like dreams indirectly linking the artist to his artwork.
Yulia Mahr is a visual anthropologist and award winning filmmaker, a combination which evidently makes her the perfect dreamer for Richter’s “Dreams.”
Art work by Greg Mulcahy
Julot Calcascieu and I have not spoken in years. Estrangement between writers once friends is common; its reasons are always personal and complicated. In this case, I’m not sure what the reasons are. Perhaps it was a long-forgotten insult given and received, or growth, or change, or life. And really the reasons don’t matter.
Calcascieu and I were first associated with Abigail Allen’s magazine, Phantasmagoria. We were both contributors, and we shared, or I thought we shared, similar views on where literature was and where it needed to go.
Perhaps my views have changed.
Perhaps his have.
A conversation that was pleasant turned unpleasant, and each of us discovered who the other really was.
As I’ve said, we haven’t spoken in years, but things find their ways to me sometimes, so I will state categorically that I did not steal from Calcascieu or cheat him out of money. I covered our expenses for a joint reading we did in a nearby state. I asked him to reimburse me for his share. He refused. Maybe there was a misunderstanding—I grant that possibility. But there was no swindle or theft and absolutely no attempt at either.
Arguments about money are always arguments about money, especially when money is, as it was and continues to be, scarce, but they are often arguments about something else as well.
Maybe this is an argument about disappointment, both personal and professional, or about the disappearance of an imagined solidarity, or sympathy, or world.
But I can tell you this. Julot Calcascieu has a hat, a hat he wears at readings. Julot Calcascieu calls this hat a “poet’s hat” and believes it essential to his image as “poet and theorist.” Now I live in a cold climate that seems, contrary to fact, to be growing colder. Consequently, I own a dozen hats. But none are magical or empowered or definitions of my identity. Julot Calcascieu is a construct, self-constructed perhaps, but no less so for that. Yeats’ “tattered coat upon a stick” if that.
Maybe all poets are.
Still there are the poems.
The poems, still.
Went to Lakewood
Didn’t see a swan
Anything, but some
In a parking
With my name
& did his mother
There are times
GENESIS of my CORRECTION
I was not
The good one
The other one.
And if you did not love me
I would not mind.
The poet said.
Made a world
In her poem for them.
That was the difference.
Use as the
Who do not
First, there was no money.
Then the War.
Then money and small wars.
Then no war and money.
Then money and small wars.
Where did that money get to?
And the prisoner of the story
Given a page a day
To write on. No more.
Picture him sitting on the
Pencil and page in hand.
Looking out the dark bars
Greg Mulcahy is the author of Out of Work, Constellation, Carbine, and O’Hearn. He teaches at Century College in Minnesota.
Restless, humorous, shamelessly casual, reading Geoff Dyer is somewhat like an after-lunch conversation with a slightly eccentric uncle, a man who has traveled, who has an infectious love of jazz, a headful of ideas, and a preference for tofu over turkey. —Jason DeYoung
In his Paris Review interview, Geoff Dyer says this about his travels: “I like—and am on the lookout for—places where time has stood its ground… I like being in new places, having adventures, and examining the point where the place and the self interact or merge.”
Restless, humorous, shamelessly casual, reading Geoff Dyer is somewhat like an after-lunch conversation with a slightly eccentric uncle, a man who has traveled, who has an infectious love of jazz, a headful of ideas, and a preference for tofu over turkey. He is also a man who has a point, but has to arrive at it in his own way, on is own time, lest he never get there at all. And the point that he does get to is never what you expected, and it doesn’t quite live up to the promises or the possibilities of his narrative, because he’s an artist of disappointment and inverted expectations. In some ways, he does it to be funny. It’s part of his British humor to make peace with things less than perfect: “I’m English. Ninety-eight percent of anything always sounds good to me,” he says after being told by a doctor that he might not regain one-hundred percent of his eyesight back after a small stroke. But he also does it as an observant and attentive traveler, as when he describes the ruination of outdoor artwork by fencing.
Disarming, humorous prose aside, Dyer’s writing is multi-layered and complex. He tells us that he wants to understand and apply meaning to what he sees and experiences. Yes, he might be disappointed, but he makes something of it, often reshaping what is clearly a non-experience into something worth experiencing: fully accepting the moss-sheading counsel of Annie Dillard, who supplies one of the opening epigraphs to White Sands:
The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It’s simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.
Geoff Dyer is the author of gobs of books, including novels, essay collections, and book-length works of nonfiction, and it’s his nonfiction for which is his best known. His two most recent books are Zona (which I reviewed for Numéro Cinq) and Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. But White Sands is in some ways a gathering point, a return perhaps, to Dyer’s various interests that he explored in other books such as But Beautiful (on jazz), The Ongoing Moment (on photography), and Out of Seer Rage (a quasi-memoir devoted to Dyer’s own desire to write a “sober academic study” of DH Lawrence —he never does; he just writes a book about wanting to write one). He is not necessarily retreading ground in White Sands, but as he says in the book, he has been feeling things from his youth—such as the music of Pharoah Sanders and Coltrane—gripping him like they haven’t in decades.
Pharoah Sander’s “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt” Somehow a song made to accompany Dyer’s work, as he writes in White Sands, “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt” is “ten minutes of random percussion and bass and plonking around that never seems like getting anywhere.”
It isn’t easy to say what White Sands is—an essay collection or a collection of narratives?—because of a rather confounding Author’s Note. “[T]his book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction,” it reads, “What’s the difference? Well, in fiction stuff can be made up or altered….The main point is that the book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line…it is presumed to stand. In this regard White Sands is both the figure at the center of the carpet and a blank space on the map.” Dyer’s also on record of saying that he doesn’t like the term “travel essay,” and that he has created personas for himself in his “non-fiction” before, notably in Out of Seer Rage, all of which tells me that taxonomies be damned here.
Hence, despite reading like a collection of essays in tone and form, for this review, I’m going to call White Sands a collection of narratives, which ought to be a baggy enough label to hold it. It includes nine large narratives, most around twenty to thirty pages in length, with ten mini chapter narratives framing the larger ones—it kind of reminds you of Hemingway’s In Our Time, with its flash-length chapters wedged between full-length stories. These short chapters act as the through line on which the larger, more in-depth narratives hang, and they give shape to the book. The opening chapter, for instance, is about a “hump” of land that Dyer and his friends played on in school. This hump is part of his “personal landscape”—“if we had decided to take peyote or set fire to one of our schoolmate, this is where we would have done it,” he writes. The following, larger narrative deals tangentially with the landscape of Polynesia, where Dyer glumly retraces the footsteps of Gauguin. These mini narratives have various degrees of connection to the larger ones, but they’re important to White Sands overall structure and focus, because it’s where themes are introduced and patterns of thought are reinforced, most notably is DH Lawrence’s idea of “nodality.”
In an essay on Taos, New Mexico, Lawrence says that there are “choice spots on the earth, where the spirit dwelt,” places that create “nodality,” where “when you get there you feel something final. There is an arrival.” These places form due to some fluke of geomorphology or develop a special quality, generally prehistoric. These are places in olden days where people believed that sterility could be cured or sacrifice could be laid and rain would come. Often, it has been forgotten what makes these places so special, with just its ruins as reminders of their singularity. Stonehenge, in popular imagination, might be something of the sort; for DH Lawrence, it was Taos, New Mexico.
White Sands is Dyer’s travels to find secular “nodalities”—areas that have acquired “the bleak gravity and elemental aura of prehistory,” places where time has perhaps stood its ground. He visits the aforementioned Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field—a name that sounds more exciting than the actual artwork. He ventures to far northern Norway to glimpse the Northern Lights, and takes pilgrimages to the Brentwood homes of German philosophers who had fled the Nazis. He spends a day in China’s Forbidden City. And, of course, he visits White Sands, New Mexico, but he’s there for only a single paragraph.
Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson, 1970
Compared to Lawrence’s rapturous writing—“[T]he moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul” —Dyer’s accounts of these places are calmer, sedate at times, except for his expression of discomfort, for which there are many. His discomfort, however, is our laughter, and this is when Dyer is at his best. At heart he’s a clever guy with a droll sense of humor, and I want to quote a few choice passages here:
I changed into one of those hospital gowns that tie up at the back, the purpose of which seems to be to enfeeble you, to reduce your capacity for independent action. To walk even few steps risks the ignominy of exposing your bottom to the world. (“Stroke of Luck”)
Nevertheless, we did what you do when you come to a place for a Euro city break: we went for a walk, one of the most horrible walks we had ever embarked on. The Norwegian word for ‘stroll’ is best translated as ‘grim battle for survival…’ (“Northern Lights”)
My heart sank. My heart is prone to sinking, and although few words have the capacity to make it sink as rapidly or deeply as the word ‘guide,’ plenty of others make it sink like a slow stone: words like ‘having to’ or ‘listen to,’ as in having to listen to a guide tell me stuff about the Forbidden City I could read about in a book back home, by which time any desire to do so would have sunk without trace. (“Forbidden City”)
Many of Gauguin’s most famous paintings are of Tahitian babes who were young and sexy and ate fruit and looked like they were always happy to go to bed with a syphilitic old letch whose legs were covered in weeping eczema.…. [In truth] the missionaries made them wear something called a Mother Hubbard. (“Where? What? Where”)
Notwithstanding a clear label to put on the works in White Sands (and why the hell should we need one?!) Dyer is a master of smartly structured narrative form. The pieces here range from straight up personal narratives to hybridized works of storytelling, essay, and criticism. He deploys techniques of iteration of conflict, “power of three,” and estrangement, all the while delightfully dipping and diving through jazz lore and the works from academic heavyweights such as Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, and Robert Hughes. Even his shaggy-dog-ness is carefully structured. “Pilgrimage” is a good example of this, because the narrative flows cosmically through the landscape of a Sunday morning in Los Angles, to the front door of Theodore Adorno’s Brentwood home, then passes into a contemporary reflection on Minima Moralia (text Adorno started in the depths of World War II and finished in sunny LA in 1949, while in exile), before surfacing with the narrator opining on age, acro adagio, Susan Sontag’s own pilgrimage to visit Thomas Mann, and the photography of Antoine Wilson, who calls himself “the slow paparazzo,” taking pictures of places where celebrities were within minutes of their leaving. The piece is really quite something, recharging and recycling the themes and thoughts of the entire book, yet never seeming to repeat the same story, as if turning a multifaceted cut crystal, continually finding new angles.
In Chapter Four, Dyer spells out what these broad experiences in the book sum up to be. To illustrate it, he call on a painting by Elihu Vedders called The Questioner of the Sphinx. Dyer writes: “His painting seems emblematic of the experience that crop up repeatedly in this book: of trying to work out what a certain place—a certain way of marking the landscape—means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for.” Yes, this is there, in the book, but there’s something else too, and that is negative space, and lots of it. In narrative after narrative, we have descriptions of missed opportunities, of the time and space enclosing experiences that weren’t special or didn’t live up to their “marketing,” or of a lifelong desire for an “elsewhere.” In one of the chapter narratives, the narrator, presumably Dyer himself, talks about his rich aunt sending postcards to him a child from the American Southwest which gave the young Geoffery his “first sense of elsewhere; an elsewhere that seemed the opposite of everywhere and everything I knew” in Cheltenham, England.
Finding this “elsewhere,” whether good or bad, is what he strives for in his “experiences from the outside world” (another phrase from DH Lawrence). In this search he finds mostly the mysterious negative space surrounding fulfillment. He struggles to know what to make of it, and White Sands second epigraph, from Kafka, might shed some light on this struggle. It reads:
There remains the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of the substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.
Inexplicable, ineffable, a deep space or inner space, places to lose one self: we see this over and over in Dyer’s work. “I would have liked to spend hours in there, a whole day even,” he writes about an art installation that desensitized its participants with beat-less music and saturating, soft blue lights—it’s a place to escape the chafe of time, perhaps.
White Sands is a remarkably well-thought out work. The more you pull at it the more it reveals to have additional streams of life and layers. In spite of all Dyer’s disappointments, it’s a hopeful and satisfying read, too. It’s a book one can’t help but feel some inspiration from, especially when Dyer writes from his Romantic heritage: “Life is so interesting I’d like to stick around forever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out.”
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.
- Again from the Paris Review interview: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.”↵
- DH Lawrence, Selected Essays. “Mexico and New Mexico,” Page 182. Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.↵
- But the drollest passage I know in Dyer’s work comes from a wonderful book called Otherwise Know as the Human Condition (2011) in an essay called “Sex and Hotels.” Just for chuckles, here it is: “Hotels are synonymous with sex. Sex in a hotel is romantic, daring, unbridled, wild. Sex in a hotel is sexy. If you’ve been having a sexy time at home you’ll have a sexier time in a hotel. And it’s even more fun if there are two of you.”↵
Crisp air, press of ladder rung on instep,
iiiitree sway and dappled light, then stem twist
iiiiiiand the weight of apple in hand—
reaching through that leafy light, did we ask
iiiiwhat else we were after? Some desire
iiiiiito possess the whole splendid day, sun glint
on grass, September’s slow withdrawal,
iiiithe drying leaves sparse now, so the apples
iiiiiiwere little flames. Strange that we make
one fruit both medicine and poison,
iiiiprescribed and forbidden, as if everything’s
iiiiiimixed, and there’s no forgetting that darker
hunger at work, blind to the damage it does,
iiiiego’s bad apple, poison in the star
iiiiiiand gravity, gravity, gravity.
But then wind-falls in wet grass—paradox
iiiiof fortune—how sweet for the bees and wasps
iiiiiiwho find the cores warmed by the sun
into a heady liquor, and sip. Once
iiiiwe had a wooden apple made with such skill,
iiiiiimore than one person picked it up
thinking to bite, until our dog finally did.
iiiiWe found it under the couch, splintered
iiiiiiand pocked, and with stern voices banished him
to the yard. As if once down the stairs
iiiihe wouldn’t happily enter that bright world
iiiiiiof rock and dirt, nuthatch, beetle, squirrel.
Say you’re out jogging in New Hampshire
and come across one feeding on berries
and too busy with those sweet juices,
with fattening up for winter, to bother with you,
who just wants to move along country roads
on your own two legs, between meadow and wood,
not too fast, not too slow, out for a run
before porridge. Innocent enough,
but still an intruder, still something a bear
might sniff as trouble, bothersome
for a creature intent on moving through
her world unharmed eating berries
with her cub on an August morning—
and so a creature much like you.
But there’s that cub, and you’ve been warned:
sing, make a racket, till they shamble off.
A barroom ditty comes to mind,
all those bottles of beer on the wall, so you sing
as if a song could save you.
You wave your arms overhead to make yourself bigger—
or boorish, you begin to think,
as mother nudges cub off into the woods.
After all what did you see?
Just a glimpse of bear body through roadside scrub,
and nothing, nothing of its beauty.
The Jersey shoreline where I grew up
was hardly a cliff, but it was an edge
where we kids clamped our feet in sand
and felt the tide crisscross our ankles
pulling the ground out from under. Before us
stretched the whole blue-gray beyond
drawing us toward the horizon’s flickering line.
Distance and dazzling surface filled our eyes,
then made me cringe at the thought of swimmers
caught in riptides. When one caught me,
the girl I was probably could have stood
if the storm surf hadn’t kept knocking her legs
out from under, rolling her, closing over,
the slamming her breathless into black out.
Beyond shore, the great watery meadows
cared nothing for her, crabs crawling along
the stirred-up bottom couldn’t tell girl from
broken off tackle, and gulls cruising
overhead weren’t crying for her either.
Whoever pulled me out didn’t look back,
just walked off, as if angry at having to haul out
a kid who should have known better—
red caution flags out all along the shore.
Or maybe I just needed to wake up
alone in the sudden clarity of
wind-swept beach, stove-in storm fence,
one low slung wire against a quilted sky—
alive in a way I wasn’t before
the sea swallowed then coughed me back out,
before I woke on that rain-pocked beach,
sand thick in my scalp, seaweed clinging,
and sat up, and started to crawl.
meant pricey when Grandmother said it
in the grocery store, clucking over asparagus
in winter, raspberries in March.
But in Mother’s voice it meant something more
like adoration—until later,
the word turned into worried “oh dears”
as I composed my adolescent dramas,
those rough drafts of destiny. I hardly noticed
the derelicts lined up in the doctor’s hallway
getting jabbed through their clothes
as I walked in, anemic from dieting.
I hadn’t yet taught the guys in prison
for drugs, for doing what others just dream,
hadn’t heard stories of childhood damage,
so could almost think drunks deserved their fate.
As if dogs deserve to be kicked, to be under
another’s boot, the way our neighbor
jabbed a broomstick into his great Dane
trying to turn her from sweet to vicious.
No one on our street was deaf to those cries,
her whimper and shriek as the man snarled.
Each afternoon as I read Bible stories
into my grandmother’s hearing aid box,
stories that thrive on reversals—last, first,
poor, rich, those who give, those who hold back—
I thought I knew which ones God would love.
I was young. I thought I knew.
On the musical scale of vowels, E
is up there at the level of shriek.
Eeek, a mouse! Seek is one thing,
Eureka! another. So much searching
for ecstasy, endless satisfaction,
as if you could stay on Everest forever.
“Third heaven,” St. Paul talks about
in one epistle, though how he got there
he can’t say, and he can’t stay there, either.
The thorn in his flesh, whatever it was,
made sure of that. As my love says, you can
be so heavenly, you’re no earthly good.
Easy to imagine enlightenment
belonging to just the few who scale the top,
or those high flyers who thrive on extremes,
and not the little guy down below,
not the monk walking home from the river
with his bundle of reeds, but the devil
who stops him to brag, “I do all the things
you do. You watch and I never sleep.
You fast, and I eat nothing at all.”
Dante says she’s a kind of heavenly worker,
not quite an angel but more than a force
as she turns the wheel from famine to feast,
making failure last no longer than fame.
But failure, that big red F at the top of the page,
stops me in my tracks. Once I thought I could
just take it, not write the paper on Freud
and Buber. But the thought so frightened me,
my whole body felt an electric fizz.
“F— that,” I must have muttered, then sat down
to write, living on muffins and coffee
a whole week, dropping a small fortune,
in the pay phone, crying to my boyfriend
about Freud’s money metaphor, his belief that
women spend all our psychic energy
growing up… So that freaking little F
on our birth certificate freezes the wheel?
Our fate’s rigged, and any faith we have
is just infantile delusion, oceanic
feeling with no base in reason or reality?
Tap-water coffee and Buber all night—
how I hoped for some splendid refutation.
Against reason he tells stories: Here is
Rabbi Isaak pacing a bridge in Krakow
because he’s dreamed a treasure hidden there.
Here’s the captain of the guards scoffing, “Ha!
If I believed in dreams I’d have to go
to the house of a Jew named Isaak and dig
under his stove.” Well, the rabbi hurries home
and finds that treasure, as if faith—or fate—
is all detour and surprise, stepping out
to find the way back in. With his fortune,
the rabbi builds a house of prayer—because,
Herr Doktor, what to do with such a gift,
but pour it out into more giving?
says one of Dante’s gluttons, ghost-thin
on Purgatory’s Terrace six— “good,”
because he knows his agony will end.
So, golly, Mr. Golem, you just keep
going round, gazing at what you can’t grab,
growing gaunt on your diet of hope.
Down here it gets pretty grim when I lose
sight of “Let go and let God.” In that void
I still hear my four-year-old sophist son
telling me he can turn on the TV
and see Spiderman each afternoon, but—
significant pause—“I’ve never seen God…”
Well, not in blue tights and a red hood,
not casting webs or scaling walls, either.
Addressing that absence, all the big saints,
those holy goombahs, say faith’s in the gap
between holding on and letting go,
so to find God takes three words: “I give up.”
But they aren’t often said with soft sighs
in a well-appointed parlor, are they?
More likely it’s a groan or plea for help,
when you’re losing your grip on a cliff edge.
That’s where the old joke comes in—guy grasps
a crumbling ledge, feels his fingers slip,
cries out, hears that big tuba voice call down,
“Let go!” Looks around, tightens his grip,
shouts back, “Anybody else up there?”
Happy, Happy, Happy!
Keats calls the figures on the Grecian urn,
never arriving but not dying either—
as if we’re always on the road, between—
truth/beauty, head/heart, heaven and hell—
or what was that recipe we found once?
Himmel und erde, mixing potatoes and apples,
mashed so the two we loved separate were fused
like healing stirred, blended into hurt,
so you can’t tell them apart—the wound,
the crack, the tear that lets in light…
But happy to me always meant arriving
at the goal, then getting to hang at poolside
after hard work, sipping a pastel drink
with its little paper umbrella.
Who wants to be stuck going round and round?
Still, if you’re Keats spitting blood,
or the bull on that urn, then the slower you go
Though it takes more than dragging our heels
to arrive where Catherine of Sienna does,
saying all the way to heaven is heaven,
especially when it looks like hell. The hacked up
ruins of what once was a town, the heavy weight
of the dead loaded onto carts,
the buttons, bones, shoes still in the rubble
when the survivors comb through:
against those scenes, only the smallest gestures
seem to hold—the cup of water
handed to a prisoner on a train, the shawl
wrapped around a shivering child at the border,
the last piece of bread a hungry man
breaks in two.
Betsy Sholl has published eight books of poetry, most recently Otherwise Unseeable (University of Wisconsin, 2014), which won the 2014 Maine Literary Award for Poetry, Rough Cradle (Alice James, 2009) and Late Psalm (Univ. of Wisconsin, 2004).
Other books include Don’t Explain, winner of the Felix Pollak Award (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), and The Red Line, which won the 1991 AWP Prize for Poetry (Univ. of Pittsburgh, 1992). From 2006 to 2011 she was Poet Laureate of Maine. She has had poems published recently or forthcoming in Brilliant Corners, Field, New Ohio Review, and Image. Also, this past spring she performed some of her jazz poems with musicians Gary Wittner and Jim Cameron.
Three earlier collections of poetry came out with Alice James Books, where she was a founding member. A chapbook, Coastal Bop, came out with Oyster River Press in 2001. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, among them Field, Image, The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Missouri Review. In 1991 she won the Maine Arts Commission Chapbook Competition. She is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship and two Maine Artists Fellowships. She has taught in the Writing Program at M.I.T. and until recently taught at the Univ. of Southern Maine.
Noll is a writer fascinated with the quality of existence, and by the idea that it could be something better. —Joseph Schreiber
We humans tend to fancy ourselves rational beings. We hold to the convention of cause and effect. We imagine that if faced with strange and unusual situations, we would respond with curiosity, anxiety, or alarm and make an effort to act appropriately. We are inclined to believe that we need to understand what is happening to us and around us at all times. But, is that truly the way we actually exist in the world?
João Gilberto Noll is an author who dares to challenge that assumption. His novel, Quiet Creature on the Corner is, on the surface, a spare and modestly surreal tale of a young man who surrenders himself to a life that is inexplicably handed to him without seriously questioning his circumstances until he is deeply absorbed in a situation that is rapidly growing stranger and more uncertain. Newly released from Two Lines Press, in a measured, wonderfully restrained translation by Adam Morris, this novel offers an English language audience an absorbing introduction to this esteemed Brazilian author.
Born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1946, Noll began his studies in literature in 1967, but left school two years later to work as a journalist in Rio de Janeiro. He would eventually return to university, completing his degree in 1979. Participation in the University of Iowa Writer’s Program in 1982 brought him to international attention when one of his stories was included in an anthology of new Brazilian authors published in Germany in 1983. Over the following twenty years he would be invited to teach in Berkley, California; Bellagio, Italy; and London, UK. Quiet Creature on the Corner (O quieto animal da esquina), his fifth novel, was originally published in 1991.
Noll is a writer fascinated with the quality of existence, and by the idea that it could be something better. Like many of his Brazilian literary cohorts he was nourished on a “robust” existentialism and reflects that this, combined with his own innate sense of himself as a human being, may have been critical in forming his view of literature as having:
. . . a universal, maybe even atemporal core, to the extent that one can say that . . . for we’re not here to deny the material conditions of time and space. But it’s my impression that there’s something pretty common at the heart of the phenomenon of literary creation, the fact that it’s born out of tremendous unease, a tremendous discomfort, a feeling of enormous insufficiency in the face of what is real.
He describes himself as more interested, more committed to speaking about the impossible than the possible. And, although he is typically considered a postmodern writer, he is not entirely comfortable with that classification, insofar as he sees it as legitimizing cynicism. “I am in no way at all cynical,” he insists, “I’m tragic the whole time, I take everything in strict seriousness, that’s why I don’t consider myself post-modern.”
Written and set during the years marking Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to fledgling democracy, the surreal atmosphere that filters through the narrative of Quiet Creature on the Corner reflects the shifting and uncertain dynamics of a society in flux. The book opens with the unnamed narrator, a nineteen-year-old living in Porto Alegre, washing from his hands the grease of the job he has just lost. There is the immediate sense that he is relieved to rid himself of this manual labour even if it means joining the growing ranks of the unemployed. He prefers to see himself as a poet, a purveyor of verse. He spends his days wandering around town, and shares a squat with his mother in an unfinished building at night. The streets of his impoverished neighbourhood are littered with signs of decay and economic ruin.
One day, following a back alley sexual encounter with a neighbour, he finds himself arrested and charged with rape. However, our hero does not spend long in jail, the next morning a mysterious German man hands him a package containing poetry books and paper, and informs him that he is going to a psychiatric clinic. No matter how odd this turn of events may be, his reaction is positive: “Wow, . . . my entire life looks like it’s about to change,” he remarks. He is still young but he feels that he has been waiting, impatiently, for his life to get itself sorted out. He gives the impression he almost imagines this is his due.
His time at the clinic appears to be spent in some kind of dream-like state. He describes an idyllic life on a farm with the same girl who had charged him with rape, caring for horses and cows, and becoming a father. When he emerges from this condition he is surprised to find he is still in his room at the clinic, his experiences had seemed so real. However he notices that the German man, whom he will soon learn is named Kurt, appears considerably older than he remembers. He asks to see a mirror and discovers that he himself has grown long hair and a thick beard. He wonders how much time has passed.
From the clinic, rather than returning to his old life, the narrator is pleased to see that he being taken out to a large estate in the country where he will live with Kurt, his wife Gerda, a man named Otávio, and the servant girl, Amália. Again he takes this development in stride. The atmosphere in the household is oddly tense; the dynamic between the residents is strained, pierced with silences and marked by some very strange interactions that our protagonist chances to observe. Nonetheless, he seems quite content to see how this new life will proceed. After all, he has a comfortable place to live, his needs are all taken care of, and the only thing he seems to be expected to do is write poetry. There is an element of passive opportunism in his attitude that is somewhat unnerving—he quickly becomes sexually involved with Amália and studies Kurt for indications of how he might assure his continued patronage.
As time goes on he learns that Gerda has cancer. This brings him into a closer proximity with Kurt, serving to deepen the mystery around this enigmatic man, rather than revealing secrets. After she succumbs to her illness, Kurt’s rapid aging accelerates. It is at this point that our protagonist seriously begins to question how quickly time is passing and realizes that he has lost his ability to judge. He notices that the remaining members of the household are also aging, and that he himself is no longer the young man he was when he arrived. He becomes increasingly troubled by the strange and surreal quality of his existence, and the curious nature of his benefactor. This impassive man seems to exercise a strange hold that keeps Otávio and Amália circling around him like satellites. What is it?
Yet, as much as he is worried about losing whatever potential financial advantage that might still await him, our protagonist still seems to be uncertain just how much he really wants to know, how much he wants to give, and how close he is willing to get to anyone to figure things out. One senses that so much remains unknown, simply because the narrator makes no real effort to understand, to fully engage. And herein lies the heart of the unsettling, haunting power of this novel.
Quiet Creature is a short work, easily read in one or two sittings. The language is spare, measured, with a matter-of-fact tone that holds level throughout. For our narrator, the past is best forgotten, the future uncertain but, with luck, ripe to be exploited. Whether he is recounting experiences that are mundane or extraordinary, his ambivalent, mildly irritated mood rarely wavers:
The late afternoon shadows had already insinuated themselves among the branches of the Protestant cemetery, the discreet headstones engraved almost exclusively with German names. Kurt and I were walking down a path and our steps made a cadence on the flagstones. Ahead of us, a gravedigger was pushing a little cart that carried Gerda’s casket. The wheels could’ve used an oiling, they made an infernal noise. From time to time the vision of an iron cross, stark, made my head pulse. Gerda’s grave just wouldn’t arrive. The gravedigger was really putting an effort into pushing the little cart, steeply bent over, his ass sticking out at us, pants straining at the seam between his enormous buttocks. I noticed it was getting darker. And the gravedigger started down another path.
At that time of day it was hard to discern the bottom of the grave. The gravedigger asked Kurt if he’d like to open the casket one last time. Kurt shook his head no, and nearby a bell began to toll.
I threw a shovelful of earth into the hole.
Time passes in an uneven, disjointed manner; a sensation heightened by the absence of any type of chapter or section breaks. Periodically there are abrupt jumps in time and place from one paragraph to the next, jarring when encountered in the narrative but effectively reminiscent of the shifts between scenes in a movie, lending a distinctly filmic quality to the dream-like, non-rational story. It is not surprising that critics have referenced filmmakers like David Lynch and Werner Herzog in an attempt to describe this book. Noll’s focus on light and dark, sounds and silence, further enhances this effect.
However, I would argue that it is the author’s exploitation of the inherent instability between the ordinary and the exceptional, and the social and the ontological that gives Quiet Creature on the Corner its distinctive, unsettling feel. As readers we have access to no reality outside the thoughts and impressions of the narrator, a man who maintains an attitude that is at once entirely self-interested yet emotionally disengaged. Like Camus’ Meursault or Handke’s Joseph Bloch in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, he demonstrates neither remorse nor regret for his crime. And why should he? It is, as far as he is concerned, the best thing that ever happened to him, lifting him out of a life of poverty and dead end jobs. He states on more than one occasion that he will do whatever is necessary to come out of this to his advantage even if he has no idea what that might entail.
Most disturbing is the startling lack of regard for others that our hero demonstrates. Only Kurt is important because he holds the key to his future security. As political events, blockades and rallies, intrude on his life he reacts with frustration—especially if they threaten something he wants. One is left to wonder at this desire to turn his back on everything he has known, including his mother, and his willingness to submit to such a strange, surreal world that might well exact a high price as his aging benefactor rapidly declines and his country moves on to democratic reform. But then, especially in times of instability and major change, who’s to say where the truth lies and whether denial of reality in the hope of another possibility is not the only sensible response?
When Bea and I first came to Paris, we were still so wrapped up in each other we didn’t see much of our neighbour, Marie-Louise. She and a Vietnamese couple were the only other people sharing the lift with us. I did notice she was peculiar, with big fuzzy hair that was obviously dyed and glowed purplish against the light. She had a gummy smile, the seldom time we saw it, but as my girlfriend Bea said, that was hardly her fault. There were times when we would meet her down on the street and she wouldn’t even see us.
She rarely had visitors, although she had a mother in the suburbs and a sister who was married somewhere in town. Bea (who found out most of this) swears she actually met the mother once, helped carry her bag up the stairs, and found her strangely unfriendly.
“You fabulate, my dear,” I told Bea that time. “It’s the causal breach. You women are obsessed by it. Spend all your time trying to plug it, searching for reasons and explanations.”
Marie-Louise had a cat. We first got to know her when she asked us to feed the cat one time she went to a clinic to lose weight. I hated the cat, its litter, its smells. I mentioned toxoplasmosis.
“One always hates other people’s cats,” Bea said.
Marie-Louise was clearly obsessed about filling the causal breach, that void between an event and its explanation, something that fascinated me too, although I didn’t say so to Bea.
Marie-Louise had a selection of odd occurrences she brought up from time to time, as if requesting or hoping for an explanation. One story was the day she and her husband were traveling along somewhere in Europe in what she called Our Bug (a VW beetle), on a normal bright partly-cloudy day. The countryside was hilly but the road – an old coach road – instead of going round the hills went up and down each one as it came. This was fun. You could see she was reliving the experience each time she told it.
The climax was that they topped a hill and suddenly there was a line across the road where snow began and beyond it a winter world of white, with several trucks backed up at a service station surrounded by drifts. Her husband, who was driving, got such a fright he almost skidded, and had to slow down gradually before he was able to turn and go back.
Go back? Why? Where were they headed?
She couldn’t remember, and always closed up at this point.
Bea said it was a freak snowstorm, and nothing more.
Marie-Louise worked at the Post Office next door, along with what I considered to be a selection of other social cases, all swollen from a lack of exercise and the drugs they needed to regulate their serotonin. That was how I explained them to myself, although Bea just laughed. “You’re the one with the problem,” she’d say whenever I complained about their queuing system or the fact that they refused to sell me international reply coupons. “We don’t do them anymore,” they’d say firmly without even checking, and I’d have to lope off to another branch.
Marie-Louise and her husband had traveled the world, once: Russia, the east-bloc countries in their darkest days, southern Europe, the great outdoor spaces of the American West. She knew all the most beautiful spots, the have-to-see places in every country, although she often preferred to fix on something peculiar. Her favourite story was of the laughing clubs they’d visited in India. “They’d start with the vowels,” she’d say, then she’d shout: “He! Ha! Ho! Hi! Hu!” Sometimes it seemed to be the only thing they’d done or seen in India.
Those days we didn’t know exactly where the husband was, although Marie-Louise never mentioned being divorced, or referred to herself as a divorcee. Eventually it emerged that his name was Vlasta and that he had come from Eastern Europe and gotten rich, a long time ago. “Ah, Vlasta!” she would say with a despairing wave of her arm. In winter she gave Saturday theatre classes to small groups of people like herself, in an under-sized sitting room lined with cheap reproductions of old masterpieces. She pretended her family had known many of the most famous modern painters and reckoned that, as a young girl, she’d shown her bum to more than one of them. “Small girls do that, you know,” she said. She had gone on to being their model.
At 12 years of age, she had ceremoniously binned her very ancient and much-thumbed copy of Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Tenniel, with its talking sheep and sinister cats. I thought this chain of events worthy of psychoanalysis, but Bea said she was just chatting. Bea sometimes made a cake and invited Marie-Louise to share it. I would come home and find two sets of big teeth grinning over tea and cake, sharing gossip about the building and its occupants.
Marie-Louise called our concierge The Queen of Hearts. “Queen of Hearts giving orders again?” she’d enquire when some directive appeared in our letterboxes. Residents must realize… Residents should note… The Queen of Hearts was a tiny dark Portuguese Catholic, trying to be a tall blond one. She had a small white poodle and a huge Rottweiler (these I referred to as her Manichean aspects). She took lunch with her parents every Sunday in a public-housing block to the west of Paris which had replaced the shanty town where they lived on their arrival in 1960s France, fleeing Salazar and all that. She was convinced that some saint or other had recently saved her kid from certain death in a scooter accident. She also reckoned we were in constant danger of our lives from local hooligans – hence the Rottweiler – and had organized teams of solemn young men in what looked like Ninja-turtle outfits to patrol the yard and gardens. When the details appeared on the annual charge bill at the beginning of the year, I almost had a fit.
“Get interested in your fellow man,” Bea advised. “This one has been coming at us for a while.”
As a teenager Marie-Louise had been propositioned, very correctly, by a painter friend of her parents. Politely, in his car, after school. When she refused, equally politely, he drove off and she never saw him again. The thing was she fancied him terribly and had cried when his wife died and he married a second time. “Wanting things to stay forever in one place,” she said, “that’s kids for you.”
On Sunday afternoons in winter she sometimes went to what she called a “thé dansant” in old-fashioned Paris ballrooms where tea and cakes were served and polite men asked her to dance dances you really had to know: “You can’t improvise a tango,” she’d say. She had some kind of regular dancing partner at these dancing teas, whom she called her “bon ami” and whose name we never learned.
“’Cos he doesn’t exist,” I said.
“You should cut down on philosophy and read more fiction,” said Bea, “they say it helps us empathize.”
Someone pinched my shoulder-bag one day in the metro when I was lost in a book. Bea wasn’t home when I got there, so I knocked on Marie-Louise’s door. I’d even contemplated asking our Vietnamese neighbour rather than getting involved with Marie-Louise. But I knew the Vietnamese woman would have her own story about a woman’s life in Vietnam, how she only ever went out on her own to go to Mass (our neighbours are Vietnamese Catholics) and how even their watches and wedding rings were taken from them as they left Vietnam. She’d told all this to Bea, who concluded they were terrified of anyone with administrative power over them. Rather than question any authority, they paid all bills without question, including the one for the Ninja turtles.
So I knocked and explained why I needed somewhere to wait till Bea arrived. Marie-Louise ushered me into the sitting room with the reproductions. I was halfway across the dark room when I realized there was someone else there.
“Vlasta,” she said simply.
“Get a glass for him,” Vlasta told Marie-Louise, as if he came every day, lived there, or even owned the place.
For a while he interviewed me like a prospective husband for a daughter, then settled into the story of his own life. He seemed to have a wife, although I couldn’t be sure, and he certainly had two teenage sons who seemed to cause him endless hassle. I presumed he’d made them with someone other than Marie-Louise.
“Bought them a 7-11,” he said, “and they’re about to run it into the ground as well – they’re too lazy even to sit at the till and take in the money.”
He launched into wider subjects. “The Americans organized the Twin Towers themselves. Did you see the way they came down?” – it wasn’t a question – “The plane only hit the corner of the building. Had to have explosives planted all over it. And the Americans didn’t care,” he said, “because the towers were full of foreigners.”
Glued to my chair in horror and fascination, all that seemed to be working was my tongue: I tried to move him on to other things, like the newly reduced Greater Serbia. “Yugoslavia was ruled by non-Serbs, but the Serbs got the blame,” he told me. The trouble now was the Albanians. “Import two of them Sheptar,” he said (I thought I saw Marie-Louise wince), “and in no time you have hundreds.”
According to him, Yugoslavia was made to fall apart eventually. “Stalin was a priest before he came to power. He got rid of the soutane and attacked religion. Tito wasn’t a Serb either, no one knows where he came from.”
“Wasn’t the man who killed the Archduke Ferdinand a Serb?” I ventured, glancing at my watch.
“Sure, but he lived in Bosnia,” he replied. So he wasn’t really a Serb either.
“If you meet a Sheptar” – Marie-Louise definitely winced – “on a country path, he marches towards you and you have to step off the path. Then he steps off the path too, to confront you again. Some people are always spoiling for a fight, like the man who comes up to a peaceful coffee drinker in a café and says, ‘Why did you fuck my wife?’ Coffee drinker says, ‘I didn’t go near your wife, what do I want to go fucking your wife for?’ And the belligerent one changes tack: ‘What’s wrong with my wife that you wouldn’t want to fuck her?’”
And so on. My ears were tuned to the bump of the lift, but there was still no sign of Bea. Vlasta couldn’t be stopped, now he had an audience. Marie-Louise busied herself with tea. “Marx and Engels had excellent ideas that were meant to be introduced gradually,” Vlasta continued. “But no, Lenin had to go and have his Revolution. Communism is a complete misnomer. It brought to power men who only knew how to herd sheep. Down they came from the mountains and found themselves addressing crowds. They didn’t know the difference between Communism and Capitalism. They were told that Communism meant if a man has two chairs you take one off him and give it to someone who has none. One of these former shepherds, before a crowd and stuck for words, saw a tramp go by at the back of the crowd with a sack on his back. ‘A capitalist!’ he cried. ‘There goes a capitalist! Take the sack off him and divide its contents among you!’”
Vlasta looked very pleased with himself. Marie-Louise winked at me surreptitiously.
Suddenly Vlasta glanced at a very expensive watch, leaped to his feet and said he couldn’t delay, as if we’d tried to hold onto him.
When he was gone, Marie-Louise opened the window and beckoned me over.
“Come and look,” she said. “He likes me to wave goodbye.”
We waved as Vlasta got into a Mercedes that was several generations old and roared off in a cloud of black fumes. Just then, Bea rounded the corner. We waved at her too.
“I must apologize for Vlasta’s behaviour,” Marie-Louise said. “It is part of why we are no longer together. A lot of things about Vlasta were masked by language and culture, from the start.”
“The original and correct word is Shqiptar,” she said, “from the Albanian language. It’s related to the word for speak. The word Vlasta used is extremely pejorative, like ‘Barbarian’ once was for the Greeks, or ‘Welsh’ for the Germans.”
I’d had enough by then and was in no mood for linguistics. I made for the door in haste, but Marie-Louise caught me by the arm:
“How can you see something in a mirror that isn’t reflected in it directly?” she wanted to know.
She pointed out a rooftop opposite and then to its reflection in a mirror on her wall that lay at right angles to the window.
First I sighed. I could hear the lift. Then I went to a lot of trouble with paper and diagrams and angles and so on, but it was clear that she didn’t believe me. She was convinced it was some kind of magic.
“I had a dream,” she said. “I came into a room and saw a small man – tiny, really – dressed in bulky but shiny clothes, lying, obviously dead, on the floor near a chair. My first reflex was to reach out for it” – she definitely said ‘it’ – “more for tidiness than anything else. Just then a very large speckled bird – as big as the little man, anyhow – took him by the beak and pulled him under the chair out of my reach.”
“So what’ve you been up to?” Bea challenged me as I burst into our apartment.
“Plugging the causal breach,” I said.
I kept it going for a while before telling her about Vlasta. Bea and I had reached that stage in our relationship where the lives of others filled a space between us that we couldn’t fill ourselves.
That summer was the famous ‘canicule’, as they called it here (somehow a deadlier word than ‘heatwave’), during which France killed off some 15,000 of its old folks.
Early on, Bea and I enjoyed the weather, the city. One weekend we rolled out to watch the Queen of Hearts participate in a parade celebrating Portugal in all its aspects. I was truly astonished at the sheer numbers of them, their costumes, their faithfulness to regions and habits. There were groups from all over Paris with banners related to occupations, way of life and regions in Portugal. All in costume, there were brides and grooms, kids, people carrying peasant farming tools, playing music, dancing.
I said, “What, no tools for digging ditches?” I told Bea this was over-the-top folklore, a memory of the times before they all had to flee dictatorship and poverty and getting called up to fight wars in Angola and Mozambique.
The Queen of Hearts smiled and waved as she jigged by in a black and white outfit topped with a kind of lace mantilla.
When I said, “No sign of the concierge’s tools there,” Bea dragged me away.
After that we fled south – “Because they know how to deal with heat down there,” Bea said – until it became too much there too. Then on to Morocco to friends, until I tired of seeing rich people in rich houses surrounded by the poor padding about them, cleaning, cooking, trying for invisibility.
“And they wonder why they want to come to Europe,” I said.
”Don’t start,” said Bea.
Then I had a summer school in Ireland, where my temper improved immediately in the more modest temperatures. Things in Ireland had never been better: you could sit on the grass, swim every day, organize a picnic, all without having a Plan B. Demand was so brisk that every garage and supermarket in the country ran out of charcoal for barbecues.
Late one night after Bea went to sleep, I stuck in my earphone and switched on the radio on my cell phone. A scratchy French station was talking about hundreds of deaths all over Paris. The funeral parlours were overflowing, they said. They were requisitioning cold storage places to put the bodies, there were so many of them.
“What the hell is this?” I said, into the night.
It was all over by the time we got back. Paris had settled into a sinister post-disaster calm. I bought the papers in the station. The media were down to the usual ding-dong about who was to blame: society was at fault, there was no respect for the old. One family, abroad on holidays (I think – perhaps they were only in the south on a beach) asked the authorities if they would hold on to the grandmother’s body till their holidays were over, “She’s dead, she’s going noplace anyway,” they were reputed to have said.
The big heat was over. Our building would be pretty well empty, we reckoned, which was normal for late August. However, when we punched in our code and the door opened stiffly, who should we find standing in the hall but the Queen of Hearts.
“Still here?” we said.
“What with all that happened,” she said.
She had opened the glass door on the notice board and was fumbling with a black-edged handwritten sign. She held it up to us.
It announced that Marie-Louise was dead.
“Family won’t do it,” she whispered.
Before I could ask why she was whispering, she hissed: “Body’s still up there.” She raised her eyes, “They haven’t even appeared once. No one to sit with the body. Think of it. No priest said the last prayers.”
“Left it all to the undertakers,” she concluded, folding her arms and studying us for reactions. “A civil funeral, they call it – they bury people like dogs in this country.”
It was Bea who said, “But she was far too young to die from the heat!”
“Not the heat,” said the Queen of Hearts. “The loneliness.”
Marie-Louise had even phoned Vlasta the night before she did it and asked him to come into town. He told her to take a sleeping pill and go to bed. How the Queen of Hearts knew all this is anyone’s guess. When Marie-Louise didn’t turn up at work the next day, the Post Office called around and it emerged that she hadn’t left her apartment.
I pictured the Queen of Hearts in full authoritative mode, a locksmith at her feet fumbling with instruments.
“She was lying on her right-hand side,” she hissed loudly, “The stuff she took was on the bedside table.”
In a way, I thought, the Queen of Hearts’ curiosity was healthier than any French attitude to family. Then, with considerable misgiving, I began to wonder if religion might not have a role to play after all. I was careful not to mention this to Bea.
Later, as we lay in bed studying the cracks in the ceiling that needed redecorating, Bea said, “Just think of her going through that, and us on a white beach in the Aran Islands.”
“I’ve decided Marie-Louise wasn’t bonkers,” I said after a while. “Everything is so complicated, it simply has to have a cause,” I told her.
She sat up on one elbow and looked me straight in the eye.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to fall back on Intelligent Design and all that? After complaining for all these years about how even Descartes leaned on God, in the end?”
I realized it was too late to wrench the subject away from the possibility of supreme beings. It dawned on me that Bea’s was an anger built up over years of packing boxes and moving them with me and my philosophical career.
“You were the one who wanted to come to France – because of ideas, because of the Enlightenment. You fled Ireland because of the priests! We moved here – lock, stock and barrel – because of Reason!”
By now Bea was yelling.
I tried to calm her by telling other stories by Marie Louise – her nightmare about being pursued into a room full of furnaces and another about lining up for punishment by burning. “I was always with other people, always accompanied,” Marie-Louise had said.
Bea rolled her eyes. “Please,” she said. “Don’t start.”
“We humans are hard-wired to want lies,” I plunged into ever deeper water. “Lies plug the breaches we find in causality. When we don’t have answers, we content ourselves with lies. Fictions and stories comfort us, where the truth – the absence of a cause, the lack of a reason – would disturb us.”
I warmed to my subject. Bea turned away from me and got out of bed.
“Cave paintings were stories people told themselves about themselves too,” I said, as she closed the bedroom door behind her.
Mary Byrne’s fiction has appeared in: six anthologies, including Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, Phoenix Irish Short Stories and Queens Noir; in dozens of literary journals in Europe, North America and Australia, and broadcast on British and Irish radio. Her chapbook, A Parallel Life, was published in 2015 by Kore Press https://korepress.org/books/AParallelLife.htm.
But since those first flutes were fashioned out of vulture bones several tens of thousands of years ago, all music has intrinsically spoken to our interaction with Nature around us, and our Anthropocene era is defined by a cataclysmic pulse signal being fed into the whole Earth System, caused by us – as stupid and dangerous an experiment as has ever been conducted. —Nathan Currier
Nathan Currier (1960) is a contemporary composer whose work is both bracing and intimate. Talking to Currier, one is immediately captivated by the span of his attention, which takes in hundreds of years and generations of scholarly thought. The breadth of his intellectual passions would have been familiar to composers, musicians, writers and intellectuals of the late Romantic period. In our own time, one marked by rigid specialization across all professions that has many artists stuck in self-referential ironic loops, Currier is one of the relatively few artists addressing the issue of climate collapse in a thoughtful and serious manner. “Never before has classical music been so needed by humanity, and never before has it been deemed so superfluous,” he warns.
Currier has long studied the Gaian theory developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. This Earth Systems viewpoint is based in a holonic understanding that something is simultaneously a whole and a part of its system. His largest work to date is a full-scale oratorio, Gaian Variations, based in the Earth Systems perspective. Music is an holonic expression: individual tones (which each contain the full expression of harmonic overtones) and classical music, as a language in itself, offer the most effective medium by which to understand and transform our understanding of Earth Systems. Classical music is, Currier suggests, “a brilliant model and lesson for the human mind to better contemplate complex system dynamics …(one) which evolved almost as a continuous narrative expression of the inherent properties of the holonic harmonic series itself…”
In addition to Gaian Variations, Currier’s works include Hildegard’s Symphony a piano concerto, many works for solo instruments and chamber music. Currier is also a skilled pianist, awarded the Silver Medal in the International Piano Recording Competition in his early twenties for his performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A long-term collaborative relationship with the harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet, principal harpist of the Berlin Philharmonic, led to many chamber works written for harp, including Possum Wakes from Playing Dead, Thirty Little Pictures of Time Passing, and A Nursery Sleep. He’s also worked with the visual artist Suzan Woodruff; Looming Atmospheres takes the theme of Currier’s Gaian Variations and uses it as the basis for a painting-film. Currier studied at the Peabody School of Music, and the Juilliard School of Music, where he also taught for over ten years on their evening division faculty. His principal teachers have included David Diamond, Joseph Schwantner, Bernard Rands, Stephen Albert and Frederic Rzewski.
Currently, Currier (along with composers Samuel Zyman and Christopher James) is initiating a new concert series (The Orchard Circle series) that will take place in New York and Philadelphia, beginning Fall 2016. This series will highlight the music of early and mid-career classical musicians through work that Currier feels are too often overlooked. The core of the events will be a 90-minute performance held within a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.
Currier is the recipient of many prizes and awards, including the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim award, and the American Academy of Arts & Letters’ Academy Award, given for lifetime achievement in composition, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Fulbright, Fromm, Charles Ives, Barlow, and ASCAP awards.
I met Nathan around a decade ago, both of us attending a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Amherst, VA. We struck up a friendship immediately, and it was with pleasure that I embarked upon this exchange of emails that resulted in the following interview.
Carolyn Ogburn: Would you say something about the way you see the value of exploring environmental themes through music? You wrote vividly about holonic structuring in your essay, “Classical Music in the Anthropocene”. Can you talk about how this might be interpreted, musically?
Nathan Currier: Pitched sound inherently bids us to engage with Natural design, even if it is unconscious: the harmonic series means that all music always consists of parts and wholes sounding together, as each tone contains all pitch, and this deeply holonic structuring of music parallels many inspiring and mysterious aspects of the natural world around us. For example, the Neo-Darwinists have often liked to make it seem as though life’s amazing evolution on Earth = genes + random mutations + natural selection, given enough time. But this view has begun to seem like something of a joke. We have recently learned that huge amounts of genetic material – perhaps as much as 50% of our own human genomes – have been horizontally transferred; a single unit of selection seems almost silly among the multi-leveled holonic processes of life; and, at the highest level of such processes, the Neo-Darwinists themselves strenuously maintained for decades that our Natural selection-run world could never lead to global scale self-regulation, yet the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change (signed by more than 1,000 scientists in 2001 under the aegis of the United Nations) begins by stating just that – that our planet acts as a single self-regulating system. Going back to the Pythagorians, music was always seen as somehow depicting fundamental laws of the universe, and I am essentially saying that this still holds true. But this current form of the old metaphor is little known, however, because Earth System science is not yet widely known.
For holonic structuring, I’m suggesting above that this doesn’t need musical interpretation – that it is always there. But of course, one could also add in conscious interpretation. My Dorothy’s Dinner is all about the work of Lynn Margulis, who was the great modern master of the workings of symbiosis, and one might say that the holonic structure of all life – the cellular organelles like the mitochondria inside our cells; the variegated cells in multicellular organisms like ourselves; organisms inside ecosystems; and the range of these nested inside the biosphere – ultimately stems from the symbiotic behaviors forced upon all organisms, and which was shown to be the source of the complex cells we are made of (Eukaryotic cells), where a process of engulfment (i.e., phagocytosis) creates this multi-tiered holonic quality at the level of single cells. It was in Margolis’ lab that I first saw footage of D. Discoidium, one of the marvels of nature, where 100,000, sometimes even a million, individual, single-celled organisms (they are Eukaryotes, and Protista) can, under the environmental stress of starvation or drought, come together and form a single organism with fully differentiated cells, making a slug that can walk off and find a better environment. Dorothy’s Dinner is for four actors and string quartet, and melds theatrical and musical elements to such a degree that I hope they become fully entangled into a single narrative, where the music employs all kinds of techniques that I see as reflections of holonic structure (again, keep in mind, harmony is inherently holonic), and the narrative concerns four old friends getting together for the first time in decades, entraining issues of group behavior, and climaxing when Dorothy, a retired biologist, shows her old friends this same footage I had seen – the coalescing of the ‘fruiting body’ out of an army of individuals, and the slug then moving off as one single organism.
To deal more generally with environmental themes in music, I think it’s vital first to correctly characterize “environmentalism,” and then to get meaningfully inside music history. I think this is the problem with current ecomusicology – it doesn’t, to my mind, work hard enough yet on either of these things, and so one quickly ends up with breezy talk of John Cage, R. Murray Schaefer and acoustic ecology, things which I confess I don’t personally see as central to music, ecology, or the environment. My essay Classical Music in the Anthropocene begins by trying to show that the largest late works of common practice period music were far more ecologically significant and timely than any such material, since Mahler’s two largest scores (the Third and Eighth symphonies) were entirely wrapped up with Haeckel, who coined the term ecology and adumbrated aspects of Earth System science. And consider that the passage just before Mahler starts his Faust setting in the Eighth gyrates eerily around the subject of geoengineering, a topic likely to be one of the most significant and contentious of the 21st century, although this passage was written by Goethe 150 years before the term geoengineering was first used. What does it mean, then, when composers tack on their conscious thoughts and feelings about something like environmental destruction, to a language that has always been speaking to us, albeit mostly unawares, about Nature’s operations? It depends on how it is done. I have read articles about works in which, say, someone records their footsteps walking on a glacier, and then manipulates this sound to create a “statement” about climate change. A cellist’s video of himself “playing” a graph of global climate change was passed around online a couple of years ago, with the cellist going up in pitch whenever the temperature graph went up – a link to this video was even sent to me by the Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra, as though there would somehow be interest in it for me because I am educated in climatology. If one could create interesting sounding pieces this way, it should still go without saying that such things have nothing much to do with their subject. The squiggles in the climate graph represent the chaos of any complex system, and are relatively uninteresting in themselves, but there is fascinating order in the climate system behind its noisy chaos, just as there is behind your own body’s chaos (your body also exhibits randomness in its diurnal temperature shifts, for example, despite its extreme thermoregulation).
Such talk about geoengineering brings one to the need of correctly characterizing ‘environmentalism’, since the environmental community has taken great pains to portray all geoengineering as evil or even crazy (leading up to the Copenhagen COP, hundreds of environmental groups even signed a declaration against the use of biochar, which is quite benign). At the time of Mahler, our current notion of the environment barely existed. One spoke of Nature. Environmentalism has been hugely positive for society as a whole, but its weaknesses are sitting right there in the reductive word itself: by definition, you aren’t the environment that surrounds you, and this lack of inclusion breeds a lack of agency. Agency is lacking not just for humanity, but for life itself, in this mindset. Consider the opening sentences (after the initial fable) of Carson’s Silent Spring (my italics added):
The history of life on Earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the Earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight.
Only three years after that was written, just one year after Carson’s own untimely death (in 1964), James Lovelock had the first intuition of what would become Gaia theory (commonly referred to as Earth System science today). Now we know that virtually everything present in our atmosphere is a direct product or strongly modulated by life. Lynn Margulis, who developed Gaia theory with Lovelock, would say that all organisms ineluctably alter their environments (through waste, respiration, etc.), and that the sum of those alterations is Gaia.
Gaia might have been able to provide the missing link between our actual current understanding of the planet, and our expressions concerning it through culture and the arts. Earth System science is a term that began to be used at NASA in the early 1980s (a NASA committee called ESSC, the Earth System Science Committee, was formed in 1983 and put out a couple of large reports) which takes the concepts of global scale self-regulation that Lovelock and Margulis had initiated a decade earlier (and which they had called the Gaia hypothesis), but using a more neutral language without any baggage of culture or metaphor. In a way, it has been a tragedy of public relations: the name Gaia was only too loved by New Age enthusiasts, as it still is, while being despised by the Neo-Darwinists, Richard Dawkins labeling it “bad poetic science.” Unsurprisingly, the language of Earth System science has not communicated itself to the broader public or impacted our culture at all. But the oldest musical instrument known was found a few feet from the earliest Goddess figurine, and perhaps there really is something deep about allowing those layers of metaphor to sit on top of the recent revolutions in the geo- and life sciences.
If Gaia theory had not been so disparaged, I suspect that environmentalism, the broader culture, and consequently the planet itself, would all be in a better state today. Of course, I was trying to counter these problems with my largest work, an oratorio called Gaian Variations, which aimed both to introduce people to Gaia theory and also to contextualize it, depicting it as a natural historical outgrowth of Darwinism and the Earth sciences. (CO: Currier’s Gaian Variations premiered in 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, but was interrupted midway when the orchestra members walked out, claiming they were headed into overtime. The oratorio has yet to be performed in full.)
Heralding the Anthropocene by Nathan Currier
CO: How do you think about the structural framework of your craft? Do you think that a comparison might be made to the work you do as a composer to the conceptual work done by an architect? For both, it seems, rely on wordless language, deep understanding of structure (or, as it might be, theory) that goes beyond the individual “piece”…
NC: In musical structure, I feel as though much of what happens is far too sensitive to be likened to architectural structure, and such musical structure therefore needs to coalesce through iterative process, rather than come about through design and forethought. I am speaking from my own personal experience as a composer, but I also mean this as a general rule, both for the final form of a given composition, say Wagner’s Tristan, and for the slow evolution of musical structures themselves – take something like the gradual coalescing in classical music of what eventually became “sonata form”. So, it’s more like the emerging structure of a city, the result of iterative processes of daily life being lived, than like the planned architecture of a building.
Someone who was always very important to me from the standard repertory as concerns musical structure, right from the time that I started composing seriously, was Schumann, who I felt left many hanging threads for future composers. He was able to increase the narrative quality of musical language in his larger piano cycles, and a key part of his toolbox was, I believe, disunity. Charles Rosen wrote, that the return near the end of Davidsbundlertanze was, “a genuine return of the past – not a formal return, or a recapitulation, but a memory.” I would agree, but to me the most interesting thing is the means by which he achieved this new kind of return, which was a high degree of disunity in the variegated material between the first version of the b minor material its return. Growing up, I noticed how Schumann’s works were often considered structurally weak in the critical community, which I considered to show a lack of understanding. Needless to say, all this fit in neatly with my later scientific interests. Consider how in Lynn Margulis’ work symbiosis is elevated to a primary driving force of biological evolution. Remember that symbiosis means “living together”, in all its infinite shades of meaning, from the casual acquaintances of organisms that randomly hit up against each other, to the coalescing of the key elements of cellular structure through endosymbiosis, such that every cell with “your DNA” is itself a chimera made up of elements of what were various free-living bacteria billions of years ago. In any case, even in my teens many of my works were designed after Schumann’s, with series of interlinked short movements, perhaps in a way analogous to (Gyorgy) Kurtag, another living composer who also has written about Schumann as an inspiration for his many series of short interrelated movements.
CO: You grew up within a musical family (Currier is the son of Robert Currier, a violist and Marilyn Kind Currier, a composer; his brother is Sebastian Currier, also an acclaimed composer). What was that like, and how do you think it’s shaped your own work?
NC: There is no question but that it was vastly important to me to have grown up in a family full of composers, which I think has shaped me in all kinds of ways I am only partly aware of. One way in which I am different from many composers I know is that I am less interested in what I would call ‘productivity maximization’. Perhaps it is an outgrowth of having lived among other composers, that I see a moral responsibility to not over produce, a kind of compositional ‘Planned Parenthood.” Almost every “professional” composer I know has written far more than Mahler, although Mahler towers over the late common practice repertory…. That said, I confess that right now I would really like to be composing far more than I have for a while!
CO: I know you’ve been excited about the upcoming launch of the Orchard Circle concert series, a kind of “midtown revival,” of the aesthetic middle. Can you talk to me more about that?
NC: I am currently involved in starting up a series of new music concerts in New York City (and Philadelphia) to be called Orchard Circle, starting this coming November. It has gotten me listening to a lot of my colleagues’ works again, and there is certainly no shortage of creativity of all kinds going on today. Yet the series represents only one slice of the whole aesthetic pie, focused on the middle of things, and we are particularly interested in eschewing predominant trends, things like so-called “post-classical” music, the current Brooklyn-based emphasis on pop culture, and other features that typify the current scene.
CO: How much do you think of how your work will be heard as you write? Do you actively seek to either to reflect existing perceptions, or to disrupt them, perhaps to disturb something fundamentally unquestioned in the listener? Or, do you think of it in some other way entirely?
NC: I don’t personally try to either reflect or defy common perceptions, and have to admit that I am not very good about keeping the listener in mind once I am involved in composing something, unless I could be considered “the listener”. But I am sure that time changes everything, including our perceptions, so I don’t see what the value is of thinking of current listeners as opposed to difficult-to-predict future ones. And I think that we need to be very future-oriented right now, about our planet, our society, and our aesthetics. When I ask other composers about the future, I realize that most have rather little concern for it, and for some that is even a matter of pride, after a century of modernists claiming that someday, “the milkman would whistle Webern’s tunes.” Personally, regardless of the errors of the modernists, I see it as a matter of morality to work and live as though still believing in some future, perhaps akin to Mahler’s “my time will come!” attitude. This despite the fact that I know far more climatology than colleagues, and so know with certainty that New York City, where I am now living, is already doomed (the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun its slow collapse, the grounding line around the chief Amundsen Sea outlet glaciers have reached the so-called ‘retrograde bed’, and this will be an unstoppable process) along with all the world’s other vulnerable coastal cities.
It is hard to fathom what perceptions of us and our creations will be, given the utterly unprecedented nature of what is underway, and at times it all feels so overwhelming that I wonder if I will be able to continue, and at such moments I often feel an immense envy of those happy colleagues who are able to ignorantly concentrate on their personal “careers”.
The Simon Bolivar Orchestra playing Mvt. 1, Of Moisture and Greenness, from Hildegard’s Symphony by Nathan Currier, with Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp solo, and Cesar Ivan Lara conducting. Premiered in Caracas, Venezuela, June 1, 2012.
CO: Earlier, you were talking about the misunderstandings of environmentalism. Can you say more about how this interacts with how you see classical music as a medium for thinking about our climate, um, challenges?
NC: Classical music is unique in the degree to which it injects a non-repetitive, one-way arrow of narrative time, and this is of supreme value if people are to contemplate time and the future. Further, counterpoint is an invention of classical music, and its complex multi-temporality is exactly what one needs to consider something like the climate system, so I do see classical music as a perfect cultural object through which to consider the irreversible large-scale climate changes underway.
Unfortunately, traditional environmentalism is still stuck in its old pre-Gaian mode, with real consequences, and anything that could shake up this situation through music would probably be good for music, and would certainly be good for the planet. Think of how today an issue like nuclear energy plays an important role in peoples’ voting – take the German election of 2011, or Bernie Sanders’ call for a U.S. moratorium on nuclear plants – but people have no adequate way of making intelligent energy choices until they begin to understand the Earth System in time. For example, wind energy manipulates a vitally active part of the Earth System – atmospheric circulation – and leaves an imprint upon it, changing the vertical mixing of the lower atmosphere, and warming the surface downwind of turbines. That does not mean we should disparage wind energy. I suspect that wind farming, however, will end up like fishing: there is a huge amount of protein in the sea, but you just can’t sustainably harvest much of it, and we have begun to learn this the hard way, with the global oceans already in a dire state. We can greatly expand our use of wind energy over the present, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it can or should supply a very large part of global energy, and the issue with wind probably won’t be whether you can get 10TW, 60TW or even 200TW out of it, as some argue: rather, I suspect it will be whether the overharvesting of wind resources offshore of California will further stress the storm tracks coming to the Sierra Nevada, imperiling U.S. agriculture, or whether lots of turbines around the UK and Scotland could actually start to impact the “tip jets” around southern Greenland, probably vital for the descending plumes of dense saline water needed for Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, which will already be under increasing stress from Greenland freshwater input and warming generally. Indeed, in the end, large scale wind harvesting will be akin to geoengineering, and indeed is a form of it, one which counteracts changes in atmospheric chemistry wrought by prior forms of energy, substituting them with a different form of energy that alters atmospheric dynamics instead. I think that wind power (along with other mild forms of geoengineering) needs to be part of the mix, but my guess is that it won’t reach much beyond 10% of total global energy before economic/environmental considerations halt its growth. That implies, of course, vast hypocrisy on the part of the environmental movement, which scorns both geoengineering and nuclear energy while advocating for wind. And today more and more ‘Big Green’ groups embrace Mark Jacobson’s plans for powering the world with >50% of all energy coming from wind turbines, which could well prove highly problematic (some peer reviewed material from Harvard and the Max Plank Institute, published by PNAS, suggests Jacobson’s way of calculating wake turbulence produce wind density figures that might be 400% of practically achievable levels), and in the end will just prolong dependence on fossil fuels for decades more than necessary, with terrible consequences.
Thus, when one considers the Earth System viewpoint and the huge price we will pay for not following it, in part because of erroneously framed “environmentalist” perceptions, and when one also considers how a brilliant model and lesson for the human mind to better contemplate complex system dynamics is classical music – which evolved almost as a continuous narrative expression of the inherent properties of the holonic harmonic series itself – it brings one to a surprising conclusion: never before has classical music been so needed by humanity, and never before has it been deemed so superfluous, with many claiming it already dead amid today’s pop culture triumphalism.
But since those first flutes were fashioned out of vulture bones several tens of thousands of years ago, all music has intrinsically spoken to our interaction with Nature around us, and our Anthropocene era is defined by a cataclysmic pulse signal being fed into the whole Earth System, caused by us – as stupid and dangerous an experiment as has ever been conducted. So I think there primarily needs to be a vast increase in education about what the “environment” really is and how it really works, and then both conscious and unconscious applications of all that to the art of music in its totality.
—Nathan Currier & Carolyn Ogburn
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.
When I read Karen Solie, I’m reminded of my first encounters with Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Life Studies, or Vallejo’s posthumously published poetry. The books seemed unrelentingly astonishing, had a skewed but insistent sense of moral gravitas, and demanded a response that was as physical as it was intellectual. —David Wojahn
The Road in is Not the Same as The Road Out
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 104 pp.
The Living Option: Selected Poems
Bloodaxe Books, 2014, 160 pp.
In 2014, upon the British publication of The Living Option, a volume of Karen Solie’s new and selected poems, the poet-critic Michael Hofmann, writing in The London Review of Books, lauded the collection in a manner that surely surpasses any poet’s most delicious fantasies about what constitutes a positive review. Hofmann heaped on the tributes so thickly that a reader unfamiliar with Solie’s work could easily have been lead to wonder if Hofmann had written the piece under the influence of some sort prescription mood enhancer so appealing that you’d love to get your hands on some of it—though perhaps not for the sake of writing about a poetry collection. By the end of the second paragraph of the review Solie was seen by Hofmann as the peer not only of well-regarded contemporary poets such as Frederick Seidel, Les Murray, and Lawrence Joseph, but also Big Shots from the pantheon—Brecht, Brodksy, Whitman, and Stevens got namechecked as well. That Hofmann would lavish such praise on a writer who had published only three collections before her Selected, all from small presses in her native Canada—she was born in on a farm near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1966, and now resides in Toronto—made the review all the more remarkable. Solie’s nationality also offered Hofmann an opportunity to tartly disparage the chauvinism of the UK and US literary establishments, who tend to regard other Anglophone literatures as what he witheringly characterized as “apocrypha or appendix, the province of specialists or pity.” Reviews of such unabashed ardor are exceedingly rare in the world of poetry, particularly when they arise from the subculture of Pavlovian snarkiness that passes for poetry reviewing in the UK. And when such reviews do appear, their claims tend to be hyperbolic or just plain wrong. But about Solie Hofmann was for the most part spot on. I’ll refrain from the Whitman, Brecht, and Stevens comparisons here, but I have no hesitation in saying that Solie is one of the most exciting poets at work today. And with the US publication of The Road in is Not the Same as the Road Out, a volume of Solie’s recent work, readers in the States can see something of the breadth of Solie’s accomplishment.
I hasten to add that something, for neither The Road in…. nor the perplexingly skimpy selection of Solie’s poetry included in The Living Option allows a reader to accurately assess the niceties of Solie’s development, nor to appreciate the remarkable consistency of the quality of her work. The Solie of The Road in… is a garrulous and impishly meditative poet. The poems start with oddball but tangible subject matter (with titles such as “Roof Repair and Squirrel Control,” and “A Good Hotel in Rotterdam”), but then immediately grow loopily digressive (or darkly sardonic) and tend to wander about engagingly (or scathingly) for several pages. Solie’s earlier work, however, is somewhat different from this later style: many of the poems are short, acerbic lyrics—and in subject matter they are deeply reflective of the flatness, vastness and desolation of Canada’s prairie provinces. The work is regional in the best, Wordsworthian, sense, always keen to give itself “a local habitation and a name.” In Solie’s case, this fidelity to the local means a preponderance of poems that take place during stultifyingly long car rides, in strip malls, in barely half-star roadside motels, in dive bars, or on those scary puddle-jumper jet flights from one unremarkable city to another, where determining the right mixture of Xanax and vial-sized booze bottles becomes a kind of survival skill. Some of these poems appear in The Living Option, but not enough of them. One really has to seek out her early Canadian collections, Short Haul Engine (2001), Modern and Normal (2005) and 2009’s magisterial Pigeon to get a complete picture of Solie’s accomplishment.
The only reasonably priced copy of Short Haul Engine I could find on Amazon when I was composing this essay has a very large stamp on its inner cover that reads, “WITHDRAWN FROM THE COLLECTION / WINDSOR PUBLIC LIBRARY BUDIMIR BRANCH.” And in my library copy of Modern and Normal, a reader has used a pink highlighter pen to single out poems that she especially likes, along with handwritten notes in the margins, set down with the careful but shaky penmanship of someone more skilled with keyboards than with writing implements. Still, Ms. Highlighter Pen is some places a fairly astute critic. Here are the margin notes which accompany a characteristic early Solie poem, entitled “Nice”:
And here is the poem itself, complete with its epigraph from Diane Arbus:
“I think I’m kind of two-faced. I’m very ingratiating. It
really annoys me. I’m just sort of a little too nice. Everything
is Oooo” –Diane Arbus
Still dark, but just. The alarm
kicks on. A voice like a nice hairdo
squeaks People get ready
for another nice one, Low 20s,
soft breeze, ridge of high pressure
settling nicely. Songbirds swallowing, ruffling,
starting in. Does anyone curse
the winter wren, calling in Christ’s name
for one bloody minute of silence?
Of course not. They sound nice.
I pull away and he asks why I can’t
be nicer to him. Well,
I have work, I say, and wouldn’t it be nice
if someone made some money today?
Very nice, he quavers, rolling
his face to the wall. A nice face.
A nice wall. We agreed on the green
down to hue and shade right away.
That was a very nice day.
Quite an acrid little meditation, this, and not an unfamiliar one if you’re conversant with what we’ve now come to reductively call post-modern style. And Ms. Pink Highlighter Pen has unwittingly listed many of the rudiments of that style, with its discontinuity, its irony, its offhanded critiques of the vapid platitudes of media and consumerist culture (“…get ready/ for another nice one…:” “We agreed on the green/down to hue and shade right away”); its associative slipperiness. And yet, although “Nice” shows us how skillfully Solie can walk the po-mo walk, she shows just as strong an allegiance to more traditional poetic devices. There’s the Hopkinsian linguistic tour de force of “Songbirds swallowing, ruffling,/starting in,” and the Eliotic diction of “Does anyone curse the winter wren?” as well as the loose tetrameter of the poem’s key lines. Furthermore, “Nice” is quite cunningly structured, seeming to free associate in its opening, before ending with an old-fangled narrative description of domestic discord and regret. Although Solie has almost bludgeoned us with her examples of how the word “nice” has been debased in our vernacular, the poem’s final line asks to be read with pathos rather than irony. This realignment does not come without warning. The ambivalence and self-criticism of the Arbus quote has prepared us for it. Like Philip Larkin at his best, Solie here—and in many other poems as well—begins with dyspepsia, but slowly and methodically turns her bile into something bracing. The poem closes not with a calm shrug (or “calm, shrug”), but with a gesture of guarded epiphany.
Solie is, above all, a voice-driven poet. Of course, so are countless numbers of her peers. But she differs from her peers in no small measure because she has found that voice through a hybridization of a very unlikely pairing of masters. She has obviously learned much from John Ashbery, and has cited him as an influence. You see this in her abrupt shifts of tone and diction, in her use of found poetry and goofy titles (among my favorites are “Your Premiums Will Never Increase,” “Self-Portrait in a Series of Professional Evaluations,” and “When Asked Why He Was Talking To Himself, Pryrrho Replied He Was Practicing to be a Nice Fellow”); in the ways in which her whimsy often gives way to dread, and in her delight in mixing high and low culture references. This latter quality is especially appealing. On the one hand she offers us poems with titles such as “Meeting Walter Benjamin” and “Sleeping with Wittgenstein,” while on other she relentlessly samples lyrics and song titles from classic and post-punk rock, sometimes with attribution, but mostly not. There are nods to the Band, John Lee Hooker, X, REM, Nick Cave, Paul Kelly, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, among others. But Solie also understands that the effete cosmopolitanism of Ashbery doesn’t in the long run speak to her milieu. A poem such as “Medicine Hat Calgary One Way” takes places about as far from New York and the New York School as one can get, both geographically and aesthetically—the speaker is on a bus, passing “Strip malls and big box stores whose/ faces regard with solemn appreciation/the shifting congress of late model vehicles/ who attend them” and a “downtown deserted as the coda/ to a biological disaster.”
You need an entirely different model to describe this sort of landscape and the particular melancholy which attends it. And Solie has found that model in another poet she has cited in an interview as an abiding influence, and evokes in an epigraph to a section of Short Haul Engine. Regrettably, he is a figure who has fallen out of fashion—Richard Hugo, known today, if he is known at all, as the author of a classic creative writing textbook, The Triggering Town. But Hugo is among the most significant poets to have emerged from the North American West. He is also in almost every conceivable way the opposite of Ashbery: he is baldly confessional where Ashbery is self-concealing; he is largely narrative in his approach where Ashbery is militantly non-linear. And his allegiance to the Romantic tradition is a far cry from Ashbery’s Duchampian nihilism. Hugo doggedly adheres to the Wordsworthian notion that nature is a metaphor for the self—and vice versa. But Hugo is also a wounded Romantic: for Hugo, whatever natural grandeur the West once had has been despoiled. It is now a quietly dystopian realm of half-deserted mining towns, crummy roadside bars, long unvarying drives on the Interstates, and unhappy and impoverished childhoods that morph into similarly unhappy (and usually alcoholic) adulthoods. And it often seems as though Hugo is constitutionally (rather than merely aesthetically) unable to distinguish self from landscape, identity from setting. In “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” his best-known poem, after offering a brutal tour of a nearly deserted mining town, Hugo makes the connection unequivocally clear: “Isn’t this your life?…../ Isn’t this defeat/ so accurate the church bell simply seems/ a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?” What saves Hugo’s work from too frequently succumbing to the maudlin—and what saves Solie’s poetry from this as well—is a kind of laconic humor that leavens even his most disconsolate efforts, offhanded observations along the lines of “George played rotten trombone/ Easters when they flew the flag.” I think it’s safe to say that Hugo’s West is strikingly similar to Solie’s West, and her move to Toronto has not significantly diminished her preoccupation with her prairie province upbringing. And her particular command of tone, of a biting wit that barely conceals a deeper distress, derives in no small part from Hugo as well. At the start of a grimly ironic Solie poem entitled “Possibility,” she and Hugo might as well be traveling in the same rental car, and checking into the same Day’s Inn:
A rented late-model car, Strewn gear. Clothes,
books, liquor, one good knife for slicing
limes. Motel the orange of an old rind. Bud green
and remaindered blue for trim. Some schemes
shouldn’t work, but do. A square room
with balcony two floors above the strip. Real
keys. A man sleeping on the bed,
or pretending to. It will be alright. It’s not
too late. We left on the sly and nothing bad
I hasten to add that Solie has been influenced by a number of other figures, though none as profoundly as Ashbery and Hugo. You can detect a debt to Symborska in her use of tone, and one to Transtromer in her approach to imagery. And—although I may be presumptive in thinking she reads, or has needed to read, a great many poets residing south of the 49th Parallel—you can also discern a smidgen of Dean Young and Tony Hoagland in her associative see-sawing, although she never succumbs to Hoagland’s curdled misanthropy.
But I should also hasten to add that no poet as good as Solie is the mere product of her influences. And I must confess that by spending so much time tracing her various aesthetic pedigrees, however interesting that investigation may have been, I’ve been derelict in what should have been my primary intention—of trying to define what makes her an original. So allow me to make a tentative attempt to reach that goal. Canadian poet Jim Johnstone, in an otherwise rather stilted assessment of Solie printed last year in Poetry, astutely praises what he calls her “carefully controlled unpredictability.” Despite her tendency to pursue quirky associative tangents, despite her wise-cracking persona, her poems possess a rich lyric and narrative precision. More importantly, they possess what Adam Zagajewski calls a “moral seriousness,” a stance that both reflects the bewildering complexity of contemporary culture and sternly condemns the ethical lassitude that arises from it. In this respect her poems are much like the work of Auden in his great period of the late 1930s: we are initially so impressed by the technical brilliance and wit of his writing that it takes some time for us to recognize the intensity of its moral outrage. And Solie, subtly but insistently, reminds us that there is plenty to be outraged about. The poems touch upon social injustice, ecological destruction, political chicanery (take a look at a merciless little poem entitled “The Prime Minister” and you can see why Hofmann likens Solie to Brecht), and our ADHD-addled addiction to the web—a realm of limitless data, factoids, and nattering, much of it pernicious and trivial. Solie is not so ideological a poet that she cares to posit solutions to these dilemmas. Her desire is instead to console us, and to allow us to draw some insights from her unflappable example. She is our cultural tour guide, fulfilling the role that Mandelstam tells us Vergil plays in The Inferno, always striving to “amend and redirect the course [of our seeing].” These are high claims, I know, but I make them without hyperbole. If you want evidence, allow me to look more closely at two fairly recent poems. One, “Life Is a Carnival,” is included in The Road in is Not the Same as the Road Out. The second, “Cave Bear,” appeared in the 2009’s Pigeon.
“Life Is a Carnival,” uses as its title another of Solie’s musical samplings—in this case she co-opts the name of a song by the Band, one with lyrics that decidedly belie the title’s apparent breeziness. Life may be a carnival, but for the Band this also means our masters are unscrupulous carnies. (My favorite lines in the song could have come from Solie’s own pen—“We’re all in the same boat ready to float off the edge of the world,” and “Hey buddy, would you like to buy a watch real cheap?”). The song is not so much about self-deception as it is about our puzzling nonplussed willingness to be conned. The poem commences innocently enough, but the subject of delusion soon becomes its controlling motif:
Dinner finished, wine in hand, in a vaguely competitive spirit
of disclosure, we trail Google Earth’s invisible pervert
through the streets of our hometowns, but find them shabbier, or grossly
contemporized, denuded of childhood’s native flora,
stuccoed or in some other way hostile
to the historical reenactments we expect of or former
settings. What sadness in the disused curling rinks, their illegal
basement bars imploding, in the seed of a Wal-Mart
sprouting in the demographic, in Street View’s perpetual noon. With pale
and bloated production values, hits of AM radio rise
to the surface of a network of social relations long obsolete. We sense
a loss of rapport. But how sweet the persistence
of angle parking!
As dramatic situations go, this one is priceless. “Dinner finished, wine in hand” leads us to suspect that the couple in the poem are readying for a tryst, or at the very least are snuggling up to a night with Netflix, but instead they tour their respective childhoods, courtesy of “Google Earth’s invisible pervert,” a characteristically inventive Solie trope—clever, but at the same time disconcerting. The couple is quickly disbursed of that quintessential human desire to see the past nostalgically. We’re offered “shabby” hometowns “denuded of childhood’s native fauna.” It’s all Wal-Marts and “disused curling rinks.” “Angle parking” may persist unchanged—but nothing else will. Yet the dose of reality which the couple is offered “in Street View’s perpetual noon” is too mediated and abstracted to register as realistic. (I’m also lead to wonder if Solie had Elizabeth Bishop as well as the Band in mind during the composition of this poem: the disconnect between a couple’s idealized wistfulness and an accurate perception of their past is examined in a fashion almost identical to that of Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”) As the poem continues to unfold, the couple’s anxiety only intensifies:
Would we burn those places rather than see them
change? , or simply burn them, the sites of wreckage
from which we staggered from our formative injuries into the rest
of our lives. They cannot be consigned to the fourfold.
Though the age we were belongs to someone else. Like our old
house. Look what they’ve done to it. Who thought this would be fun?
This passage also offers us one of those shifts in diction that are a hallmark of Solie’s style. “The age we were belongs to someone else,” with its precise iambs and charged rhetoric, is immediately undercut by the vernacular (and pyrric-laden) “Who thought this would be fun?” This contrast, with its admixture of abjection and absurdity, is a perfect culmination of what the poem has been working toward all along. A lesser writer would have been tempted to end the poem here—but Solie carries on, and brilliantly. Here’s the conclusion:
A concert then. YouTube from those inconceivable days before
YouTube, an era boarded over like a bankrupt country store,
cans on its shelves, so hastily did we leave it. How beautiful
they are in their pouncey clothes, their youthful higher
registers, fullscreen, two of them dead now. Is this
eternity? Encore, applause, encore; it’s almost like being there.
This ending manages to be both cautionary and revelatory. The web is addictive in no small measure because it allows us to instantaneously dispel discomfort. A couple of clicks, and we can move from uncomfortable reckonings with our pasts to pure escapism. And it goes without saying that the web enables more monstrous segues to take place as well—were you so inclined, you could watch an Isis beheading video and immediately follow it with grainy footage of a pet doing something cute. Solie is canny enough to admit that she is as complicit in this state of affairs as any of the rest of us. But she also knows, as Pound would have said, “that what thou lovest well remains”—remains in this case through majesty of the Band during their final performance in 1976, as captured by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz, a film that has been rightly called the best rock documentary of all time. Never mind that this performance is being seen by a disgruntled couple peering into a tiny laptop screen, that the version of the film they are watching is likely a pirated one, that the Band are quaintly dressed in bellbottoms, flouncy shirts, and other cringe-worthy ‘70s regalia, or that two of the figures occupying the Winterland Ballroom stage on which they perform are now in their graves. (Sadly, with the death of Levon Helm, the number now stands at three.) And let’s remember that Solie is not a callow millennial who takes the clutter, benumbing over-stimulation, and maniacal web-surfing of the digital era for granted. No, to witness the abiding art of the past through a medium that the speaker is old enough to find estranging and compromised is not really “almost like being there.” But, on the other hand, it is as close to being there as we can venture. However fractured and debased, an aura persists, a rightness. It’s hard to read Solie’s closure as embittered. The poem’s final gesturer—and forgive me if I keep seeing so many overt literary homages in Solie’s work—is not so far removed from the closing of Frank O’Hara’s great elegy for Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died.” The couple may be sipping cheap chardonnay and watching ghostly figures on a 13-inch Mac, but the moment they experience is one in which, as O’Hara puts it, “everyone and I stopped breathing.”
If “The Last Waltz” is ultimately about what we preserve from the past, against all odds, “Cave Bear” is about extinction and the paucity of historical memory. Yet the poem also insists that nothing is so extinct or so forgotten that it cannot be exploited and commodified. (Tellingly, we eventually discover that the poem is set in Alberta, the site of those behemoth, stygian and ecologically toxic strip mines that turn tar sands into crude: the land not of drill, baby, drill, but of gouge, baby, gouge.) The poem’s opening reads like a send-up of a motivational speaker’s Power Point presentation, but then, in typical Solie fashion, everything soon gets wiggier:
The longer dead, the more expensive.
Extinction adds value.
This may demonstrate a complex cultural mechanism
but in any case, buyers get interested.
And nothing’s worth anything without the buyers.
No one knows that better than the United Mine Workers of America.
A hired team catalogued the skeleton,
took it from its cave to put on the open market.
retail bought it, flew it over to reassemble
and sell again. Imagine him
foraging low Croatian mountains in the Pleistocene.
And now he’s flying. Now propped at an aggressive posture
in the foyer of a tourist shop in the Canadian Rockies
and going for roughly forty.
One could hardly imagine a more bizarre journey than that of the skeleton from a cave floor in Eastern Europe to a high-end tourist shop in Alberta. This is cutthroat capitalism at its strangest, and a writer as erudite as Solie would likely know that the commodification of a cave bear skeleton is also a kind of spiritual profanation: mounted cave bear skulls are often found in the painted caves of Paleolithic Europe, among them Chauvet, site of the oldest cave art yet to be discovered.
The poem takes an even weirder and more surprising turn in its final stanza:
The pit extends its undivided attention.
When the gas ignited off the slant at Hillcrest
Old Level One, 93 years ago
June, they were carried out by the hundreds,
alive or dead, the bratticemen, carpenters,
timbermen, rope-riders, hoistmen,
labourers, miners, all but me, Stanley Bainbridge,
the one man never found.
Although the poem has suddenly swerved to a detailed description of a little-known historical disaster—in this case the Hillcrest, Alberta, mine explosion of 1914, which killed 189—I doubt if anyone encountering this passage for the first time would stop reading in order to do a web search on this event. As with Milton’s “On the Late Massacre in Piemont,” the impact of the description is so acute and visceral that we really don’t care about the historical circumstances—not at first, at least. Nor are we especially puzzled when Solie tells us, in the poem’s very last lines, that its speaker is one of the dead miners. As with “The Last Waltz,” Solie is unafraid to make a radical associative leap just as the poem seems ready to wind down. It is also a perfectly fitting gesture, yoking the Brechtian social satire of the opening to a specific human tragedy, and managing to link the demise the cave bear to the death of Stanley Bainbridge. The latter is an especially risky analogy. But Solie brings it off, and without willfulness or bathos.
When I read Karen Solie, I’m reminded of my first encounters with Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Life Studies, or Vallejo’s posthumously published poetry. The books seemed unrelentingly astonishing, had a skewed but insistent sense of moral gravitas, and demanded a response that was as physical as it was intellectual. Just as importantly, the work immediately prompted a dumbfounded question—how did the writer do that? I look forward to asking that last question about Solie’s work for as long as she continues to write poetry. I see that I have now matched Michael Hofmann in extravagant comparisons, but so be it.
David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry FOR THE SCRIBE, will be issued by The University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017. His FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING; ESSAYS ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY was recently published by the University of Michigan Press. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.”
- Editor’s Note: Solie’s first two collections Short Haul Engine (2001) and Modern and Normal (2005) have always been available since their publication and available through Brick Books and through Amazon – Short Haul Engine is in its 6th printing while Modern and Normal in its 8th printing.↵
Chilly here today, but beautiful as always, always in a new way. Looking east from Pier 8, where the tugs are snugged at night, those domes you see are grain storage bins. Beyond, behind the laker, are the mills, half-idled now as U.S. Steel gets on with killing Stelco, the homegrown competitor it bought a few years back. Their latest stunt is to persuade a judge to relieve them of paying certain medical benefits to their pensioners. We inhabit a lampoon of capitalism. Marx would certainly get a laugh out of the view: the mountain of capital left to rust unused, and just beyond, a second mountain, still alive with fire and action and thriving alongside the corpse of its former rival. I sometimes think of writing him, you know, the way Auden wrote to Byron, to give him an update. But I kind of think that he would be impatient with whiny epistles, and just want us to get the hell on with the job of removing “creative destruction” from our horizon once and for all.
They plan to build condos on this pier. (They have a lot of plans these days.) They better build ’em good, because the westerlies that come across here in winter are enough to freeze your face off in about ten seconds. In summer the thunderstorms come straight down the Dundas Valley and advance in majesty across the end of the bay to fire terrifying sizzlers right at your house! You wake up thinking, Holy shit, that was close. You roll over and there’s your wife sitting on the edge of the bed with the shutters open, watching the maple trying to climb into the room with you.
Studies indicate that if you are visiting, there is a fifty-eight percent likelihood that you came to see friends or family. Planning and Economic Development staff would prefer that you had no previous ties, and believes that our appeal is strongest for Connected Explorers, Knowledge Seekers, and Youthful Socializers. Personally, I care not what market segment your affiliation; even mixed affiliation is okay by me. Whoever you are, if you want to look around, I will likely bring you here first, for the contrast: to the east, the freighters and tugs, blast furnaces, coking ovens and coal piles; to the west, a broad back-bay full of white sails, and trees down to the water. This range accounts in part for the rueful sense of waste that will overtake you from time to time, if you live here. The splendour of the setting and the magnitude of past accomplishments accentuate the banality of current politics. Now that the gentrification machine has begun to reprocess the older city and different people are coming in, you see bright young things advertising their ambition with tote bags that read : You can do anything in Hamilton. The scope of the ambition remains to be seen, but the Old Boys and Girls are increasingly irritated by the new pushiness. Which is fun to watch for the rest of us.
Alright, let’s wander, and we will come back here for the other view, the western. I call it the not-the-brochure tour — you know, the one where the tourist is regarded not as a mark to be fleeced, but a friend in the making.
You have to understand that for the longest time there was no money. Now there is almost too much. Here, Mission Services, feeding the hapless with whatever the rest of us can be persuaded to give; three blocks away, a chocolaterie: a piece of caramel the size of your thumb, six bucks.
When the money did return, after thirty years of contraction, it came like a cloudburst to long dry channels: quickening first Locke Street, then James, then Ottawa. Novelty broke out all over. Buildings changed hands, storefront galleries appeared on James, and the army surplus became a print-making studio. (Farewell to cheap work boots and quilted plaid shirts with gold dragons on the label.) Real estate refugees fleeing the impossible Toronto prices bought houses on the side streets. Suddenly James became fantastically mutable. The sheets of paper taped to the inside of display windows were building permits. The merchants organized a monthly Friday night “art crawl.” The Young Socializers came, then their parents, then the Connected Explorers. The Portuguese men watched from their usual spots in front of Ola bakery and the Vasco da Gama soccer club.
A mood of expectancy, exciting but also slightly sinful, arose: the legendary Bubble trembled and hopped along the street. Notices of complete applications for planning approvals popped up here and there on vacant lots. Rents rose, complaints began. By and by there was a meeting about gentrification at the activists’ cafe. It ended in screaming.
Consultants overran the joint. Their maps reconfigure the territory and their perspectives are disturbing in a surprisingly intimate way. Attending public meetings at the rail station turned banquet hall, or at the neighbourhood recreation centre, you are made uneasy by the scale of what is proposed. Your understanding of “market forces” deepens when the invisible hand is pressed to your own back, steering you firmly toward the door.
Ah, the Five Star, last oasis of the afternoon drinkers. They step out front to smoke and shout at each other, then it’s back inside to huddle elbow to elbow, getting that glow on. The black-clad proprietor of B Contemporary across the street lounges in the doorway of his gallery, skinny as a consumptive poet, himself a part of the show he is watching. Next door the Lighthouse carries all things Portuguese grocery and more: blotchy papayas with coin-sized craters of decay, fresh green olives so bitter that you never do that again, burlap sacks of beans with silver scoop on top, and crates of cod, both salt and dried, the dry so woody that they keep a bandsaw to cut it for you. At closing time an ancient yellow towmotor comes clanking out of an alley to move everything inside for the night, and the stench of propane exhaust hangs over the street. Next to the Lighthouse is Morgenstern’s, where they provide communion and confirmation togs, all black and white, and voluminous mother-of-the-bride dresses, showy but not too showy.
All along here now the parking meters are hedged with ultra-trim bikes. There is a vogue for rescuing some instance of an obscure marque from cobwebbed oblivion and having it modified to run as a one-speed fixie, maybe with coloured tires, blue or red. A little precious but pretty slick, you have to admit.
What else do you want? Kitchen and restaurant supplies? Chris’s. Vintage clothing? Hawk and Sparrow and a couple of others. Florist? Yup. Rare relict of long-lost punk bands? Yup. Get your toenails done? No problem. Pastries. Pho. A tour of duty in Afghanistan, if you want to sign on to the reserves at the armoury. This is a massive block of brick the size of a crusaders’ castle with an interior parade square, from which trucks edge onto the street honking to warn pedestrians as they come. Don’t think they’ll send you to Kurdistan just yet, but you could ask. Hardware. Soap. Coffee, coffee, coffee. And conviviality, if you want it.
If you were to involve yourself in any of the several schemes for the advancement of something or other which are ongoing at any given moment, you would inevitably attend a meeting at the Mulberry or else down the street at Homegrown. The place is snug and humid, the floors of cracked and patched once-white tesserae, the ceilings of pressed tin. There is a corkboard at the entrance, every inch covered with close-fitted posters and notices and the spillover taped to the bare brick wall, breathing lightly with the door. Couples natter and solitaries sit at open laptops, some working and others twiddling, waiting for somebody to happen to them. During an hour here, you will be greeted by two or three people you know, and those greetings and your meeting will warm and encourage you for the time, but in the morning when you read the paper you will feel less hopeful — fatigued, rather, and baffled by the obduracy of the opposition to “evidence-based” policy, as those pushy newcomers style their own views.
Want more? Let’s step in here. Check out the cooler. I like how they park the plastic tubs of tofu (pallid cubes in a cloudy fluid) right beside the same containers full of pudding-like blobs of curdled pig blood. Yum. No concessions made here for the tender feelings of Euro-Canadians long off the farm, who would likely gag at the rural matter-of-factness of what goes on behind the meat counter. Not us though, we’re too hip. Next? How about here, Blackbird Studios. Don’t be misled by the opulence of the garment in the show-window. Most of their dresses are quite simple. The smell of fresh ironing dissolves your resistance the moment you enter and find yourself in a deep closet between a double file of close-packed garments. Women fall silent and become intensely concentrated. Flick, flick, pause, flick, flick . . . They unhook something gorgeous, loft it, appraise it at arm’s length, smile a little twisted smile, frown, return it to the rack. People leave exhilarated.
What else? Send money to Latin America? You can do that. Borrow against your paycheque? That also. Dinner? Of course, many ways. We could stop by the art supply store, where everyone goes to gossip; or the place specializing in Danish Modern furniture, books of post-modernist theory, and hard-to-find movies. But you get the picture. There is a street or two like this in every town on both sides of the line, where money is on the march and the pace continues to accelerate. Lately the tale has taken some wicked twists. The Province has endowed us with an interurban commuter rail station, now under construction; and Council approved a proposal for a twenty-storey building on James, up from six, over the strong protests of their own staff.
People complain about how everything is disappearing, but we still have a lot left. Look at this joint, all sideways, all additions. There used to be train tracks, is why. A spur line ran down the street.
This place is ours, so I’m here quite a bit. The previous tenant did yardwork, but the incumbent is a musician and a doctoral candidate, so she has too much else on her mind to be wielding a rake. I like it here. You are right downtown, but apart. There is a bench in the park across the street where people stop to neck or smoke up or just to rest with the dog’s paws on their knees and its eager head between their hands, getting its ears fondled for the tenth time today, the insatiable thing.
The CP main line passes close enough that you could reach out and touch the train. Well, not really, but it is very near, and the enormous commotion of its passage is deeply exciting. The sky abruptly unzips and a huge waterfall bursts forth; then, on the count of ten, zip, the rent closes and the minor traffic noises resume.
After we bought the jumble of buildings, and I inspected more closely, it turned out that, not content with carving their names on the stable doors, the little bastards had gone down the alley and applied their jackknifes to the clapboard on the house itself. Not much to be done, except paint out the contrast. A hundred years passed. Kids still lead double lives, now with handy spray cans and markers, but authority has learned ju-jitsu. Walls are made available, community art projects become fundable. Still, the rail yard keeps blooming and taggers scribble away everywhere. Some high-minded incorrigible, exasperated with all the posers, went around for a while overwriting artless tags with the admonition LEARN TO PAINT. Some do.
Built a thousand years ago in 1970, this complex was to have rooftop gardens — there, on the lower building, which has two-storey three-bedroom apartments. Two-storey three-bedroom apartments are unheard of nowadays. They just don’t make ’em for non-millionaires. The heritage crowd has not gotten this far yet, but the owners of a large Toronto development firm have understood.
There are about two thousand of these buildings in the Toronto-Hamilton area. They form a great archipelago of towers and slabs stretching in a wide arc around the western end of Lake Ontario, and most of them are in need of repairs.
These particular units are two blocks off James, that is, two blocks and worlds away from the dressmaker and the chocolatier. Somali refugees have a vertical village in the eastern tower. You see them sitting on the curb at the entrance, chatting, the women and their daughters wearing headscarves, the men sometimes dressed in our clothing, sometimes in theirs — longer, looser garments. An older man with an injury uses a carved cane which you would like to examine. Before the flood, the rest of the tenants were mainly locals, a few disabled and some on City rent subsidy. The balconies were loaded with chairs and bicycles and the odd black-shrouded barbecue, and here and there lumpish green garbage bags of extra stuff, probably the belongings of some relative or friend intending to fetch them when they have more order in their life. Passing by, you would see three cop cars standing flashing. Next day there might be something in the paper but usually not.
We have rent controls in Ontario. An above-guideline increase requires application to a Board. Alternatively, the landlord can empty the rental unit and charge the next tenant whatever they will pay.
The new management of Robert Village started by requesting that tenants report to their rep downstairs, one by one, to “discuss your lease.” They were offered a payment to end their tenure. They were told of the tumult which was about to overtake the property and warned that the buyout offer was for a limited time only. Pick-up trucks and white vans bearing phone numbers with a foreign area code crowded the semi-circular drive in front of the building, trees were cut. Meanwhile maintenance requests from continuing tenants were ignored by the new regime just as by the old.
At the meeting organized by the tenants, the local imam rose to ask why the delegates of the various agencies ranged across the front of the room were calling upon people to bring their problems to them one by one, when what was needed was a “class action” of some sort. The ward councillor was in attendance. Subsequently, he arranged for property standards bylaw officers to go through the buildings. By the time they did so, two months later, half the apartments were empty. The officers issued a raft of orders.
The anarchists came into some money, bought a used commercial press, and began posting broadsheets, 18th-century style, on the utility poles. These sheets denounced the gentrifiers and directed passersby to a 5000-word essay online. Someone responded on the local civic affairs website, and the response grew a long tail of comment and counter comment. After a couple of days the argument went off the boil and the young urbanists got back to hounding the City to provide traffic calming, cycling infrastructure, and transit improvements. The front moved eastward over the horizon to Riverdale, a highrise neighbourhood so remote from downtown that it may as well be on the moon.
No one owns anything down here. A phone, that’s about it. A bike, if you’re a guy. Flashy shoes maybe. Maybe an electric scooter or a power wheelchair.
Nobody seems to be thinking about what will happen when the new money finally makes the last mile and sloshes onto Barton. The police perhaps. Maybe Children’s Aid. There is no next move.
Somebody called the cops that there was a guy lying in the middle of the road not moving at Barton and Mary, and when they got there sure enough buddy was face down and pretty much “exsanguinated,” as the emergency room doctor told the newspaper. Made it easy for the cops, though, who just followed the trail of blood to the ex-girlfriend’s door, which had a security camera over it. (Wonder what they do there.) When she opens up they look in and the hall floor is clean as a whistle. Gleaming. At the trial the new boyfriend explains that after he stabbed the old boyfriend — who had dropped by to see his kid — the girlfriend freaked and ordered him to mop up the mess, like now!, which is how the old boyfriend was left to walk two blocks alone before collapsing in the intersection. The doctors saved him but he told the court that he has trouble trusting people any more.
The shabbiness, the temporary repairs never redone, the jumbles of stuff piled into every third storefront, it goes on forever, block after block of it, chipboard and tape and second-hand everything: fridges and stoves, baby clothes, furniture, garden implements, and mechanic’s tools. (Shopping to replace stolen hammers and wrenches, I found some of them on offer here and bought them back.) When you think it can only improve, it gets a little worse. Businesses that held on for decades into decline finally die with their owners. Lifetimes in menswear, Italian cheeses, shoes vanished; rendered futile for lack of succession. Recently there are new commitments, but when you go in to chat, you hear tales of a different kind of futility, that administered by City property standards administrators parsing the zoning bylaws. “Change of use” brings a world of grief, no matter how minor the impact, how major the potential benefit for the street. Eight months of complications including $2,500 dollars in architect’s fees triggered by a request for permission to put up a sign. That kind of thing.
Crazy-reckless lead singer for an all-girl punk band gets addicted to pain pills. She buys them from a guy in a wheelchair who has a boatload of prescriptions because of so many health problems. The singer mentions to a couple of friends all the meds that her dealer has at his apartment, and the collectibles. Expensive watches and what all. They persuade her to set him up. They go there and tape the guy’s hands and start robbing the place and looking for drugs but the stuff is mostly junk. They leave him lying there, face down. Nobody comes by for a couple of days so what with all his conditions he dies there on the floor. The singer gets three years for her part in this horror movie insanity — the part of the total fool.
And so on.
Meanwhile the president of the Chamber of Commerce, a progressive guy as they say (meaning, good on questions of traffic and transit), sharp suits and stylish coloured socks to the knee, eager to position the Chamber as a “thought leader” in the current era of “city-building,” brings his counterpart from Brooklyn to address the troops. (Our two cities have, of course, nothing whatever in common.) The newspaper relays his message to the rest of us. “Be who you are,” he tells us, “Be gritty. Be cool.”
Never mind. When you just can’t stand it anymore you can always come down here again. Like the poet said:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
xxThere lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
Looking west from Pier 8, you see earth, air and water. For fire, you will have to go back to the other end of the pier, where we started, to see the stacks whence they flare the coke oven gas.
When the City turned entrepreneurial, twenty years back, they built a trail alongside the CN main line all the way from here to those bridges, and beyond, on into Westdale. The first rail bridge, of wood, collapsed in 1857, killing 60 people including its engineer. Not his fault though. The road bridge with the fancy columns was part of a larger project involving the expulsion of shanty dwellers who were squatting on what had become prime land for advocates of a City Beautiful program.
Many come down here for recreation and respite. Nature is so consoling. But running can be boring, so it helps to bring a song or poem to memorize. This is how you get to Hopkins, who is tricky but very apt in the context.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
xxThere lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
xxOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bentbent
xxWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Well, perhaps not. But clearly the Paraclete was often with Gerard, and it is indeed fresh and fine down along here, in any season. Plus, knowing about poetry adds to your stock of social capital, right?, so you’re not just a common grunt all your life. Of course, that’s what they want anymore. Abjection is authentic. Evidently we are become saleable, in all our rugged beauty — our curses and sneers, our resentment, our suspicion, our primitive loyalties, never mind…No, no, go on, we love it when you people get like this, so gritty, so down to earth, so Hamilton,…Damn. Where was I? Oh yeah. Fresh and fine.
Believe it or not, beaver have come back here. The Conservation Authority and the Botanical Gardens are working hard to restore and “naturalize” this end of the Bay. So are the beavers, who are astoundingly destructive, harvesting tender saplings and six-inch trees alike, leaving only pointed stakes behind. So are the coyotes, who come trotting along the rail corridor right into the main switching yard that parallels the trail for a kilometer or so. Coyote would like to reintroduce nature’s rules all the way into our back yards, if we are stupid enough to allow it. Add the little rock islands installed in the water to provide nesting spots for the swans, and a carp exclusion barrier meant to keep that bottom-feeding fish from tearing up all the marsh plants in the inner lagoon — and you have yourself one bustling farmstead, complete with roving gangs of geese who part reluctantly to let you pass. Overhead, the vultures who reappeared several years ago are now a constant, they must live their whole lives in the air. Below on the rocks black cormorants — lousy fliers but brilliant swimmers — rest with their dragon wings outspread. Once endangered, now they have overwhelmed their nesting islands, reducing them to white humps from which a few black sticks protrude, the remains of trees. However, the older, rarer world is here too. There are precious turtles, much fretted over though never seen by laymen. Once or twice a year coveys of ducks descend from the great sky beyond the curve of the world, bringing their wild fear with them. High-strung mergansers, slender tufted things far from their dark northern lakes, rocket away for nothing. Others tolerate more proximity, but not much. They are so exquisite that you have to laugh sometimes at the absurdity of their presence here. And with all that, there is still and always the lively changeability of the water itself: the glossy swells; the all-hushing fog; the flickering worry of the chop; the necklace of sheet ice that goes chink-chink as you cycle by; the luminous elasticity of the membrane that wavers and tightens on a still day when a boat passes far off in the outer harbour…only, even the water is not quite what it seems.
Just the other week, two women who have been going around piling stones into small cairns in memory of their murdered sisters all over the country had to interrupt their project to spend a couple of days camping on the shore, to publicize the mess they had found there: scraps of plastic, syringes, et cetera. City workers were detailed to return the place to the condo-worthy condition implied in the brochures, while the higher-ups explained, once again, that the sewage treatment plant is not quite large enough and so during a heavy storm operators must let a few batches go by or risk backing up the whole system.
And that is what it’s like to live here: always behind, never ahead; forever hopeful, often deceived. Love in vain. But I just can’t help myself. And you would wind up just the same, my friend, if you lived here.
Shawn Selway is a Stelco-trained millwright who currently operates Pragmata Historic Machinery Conservation Services. His book Nobody Here Will Harm You, about mass medical evacuations from the Eastern Arctic during the fifties, is forthcoming from Hamilton literary press Wolsak & Wynn.
Crow goes off, a gravelgullet.
An exit wound beyond the pane.
What day? Fuck fuckmonday.
Fivefifteen a.m. Wrong time.
Unholy hour. Rollover, ah—
fellthatdamnedtree where crow
now Everests exhilarated as
Hillary. Here, radio goes off.
Gawd. Pop song’s off. Sloppy,
not in time or tune. My ears.
Brain’s gone off. Altered state.
Not quite sprung. Ungodly March.
Note to Nature: keep your sex
to a dull roar. SQUAWK! Right.
No sleep now. Stare at where
roof apparently is. Conjure
a silent reveal of stars. Far off.
Never spied a white pine up here.
But time was when monster-gods
appeared to ancestors, real as fact,
to restock the story banks with fear.
Grandfathers spoke of ghostmen
with snow-bitten skin, with eyes
of a queer light, and their vessels
lodged tight in the hardfloe.
Visions now, for those not flown
to less-cloistered lives, are as strange.
Red char’s turned white, meltwater
floods out the permafrost bridge,
while north-straying jays and robins
telltale an arrival, and a departure.
Another shard of icecap cracks,
tips and, now loose, strays south
to shrink from view, while I try to
imagine how this story might end –
pines with a future here, seeding new
tales to relay beneath the Aurora sphere.
That Summer in Paris
the streets sweltered, people
prostrated nude on the floor,
prayed for release from the heat
that seized them, off guard –
privacy thrown to an awol wind
they cast the nets of windows, doors
to snag even gossip of a breeze
in Haussmann’s suffocating dream
instead had to listen to each other
bicker, suck ice chips, dissolve
like desire in hell-fired beds,
sweat, shrivel in misery,
speak of death on the phone –
given no reprieve they listened
and listened to limestone walls
heat-seek air, pavement yield,
potted plants sag, Gallic tempers
on mercurial rise, the Seine drag
its sluggish wake to the sea –
listened till they could no longer
hear a final gasp mimic a sigh
or imagine the hush of a river
slipping unnoticed into ocean.
This sombre supplicant to the whims
of living, age, genetics, and weather,
this thin fortress, the stronghold of I,
is a tension network of sensation.
On ossified scaffold, it’s a flexible
wrapping we’re packaged inside.
A billboard, too, it instills, as ads do,
desire, a bid for a genome meet-and-greet.
At night, shifting across sleep’s dunes,
with luck it’s an oasis from strain.
Shield. Splash page. A porous balloon
loosed to time’s slow deflation, it sinks
to earth. In the border and creases of
its map, hints of where we’ve been appear,
and of where from here we might still go,
charting the trip to Terra incognita.
Itching to hitch a ride at Kaladar,
the old guy’s all gums and grin –
a portrait no one’s thought to paint.
He hovers at the road’s shoulder,
thumb out, dusty, trying again.
The cardinal splash of his cap
and suspenders flag his intentions
as sure as a sign would, and south
is the only direction on his map.
He blind-eyes the campers
who tail-wind the opposite way.
Leans instead into their turbulence,
a middle distance he’s set sight on,
away from blueberries, marshes,
the isolating fuss of visitors and
a fickleness that tricks them
into thinking they are at one with
this blasted nature. He’s moving on
before the hibernation sets in up here,
where earth’s a skim coat on rock,
roots creep varicose near the surface,
and shadows in a slippage
of daylight will soon enough
recoil and disappear.
Excerpted with permission from This Being by Ingrid Ruthig © 2016, published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside.
Ingrid Ruthig earned a Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Toronto in the 1980s and practised the profession for more than a decade. Her work as a writer, editor, and artist (read the Numéro Cinq interview) has appeared widely, with poems published in The Best Canadian Poetry 2012, The Malahat Review, Descant, and many other publications across Canada and abroad. She is the author of the poem sequence & artist’s book Slipstream, the chapbook Synesthete II, and editor of The Essential Anne Wilkinson, Richard Outram: Essays on His Works, and a forthcoming volume on the work of David Helwig. Her poetry collection This Being was published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside in March 2016. Ingrid lives near Toronto.
Eoin McNamee is well regarded as a master of noir literary fiction. Fictionalising real life violent events, his language is stark and brooding but ultimately complex and illuminating – shedding light on the human capacity to conspire with corruption and violent wrong-doing. His Blue Trilogy, focused around Lancelot Curran (a Northern Irish judge, attorney general and parliamentarian), being considered one of his best works: “Eoin McNamee may well be one of the finest writers at work anywhere; sentence for sentence, he is superb – the Blue trilogy is a poised, artistic achievement of compelling menace” – Eileen Battersby (Literary correspondent, The Irish Times). The Blue Tango (2001) was nominated for The Booker Prize and Blue Is the Night won the 2015 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.
The extract below is from his forthcoming novel with Faber and Faber, The Vogue. As Eoin writes, “The finding of a woman’s body in an illegal dump on a disused runway uncovers other wrongs. New lies compound old untruths that have held sway since GI’s were billeted on the windblown aerodrome. Darkness descends on a small town.”
Cranfield Aerodrome, November 16th, 2014
The sand pit had been opened. A yellow excavator stood by the side of the opening, its bucket raised. Swags of unfurled bandage hung from the bucket tangs, filthy and dripping. An articulated Scania with a covered trailer was backed up to the opening in the ground, its hydraulic rams half-extended. A fluorescent works light hung on jack chain from a corroded derrick. Three men rendered into silhouettes stood between the pit and the light. They stood without moving, their heads bent towards the opening at their feet, functionaries to the merciless night.
The bottom of the pit was half-filled with water. Syringes. Wound dressings rank with old blood and human tissue. Rusted scalpel blades and theatre gowns bundled and discarded. Used drug vials and transfusion sacs floated in the water. A woman’s skeletal remains clad in vile rags lay half-way up the pit wall as though she had crawled from it, matter adhering to her hair and clothes.As though she had looked for mercy and found there none. Across the sandy fen to the north of the darkened aerodrome chapel bells rang for the ascension.
17th January, 1945, Shepton Mallet Prison, Sussex.
The negro sits without moving. In the execution shed the apparatus is being made ready.The hood. The rope. The pinnings. Coir matting has been placed on the floor and against the walls to deaden sound but the prisoners can hear the hammering and tool work.
In his 1956 autobiography the hangman Albert Pierrepoint states his dislike for the American hanging method. Pierrepoint likes to have his prisoner sitting with his back to the door so that he can be taken by surprise and pinioned. Pierrepoint says he can get the prisoner from the cell to the drop in ninety seconds. He prides himself on it. The Americans insist that the prisoner wear full dress uniform with all marks of rank and insignia removed. The charges and sentence must be read to the condemned man at the foot of the scaffold. The Americans wanted the execution to be procedural, ornate. The prisoner must be reminded of his guilt. The executioners must be reminded of their duty. They imagine the antechamber of death to be a place of drama, laconic asides, last minute admissions.
‘Pierrepoint won’t sneak up on me,’ Martinez said, ‘I’m going out the American way.’
Martinez had been sentenced to death in August for the murder of a military policeman.
‘Kind of justice I like,’ Martinez said, ‘court martial took a day. No appeal. Straight and to the point. I got no complaints. Except the bastard Redcap had it coming.’
Martinez said he was going to stand facing the door of the death cell so that Pierrepoint could not take him by surprise.
‘Full dress kit. I’ll be standing to attention. Walk out of there like a man.’
There are other Americans in the cells. The prison has been under United States military jurisdiction since 1942. The men call to each other softly from the windows. They are not normally permitted to communicate but on the eve of an execution the Guards are lenient.
‘Hooper,’ Davis said, ‘you there?’
‘I seen Pierrepoint go into the Governors house when they brought me down.’
‘What’d he look like?’
‘Ordinary man. Owns a pub in Oldham. He hanged one of his own customers, gentleman by the name of Corbitt. Corbitt killed his girlfriend and wrote Whore on her forehead.’
‘Man deserved to hang then.’
Hooper had been shackled to Davis in the back of the Utility truck that brought them to the prison. Davis was from Chicago, a thin, talkative man. He said he was doubled-jointed. He could slip his hands out of the cuffs any time he wanted, he said. All you had to do was give the word, They passed through Bristol at dead of night, the town under blackout. Driving through the Mendip hills. Stubble fields, gold and red as though the moonlight burned them. Passing through the towns of Clifton and Winterbourne. Passing through Evercreech and Frome.
‘Where you from, son?’ Davis said,
‘Near New York. Oxford, New Jersey.’
‘Your first time out of the States?’
‘First time out of Oxford, New Jersey.’
Davis spat over the tailgate of the truck.
‘And dearly you wish you had never left it.’
‘You got that right.’
‘Likely you won’t be going any further than Shepton Mallet. Last stop on the line.’
The negro asked where they were and the MP escort said they were close to Glastonbury. Davis told him about Glastonbury tor. He said that ley lines ran under the front gate of Shepton Mallet.
‘What are ley lines?
‘Lines that connect places of power. The ancient people knew them.’
‘Boy is all caught up by the the ancient stuff.’ The MP said.
‘Caught up by it til he’s caught up by the neck hisself.’
‘Reckon the negro here believes in that voodoo stuff?’ Davis said.
‘Voodoo’s from Haiti,’ Hooper said.
‘Same difference. Nothing godly in any of it.’
The Negro says nothing. There are demons out there. He seen it himself. The devourer of souls.
If he stood on his bed the negro could see the execution shed. The execution shed was a windowless red brick two story extension attached to the limestone wall of the old prison. An internal door opened from the main body of the prison into the execution chamber. The trapdoor opened onto a downstairs room with an external door. The external door faced the steel door of the morgue in the next building. October. Early frost on the ground at first light. Fifty minutes after dawn the ground floor door opened. Two men carried Martinez body on a stretcher like something they had stolen. He could hear the sound of their boots on the loose clinker on the ground as though they struck iron there. His grandmother had told stories of graves opened by night and bodies thieved. She said the darkness claimed its own. The two men laboured under their burden.
The negro turned away from the window and lay down on his bed. He closed his eyes. He had left Oxford, New Jersey, two years earlier. He had come into New York by bus through the Jersey turnpike. The suburban city lost in dusk, snow flurries blowing through the grid of clapboard houses. America looking lost in a wintry dream of itself. He could see the towers of Manhatten in the distance but he was more aware of the cracked road surface, rubbish piled in the freeway margins, caught in broken chain-link fences. He had expected more. A city that was striven for, epic, rising out of the historic swamplands. Passing road signs. Newark. Idlewild. The lost townships.
He stayed in a Negro hotel on the margins of the wholesale district. There were braziers burning on the street. The night was loud with stoop-talk, negroid gutterals. The streets smelt of rotting fruit. Crates of vegetables piled high on the sidewalk. He looked into warehouses and stores, the massive girdered interiors, feeling that he was getting a grasp on the inner matter of the city, the iron-joisted substance of it. It was cold and he saw steam rising from the pavement grilles. It surprised him again that the city was gritty, earthbound. On a street corner a prostitute offered him sexual favours. She was a remnant of the night before, a carnal leftover, the rouged leavings of the night.
Cranfield Aerodrome, Kilkeel, 16th November, 2014
Early morning. Gray skies. You could see a long way across the aerodrome. The block plant. The remnants of some spent industry. Overworked resources, seeping pollutants exhausted. Machinery dented and rusted. A dumper truck with flat tyres. Machine parts leaked diesel sludge onto the concrete apron. You started to wonder what had led to this abandonment. What catastrophe had come to pass.
Cole imagined the malign traffic that had flowed through this yard. Customs, police, tax inspectors. The administrative weather set at steady rain. Cole looked in the largest shed. A door creaked somewhere at the back, the noise amplified in the girdered ceiling. The place reeked of secret histories, illicit commerce.
He got out of the car. A man was waiting for him under the sand hopper. An elderly man in a white shirt with blood spots on the collar. He looked like a lone survivalist, edgy, spooked. He kept looking past Cole. As if he knew what was out there. As if he knew it would come again.
‘You’re from the Ministry,’ John Uel said, ‘Sergeant Corrigan said you were coming.’
‘James Cole from the MOD.’
‘There was never any luck in this land,’ John Uel said.
‘No luck for this girl anyhow.’
‘Any word of her identity?’
‘Nor any word how long shes been in the ground. The sand will hold you down there until its good and ready to let you go.’
‘How long has the illegal dumping been going on?’
‘I know nothing about no dumping.’
‘They had to cross your land to get to it.’
‘That land is nobodies.’
‘It can’t belong to nobody.’
‘Then maybe it’s the devils.’
‘My information is that this portion of it belongs to the MOD.’
‘That’s what I told the polic..’
‘They’ll want to talk to you.’
‘They already talked.’
‘They’ll want a formal statement.’
‘I have nothing for them.’
‘People always have something.’
‘And what do you have, Mr Ministry of Defence?’
‘I have the right to inspect all documentation in relation to the freehold, leasehold, transfers and otherwise.’
‘You think one of yours done her. A soldier? Is that why you’re here?’
‘We don’t know what happened to her.’
‘The sands not like right ground.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The sands shift. Things travel down there. You found her here doesn’t mean she was put in the ground here.’
Cole looked out over the tailings pond beside the block yard. A crust of dried sand on top and underneath the liquid tonnage. Deep tectonic movement. The land shifting beneath your feet.
‘The police will have questions for you. Did you not see lights down there? Who owns the excavator? Those kind of questions.’
‘They can question away. I have no answers for them.She should have stayed down there.’
‘I don’t think she had a choice in the matter.’
‘She should have stayed down there until she was called.’
‘On the day of resurrection.’
A woman watched from the window of the Portakabin. Cole trying to make out her face behind the window streaked with wet sand and blown concrete dust. Dark hair, the features unresolved.
‘She does the books.’
‘Do you have land maps here, Mr Uel, deeds, anything like that?’
‘I won’t do your job for you Cole.’
‘I can just look them up in the land registry.’
‘Then you better do that.’
‘I need to find Sergeant Corrigan.’
‘Try the Legion at the harbour. Its the kind of place you might find a sporting man.’
British Legion, Kilkeel Harbour, 16th November 2014
There was racing on the television with the sound turned down, jockeys in muted silk turning into the home straight. Kempton Park, Chepstow. Labouring towards the line in rain-blown provincial race tracks. Rain blowing against the Legion windows . The girl behind the bar was Latvian, product of some gritty baltic seaport. Her small dissatisfied-looking mouth turned down at the corners suggested a mean-spirited sensuality.
‘I was told Sergeant Corrigan was here?’ She shook her head. Cole looked at the other drinkers but they kept their heads down. There was a bar room atmosphere of low-key duplicity and letting things go for the general good. Cole lifted a copy of the Racing Post, set himself to studying the form. The door opened behind him and he saw the bar girl look up as the door opened. Corrigan. The policeman was mid-fifties, his face covered in old acne scars like a mask of affliction.
‘John Cole. Ministry of Defence. We talked on the phone.’
‘I hear tell you’re looking into the body.’
‘You hear well. The body and the dumping.’
‘Whats your interest?’
‘Two crimes on MOD land.’
‘There’s no evidence so far that the girl was the victim of a crime. Can you confirm that the land belongs to the MOD?’
‘I intend to.’
‘Your car was at John Uel’s this morning.’
‘It was. Has the body been identified?’
‘Female between ages of twelve and twenty. Doesn’t fit any listed missing person. We’re looking at historic.’
‘Where is she?’
‘The dead girl.’
‘Where do they put dead people?’
‘Then that’s where she is.’
‘Is it open?’
‘Only if you’re dead.’
‘Who’s in charge?’
The pathologist is Morgan. If I was you I’d stay away from John Uel.’
‘He looks like a religious man.’
‘The good-living are always the worst. An autopsy is scheduled for next Monday.’
‘Why wait so long?’
‘She’s been down there long enough. She’ll wait awhile. Morgan has samples took. He’ll wait for them to come back from the lab. He wants to establish how long she’s been in the ground before he uses the knife on her.’
Shes been down there long enough. The girl lost in the strata, the deep undertow of the sand.
‘What about the lorries doing the dumping?’
‘They’ve been coming in on the Ro-Ro ferry, going straight back out again. There’s no way to track them down.’
‘Somebody must have seen them.’
‘Theres a widow lives on her own out the Limekiln road,’ Corrigan said. ‘She made a complaint about lorries at night. Artics. Putting the hammer down. No lights. No-one paid her any heed.’
The Limekiln road. No place for a widow to live on her own. No place for anyone to live on their own. The road running along the seas edge, the salt water littoral.At night the east wind rattles the dry stems in the reed beds. In the dark there is the call of seabirds from the mudflats, eerie pipings carried across the shifting channels and dark tide races. Brackish drains carry run-off into the shallows. Dead alder trees on the verges. People come out from the town to dump on the scrublands.
‘We thought she was dreaming,’ Corrigan said.
‘I’ll take you up to the hospital ,’ Corrigan said. ‘You can view the body, if that’s want you want.’
Cole followed Corrigan out onto the quay. A north-east wind blew up the boat channel. Hanks of net twine blew through the harbour margins, caught on discarded trawl cable. There were scattered fish scales, marine diesel spills on the harbour margins. A white box van was parked at the inner basin. A group of women stood in the lee of the ice plant. They each held a leatherbound hymnal. Men in black suits took speakers dressed in black cloth from the rear of the van and set them on tripods. A portable harmonium was handed over the wall and placed between the speakers. The men moved deliberately. They were elect. A girl stood apart from the women with her back to the outer basin. She wore a floral skirt which touched the ground. She had on a white cap. Her hair was gathered under it and fell to her waist.
The women wore long dresses buttoned to the throat. They wore no make-up. They seemed to have come from a latter century, pilgrim wives. An elder sat down to the harmonium.
They reached Corrigan’s car. The voices of the women came across the harbour. This was the hymnal of the town, the voices cadenced, God-haunted. Rural sects who practiced in corrugated gospel halls. The girl stood with the other women, her back half-turned. The oldest man motioned to her to step closer. His eyes rested on her hair loose under her cap, unchaste livery of the fallen.
Kilkeel Hospital, 16th November, 2014
The hospital stood on the high ground above the river. Built on the site of the Workhouse. Ungraven stone markers beneath the scrub grass. Coffins brought in a handcart down a sunken pathway after dark. The grave opened by lamplight. A paupers moon hidden by the scrub pines growing on the slope. The bottom of the coffin was bracketed with brass hinges screwed to the coffin base plate so that it could be re-used. Other inmates filled in the grave. The corpses stripped naked so that the clothes could be re-used. All surrendered before they entered the workhouse. They died of typhoid, pneumonia, tuberculosis. What prayers the dead got were lost in the boreal darkness.
The hospital building was closed save for the morgue. Wartime Nissen huts in the hospital grounds housed the elderly and infirm of the town and its hinterland. Cole could see residents in wing back chairs in the closed-in glass porch. Bone-thin, palsied.
‘They act like bloody royalty, Corrigan said, ‘and them the leavings of the town.’
‘You know them?’
‘Put names to every one of them, seed breed and generation.
They think they’re on the brink of salvation but they’re not. My own fathers in it.’
Cole looked at him. ‘I should visit more often.’
The old people seemed imperious to Cole, a peerage of their kind. One of them lifted a hand to the car.
‘After the war the hospital was all sorts. A pharmacy. A children’s home. Then they parked the geriatrics in it.’
They entered the hospital building by a side door. Part of the plaster had fallen away from the inside wall to show the granite rubble construction behind.
The morgue was in the basement. Corrigan led Cole down a stairwell. He feels himself part of the workhouse complex. He can feel himself deep in the ground. He can feel its fastness all around him, the earthhold. The basement corridors stored the hospital files. Dented grey filing cabinets against the wall. Medical records. Psychiatric records. The death-trove of the town.
Corrigan unlocked the morgue door. Cole saw chipped tiling to waist level. Above that the walls were distempered, the paint peeling and flaked, the ground-damp seeping upwards. There was rubber matting on the floor worn through to the concrete in places. Theatre lights from long ago were switched on over the autopsy bench. The fittings were stiff and tarnished and Corrigan adjusted the nearest so that its brass pivot squealed.
Corrigan opened the cadaver drawer. The body was chilled but Cole could smell the ground from which it had been taken. The stench of the opened pit.
‘Do you want to come back when she’s opened up? She’s well preserved. Pathologist says she might have found herself in a pool of some preservative liquid. They’re a fucker to get rid of, preservatives. You can’t just tip them down the drain.’
‘Did you test the ground water?’
‘Who would pay for that for some long-dead girl?’
‘You have a point. Where is the clothing?’
‘Over there. I bagged it.’
Cole crossed the room to the stainless steel shelving units. There were jars and stainless steel dishes on the shelves. You thought of them filled with viscera, the organs stored for journey as they might be for a pharaoh or his queen. He did not look again at what lay in the cadaver drawer. The figure seemed wizened and hag-like, come to him from some dream of corruption and he wished not to know her.
Corrigan took sterile gloves from a clinical pack. He used scissors to cut the cable tie on the evidence bag. He laid the clothing on the sterile surface, the odour of ground toxins rising from the fabrics. The material starting to stiffen. He placed the clothes as she would have worn them, stained beyond recognition and shrunken by long immersion to a child’s proportions.
‘The size on the garment label. It’s a twelve. Stockings, suspender belt. Shoes size five. No child was wearing this outfit.’
Cole leaned over the body.
‘Odour of formalin.’
‘Dilute formaldehyde. It may be that the formalin was part of the hospital waste.’
‘Its used as a preservative and bactericide. Histology labs used it for keeping organ samples. Undertakers keep gallon flagons.’
‘If some of that has been dumped on top of her the body would keep.’
‘Complicates the autopsy process.’
‘How soon will you know how long the body has been there?’
‘I don’t know. John Uel is anxious to know as well.’
‘He owns part of the land. Wants us to own the rest of it. Lets him off the hook.’
‘It lets him off the hook with regard to having a recent corpse on his rotten property. Doesn’t absolve him of anything else.’
‘John Uel will have figured the odds. You can’t be liable for waste dumped on somebody else’s land.’
‘What about a body?’
‘That might be a different matter.’
The smell of formalin getting stronger now, the chemical stink working its way into the neural pathways. Cole felt as if cold nineteen year old hands were dragging him down into some elaborate devising of the underworld.
The Hollow, Kilkeel, 10th December, 2015
Cole parked in the Hollow behind the Kilmorey Hotel. The river in flood. Debris on the margins. Water in choked drains, the sucking darkness. The far bank in blackness. Slum clearances here thirty years ago, the site levelled. Children with diptheria. His room was at the rear of the building, looking out over the hollow and beyond that the roofs of the town, the streetlights glowing like naptha, giving way to the shadows of old entryways, back yards, the towns unslept gothic. A rain squall blown in from the sea darkened the town.
He walked across the car park. Two girls were outside the off licence. They wore coloured blouses in pink and blue which stood out like damask in the stark yard. Two boys stood in the lee of the dance hall gable shoulders hunched against the driven blast. Cole wondered what they waited on for there seemed no prospect of anything other than more rain, more night.
I can see she’s unhinged the moment she gets in. She sits for long seconds on the back seat with eyes closed, pressing her head against the headrest. Breathing hard, with long sighs like one short of oxygen. She’s going to be sick in a second. The thought makes me panic a bit, not here of all places, in my cab.
Where can I take you?
I don’t care. Away from here, quick.
But is it Buda, or Pest?
Pest. That’s on the other side, isn’t it? The farther the better.
This is of course an invitation to dance, after two years of taxi driving I can tell that much. That is, that I should ask questions. “You had a bad day?”, “Did something upset you?” and the like. She’s expecting sanctimonious sentences, questions that should mean, “Come, sweetie, have a good hearty sob on my broad shoulder.” I’m not sure I want it. I’m not sure I want to hear the details of her emotional disaster. For that’s what it’s all about for certain. No, I’m not going to become a self-styled confessor or psychotherapist again. I’m tired of the vain, petty, endlessly repeating stories. I’d much rather touch her nape, which is reflected for an instant in the rear window, where her unruly black hair is severely cropped. This makes her look vulnerable and helpless. You could cut off her head smoothly with a guillotine any time. Her silky, surprisingly large and fleshy earlobes are curving strangely outward and upward, in a shape slightly reminiscent of a V. Perhaps she’s in the habit of twisting them when she’s nervous. Some fidget with their hair, some drum with their fingers, and there are some who keep twisting their earlobes. Sweet girl, stop twisting them, for you’ll end up with them twisted. If I bit them, a drop of her ruby-red blood would gush out at once. A gift of earrings. No, I’m really not saying anything. Her presence fills the car cabin like some strange material obtained through long experimentation, for NASA let’s say, it has the capacity to fill even the smallest and most hidden cavities, seeps in everywhere, into the trunk, ashtray, outer ear, bronchia, pores, Mari of course, at the Déli station at last the penny drops where this familiar feeling comes from, making those butterflies go off immediately in my stomach (when she got in they went off at once), it was Mari who could fill everything with her presence so, at the end I could hardly breathe, because her existence oozed into the nostrils and the mouth cavity and blocked the way of the air, making me breathe hard and staccatoed like this one in the back, I look into the mirror and she immediately looks back at me, looking for eye contact, looking for the thread of the conversation, she is clinging to my gaze like one drowning, begging me to throw her a rope, a word, anything that keeps her from sinking into the swamp of her trauma. No, sweetheart, I’m not going to be your Bruce Willis, your Stallone, you can safely sink in the back seat like the Titanic as far as I’m concerned, you are exactly what I needed in the night, exactly this convulsion of the stomach that is all Mari, I’m sure Mari has sent it just to remind me how useless to cod myself that, with a bit of cab-driving and white nights, I can wash her out of my system, that I shouldn’t believe I can atone so easily, although that chick didn’t mean anything, the whole affair barely lasted for two seconds, after five years I was simply curious what another skin smelled like, it was nowhere near Mari’s, I only wanted to try out for a second what it felt to be free, because Mari clutched me with her arms like a beautiful, fleshy octopus, a rare specimen, the likes of which you only meet in fairy tales. Seemingly fragile, frail, in need of protection, but once you’ve yielded she will crush you with her embrace sooner or later, and this one is splayed there on the back seat exactly like that, like one about to fall apart to atoms unless somebody helps her, she gives another well-audible sigh, hoping I will take pity on her at last, why me, why do these little monsters always pick me, why don’t they just leave me well alone to drive about in the night, so that in a suitably beaten moment I can feel I might manage to sleep again, because there is this strange physiological phenomenon, whenever somebody is released too abruptly from a too-tight embrace, they will not sleep for long, just keep shifting their body’s weight from one leg to another like a dog suddenly untied, looking around unsure, not knowing what to do with all this unexpected freedom, and it is not rare that they end up looking for someone else they might serve, rather than roaming together with the other discarded dogs.
We are on Chain Bridge already when she speaks again.
I’ve never traveled with a woman cab driver before. Aren’t you afraid?
Just like this. Aren’t you afraid, driver? Aren’t you afraid, woman? They’re going to kill you or worse, they’re going to fuck you.
And you? Aren’t you afraid to get in a stranger’s car, just like this?
I look into the rear mirror. I see she smiles faintly.
Well, there’s some truth in it.
We are stuck at the red light, József Attila street, an uncommonly balmy April night, silence. If she shut up now and would just stay put in the back until I drop her off somewhere, I could even enjoy this sudden spring.
But in all truth a stranger is better than someone you know. At least you don’t imagine you know him. With someone you know, you’ll always discover in the end that they are complete strangers. I’m being so fucking profound, sorry. I don’t want to burden you with my pearls of wisdom.
Well to this you just can’t say no. I have a heart too, even if a bit stony. Come now, here’s this stony, loving, cabby’s heart of mine. Take it. Shred it to pieces.
Worse. I found out she has a husband.
Her look in the rear mirror is hard, provocative, she’s waiting for the effect. For the bafflement. She is preparing some grand statement to fling into my face. Sweet mother of mine. You have to get up earlier, darling. A cab driver who is not able to size up the client in half a second should go breed monchichis. My radar beeped in the first second, as it should. Hers is not yet functioning, as I see. After all, I’m sitting with my back to her, I have to grant her this. Some say though that you could tell from my nape alone. Anyway. Tears must obviously be blurring her vision. Do I have to say that by now they are rolling down in big fat drops on her freckled and strikingly white face. The turned-up collar of her black leather jacket surrounds it like an obituary announcement. I half turn around. Not without a touch of rancour, I must admit.
So, she screwed you.
For a moment she looks me in the eye, surprised. Then goes on relieved, like one who has unexpectedly gained absolution for a sin not committed.
Not only me. Her husband too. Her children. Everybody. The whole fucking world.
And how did you find out?
I can’t believe I’m asking this. Who the hell cares how she found out, who said what, who lied, how this or that one was caught, and what they said at that, and how she reacted to it, who cares about this pathetic little story, this scrap opera.
You won’t guess of course: Dad went off on a business trip, but Dad returned earlier than he should have, the airport workers were on strike, ha ha. I will never forgive her though for laying me in their marital bed. Only men would do such crap.
And, now you see, sometimes women too. Which is harder to recover from. This shows how nasty prejudice is. At least you’ve learnt something today.
This turned out lighter and harsher than necessary. That is, it turned out like this out of necessity. I just had to keep her at a distance. I had to try and wipe off her sad eyes’ burning, tattooing look from my skin. I had to air the sea, algae and seaweed smell of her breath out of my nose, I had to try to surface from the deep sea water and not let myself be caught by this stifling underwater garden; I had to try to erase her from my mind, I’m standing on the runway like Humphrey Bogart and don’t have to say anything, because the woman (who is also me) doesn’t get on the plane, but turns round slowly, comes up to me and takes my arm; I had to erase from my memory Mari standing in the corridor and shrieking into my face that she hopes someone will some day really break my heart into chips and smithereens, so it can never be put together again, and then I will learn what I did to her, because she can see I have no idea, callous brat that I am, I had to forget her thick lashes in the long first moment she closed them, her preternaturally dark eyes, the likes of which can only be seen in inner Congo, Tshad or Zambia, small wonder Dr Livingstone vanished for years on end because he set eyes on exactly such a pair of eyes, to his perdition, and this caught him so unprepared and off guard that it took Stanley, who went on an expedition, to drag him out of there. My goodness I thought, who on earth will ever start an expedition for me, who will ever find me and save me when everybody has long given up hope I am still alive, who will search this grimy urban jungle for me, who will be that fearless detective who decides to give the matter one last try, defying the explicit orders of his superior, and inspects that disused factory destined to be demolished, where he finally finds me, half dead. I obviously have to erase from my brain, like from a hard disk by pushing a single button, everything that passed my mind the moment I spotted her on the street corner where she got in; that this is like, this is precisely like when I watched the transit of Venus in front of the Sun two years ago and thought this was what people keep waiting for all their life, such a perfect constellation, which of course then slowly moves apart but as long as it lasts it is nothing but prolonged, perfect bliss.
Wouldn’t you like to have a drink after the fright you got?
I hear this sentence coming out of my mouth. It is my mouth, there’s no doubt about that, but I couldn’t tell who is speaking. I can see she is at least as much taken by surprise by the question as I am. Her face first shows the signs of surprise, then of recognition. At last her radar turned on, however late. I change gear, let the engine run out a bit, there is nobody on the streets, we are sweeping across the city like two survivors come from a different planet.
Why not, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to wash off this filth.
It’s only the street lamps’ light gliding past that gives some emphasis to her dull words.
But let’s not go to the Reflection. I don’t want to meet anyone.
Of course not there, I’m not in the habit of going to such fancy places. I switch off the taxi meter. By now the car must be going on the lead in the air, because the dashboard red light is on, showing there’s hardly any fuel. It feels like having been on the road for days, without food or drink, and now with our last strength we are reaching the oasis. Or rather, its mirage. We go next to Klauzál square, to Fater’s pub. That’s home territory, there I feel safe and there no one will know her, for sure. I take the corner on two wheels almost, a late dog-walker looks at us startled, what is this, not a chase scene again? Yes, a chase. I pull the hand brake and look into the mirror.
Shall we go?
I think I just felt a cool draught of air brush past my nape. In the mirror I can immediately see where it came from.
I’m sorry. I think I changed my mind.
A precise, professional blow to the heart, delivered with an iron bullet. I turn around to see her face, not only its reflection. She should shoot me face to face, properly.
What should we do now?
I’d like to… I’d like you to take me back.
She pulls her black leather collar closer around her neck. Her face is as small now as a shrunken Indian head.
Are you sure it’s a good idea?
I’m already sorry for saying it. I turn back and start the taxi meter again. I’ll have at least this satisfaction, of offering her to them on a plate. I can hear from the back:
No, but I must.
I switch on the radio and turn up the volume. Green wave all the way to Moszkva Square.
—Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa
Zsófia Bán was born in Rio de Janeiro and grew up in Brazil and Hungary. Her writing often addresses topics related to visuality, visual arts, photography, personal and cultural memory, historical trauma, as well as gender. Her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and translated to a number of languages, including German, English, Spanish, Czech, Slovakian and Slovenian. Besides her volumes of essays, she has published two books of fiction. This story is from her book Amikor még csak az állatok éltek (When There Were Only Animals), 2012. She lives and works in Budapest, where she teaches American Studies, and is currently DAAD writer-in-residence in Berlin.
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.
xxxxxxx(Kenneth Lee Irby, 30 July 2015)
You no longer “care” for anything to eat
except sweet brandy
xxxxxxA last bottle,
xxxxxxyes, I bought it,
xxxxxxand I’m not sorry
slumped sideways on the sofa
xxxxxxbracket of spine tilting
xxxxxxthe marionette lines barely
xxxxxxXXXxxholding you up
long-sleeved denim shirt
xxxxxxover skin so thin
blue veins shine
xxxxxxXXXxxbones jut the collar
xxxxxxsoon will come the morphine angel
Like a fool I bring
Japanese fairy tales—
xxxxxxmy father’s book
xxxxxxrich slick mildewy paper
Your overgrown thumbnail slits pages open
Through your hands tumble bright
You tell me your mother’s last words
xxxxxx“Are the plants watered?”
And you breathe to me,
yes the breath labored,
xxxxxx“This is, as they say, a last gasp”
A round moon rises overhead
The bloody mud knot of your heart
xxxxxxloosens jagged dithyrambs.
For good-bye I lay hands
on your blanket-swaddled chest
xxxxxxfeel it, that swell
Eskimo Curlew, 1891
xxxxxxxAfter a photograph by Terry Evans
xxxxxxx“I ask the curlew for cinnamon-barred feathers”
crossed legs Arctic blue, bound.
“Field Columbian Museum.
Shot over Emporia, Kansas.”
Tender down molds
the throat. The sharp-spear
beak pierces vanilla-white
A wisp of shadow
half-moons the body:
curve of lunar eclipse, folded wing,
curve of expired breath.
Past tense before I was born:
“They nested in Arctic tundra,”
says my dead father’s
Field Guide to the Birds,
the voice: “an oft repeated, soft,
mellow, though clear whistle”
or “the wind whistling
through a ship’s rigging.”
“Flocks migrated through the Plains”
when he was a young man holding
his Peterson’s and sighting “under-
wings conspicuously cinnamon buff.”
Labels from The Field Museum: Cardinals
xxxxxxxxAfter photographs by Terry Evans
9 July 1881
xxxxxBush on this day: collector
xxxxxat Blue Island, Cook Co.
xxxxxone ♀ female buff-
December 11, 1883
xxxxxwithin the specimen drawer
xxxxxone iridescent crimson ♂ male
xxxxxneck twisted to uncertain sight
September 16, 1893
xxxxxto house collections assembled
25 February 1907
xxxxxMound City, Ill.
xxxxx♀ female still plump
xxxxxpeach streaks across sky-gray breast
xxxxxWright at Dane Co., Ill.
xxxxxanother ♂ male
xxxxxwith the finest head crest
xxxxx♀ female fell from nest
xxxxxat Orrington and Garrett Ave.:
xxxxxdesiccated, ashy brown,
xxxxxa solid ghost collapsed
December 27, 1913
xxxxx♂ male caught at Salamonia, Indiana
xxxxxnow a pressed faded feather rose
xxxxx47 Cardinalis cardinalis specimens
xxxxxeyes sightless behind
xxxxxwhite-cotton eye sockets
xxxxx“The loss of these living
xxxxxthings is tempered
xxxxxby a quiet tenderness”
Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, is award-winning author of 25 books of prose and poetry, including The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Delaware Survival (forthcoming from Univesity of Nebraska Press), Jackalope (short fiction, Red Mountain Press); Mélange Block (poetry, Red Mountain Press); Ghost Stories (Woodley Press, a Ks. Notable Book; The Circle -Best Native American Books); and Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press). Low is past board president of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs. She blogs, reviews, and co-publishes Mammoth Publications. She teaches professional workshops nationally as well as classes for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. Her MFA is from Wichita State University and PhD is from the University of Kansas. She has British Isles, German, Delaware (Lenape/Munsee), and Cherokee heritage.
I FIRST SAW the drawings of Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House over forty years ago while in college, in H. H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art, a standard text on the subject at the time, the pictures illumined with only a few sentences of explication. First the three-dimensional drawing of a home spare yet engaged, complex yet composed, low lying yet forward looking—a lean, solid wedge opening out into the world and negotiating the earth and sky:
Below it the sketch of the ground floor plan, a grid of right angles that do not intersect, difficult to read as a living space, that extends, in seeming contradiction to the first drawing, out into space without clear containment, yet still a scheme coherent and compelling:
And a chord was struck within, or a tone cluster, that gathered and realigned. Part of the attraction came from the material, brick, whose deep color and rough surface textured my life growing up in North Carolina, providing hue and permanence and friction to all I once found attractive, all I resisted. All the homes where I lived and all the schools I attended drew their substance from the red clay beneath the state’s soil. But resonance came from Mies’s form, the structure, what it analyzed and took apart, what it put aside. Because I was looking for alternatives to the architecture I knew—the colonial attenuations, the classical appropriations, their rigid symmetries—for a way of life that transcended the manners and mannerisms those styles housed and encouraged. I wanted a plan that directed me away from the state’s muddied past and out of its funneling course. I wanted to build a life that sounded the vitality of the present moment and looked to the future, that left options open in a changing dynamic. I wanted to be modern.
Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms
Living. Changing. Now.
Mies van der Rohe/“Working Theses”/1923
Such was the spirit and ambition when Mies’s drawings were first exhibited in avant-garde exhibitions in Germany in 1924, when architects looked for ways to escape the entrapments that led to the broil of the first war. They helped establish his reputation and set the course for his later work, anticipating the Barcelona Pavilion.
It’s the sketch of the floor plan that most captured attention. It reflected aesthetic interests of the time—Cubist ideas about space—and acted as a visual manifesto. And it has sustained interest ever since. It appears on the cover of the recent third edition of William Curtis’s Modern Architecture Since 1900, serving as gateway to the subject:
The sketch is a work of art in its own right, reminiscent of De Stijl paintings, in fact has been compared to one. The figure has the power of a sign, an ideogram that captures a principle, concise and complex, that represents an essential understanding of the world, or the way we might want to see it. Or it could be taken as a symbol for the creative act, or a model for prose. Or a picture of thought itself, of both a theory and method combined, interrelated.
Architecture has given us the most visible face of modernism and provides one strain of its mood. Definitions of movements, however, always run into problems. General definitions lack the power of distinction; strict ones ignore variation and individual talent, as well as run the risk of reducing design to simple rules that lose the sense of art. Often they are shaded by agendas, depending upon what critics want to defend or attack.
There are, however, useful tendencies. Modernist architects were inspired by industrial and technological innovations in material and construction, and wanted to capture their energy and potential in buildings that gave the look of lightness, transparency, freshness, and purity. They built to reveal structural function, not disguise it, though function was ambiguously defined and that motive led to some deception. If reference was made to a region and its past, it was heavily abstracted. But most rejected the past architectural languages of support as unnecessary, of ornament as dishonest, of ceremony and monument as out of step with the times. Instead they wanted buildings that crossed national borders and cut ties with the past as the world approached new social order, belief in which for some approached the spiritual. Unlike many modernists in the other arts they were optimistic.
The style spread to ubiquity, from our cities to our suburbs, throughout the world, giving the places where we all worked and lived a common stamp. It has been with us some hundred years, depending upon when one wants to set the date of its beginnings. Here there is paradox. What was once fresh now appears stale, what was once startling in its innovation now looks passé. By attaching itself to the present modernism fell into the stream of what it tried to step out of, becoming in effect a historical movement without clear sense where it might go next. In the hands of the less inspired, the majority, the architecture became formulaic and monotonous. In the universities, where the leading architects settled, it became refined, rarefied, and inbred, yet theirs were the designs selected by corporations and institutions not for cultural regeneration but for brand recognition and status. Lost in both cases was any sense of common purpose and social cause. Some grand schemes were proposed to remake the world, some of these were in part completed and proved disastrous. The trailing off, the diversions, and the failures provided grounds for the scourge of postmodernist gibes and attacks, whose architecture itself provided the face of that movement and one sense of its tilt.
Yet Mies’s design still strikes imagination today, maybe something else, and still escapes the pitfalls of critical debates and the drag of time. Records for the project, however, are sketchy. It is not clear when the drawings were made and there is little supporting discussion. The two drawings themselves don’t align, having inconsistencies that needed to be worked out in final construction. But the Brick Country House was never built, and there is debate whether he intended to have that done. All that remain are photographs of the two drawings, most of poor quality.
And I put the house aside, leaving its traces to the tangled war of memory and forgetting. For I left for California, the land of promise and casual fantasy, to start a new life, where I endured its flights, distractions, and scourges, going off course, getting lost on distant shores, home itself, any home, a fading thought.
To chart a place on earth—that is the supreme effort of the built environment in antiquity. Shelter, of course, always takes precedence. But its issue transcends self-preservation and comfort. Shelter engages human alliances and rank, and so it becomes the task of residential architecture to advance the pattern of collective existence. From family to empire, the stages of social and political gradation affect the scope and intricacy of this extendable pattern. But in the end organization only tidies up; it cannot satisfy darker anxieties of being afloat in a mysterious design which is not of our own making. To mediate between cosmos and polity, to give shape to fear and exorcize it, to effect a reconciliation of knowledge and the unknowable—that was the charge of ancient architecture.
It is a charge that is no longer pressing, that no longer has meaning. Geomancy had no place in the laying out of New York or Teheran; Buckingham Palace was not planned to be the pivot of the cosmic universe. At some point we chose to keep our own counsel, to search for self close at home.
Spiro Kostof/A History of Architecture
Kostof’s rich prose itself provides a place to dwell. Everything begins at home, whether we care to recognize that fact or not.
Eumaios crossed the court and went straight forward
into the megaron among the suitors
Megaron is the term Homer uses to indicate a large hall around which palaces were once built, in this case Odysseus’s, where his loyal swineherd now appears. It refers to a common floor plan found in Asia Minor, including the site identified as the city of Troy, that dates back to the third millennium BC and later appeared in Mycenaean Greece, likely an import.
Columns support a front porch, which protects the palace from the elements and provides formal entry. In the center of the room, an open hearth, which gives warmth and sets the locus for libation and animal sacrifice to the gods. It is a place of residence for chieftains and a center for cultural and political events, marking the consolidation of social order and the rise of aristocratic power in the early days of Greek civilization.
The plan is the basis for later Greek temples, where columns extend around the perimeter and the hearth is replaced with a statue of a deity.
A temple is a house for the gods that we can enter, giving us a home in the world as well as a means of defining our relationship with it and with each other. For example the Parthenon, where bright-eyed Athena, Athen’s guarantor and protector, the virgin goddess of wisdom, inspiration, strength, and justice, stands in the center of the main chamber, the cella, and receives the citizens of the city. The chieftain has moved out, the people, democratically, let in; unseen powers above have been brought down to earth and given form. Beliefs have visible expression in the face and stance of the goddess, before whom, in more direct and communal participation, citizens can show their respect, make appeasement, and bargain with forces beyond their control, often unpredictable and violent.
That the world is violent the Greeks recognized and embraced. As Kostof explains strength comes from recognition of the power of opposition, a way to gauge one’s own. Above the columns, around the temple, the violence is depicted in friezes of warring factions captured in the pitch of battle—Lapiths and Centaurs, Greeks and Amazons, Greek and Trojans, giants and gods—the outcomes unresolved. Warring opposites complement each other, not contradict, showing an essential part of the Classical spirit that keeps distance, “a sense of timeless idealism,” but maintains engagement in the strain of conflict.
For in the final analysis, the sole purpose of religion is to prevent the recurrence of reciprocal violence.
René Girard/Violence and the Sacred
Or opposition gives us a means to project the hidden conflicts and desires within on the world without and keep us intact, the transfer vouched by displacement into a sacred scheme. A temple offers a container for the violence in our collective hearts.
Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion is a home and also a temple of sorts as well, and like the Parthenon is a projection of a people’s desires to define their values and offer a way of life. The Weimar Republic commissioned him to build it for that city’s international exposition in 1929, wanting to put a new face on Germany that looked past the war and the country’s militaristic past towards new purpose and peaceful order.
Against the pomp, imposition, and inflation of past architectural styles from the other nations, Mies’s subdued design, calm, level, and collected:
Like the Parthenon, it is set on a raised base that requires slight ascent and, once entered, procession to discover its design and intent. And like the Parthenon, it has a statue that offers figurative expression, Georg Kolbe’s Dawn, standing in a pool in the back corner.
But the pavilion has a decidedly domestic cast, in fact suburban, bringing aspiration closer to the ground in low-ceilinged rooms that encourage us not to look up but at each other. Nor does it try to impress with mass and means of support. The load is carried by eight slender chrome piers. The walls are free standing and seem to float in space. There is a similar effect in the Brick Country House, where the floor-to-ceiling windows open up the sense of structure and pass support to the isolated sections of brick walls.
Mies admired Greek architecture and studied its influence under Peter Behrens, Behrens himself influenced by neoclassicist Schinkel. His work reflects classical proportion and composition, these brought back to human scale. We also see the energy of involvement in the play of tensions implied in the offset planes and angles.
Indeed we should strive to bring Nature, houses, and people together into a higher harmony.
The Brick Country House is a temple for private rites and follows in essence another long tradition, that of a home placed in spacious setting away from the polis, as described in the writings of Pliny, that extends through Palladio into the last centuries. They were homes for the patrician order, and as such reinforced their remove and power. But they carried with them a proposition about our relationship with what might lie outside and beyond us, what appears in the world that is not of our design and making, what has been referred to over the millennia with a term of shifting and escaping associations and assumptions, what we still call nature.
In both we see Mies’s break with tradition. Axial planning and symmetry have been replaced with asymmetric designs that have no explicit center. The walls are incomplete, thus the rooms are left open, and their relationship to each other and to the overall design, the relationship of the buildings to the external world, in general the relationship of interior to exterior, are all part of a dialogue that has no final resting point. Instead of a plan of orderly containment and progression to guide the life inside, options for a program are left to the residents to decide freely, without any being decisive. Nor is there explicit reference to past architectural orders and the meanings they might carry, or, aside from Dawn, who in her twisting, rising stretch into consciousness echoes the asymmetric design of the pavilion, any figurative expression. The languages of decoration have been refined to abstraction, or put aside.
Still there is careful placement and unifying composition, and still a sense of centering. However, while there is great energy in the tension of the play of planes, gone is the strain that once charged Greek temples. Both the pavilion and house exhibit control, certainty, confidence, and composure, though we do not know yet what awakening Dawn or wakers in the house might have or where that might lead.
In the shadowy hall a low sound rose—of suitors
murmuring to one another.
Classical orders, however, came back with a vengeance in Germany and elsewhere not long after.
Nostalgia fused with symmetry can be a powerful conduit for single-mindedness.
The Elements of Fiction
Greek thinking is at once typal and specific. It takes on an idea (or a form, which is nothing other than a congealed idea), nourishes and perfects it through a series of conscious changes, and in this way informs it with a kind of universal validity that seems irrefutable. The process is in fact ideal, that is, based on “the perfection of kind.” It presupposes orderly development and the practicability of consummation.
I loved building with construction sets when I was a kid and could spend hours sitting on the floor of my bedroom, absorbed in physical act of putting one piece on top of another, of setting concrete objects into empty space, watching them gather, the building rise, in a process that at first seemed endless, a great part of the joy. But I’d yield to the demands of the materials, the various pieces in my set, and to the design in my head—just a thought, just a sketch—and give myself to those, anticipating but not yet knowing, often not knowing until the end, the shape and success of the final product. Once I adjusted to the small scale, space became huge, extending to the reaches of the world and its peoples, invisible spirits making appearance, my excitement from entering the world and commanding its space mounting with the rising building, that thrill, however, mixing with the equally strong fear of disturbance that always comes from the violation of the creative act. And always, when done, when I stepped back and looked at my creation, my efforts spent, the pieces in my set exhausted, I felt the sadness of completion.
Recently I took up building again, using pieces from the Lego architecture series, constructing models of well-known buildings as well as attempting some of my own design. I spend much more time in preparation, studying and revising floor plans. I still pass hours on end with the same absorption, the same anticipation and dread, but now I am moved to parallel contemplation of other things, of higher things, of all that might be thought, one path my life has taken. And still, the building completed, I feel the depression at the end when all that I excluded in the design flies back at me or escapes into fleeing nothing.
What I often think about is writing. Architecture, like writing, is a ritual of construction, a repetition of acts to fulfill desire and serve some purpose, and since a series of actions that moves towards an end, it has a story. Architecture is one kind of fiction, the building of one desire and sacrifice of another, whose life comes from the implied opposition. Philosophy, religion, politics—everything is fiction. Our different thoughts and different beliefs and different actions take different forms and we experience them in different ways, but the elements are the same and the task is to find ways to make them work together.
Setting is site, the land, its contours, its life, its exposure to the elements, as well the life of the people who live there, their history, their beliefs, their customs, their habits, these expressed in other buildings near which the new construction is placed, to which it might make reference.
Character is the inhabitant, who will be determined in large part by his or her setting. But also there is the character the architect hopes to create through experience of the building. Differences between the two might lead to conflict, which, the architect hopes, finds resolution in character transformation.
Plot is the floor plan, a building’s structure, and the program it offers characters. Time has been frozen in the plan, but it comes alive as characters move through the structure. The plan determines how they rise, how they descend, how they gather and interact, where they might disperse, these subplots combining to form the ascent of the narrative trail and conditioning the move to resolution.
Point of view, the perspective by which we experience a work, is omniscient third person, effaced. The architect knows the intent of the overall design, but we have to discover it by experience and implication. That takes us, of course, to the problem of nailing down and knowing the Author, a matter of fractured debate the last decades. If I am the designer of my own buildings, I am thrown back on myself, on all the conflicts and uncertainties there. The problem splits in other ways when I model buildings by well-known architects and try get inside their heads.
Voice is the accumulation of small touches to create the mood that colors how we receive the building, which comes in architecture from the posture of accents, the directness or slant of references, or their pointed absence, from the suggestions that arise from shapes. When building I can stare in perplexity at a single wall, just a simple rectangle, which with the addition of a single layer of bricks can move from bathos to the sublime.
Theme comes from placement and variation of recurring motifs—the angles, the shapes, the openings and enclosures, the play of light and shadow—and how these join to form a coherent whole. Theme takes us to the matter of meaning, if we can go that way, to the larger world and the world of ideas, and to voice, which determines our emotional attachment or distance, a large part of meaning.
I started the model of the Brick Country House because I thought it would be a quick and easy project, well suited to the Lego parts I had. But once underway my earlier fascination, dormant all those years, resurfaced, and I gave myself to hours of reflection that moved me farther out, in all directions. I also ran into problems I wasn’t sure how to solve. It is not a simple house at all.
As for setting, the drawings indicate a large house, low, wide, and spreading, situated on a considerable tract of open land, reinforcing the tradition of the country house and its occupants, the implications there, at least in the abstract. Mies also uses the traditional material of brick, perhaps a nod to local soil and customs. The son of a marble carver and proprietor of a small concern, he didn’t have formal training but did have experience early on in the building trade, and late in life he expressed his admiration for the craft and care of the masons, another influence. The two tall columns above the roofs suggest chimneys and bring their associations, though hearths are not marked in the floor plan. He built other homes with brick for well-off clients at that time, but also a monument to fallen Communists in the Sparacist revolt, during the November Revolution, suggesting his cultural sensitivity wasn’t fixed in one direction. Also implied is the setting of the new world he saw coming and its life, though still in the abstract. Neither drawing, however, offers specifics of site to fix the setting in any actual place and time.
Mies may have only intended the project to be a position piece for exhibition, in which case the specifics would have been left out to highlight the concept. Wolf Tegethoff, however, in Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses, has made careful study of available evidence to conclude he planned to build the house for himself and had a particular site in mind in a suburban area outside Berlin, in fact had two sites in mind, and the three-dimensional drawing was made for one, the floor plan sketch for the other, thus accounting for the discrepancies in their alignment. So they might also have been preliminary designs for actual construction, which would have to be adjusted in the later final planning and construction.
As for plot, the house’s program, the small rooms on the right might be utility rooms for food preparation and other functions, or, if privilege is involved, living quarters for servants. Or they might provide working space for the owner, removed from the rest of the house to allow concentration. The narrow middle section could be a library or casual den. The rooms on the left, larger, could be used for more formal social functions, dining and gatherings. The second floor, since separate and private, might have held bedrooms and other rooms for repose and intimacy. I’m just guessing, however. The only indications Mies wrote on the floor plan are the general designations “living space” on the left and “service space” on the right. But to fix the plan with a definite program is to miss the point.
In the ground plan of this house, I have abandoned the usual concept of enclosed rooms and striven for a series of spatial effects rather than a row of individual rooms. The wall loses its enclosing character and serves only to articulate the house organism.
Plot, theme, character, and voice can subsumed in the term organism, an intriguing and elusive concept. The rooms, like those in the Barcelona Pavilion, flow into each other without full delineation of their boundaries or definitive separation from the exterior. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is obvious and was acknowledged. The walls and the areas they suggest give a sense of internal involvement, denser, more enclosed and defined in the smaller, compact rooms on the right, that opens through the narrow middle section and out to the rest of the house—and beyond. Little is in line with anything, and there is an energy in the overall plan that never settles.
With corners removed, the design encourages an open way of living, away from the compartmentalization and hierarchy of the past, in a fluid, flexible space that offers full visibility and the chance for common interaction and individual retreat. Plot is not a matter of a set path of actions or final ends but an evolving process; setting becomes the immediacy of the present moment, an ever-changing now. Theme comes from the related ideas of freedom and flux and vision, expressed in a mood that is open and light. But the plan is not chaotic. Rather, it shows a precise, complex, asymmetric logic where control is never lost. We do have the option of the possibilities of containment in rectangular enclosures, however. As Tegethoff observes, the incomplete walls imply, through a gestalt of perception, extension into corners, giving mental closure. There is also the motif throughout of implied squares, separate and overlapping.
The house gains extension in its structural interrelationship with site, which takes us to the world of nature and whatever might lie beyond. It is the outside walls, which do not intersect at a common point, that give the house its greater energy yet at the same time, with their figure of an incomplete but implied cross, off-center, stability. While we might not see the overall plan or the outside walls completely, Tegethoff notes we will be aware of them inside and can fill in gaps. And moving through the house engages us in the outward motion. The many full-length windows lighten the sense of load and encourage openness and exterior vision. We will see the outside world in many parts, from many angles, and can put it together it through the experience of living and moving throughout the house. Seen from the outside, the house promotes a similar effect in a play of solid brick planes and separate, multiple reflections of the world in the glass windows, always changing, and in an interaction of light and shadow. Inferred is the idea that knowing the world, like living in it, is an active process of multiple points of view and assemblage.
Still, the overall structure raises questions. It is not clear what is front or back or where the main entrance is, if there is one, or how the house might communicate with the rest of the world, as these distinctions have been put aside in the larger scheme. Such distinctions might not matter or even make sense, however, in a home in the country, and perhaps Mies wanted a house that maintained the openness of the setting and its lack of orientation while avoiding the conventional formalities of entry and exit. There is no overt pretension in the main facade, if we can find it.
The outside walls are vital, yet the most problematic. They mean three separate yards, though for what distinct purposes I can’t imagine. They provide division, but not functional definition. The only way to move through the three areas they create is through the house. Also they exert complete domination of the estate, with all that might imply.
If the house were built on actual site, however, likely we are seeing a front view in the three-dimensional drawing. Tegethoff argues the closed face of the foremost rooms and the spreading yard before them provide separation from the street and remove the traffic of the world, allowing for private life. Entry is likely from the back, and the walls hide the other areas from public view, perhaps one being a garden for personal cultivation. The walls, however, would have to stop somewhere, presumably the boundaries of the property, which, standing isolated, would look awkward. Also they would have to be shortened considerably in symbolic representation, losing the sense of their extension. Other adjustments are needed, but they would disrupt the overall plan and effect. And once placed in a neighborhood of other homes, the Brick Country House would be enclosed, losing the effect of openness into space.
But even if the project is a conceptual proposition there seems to be no place for trees or other landscaping, which would be disruptive to the horizontal character of the house and its openness. Nature has been rendered as flat, empty space, a bare idea. The effect is orderly, serene, even breathtaking—and solitary and chilling.
Either way, actual or theoretical, the drawings raise the question as to what forms our lives might take separately and together, even if provisionally, even if momentarily, with what common understanding, or whether we will become Dawns perpetually rousing but not gaining full consciousness, an awakening.
For Mies, architecture was neither a technical problem nor applied sociology but rather, as he wrote in 1928, using words that are as ambiguous as they are emphatic, “the spatial implementation of intellectual decisions.”
Intellectual may be the term with the most resonance and ambiguity, depending on how one sees the life of the mind. The outside walls suggest extension that, theoretically, since their lines run to the edges of the drawing and look to go further, is endless. The plan gives a picture of a mind asserting itself, opening up to and grasping all space and time. It recalls the Cartesian grid—Tegethoff again—with the implied cross suggesting the presence of x crossing y, giving us the coordinates to map the universe and comprehend it. But Mies’s grid, with the axes offset, the shapes incomplete yet suggesting closure, their interrelationship complex, gives us a picture of a universe that is active, not static, not divided evenly down a middle. Yet it is only a theoretical proposition, a rationalism that cannot be filled with empirical data, the stuff of our lives. The plan reminds me of the precise, brilliant propositions of Wittgenstein and of all the philosopher bracketed and left in suspension—ethics, esthetics, and even the matter of our existence itself—which could not be contained in his logic.
Wittgenstein. There were moments, while building, I felt I was lifted to that plane.
Completing the Brick Country House
There is no plan for the second floor or any view of the rest of the house. But really there isn’t much left to do. The floor plan provides openings and walls for entire first floor, while the three-dimensional drawing gives views of two sides. All that has to be done is locate the rooms on the second floor and fill out the back walls. The smallest problems, however, are often the hardest.
The three-dimensional drawing has a wide perspective with a low horizon and vanishing points well off the visible picture plane, I assume to give the building the horizontal cast Mies wanted. Such a perspective is also necessary to include the outside walls, or a good portion of them, important to the design. But it is an extreme perspective drawn with lines at slight angles, difficult to capture—I tried with ruler and pencil—and I’m not sure it is consistent. Neither my model nor the models and CAD renderings I found online can account for the distance between the second-floor room, with the windows, and the smaller chimney on the right, and I couldn’t recreate it.
That room is especially hard to read. Its front wall appears to begin next to and behind the large chimney. That would make for a narrow room, however, given the way it appears to align with the first floor. Some of the models I saw move the room forward and extend its width all the way to the edge of the first floor, adding a brick section before the glass. But that distorts the relationship of its windows to those on the first floor. Also there should be a corner line in the chimney to indicate where the room begins, which does not appear in the drawing. I kept it behind the chimney but moved its rear wall back and its side wall in to maintain apparent relationships. The band at the bottom indicates terracing, the only suggestion of site contour. Perhaps Mies wanted the house, like the Barcelona Pavilion, slightly elevated. The house and the rest of the land look to be on the same level.
But those are only structural details. I could not fill in the manner and temper of time and place, which moved me towards a theoretical model, my preference anyway. Nor could I share the surprise—or shock—of Mies’s innovations. I am well familiar with nearly a century of modernist abstraction, and open floor plans have become a standard convention, unquestioned. I also had to fight my own esthetic interests. I must confess that, like bourgeois Germans then, I do not like flat roofs. Most essential and least supported by facts, the spirit of the design and the mind of its creator, which I would have to discover in the process of building.
I still had to fight habits that called for a practical program and put aside the demands of small uses—closets, bathrooms—simple, slight needs that present great challenge to any overall design. Thinking about the house in conventional terms ran me into all kinds of problems and felt like unwanted intrusion. So instead I followed guidelines of design and structure, not use, suggested by the two drawings, referring to the floor plan to set the rooms and openings for the first floor, and the three-dimensional drawing to guide overall appearance:
Structurally, the brick walls provide support points for a reinforced slab that forms the base for the second floor, though I’m not sure my design is structurally sound—and questions were raised about his.
The second floor should be contained within the first and not extend beyond.
Like the first, it should be composed of free-standing walls and windows floor to ceiling. Its floor plan should maintain the pattern of open corners and implied squares, and continue the energy of the first.
The back of the second floor should provide several windows for light and view, of varying widths for variety and complexity.
Again, almost nothing is aligned in the first floor, except the brick exterior wall at the top with the second floor wall beyond the large patio. This reinforces the influence the extending walls have on the overall energy of the design and adds a measure of control. In my design for the second floor, I made the back wall of the back room on the second floor, which I added, to align with the bottom exterior wall, for that reason.
I also added that room to give the floor some width to fill out and integrate the whole building rather than have a narrow, isolated floor atop the first.
I decided it did not make sense, formally or practically, to have windows at the back of the floor overlooking the greater span of the roof, although I see alternatives to my placement.
The enclosure should suggest and complement the first floor but not repeat its forms and have some complexity. My second floor, as is apparent from the roof pictures below, provides a complex shape that echoes its length and provides offsetting variety. That it’s set at a right angle to the first reflects the cross shape of the exterior walls, reinforcing their influence and adding another degree of tension.
I decided there should be continuous walking space on the roof around the exterior of the floor, with the exception of the large platform by the large chimney, and assumed a door or doors. The access enhances the physical experience of openness and relationship with the land, though I don’t know that is desirable or needed. There should be continuity of the plane of the first floor roof, however, visible from within.
Aerial views matter. Even if we don’t see the top, we construct it in our minds, and it will be seen in the minds of those who will look at illustrations and flyover shots later, a pattern among patterns, part of an overall pattern of the surrounding landscape. The roofs overhang the floors slightly for guttering, which I couldn’t reproduce in my model, so I made sides of the roofs flush, except where there are extending platforms. I assumed there are patios beneath the platforms, shown in the floor plan, which I modeled in gray. The floor plan does not differentiate between windows and doors, nor are doors explicitly shown in the three-dimensional drawing, so I made all openings planes of glass without distinguishing detail.
Exterior views, rotating counterclockwise from the first:
The two chimneys, if they are chimneys, with the line of progression implied from the smaller to the larger, unify the house and reinforce the outward and now upward direction of the scheme. The three-dimensional drawing presents a view seen near ground level, from considerable distance. Our experience of the house will change as we move closer and walk around, although the exterior walls will limit and determine our views in the three separate areas they create. The unity within the horizontality is maintained in some views. In others it breaks down and we are more aware of the separate components. It is what I discovered in making the model, the many different aspects of the house.
I added a corner window to the back room of the second floor to complement the one on the first. For the rooms on the right, the floor plan calls for an overhang, and I tried three options, one over the first floor, as shown, two parallel platforms over both, which looked repetitive and static, and an overhang only on the top, which removed the walking space and added a vertical element I didn’t think called for, as well as dissipated the variety and energy of the overall design of the top roof.
The narrow window on the second floor, far right, may be a mistake, but it offers the only view from the second floor of a large part of the backyard and the land beyond. I didn’t want to repeat the size of the first floor opening or create a checkerboard of regular squares. Another option would have been a wider window above it, but that would have meant one floor-to-ceiling window atop another, without clear structural separation, at odds with the rest of the design.
It was in this corner, near the end of construction, that I most began to question what I had done.
A window or door is not marked on the floor plan for the opening near the middle, next to the exterior wall, so I left that space open, providing an internal penetration to the house and allowing protected entry. This side, which I took for the back, most presents the mass and solidity of the building and emphasizes the materiality of brick.
Possible second floor plan:
As in my first floor plan model, windows have not been placed. The large area in the middle would be a common area with entries to the smaller rooms around it. The black tiles represent where the stairs enter the second floor.
The most important determinant of the design is the active, outward expansion into space. Should the second floor continue the expansion or would the design reverse course and we ascend instead into another area of concentration? The floor plan only provides two dimensions. How would the third dimension, height, be added, and with what effect? Entry to the second floor is only provided by the narrow stairway, which would cause intense concentration. That could be avoided by making the the entire area of the largest room, which looks to be a foyer or maybe a living or dining room, an open space that extends the full two stories. But I’m not sure such a solution would be structurally sound or fit Mies’s intentions. The whole first floor looks to be covered by the slab, upon which the second rests. Also such a solution would limit usable space on the second. And any view from this large space on either floor would be interrupted by the large platform in the middle, which would be intrusive and disrupting.
But I only list general esthetic concerns without relationship to a specific controlling principle. The open mesh of lines in the floor plan, the suggested squares, the implied vertices, might be guided by some central idea, an essence. Careful study could be made of these, of their proportions and relationships, to find a pattern that, once understood, might provide a key for the second floor and the hidden walls.
The design speaks but doesn’t give answers. A host of options presented themselves and none settled. I only made a brief effort, without result. My attempt to recreate the sun with a spotlight and study patterns of shadows created by its diurnal course got no further.
Throughout the process, at every shape, at every turn, at every opening, I was struck by the originality of the design, the order of its scheme. But I have no confidence in anything I have done. What I knew from the outset only became more apparent as I approached completion, that I would never be able to maintain Mies’s precise shapes and careful proportions, much less assemble them into a unified whole. I only moved further, with each piece, with each attempt to comprehend the space, to indecision and uncertainty. Instead of finding a home, I worked my way out of one, its spirit vanishing with its creator.
Architecture begins when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.
Mies’s comment, like his other remarks, like the man, is concrete, concise—and enigmatic.
A brick is an obdurate object of ambiguity that hovers between idea and matter, between life and death. Its texture can be smoothed to glide our touch or left rough and abrade. It can be molded into even shapes for consistent construction or made uneven, presenting individual challenges each time one is laid in a course. The hues can be made consistent, offering an even appearance, or they can vary from one brick to another, presenting more individual challenges. But while it can come close to an ideal oblong shape, it never attains perfection, and it can as much be said that it approaches perfection as it resists it. A brick has the right heft for throwing through a window in revolt. It can also be stacked to encase one solidly. Its color takes on that of blood and the earth from which it is made, or both inseparably combined. Whether it preserves blood or shows it spilled, whether it reveals decay or stalls it—these questions cannot be answered. In spite of its ambiguity, however, we are always aware, in mind and in hand, of its touch, of its mass and weight, of its presence.
Just after college, still in North Carolina, I took on a string of junk jobs to make some extra bucks while I was trying to decide what to do with myself. In one I was a brick palletizer for a brick company, a complicated title for a simple task. At the beginning of each day four of us, two to a team, would enter one of a half dozen large dome kilns by a small opening, climb the pile, and lift, lower, and stack bricks on wood pallets so a forklift could come and take them someplace else.
Time at the kiln was measured in bricks: twenty to fifty bricks a pallet, depending on their size, two or three pallets an hour, sixteen to twenty-four pallets a day. Cramped between a mound of bricks and the curved wall of a kiln, we moved time, lifting, lowering, stacking, and thus diminishing it, only to return to a kiln full of bricks the next day. It was a time of endless subtraction.
Once inside the kiln, you couldn’t see who you worked with and after a while didn’t care. All I can remember is bricks. They were sharp-edged, heavy, and rough; we had to use thick rubber gloves to hold them that we’d wear out in a week. Stacked close to the ceiling, smallest on top, largest at the bottom, bricks blocked out, seemed to absorb what little light came in. You couldn’t even hear yourself think or cuss, because outside the opening fans the size of airplane propellers roared to cool us, the bricks off. As we worked, we bumped, dragged, and scraped the bricks against each other and ourselves, raising a dust the fans returned that burned our eyes and, mixed with our sweat, seeped into cuts and scratches. Our hands cramped, sometimes locked. The bricks, still warm from the firing, got hotter the closer we worked to the center of the pile, as if in some inferno. Even on the cold mornings—it was winter—we stripped to our waists ten or fifteen minutes into the day.
One day I teamed up with an old black man, easily in his sixties, and now I see him in a kiln, crawling crablike over a pallet of bricks, his face covered with soupy, reddish paste, as if he secreted it, as if he were made of it, not flesh. He moved slowly and deliberately, but with economy of effort, and I had trouble keeping up. I had the position on top, the old man, below. I was always stopping to straighten my back and catch my breath, and my halting labor broke the cadence of his. That irritated him, I could tell, but he never said anything about it. He never spoke about anything, or swore, or shrank, or groaned. The only interchange we had was the passing of hot, heavy bricks. Nor did he look up: he saw no further than arm’s length, than the bricks that came down in irregular rhythm.
A kiln is also a kind of temple built for communion within a system that has its own beliefs and practices, that attempts to attain its own sense of perfection. For me it was a place of contemplation, where I saw things precise and clear. While my body got stiff from the bending, the lifting, the lowering, my head grew sharp. Holding the bricks, I felt the weight of ideas, in the repetition of the labor, sensed an outline of new order. From the fatigue, the burning, the ill use of our bodies, I extrapolated the possibilities of meanings. And in the darkness of a kiln, I could see the afterimage of invisible cities, radiant, harmonious, and light.
The old man, one of the guys told me during a break, had been there twenty years. I only lasted a week. Twenty to fifty bricks a pallet times two or three pallets an hour times eight hours a day times two hundred and fifty days a year times over twenty years would build how many houses?
With what effect on the body and spirit?
Now by Athena’s side in the quiet hall
studying the ground for slaughter, Lord Odysseus
turned to Telemakhos.
We are all modern now, by default and by desire, and modernism has returned by leaps and bounds.
Our world has become increasingly abstract, simplifying itself by its own process. The cost of labor to procure materials and build with them—one effect of a loose move towards democratization—has led to reductions, while mass production and mass media and mass marketing most determine the appearance of what we see in our day-to-day lives. It’s hard to find a language of embellishment in our current culture that might stick. The once dominant influence in Western architecture of classical forms and detail, and the culture that created them, can only be referred to now sentimentally or ironically. We are distant from other influences as well, and they can’t be tapped without a sense of intrusion or appropriation. Whatever geographical moorings we once had have been diluted by our movement away from centers and dissolved by the abstract ways we define our lives together. Our gaze is now outward, international, beyond nation, this in a world that is still trying to define its themes, whose plot fractures in local skirmishes or climbs precipitously to virtual apocalyptic visions, on our screens.
Our conversion to scientific revelation—and scientific-looking revelation—has given us certainty and confidence but removed the base for awe. Transcendence itself has been dismissed as an illusion, a vague desire. We have no fixed set of beliefs upon which to build anything, no cause to look up, and no compelling reason to design one way or another. We do not know what to be afraid of, have even put the thought of fear aside, but somehow have bypassed the suspicion we should be afraid of ourselves.
Still we are moved to wonder, or whatever has taken its place, by our technological devices and constructions, these ever propelling us to the threshold of what we cannot and do not want to name. Because by default and desire we are attached to the present moment, the pulse that feeds our self-awareness, now, and we can’t think of that moment without thinking of its decay, so are propelled to look forward to the next, to the future, in visions whose spirit is fresh, whose surfaces are pure, unhindered by distracting detail.
We can build now almost anything we want and open up our walls to the endless world and endlessly let it in, and do so with little visible external support. At least this much has been transcended, the restrictions once imposed by gravity that necessitated placing beams on posts, that limited openings and kept us close to the ground, that constrained the building of an esthetic.
Our buildings can take any shape we want:
Or they can rise closer to the heavens:
Or give us the means of ascent:
And we have embraced nature in our constructions, integrating its color into our pure whites and sheer glass and shining steel.
Or used nature to efface them. This is Rafael Viñoly’s project for The Hills at Vallco, which will become the world’s largest green roof that will cover a mixed-use complex:
It is all exhilarating, really, but it all makes me dizzy. I don’t know if that is where my quest to be modern has taken me or whether modernism has left me behind. Or maybe modernism, reaching beyond itself, has left itself behind.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
Elliot offers another view of eternity, different from Wittgenstein’s, and raises other questions.
The new Apple headquarters, a Norman Foster design under construction now, and The Hills, still a proposal, will lie next to each other, part of a plan to revitalize Cupertino, the heart of Silicon Valley, where I have lived some thirty years without ever taking root. I have been buffeted by the turbulence of the tech industry, its busts, but haven’t enjoyed the exuberance of its booms. And a new energy has emerged once more, taking me by surprise, because I am removed from that life and didn’t know about these buildings, just a mile away, until I saw them announced in the media.
Apple Campus 2 itself will be 80 percent landscape, with many functions submerged underground. Steve Jobs said he wanted to bring back the California of his youth, “the fruit bowl of America”; the company, after his passing, represents it as “a serene environment reflecting Apple’s brand values of innovation, ease of use and beauty.” There’s a term for the suppressed iconography, pastoral capitalism, and according to Louise Mozingo, who coined the term and wrote a book with that title, the movement is global. Apple’s profits the last years have been enormous. The Hills, however tells another story. The current Vallco Mall, which it will replace, has been in decline since its inception. All its anchors—Sears, Macy’s, etc.—have left and it is now half tenanted. Covering the stores with grass will somehow resurrect them.
Both pictures are also misleading. The green spaces they create will only provide a small patch of land in crowded streets and compacted homes and stores that stretch out for fifty miles. And they conjure a past that that never was and promote a way of life at odds with the hectic pace and manic schedules needed to thrive here.
Mixed-use is another trend designed to halt the decay of sub- and exurban sprawl. The idea is to combine residence and commerce in a mix of apartments and restaurants and offices and shops in central integration, to bring us closer together. Cupertino, whose previous attempts to establish a city center have failed, is giving it a shot. Main Street Cupertino is another mixed-use complex, nearly completed, in front of Apple 2, and about which developers say:
It’s all happening at Main Street. Everyone in your group—from young professionals to big families—will find what they crave in an inclusive community atmosphere that enhances your time together. Food, wine, friends and fun are celebrated here at Main Street. From enlightened burgers to craft beer, artisan pizza, vegan wraps and more, everyone will find something to love.
Angels have descended to write copy.
I can only stand aside in disbelief. But maybe there is innocence in all of this, maybe even a future. Because I, wingless, am the one who has become corrupted over the years. I am the one who is tortured by irony and wrecked with doubt, whose only mood now is fatigue. Maybe it is time to put those aside, let go, take a leap, and think of another way of life. There is something here that approaches spirit, even a kind of peace and order, and I do not know what life these visions will bring. I try to imagine myself tending the fields above Vallco or dining among the others in casual assurance or gathering with them out in the open field, waiting to see what will appear on the large screen. Who call tell what stories will yet be played there? And those fictions will have a home in the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, proposed for the shores of Chicago, designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, brought to us by the director who has given us our modern epics and exhorted us to trust the force:
But I will not be there to see them. The tech companies—Apple, Google, the others—with their salaries to lure, along with international buyers, have sent housing prices soaring with no end in sight, and there has been an epidemic of landlords evicting tenants so they can raise rent, as has happened to me. I have a month left on my lease, and my rent, already steep, will likely double if I look elsewhere. It makes no financial sense for me or anyone of like salary—teachers, policemen, social workers, shop owners, much less the mixed-use clerks and waiters—to live here.
So I will take ship and set sail again, for parts unknown. . . .
There is another drawing of the floor plan, made by Werner Blaser under Mies’s supervision late in his life, 1965, that details the placement of each brick—and adds a hearth to the large chimney. As Blaser states,
. . . the ground plan of the brick house is a good example of the manner in which Mies van der Rohe developed the art of the structure from the very beginning. The structure of a brick wall begins already with the smallest divisible unit: the brick.
Cited by Kent Kleinman and Leslie Van Duzer in Mies van der Rohe: The Krefeld Villas. The brick placement, however, has little relationship with the original drawings, and, as the authors point out, such a claim cannot be true. Rather, the drawing served as a manifesto of Mies’s method, well after the fact, without consideration for actual construction. According to them, referencing Dan Hoffman, discussing other brick houses actually built:
Mies has consequently been credited with coaxing a machined precision out of the handiwork of bricklaying to the point where the masonry units and mortar joints merged to form an overall texture of such regularity that it approached the appearance of an industrialized surface. Craft was pushed to a degree of such perfection that it disappeared.
Such precision is not possible with brick, but it does represent a desire, an upward goal. The purpose, the point of such a desire, however, rests elusive. Then again, looking for purpose may miss the point. For all his precision and control, Mies is difficult to locate. He rejects formalism, which leaves open the matter of esthetic grounding. His only reference point is the spirit of the “new era,” or a platonic conception of it, without critical question:
The new era is a fact; it exists entirely independently of whether we say “yes” or “no” to it. But it is neither better nor worse than any other era. It is a pure datum and in itself neural as to value.
From “The New Era,” 1930, found in Programs and manifestoes on 20th-century architecture, ed. Ulrich Conrads. Another paradox: we can see the facts of this new era but not its spirit, yet without this ideal concept his architecture collapses. Ultimately Mies approaches religion, or an abstraction of it. There’s a kind of faith in his neutrality.
Mies, “Working Theses” also found in Programs.
Mies, “Indeed we should strive to bring Nature” from Tegethoff.
Mies, “In the ground plan of this house, I have abandoned” from Mies van der Rohe, Jean-Louis Cohen.
Mies, “Architecture begins when two bricks” from Architecture: The Subject is Matter, ed. Jonathan Hill.
Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey.
Christoph Asendorf, “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—Dessau, Berlin, Chicago” from Bauhaus, ed. Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend.
Wittgenstein quotations from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden.
Quotations about Apple 2 from “Look Inside Apple’s Spaceship Headquarters,” Wired.
Mies van der Rohe drawings from Alex Maymind “5 Projects: Interview 5,” via Archinect.
From Wikipedia Commons: the floor plans of a megaron, the Parthenon, and the Barcelona Pavilion; photographs of Centaur and Lapith, the Barcelona Exposition, the Barcelona Pavilion (or rather its reconstruction), Dawn, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and Adrian Smith’s Burj Khalifa.
All photographs of the model by the author.
Gary Garvin lives with his son in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English, though he is in the process now of relocating. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web Conjunctions, Fourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.
It is a radical, a primitive impulse—elementary.
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
—Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals
The categorical imp of the perverse is a hybrid of Kant’s categorical imperative (“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”) and Poe’s “imp of the perverse” (a force that will suddenly act in seeming opposition to reason). This strange imp will leap about in the following pages amid all manner of philosophical confusion and try to sew together again the patches of thought that have been ripped apart, but in motley fashion; for she is but a poor seamstress for such complicated quilting and, besides, the seams will, in the best of circumstances, burst again and require some new arrangement. There are tried and true patterns she will revert to, and for good reasons. But like all artists, she will deviate from the patterns, too, beginning new traditions and conventions in the place of old. That, however, all the patches are made of the same fabric—a fabric woven of the mind’s sympathy with the material world—we can be quite sure.
Two myths regarding the origin of language haunt our presentiments about the way we know reality and, thus, our conclusions about how and what the world means. One posits an absolute and legible world of meaning; the other an utterly meaningless world. The first tells the tale of a lost Ur-Sprache, wherein words were identical to the things they signified. Mixing Kabbalistic creation magic with esoteric Renaissance alchemy, this myth is one source of Romantic views of the world as whole, harmonious, and inherently logical (“worded” and in accordance with Reason). The assumption is that things mean, and that their meaning is at least partially legible—if not transparently through the dark glass of the fallen language of man, then at least through the visible language of nature, its patterns and repeating hieroglyphs. From ancient times through the mid-18th century at least, scholars and mystics have searched for traces of a perfect language, supposedly lost after the collapse of Babel tower or after that other fall in Eden, claiming sometimes that it was a form of Hebrew and, at others, inventing new symbol systems that promised to heal the rift between word and world, human mind and cosmos. Suspending for a moment belief in the myth’s more esoteric tendencies, the idea that language could be intrinsically related to reality is somewhat supported by etymological evidence tracing the roots of words in the world of matter, binding thought to history, nature, and social practices. Most compelling of all is its occasional call—as in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia (1303-5)—for the modern poet to bridge the chasm between both words and the essences of ideas and things with a creative regeneration of language.
The second myth deceptively denies any correspondence between words and world, and tends to insist that individual experience cannot be translated from one person to the next. It came more recently to prominence, though there were proto-believers, or shall I say skeptics—for it is a skeptical myth, though myth just the same—even in ancient times. It came to hold sway in the late 19th century, along with other skepticisms, gained considerable ground at the turn of the 20th, and is currently one of the most pervasive articles of faith of the 21st-century social theorist and even many writers who, in holding to it, undermine a belief in their own work. In this explanation of the origin of language, words have never and never could be anything but arbitrary labels for things. This arbitrariness signals a kind of treacherous deceit. The way we think is, they warn, directed and controlled by these arbitrary signifiers— masters, which have no right to such guiding and limiting power over our thoughts and the world they pretend to describe. Words, in this story, coalesce into controlling concepts, cutting up the world into arbitrary categories and quickly shutting down thought and vision. As if that were not bad enough, this tyranny of words deceives in yet another fundamental way. By presenting an order that is invented, words give the lie to the actual dis-ordered state of the world. Words cover up a chaotic, fluid abyss that cannot (or rather should not) be reduced, differentiated, or delimited. Words impose definitions where there should be none, separating, distinguishing, discriminating. Perhaps by the end of the 21st century, light itself will be decried as another separator of substances, an arbitrary surveyor of imperialistic boundary lines between brightness and shadow; but for now we may enjoy our chiaroscuro, virtually guiltlessly. Not so our words. Words in this myth fail to translate between thing and mind and between person and person and language and language. All is a jumble. This myth of untranslatability marks a kind of second Babel, inaugurating a dire suspicion about the ability of words to mean anything, and about meaning altogether.
A driving force of the myth of untranslatabilty is the myth of social construction, which, in its most extreme form, denies any relationship between our social attitudes and customs and our biology, our instincts, or experiences, thus cutting the lifeline between materiality and ideas. Neither the myth of the perfect language nor that of non-translatability are true in their extreme forms, but both contain germs of truth, and both are analogies for the fears and hopes of human beings who are, naturally, quite concerned with whether or not the world has any meaning and how we might know what it is and then communicate it to others. But like all strict dualisms, their extreme polarity avoids the fruitful unification of opposites where the world meets word and both might be expanded through contact.
Over the course of the 20th century, philosophers continued the exploration begun in ancient times of how we know the world, focusing more directly on how we know the world through language. In the 21st century these queries have often been reduced to a set of conclusions about how we don’t and can’t know the world, neither through language or otherwise. Although these philosophies have often been liberating, breaking down preconceived limits and questioning restrictive assumptions, when taken to their logical extremes they lead to silence and solipsism.
Social construction is, of course, grounded in the much older philosophical supposition that it is impossible to experience, see, or know “the thing in itself.” We see only phenomena and not realities, and our seeing is determined by filters or structures in our brains that mediate the ways in which we see. Over centuries, this realization has been transformed to mean that what we see is necessarily either wrong or extremely different from what is, an assumption that was not present in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Although Kant conceived of the a priori mental structures that determined our perception as divinely given, we might secularize his exploration by accepting that there are basic biological constants in human brains through which we see, sense, and experience phenomena. While Kant did note that each person sees a different shade of red, he did not suggest that we each see entirely different colors, or that colors themselves did not exist.
The “categorical imp of the perverse” acknowledges that there are some a priori givens or essences in both our minds and the world and that, whether we can see the “thing in itself” perfectly or not, we still have some access to a reasonable sense of reality in its basic forms; that our individual perception, although subjective, is not so radically different from that of others as to prohibit correspondence and communication; that we can use words and images to approximate our meanings and expand our own perception and that of others; and, finally, that while we may follow the categorical imperative as a general law, we also will, like Poe’s imp, perversely deviate from its strictures when an uncontrollable irrational impulse, a creative urge, an ethical scruple, or simple taste dictates. This is an unfashionable idea, to be sure, for it does not provide the satisfaction of either complete wholeness and harmony, on the one hand, or of complete nihilism and alienation, on the other. Instead, it hovers uncomfortably in a middle realm where some things are real and repeating and others open to interpretation and change. It leaves us neither completely omnipotent nor completely helpless.
Without the interventions of the foolish imp (pointing out naively that the emperor has no clothes, for example) an utterly de-materialized form of reader response theory might prevail in the social scene, regardless of the “text” that is being interpreted. The categorical imp wags its finger at an “anything goes” interpretation of the world, blurting out “foolish” truisms to make sophisticated social theorists blush, but also does not stay long within any constructed system that can be exploded or questioned.
Nietzsche, inaugurating the “linguistic turn,” made us aware of the way language conceptualizes reality by creating names or descriptions of things that may leave out as much as they contain. Words are inexact figures and metaphors, inaccurate and incommensurate attempts to describe reality. We group similar things that nevertheless exhibit many differences into general categories; and this process induces a sort of simplification of seeing. We come to perceive dogs, trees, men, women, instead of each individual creature and entity. This eventually leads us to create abstractions and reifications, such as love, good, bad, noble, moral, money, which may become more and more removed from physical reality and experience. Yet, while many theorists after Nietzsche came to see the use of language as a treacherous crime committed upon reality, he tended to see it in a more creatively joyous light. Just as long as we do not come to be the slaves of ossified constructs and concepts, just as long as the “creative subject” continues to make new terms, new words, new metaphors, new figures to describe a changing reality from his own shifting perspective, just as long as individuals stoke the flame of a living language, language can be a prod and a stimulus to new seeing.
Social construction theory has tried to moralistically discredit this joyous aesthetic and existential world- and word-making activity and has replaced it with an imperative to strip every word and every concept of its given meaning by calling all designations and conceptualizations into question. Berger and Luckmann, authors of The Social Construction of Reality (1966), reduce all human culture to “an assemblage of maxims, morals, proverbial nuggets of wisdom, values and beliefs, myths, and so forth, the theoretical integration of which requires considerable intellectual fortitude in itself, as the long line of heroic integrators from Homer to the latest sociological system-builders testifies.” Thus the enlightened skeptics discard all of literature, philosophy, and history in one fell swoop—excepting, of course, their own myth and narrative, of a social system occurring randomly and ex nihilo, which just appears and dupes all subsequent humans into following rules and belief systems which have nothing to do with human tendencies, desires, or human nature. The champions of the subsequent puritanical silence would discredit myth, historic narrative, fairy tales, religious legends, songs, poems, paintings, totems, and talismans as random and as traitorous social constructions. They would have us scoff at any product of the human imagination as if it had been made by some abstract non-human author, as something necessarily imposed upon the passive human from some extraneous force that would have to be virtually extraterrestrial, not ourselves, not natural. They would insist that a human is not capable of experiencing his or her reality without being blind-sided by the already constructed way of seeing determined by his or her society, as if construction only works in one negative, exclusive, terminating direction, when, in fact, new ideas, new conceptualizations, new abstractions exponentially proliferate over the ages, as new details, microcosmic particulars, and relative complexities are incorporated into our shared cultural, scientific, and artistic discourse.
Of course our visions and perspectives are colored by our social context and these visions vary from one culture to another, often extremely. The variations between cultures must be the product of many different influences, from genetics to climate to landscape to the requirement for survival of a particular place and a particular people (gene culture co-evolution). Originary group social experiences are passed down from generation to generation, and are altered or not over time. Certainly old customs can be kept longer than necessary and humans on the whole may act according to originary evolutionary necessities that are no longer useful and even sometimes harmful in our current context. But these ways of seeing and ways of acting are not random. In other words, while there certainly are many social constructs, there is no such thing as “just” a social construct—a phrase that suggests that the construct appeared out of nowhere and has no validity whatsoever. Social constructs including language, education, and art are the positive product of human interaction with nature, the physical world, social groups, experience. They may always be questioned and often must be challenged, but they are fundamental and indispensable to human culture.
Over time there is oscillation between repeated forms and invention, including the benefit of influence, interaction, discourse, criticism, the scientific method, testing of assumptions, positing of hypotheses and theories, gathering of facts and evidence to support the hypotheses and theories, foregrounding certain facts over others, selecting out and focusing on one or another aspect, evaluating based on differing values and differing relative needs of the moment.
One can say that different people notice different things when they read a story; that their experiences color what they will remember and the emotions that different words or images inspire. But one can’t say that the story itself is different. What is in it is what is in it. A test consists in the subjective reader pointing out something (making an observation). Is it really there? Or is it a wrong reading, a reading into, a hallucination? Do others see it too, now that it has been pointed out? Indeed, since people do largely see mainly what others have seen before them, it takes a particularly brave or odd reader to suddenly find something there that others have missed repeatedly. Different reading capabilities will see more nuances; simpler people will miss complexities or misread altogether. Someone may grasp the literal but not the allegorical or ironic level.
But here we are talking about a story, something made with some level of intention by a conscious being, something limited. What of the vast and contradictory text of the world? How do we read it collectively even though there is no author and no given purpose? Arrive at an interpretation of its infinite elements and relations? Not all readings are acceptable or right. Yet they persist. How do people live entire lives misunderstanding reality, or not understanding aspects of science, biology, history, anthropology? We still come to absurd conclusions about observed phenomena, like primitives inventing myths to explain the terrors of nature. What of these myths? They are readings and explanations. Technically, scientifically wrong, but often they are allegorically, humanly, right. People lived, perhaps, more beautiful and richer lives believing in Zeus and the divinations of the Oracle than we do today with our scientific knowledge of cause and effect. But there have also been instances when superstitions and wrong-thinking have led to terrible misery and violence (as they still do today, alas). What we want would rather be myths that are “true” to the most healthful, life-affirming essence of Nature, myths that help us to understand who we are and to face up to the fearsomeness of the unknown. Myths that help us to embrace change and mortality and reality. The myth of a perfect language and the myth of untranslatability can be classed in the larger philosophical categories on either side of hope and despair. Which myth is most true to our potential as a species and which do we want to dream on? Do we want skeptical solipsism or holistic Idealism? Again, as in all such extreme polarizations, the sweet spot is in their synthesis, in the creation of a new myth: perhaps that of the categorical imp of the perverse.
How much, then, is our reading of the world, of events, of words, of symbols invented or constructed; and how much, on the other hand, is it inherent in nature, in our biology, in our evolutionary coding? Words and symbols describe, denote, suggest, but they may also coerce and imprison; words calcify clichés, but they also can be rearranged and newly coined to make us see and be in new ways. The relationship of the material world with the world of words and ideas has, of course, significant bearing on the very question of meaning, not just the meaning of words, but of the meanings or values we attribute to the world and our ability to share, compare, and translate these meanings with others over time and space. Meaning in the sense of an intentional predetermined purpose by some external agent is not credible. We are not here for something (short of evolutionary processes, which cannot always be counted on our side or in our interest). And yet, our biological sensory essences are replete in themselves with a life force, a will to power, a will to pleasure and also, surprisingly, an evolved ethical and social sense. According to E.O. Wilson, in The Meaning of Human Existence, “The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction—the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete….” If this is the case, what would it mean for the continuation of our species were we to turn our backs on these originary processes? We create and find meanings, valuations, scales of significance about things, acts, people, as a result of our shared experience. These conclusions are not random or arbitrary, but based on our own bodies, on nature, on what seems to work, on what brings pleasure, excitement; on instinct, on counter-instinct; and, yes, also by conditioning and resistance to conditioning. By denying the direct influence of material reality on our ideas, we undo the bonds between thought and action. By breaking the current from world to word and mind, we break the current back as well: a disembodied idea cannot touch an embodied world.
Modernism introduced both freedom and alienation through the recognition of perspectivism and relativity, inventing non-linear modes of communication such as symbols, metaphors, novel arrangements of forms to express the newly significant internal states that could not as easily be expressed in didactic language. Postmodernism robbed the individual of even the comfort of her own temporary, provisional, shifting view—relieved by moments of being as extratemporal, exceptional moments when all flux was set in a harmonious form before being dispersed once more. And then further denied us the notion that these experiences might be translatable to others through poetic form. Declaring that everything cancelled everything else out, and that any interpretation was as good as any other (thus none were any good), postmodernism simultaneously opened the airwaves to an inchoate cacophony and closed many mortal ears to the music of the spheres. Ostensibly taking away the privilege of the elite reader, any reader of the world was now equally entitled to affirm his own arbitrary reading over any other. Some contemporary theorists, lacking, however, the compensation of another world that may have softened the blow of Berkeley’s 18th-century de-materialism, go a step further, by suggesting that there isn’t even a world or a reality to know in the first place.
But through materiality we are literally in touch with the textures, the colors, the approximate spaces and dynamics of iteration and difference in our shared physical world. Although our experiences of the real are necessarily colored, limited, or expanded by our personal experiences and subjective lenses, we need not give in to alienated despair and a rejection of the possibility of translation from person to person, language to language, culture to culture, or past to present to future. Although my perception of the world is filtered through my own brain, experience, and interests, it is possible that the words that I use, the images that I make to evoke that world will mean something to you. And the differences between how I see the world and the way you see it are, in fact, enriching and expansive variations of individual and group worldviews, creating awareness of individual sentience and self-consciousness.
Schiller noted the difference between what he called “naïve” and “sentimental” approaches to poetry, the former exemplified by the simple objectivity of Homer, the latter by the subjectivity of Romanticism. We are all-too-well aware today that all vision (even Homer’s supposedly objective reporting) involves re-vision and that all expression comes from a particular perspective; but that need not mean that each representation is hopelessly inaccessible to other humans who share, at least to some extent, much of the same cellular structure, much of the same instinctive apparatus, and much of the same social and natural experience. Henry David Thoreau, though labelled a transcendentalist and thus supposedly a proponent of innate knowledge rather than empiricism, was really committed to what he called “fronting the facts” of reality: “All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy:” he wrote, “we reason from our hands to our head.” Analogies would not mean anything to us if they did not correspond to something we recognized from a shared real world.
In this age where alienation is taken by some as a mark of sophistication, I would rather hearken back to a time when sentimentality—which in Schiller’s sense is a mode of perception and expression that infuses some external entity with a subjectivity—was not a dirty word. For the cost of abandoning communication and correspondence between persons and between persons and their world is far too high to uncritically accept philosophies that insist on the absolute incommensurability of perception and phenomena, word and thing, individual and individual. The ultimate cost of abandoning an approximation, a translation of some shared meaning, is not only culture and community as George Steiner and others have noted, but also any impetus for individual or group agency. For, if we cannot know the world well enough, and cannot know others more or less, and cannot know even ourselves, it would not only be impossible to function on a daily basis, but it would be impossible to dream about and to work to minimize the space between what is and what could be. The kind of knowing that helps us with practical functioning and the kind that helps us dream and engage with the world are both proximate, but they have different uses. The former is a pragmatism that accepts certain probabilities for the sake of efficiency and practicality. The kind of knowing that allows us to dream and act, however, is one that fathoms the difference between what is determined and what is yet determinable, keeping always a lifeline from the palpable facts of nature down to the subconscious watery depths of the imagination, a kind of knowing which must continually measure what in our life is necessity and what might yet be changed.
If constructs in the form of language and images have a tendency to direct thought, thereby potentially limiting how we see the world, then the “creative subject” (to use Nietzsche’s term for all humans who act upon the object of the world) has an ethical and aesthetic responsibility to rejuvenate where ideas have become ossified, and to invent new living language where vision has become merely conventional. Even evolutionary and genetic coding can be resisted to varying extents, so that individual and group choice may deviate from long-repeated patterns and veer away from social and biological conformity. Environmental events also alter what is beneficial for survival, inducing adaptations which change the course of social behavior. But extreme forms of social construction deny the biological and evolutionary foundations of our thought and action. According to Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, the old, established, standard social science model made a religion out of the idea of the impressionable empty mind waiting to be imprinted by any external force whatsoever, denying any connection between one’s physical characteristics, one’s material surroundings, and one’s behavior (gene-culture co-evolution), shifting the entire cause of social systems to conditioning and social engineering. Pinker’s radical stance is that:
We have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.
Although, as he notes in his introduction, most people acknowledge that everything is both nature and nurture, when it really comes down to it (in liberal milieus, in any case) politically correct assumptions veer sharply away from biological causation. Pinker traces the ideological shift from biology to historical materialism to social construction, and quotes Franz Boas saying, “We must assume that all complex activities are socially determined, not hereditary;” and Durkheim: “Individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms;” noting also that Skinner’s behaviorism was based on a belief in the complete malleability of individuals. The blank slate model has been used, of course, as political leverage to affirm the equal potential of all persons; but, as Pinker argues, it also works against the development of the kind of innate ethical behavior that can do battle against totalitarianism, the shadow that looms large over this discussion. Marxist historical materialism, which, certainly in its received form, oddly leaves the material of the body out when calculating what material forces shape the individual, is based on the blank slate model; and whereas Nazism was, of course, grounded in an ideology of ethnic cleansing with direct links to biology. Rescuing the humane exploration of the extent of genetic causes of behavior from its associated calumny, Pinker reminds us that, “Government sponsored mass murder can come from an anti-innatist belief system as easily as from an innate one.” The Stalinists, in pursuit of a political goal based on the blank slate, killed just as many (or more) people as the Nazis. Noam Chomsky, whose research on universal grammars leans in the direction of the perfect language myth, echoes Pinker’s reservations about the political benefits of the blank slate model:
If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement, and participation in a free community.
Social construction theory, likewise dependent upon the total malleability of the blank slate model—although ostensibly a radical attack on exploitative and oppressive essences, universals, and absolutes—has a paradoxical tendency to discourage rather than inspire radical activity. This is because it is cynical about the individual’s participatory agency in creating and, if necessary, reconstructing our shared world, the essential ethical agency affirmed by existentialism. Adorno finally conceded that there can be some form of poetry after Auschwitz, but can we find our way back to a scientific and philosophical ideology that balances the influence of both biology and environment, an assessment of language that allows for some measure of conceptual correspondence with reality, a way to appreciate the significance of civilization amid its cruelties and kindnesses? And if we cannot, how shall we possibly proceed as a culture, as members of an extended and complex cultural and ecological system? Centuries after the Kantkrise, when people rightfully experienced the disequilibrium of a world from which the horizon, in Nietzsche’s image, had been wiped away with a sponge, a world wherein all established values were subject to reevaluation, a mature attempt is called for: to do our best, despite subjectivity, perspectivism, and cultural differences. Because the real costs of abandoning the possibility of communication are nothing less than culture, community, and ethical agency.
Nietzsche characterized language as a “prison house,” and Wittgenstein famously noted the challenge of struggling against the walls of language, but both concluded that there was no choice but to attempt to communicate despite the challenges. Nietzsche wrote: “We have to cease to think, if we refuse to do it in the prison house of language.” I suggest that, instead of a prison house, what we really have is a misprision house, a house where misunderstandings haunt our communications; a house, however, which we may readily transform with all manner of expansion, rearrangement, implosion and explosion. A house of our own making, subject to our own renovations. A house of any kind requires foundations. In language, these foundations are words and concepts; in society, the foundations are shared universals. Cultural relativity is one of the largely unexamined assumptions of contemporary society, but many anthropologists and sociologists have made the case for a wide number of behavioral constants across all cultures. Steven Pinker includes a list compiled from Donald Brown’s Human Universals as an appendix in The Blank Slate, featuring such commonalities as ambivalence, figurative language, rituals, gift-giving, in-group and out-group consciousness, nuclear family structures, incest taboos, art appreciation, attempts to predict the future, punishment for antisocial behavior, distinguishing self from others, sexual jealousy, synesthetic metaphors, taxonomy, language applied to misinform or mislead, synonyms, cooperation, selfishness, status seeking, explaining events by causation, fear of death, proverbs, ethnocentrism, private inner life, redress of wrongs, risk taking, hope, &c. Chomsky, as already noted, argues for an innate and universal grammatical structure for all languages. Despite manifest differences, he writes, “…it seems that very heavy conditions in the form of grammar are universal. Deep structures seem to be very similar from language to language, and the rules that manipulate and interpret them also seem to be drawn from a very narrow class of conceivable formal operations.” Although there are variations across cultures in terms of language and customs, “the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate.” There are more things in heaven and earth that are universal than the social constructionist will usually allow, and the tension between these universals and individual will and choice is the same tension present in the categorical imperative, put into new and equally paradoxical words by the American transcendentalist Emerson, who received his Kant filtered through the German Romantics. In his famous essay, “Self-Reliance” Emerson writes: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius”. In other words, if you follow your own conscience instead of blindly following conventions and social constructions, you probably will find yourself where the most conscious humans before you have found themselves; but it is not something an ethical person can take for granted. Thus one must assess and experiment anew— while keeping the experiments of others always within reach.
A young male friend of mine told me of an experiment he conducted with a woman friend to try to “be together without preconceptions,” without language, without definitions. It fell flat. What is left when we take away history, archetypes, essence? Some preconceived images and roles are still meaningful, though others have become empty shells, simulacra, and conventions. What still reverberates, and why? Consider Proust’s Swann and his comparison of his beloved Odette to the women in old paintings. Her beauty in the present is enhanced by its comparison and relation with the already delineated forms of archetypal female beauty. When I was a young woman, I was attracted and repelled by de Beauvoir’s encouragement in The Second Sex to simply live as one is, and let that define what a woman is. I understood the problem with any individual woman trying to fit into a pre-existent role of womanliness, and judging her success and failure as a person based on the extent to which she fits into this role, especially in so far as the myths have often been written by men. Indeed, de Beauvoir’s discussion constitutes one of the clearest illustrations of the existentialist motto: existence precedes essence. But much is lost if we abandon the ancient archetypes altogether. Some essences do precede existence, and they cannot easily by altered by even the strongest will. A woman is whatever any particular woman is; but at the same time a woman is an echo and a continuance of what women have always been: in poetry, history, song, painting, myth. Today’s blank slate theory is tantamount to a total blankness, a neutered neutrality, especially as it threatens to wipe away not only history and archetype, but even biology and instinct. If fantasies of roles and patterns do not excite the modern contemporary moralistic lover (who may try to be blank even in his or her perception of eroticism), then at least biology ought to do the trick. But even that is repressed or denied. Nothing is supposed to be determining except social context, which is allegedly random and created by oppressive institutions. Shall we then sacrifice erotic imagination and sexual pleasure for a sterile—indeed blank—moralistic neutrality? Or is it possible to play affirmatively with the fruitful tension between innovation and an engagement with determined biology and past archetypes? Today we speak of fluidity and the social construct of gender, often without considering the implications of these ideas. Fluidity is consistent with a rejection of the “construct” of gender, but transformation of physical and stylistic trappings seems still to keep faith with the gender roles it claims to repudiate, only changing the individual’s physicality to match a pre-created role. I certainly have nothing against each individual pursuing his or her or their own sense of sexuality. I sometimes feel like a thunderstorm, a mountainside, a young boy, an old book, a lioness, a flower, a lightning bolt, a field of moss. Yet I am concerned about the way in which this new mode of thought joins other current ideologies to deny the reality of the material world.
I suppose I am rather old-fashioned though, believing even that words mean something that can be traced back to nature through their roots. Emerson, who nowadays is also old-fashioned but in his time was a proponent of the new thought, wrote that words were “fossil poetry;” and an archbishop of Dublin, Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D, elaborated on this suggestive phrase in a book much loved by Thoreau. Trench writes:
[A] popular American author has somewhere characterized language as “fossil poetry.” He evidently means that just as in some fossils, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life, the graceful fern or the finely vertebrate lizard, such as now, it may be, have been extinct for thousands of years, are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that perishing which would have been theirs,—so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and the feeling of past ages, of men long since in their graves…Language may be, and indeed is, this “fossil poetry.” [But it also is] fossil ethics, or fossil history.
How far from this belief in the significance of etymology we are today! Some contemporary people seem to really not believe that words have any meanings at all. They do not keep their words and speak untruths easily, just as advertisers do, with rampant euphemism, ignoring the proper use of grammatical symbols like possessive apostrophes (perhaps a subconscious attempt to do away with private property and possession?), sprinkling them around haphazardly, in hopes that one might make some sense somewhere or sprout into a sentence.
Sounding somewhat like Wittgenstein, who came to believe in the organic communal development of language over time, Trench writes, “Man makes his own language, but he makes it as the bee makes its cells, as the bird its nest, he cannot do otherwise.” Indeed, why should human language-making (like the mind) be something outside of nature? Why an imposition upon nature? Trench compares the natural growth of the tree of language to a “house being built of dead timbers combined after his own fancy and caprice.” “Language,” he writes, prefiguring the coming Modernist crisis, “is as truly on one side the limit and restraint of thought….” And continues, landing on more solid ground than the later language philosophers, declaring that it is “on the other side that which feeds and unfolds thought”; and that “there is…a reality about words.” Words to Trench are not mere arbitrary signs, but “living powers…growing out of roots, clustering in families, connected and intertwining themselves with all that men have been doing and thinking and feeling from the beginning of the world till now.” Tribulation: from tribulum-harrow, a threshing instrument; Caprices—from capra, a goat; Daisy—eye of day; Laburnum—golden rain. Words are like artifacts in curiosity cabinets, except that they are living, evolving.
If originally words were arbitrary, they grew out of each other in accord with reality. But why do we worry so much about the distinction between what is and what is perceived or how named, when the perceiver and namer is made of the same nature as the observed thing? Why would the structure of the human mind and its brainchild language commit treachery on its own kith and kin, its own world? That sometimes false etymologies are attached to words whose real etymologies have been forgotten may only prove the connection of words to realities all the more, since the new explanation relates the old word to some existing reality. We are always binding words to what is, even if they do not strictly come from one particular is. Trench writes: “errors survive in words” and “disprove themselves”: tempers, humors, saturnine, mercurial, jovial (descriptions of people born under these planets); to charm, bewitch, enchant, lunacy, panic, auguries, and auspices (from divination), initiating (from rites)—all mark the persistence of Pagan words in Christian lands. The universe was named “cosmos” or beautiful order, probably by Pythagoras. Was this not an expression of natural human sentiment, voiced by one man? It is surely one possible good name for the universe, though not the only or ultimate one. Someone else in a later era might choose rather to name it “chaos.”
Words born of specific cultures attest to that culture’s history and tendencies. Though sometimes it may be difficult to ascertain which is the stronger, dominant friend, language or reality, we cannot deny that a relationship obtains. Smith comes from smite; wrong from wring; haft from have. Shire, shore, shears, share, shred, shard are all connected to the idea of separation. The contemporary fear of mastery and dominance denies even this relatedness. Some people would rather have no meaning than a meaning that is possibly imposed. Rather not use language at all, they think, than use the language of the oppressors. Why not, instead, make new words? Become ourselves creators?
A belief in the meaningful relation between words and the world extended in Thoreau to a belief in man’s ability to read the visible meanings (verba visibilia) in nature as lessons in human conduct of life. In his 1837 journal he writes, “How indispensable to a correct study of nature is a perception of her true meaning. The fact will one day flower out into a truth.” A few entries later he is observing ice crystals on the lake:
When the ice was laid upon its smooth side [the crystal] resembles the roofs and steeples of a Gothic city, or the vessels of a crowded harem under a press of canvas….Wherever the water, or other causes, had formed a hole in the bank, its throat and outer edge, like the entrance to a citadel of the olden time, bristled with a glistening ice armor. In one place you might see minute ostrich feathers, which seemed the waving plumes of the warriors filing into the fortress, in another the glancing fan-shaped banners of the Lilliputian host, and in another the needle-shaped particles, collected into bundles resembling the plumes of the pine, might pass for the phalanx of spears.
Thoreau cannot help but draw meaning, make stories and connections between observed natural phenomena and human life and civilization. We all make meaning when we look at Nature. We say the moon is smiling on us lovers, fancy an overcast, stormy sky is melancholy and a bright one happy. These are merely natural phenomena with no intentional meaning inherently attached. But spring blossoms make us think of newness and rebirth because they are new rebirths; just as autumn’s gloominess is death, a temporary going-under, a symbol system of the Urpflanze’s recurrence. This surely is no invention, but the truth of their significance. We naturally tell ourselves stories of human life when observing nature (as we do when we listen to music, as sounds suggest landscapes and actions, crises, moods, narratives from human life). And Thoreau would have us learn from Nature how to be more noble, more hearty, more equanimical about changes and cycles: “So let it be with man,” he writes, over and over, after describing a natural process.
But just as there are repeating natural laws that can reliably be studied to learn about the world, ourselves, and each other, there is the categorical imp of the perverse, which, again and again, proves that man can break the patterns of thought and behavior constructed by his forefathers and foremothers. Changing presentiments over centuries have been initiated by individual discoveries and inventions, by accidents and reactions, by experience that proved old presentiments wrong, and in response to new physical realities: infinity, entropy, solar heat death, eternal recurrence, millennial apocalypse, chaos theory, robotics, creationism, evolution, and social construction itself.
Was evolution (“just”) a social construct? No better than the one it replaced? Darwin’s critics accused him of gathering data to support his hypothesis, as if such a process were a manipulative and dishonest method of forcing existence into a certain essence. The opposite was true. In the twenty years of gathering and testing evidence from the natural world leading up to his writing of The Origin of Species, Darwin actually worked from observation toward hypothesis in a remarkably innocent way, not expecting to find (to borrow Nietzsche’s wonderful image in “On Truth and Lying in a Supramoral Sense”) the truth he had himself hidden behind a bush. But ironically, he actually discovered data that undermined Creationism, the socially constructed truth of his society, thereby proving that individuals are not all such dupes as social construction theory makes us out to be. Social construction theorists tend to reduce the rich history of human thought down to a few coercive institutionalized oppressive ideas, ignoring the variety and ingenuity and complexity of any given society’s presentiments, dreams, and beliefs.
In fact, not only are there repeating universals and also deviations from these universals over time and space, but differences among cultures and throughout history may actually depend on a vital interplay between universality and deviating human agency. If everything is not entirely, externally, randomly constructed, or, on the other hand, entirely determined by biology, inheritance, or evolutionary urges, then we have some degree of agency to choose what we love and hate and favor and impugn. We have the agency to break out of established patterns and create new ones, which then create individuated modes and variations. Paradoxically, thus differentiation proves comprehensive, as the deviations of so much that usually repeats (archetypes, life forms, ways of living, attitudes toward beauty, others, family, nature, ethics, deep structures in languages), can be attributed to choice rather than coercion or random conformity.
In After Babel, Steiner talks about translation (by which he means not just from language to language but from person to person) as a process including destructive aggression, appropriation, and expansion. We break the meaning of the other when we attempt to understand and re-present; we appropriate it into our own idiom, idiolect, understanding. And then we also add something to it. We expand it with interpretation, elucidation, interest, passion (thereby deforming it). This is analogous to all relations between individuals and countries (passionate love, colonialism, anthropological study), and I suspect that the current distrust of language has something to do with our sensitivity about appropriation and mastery. No one wants to dare speak for someone else or for another kind of person, assuming incomprehension; practicing silence. At the Vermont Studio Center, where I was resident one winter, some of the other writers were sensitively discussing whether a white person could write a black character or a male a female one. But is not at least one part of what a writer does imagining the “other” and delineating and dissolving, dissolving and delineating the differences between everything? With such fastidious exclusions, most of literature would have to be banned. Today, it seems that many people don’t dare express themselves or dare love or enter into relationships at all, for fear of overcoming or being overcome by another person’s personality, power, desires.
What are the consequences of such paranoia in regard to appropriation? Steiner writes: “If a substantial part of all utterances were not public or, more precisely, could not be treated as if they were, chaos and autism would follow.” Although language can limit the horizon of our consciousness, it is also one of the ways or maybe the only way to expand it. Poetic language, as Wittgenstein suggested, is the answer to a cliché–ridden, ossified thought. Living language, as Robert Musil practiced and preached it, is the active process of revivifying stale meanings through the magic of metaphor-making. Although the process is inaccurate, metaphors, writes Musil, “bring beauty and excitement into the world.” Steiner concurs: “Vital acts of speech are those which seek to make a fresh and ‘private’ content more publically available without weakening the uniqueness, the felt edge of individual intent.” And continues:
In significant measure, different languages are different, inherently creative counter-proposals to the constraints, to the limiting universals of biological and ecological conditions. They are the instruments of storage and of transmission of legacies of experience and imaginative construction particular to a given community. We do not yet know if the “deep structures” postulated by transformational-generative grammars are in fact substantive universals. But if they are, the immense diversity of languages as men have spoken and speak them can be interpreted as a direct rebellion against the undifferentiated constraints of biological universality.
He suggests that we use language to hide, keep secrets, lie, imagine fictions; that groups use language to differentiate and leave others out, in ways that give us advantages evolutionarily. Of course, over time, the circle of insiders grows larger, as the unknown becomes more and more rare. Amid persistence of sameness, however, there exists persistent resistance to sameness and a constant generation of difference.
The existential requirement is that each person decide for herself, in all circumstances where there is choice, paying heed to the essences and facts that cannot be altered. The best way to make meaningful decisions is to choose based on the real characteristics of real life. This does not mean we must choose always the most practical, the most reasonable action for survival. We may choose to throw all our comfort and safety away because of the perverse beauty of an irrational gesture or passion or an act of ethical bravery, or to act in direct contradiction to nature and society as an affirmation of our free will. The biological, evolutionary imperative would seem to favor survival or protection of self, but sometimes we do things that are certain to mean our downfall. Why? Out of a sense that there is sometimes something more important, more beautiful, more brave than personal safety, possibly to protect our genes living in the bodies of our relatives, possibly in consideration of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run; mayhap for reasons we will never understand. Consider these three gestures:
1. Sophie Scholl, the young German resistance fighter, who with her brother smuggled anti-Nazi propaganda into the university while classes were in session, stood at the top of the balcony as the professors and students streamed from the classrooms, her work already safely done. Instead of sneaking home and avoiding arrest, she flung the rest of the fliers down over the heads of her fellow Germans. Papers flying freely in an atmosphere of terror. She and her brother were beheaded, but for one moment the word sang. For one moment, everyone was free.
2. Nastasya Filippovna, in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, is courted from all sides by scoundrels and maniacs. Her “virtue” has already been compromised due to her situation as a woman without means, yet she has a lofty soul. Beloved of Myshkin, the “idiot,” she glimpses, then loses faith in, a possible redemption. When Rogozhin, one of the scoundrels, comes to a party with 100,000 rubles with which he effectively means to “buy” her, she agrees to go with him; but first she casts the bundle of bills into the fire with a last wild gesture of free will, daring another suitor to plunge his hands into the flames to take the money for himself. He does not, and Nastasya transcends for a moment the petty laws and priorities of her society.
3. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia risk torture and death to resist the stronghold of their totalitarian society. They do many useless things (Winston buys a cloudy glass paperweight and a creamy papered journal even though either of these acts, if discovered, would mean arrest). But the most powerful symbol of these many resistances is repeated twice in the book, once as a pre-vision in Winston’s dream of the “golden country,” and the second time in reality when the two lovers meet for the first time in a landscape strikingly similar to the dream: “She stood looking at him for an instant, then felt at the zipper of her overalls. And, yes! It was almost as in his dream. Almost as swiftly as he had imagined it, she had torn her clothes off, and when she flung them aside it was with that same magnificent gesture by which a whole civilization seemed to be annihilated.”
Nineteen-Eighty Four, a picture of a totally constructed universe based on a brutally enforced ideology of the blank slate, shows us how close and how far we are from being infinitely malleable today.
Consider a paved path in a city. Sometimes, even though the powers that be have paved a sidewalk and expected the citizens to conform to its guidelines, someone feels that there is a better way to get from here to there. And when enough people feel their feet drawn to this alternate way, the people begin to tread a new path through an area that was intended to be grass. There are desire lines stronger than pre-established social constructs, and these desire lines insist on new arrangements of the world even though (or perhaps precisely because) the old ones have been established by asphalt. The new paths, which were once rebellious and eccentric, become in time established, sanctioned, and limiting; and new people may find that there are better (or worse) ways to get from here to there. If language has tendencies to close down against thought, language users also have tendencies to disrupt these patterns. If people in power attempt to coerce and control, less powerful people also have always subverted these attempts. No path is made without the desire of some person, without the choice of some person or for some reason (however good or bad). The path may be made in a certain place because of beauty or because of utility; for sentimental reasons; for access to a view; because it is private; because there are obstacles adjacent to it; because there are special features along the route; or because there are no other options left. Yet any path will revert to wildness in time if no one walks upon it.
Herbert Marcuse’s classic book, One-Dimensional Man (1964), is an indictment of what he characterized as the flattening out of contemporary American consciousness into a closed system of self-reflexive rationality that resisted external (two-dimensional) critique. It begins by noting that the current social construct was a “project” chosen by people at one time out of a number of alternatives. In a footnote he explains that his use of the word “project” alludes to Sartre’s linkage of autonomy and contingency, and presupposes a freedom and responsibility, despite the fact that the choosers most likely were the most powerful people in the original society. His whole book is an explanation of how very difficult it is to see beyond the “rationality” of any given social construct, but also an imperative to create the conditions under which we might. Marcuse calls for a rediscovery of a lost dialectic, a two-dimensional space which keeps alive the friction between ideal and real, status quo and possibility, subjective and objective, calculable and incalculable, appearance and essence, universal and particular, concept and specific iteration, and not least of all, spirit and matter. A hero of the New Left, Marcuse nevertheless criticized many of the basic assumptions of leftist ideology, including the democratic rejection of European intellectual and artistic culture, the increasing conflation of art and life, and the increasing dematerialization of sociology, linguistics and science in his time. Contemporary physics, he notes, does not entirely deny or question the existence of the physical world, but “in one way or another it suspends judgment on what reality itself may be, or considers the very question meaningless and unanswerable.” This then shifts the emphasis from a metaphysical what to an operational how and “establishes a practical (though by no means absolute) certainty which, in its operations with matter, is with good conscience free from commitment to any substance outside the operational context.” Materiality becomes assessed only in terms of its quantifiable use for humans, diminishing our relationship with the qualities of matter and weakening our ability to counter and critique the material status quo. The end itself, of one-dimensional consciousness, is a closed system of democratic totalitarianism, controlling every aspect of our lives.
While everything is filtered through our human interests, and thus somehow “instrumental” towards our human “use,” some uses are more strictly utilitarian than others; some serve the continuation of a status quo more than others. Individually and socially we have an underdeveloped interest in the qualitative experience of materiality, in dreaming induced by matter, not merely efficiency, practicality, exploitation of resources. Critical yet utopian thinking occurs as we free ourselves from the condition of what and how much and begin to consider the why and how; two-dimensional discourse helps us to transcend the needs of the current system to consider not only alternate answers, but completely different questions.
Marcuse ended his book in a less than hopeful mood, but the revolutionary movements of the late sixties, encouraged in part by his ideas, surprised him and gave him cause to hope. But where are we now, over half a century later? We may, indeed, not be able to save the earth, or stem the rush of species loss, and we certainly cannot undo the lasting legacies of political and social havoc wrought by man’s inhumanity to man in any simple way. Although Candide provided a picture of what Voltaire had deemed an inevitably cruel and destructive force rampant in what was already in his time far from the “best of all possible worlds,” today climate change changes the equation to an extent which should prick the conscience of anyone who has retreated to his garden instead of trying to make sense of the world or make it better. We have arrived where we are because of who we are as a species. We are responsible for the good, the bad, and the ugly, for the beautiful and the damning, in compliance and resistance to genetic coding, evolutionary habits, environmental changes, and the social and cultural memes we have created together out of the deeply imbedded contradictions of our natures: competition and collaboration, love of and exploitation of nature, curiosity and will to ignorance, practicality and squandering, ethics, aesthetics, and hypocritical morality. Thus it is up to us to try to reverse the damages we have wrought and to preserve as much as possible of what is precious and essential about life and of our cultural history, both for ourselves and for all the other species with whom we must learn to empathize. But this can only happen if we begin to see again the meaningful connections between ourselves and the natural and created world, mediated through words, images, and our senses, and if we learn to use whatever languages possible to communicate a fullness of feeling about what it means to be a deeply fraught, complex human being in a world in this state of crisis. We can, furthermore, only reverse the damage wrought if we deviate from the business-as-usual status quo of our society’s current “rationality”—replacing quantifiable with qualitative, empty materialism with materiality imbued with spirit. To do so will inevitably seem foolish and perverse to those too entrenched to imagine other ways of living, to anyone too committed to the immediate profits of the current system to consider that they might, actually, be much happier without all of the possessions and processes they misconceive as necessary. If we do not, however, manage to succeed against what really are terrible odds, we must at least bear witness to the tragic fall and leave some traces of the aesthetic and ethical consciousness of humankind, even if no one ever comes after us who can decipher the script.
We have often been capable of overturning the paradigms created by our predecessors, challenging, criticizing, or revising the constructs and narratives of other humans, following old errors to new truths or old truths to new errors, bungling sometimes, but doing our best. It has been a conversation and debate, a love song and a lamentation over the ages, among strangers and friends, enemies and kin, all of us trying to understand the world and our place in it; trying to balance the many voices within each of us with the many voices within others. We can continue to discourse in this polyphonic chorus of the past and the present, or we can decide, with the social constructionist theorists and their deconstructionist allies, that no way in which anyone has ever described the world, no poem, no theory, no evaluation or re-evaluation of values is reality-relevant (except of course the social constructionist theory itself); that language is a crime against nature; that the history of ideas and the idealistic pursuit of education is an Enlightenment plot to impose random ideas of good and bad on a benighted populace. We can just do away with our libraries and our picture galleries, our approximate meanings and our attempts to understand what can never be completely mastered, our mythologies and our delightful misprisions, and smugly, certainly, moralistically and accurately, resort to grunting and sneezing. No misleading words; no oppressive influences; no images to teach us that one thing or person is more beautiful or more valuable than another; no theories; no ideas at all. Only a purportedly honest, gaping, silent void.
Genese Grill is a writer, translator, and book artist, living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). She has just finished a collection of essays entitled Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, which is looking for a nice publishing house in which it might live. Essays from the collection have appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Georgia Review, and The Missouri Review, and one of them won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Nonfiction. She is proud to be on the masthead of Numéro Cinq as special correspondent.